As Boko Haram’s war against education grinds into its 10th year, a quiet counterinsurgency is also building strength. It’s a fight with unlikely front lines.
In Gwoza, the gunmen arrived just after 10 a.m., skidding to a halt outside the school on motorcycles and surrounding the Nigerian students who huddled in small groups around the courtyard, frittering away the short break between their classes.
In Damasak, they came as a teacher was placing an exam paper facedown on the table in front of one of her students. This time, everyone in the classroom heard an explosion first, cracking over their heads like a clap of thunder. First one, then another, and another again.
In Bama, it was still too early for school when Boko Haram appeared. It happened before dawn, as the morning call to prayer was just beginning to blast out from mosque speakers around the city. The shooting woke up the rest of the town like a staccato alarm clock.
In the school courtyard in Gwoza, Lydia began to run, tripping over the bodies of her classmates as she fled. In the classroom in Damasak, Aisha ran, too. And in Bama, Fatima’s mother dragged her out of bed and whispered urgently, go. Don’t take anything. Just go.
Today, northeastern Nigeria is a place of suddenly interrupted lives. Since the Islamist movement Boko Haram began its violent insurgency here a decade ago, nearly 3 million people have been uprooted from their homes and scattered across Nigeria and its neighbors. Among them have been about a million children like Lydia, Aisha, and Fatima, for whom the sudden displacement has often meant an equally abrupt end to their education.
For Boko Haram – whose name is often translated as “Western education is forbidden” – that fact is no accident. Their campaign for a fundamentalist Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria has deliberately and brutally taken aim at the region’s schools. Since 2009, the group has murdered some 2,300 teachers and destroyed more than 1,400 schools, according to figures from UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency. Kidnapping children from schools, meanwhile, has become one of the central ways the group has earned its international notoriety. (Think Michelle Obama staring steely-eyed into the camera as she held up a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls, a nod to the kidnapping of as many as 276 schoolgirls from a boarding school in the town of Chibok.)
But as Boko Haram’s war against education here grinds into its 10th year, a quiet counterinsurgency is also building strength. It’s a fight with unlikely front lines – like the battered open-air classrooms inside camps for displaced people across this region, where teachers lead geography lessons in open defiance of the group’s flat earth ideology. Or in the dormitories of girls’ boarding schools, jammed with chattering teenagers in pink hijabs, reading romance novels and braiding each other’s hair as though they have never heard of girls kidnapped in Chibok or Dapchi.
And leading this particular fight are young Nigerians like Lydia, Aisha, and Fatima, who have seen Boko Haram’s terror firsthand, and who, when it comes to their education, have chosen to fight back.
“Going to school is our way of battling against Boko Haram,” says Aisha, tucking a stray strand of hair into her bright pink hijab. After being out of school for three years while in a refugee camp in Niger, the 19-year-old, whose last name has been withheld for her safety, is now less than a year away from graduating from a boarding school in the city of Maiduguri.
“They don’t like education; they don’t want it,” she says. “So just by doing this, we are all fighting them.”
The tenacity of that fight among northern Nigerians has startled many experts. For decades, after all, northern Nigeria has sat stubbornly at the bottom of nearly every national ranking of educational achievement. Fewer than half of young adult women here know how to read, and only 46 percent of children are enrolled in school at all, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.
“This is one of the most disadvantaged places in the country when it comes to education,” says Babagana Goni Ali, secretary of the Education in Emergencies Working Group at the Borno State Universal Basic Education Board. Historically, he says, many parents here haven’t seen the point of sending their kids to school. Life, after all, often seemed to be on a single track. You grew up. You got married. You started farming. There weren’t really other choices, and certainly none that required you to be able to read a novel in English.
And Boko Haram soon gave many families another excuse. In a YouTube video released in July 2013, the group’s commander, Abubakar Shekau, said, “We are going to burn down the schools if they are not Islamic religious schools for Allah.”
Over the next few years, the group torched schools across the region. The militants often specifically targeted teachers of subjects such as science and geography, which flouted the group’s fundamentalist Quranic interpretation of the world. Sometimes these raids doubled as forced recruitment drives, with the group snatching up young boys to become soldiers and young girls to become “wives” to their commanders.
At first, it seemed to be working. In 2016, the Nigerian government announced that the number of children who weren’t going to school had shot up 50 percent since the start of the crisis. Teachers stayed home, too, fearing targeted attacks.
But as the group retreated from many of the major urban areas in Borno in recent years, Mr. Ali began to notice something. It seemed Boko Haram’s tactics were beginning to backfire.
“There’s suddenly a huge issue of congestion in our schools that wasn’t there before,” he says. “It’s the blessing behind this tragedy. You find suddenly so many more people are interested in getting an education.”
Indeed, although there aren’t yet statistics to show how much the situation has changed, many here say Boko Haram’s insurgency has done something that decades of low educational achievement failed to do. It has lit a fire under people.
“Lack of education is the disease that caused [Boko Haram] in the first place,” says Fanne Abdullahi, a mother of five who lives in a wind-swept camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Maiduguri. She never had the money to attend school herself as a child, she says, and anyway, her parents didn’t approve of a girl learning how to read. So when she grew up and had children of her own, sending them to school wasn’t much of a priority either.
But after Boko Haram attacked her village, killed her husband, and sent the family fleeing in 2015, she began to rethink that. When her family moved into the Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, someone told her that UNICEF was running free schools there, and she decided to sign up her three school-age children.
