A champion fights for Somalia schools

Despite flooding, civil war and own disability, father of 8 battles to rebuild his country's education system

November 18, 2007|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JOWHAR, Somalia -- A nation overwhelmed by civil war, flooding and, most recently, the threat of starvation might be forgiven for overlooking the back-to-school season.

But Abdulkhadir Wasuge, 43, has devoted his life to making sure his corner of Somalia never forgets. Over the past 14 years, Wasuge has emerged as a leading education advocate in this Horn of Africa country, one of the many unsung heroes who have stepped up to fill the void left by the government's collapse in 1991.

As he does each year, the father of eight recently made the rounds in Jowhar, 60 miles north of Mogadishu, the capital, collecting enrollment figures, assessing curriculums and reminding parents and community leaders about the importance of putting children in school.

His Shabelle Educational Umbrella, which functions as a de facto school board, is largely responsible for rebuilding the education system, which has grown from a single schoolroom with 40 students in 1993 to 146 schools and 10,000 students today.

"Education is the light," Wasuge said. "I want to make sure young people don't miss out."

He attributed his motivation to overcoming personal challenges as a child. A bout with polio at age 5 left him without use of his legs. "I've lived with a handicap myself, so I know what that's like," he said. "Lack of education is just another kind of handicap."

Much of the time, he gets around town on a four-wheel motorbike or in a wheelchair. But often he walks on his hands, protected by a pair of well-worn sandals, using a powerful upper body to go up steps and climb into cars without assistance.

Aid groups say his efforts have pushed the primary school enrollment rate to 24 percent in the Middle Shabelle region, which includes Jowhar. That's the highest in southern Somalia, where only about one in five children attends school.

"He's someone who never gets tired of working," said Marian Abkow, education manager in the Jowhar office of the United Nations Children's Fund.

Somalia's school system disintegrated in 1991, when the dictatorship of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled and the country descended into clan-based civil war. Government institutions were the first to collapse; schools were ransacked and teachers fled the country.

Lack of education represents one of the country's biggest challenges as it tries to rebuild with a generation of youths who can barely read or write. Drug addiction is high among young men, many of whom work as militiamen for warlords and are paid in khat, a narcotic-like plant. Somalia went from one of Africa's most literate nations, with a rate of 60 percent in the 1970s, to one of the least, with about 25 percent today.

"This is going to have implications for generations," Abkow said.

Wasuge said he got involved in education after losing his job as an accountant for the local sugar factory, which closed in 1990 amid Somalia's mounting clan-related clashes. The collapse of the Jowhar factory left several thousand unemployed. Drought-related famine then killed hundreds of thousands. Wasuge and his wife lost their firstborn to disease before the boy turned 2.

"I was practically begging for food," he recalled.

In 1993, community leaders reopened a local primary school and Wasuge found work teaching math. In the years that followed, he became more active in the school, eventually helping to establish the umbrella group, which organized the reopening of schools in Jowhar and surrounding villages. The group established minimum academic standards, recruited teachers and raised money from foreign aid groups and local charities.

Wasuge became a fixture, sometimes going door to door to convince parents, clerics and warlords of the importance of reopening schools. "I felt the community needed me," he said.

Mindful of the challenges he faced, Wasuge launched a class for disabled students, which he taught under a tree until funding was obtained in 2000 to build a classroom. He added adult-education classes after discovering how many adults had not attended school.

"When I was young, girls were just ignored," said Fatuma Ali Abdulle, 46, who sells gasoline from plastic drums in Jowhar's main market.

She told Wasuge that her customers were defrauding her and she was helpless to stop them because she could not read and write.

Wasuge enrolled her in one of 17 primary schools that cater to adults. "It was a little embarrassing at first," Abdulle said, "but now I can even figure out my profits."

The school system survives today on student fees of about $1 per month. Humanitarian groups such as UNICEF provide books, teacher training and money to build classrooms. The U.S. Agency for International Development donated solar-powered radios so teachers can tune in to instructional programming. Somalia's business owners and religious groups also provide funding.

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