Even Amid Anarchy, Somalis Hunger to Learn and to Teach

IN one of the few public schools still operating in this troubled city, 12-year-old Shukri Barre sits barefoot with 17 other students, mostly boys, on the plastic-covered floor of a small, chairless classroom.

"I like school," she says. "I'd like to be a teacher ... if it's Allah's will."

Shukri's unpaid teacher, Jawaahir Arale Haile, has has been teaching math, history, and geography for 15 years. She says Shukri "always comes early.... The problem of these students is they have no books."

Despite two years of civil war and anarchy, despite all the shootings and starvation, Somalis still have a hunger to learn and eagerness to teach.

When United Nations officials last month opened a public school in northern Mogadishu, more than 1,000 Somali instructors applied for the 40 teaching posts. Hundreds of students had to be turned away after the 380 student enrollment limit was reached.

In a country where many young people have acquired guns as a way of life, a UN team visiting Somalia in November found many Somalis "ready to abandon their guns to go to school," says I. Insa, a official of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Although conspicuously absent in Somalia until recently, UNESCO plans to open an office here soon and start more schools, Mr. Insa says.

The task of restarting Somalia's educational system, however, is immense. A number of private schools are operating in Somalia. And children still chant phrases from the Koran in Muslim schools in many places. But UN officials are aware of only a handful of public schools still operating in Somalia.

Of some 85 public schools functioning in Mogadishu before the end of 1990, just before rebels ousted longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, all but 24 have been destroyed, says Hussein Tohow, a member of a local education committee.

Some school buildings have become homes for some of the tens of thousands of displaced Somalis who came to the capital seeking food as starvation hit their villages, says Abdullahi Yassin, another member of the committee.

Many schools have been heavily looted. On his visit here, UN official Insa saw many schools with no roofs or doors. "Only the walls remain," he says.

UNESCO, with help from UNICEF and the German government, opened two schools in Mogadishu last month, one on each side of the "green line" that divided this city between rival warlords. Prior to that, only three or four public schools were functioning in the city.

"We hope this [the revival of education in Somalia] will change even the life of the Somali people," says Abdi Tahlil Siad, director of the Ismail School.

There are eight classes at his school, including the one taught by Mrs. Jawaahir. Like the other teachers, she receives no salary. And like many residents here, she eats her meals at one of the feeding centers run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Except for the trade in weapons, drugs, and stolen property, including relief goods, the economy here is a shambles. Most families have lost their possessions to looters.

JAWAAHIR glances back and forth across the tiny classroom, catching the eyes of pupils and holding their attention with the same professional skills she honed during years when classrooms were well-equipped and neither students nor teachers lived in almost total poverty.

One floor above the Ismail School is another one run by the United Somali Salvation Youth (USSY), a Muslim organization. The school gets some assistance from Karitas and Diakonie, two German charities represented here by Klaus Peters.

A USSY school teacher, Mahad Mohamed, says of his unpaid work: "It is my duty [to teach]. The country has a lack of education. Instead of sitting at home, it's better to come here and teach them what I know."

During one class, his advanced students debated, as an English exercise, the merits of United States military troops coming to Somalia. The feeling was that the Marines were welcome, as long as they did not interfere with the religion or culture of Somalis - and didn't stay too long.

In another classroom, Halife Kowsar explained why she was studying English.

"To work with foreign people. I need to be a translator," she says.

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