A Discussion with Brother Jean Marie Thior, National Secretary of the National Office of Catholic Teaching of Senegal
March 4, 2015
Background: Brother Jean Marie Thior is the national secretary at the National Office of Catholic Teaching in Senegal and a member of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel. His work revolves entirely around education in Senegal, ranging from coordinating Catholic teaching there to meeting with government ministers on the education system. Lauren Herzog and Katherine Zuk, WFDD staff, met with Brother Thior in Dakar, Senegal to discuss the state of Catholic education in the country. Brother Thior describes the history and reach of the Catholic education system in Senegal as well as the philosophy that drives their work.He emphasizes the close cooperation between the Senegalese government and the Catholic Church on education, the strong emphasis on quality, and the advantages the system enjoys by its private status. He explores issues facing education at different levels, from pre-school to tertiary, and defining approaches to youth and to children. He also discusses how the Church approaches evangelizing and education.
Can you tell us about yourself and explain your role at the National Office of Catholic Teaching of Senegal (ONECS)?
My name is Brother Jean Marie Thior. I am a member of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel, which is a congregation in charge of childhood and adolescent education. We’ve been in Senegal since 1954. In terms of the National Office of Catholic Teaching, it’s my fourth year coordinating all the activities of Catholic teaching, including education and instruction.
So, my mission consists of promoting the development of Catholic teaching and supporting teachers and students, as well as representing the office before the government—notably to the Ministry of National Education. My mission also is to represent our office to international institutions. The National Office of Catholic Teaching was created as an association that represents all Catholic education present in Senegal.
Did you have a Catholic education as a child?
Indeed! In my hometown, an island called Mar Lodj, I followed a Catholic curriculum from primary school until my last year of high school. Then I went to Thiès to finish my studies at the Sacré Cœur School in Dakar. After that, I went to a small city in the west of France, called Angers, for university. I studied philosophy and theology at the Catholic University of Angers for four years.
Is your family also Catholic?
Yes, but even so, we have a part of the family that is Muslim.
You had said that you work with children and youth. What is the difference between the approach and activities with these two groups?
It is necessary, first of all, to note that there are two principal activities for the two groups. Whether they are children or youth, we educate them and we teach them. Educating them is to transmit all that is knowledge, know-how, self-awareness, and social skills, as well as Christian values and universal morals. Teaching them, however, is to instruct them in subjects like languages, math, and science. These are the two actions directed toward them. The only difference comes in the approach. For the younger children, this would involve activities adapted to their development. For children in high school or university, we are obligated to create a curriculum adapted to their specific level. So the only difference is at a pedagogical level; it’s the adaptation that makes the difference.
Most of the students in Catholic schools are Muslim. Does this influence your work? What’s your philosophy?
You must recognize that, when looking at the statistics on Catholic education in Senegal, more than 75 percent of students are Muslim. For us, that’s a chance to open Catholic education to all children, no matter their race, ethnicity, sex, or religion. It's fortunate because this country has always been accustomed to living in social cohesion, in a harmony given to us by the traditional values that we have inherited. You know that the Church does not discriminate. Its foundation is the message of Christ, who opened his heart to the entire world. Catholic teaching is rooted in the values that Christ came to give us, and we open the doors of Catholic education to the entire world so that in education and teaching, we are taking part in what gives us life, namely the commandment of Christ: love God and your neighbor.
I know that Catholic education is respected in Senegal. What distinguishes Catholic education?
This country recognizes that Catholic instruction honors its agreements with the state. What makes us unique isn’t a secret. It begins with of the training of our teachers. In order for an education to be successful, it’s necessary that those who communicate the knowledge, know-how, and social skills, can themselves set an example. We educate more by example than by empirical knowledge.
Secondly, we respect the obligations that the government imposes, in terms of hours, credit hours, and the material that must be taught. It should be noted that we don’t face the same repeated phenomenon of mass strikes as the public education system since we are in the private sector. Therefore, our teachers remain obedient to authority. So, these are the main reasons that Catholic instruction tries to do its best to honor its agreements with parents and the state.
Senegal youth face certain challenges, especially when it comes to higher education and finding employment. At ONECS, how do you prepare youth for their next steps?
We're a bit slow in this area. Catholic teaching is primarily focused on preschool, elementary, middle, and secondary education. It’s only in the last decade that we opened what you call “post-bac” schools, notably the Sacré Cœur Junior High in Jeanne d’Arc and Cours Sainte-Marie de Hann. These schools appear to be fundamental because, when you leave high school for college, it’s another level of education, and we need to guide youth all the way to the workforce. In this sense, the creation of higher education institutions seems necessary today, not only for the acquisition of knowledge but also for a better preparation for employment or a profession with all that it requires in terms of moral, intellectual, physical, and spiritual preparedness.
