Rebuilding Learning Communities in Mali:

The Experience of the Institute for Popular Education

Coumba Toure

The Oppression of Formal Education

Formal education in West Africa started out as an instrument of oppression. Today, schooling is a way of keeping the status quo. The goal of schooling during the colonial period was to train leadership who would function in the colonial system. The French administration needed translators and local administrators that would represent them to the population. People trained in the primary schools were automatically employed. (They became the most powerful people after the French departed in 1960s.)

But during the colonial period, schooling faced resistance as well. Many people refused to send their children to schools. There are stories of nobility hiding their own children and sending the children of their servants or of the low class groups. There are stories about how families would react to their child’s recruitment to a school. How people from other families would come and sympathize with them, and family members would be crying, because sending a child to the French school was the closest thing to death — not a physical death, but a spiritual and intellectual death.

When introduced by the French, schooling was definitely an instrument of moving students away physically and psychologically from their communities. Then, like now, children were taught in a different language, in a setting that tried to imitate, as closely as possible, the setting in France. Traditional educational spaces, political structures and spirituality were undermined and destroyed. Young Africans started to learn and practice European ways, which not only included eating with forks, but also meant devaluing their traditional knowledge and culture. It affected every level of their lives.

Following the independence of Senegal and Mali, there was a major reform movement for the education system. The vision of the new government was to change the education system from being elitist to making it popular. The slogan "education pour tous d’ici l’an 2000" ("education for everyone before the year 2000") generated a lot of hope. There was a move to build schools everywhere, to have teachers and programs that were more in touch with the masses. The new government directly recruited students that graduated out of schools. School became more accepted by the masses and became a way of getting a job and being part of the leadership of the new independent countries. While the percentage of people involved in the school system grew, more teachers were hired, more students enrolled, but the expectations surrounding the policies made in the 1960s were not met.

In fact, throughout the 40 years following Independence, the whole school system has been in a deep crisis. The model of education was built for an elite and still remains inaccessible to most of the people. Students have had regular strikes every year, going from 15 days to months, asking the government to provide more resources for education, more material for schools and teachers, changes in the curriculum. And even though the system has been reformed many times, it is still very westernized and sexist. The language of education continues to be French. Teachers continue to be treated like gods, who cannot be challenged and they are allowed to use all kinds of punishments, including corporal punishment at the lower levels.

Today, in both Mali and Senegal, students, teachers, government and parents are still struggling to fit the education system to the people. I believe it is a lost cause. It is like having shoes made and then trying to make them fit to different feet. You can pull on the shoes, you can try to adapt them, but the person will never be able to walk in them with comfort.

That is why I feel that by challenging the way we are "educated" and what is means to be "educated," we can challenge the whole way our society works today. By attempting to transform the whole content and process of education, we are able to live a revolution. I mean "education" in a larger sense; it is not just schooling, because the wall of schools are too small to contain what education needs to be. When learning is relevant and enjoyable, when learners have the space to explore and express themselves, when they are not bound by having to "achieve," when the overall objective is both personal and societal liberation, when discussions challenge the race, class, gender power relationships, then education can become an instrument of transformation. For then, in individuals and for communities, things start moving. Even in the worst of social conditions, people begin to believe in themselves and see new possibilities. They count their gains, instead of their losses, and learn from each other, as well as from their own experiences. They begin to own a process of creation, doing things they were never taught to do, creating open, welcoming spaces of joy, where the seeds of change can grow.

In this article, I seek to share some principles of such Popular Education, through my experiences at the Institute for Popular Education (Institut pour L’Education Populaire - IEP). We are working to create a reference center for Africa around alternative frameworks of learning for social change. Our aim is not to reform, but to transform the education system.


The People of IEP

IEP was created with the goal to create and share alternatives to the elitist French-colonial schooling system in West Africa, and what is called "development" through NGO programs of literacy. It seeks to make visible, known and understood, the practices emerging from peoples’ resistance to domination in all sectors: education, food security, economics, etc. To do so, it employs a number of techniques: from creating learning communities through group identity development, to using theater, music, painting, dance and literacy1  as curriculum-building methodologies.

