Schools-in-a-Box give children a chance to study after years of conflict
It is Genevieve’s second day of school. She looks unsure of herself, probably because she is 17 years old and has just started primary school.
Dressed in simple clothing and barefoot, Genevieve bows her head as she picks at her peeling purple nail polish. Although Genevieve, who lives with her older sister, has been put in grade five, she is already struggling to keep up.
Like tens of thousands of youth on Bougainville Island, situated in the southwestern Pacific, Genevieve missed out on the chance of receiving an education. She was born just before the start of a 10-year civil conflict over the island’s independence from the mainland of Papua New Guinea. The conflict officially ended in 1998 and the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed on 31 August 2001, paving the way for a phased process towards permanent peace, an autonomous government and a referendum on independence.
Forced to stay out of the classroom
By the time Genevieve reached school age, the conflict was at its height. She spent her childhood hiding in the mountains and rainforests, trying to survive. Schools were burned down and teachers fled. At the age of 12, she occasionally attended different makeshift schools run by untrained teachers in the conflict zone, but classes were sporadic and took place only when the security situation permitted. “I was hiding in the mountains most of the time,” she says. “I couldn’t go to school often.”
She looks down again. There is silence. Genevieve does not offer much information voluntarily. Asked whether she lost any family members, she says softly, “We had just returned from the mountains. We thought it was safe.” There is another pause. “I was sleeping at the time. The soldiers came into my home and shot my uncle in front of me. They burnt my home down. We had to flee again. I still think about my uncle being shot, especially when I see people in uniform.”
Another student named Tom (not his real name) does not know his age but looks about 15 years old. He is in grade four and has received some schooling by volunteers in the bush, but has spent most of the time as a child combatant. “I was a member of the revolutionary forces,” he says. “I know how to use a gun. I was protecting my village. I wanted to guard my mother. My father was shot dead.” Asked about the future, he says, “I don’t know about the future.”
A local businessman named Andrew Nompo was the one who gave Genevieve and Tom the opportunity to receive a basic education at St. Andrews Primary School. He gathered out-of-school youth, many of whom were former child combatants, to build the classrooms. They are simply built with local materials – timber for stilts, intricately woven bamboo for the walls and dried sago leaves for the roof – and set in a lush valley of brilliant red hibiscus and bougainvillea flowers just outside the town of Arawa.
Five teachers work at the school and 61 girls and 75 boys attend classes. Most of the students have recently come out of what is called the ‘no go zone’, where the Me’ekamui Defense Force and its supporters are still armed and are in control of an area covering an estimated 40,000 people.
The armed conflict claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 people and has left a mass of uneducated youth. The task of restoring normalcy is huge: disarmament needs to be coordinated, a functioning judicial and policy system needs to be put in place and the entire social network has to be rebuilt. The psychological toll, especially on young people is high.
“The chance to go to school is critical for the island’s youth,” says Simon Koraikove, the headmaster of St. Andrews.
A logistical feat
UNICEF is currently supplying the school with basic materials such as exercise books, pens, pencils and erasers. By early 2004, UNICEF had supplied 40 schools-in-a-box to Bougainville, covering some 20 schools, most of which were built by the local communities. UNICEF also helped train teachers for these and other schools.
Getting the boxes to schools in the areas surrounding the ‘no-go zone’, is no small feat. After leaving UNICEF supply headquarters in Copenhagen, the boxes are flown to the capital, Port Moresby. They are then flown from the mainland to Bougainville Island. Once they reach Buka, the capital of Bougainville, young men pile the heavy boxes on to a four-wheel drive truck for a 10-minute ride and then transfer them to a small motorboat. Following a five-minute ride on the boat another four-wheel drive truck picks up the boxes on the other side of the channel.
“Not having a bridge here is a major logistical problem,” says Bruce Grant, a UNICEF officer, referring to the lack of basic infrastructure as a result of the recent conflict.
The three-hour drive along hilly, dirt roads, which cut through lush green tropical rainforests and coconut plantations, is full of obstacles. Just 15 minutes into the journey a truck driver unloads gravel onto the road. There is a 20-minute wait as the workman calmly fills the numerous potholes.
No sooner is the truck on its way again than the driver comes across a fast running river. The cement bridge has been washed away. The driver is used to it and skillfully steers the car across the river. The water splashes up on the side of the vehicle, which at that point seems to be more like a boat.
Once the boxes arrive, the school headmaster is thrilled. The contents of the other boxes have been finished and new pupils, like Genevieve, are without materials.
The headmaster lost two of his own brothers in the conflict, and firmly believes that education is key for the youth of Bougainville. “The big challenge is to bring them to the point in which they see themselves as students in a school. They have been in the bush for too long. Many of the boys have been soldiers as children and they still act like soldiers. They like to dress in military clothes. They find it difficult to express themselves. They aren’t socialized.”
Genevieve concedes that she feels strange being in a primary school, but even on her second day, she is motivated. “I should be in secondary school, but I want to continue learning. I want one day to get a job in an office, so I can look after my family. Many of my friends are still out of school so I feel lucky.”