"If you want knowledge, go East" - Old Hausa adage
The school day starts at 7.30am when a teenage boy holding a metal detector checks the bags and clothing of fellow students for explosive devices at the entrance gate of Shehu Sanda Kyarimi Government School, Maiduguri.
The boys and girls in their white and red uniforms are supposed to be moving through quickly, but a bottleneck is forming at the gate. Andy, 47, a teacher of Physics, is shouting orders at some students in rapid Hausa. Something about morning duties.
They pick up stick brooms in the lackadaisical way teenage boys do when forced to do something they don’t like and start sweeping.
It’s not even 8am yet and already the Maiduguri dust and heat is creating a yellow haze that blankets everything. The single storey school blocks make a U-shape around a spacious courtyard. Students loiter around the outer edges, waiting for teachers to arrive and class to begin. Everything is fine.
Though there’s only this one uncanny similarity to another morning three years ago, precisely March 18, 2013 when six Boko Haram gunmen stormed into the school courtyard shooting everything in sight.
“We were running against the wall,” said Zara, 18, one of 2800 students at the school. She remembers outdoor assembly had just concluded when shooting began, "after that, we stayed at home until recently we returned.” The gunmen killed a teacher and a student and injured three other students in their assault.
Shehu Sanda Kyarimi was one of three schools attacked on the same day, making March 18th one of the most brutal days for schools in the city. The year 2013 was a very cruel year for students with Boko Haram targeting school after school in quick succession.
On April 14th 2014, the kidnapping of 276 school girls from the town of Chibok triggered the closure of almost all government secondary day and boarding schools as a radical response to student safety in the three states of Yobe, Adamawa and Borno.
Many government schools, like Zara's were closed for just over a year and a half until November 2015, when seven government day schools in Maiduguri were reopened. The state order to reopen schools was given as a response to the peace and stability the city was experiencing since President Muhammadu Buhari came into power with a more aggressive military approach to tackling the conflict.
Zara had returned to school despite the violence she had experienced. Over the last year a lot had happened in her life. She was transferred to another school where Boko Haram members regularly terrorised staff and students. “They used to beat our teachers, and make us lie on the ground,” she narrated.
Just as things couldn’t get any worse, they killed her brother and threatened her father, a seventy-year old pensioner. In the one year and some months she was out of school, she had changed a whole lot. She was older, wiser and knew just how brutal the world could be.
“If urgent steps are not taken to ensure that they have the right to education this could mean that these children are locked in unending cycles of underachievement and poverty,” said Mausi Segun, a Researcher for Human Rights Watch. Her investigations into the seven-year conflict found that the education sector in the north east was deeply injured in a structural and very human way.
She described how Boko Haram attacked schools to punish people for disobeying their philosophy, but the Nigerian military too had been deliberately using school buildings for military purposes making them primary targets for the insurgent group.
Travelling around northeastern Nigeria, one can plainly see the damage on the destroyed and burnt out school veneers that were the first to be devastated in fighting between the army and Boko Haram.
But what remains unseen and undocumented are how the bodies of students have become reservoirs of uncertainty and fear. Zara and thousands of students affected and displaced by the conflict, contained this uncertainty and fear in the way dormant volcanoes do.
Students have become microcosms of this meta narrative of the violent rise of Boko Haram, ranking as the deadliest insurgent group in the world, according to the Global Terrorism Index published in 2015.
During break-time at Shehu Garbai secondary school, students gathered under the dappled shade of a grove of Mango trees. The smaller primary school children climbed the trees to pluck mangos that for many would make breakfast.
Rukkaya, Hadiza, Falmata and Rashida a set of friends between seventeen and eighteen years old, who had known each other for years, were smiling and laughing a little louder than usual as I stood nearby photographing them.
In 2013, when Boko Haram started attacking schools, killing and abducting with alarming regularity, these girls were about fifteen years old. They described an intense atmosphere where each morning they would leave for school, they considered that they may never return home.
The Chibok girls went to a government school just like this one. They spoke the same language, kept the same secrets and probably listened to the same music as Rukkaya and her friends. I imagine that on that April morning when the Chibok girls left home to take their exams, some of the girls may have had a premonition of danger ahead.
The spectre of the missing girls shadowed my thoughts as I photographed students in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, the three states most affected by the conflict, in search of lesser known narratives of young people returning to educational institutions after attacks and prolonged closures. The missing girls were my compass North.
At the height of the insurgency, bombs and gunfire were a constant addition to the Maiduguri soundscape and there was a drop in student enrolment says Sadu Mala the Principal of Shehu Garbai Secondary school.