IEP grew, because a group of people decided to show that there are other ways of being, and they chose to do it in the education field. In this way, IEP not only has the mission to promote alternatives, but also to be an alternative. Its primary goal is not to "manufacture" activists but to give any potential activist space and support to develop their ideas and actions. IEP offers opportunities for diverse groups of people to participate in concrete social change projects.

I could begin to define IEP by enumerating its activities, but I choose to begin by enumerating the names of people. What is called today "The Institute for Popular Education" was born and grew in the minds of people, like Maria Diarra, Cheick Omar Coulibaly, Marie Samake, Deborah Freddo. These people are at the beginning and at the end of everything; they are the feet on which the Institute stands. They have a commitment to justice and believe in IEP as a way to struggle for it. Around them are many more people that I could describe or name, because each person at the Institute (in the present or from the past) is special by what s/he brings to it.

At IEP are volunteers, amazing trainers, curriculum developers, drivers, dreamers, philosophers, feminists, storytellers, singers, dancers, activists, learners, mentors, cooks, counselors, role models, farmers. And none of these roles exclude the other. There is no age, geographical or professional boundary. The people of IEP listen, educate, sustain, and inspire each other, and the communities they evolve, through their daily actions. They have very strong ties of friendship, trust and love that come before and after everything. People come and go, and there are times with more people and times with less. But because of the specificity of each person’s roles and the strength of their ties to each other, no one can ever replace another. IEP people eat, work, pray, laugh, cry, and grow together. They come because of the activities and stay on because they grow to believe in the principles.


Activities of IEP

Through IEP’s activities, and through reflections before and after the activities, we learn the lessons that help us to move towards our larger vision. The programs of IEP do not stand in isolation by themselves. Rather, they complement each other. By recording and analyzing together our experiences, by participating in direct actions against the sources of oppression, by using literacy, theater and music, not as an end but as a means, we have a direct attachment to the language of the people. We prioritize creativity, and we have tried to design IEP as an innovative organization. We believe in embedding in our activities what we long to see at the end of them. At the same time, we give space to allow things to happen spontaneously and from people who usually would not have the opportunity.

I could go on and on, for any number of pages, since each day comes with its own activities, as every person comes with her or his interest. Whenever the moment and the people are ready, then the activity is born. Activities grow from peoples’ needs and their capacities to meet them, and they can die when people do not sustain them. But most of the time, they evolve into something new.

But in my description of IEP, I should also clarify: When we have to describe the Institute for outsiders or newcomers, we generally find ourselves naming some of the structures, ‘kindergarten’, ‘primary school’, ‘literacy school’, as these are the closest to what everybody knows. Moreover, this is what people expect. If you work in Education, then you must have a formal school, and if not, then it must be a non-formal school. But none of those structures are the essence of the Institute. Rather, IEP sees all of these spaces as tools to mobilize our communities for social change. They are based on action-research of local knowledge and their curricula are all built on African identity, gender, health, etc. In these ways, and more, they are very much unlike their mainstream counterparts.


The Many Faces of the Institute for Popular Education

- A ‘kindergarten’, where parents are parts of the staff and people from the community are welcome. A kindergarten, where children are given the space to develop their identity and are exposed to values of justice, peace and communities.

- A ‘literacy school’ for adults who learn to read and write by developing curricula on identity, on gender, race, and class issues.

- A ‘theater group’ which presents pieces on various topics, such as ‘how the education system evolved in Mali’ or ‘violence against women’. A theater group that sometimes asks its audience to be part of the production.

- A ‘dance group’ of adolescent girls, which offers a physical exercise through modern and traditional dances.

- A ‘chorus’ which creates and reproduces music for social change. A chorus which sings about AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, as well as other topics.

- A ‘primary school’ that promotes girls’ involvement by transforming the curriculum, so that it is possible for girls to identify with the classes.

- A ‘youth leadership program’ designed to enable young people to take responsibilities and actions in their communities.

- A ‘training institute’ for teachers, non-governmental organizations and other institutions, on Popular Education and gender, economic issues, etc.

- A ‘university’ without walls and without accreditation, where young people seek learning that is linked to their realities.