“Instead of them getting brainwashed by Boko Haram,” she says of her reasoning, “it’s better for them to get educated.”
Now, they join about 3,000 other kids each morning in a huddled collection of open-air learning spaces that serve as one of the camp’s two schools. Their “classrooms” are little more than a concrete platform with a grass roof sagging over them. Most once had walls as well, but nearly as soon as they are put up, school officials say, they’re stolen for firewood.
On a recent morning, as Mastapha Kaltumi taught math to a group of about 50 fidgety third-graders, wind whistled through his classroom, flapping hijabs and fluttering notebooks. Nearby, just beyond the school’s flimsy chain-link fence, children screamed and giggled as they chased each other in a game of tag. A little boy in a raggedy T-shirt walked by flying a kite he’d made out of a plastic bag.
It wasn’t perfect, Mr. Kaltumi thought. There were still too many kids in his class, and too many kids outside not getting to class at all. But it was something. It was a start.
“Many students here are coming to school for the first time in their lives,” he says. And he knew that for many of them – like himself – focusing on addition and long division was a way to get out of their own heads: to forget, briefly, the things they had seen.
Boko Haram came to Marte, Kaltumi’s village 80 miles from Maiduguri, late at night, during a heavy thunderstorm. At first, he says, it was hard to tell the explosions from the sonic booms of thunder in the distance. But the next morning, he and the rest of the town awoke to find that several people had been murdered.
“So we buried those who had died and we ran,” he says simply.
But coming to Maiduguri was, in many ways, little respite. People eyed refugees like him and his family suspiciously – could they be Boko Haram operatives in disguise? He didn’t look like people from the city: His clothes were threadbare and his accent strange. It was almost impossible to find a room to rent.
There was also nothing to do. For days at a time he stayed home, the crash of thunder and grenades replaying in his head like a looped tape. He longed to go back to teaching, but many of the city’s schools were closed, and anyway, he wasn’t the only displaced teacher wandering Maiduguri looking for work. Far from it.
In 2016, he moved into Bakassi, and soon after, he found his current job.
“I’m so relieved to teach again,” he says. “It’s gotten rid of perhaps 30 percent of the trauma I felt. At least I am engaging my mind.”
But even in places like Kaltumi’s school, progress is fragile. For two years, between 2014 and 2016, all of the secondary schools in Maiduguri were closed because of fears of Boko Haram attacks. Many instead became informal camps for the displaced, who crowded into the same long, low-slung dormitories that students once occupied.
Outside the city, the situation is even more dire. At the end of last year, UNICEF estimated that 57 percent of schools in Borno state – where the insurgency is concentrated – are still shuttered. Half the schools in the region have been destroyed. Earlier this year, after 110 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the town of Dapchi, in Yobe state, the governor of neighboring Borno announced that nearly all boarding schools in his state would be shut down indefinitely.
The exception to his edict was Maiduguri, the bustling trade city of 1 million that is the northeast’s commercial capital. Here, secondary schools have reopened, and many are now absorbing thousands of students and teachers from other parts of the state.
On a recent morning, Binta Abba Kura, headmistress of the Yerwa Girls Secondary School – the school Fatima, Aisha, and Lydia attend – gathered nine other women in her office for a weekly check-in. All nine had once been principals of their own schools, scattered across the province, before Boko Haram sent them fleeing.
When Yerwa reopened in 2016, it didn’t just have to contend with a gap in learning (its students had lost two years of schooling). It also had 100 teachers and more than 1,000 new students waiting for a classroom – displaced people who needed a school, too.
“These were girls who had suffered incredible trauma, many of them, and they showed up on my doorstep with nothing – no uniform, no notebooks, no basic supplies,” says Ms. Kura.
So she went to work. With the support of UNICEF, she handed out free uniforms – highlighter-pink dresses and hijabs – and enrolled any girl who came through her doors. When some complained that their families didn’t have enough to eat at home, she hired their mothers to work in her kitchens and clean her classrooms.
For Kura, who grew up in a village a hundred miles from Maiduguri, all this was deeply personal. Her father tried to pull her out of school after the eighth grade. What does a girl need an education for? he asked her. You’re just going to get married.
But Kura’s headmaster intervened and persuaded her father to let her make the bus trip to Maiduguri and enroll in a boarding school there. When she graduated, she was the first girl in her village ever to do so, she says.
“So many people here are now seeing that the reason Boko Haram could fool us is that we weren’t educated,” she says. “So now that’s become a challenge for all of us.”
From the government’sperspective, it also doesn’t hurt that northern Nigeria’s current crisis has brought a wave of international money and expertise into its schools.
“The government has always had an interest in educating kids here, of course, but the international assistance makes a big difference in what we’re able to do,” says Ali of the Borno State Universal Basic Education Board.
Last year, humanitarian organizations in the region received about $12 million for educational projects in the region. But at Yerwa, Fatima doesn’t know about any of that. She’s got her eye on one thing: finishing high school next year. After that, if she can somehow manage to scrape together the money, she hopes to go to college and train as a doctor. When she lived in a displaced persons camp, she saw firsthand what happens when there isn’t a good medical system.
“I saw people dying in hospitals and just being left there to die because they couldn’t pay,” she says. “When I’m a doctor I won’t do that. I will save your life, and then later, if it’s possible, you can help me.”