Chad's pupils seek out alternatives to empty schools
N’DJAMENA - Robbed of school since September by widespread teacher strikes as growing numbers protest government austerity, three million pupils in Chad have had to seek out alternative ways to keep themselves busy.
Some roam the streets idly, others try to catch small fry, known as "balbout" in Chadian Arabic, from back-alley streams.
Everyday, open spaces are transformed into football pitches.
Older students have even turned their hands to the world of work, transforming themselves into itinerant salesmen, roaming the streets of the capital to make some pocket money.
"I sell T-shirts and socks that I take from wholesalers so that I can have a bit of money to meet my needs," said Francois Alladoum, who under normal circumstances would be completing his final year at school.
But parents are not as enthusiastic.
"It makes my heart bleed to see my children kicking their heels every morning while the privately educated kids go to school," said Halime Ali, a nurse.
Religious institutions, like private ones, are unaffected by the strike. But just more than three million pupils depend on the embattled state system for their education, compared to just 390,000 in the private sector, according to the education ministry.
"Parents are tired of seeing their children at home or wandering around the neighbourhood like bandits," said pressure group "It must change", which on Tuesday launched a campaign to get youngsters back into school.
But the group are facing an uphill struggle.
- 'The wasted year could be saved' -
A recent protest gathering outside two schools in the capital N'Djamena attracted just a handful of disgruntled parents and pupils, according to one of the organisers, Desire Mbairamadji. It appeared that many parents were deterred by the threat of violence at the hands of the security forces which routinely crack down on street protests.
"We call on parents not to be scared because police have not attacked schools," said Mbairamadji.
Many of Chad's teachers have been on strike since September in a dispute over pay arrears and conditions.
The government has called on them to return to work, threatening them with legal action.
The increasingly acrimonious dispute is part of a wider series of protests by different sectors of society over an austerity drive by the government in the face of lacklustre oil prices. Most government revenues come from the sale of crude.
The mounting cost of fighting a regional insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists has also stirred popular anger in a country with high poverty levels despite its oil reserves.
Chad's Teachers and Lecturers Unions (SET) have refused to budge on the issue of salary arrears as the government battles to shore up the country's precarious public finances.
"We do not delight in stopping classes, but we are demanding what we are owed. We also have families to feed," said Issa Madjitoloum, a teacher.
But there is hope that the school year could yet be salvaged if a deal can be agreed between striking teachers and the government.
"The wasted year could be saved if classes resume at the start of January and the end of year exams are held in August," said an education ministry source.