Moreover, it is important to understand that popular education is not a series of exercises, workshops, different skits or tricks. Once the general principles are accepted or understood, there is no standard teaching method. Every activity should be different. This requires a continuous level of creativity from both facilitators and learners, to continuously renew the learning process. They must create the curriculum by adapting to the particular geography and time they live in, by linking to the composition of the group, to their specific interests in the learning experience, to their social environments. Popular education means constant re-creation.

For example, throughout this year, I have been compiling outlines of workshops I have designed and tested with different groups. I have been very skeptical about making a booklet out of these, because I realize that none of these workshops stands alone – I had to recreate and adapt them every time. And, so would any facilitator that would want to use them. Therefore, I cannot fossilize, package and distribute them, as is done with standard curricula.

Many of IEP’s activities utilize the arts. We feel that the arts bring a sense of freedom to express emotion, whether joy or pain, fear or anger. Normal academic classrooms offer no space for those expressions; they are undermined or judged as "irrational." But traditionally, music and the art of storytelling have been used extensively by children and adults in West Africa. To create spaces for peoples’ voices to be heard, popular education utilizes these and other modes of expression, especially those that learners are comfortable with and interested in. Often, a different mode of communication makes the content more focused and more real, and opens up dialogue processes. For example, we always use songs in our warm-up exercises, to illustrate the particular theme of the day.

Sometimes an art form, like dance or theater, may be central to the practice of a particular learning group. Like the adolescent girls at IEP, whose first point of interest was dancing and theatre, which later facilitated deeper discussions and eventually their own learning curricula. Thus, theory adapts to the context: one can do popular education through art, or art through popular education. They are reversible, or mutually exchangeable. Like Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed,2  there is an intention to engage the arts, but also to challenge the status quo. There is also the intention to guide people to a space to express themselves, a space, which in turn, is created by peoples’ expression. This part of popular education essentially asks facilitators to constantly be open to changing their method. Personally, at IEP, I have been practicing storytelling with young children, and learning to use theatre with the Atelier Theatre Burkinabe, an organization based in Burkina Faso.

The central piece in all of the activities is the way they participate in decolonizing the mind. We create a rupture in the ideas and the formats that people are accustomed to. For instance, we use local languages as the language of thinking. This forces people to create new concepts, because many times, colonial concepts do not find translation. We also change the format. People are used to presentations, one person speaking, the others listening. But we start discussions through art and physical activities and other forms of expression, so that people will not be able to conform to the colonial mindset. This means being very creative. Each time, we try to catch people off guard, to get them to speak their true beliefs and feelings. But, at the same time, we try to put them in a comfortable situation, so that they realize where their colonized mind comes from and what the consequences of it are for them and their community. For example, we spend time discussing why we continue to maintain a system of schooling, which was created to undermine everything we are or know.

As we unlearn together the ways of thinking and acting that have hurt our communities, we also give value to local knowledge through different activities. We ask people to find alternative solutions, by researching how people used to face their issues/concerns before colonization. We ask each other how our grandparents learned, or how they sustained and created so much when there was no school? Usually, our answers show that our grandparents’ generations had deep knowledge of how to live and survive — sometimes better that we do today. They spoke many more languages, engaged in many different kinds of media and art, which opened up diverse ways to interact and resolve their problems together. We ask ourselves if we too can create new ways of educating our selves and our children, in order to respond to the needs of our time, including the urgent need to fight neo-colonialism. Our research into and discussions on local knowledge have led us to further study the actions and answers people have developed, either during the workshops or just on their own. We together consider how to help these ideas cross over into today’s contexts.

All of the above examples illustrate why and how creating diverse learning communities is the most important part of our activities. The content of a particular curriculum, and the methodology to implement it, depends on the composition of the learners. Facilitators must learn to listen to learners and to facilitate listening among them. This is the first step in discovering each other’s experiences, thoughts about those experiences, reactions to those experiences, and plans to change those experiences. The facilitator helps in the expression of feelings, of dreams and passions, strengths and skills. Group identity is built by sharing stories of life, by supporting each other’s struggles. IEP’s activity groups slowly move towards cohesion by developing a mutual understanding of what needs to be taught or learned, and how to do it together.

