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For Somali children, every minute in school counts

© UNICEF Somalia/04-05-0048/Kihara
Murayo gets ready to go to school. She stands outside her home in a camp for people who have fled their native villages.

The State of the World's Children 2006 will be launched on 14 December. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the report we will feature a series of stories focusing on children who are excluded and invisible as a result of armed conflict, poverty, HIV/AIDS, discrimination and inequalities. Their stories are the stories of millions of other children whose rights go unfulfilled every day.

BOSSASO, Somalia – On a hot, dusty morning in Askar Internally Displaced Persons camp, one of many settlements made of cartons and boxes in Somalia, a little girl flips a pancake on a traditional stove.

Murayo Badel Ibrahim, 11, is cooking anjera, a Somali delicacy. Wearing a red dress, Murayo finishes cooking and washes her face and feet. She hurriedly eats the anjera as her mother Reyo Abdullahi Haroon, 25, hangs out the laundry to dry. Reyo has seven other children and one of them, Abdi Wehel, 2, trots after her, an old ruler in his mouth.

Murayo grew up in Askar camp, one of 13 such camps in Bossaso, the commercial capital of northeast Somalia, known as ‘Puntland’. Askar has seen its population swell as Somali refugees returned from Ethiopia and Kenya. People who had previously fled the area also poured back in from the more unstable areas of central and southern Somalia.

Most dwellings in the camp are made of cartons and polythene on twig and branch frames. The occasional mattress is thrown on top. Fires are a constant threat, striking swiftly and viciously, fanned by sea winds – in early 2005 a fire in Askar injured two people and destroyed 70 homes. 

Murayo grabs her black bag, dons her blue hijab and is soon weaving her way through the alleys to Daryell Primary School. At 7:30 a.m. she enters the dusty compound. Its four classrooms are made of mud that has been caked onto stave and twig frames with an orange tarpaulin as a roof.

The school was founded in August 2004 by Youth Development Organization and Tadamul, a non-governmental organization based in Bossaso that helps children in these camps. The two groups built the temporary shelter and received training and supplies – such as chairs, benches, desks, exercise books, slates and pencils – from UNICEF.

© UNICEF Somalia/04-05-0066/Kihara
Murayo at Daryell Primary School in the Askar camp in Bossaso.

The school has 170 students, of whom 92 are girls, and four teachers. By 10 a.m., three-year old Ahmed Abdullahi, is outside playing with a rusty tin. Fatuma Farah Handulle, a UNICEF staff member who is monitoring the project, admonishes him and he soon heads back to class. At 10:30 a.m. the school day is over and the students, including Murayo, start streaming out.

“The children are from families who need income and other help. Unfortunately, this means that they have to break early because they work as shoe shiners and manual labourers,” says Mohamed Ali Yusuf, a UNICEF Education Project Assistant in Bossaso.

”How did school go?” Fatuma asks Murayo.

“I learnt Somali and Arabic,” replies Murayo. “In Arabic, I learnt the words ‘I came to school’. “

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” Fatuma asks. 

“A teacher,” Murayo replies.

In Somalia today only about 11 per cent of primary school-aged children have access to formal education, one of the lowest gross enrolment ratios in the world. Significant progress has been made in the past few years, however. A new lower primary school curriculum was developed in 2002 as well as a curriculum for grades 5 to 8. New school books have been printed. Over 7,000 teachers received standardized, in-service training in 2002. A pilot mentoring project for 1,751 teachers resulted in improved classroom practices and children’s learning levels.

Most Somali schools are concentrated in and around urban areas and do not adequately serve children in these camps. They also effectively exclude children in remote rural locations, particularly nomadic children. Girls constitute slightly more than one third – 35 per cent – of primary school pupils; female teachers make up about 13 per cent of the total number of teachers.

UNICEF is embarking on a Back to School campaign in Somalia in late 2005 called ‘Every Child Counts’. For children like Murayo – and her many peers who spend just three hours in class daily – every minute counts.




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