Since the start of the Boko Haram conflict in 2009, north-eastern Nigeria has beared the brunt of the world’s worst education crisis, according to Save the Children. At least 1,200 schools have been damaged or destroyed, 611 teachers have been reported murdered and a further 19,000 displaced.
And yet, in a region where one school is attacked every two days, children as old as 15 are flooding pre-school classrooms in a desperate quest to learn.
More than half of the 700 children attending a Save the Children pre-school program in Borno State last month were older than six, many of them teenagers. But the organization’s pre-school facilities are funded to serve children under five, and its newly-adopted programs to meet the unexpected demand can only do so much to alleviate the crisis.
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With a shortage of trained teachers, it really comes down to displaced people like Abu Bakar, who fled his own home in Kukuwa — where a deadly insurgent attack killed at least sixty people — and now volunteers at Save the Children’s early childhood care classes in the Madinatu host community.
“There was a school in my village but because of these insurgent attacks it did not have any students or any children learning,” Abu Bakar said.
“Now, I have some children in my class who are older than five or six so I have changed the way I teach,” he added. “I arrange them according to age so I can sit with them and teach them in a way they will understand...Some of the children who come here have never been to school. So it makes a difference to the children and for some of them it is the only opportunity they will get [to learn].”
Ben Foot, Save the Children’s Country Director in Nigeria, explains that under the insurgent occupation, schools, children and teachers have all become legitimate targets because, “western education is evil.”
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But even before the conflict, Nigeria had the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, at more than 10 million, according to the United Nations. And across the afflicted are of the Borno State, almost three million children are thought to be in need of education.
According to the International Organization for Migration, around 80% of the one million displaced children are living in host communities where there is little to no access to education. Half of the 9 to 12-year-olds living in the north-eastern Nigeria have never been to school and girls living in the region are expected to receive only two years of school.
Despite the odds, fifteen year-old Zainab, who was forced to drop out of school and flee after insurgents killed her brother, has been attending the Save the Children emergency pre-school classes for the last five months.
“I learn English words like ‘hospital’, ‘wagon’, ‘dog’ and ‘window’,” she said. “I feel sad because if this hadn’t happened I would be finish school by now. Some of the children who were in the same school as me have been able to go back and are finished now.”
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At the end of last year, funding for the education was just 18% of total humanitarian funding for Nigeria. This year, organizations are asking to double that number.
Today, at a major international donor conference in Oslo, donors pledged at least $672 million to prevent famine in the Lake Chad region, which includes north-eastern Nigeria. Norway led the effort by pledging $192 million over a three-year period to tackle “a serious humanitarian situation.”
The US has not yet made any new pledges.
Since President Trump assumed office, there has been much speculation over whether the US will provide large-scale support for relief efforts in Africa. But UN emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, remains hopeful that they will in fact continue to be the largest aid donor to the region, especially Nigeria.
“This desperate quest for education reflects the hunger of children for knowledge that is not being met, which is heartbreaking,” said Foot. “We cannot stand by as an entire generation of children loses its right to go to school.”