Building a learning community takes time, since facilitators and participants need to share a vision and a commitment to work together. Our basic vision is around social justice. We believe that social justice demands radical social changes, and radical social changes demand transformation of education and other dominant economic and political institutions. Before we start, each new group of learners have to demonstrate an interest in going through a process, whose outcome is not completely defined from the beginning. Therefore, most preliminary questions for new groups seek to open up people to such a process. These questions can refer to the past, but they must be personal, so that people can only speak for themselves. For example, in the education workshop, I ask questions like: "What was your experience with schooling?"; "What was your first experience of injustice?"; "What was your last meal, and how did you get it?" We also use a number of group-building exercises, which we adapt to the specific learning community.

We focus on sharing experiences, because this helps begin a dialogue, in which there is no expert and no ‘right’ answer. It also ensures that we all acknowledge the limitations of what we know. To set an example of this, the facilitator honestly shares his/her experiences. As people listen to each other’s experiences and see their similarities and differences, we not only learn about each other, but also begin building a community of committed learners.


IEP’s Principles of Popular Education

Many of the people of IEP are students of Paulo Freire. They have been experimenting with and expanding on his theory of Popular Education in a West African context. Thus, IEP’s principles are Freirian principles, with a twist. We are not copying them. Rather, we think that Freire created very powerful and strong principles to analyze communities’ situations, but he is a starting point, not an end. We have used him as an inspiration to create our own tools, which are centered in local indigenous knowledges and ways of making-meaning, and which go beyond schooling and beyond literacy. We also have other sources of inspiration and we have our own set of values.


Important Values of the Institute for Popular Education

· Africa, the home of the birth of humankind, is also the cradle of the values of humanity.

· The real participation of local people is sine qua non for nurturing livable communities.

· Empowering education leads to community involvement in social change.

· Equity is a fundamental issue, if societies are to evolve toward democracy.

· Youth are a part of the solution, not part of the problem, for building livable communities.

· Local languages are the languages of learning, of intellectual growth, of innovation and of information.

· Alternatives to Education (teacher-centered, non-democratic) demand ongoing unlearning processes for educators and professionals.

· Connecting people of African descent from around the world is necessary for building a strong movement for social change in the continent.


We aim to use popular education to build a movement. Although theorizing Popular Education cannot communicate a full picture of its practice, the following serves to give a preliminary idea of the principles we are evolving:

- The Principle of Non Neutrality

Our education needs to address power relationships. Every single day, a vast majority of the population of the world goes through tremendous pain, exploitation and inequality, while a small minority benefits from the privileges of their race, gender, and class. By practicing Popular Education, we recognize a fact: real education cannot be neutral. How can it be, when we have been categorized as "women," "children," "disabled," "poor," "immigrants," "prisoners," "transgender," "student," "workers," "Africans"!?! There are people who are oppressed, and for every class of oppressed people, there are one or many classes of oppressors. These categories — of who is what — may change, depending on context. But even though the lines are not always clear, there are definitely situations of injustice, where responsibilities can be (and have been) defined and where changes need to (and can) happen. We can give personal examples of injustice from our daily life experiences, or we can pull such facts from newspapers, government documents, or academic studies.

However, instead of recognizing these injustices, the modern education system goes to the other extreme. It reinforces the status quo. It sustains current injustices by hiding them, by making them seem minor or by making invisible to the schooled. Worse, it breeds future injustice by teaching students how to exploit other people, how to defend their self-interest, how to seek money above all else. Popular education breaks from this so-called neutrality of modern education by recognizing the existence of circles of oppression. There is no pretense of neutrality; rather, we take an automatic and moral stand in favor of the oppressed.

