In 2007, a 47-year-old lawyer had just enrolled his daughter in a pricey private school when he had an existential realisation: what if he died unexpectedly? Who would pay for his children's school fees? Would they still be guaranteed quality education?
This was also northern Nigeria, where western education was widely frowned upon in favour of religious schooling and cultural norms didn’t approve of educating girls. Even worse, in his native state of Borno, there were thousands of orphans and disadvantaged kids who couldn't afford access to any kind of education, socio-cultural norms aside.
The lawyer decided to use his personal savings from years of practising law to build a four-classroom school, employed the best teachers around, took in 36 orphaned children, and enrolled his own children in the school too for good measure.
That lawyer is Zannah Mustapha and the school he built is the Future Prowess Academy and Islamic Foundation.
Mustapha himself was born at a time and a place where western education was not fully embraced or encouraged, and where only a few people had access to it. But he was able to have an education himself and eventually became a legal practitioner, which was partly why he really wanted to do something about the inaccessible, low-quality educational system in the north of Nigeria and be a role model to young people.
“I felt [like] I needed to turn the tide of that time," Mustapha told Global Citizen and BellaNaija. "I had [spent many] years in the legal profession, and as a legal practitioner, I felt I could sponsor a certain number of students till they got to the university level. I started a school, built some classrooms, took in 36 orphans, and enrolled them in the school. For me to be entirely committed to this, I [also enrolled] my biological children to be part of it.”
'Western Education Is Forbidden'
Unfortunately, Mustapha’s efforts to educate disadvantaged kids were about to face quite the disruption in the form of the terrorist group Boko Haram, which began attacks in 2009 — just two years after Mustapha launched his free school.
According to UNICEF, children account for about 60% of the internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in northeast Nigeria, many of whom live in makeshift camps — 1 in 4 of these children are under the age of five, exposed to abuse, violence, and malnutrition. They also lack access to education, health care, and a safe environment, among other basic amenities.
Hundreds of thousands of children in northeast Nigeria are living in the shadow of conflict, and as insecurity in the country continues to rise, more children are becoming orphans, condemned to live in the streets, begging to survive.
Despite these challenges with insecurity, Mustapha was committed to changing the narrative and experiences of internally-displaced children in the northeast of Nigeria.
He even took in children of Boko Haram fighters, children that many people didn't want to identify with, who had been cast into the streets for the sins of their father.
“If a child doesn't get to eat anything in days, certainly that child can't go to school.” Mustapha said. “I felt as an individual, I have to carry along these orphans, so that they can also be found worthy and just be children.”
More than 2,000 teachers have lost their lives, while at least 1,400 schools have been destroyed, in northeast Nigeria since 2009 due to insurgency in the region, but the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation has never closed its doors. An astonishing feat in itself.
That a school using western education in its curricula, in a region where it isn’t embraced, could avoid attacks from the terrorist group Boko Haram was thought impossible at one point in Maiduguri. The name Boko Haram itself means “Western education is forbidden”.
“It was also difficult for Boko Haram to attack the school because their [offspring] were here and nobody would want to attack his child. The widows also assured me that nothing would happen. The kids even felt safer here than they did anywhere else,” Mustapha told Devex in 2018.
Mustapha recieving an award | Supplied
Soon, Mustapha started to look beyond children in the region and set up a skills acquisition programme for widows, where they are taught beadmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, and other skills through which they could earn a living for themselves. The programme is supported by development partners like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
A Constant Cycle of Challenges
While he navigated terrorist attacks, Mustapha also had to contend with social and cultural norms like child marriage and a disdain for “western” ideologies and ways of life.
“Some of [the widows we work with] even objected to the English language being taught," he said. "We said ‘No, English is just a language — like we have French in the neighbouring countries or regions that are Francophone countries. If you leave this town, in just an hour's time, we will be in these three countries. And then you cannot even communicate with them, so learning a universal language is very important."
Constant Boko Haram attacks were also a challenge. “There are times when we do not have many volunteers coming in to help [because of the insecurity]," Mustapha continued. "Many of the development agencies are not working [on the ground] the way they are supposed to because they are being attacked, and their offices are being attacked too. So they leave and then important projects get stalled."
