Sali didn't get her concours. Last year she was on the waiting list, meaning she was less than 5 spots away from getting a place, but this year she didn't even score high enough to qualify despite there being ample spaces left. She had left the exam feeling really confident, and to not have gotten it, after so much work, was devastating. It's the first time I've seen anyone here cry.
The education system is quite different here than it is in the US. While both have their pros and cons, I'm very grateful to be from the system I am. In the US your first 12 years of education are, at least in theory, free, and compulsory up until age 16. No matter how badly you do, you're probably not going to be held back. Your education after that is a matter of money, grades, and how many schools you're willing to apply to. You may not get the school of your dreams, but the system seems to have room for just about everyone who wants in, from the community colleges to trade schools to the Ivy League. Let's say you take the route of getting a bachelor’s degree from a 4-year college or university. It's probably a liberal arts degree, meaning you focused in a topic but aren't really prepared for a specific job – a music major can still go on to become a doctor, a biology major can found an internet start-up, and both of you could apply to law school, perhaps with a quick detour to a community college to pick up a few extra courses. For some people it ends there – they learn on the job, work their way up, go back for re-training as necessary, and eventually retire. But for an increasing number of jobs it's becoming necessary to go to grad school for 2-4 years. This usually does prepare you for a specific job field – medicine, social work, law, education, etc rather than requiring you to train on the job, and you'll probably enter at a higher level compared to people who entered after an Associate's or Bachelor's degree. By now you've spent 18-20 years in school to become qualified to do a job, and amassed who knows how much debt, so you better be going into something that pays well.
The Burkina education system is based on the French system, with a few unique twists. Students enter school after they turn 6, but continue to start school until about 8 or 9 years old, so you have a span of ages in each class. Kids tend to get passed through the first few years without being held back for poor grades, but in 5th grade they take a qualifying exam to get into middle school, which most students fail at least once. You can repeat the grade and re-take the exam annually until you turn 16, then your education is finished. If you pass, you go on to middle and high school. There's another qualifying exam after 9th grade, but now if you have poor grades they can hold you back. One failed year means you can re-take the grade at the same school. Failing twice means you have to switch to a different school, often presenting an impossibility due to lack of transport to another town with a school that goes beyond the primary level. If you do make it all the way through, then there's the BAC. If you pass all kinds of doors open up to you. If you don't, you still have options. You can take the BAC annually, as many times as you want, and there are people who continue to take it well into their 20s and 30s (some people don't finish high school until their mid-20s, so it's not quite as dramatic as it sounds).
There are several paths you can take here without your BAC – nursing, education, police/army, or local government. With your BAC you can essentially do those things at higher levels – doctor, professor, police/army, or higher up in the regional government. This is where the system differs from the French, in that there aren't many options available except to become a functionaire – someone who works as part of the functioning of the country, getting paid by the government. Working hard to escape life in village means that you will finish your schooling and be sent back to live in a village. After several years of experience, you'll be eligible to do a concours. From what I can gather you write out an extensive document showing your qualifications, experience, and aspirations to move higher up in the system of whatever domain you're in. You take a long written exam, which seems to consist partially of practical questions in your specialty but largely of logic problems simply to weed people out since thousands of people apply for only a handful of spots each year (typically 55 to 120). If you get selected you leave the village you've been living in, go back to school for 2 years, and then get posted to a larger village or town, maybe a city if you're lucky, and start the process over again.
So in Sali's case, she is currently an Accouseuse Auxilliare. There's also Accouseuse Brevite, but I'm not sure where that is in the hierarchy, perhaps between AA and SF, but maybe it's before AA. The one Sali was applying for is the highest she can aspire to, the position of Sage Femme. Above that is Gynocologue but to become one you have to have your BAC and have gone to medical school instead of nursing school. While there are programs in the US specifically to aid this transition, here it's pretty much impossible to go back and change once you're on a track – teachers stay teachers and don't become professors or nurses, nurses stay nurses and don't become teachers or doctors.
I'm occasionally frustrated by the fact that I have a degree that says I have the capacity to learn but doesn't directly qualify me to do more than earn $10/hr at Starbucks (if I'm lucky, having never worked in coffee before). Still, in the face of this I do appreciate the flexibility of the US system. I intended to become a doctor but now I will be applying to nursing programs after this little 3 year break from education. I can do that by taking 3-4 courses at community college and applying to enough schools of different calibers to ensure I get into at least one. If I change my mind in 10 years and want to go to med school or law school or get my teaching license or work in a lab or open a coffee franchise, I can do that without too much of a problem. I appreciate the system here in Burkina because trade schools and apprenticeships are emphasized (in fact, they're almost the only thing around, especially if you don't finish school) and it is possible to get a decent job even without going to school for ages, but it's frustrating and disheartening to see people work so hard competing for so few spots in order to advance, without the option to apply to multiple schools (because they don't exist in the country) or many places to work outside of the governmental/public function system.
(*note – I later found out that you can go to school to become an AA with just a primary school diploma as long as you pass their qualifying exams. I asked three of my nurses and found out that one only has her primary diploma, and two have their BEPC, the degree after you pass the exam at the end of 9th grade.)