- The Principles of Centrality, Objectivity, and Relevance in Dialogue

The people experiencing injustice must be the initiators and leaders of social justice movements. They have to be at the center, not on the peripheries, not the followers. Their experience must be valued, and their objectivity must be taken in account. They need to have the space to express themselves freely about their issues and challenges, to share their stories, to do their analyses, and to develop their strategies for change. Anything less betrays the learning process. Thus, faith in the ability of people to bring about change in their lives is as important as the belief in the need for change. As Paulo Freire (1970) said,

"Some from the dominant class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. This is a fundamental role and has been so throughout the history of this struggle. However, as they move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origins. Their prejudices include a lack of confidence in the people’s abilities to think, to want and to know. So they run the risk of failing into a type of generosity as harmful as that of the oppressors. Though they truly desire to transform the unjust order, they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about people, but they do not trust them, and trusting people is an indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in people, which engage him or her in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust. To substitute monologue slogans and communiqués for dialogue is to try to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication."

The above quote makes it clear that people should be in charge of their liberation. This happens through dialogue, in which people not only share different perceptions of their own experiences, but also start formulating how to express them. In dialogue, the learner is central to the learning experience, and their knowledge is valued. The line between teacher and learner is broken through this process. The "teacher" in the formal setting become a facilitator, not to dictate or manipulate, but to catalyze learning processes of which s/he then becomes a part.

Because the learner is at the center of the learning process, popular education demands that the learning content be relevant to the learner. Relevance doesn’t mean that the education will be narrow; it just means that it starts from something real. From there, links can be drawn to macro- and more general issues. When the content is relevant to the learner, the learning experience has life; it becomes meaningful and fun. The lines between teachers and learners blur – the student is an authority who brings her/his knowledge to class. Learning becomes an exchange expanded through dialogue. Relevant learning also strengthens the cycle of reflection and action, by generating multiple possibilities of applying our reflections to real life.

- The Principle of Reflection and Action in Praxis

Popular Education makes knowledge and information accessible to regular people. By accessible, I refer both to the production of knowledge, as well as to its diffusion. In this way, ideas and understandings about health, economics, politics, etc. are not constructed solely by an elite, but rather are created by us, for us. People themselves reflect on the issues affecting their lives, and these reflection processes lead to pro-actively challenge injustice and inequality. Most importantly, people decide on the strategies by which they will change their lives.

Popular Education addresses racism, sexism, class-ism, age-ism on a personal and practical level, as well as on a theoretical and historical level. But dealing with reality, with parts of themselves, touches deep wounds. It is a challenge. We remind ourselves that it takes time for reflection and action to become a cycle, where one is continuously born out of the other.

- The Principle of Critical Analysis and Radical Transformation

The general assumption of education is that students are simply recipients, who come to school to take knowledge from a person who knows more and better (what Freire termed the "banking approach"). Popular education, on the other hand, is about problem posing with students. We present a situation, real or fictitious, to challenge their assumptions. In the workshop on education, I posed the following question to participants: Let’s imagine there was no university, no high school, no primary school, no kindergarten. How will people learn? What will people learn? The very act of discussing such questions helps us see the relationships between the ways our schools work and the ways our societies work.

The idea of carrying-out problem-posing education is to open up another level of dialogue, after people have shared their experiences. It allows participants to give their opinions on and their perceptions of different issues. It forces people to think out of their old boxes, and also frees them from making pre-mature judgments, so that they are free to bring new ideas to the learning community for exploration. One of the first meetings organized by IEP was conducted as a problem-posing workshop. Many people, from different areas of Mali and from different walks of life, were gathered together and were asked to describe: What challenges are we facing? What do we think is at the root of our problems? Over the day’s discussion, people posed questions to try and find the origins and roots of a variety of problems. We came out with a lot of issues, which are still used as the basis of the Institute’s general work. Moreover, we go through a problem-posing process every time we work with a new group of people, as it is important for spotting critical issues.


Challenges in Building IEP as a Learning Community

IEP is an organic organization, born out of a vision of participation for social change and empowerment, an organization that recognizes local and individual knowledge and refuses the hierarchy of the formal institutions against which it was born. Over the last six or seven years, the Institute has been struggling to maintain its identity: How do we survive when we are engaged in so many activities?; When we have such demanding principles?; As we work with so many different people?; In such a difficult economic environment? There is no magic secret, no total success.

