In a region where social bonds have been fractured by Boko Haram insurgency, the Future Prowess school is an unlikely model of cohesion
Some are the children of Boko Haram fighters. Others are the offspring of their victims.
“Good morning,” the eight-year-olds chant in Hausa, as the bright morning light streams through the window. “You are welcome!”
At the Future Prowess school, the word “welcome” carries added resonance. In north-east Nigeria, the children of dead fighters from Boko Haram, the jihadist group that still controls parts of the region, are unsurprisingly often feared and stigmatised by parts of the civilian population.
But this school is different. It consciously and publicly welcomes both the orphans of jihadists – and the children of civilians and soldiers killed by the jihadists. Tucked away down a quiet street in Maiduguri, the regional capital, the school teaches 540 students – 20% of them related to Boko Haram, 80% to their victims.
According to the children themselves, it is an unlikely model of cohesion. Out in the school yard, 11-year-old Hauwa Modu calmly explains how Boko Haram militants beheaded her father in front of her, and how her pregnant mother then died as they trekked to the safety of Maiduguri.
But all this gets forgotten inside the classroom, according to Hauwa. “We all live together and learn,” she says. “There’s no difference between us.”
Outside the school gates, such inclusivity is harder to find. Women rescued from captivity with Boko Haram sometimes report being rejected by their families and communities, who fear they were radicalised while kidnapped. Children of Boko Haram are sometimes accused of inheriting their fathers’ extremism. One Boko Haram bride initially refused to mother her own newborn baby, fearing he would turn into an insurgent.
Future Prowess attempts to change this kind of attitude. Founded in 2008 by a prominent barrister, Zannah Mustapha, the school initially had no political mission. But in 2009, Mustapha realised that the war on Boko Haram – which has left 20,000 dead, 2.6 million displaced, and thousands abducted – was fracturing social bonds in north-east Nigeria. “And that,” Mustapha says, “was when we thought: we are going to put [the children of] Boko Haram, security agencies and the host community in the same school.”
For this, the school was initially criticised. Suleiman Aliyu, the headmaster, remembers how “[opponents] said: these people are the children of Boko Haram, why should we admit them? But we say: should we allow these children to follow the path of their fathers? And the answer is no. If you stigmatise them, you’re creating more problems. But if you show them love, that child will change – even if they had that [extremist] mentality.”
To create this progressive environment, all staff are required to enrol their own children as students, “in order to show your commitment to the school”, says Aliyu. Many of the students still have living mothers – and these widows are encouraged to participate in a parents’ union whose members get a say in the direction of the school. It’s a scheme that helps to enhance the sense of cohesion, says Mustapha.
“All the widows are part of it,” he says. “The Boko Haram wives and all the others go together – so they feel they are one. They don’t even know that these are the same people that killed their husband.”
Both the mothers and the children are also offered free psychotherapy, so that they can begin to come to terms with their horrifying recent experiences. “There are many children here who have witnessed the killings of their fathers and mothers,” says Aliyu. “There are mothers who have witnessed their husbands’ killings, or even their children’s. They are traumatised. So we said: let us invite a specialist.”
Back in the schoolyard, the system seems to be working. Ibrahim Garwa, 12, can still remember the day his father was shot and killed as he sat outside the family home. But Ibrahim doesn’t hold this against any of his classmates who, by a quirk of fate, were born to the group who killed his dad.
“There’s no problem,” Ibrahim says. “We know who is who but we do everything together. What their parents were doing was not good, so it’s important for them to have a different kind of education.”
Oriigginally Posted on the theguardian.com