Like most university graduates in Mali, Lassana Bamba Mariko began looking for a job once he had his diploma in hand. And like many of his peers, he has had difficulty finding work in the country’s stumbling economy since graduating five years ago.
But today, things are looking up for Mariko. He has become a volunteer with the Mali Out-of-School Youth project (also known by its French name, PAJE-Nièta), and is helping to teach rural youth the basic literacy, numeracy, and entrepreneurship skills that they need to launch their own micro-enterprises.
PAJE-Nièta, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, recruits unemployed university or professional school graduates like Mariko and trains them to be volunteers. For Mariko, volunteering is meaningful work.
“Seeing young people who have never been to school start to read, write, and compute makes me feel very proud,” he says. “It is confirmation that I have been useful to my community.”
PAJE-Nièta volunteers must be willing to live and serve in the project’s target villages for 18 months. Candidates go through a three-week initial training, during which they are evaluated on their ability to teach and to lead entrepreneurship-related activities. The top performers are then invited to become project volunteers and are given a modest monthly stipend.
Once trained and placed in their local communities, volunteers are quickly put to work teaching basic literacy and mathematics to young people who have either never been to school or who dropped out in the early grades. The volunteers also accompany the young men and women as they engage in income-generating activities such as soap making, farming, or starting a restaurant.
For young people in PAJE-Nièta, these are often life-changing opportunities. The entrepreneurship training helps them find ways to earn money without having to move elsewhere in Mali, or even abroad.
And for volunteers, the benefits of the program extend beyond the stipend. They develop important career development skills—such as computer literacy, writing a curriculum vitae, and basic job search strategies—that help position them for employment once they finish their service. Additionally, they learn effective strategies for classroom management and teaching multi-age classes. And in helping young people learn how to become successful entrepreneurs, they themselves also learn valuable career skills.
A positive impact
The rigorous recruitment and training seem to be working. In case after case in Mali, these volunteers are making a difference. They are also proud of the part that they have played in improving their communities.
“I am very proud of my mission,” says Mariko. “In just one year, I helped 35 young people in the village become literate, and I also helped them increase their access to employment. This is a great personal achievement.”
Madina Diakité Traoré, a mother of three and former teacher, has used her position as a PAJE-Nièta volunteer to help spread education to young women throughout her community.
“With the support of the pharmacist at the village’s health center, I created a group for 27 young women, some of whom were PAJE-Nièta students,” she says. “These women meet twice a month, discuss their problems, and inform each other about current events in the village. And because the meeting is held at a health center, the pharmacist can educate women about health issues and family planning.”
Traoré can see that her work has had a positive impact.
“I pay particular attention to women in my group—they are diligent in class, but are very shy,” she says. “I give them time to understand the lessons. And the result is that all these women can calculate and read and write in Bamanankan. And they have all developed income-generating activities. In fact, three women are already distinguishing themselves—one has a restaurant, and two are involved in food processing.”
This success doesn’t surprise EDC’s Adwoa Atta-Krah, deputy chief of party for PAJE- Nièta.
“I often hear volunteers say that the PAJE experience makes them feel as though they are ‘somebody,’” she says. “They get a sense of satisfaction, pride, and personal achievement from knowing that they helped teach an illiterate person to read and write, and start their own business.”
PAJE-Nièta’s third and final cohort consists of 182 volunteers that are working with more than 7,000 youth. When it ends in September 2015, the project will have trained 421 volunteers across Mali.
Atta-Krah says that volunteers are key to the PAJE-Nièta model, and that the program helps both young people and the volunteers who work with them improve their position in life.
“Volunteers say that they have learned so much from the project,” she says. “They really feel like the skills they acquire make them more competitive in the job market.”