It is an everyday fight to have people participate in activities, when their daily lives keep them busy just surviving. It is an everyday fight to make sure that those who have just arrived at IEP identify themselves with its principles. Most of the time, they accept one particular principle — the one that fits their need. It is an everyday fight to make sure that each and every action at IEP adheres to these principles, that our vision is reflected in the actions we take. The value of humanity ought to exist in the processes we use.

It is an everyday fight against the solidification of roles. When people get too accustomed to playing a role, they begin to identify themselves with that single role and to classify their position as such. As we grow in numbers and geographically, it is a struggle to maintain the same level of commitment, information and action. We ask ourselves if it will be possible for the organization to stay "alternative," when it goes beyond a human scale of relationships? What will happen if we grow so large, that we no longer know each other’s names?

Moreover, how can an organization which promotes alternatives survive in a mainstream environment? Sometimes, we feel ourselves dying. It is a challenge to position ourselves as deep practitioners. It is an everyday fight to not replicate what we see in the formal sector, to not let our alternative innovations be co-opted, to not fit in a system that we have rejected for survival. We particularly struggle when we come into contact with communities that have been changed by the movement of NGOs. These communities have given up on taking charge of their problems, because the programming/planning/financing structure of NGOs has never included them. NGOs’ mechanisms do not integrate community innovations into their activities, and there is no space for community expression, except in a limited way during "pre-project research." The problem we often face is that since we are not a government agency, we are automatically labeled an NGO. It is assumed that we therefore must be coming with a big project and a lot of money. Communities expect us to tell them what they should do and expect us to pay them for their compliance.

Because we do not want to fall into the traps of NGO and government structures, we have also been researching the structure of traditional (local and ancient) organizations to see how they work/ed. In this exploration, IEP’s research group on organizations considers: What is the structure of our organization? What are our objectives and mission? What in the structure of our organizations prevents us from reaching our objectives?" Our study has already led us to incorporate traditional organizations’ elements of music and storytelling, as described above. We also ask older people about the types of organizations they are members of, to see what principles move these organizations and what their roles are in communities.

IEP is still a relatively young organization. Its structure has not yet been frozen by the harshness of bureaucratization, nor has it been disabled by rules and laws (set up to "protect" organizations from the people who constitute it). While the unstructured, non-controlling environment helps activities to bloom, IEP also has to work to coordinate itself, in the absence of a strong organizational structure. It finds itself losing material resources, because people were not responsible in their spending. Moreover, our existing human and financial resources may be insufficient to sustain our growth. While some programs may grow to be independent of IEP (the theater group, the dance group), others seem to have a clear path (the kindergarten, the university), while still others might disappear. Amidst this, we realize that there is a need to be creative and flexible enough, so that people will initiate new activities, rather than trying to replicate the same activities in different places.

It is an everyday struggle to keep open the space, where our actions can be checked against our values, where we recognize our own privileges and act on empowering others. We realize that one way of fighting the elitism in our institution is to create spaces, where people without money or degree-based education make vital contributions. We know that fighting the power of the diploma means accepting people on the basis of their "know-how," recognizing them in the same way (or even more) that we recognize those who have a diploma. Similarly, the donor-driven planning and funding models we subject ourselves to permanently present a contradiction to IEP’s principles of being innovative and open to communities’ new ideas and goals. For example, out of a simple theater exercise on teen pregnancy one morning, the Girls Circle program emerged. It grew into a twice-a-week meeting of adolescent girls for two years. Though not part of our "plan," we felt it was important to pursue this innovative idea from the learning community. Persistent dialogues about these and other issues bring us back to the core of our values.

But we are not just accountable to our principles for ourselves alone. External groups judge us, as there is a profound pressure on people who represent an "alternative" vision to be excellent, before they gain any legitimacy. So we face another contradiction: people are expected to give the best of their capacities, but the criteria used by outsiders to judge us are the opposite of what we promote.

In these ways, we still struggle with impact of the French colonial schooling system. Its elitist content and methodologies produce a lot of people, who are disconnected from and/or useless to the well-being of their communities. In addition, most people educated in that system think that it is impossible to learn or to think in their native languages. Similarly, the global economy poses a great challenge. It is operating by the same principles that it operated by hundreds of years ago, when it traded in enslaved Africans. This economy does not respect humanity and maintains the power of few at the expense of everybody else. While the names have changed, and the ways have changed, the results are the same: the alienation of people and the breaking down of communities.

