Hady Barry, the final photographer selected for Malala Fund’s Against All Odds commission series in collaboration with 1854, joins 13-year-old Aissatou on her pursuit of a secondary education in Guinea
“This is I, Aïssatou Lamarana Diallo. I’m wearing my school uniform. This is my favourite pose. After my studies I want to work in health, to care for people.” These are the words of 13-year-old Aïssatou, written to accompany a Polaroid selfie taken by the teenager. She lives in the village of Tolo, in central Guinea, and is in seventh grade. Her words are simple but telling of a young girl with a vision for her future. Indeed, to realise that vision and continue her education into high school, Aïssatou will be faced with a number of obstacles that many young women like her in Guinea, do not overcome.
Aïssatou is the subject of Hady Barry’s response to the Against All Odds commission, a partnership between Malala Fund and 1854. Barry is one of three photographers, selected by Malala and her team, to create a body of work that highlights the strength and resilience of girls around the world facing challenging circumstances.
“I know that as difficult as things are for boys, it can be a thousand times more difficult for girls.”
– Hady Barry
Many of these frustrations manifest in the lack of opportunities and education afforded to girls and women in the country. For example, estimates show that in 2019, 53 per cent of women aged 15 to 24 living in urban areas were literate, and just 15 per cent in rural areas. Though primary school enrollment of girls has steadily increased in the last decade, the same cannot be said for secondary school; while 77 per cent of girls attend primary school, just 25 per cent continue on. Problems such as poor sanitation facilities mean that girls avoid classes when they are on their period. Schools are not always safe from abuse or harssment and child marriage is still all too common
Other factors come into play too. School fees are not always affordable and shortages of teaching staff mean that some subjects are missed, especially in rural areas. This leads to children being underprepared for the national exam that they must take at age 12 or 13 to pass to the higher grades. And, there is a fee for the child to retake. “You’re not always set up for success,” says Barry. “For families who have a girl who doesn’t pass [the test], and has to repeat it, they might decide that it’s time for her to get married. It’s not necessarily that parents don’t want these kids to go to school, it’s that there are a number of external factors that weigh into that decision. They ask themselves, is it worth it?”
There is also the question of care when the child leaves their parents’ home to go to a different city for a secondary education. Barry recalls her father, who like Aïssatou is from Tolo, telling her and her sister stories about the challenges he faced to get an education as a young boy. Tolo’s school only goes up to the lower grades of secondary education, so children must relocate to Mamou, a city one and a half hours away, to continue. Sadly, the family her father stayed with didn’t look after him. “He had to sell food to have money to eat, study under the light of street lamps, and he didn’t have shoes,” Barry explains. “But despite that he carried on, to get an education against all odds.” She adds: “I know that as difficult as things are for boys, it can be a thousand times more difficult for girls.”
Barry travelled to Tolo in October 2021 and again in December. There was a risk that the school year might be impacted by the military coup, led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, who overthrew the unpopular President Alpha Condé just one month prior. Luckily, it was unaffected. Barry wanted to understand the experience of a young girl, from her father’s village, pursuing an education today. “She could have been me,” she says.
The first time Barry met Aïssatou, she wanted to spend time gaining her trust. “She showed me her images [on her camera phone] and she was very curious about the photos I took of myself too,” says Barry. “Giving her access to images of me made it easier for me to be able to take photos of her. Towards the end she started opening up more.” Though Aïssatou’s story is one of agency and determination, she is still a teenager with the same thoughts and interests as many other teenage girls around the world. “Her concerns are about her school uniform, her backpack, her sneakers,” Barry says frankly. “She’s not sitting there thinking about all these challenges. It’s a tricky age to be 13, sometimes it’s all about your appearance, and for her that might be just as important.”
“I wanted to put Tolo on the map, and colour was the best way to do it justice.”
– Hady Barry
Aïssatou’s voice also features in the project. When they first met, Barry presented the teen with a book about human anatomy, given her interests in working in health, and a Polaroid camera. Aïssatou used it to capture moments of her everyday life. Barry incorporated the Polaroids into her work by layering them on top of landscapes and textural images, framing Aïssatou’s images and their content, while complementing Barry’s.
The Polaroids were also submitted to Assembly, a digital newsletter and publication created by Malala Fund to share “thoughts, challenges and accomplishments” of girls and young women around the world. “This is my older sister. Her name is Kadiatou Diallo. There are three years between us. She is in 10th grade. She left for Mamou because there is no 10th grade in Tolo,” she writes next to one. “This is my father, his name is Thierno Foula Baillo Diallo. He has four wives. He has eight boys and seven girls. I am the 10th child,” reads another.
In many ways, the commission touches on key themes that Barry addresses throughout her practice, such as the complexities of identity and human connection. Though the photographer predominantly shoots in black-and-white, it was important for this project to be created in colour. “I wanted people to have a window into Aïssatou and her life, but also to have a sense of what Tolo is like. I wanted to put Tolo on the map, and colour was the best way to do it justice.” The vibrancy of Aïssatou’s clothing, the houses bathed in sunset light, red earth and lush greenery are sharply contrasted by images of the deep black night. In one, Aïssatou gets ready for school by torchlight, illuminating the yellow uniform on her silhouette. Her home is a long way from the city centre, so there is no electricity at night.
“This story is very much about Aïssatou, but it’s just one in many,” says Barry, who will contribute a portion of the commission fund to pay her school fees. “She is lucky because some of her siblings have been able to have an education and she has people to look up to.” Aïssatou wants to become a doctor because her older sister is a nurse in Mamou, for example. “Yes, it is challenging,” says Barry. “But there are people who are able to get to a level of education and have a professional career. There are enough of them to motivate and inspire the next generation.”