Somalia: Turning mirrors into windows
Zeinab Abdillahi, 23, was born in the village of Ina Cunaaye, Somaliland. She and her eight younger siblings were delivered by a traditional birth attendant in their parents’ two-room stick and papyrus hut. Ina Cunaaye is poor and remote, and with droughts for most of the year water is precious and people sometimes have to search for miles to find it. Many families like Zeinab’s struggle to feed their children.
From a very young age, Zeinab wanted to learn, although her experience of school was limited to what she heard from the occasional visitor. Until 2003 there was no primary school in Hawd, and her family could not afford to send her away to school. Finally, when she was ten years old, her father had enough money to send her and her brother Mohamed to live with their uncle in the nearest town, Hargeisa, an hour away on a rough road.
Her face takes on a radiant hue as she recalls her first day of class, even though they had to sit on dusty floors on upended tin cans. She was so impressed by her teachers that she wanted to join this profession, to inspire children to rise above the poverty that she and her siblings faced.
Zeinab worked very hard, and despite missing a year when her father could not afford her fees, she finished Class Eight in 2005. By then she was 18, and in keeping with Somali culture, she began receiving her first suitors. Zeinab did not feel ready to marry. She knew she could stay single if she contributed financially to her family. So she took a job as a hotel receptionist, and later worked for her uncle in his photo studio. Every little bit she earned, she sent to her family. She was quite literally buying time. She managed to stave off the pressure to get married, but the only opportunities to further her education cost money she did not have.
With each passing year, Zeinab felt her dream slipping away. Finally in 2008 she returned in defeat to her family home. Unable to continue her own education, she taught her younger siblings to read and write.
“I woke up every morning to the same routine of making injera and sugar, to washing clothes outside with the rest of the girls, making lunch and dinner and then repeating the process all over again,” she recalls. “Most of my age mates had married by then. But to me, getting married without a proper source of income and education was just bringing more mouths to feed into a world where it was already difficult enough to find food.”
It was difficult to remain steadfast with each passing month. Then one evening, while the entire neighborhood was gathered around the radio, she heard an announcement that made her heart race. The broadcaster was calling for qualified young people to train for the teaching profession under a CARE program called Strengthening Capacity of Teacher Training (SCOTT). Hardly able to believe it, Zeinab sent her application. For the 20 days it took to get a reply, she prayed and hoped and thought of nothing else.
The aim of SCOTT is to increase access to basic primary education in Somaliland, where many teachers are untrained and under-trained and the system cannot cope with rising school enrollment. Through the project, CARE targets untrained teachers currently serving in schools, and new entrants to the profession, particularly women. CARE provides school-based training and short-term college-based training, where teachers learn child-centered, participatory teaching skills, as well as the subject matter they will teach. CARE works with government ministries and teacher training institutions, to ensure that they can sustain the improvements over the long term.
Zeinab knew she was a good candidate, but when she got a positive response and was asked to report to the University of Hargeisa to begin training, she finally believed in miracles.
Though she is confident and straightforward, Zeinab can be a little reserved. But when she steps up to the flipchart to do a demonstration for her classmates, she loses her inhibitions and emits an inner radiance that lights her pretty face to a glowing perfection.
Since the beginning of the project, she has visited her village several times, where she continues to educate her 12-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister, and teaches village children how to read and write. She hopes to instill in them the conviction that if they want something badly enough, then with hope, it is within their grasp. Teaching others, she says, makes her feel like she is repaying the kindness of the strangers who provided her a chance when she needed one.
The SCOTT project has been ongoing in the regions of Sool, Sanaag, and Hargeisa since June 2005, and is now in its third phase. Zeinab is one of 27 participants currently being trained at the University of Hargeisa. CARE pays for their training and scholastic materials, and gives them a small allowance. Zeinab says she would have been happy just to be trained to be a teacher. The additional support, she says, that allows her to help her family with no disruptions to her education, is simply icing on an already rich cake.
She is a reminder of the quote, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” With CARE’s support, Zeinab has taken the light that shines naturally within her, and turned it outward, where it promises to blaze a brighter future for many more young lives.