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A champion fights for Somalia schools

The Baltimore Sun

JOWHAR, Somalia -- A nation overwhelmed by civil war, flooding and, most recently, the threat of starvation might be forgiven for overlooking the back-to-school season.

But Abdulkhadir Wasuge, 43, has devoted his life to making sure his corner of Somalia never forgets. Over the past 14 years, Wasuge has emerged as a leading education advocate in this Horn of Africa country, one of the many unsung heroes who have stepped up to fill the void left by the government's collapse in 1991.

As he does each year, the father of eight recently made the rounds in Jowhar, 60 miles north of Mogadishu, the capital, collecting enrollment figures, assessing curriculums and reminding parents and community leaders about the importance of putting children in school.

His Shabelle Educational Umbrella, which functions as a de facto school board, is largely responsible for rebuilding the education system, which has grown from a single schoolroom with 40 students in 1993 to 146 schools and 10,000 students today.

"Education is the light," Wasuge said. "I want to make sure young people don't miss out."

He attributed his motivation to overcoming personal challenges as a child. A bout with polio at age 5 left him without use of his legs. "I've lived with a handicap myself, so I know what that's like," he said. "Lack of education is just another kind of handicap."

Much of the time, he gets around town on a four-wheel motorbike or in a wheelchair. But often he walks on his hands, protected by a pair of well-worn sandals, using a powerful upper body to go up steps and climb into cars without assistance.

Aid groups say his efforts have pushed the primary school enrollment rate to 24 percent in the Middle Shabelle region, which includes Jowhar. That's the highest in southern Somalia, where only about one in five children attends school.

"He's someone who never gets tired of working," said Marian Abkow, education manager in the Jowhar office of the United Nations Children's Fund.

Somalia's school system disintegrated in 1991, when the dictatorship of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled and the country descended into clan-based civil war. Government institutions were the first to collapse; schools were ransacked and teachers fled the country.

Lack of education represents one of the country's biggest challenges as it tries to rebuild with a generation of youths who can barely read or write. Drug addiction is high among young men, many of whom work as militiamen for warlords and are paid in khat, a narcotic-like plant. Somalia went from one of Africa's most literate nations, with a rate of 60 percent in the 1970s, to one of the least, with about 25 percent today.

"This is going to have implications for generations," Abkow said.

Wasuge said he got involved in education after losing his job as an accountant for the local sugar factory, which closed in 1990 amid Somalia's mounting clan-related clashes. The collapse of the Jowhar factory left several thousand unemployed. Drought-related famine then killed hundreds of thousands. Wasuge and his wife lost their firstborn to disease before the boy turned 2.

"I was practically begging for food," he recalled.

In 1993, community leaders reopened a local primary school and Wasuge found work teaching math. In the years that followed, he became more active in the school, eventually helping to establish the umbrella group, which organized the reopening of schools in Jowhar and surrounding villages. The group established minimum academic standards, recruited teachers and raised money from foreign aid groups and local charities.

Wasuge became a fixture, sometimes going door to door to convince parents, clerics and warlords of the importance of reopening schools. "I felt the community needed me," he said.

Mindful of the challenges he faced, Wasuge launched a class for disabled students, which he taught under a tree until funding was obtained in 2000 to build a classroom. He added adult-education classes after discovering how many adults had not attended school.

"When I was young, girls were just ignored," said Fatuma Ali Abdulle, 46, who sells gasoline from plastic drums in Jowhar's main market.

She told Wasuge that her customers were defrauding her and she was helpless to stop them because she could not read and write.

Wasuge enrolled her in one of 17 primary schools that cater to adults. "It was a little embarrassing at first," Abdulle said, "but now I can even figure out my profits."

The school system survives today on student fees of about $1 per month. Humanitarian groups such as UNICEF provide books, teacher training and money to build classrooms. The U.S. Agency for International Development donated solar-powered radios so teachers can tune in to instructional programming. Somalia's business owners and religious groups also provide funding.

The only government funding in the past 16 years came four years ago when the local warlord offered to pay teacher salaries at seven schools. But the warlord, Mohammed Dheere, now Mogadishu's mayor, raised the money in part by taxing teachers' income.

Dheere was ousted as a warlord last year by the Islamic Courts Union, which seized control of most of southern Somalia in June 2006.

The Islamic Courts Union, which U.S. officials say has links to religious extremists and terrorists, took little interest in funding or taxing schools and instead focused on their curriculum and social issues, Wasuge said.

On-air instruction was barred because the Islamists opposed distributing radios to young people, who might use them to listen to popular music. "They said it was forbidden under Islam," Wasuge said.

Islamists also ordered that boys and girls be separated and demanded that Wasuge cancel a sports competition in which boys and girls would play together. Wasuge ignored the order and was arrested and briefly imprisoned by Islamist leaders. "I didn't want to disappoint the kids," he said.

Today, his biggest challenge is the country's lack of security, which displaced more than 325,000 people from Mogadishu this year. A U.N.-recognized transitional government, backed by Ethiopian troops, ousted the Islamists in December but continues to struggle against an insurgency consisting of Islamists and anti-government clans that carry out near-daily attacks, including bombings and assassinations.

Many refugees have settled around Jowhar, where Wasuge is attempting to organize classes in displacement camps. Floods are destroying local crops, leading aid groups to warn that more than 8,700 children are malnourished and at risk of starvation.

It's not surprising that early enrollment figures at some schools were down when classrooms reopened in late September. Horseed Primary School in Jowhar enrolled 150 kids during the first week of enrollment, compared with 318 last year.

Wasuge has kicked into gear, launching public-awareness campaigns. Local radio spots feature students showing off their math and reading skills. He's pushing Somalia's transitional government and the regional governor to make school attendance compulsory.

He's even using Somalia's clan-based rivalries, which have been at the root of the nation's turmoil. Wasuge collects clan-based enrollment figures to create competition, warning one clan that a rival is doing a better job at educating its youth.

"If it will get kids back into school," Wasuge said, "we'll try whatever we can."

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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