“They were telling students in uniform, do not go to school, we will kill you,” said Mala. He recalled how students would put their uniforms in polythene bags to change into them at school. All this so they wouldn’t be targeted by the group.
Following a string of Boko Haram victories in rural areas in 2013, the inflow of internally displaced people into the city put a heavy burden on the education sector as boarding schools were being used to provide emergency shelter for people who left heavy fighting in their home towns.
Meanwhile, schools were being attacked with alarming frequency. These attacks coupled with the need to shelter displaced people, caused the Borno State Education Commision to take emergency action and close down government schools.
Last February, thousands of displaced persons who were living in boarding schools were forcibly moved to camps in the outskirts of the city to make room for new and returning students. They left the buildings they had called home for much of the last two years, in desperate need of renovation.
At the Government Girls Secondary School that was built to provide school and board for three thousand girls, the dormitories were stripped of mattresses, tables were broken and the walls covered in graffiti. “If you shut a school for one month, what do you think will happen. We are in serious difficulties,” said a school administrator who did not want to be named.
The state boarding school was established in 1952, one of the earliest to be built in the city. When I visited in May, the dinning halls and laboratories were covered eerily in dust. The Commission hopes to rehabilitate the schools in time for students this October.
“It really affected us seriously, it halted the determination we had to catapult the education sector to a hire pedestal,” said Musa Inuwa Kabo, the Borno state Commissioner for Education. He painted a picture of an impossible situation and defended his decision to close down schools in 2014, calling the criticism he received afterwards as “unfair”.
"Education did not halt completely for two years," he said, highlighting the role that some private schools played in keeping services running in the most precarious circumstances.
He spoke of instances where his office assisted some parents to transfer their children to schools in safer areas and pointed to International organisations like UNICEF that helped to fill the gap in education services to displaced children.
“Shehu Sanda Kyarimi and Shehu Garbai schools are two of seven “learning centres” in the city that accommodate transferred government school students from the troubled rural areas.
Students from Baga, a town that became well-known when it was burnt to the ground by the Nigerian military, from Bama where hundreds of indigenes were killed in a school dormitory and Dikwa a small town at the edge of the Chadian border which was known as training grounds for Boko Haram recruits.
“I will never go back,” said Abdulmumini, 18, an internally displaced student from Dikwa. He remembers how Boko Haram members in Dikwa would kill indiscriminately and disturb the largely poor farming population for small change.
He now lives with about hundred boys, in a Tsangaya, an Almajiri school where boys aged between five and twenty learn how to read the Quran.
Though Abdulmumini is not an orphan, his mother and siblings live nearby, Almajiri schools are known to house orphaned children who beg for survival. He splits his time between Islamic studies and going to school at Shehu Sanda Kyarimi. He wants to be a doctor.
Babakura, 20, is one of the oldest students in the school. He escaped from Bama when Boko Haram overran the town. Three years of petty trading ensued, where he would push wheel barrows for customers at the market for N50 a push, about ten American cents.
Like many of the students enrolled in state government schools, his parents could not afford the high fees at better equipped private schools that remained open during the insurgency.
“My friends have left me behind, and I haven’t progressed in anyway, there are so many things I don’t know, and I’m already too old to learn,” said Babakura, he worries about his future all the time.
It had just been seven months since the schools had opened their doors for learning and it was apparent that the students and staff were still adjusting. Students were walking through the courtyard of the schools in two’s and three’s and hanging out in classrooms. It was 12pm, and the teachers had still not arrived.
“Female teachers at the beginning of the reopening had a fear of appearing in front of their students, because they were scared of the students,” said Mallam Kaka Isa Mohammed, principal of Shehu Sanda Kyarimi school. “Everyone came to school in fear of being shot,” he said describing the paranoid situation at the height of the insurgency where Boko Haram members, imaginary and real melted into the school population.
One of the finer details of the insurgency is that Boko Haram, especially in the very beginning recruited from the disaffected student population.
The "boys" in many circumstances, targeted teachers they knew by name. Like late Mallam Kachallah who stepped outside his science class to speak with them and was shot at close range. He was one of 611 teachers killed since the insurgency began.
“We just want to tell you that we know you by your name and we know your houses. We want to tell you that most of your students are our members but you don’t know them,” narrated Andy, a teacher who was threatened by Boko Haram members and taught beside Mallam Kachallah for many years.
When I visited the school in May, students were leaving at the end of the day without a single class held. Principal Mohammed acknowledged this inadequate supply of teachers since the school reopened.
