DAKAR, SENEGAL – Hundreds of students from the Martin Luther King all-girls high school in Dakar warmly welcomed first ladies Michelle Obama and Marieme Sall of Senegal on Thursday.
A choir of teenage girls in school uniforms sang renditions of the American and Senegalese anthems for the first ladies. A dance troupe then performed to traditional drum music.
President Barack Obama, the first lady and their daughters Sasha and Malia are visiting Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
After welcoming remarks by Sall and the school’s principal, Obama spoke to the students about the importance of girls education in Senegal and throughout the world.
“When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous,” Obama said. “By making this critical investment in your education – and in the future of your country – you all are serving as role models not just for girls here in Senegal, but for girls in the United States and around the world.”
In Senegal, and throughout much of West Africa, many girls are forced to drop out after primary school, sometimes because of school fees; other times the girls are needed at home to care for siblings and help with chores.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that while more than 70 percent of girls go to primary school, only 27 percent are enrolled in secondary school. The latest data from the World Bank show that the youth literacy rate for girls age 15 to 24 in Senegal was just 56 percent in 2009.
Obama told the girls that she is inspired by what they have been able to achieve in the face of adversity.
“I know that what you all are doing here isn’t always easy,” Obama said. “I know that some of you may be the first in your families to attend a school like Martin Luther King, so there might be people at home who don’t quite understand what you’re going through as you work to succeed here. And I know that for some of you, just sitting in these classrooms each day requires great sacrifices by your families.”
Obama’s speech was met with cheers and applause by the students and faculty.
“Many of us can relate to the obstacles she spoke of,” Yaire Mbengue said. “There are many of us who don’t have rich parents, who don’t have the means to go to school. So it was good to hear you can still succeed in spite of that.
Before Obama left to join her family on a trip to Goree Island, she entered the crowd to hug some of the girls and shake hands.
“It was a great pleasure for us to receive the first lady of the United States at our school today,” 12-year-old Fatoumata Diarriou said. “Truly, we are proud.”
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