Mobile classes give nomadic children their first taste of school
By Mike Pflanz
BACAADO, Northwest Somalia “Somaliland”, 28 March 2011 – Under the meagre shade of a leafless thorn tree, 30 children sat on plastic water drums and woven mats, the pages of their exercise books fluttering in the warm wind.
In front of them, teachers wrote on two blackboards propped against the tree trunk, one for the teenage ‘class’ and the other facing the younger children.
Beyond, the heat hazed the horizon as the mid-morning sun climbed into the cloudless sky, and the only sound was the occasional bleat of a distant goat.
It may appear basic, it is outdoors and exposed, its facilities are few, but this is a school. And for many of Somalia’s children it is a revolution which is for the first time giving them the chance at a basic education.
The majority of families in the country’s rural areas survive by driving their cows, sheep, goats and camels – often their only livelihood – on long searches for water or fresh fodder as dry seasons bite.
Until now, this meant children rarely completed one full term of schooling – if they started at all – before they had to drop out to move with their family and their livestock.
But a new scheme has introduced mobile classrooms – where blackboard and teacher travel with the children to dry weather pastures – or schools where pupils can come and go without being forced to start schooling afresh each time.
The project, Flexible Approaches to Basic Education, is implemented by Africa Educational Trust in partnership with UNICEF, and funded by the UKaid from the Department for International Development.
It helps to train teachers, provide text books and portable blackboards, and has been designed to allow open enrolment to any child who applies. There are no school fees, no uniform and no documentation needed to join.
In Bacaado village, a half-day walk from Somaliland’s main city Hargeisa, Suleiman Qaalib was slowly working through basic counting with his young class.
Behind him, a group of seven older boys tackled more complicated maths problems neatly laid out on their blackboard.
All of the pupils here are sons and daughters of some of the poorest and most marginalised communities. Often the children are forced to abandon classes when drought hits, or they are needed at home.
“But they can come back, the teaching is not too complicated and we work to help them catch up,” said Mr Qaalib, the teacher.
“Of course I want every one of these children to go to secondary school, to university, but that is far away. Here we can at least give them some small schooling that they would not get otherwise.”
For many of the children at the Bacaado school, these classes which started late in 2009, are their first ever experience of education. Almost all of their parents are illiterate.
“I used to spend every day with the animals, looking for water or grass,” said one of the ‘senior class’ pupils, Abdirahman Ahmed, 17.
“There was no school nearby, and I could not leave my family without my help to travel far to find school. Now we have this school here under this tree, it has made everything different. My eyes have been opened.”
There are still challenges, however. Maintaining momentum is difficult when children are forced to miss chunks of schooling.
For the brightest who hope to continue with their education, secondary schools are often clustered in towns far from where nomadic herders roam, and fees are expensive.
But as Mohamed Jama Bullale from Somaliland’s education ministry says, “Something like 40 or 50 percent of our children would not access any education at all if it was not for this kind of scheme. We have to walk before we run.”
And the impact is already significant.
As she headed home after class to prepare her family’s lunch and then take her goats to pasture, 13-year-old Gudon Muhamed told how she can “now do things I never thought would be for me”.
“I can read letters for my parents, and text messages sent to people’s mobile phones,” she said.
“I can read the labels on medicines and make sure they are the right ones, and they are not too old.
“If I was still just looking after the animals, what would be my future? Now that I am here learning, I have been given the opportunity for a different future.”