Another challenge is working with children who have very diverse problems and needs. How do you create a programme that will cover all the bases? Do you put them all in the same class? Teach them with the same curriculum? The children accepted into the Future Prowess Academy are typically between the ages of three and eight. But when a 13-year-old is brought to the academy, you cannot turn your back on them, right?
“Some of these children are brought in at 13 years or 14 years, and finding the best solution for them can be difficult. When you have a girl of 13 years who is not only a [child bride], but also a mother and already a widow, all at 13, how do you begin to teach her?” Mustapha told Global Citizen and BellaNaija. “And then this same 13-year-old mother also has a child who is already three years old. Do you put both of them in the same class: in Primary 1?”
He continued: “So what we do is to take her to the skills acquisition centre, teach her some literacy and numerics to put her through in tailoring, hairdressing, or something. But there’s another challenge there — many of them consider education to be a taboo, and they will refuse to learn because ‘western education is haram’. So we have to convince them that we’re only teaching them numerics so they can be good at tailoring and not trying to westernise them. Some of them have also been socialised to still desire marriage because of the culture they live in. As you try to teach them and integrate them into a better system, someone comes along to say they want to marry them, how do you contend with that?”
There are also kids brought to the academy, who have been scarred — physically and mentally — by the insurgency and terrorism in their communities. Assuring them that his school is a safe space for them is another huge challenge for Mustapha.
“We have to give them some sort of trauma [therapy]. Many of them watched their parents being killed and they are living in fear, some are already hypertensive at 10, 12 years of age,” says Mustapha. “They have these [invisible] scars they move around with.”
Support and Recognition for the Work
But in the midst of these challenges, Future Prowess does get support and Mustapha has been recognised around the world for his incredible work.
“The University of Maiduguri has helped us a lot, especially in the teaching area. We are located close to the university and the majority of our volunteers come from there,” he said.
So far, people volunteer to teach, some send food items to the foundation, and others make donations via its GoFundMe link. Still, it is not enough, as the nonprofit still needs more financial support and collaboration.
“We have a very large farm, it will be really good to get donors who will say, ‘I will construct a classroom for you’ or ‘I will construct a toilet for you’ and so on," Mustapha said. "These are some things that can help us move forward in our work.”
In 2016, Mustapha was a finalist for the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award. He also won the World Humanitarian Award in the same year. In 2017, Mustapha became a Nansen Award laureate, and was named the winner of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for providing orphans of Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency with an education — an award he says is one of the most inspiring things in his life.
He was also one of CNN’s top 10 heroes of 2021 and the first Nigerian to be selected as an Aurora Humanitarian.
What Does the Future Look Like?
The future of Mustapha’s academy and foundation looks really bright, he tells us. With a 10-year plan already in motion, he's working to make sure many more children in northern Nigeria will not just receive an education but will have a chance at a better, high quality life.
“We have about 15 hectares of land, with more than 1,000 different trees within the area. We are now engaging in agriculture. We have a very large fish farm that we are currently cultivating with the parents and widows in the school,” says Mustapha. ”That’s how we plan to get economic support. We’ll teach people how to formulate pits for fish, and then farm management. We are now currently making moves to get some support from the [local] development commission. We are trying to see that in the next year, this foundation grows into an institution where we discuss conflict, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, and so on.”
Working With Kids, Building Futures
Despite the huge challenges in front of it, the academy and foundation have achieved tremendous impact so far.
Mustapha has moved from establishing one schooltobuilding four schools, in addition to a skills acquisition programme, and a feeding programme. From just 36 children in the original cohort, Mustapha has now supported more than 2,000 kids over the years — many of whom have gone on to higher levels of education. Some of the school’s alumni even come back to teach new kids just joining the foundation’s programmes.
Through collaboration with other civil society organisations, Future Prowess Islamic Foundation has also supported more than 6,000 widows through its skills acquisition programmes.
“Just a month ago, [one of] our students who we trained here was at the United Nations in New York, to address them on the issues of child soldiers and child rights,” Mustapha says. “Twenty-eight of them are currently in the university. Some of those who graduated from the university are teachers in our academy. All these things show that even if we are not here, our work and commitment to improving the lives of these children will live on through for many generations to come.”
Zannah Mustapha's responses have been lightly edited for clarity.