After fleeing violence and looting, a teacher returns to school
Watch 16-year-old Angel Mbere talk about her desire to stay in school and teacher Aristide Modest Feikoumo discuss the struggle of teaching after schools have been looted and destroyed.
By Gabrielle Menezes
BRIA, Central African Republic, 22 October 2013 – A group of children are lined up in the schoolyard singing lightheartedly as Aristide Modest Feikoumo listens on. He has not heard these voices in months.
Mr. Feikoumo, a primary school teacher in Bria, was forced to flee in December 2012, when members of a rebel coalition took control of this town in the heart of the Central African Republic. He escaped with his family into the bush and relied on host families to share whatever food they could afford. Eventually he made his way to Bangui, the capital, where he stayed until the Ministry of National Education started to organize the reopening of schools across the country.
It took time to overcome his fear of returning, but Mr. Feikoumo accepted the offer to go back to Bria and begin teaching again.
He could hardly believe what he saw when he arrived.
Like many people who had been displaced from their homes, he found his home looted. The local courthouse was burned down. New school buildings completed only a few years ago were now left open to the weather – even their tin roofs had been stolen, making it impossible to hold classes under the heat and the rain.
“All the schools were looted. They took everything – the doors, the benches, the school documents for students, the archives. Everything was taken,” Mr. Feikoumo says. “We were shocked when we came back and saw it. The students are now faced with even more difficulties. They have no books to read, no benches to sit on.”
The Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF, has sent out 1,352 teachers from Bangui to villages across the country to start teaching again, but the crisis has taken a toll on the education system.
Fear of violence
According to a recent survey by UNICEF and its partners, 86 per cent of schools closed at least once since the violent crisis began. The findings also show that about 64 per cent of schools surveyed were looted, 14 per cent were occupied by armed groups, and 8 per cent were hit by bullets. Four out of five people said that fear of violence remains the main reason that students are reluctant to return to school.
Many people are still hiding in the bush for fear of being attacked, and almost half the schools visited have not reopened. The most recent wave of violence in the northwest of the country is again putting strain on an already fragile education system.
“Presently a good number of parents are too scared to send their children to school. The insecurity is always there,” Mr. Feikoumo says. “The situation is not calm. We see people coming through town with weapons, so it’s normal that parents don’t want their children to come to school.”
“This survey suggests that students had already lost an average of six months of schooling as of August 2013,” says Nicolas Servas, coordinator for the education cluster, which brings together organizations working in the education sector. “It will become more and more difficult for these students to catch up. Many have already lost the past school year; more are at risk of losing the coming one.”
“In Central African Republic and in so many other places affected by conflict, education is often among one of the first victims,” says Souleymane Diabaté, UNICEF Representative in Central African Republic. “Providing children with a safe place where they can learn and play provides an opportunity to restore hope for a better future. All teachers and students should be able to return to schools safely and permanently.”
In response to the crisis, UNICEF has supported almost 25,000 children affected by conflict to attend catch-up classes in preparation for this year’s final exams, with an additional 91,000 children to begin in the next few weeks.
UNICEF’s 2013 emergency appeal was initially US$11.5 million, but following the crisis it was revised to $32 million. So far, only one third of that amount has been received, and $20 million is urgently needed to provide emergency assistance and to help conflict-affected children and teachers like Mr. Feikoumo get back to school.