School fire accidents are a tragic reminder of the structural challenges the education system faces
There are more than 36'000 classrooms built of straw in Niger and getting rid of them requires all partners to work together towards a long-term solution that will guarantee children’s safety and adequate learning conditions.
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One year ago, to the day, tragedy struck in Niger: In the afternoon of 13 April 2021, 25 classrooms of the school "Ecole Pays-Bas" in the capital Niamey caught fire, killing 21 children, most of them preschoolers. The classrooms had been built out of straw with thatched roofs to hug the back wall of a block of school rooms and a wall on the other side of the unpaved street to accommodate 1'250 of the nearly 3,000 students the school had at the time.
"You can see the blackboards against the wall," Director of Preschool Gaya Habiba of school Pays-Bas, explained during a recent visit, pointing to remains of the blackboards that were plastered on the wall that separates the street from an industrial area.
A police investigation could not establish the reason for the fire. Electric wiring on the road and temperatures climbing to 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) that day are suspected to have caused the fire.
Only few months later, in November 2021, a similar tragedy happened in Maradi, the provincial capital of the region with the same name. At least 20 primary school students died and 14 were gravely injured, when their classrooms built from straw caught fire.
An education system that cannot do without
The Education Cluster regularly is informed about fires that destroy these so-called classes en paillote in French, including school benches and all the pedagogic equipment inside. Their number has grown to more than 36,000 across the country in the past years with increased enrollment rates and population growth in the youngest country of the world: every year more than half a million girls and boys start primary school in Niger.
The classes en paillotes have become the only approach to create school space. With 20 percent of the country's total budget for 2022, education is already the second biggest budget item. Education ranks only behind Energy and Infrastructure with 23 percent of the total budget.
Faced with a deteriorating security situation across the sub-region, it may surprise that the education budget is also considerably higher than the security budget that accounts for 14 percent of the country's budget, showing how providing education to every child in Niger is indeed a priority for the Government.
Reconstruction and psychosocial support
Following the tragedy at Ecole Pays-Bas, UNICEF built 21 new classrooms in the close-by school of Gamkalé, renovated 5 existing classrooms and repaired the damaged school block of Ecole Pays-Bas thanks to funding from Norway through the Thematic Fund for Education. The school reopened earlier this year for 1'800 children and the construction of a sports field is expected to commence shortly.
Further, UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the NGO Coopi assured psychosocial support to all the teachers and students that were witness to the tragedy. "They really helped us to get the children back to school and continue their education," said school director Manangendah Houela. Her Colleague, Ms. Habiba, adds: "We planted trees in the school yard in memory of each of the children. Each one has the name of one of them [written on it]."
In Maradi, where the second deadly tragedy took place, the burned down classrooms were replaced by classes built by locally produced bricks, funded by a local businessman without the need for support from UNICEF.
The challenge of replacing all the classes en paillote in Niger is too big to solve for one partner alone. UNICEF is working together with the Government and other national and international partners to rethink the structure of the school system while ensuring uninterrupted education for all children. The goal is the development of medium- and long-term plans to on one hand replace existing straw schools with pragmatic, ecofriendly and sustainable school buildings and on the other hand to explore possibilities of alternative education that are adapted to the realities of Niger.
Run and get help
As a short-term response, UNICEF is working with its partners to prepare teachers, students and communities on how to best react, if a fire breaks out. One of these schools sit on top of a small hill in the outskirts of Tabalak, Tahoua region. "Here we had to build a dozen classes en paillote to accommodate all the new students in the past years," explains Abubaka Issoufou, die school's director.
The children sit packed on the ground in the classrooms, some of them are further divided into two with tarpaulins, creating a maze built of highly flammable material. As part funding received from the German Federal Foreign Office to increase the resilience of communities in the Sahel, this school has been a pilot project on preparing for disasters including fire.
The school created a risk and response plan and the pupils learned – and practiced – how to react. "If there is a fire, we need to run outside and into the village as fast as we can," explains Janilla Abubakar, a six grader, pointing to the next houses about 500 meters away.
"We need to yell 'Fire, Fire' and the adults will call the fire department and come to the school to help," he says. While the students run to the village to summon help, the teachers check in the burning classrooms that none of the children is hiding under the tables.
To keep the school safe and secure when there are no lessons, the community put in place a committee of about 15 men who take shifts at the school during the nights and weekends. "I went to this school and now two of my children go to school here," said Maliki Djamillou who is part of the committee. "Of course, I spend my time here to keep their school safe and secure."