`We live in fear, but you cannot give up'

16th May 2014 at 01:00
Nigerian teachers are resolute despite the threat of terrorism

The summer term means exams for millions of students worldwide. But in northern Nigeria, those exams are taking place in schools that are under siege.

"Pupils think, `If I attend school today, will I be safe and return to my parents?' " said Emmanuel Hwande, spokesman for the Nigeria Union of Teachers. "Teachers think, `Will I come back and meet my family?' Boko Haram's idea is to instil fear in pupils, and that they have achieved."

More than 200 girls were kidnapped by the Islamist group as they sat a physics exam in Chibok in the state of Borno last month. Teachers have spoken of the trauma of living with death threats for many years, and of their determination to continue.

The Nigeria Union of Teachers estimates that 171 teachers have been killed by Boko Haram since it became active in the region in 2009. Schools are the major target, but shops, markets and homes have also been destroyed.

"They can attack at any time," said Tijjana Maina, principal of GSS Askira, a secondary school in the south of Borno. "We are under threat, yet we run the schools. Parents support us and are sending their children; my school is full.

"We should not give up because someone is threatening us," added Mr Maina, a vice-president of the All Nigeria Confederation of Principals of Secondary Schools. "Everybody is living with that fear that they could come at any time. But you should not give up schooling your child. You cannot give up."

The abduction has led to a high-profile campaign for the girls' release and has prompted the British, American, French and Chinese governments to assist in the search. On Tuesday, it was reported that the US was flying surveillance missions over Nigeria and sharing satellite imagery.

This week a video was released showing 136 of the girls, who were dressed in hijabs. The kidnappers said that the children could be exchanged for jailed Boko Haram guerrillas.

Although teachers in Nigeria are glad that international attention is focused on finding the girls and the extremists who have taken them, they are concerned that the global media spotlight will inevitably move on and leave them isolated once more.

Nigeria has the largest number of children out of school of any country: 10.5 million, according to Unesco's Global Monitoring Report. It also has the biggest gap in the number of primary teachers needed, at 212,000.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown announced a Safe Schools Initiative, aimed at ensuring all schools are accessible and secure within two years, when he visited the country last week. But Mr Maina said that even if the security situation were resolved there would be much work to do. "About 40 per cent of our schools have been burned down: they need rebuilding," he said. "Attention should be given to building the morale of teachers and training should be emphasised."

Bulama Abiso, who teaches in Bulumkuttu primary school in the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, and is the Nigeria Union of Teachers' Borno representative, said: "Teachers are living in fear, particularly those outside the capital. Two days before the kidnapping in Chibok, six teachers were slain in one of the schools.

"But we continue. We believe that without education our people will not move on. And we believe that teaching is a noble profession that helps humanity."

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, whose Faith Foundation has been working to connect schools across the world in the fight against extremism, said education had a key role to play by teaching children tolerance. "The plight of the girls in Nigeria shocks and horrifies us all and we must do all we can to resolve it," he told TES. "But, in truth, the international community must also wake up to the threat we face the world over from violent, religiously motivated extremism.

"We continue to spend billions of dollars on defence and in fighting terrorism: we must also accept that we have to tackle this at source and not allow the contagion to poison minds and seep into education systems."

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