/ 11 May 2007

Back to school for determined Mogadishu children

The slogan ”no weapons” runs along the main wall of the Hamar boarding school in Mogadishu, giving it the tough air of a military camp.

But inside the atmosphere is studious, highlighting a yen for learning that has survived more than a decade of bloodletting in this Horn of Africa nation.

”Put down the gun, take up the pen,” is the motto of this facility for nursery to secondary pupils in the centre of Mogadishu, one of many private schools that arose as the country’s infrastructure fell apart.

Hamar school doggedly reopened despite heavy fighting in recent weeks that killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands to flee the Somali capital. But headmaster Mohamed Hassan Aden concedes that the number of pupils has plummeted since classes resumed after the trouble abated on April 26.

Out of the 1 447 boys and 776 girls signed up before the school’s month-long closure, only 700 have returned. The rest, he says, are scattered inside and outside the city among the masses of Mogadishu’s displaced residents — which number up to 400 000 according to United Nations figures.

Within the school walls, pupils try to forget the war and dream of university and peace. Boys and girls sit on benches at wooden desks in classrooms surrounding a leafy courtyard, listening to teachers at blackboards giving lessons in Somali, English, Arabic, maths and sciences.

A school bell hanging on a mango tree rings out to signal recreation, freeing up children in yellow and white uniforms who rush into the playground.

”I want to become a surgeon. I want to save people,” says Hussein (15), born one year after the start of a bloody civil war as yet unresolved.

”I hope to go to the university,” says his friend Ibrahim, also 15. ”I want to become an engineer in computer sciences.”

An elderly caretaker nodding approval says for several years after civil war broke when strongman Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, many teenagers wanted to join militias battling each other throughout the coastal city.

But 16 years on, the tone has changed, notably after the school’s recent closure during some of the deadliest clashes the city has seen in years, between Ethiopian-Somali forces and Islamist and clan fighters.

When asked if they would consider taking up arms, the pupils are clear. ”No, no, not a soldier,” Hussein cries. ”Fighting is very bad.”

”There is not enough education,” he adds.

The private school was started in 1999 after funds for public schools dried up, swept away along with other public services in the chaos of war.

Faced with the collapse of the whole education system ”the teachers came together”, says the headmaster, a former maths and science instructor. The most enterprising set up their own schools, of which there are about 300 today.

The downside of the completely private education system is the cost. At Hamar, boarders pay $40 per month and day pupils pay $10 — which the headmaster admits is beyond the reach of many. ”According to our situation, $10 is too high,” says Aden.

Teachers, who earn $150 per month, estimate that about a third of the shattered city’s children do not go to school. Many of those unable to attend pick up work fighting for the city’s many militias, for which they are paid a daily rate.

Security is also big concern for Hamar boarding school, which has its own security force of 15 armed guards to protect the premises and pupils from the fighting.

”There are always troubles in Mogadishu. You can never say that it’s safe,” says the headmaster, adding that armed fighters once attacked a school bus. ”They captured the bus. They just wanted the bus, not the children.”

Luckily, they pushed the children out of the doors on to the road before driving away, he said. — AFP