Slowly but surely, the work of IEP is impacting the lives of thousands of people, by re-activating thinking processes that cannot be stopped. In the last few years, we have been working with the Government of Mali to introduce changes in the content and methods of teaching at the primary school level, especially with regards to the importance of local languages. IEP has also insisted on the necessity of education to build competencies. For us, this means knowing how to do and how to be part of a movement for social change. I must clarify that we are not trying to build alternatives and then mainstream them. Rather, we are trying to create models that can stand by themselves, in their own right, and can continuously be evolved by people themselves. We are seeking to reverse the dominant process by inviting the mainstream to transform itself and become the alternative. We call this "alter-streaming."

We also recognize that many of the problems that affect people in Mali do not originate in Mali. They are connected to global systems and global structures of power. Since 1993, IEP has been in touch with several organizations internationally, facilitating meetings that challenge white supremacy and globalization. With an organization like 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, based in Selma, Alabama, USA, we are building bridges between Africans around the world, re-writing the past and the present, comparing our lives and our struggles, and searching for inspiration and solutions for our different communities.


What the Future Holds for IEP

Where will the Institute be 25 years from now? What will we do to make sure that our programs grow, while staying true to the vision and the principles behind them? The Institute has been going through many stages, from being the Nomads Institutes — a moving institute that went from village to village working on education — to meeting with national and international organizations on many different issues. Today, there are thousands of people touched by the activities, as participants, as facilitators, as learners, as people who live in the communities they reside in. As we step forward in the future, we are still changing and still looking for ways to escape "formalization" (i.e, being put in a box – in order to be accepted by other organizations, to get funding, to be trusted).

Through different popular activities, seminars, trainings, campaigns, art programs, model schools, leadership institutes, and youth camps, IEP is trying to create the spaces to push people to think in different ways. We don’t seek to provide ready-made answers. Rather, we put the questions that we are struggling with out in front of everyone so that we can work through them with each other. Together, we seek to understand the issues we are facing and to create new tools and actions to rebuild our communities. In doing so, we believe we are helping to nurture a learning society throughout Mali.



1 When I say "literacy," I mean the literacy that comes out of peoples’ experiences, a literacy not of the word and alphabet, but to understand the world, starting with our own communities.

2 Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, or "theater forum"/"invisible theater," principally aims to give people space to express themselves on particular issues concerning their life. As Boal once stated in an interview, "The real beginning [of Theater of the Oppressed] was when I was doing what I called simultaneous play writing, using people’s real experiences. In one of these, a woman told us what the protagonist should do. We tried her suggestion over and over again, but she was never satisfied with our interpretation. So I said, ‘Come on to the stage to show us what to do, because we cannot interpret your thoughts.’ By doing what she did, we understood the enormous difference between our interpreting and her own word and action."



Boal, A. 1982. The Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Urizen Books.

Diop, Cheikh Anta. 1954. Nation Negres et Culture. Editions Presence Africaines.

________. 1960. L’Afrique Noire pre Coloniale. Paris Presence Africaine.

Escobar, A. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Freire, P. 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Imam, A., et al, eds. 1997. Engendering African Social Sciences. CODESRIA Book Series, Rowe, Chippenham & Wiltshire, GB.

Moses, R. P. Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights. Boston: Beacon Press.

Discussions with Maria Diarra Keita, Cheick Oumar Coulibaly and Deborah Fredo, and all the learners who taught me the patience to listen, at IEP, Kati, Mali.


Coumba Toure <> is an African women trained in a French system. At an early age, her sense of empathy got her involved in community work, starting with charity, then at political level in the Pan-African Youth Movement and the African Women’s Movement. Her life has been impacted by contact with very rich people doing charity work; strong women in very sexist societies; young people volunteering beyond what their means and safety allow them, and a community of intellectuals and thinkers, who have given her a space to reflect on her actions. Coumba is also a lover of music, dance and writing. She is a core member of IEP, working for women’s rights in West Africa and building an international exchange program for young people of African descent.