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Education - Challenges of working in Somalia

© UNICEF Somalia/0705/17-CSZofficeb
All is well that ends well. After taking a rigorous journey to get to Merka, Central/Southern Somalia in July 2005, Habiba Haji Mohamed right and Asha Aden Dirie (second right) get down to learning at the mentors' training.

Mentoring teachers – overcoming tremendous odds to boost education

Merka, Central/Southern Somalia, 17 November 2005 - Early this year on on 27 July 2005, six people left Kismayo a port-town in southern Somalia headed for Merka, almost 300 km to the north, to a attend a training course organized by UNICEF for 53 mentors of teachers. Little did this group realize that the journey would immensely challenge their will and spirit.

The six were to join other people from Central and Southern Somalia for training to improve their mentoring skills. In Somalia, mentors advise and help thousands of teachers in their work. They help teachers create effective lesson plans, give tips on classroom management and teaching methods that are child-centred and participatory, and offer motivational support and guidance to teachers who work in particularly demanding and challenging conditions. Both mentors and teachers are encouraged to give extra attention to female students. A major challenge in Somalia is that many teachers have never been trained. Some are simply volunteers.

At 10.00 am the mentors, five men and one woman, were at Kamsuma Bridge which lies 80 km north of Kismayo. At this stage, one mentor called a regional UNICEF Education officer, Mohamed Mohamoud Hashi, to update him on their progress travelling to Merka.  At sunset, the group arrived in Jiirada Mubarak, 120 km north of Kismayo. A flood-drenched landscape welcomed them as the Jubba River had burst its banks. The mini bus driver the group had hired would go no further.

The mentors faced a dilemma: return to Kismayo, or attempt to secure alternative means, or walk to Marerey 30 km away, the next stop along the way. Two members of the team communicated with their wives and faced the additional burden of convincing their spouses that they had to continue on the challenging journey. At Marerey the mentors hoped to get a ride to Merka on one of the planes that deliver khat, an amphetamine leaf akin to the coca leaf of South America. Khat is widely chewed in Somalia.

The group agreed that there would be no turning back. The mentors started plodding their way through the mud and water to Marerey. The creepy darkness of night made matters worse as did the occasional lion’s roar and the curdling response of the laughing hyena. The animals seemed to mock the mentors' will and spirit.

At some stage, Habiba Haji Mohamed, the lone woman in the group could take it no more. Her spirit and energy were low. She was drained, desperate and tired and could only manage the occasional stagger. Finally she collapsed into the water and told her colleagues she would go no further.

Her colleagues decided that one member of the group would stay with Habiba while the others proceeded to look for ways of transporting her. The mentors were in luck as they located a donkey cart. Soon they headed back, collected Habiba and their other colleague. Habiba would not be left behind!  Weary for the night’s tribulations, daylight found the group at the Marerey Airstrip.


© UNICEF Somalia/0705/03-CSZofficeb
Its not always bad news in Somalia. These teacher mentors found reason to smile during the training organized by UNICEF in Merka, Central/Southern Somalia in July 2005.

The mentors waited in anticipation for the plane to Merka as it appeared on the horizon. Their hopes were short-lived. A staccato of gunfire broke the silence as the plane started its descent. A lone gunman at the airstrip had let loose a volley of shots from his AK47 rifle into the air aborting the landing as well the groups' travel plans.

The mentors again contacted UNICEF Education staff members, Hersi Ainab and Marian Abkow, by phone in Merka. Their advice: ‘’Take the first available vehicle to Afmadow then to Bu’ale. At Bu’ale, take another vehicle to Mudul Barave and from Mudul Barave, hire another vehicle to Merka!” What awful luck! More hours on the road. The mentors had to hire different vehicles from one location to the next in order to avoid getting embroiled in disputes over vehicle hire while crossing different clan territories.

The group had barely reached Mudul Barave when the stark realities of the dangers of travel within Somalia confronted them again. This time the predators were bandits who had ambushed a vehicle leaving passengers stranded. Unfortunately, two of the passengers were not so lucky and lay dead along the road. Pensive, the mentors journeyed on and, finally after about 30 hours of being continuously on the move, they reached Merka with great relief and a warm welcome from UNICEF staff and fellow mentors.
The group from Kismayo soon settled into the training but flashbacks would come back: unpredictable drivers, 30 km of muddy floods, roaring lions and laughing hyenas, rides on a donkey cart, a lone gunman’s staccato shots, and the tragic deaths of fellow Somalis in a roadside ambush. During this entire ordeal the mentors never gave up on their dream of helping to provide a better education for children in Somalia.

In Merka, the six travellers joined a group of 53 primary teacher mentors to learn about topics such as teaching and learning methods, gender issues, life-skills and counselling. Mentors also networked and shared ideas with each other. Slowly, the group from Kismayo turned their backs on their challenging journey and hoped that Somali children too would surmount the odds they face every day to get an education.

** The above experience highlights the continuous challenges of working in Somalia. It is also indicative of the determination of UNICEF and Somalis to provide an education for Somali children against great odds. As UNICEF’s Back to School Campaign takes root, more challenges will need to be conquered to ensure that access to education is a realistic possibility for many Somali children.

UNICEF intends to train more female mentors like Habiba. At the session in Merka, only seven out of the 53 mentors were female. One of the challenges of getting more women to participate is that they are often the sole breadwinners in their families and are more preoccupied with other daily living tasks. Lack of information and poor English language skills also hampers their participation.

For more information contact: Dr Noel Ihebuzor, Head Education Programme, UNICEF Somalia. Email: or Dr. Brenda Haiplik, Project Officer, Primary Formal Education. UNICEF Somalia. Email: UNICEF Somalia has its main office in Gigiri, Nairobi, Kenya.  Noel and Brenda can be contacted on phone: 254-(0)20-623950; 254-(0)20-623955, ext. 277.




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