What is the extent of Catholic teaching here in Senegal? For example, do you know how many schools and students there are in the Catholic education system?
Based on the 2013-2014 statistics, we have 298 establishments in Senegal ranging from preschool to the university of Saint-Michel and Ziguinchor. We teach nearly 107,000 children across all grade levels and across all of Senegal. These figures only include those attending formal schools that are authorized and recognized by the state. There’s also an informal sector, where we open establishments in villages that don’t have the ability to go to a school and it permits them to at least train their students. We have about 50,000 children in the informal schools.
As we discussed, many of the students in the system are not Catholic. Are all of your teachers Catholic?
The teachers are Catholic at the elementary level. This is strategic for us because it allows us to strengthen and protect the identity of Catholic teaching. However, when you move into middle, secondary, and university education, which require a lot more diversity in knowledge and material, we rely on teachers who are not Christian. As a result, we make the call to Muslims that perfectly represent the spirit of Catholic teaching.
In our statistics, we have about 300 or 400 teachers who are not Catholic but who are committed to the spirit of Catholic teaching and happy to collaborate with us in the educational system. Their participation confirms our idea that unity is strength and our common concern is always the education of the children of Senegal, over and above religion.
You mentioned the teachers at the university level. What are your activities at that level?
At the Episcopal Conference a few years ago, they decided to establish a university for West Africa. Within that framework, Senegal was made responsible for its management and accounting. Other countries are also involved. Mali, for example, is in charge of educational science, and so forth. So here in Senegal, we have two university locations—one in the city of Dakar (Saint Michel) and the other in Casamance, in the south of the country. It’s in this sense that we offer branches of management and accounting. The Sainte-Marie de Hann campus also offers an opportunity at a higher level in connection with Mali, who offers educational science, whereas the Sacré Cœur Middle School, in connection with the University of Rouen, in France, works more so in telecommunications and engineering.
What is the relationship between ONECS and the state? How is the state involved in Catholic teaching?
The state maintains a good relationship in regards to Catholic teaching. Each time there is a meeting with the National Ministry of Education, the national secretary is summoned in order to share any concerns in educational matters. It’s important to mention that each year the government grants a subsidy to us to reward our mutual efforts in education. But I should point out that each subsidy is quite insufficient. When we divide it by the number of students, each one only benefits from the equivalent of €10 or $12 per year. What does this produce in the education of a child? Certainly not much. That’s why we do this work—so the state will further support Catholic teaching and those of us in Catholic teaching support the state as well.
Can you talk about your training and how you became involved in education?
Well, it has to do with the planting of the Church in Senegal. In a historical context, Senegal was colonized by France. And so, Saint-Louis [a city in northern Senegal] was the capital of the country. When the first missionaries arrived, notably the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny who were founded by Anne Marie Javoueh, the governor of Saint-Louis at the time entrusted the first school for girls to them. That is to say that the school was originally for the benefit of girls but also for Catholic teaching in Senegal. The Brothers of Ploermel came in 1841 and took charge of children’s education.
It’s in respect to this historical context that we must consider how the evangelizing work of the Church in Senegal started by first establishing social and charitable activities. The system always took into account needs, such as health and education. This seems to me fundamental in the integration of Christianity into the population. It’s not in order to proselytize but rather to spread the message of Christ, who took care of the sick by healing them and who fed the crowds that needed food. This is the work that drives Caritas today.
You are involved in the Brothers of Saint-Gabriel. Was it through your involvement with them that you came to your role with ONECS?
The Brothers of Saint-Gabriel are a congregation born in the west of France. It was founded by Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort who, seeing the youth of the time living in extreme poverty, founded what we now call charitable schools. In my youth, when I saw what the brothers were doing in Senegal, I felt a calling to participate in the work. I decided to enter into this congregation with the purpose of perpetuating Father du Montfort’s intent to educate. I find myself here today by the choice of the Episcopal Conference. The Bishops entrusted me with this task because it corresponds to the mission of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
You know that today people need to have a guiding light, and the guiding light of religion cannot be removed from development. Development does not only consist of material questions and materialism; development also consists of forging a person to be capable of being a light in their society. In this sense, a society that has no religion and that has no guidance will, as we say in French, “perd le nord” (lose their north compass point), which means that it can no longer orient itself. A country can only develop itself if religion is integrated into development so that man can have guidance in conducting himself in a moral and ethical way.