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23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Harvey McGavin on how a Cheshire comprehensive became involved in Somaliland's schools

There's a world of difference between Cheshire and Somaliland. The former is a peaceful and prosperous area of England, while the latter is an impoverished part of east Africa struggling to rebuild after years of civil war. One Christian, the other Muslim, separated by two continents and vastly different cultures, you might think there's not much scope for mutual understanding.

But over the past few years an unlikely alliance has emerged between these two places forged by a man from Somaliland who settled in Cheshire and strengthened by the resolve of hundreds of school children.

The story of how a school in Nantwich helped salvage the education system of Somaliland began about six years ago, when Brine Leas Comprehensive received a phone call from someone at Rolls-Royce motors. The company was well known to the school - it had supported their bid for technology college status - but the caller was not.

Abdi Yusuf had come to Britain to study at the universities of East London and Sussex, before joining Rolls-Royce in 1995, where he become a line manager at their Crewe factory. A visit to Somaliland the following year made him realise how far he had come from his childhood in the city of Hargeisa: "I said to myself you have two choices: to look after yourself and your family; or to go back to your roots and help the people you left behind."

Abdi formed a charity, the Horn of Africa Learning Trust (Halt), to help the children in Somaliland, where little more than a quarter of the population can read or write. "My idea was that it doesn't matter how long it takes to put something into education to liberate the minds of the people and see if they can do something for themselves," he says.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, gained independence in 1960 within days of its neighbour Somalia, which had been an Italian protectorate. Attempts to unite the two failed and led to a civil war throughout the 1980s, which destroyed 90 per cent of the country's buildings. Since 1991, Somaliland has been a self-declared republic but, unrecognised by the world, it cannot attract the aid it needs.

After Abdi visited Brine Leas and told them the story of his homeland the school council offered to help. But it was only when Abdi returned with a wish list compiled by headteachers of Somaliland's primary schools that the extent of their plight was revealed. Basic items such as pencils, rulers, books and footballs were what they needed and to equip each school would cost only pound;250. In the first year, Brine Leas raised enough to send six boxes of equipment and another two were paid for by the Rotary club.

Since then Brine Leas has bought a box of equipment for every one of Somaliland's 44 primary schools through a combination of tried-and-tested fundraisers such as non-uniform or crazy hair days and more extravagant events such as talent shows and sports.

Paul Barnes, the recently retired deputy head of the school and a trustee of Halt, visited Somaliland last year, bringing back a video of the boxes of equipment being opened, which brought home to the children how much their efforts were appreciated. For their part, pupils at Brine Leas have organised social evenings with members of the Somaliland community in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield to tell them about their work and (they are a talented as well as charitable bunch) to entertain them with songs and magic. Fittingly, the money needed to fill the 44th box was collected among the audience at one such presentation in Sheffield.

A video diary of the school's work for Halt (the main but not the only beneficiary of the pound;4,000 raised by the school's charitable efforts each year) won it an award from the Active Citizenship Network. And when Paul Barnes heard that Giving Nation, a campaign to encourage involvement in charity work, was running a similar competition he sent evidence of the school's partnership with Halt.

They won, and the prize - a half-term trip to South Africa for eight children from the school - has left a lasting impression. During their stay the group saw Red Cross charity projects including peer mentoring on Aids and visited the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held and the District Six Museum, Cape Town, which marks the forced clearance of more than 60,000 people under apartheid's Areas Act.

"People said before we went it would be absolutely life-changing," says Jack Warrington, 15. "But when we came back here you realise that it has had a massive impact and it has actually be life-changing, which is such a strange thing because it was only a week."

Sasha Wilmott, 16, summed it up: "There are kids in South Africa who don't have shoes and our biggest worry is what colour top to wear." As a parting gesture, the group agreed to pay for eight students to be trained as peer mentors - enough to counsel 1,200 other children, as many as there are at Brine Leas.

Halt's next goal will be to finance the rebuilding of a secondary school in Somaliland's second city of Burao. At present, there is just one school with an intake of 120, leaving nearly 700 children without a secondary place each year. Headteacher Mike Butler is rightly proud of his pupils:

"This is beyond anything kids from round here would normally become involved in. If you had tried to predict how far this would come in one generation of students, I don't think you could have."

As for Abdi, he is full of admiration for the solidarity the children have shown for their peers in Africa. "What they have done for us is unforgettable," he says. And the children of Somaliland are unlikely to forget it either.

Among the items requested by the headteachers was a school bell. Prices of pound;40 made it prohibitive, but then Paul Barnes heard about a foundry that could make a cast of Brine Leas' own bell and produce copies for about a quarter of the cost. Now, at the start and end of every day, a replica of the bell that sounds in a secondary school in north-west England, rings out around the primary schools of Somaliland.

* Giving Nation encourages young people to give to charity. To order a free resource pack Email: admin@giving Tel: 020 7930 3154 www.g Schools can enter G-Nation awards by keeping a diary of their charitable activities

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