Schools Founded on Peace
The threat of Boko Haram’s war against classrooms such as this one is always looming,
but the people of Cameroon refuse to let their children’s future be decimated.
By Anna Pozzi
The violence of Boko Haram and endemic poverty plague the Far North of Cameroon as it tries to combat these realities with the unflagging commitment of a PIME Religious Brother, Bro. Fabio Mussi, and the “weapon of education”.
“A lot here always seems too little.” It is one of the paradoxes that nail the Far North of Cameroon to a situation of insecurity and precariousness that has been dragging on for many years; one from which there is no way out. Brother Fabio Mussi, a PIME Religious Brother and Director of the Caritas of the Diocese of Yagoua does a lot to help; yet that much, faced with immense and always new needs, inevitably seems insufficient. Thankfully, Bro. Fabio is certainly not the type to be discouraged, or to back down, quite the opposite! In these years in which the terrorist group Boko Haram has raged in this region, wedged between Nigeria and Chad adding violence and destruction to a situation of extreme poverty, Bro. Fabio did not take a step back; rather, he tries to keep going forward. He accepts the uncomfortable compromise of traveling with a military escort every time he moves in this region, but above all he continues to invest more and more, especially on education.
“It is the only way to counter the repression of the fundamentalists but also to build a future for young people here,” of which there are so very many. If they do not go to school, they loiter around; they risk becoming street children or young offenders if they do not choose to emigrate elsewhere. Or worse, they risk being easy prey to deceptive promises, perhaps of those who want to enlist them to fight a meaningless war without a plausible solution in sight. Enlisted to fight Boko Haram’s war, one consisting of kamikaze attacks and mass abductions, which are rare but “spectacular”, as they are the only ones that make the news. A “war” that has become now mostly a system of small but continuous actions of disturbance, which spread from Nigeria beyond the porous frontiers into the neighboring states: Niger, Chad and, indeed, Cameroon itself.
“Currently, in the region of the Far North of the country there are still thousands of Nigerian refugees and displaced Cameroonians,” witnesses Bro. Fabio, “people who cannot return home or who continue to flee, especially from the areas near the border. In our region, until the end of the dry season, there are continuous raids and attacks by Boko Haram. The militiamen try to steal oxen, other animals and food. They are looking for means of survival and in the meantime they attack and destroy villages and kill the inhabitants if they cannot escape in time.”
Bro. Fabio Mussi, pictured, collaborates with many different charities and professionals to ensure that the
children of the area are receiving a proper educations and sufficient medical care.
By now, along the border with Nigeria, in a strip of between 10 to 15 miles, almost all inhabitants have left. They moved further inland or towards Lake Chad, without any assistance or protection. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are almost 200,000 internally displaced Cameroonians and 96,000 Nigerian refugees; about half of these are welcomed in the Minawao refugee camp.
UNHCR and the governments of Nigeria and Cameroon signed an agreement on the voluntary repatriation of Nigerian refugees on March 2 of last year. Meanwhile, even the displaced Cameroonians living in the Far North region would have had to return to their villages of origin. However, in the vast majority of cases, neither one seems willing to go back. The repatriation activities of the Nigerians should have started in January 2018, but according to the United Nations “the cases of violence and destruction in the Far North region have increased significantly compared to December 2017; in all three districts – Mayo Sava, Mayo Tsanaga and Logone-Chari.”
The UN also denounces the fact that the “modus operandi of these transnational armed groups has changed, so fewer suicide attacks are carried out, while kidnappings of children, looting, burning of property and robberies have increased.” The attacks persist despite the presence of regional military forces, which forced the militia to organize themselves into smaller, more mobile groups along the border. Perhaps this is also why the number of raids has increased, with an average of at least ten attacks a week since last January. “The context of insecurity,” the UNHCR claims, “has pushed the Cameroonian army to continue to carry out military activities to repel these groups. All this has translated into further displacements of both Nigerians and Cameroonians along the border, with no possibility of protection, since the movements of humanitarian personnel have been limited in some areas.”
Many schools in the rural areas of the Far North region of Cameroon cannot
afford to have their own classroom equipment, so they must share with others.
It is in this extremely dangerous and unstable context that Bro. Mussi seeks to carry the many activities undertaken in various sectors forward: education and health; rural development and access to water; care of the disabled and also promoting justice and peace. Bro. Fabio explained his plans to me while in Kousseri on my last trip to the northernmost part of the country, where the borders with Nigeria and Chad are very close; I was able to visit some of our humanitarian centers by the border area. “Last March, we re-launched a child protection project in collaboration with UNICEF, and we have three schools in which we are working. In Kousseri I am also following the construction of the 5 new classrooms that we are adding to the high school, so as to reach 12 and be able to complete, starting from September 2018, the entire upper school cycle with about 400 students enrolled.”
The construction of the new classrooms of the Catholic high school in Kousseri is part of a larger project of building 27 new classrooms in seven school complexes of the diocese of Yagoua, as part of the “Education, Peace-building” initiative promoted by the PIME Center of Milan. “Presently,” says Bro. Fabio, “we have 29 schools, from maternal to high school up to [trade schools] with 8,500 students. We recently had 25% more sign-up requests, but we could not accept everyone because we did not have enough room. Now, in addition to the new classrooms we are building, we have renovated some of them south of Yagoua”
The works in Kousseri proceed rather quickly despite the logistical difficulties. “The work is already 60% done. We are now building the second floor. Here in Kousseri our school will be the first multi-storey edifice. For our western world it might seem trivial, but in this reality, which has suffered a lot and has also suffered the closure of several schools, it is a great pride to have a multi-storied school. This too can serve to give confidence to the population. Sometimes it takes very little to regain courage, and this is what people need the most.”
In Kousseri, there is also a large nursery and primary school which, with its 1,100 students, is the most populous of the diocese. “However, because of the insecurity of the last four years, it is also the one that has suffered the most the economic and social crisis of this region.” Here at least 30% of the population is forced to live a displaced life, far from their homes and their villages. Many families are broken up or have lost some of their members, killed or missing. So, many children risk being abandoned to fend for themselves. It is for this reason that Bro. Mussi has also taken up collaborating with UNICEF to create places of aggregation, in which children can meet and participate in educational activities and games while taking advantage of after-school activities. Five municipalities in the Lake Chad area and three schools are involved, with 10 organizers and four centers to be built.
As if all these difficulties were not enough, alongside violence, poverty and backwardness, or perhaps due to them, prejudices and superstitions are also widespread which soften represent another serious obstacle to development. It is the same Bro. Mussi who tells of the great effort that must be put in place to overcome even this kind of obstacles: “Our doctor,” he recalls, citing an episode a few weeks ago, “who works at the Catholic Health Center located in the Madagascar District of Kousseri, has just concluded the preventive school medicine campaign in our schools in the province of Logone-Chari. He visited about 2,360 students, including 198 from the Blaram School, on an island in Lake Chad. He told me about the difficulty of convincing, at times, parents to visit children, because of a rumor that spread long ago, according to which there would be teams of people who are running in schools to ‘sterilize’ their children. The authorities have intervened several times to deny it, but in areas where information passes through the ‘marketplace’ it is not easy to contrast doubts and beliefs of the rural population. According to the doctor, however, these prevention campaigns must continue for this reason. Only with patience and constancy can these barriers be overcome.”