LOME, Togo -- How can children learn in schools where rain enters the classrooms and wind tosses notebooks to the floor?
They can't, not properly.
In Togo, the elements present constant challenges to educating students, not only during the rainy season, but also in the dry season when educators worry about brush fires. Togolese schools are rudimentary facilities. The traditional classroom structure -- a set of wooden posts supporting a thatched roof -- is open on all sides. This setup does not shield students from wind or weather during the rainy season. In the dry season, thatched roofs are in jeopardy of catching on fire.
In these basic and often overcrowded schools, student attendance is weather-dependent. The lack of adequate school facilities can hinder learning and deter from the quality of Togolese education.
To combat this issue, the U.S. Embassy in Lomé, U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District partnered to deliver six new schools to the children of Togo, in 2014. The projects are being executed through the Department of Defense's AFRICOM humanitarian assistance program to improve future prospects for Togolese youth. The schools are being constructed throughout the country from the southern coast, on the Gulf of Guinea, to the northern border of Burkina Faso.
In the central village of Atome, the new primary school is approximately 50 percent complete. As work progresses, Fagnide Djagnikpo, the Atome chief, said he looks forward to having a safe place for children to attend school.
"We won't care about the rainy season," Djagnikpo said. "In the new school, rainwater won't destroy [the students'] books. Their writing on the chalkboard won't get wet and disappear."
The six new schools being built by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers-managed contractors, CNaF-SET Construction and Dover Vantage, will include indoor and open-air classrooms, administrative offices, storage rooms, verandas, rainwater collection systems and latrine buildings.
Further north, at Matchatom Secondary School, officials anticipate a new weather-proof school to protect villagers and materials. In the existing school, strong winds are frequently a problem.
"The wind takes the books and throws them on the ground," the headmaster said. "With the new building, we can avoid this problem."
While visiting the school construction site in Papri, village chief Yempapou Gouma said their current school is deteriorating and not ideal for teachers or students.
"Our school is made in mud and was provided by the villagers," Gouma said. "Sometimes the wind removes the roof; it is dark inside and there are not enough rooms."
Another educational concern in Togo is lack of space. There are not enough schools for the number of villages that have developed over time. These villages are filled with children-- 40 percent of Togo is made up of children 14 and younger, according to the CIA's World Factbook -- and they need access to education. The existing schools require more classrooms to accept new students.
The six new U.S.-build schools will enable hundreds of additional students to be educated in Togo, embassy officials said.
Gblainvie Secondary School is among the facilities in need of more space. It is currently filled to capacity with 150 students, ranging in age from 6 to 15, said Togbui Yegbe Kokou Kini, the village chief. He's thankful the new facility will increase the school's size by 50 seats.
"Only God can learn the joy I have in my heart," Kini said. "We were waiting a long time for this project. Now, we can teach in a good building."
The students echo their elders' enthusiasm, Kini said.
"They are very excited; they want to enter to see what is going on here," he said. "They bring water to the workers so they can see."
And there's a lot to see as construction matures. In late April, vertical construction was underway on all six schools. The foundations and floor slabs were complete and the walls, columns and roof structures were being installed. In the coming months, work on interior walls, windows, window sills, doors, flooring, and interior and exterior finishes will be completed.
In Atome, Gblainvie and Matchatom, CNaF-SET is executing the school projects.
"The way they are performing, the project is very serious," said the Atome chief. "I am sure the building will last ."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires contractors to design and construct facilities to meet a 25-year life expectancy, said Adewale Adelakun, a Europe District special projects engineer. This can be a tough requirement in Africa, where buildings traditionally have shorter life spans than those in the U.S.
"Some of the challenges of working in Togo are balancing a quality product, in terms of construction, with the use of local materials and local labor and setting a proper standard to hold the contractor to," Adelakun said. "In operating in West Africa, the relationships we form with our partners are key. There is a certain degree of trust we have to put in the contractor and the embassy, and without AFRICOM, these projects would not be possible. We have to reach out to be
CNaF-SET general managers Caner Dokuzoglu and Ertan Tansug also see the value of partnership and working with the local population.
"We are trying as much as we can to keep the local community involved," Dokuzoglu said. "It is a win-win if we can use local labor and they are really part of [the project]."
For CNaF-SET, hiring local labor is part of the company philosophy.
"We prefer to make locals experienced in our construction projects," Dokuzoglu said.
"They are learning here -- it is just like school for them," Tansug added. "We try to teach them little by little. In the beginning, they are general laborers, but in time they can become masons and steelworkers. It is important to increase their level of skill. After this construction project, they are not only laborers, they have specialties."
As in every country around the world, education is critical to Togo's development.
Togo needs educated children, Djagnikpo said.
"If we have schools with educated children, they become productive, helpful members of the community. It is very important to go to school," he added.