Battle for books in a war zone

SOMALIA. After a three-year struggle and much debate new texts emerge to form the cornerstone of a national curriculum. Brigid McConville reports

School starts in Somalia this month with new textbooks of a quality unprecedented in this devastated country. Illustrated, designed to engage children's interest, they are a far cry from dry tomes of the past. But the creation of these lower primary texts by UNICEF for the six to 14-year-olds, has been a long and fraught process.

Nearly 100 children are already poring over their new books in Habare village, near Baidoa in southern Somalia. They sit under a tree because their school has been burned down three times in the past decade by warring militias. A generation which has missed out on school because of war now has a chance to learn. Pupils range in age from five to 25.

The quickest help their friends to read the colourful texts, full of pictures of daily life - men fishing, women working the fields, children feeding chickens. The girls are delighted. They have never seen so many images like themselves before.

In UNICEF training sessions the teachers have also learned a new approach which works with the texts. "Our old method was to write on the blackboard and the children would repeat our words," says Omar Isac Hussein, head of Habare school and one of the 6,050 teachers recently trained in Somalia.

"Now we work in groups, encouraging participation from the children. This helps them to think and learn more easily and they are more motivated. They were so pleased with their books that they wanted to take them home to show their parents, but I am keeping them because they have to last."

The books, fruit of three years' intensive effort by UNICEF and partner agencies including UNESCO, were hotly debated.

"At our first meeting in 1997," says UNICEF's Geeta Verma "40 Somali educationists met in Nairobi because the civil war made it impossible to agree on a neutral venue. All felt the need to improve the old texts but some were nervous. One man said 'If you touch our books or our curriculum there will be bloodshed'."

Sixty writers were recruited, three of them women. Their first workshop in Somaliland - the north-western region which has declared independence - ended in disarray when writers from the other regions walked out because of political tensions.

UNICEF saved the day by proposing that the writers met each time in different parts of the Muslim country. Even then, says Geeta Verma, "every picture of every girl was disputed; how much should girls be covered up, should they appear at the front of the class, or eating, even playing - and with boys? It took three years, but we spanned four grades in six subjects - maths, science, social studies, Somali, Arabic language and Islamic studies."

These books now form the backbone of a new standardised, national curriculum - a small miracle in a place beset by dozens of warring clans and sub-clans.

The project received some unorthodox backing when a consignment of books for Mogadishu was sent to the wrong port. The books were looted and put on sale in the market. UN staff stepped in to buy them back before they could all be snapped up by locals.

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