The jump in student enrolment two-fold due to the school mergers contributed to “overstretched facilities,” he said. Students were also behind academically with many of the students being put one or two years below the class for their age group.
Though Boko Haram has shape shifted over the years, waxing and waning in strength, one of its core missions have been consistent, its incessant attacks on educational facilities, students and teachers.
Boko Haram began as a radical Islamic youth group that gained a following by advocating against secular education as a contradiction to the teachings of Islam – hence the name “Boko Haram” which simply translated from Hausa means “Western Education is Forbidden.”
Many people I spoke to say the name “Boko Haram” which began as a playful nickname, is too simple and lacking the complexity of meaning of why these young men attack in many cases their own former schools, school mates and teachers.
The roots of their uprising can be traced to colonial times, when a series of half-baked development policies disregarded an ancient Islamic system of learning that was embedded in the culture in favour of the English system. This decision, Educationists say was a pivotal turning point that created a social inequality in northern Nigeria that became worse over the years, fuelled by mass unemployment, corruption and poverty.
It was this widening gap between the rich and poor that inspired a following for the teachings of Boko Haram founder, Muhammed Yusuf who was extra-judicially killed by the army in 2009. Within the last seven years, the groups violent rhetoric and methods have evolved in scale, from targeting uniformed police men in Borno state, escalating to mass killings and abductions of students and teachers across northern Nigeria.
Lately, a new strain of violence has emerged. The strapping of bombs on tender young flesh to wreak havoc in crowded spaces. One in five suicide bombers in Nigeria are abducted children say UNICEF in a report.
On the days I visited Shehu Sanda Kyarimi and Shehu Garbai schools, there was no morning assembly. The school principals just wouldn’t take the risk of exposing hundreds of students crowded together like sitting ducks for gunmen.
Both principals have stopped conducting assemblies at their schools because of “a fear of the unknown,” as Principal Mala phrases it. There have also been other changes put in place for the safety of his pupils.
At the end of the school day at 1.00pm, girls are let out first and then the boys “to avoid overcrowding at the gate,” he said. He mentioned the presence of uniformed security guards at the front and back of the school and an agreement he had with traders who sold goods by the school gate who promised to keep an eye out.
Even with these reassurances of safety, the school still seemed very vulnerable.
One March day in 2013 when multiple schools were attacked, Mala stood under a giant Neem tree near the school entrance looking out for Boko Haram boys who were supposedly on their way.
He did not know exactly what he would do, but he knew he had to take the offensive. Hundreds of students were waiting tensely in their classrooms behind him. Mala is not a large man and his demeanour did not strike me as menacing in any obvious way. His beard had steadily greyed in the fifteen years he had been principal of the school, where he is still well liked and respected.
Appearances aside, Mala had one weapon in his arsenal that had always worked in his favour. His fierce eyes and sharp tongue that when wielded correctly had worked in his favour. Looking out towards the gate, he had faith that he alone might be able to save his school.
Luckily the gunmen never arrived and the students went home to their loved ones. “When a car accidently steps on a polythene bag, the sound it makes, psychologically we are feeling like it’s a bomb,” said Mala, describing the after effects that constant fighting still had on him and the school community.
There is still a palpable tension in the air in the Maiduguri metropolis, even though most people say the worst days of the insurgency are over. It wasn’t that long ago that bombs were dropping daily and the sound of gunfire was normal.
Desolate looking fuel stations, empty villages, burnt out buildings and military checkpoints mark the two-hour journey from Maiduguri to Damaturu in neighbouring Yobe state where Boko Haram had burned and destroyed hundreds of schools.
Seventeen-year old Hamza, whose name has been changed on request, had travelled this route many times as one of the transfer students from Federal Government College, (FGC) Buni Yadi to FGC Maiduguri.
Two years ago the road to Damaturu was known for its fierce battles between the military and Boko Haram. There was a time when Boko Haram would stop and kill travellers leaving their dead bodies by the roadside.
The journey would fill Hamza with so much dread that he asked his father to allow him to enrol in the Islamic theological college near his home in Damaturu. He had reached his personal threshold of fear that if crossed, he would never return.
One night in February, about a month before the Chibok girls were abducted, Hamza was a thirteen-year-old student of FGC Buni Yadi when Boko Haram visited his school. It was one of the most vicious assaults in the groups repertoire that left over fifty school boys dead.
Hamza had just returned from a holiday and was swinging back into the reassuring routine of boarding school life. Usually after prep time, he would go straight to bed, but he remembered that his green and white uniform needed washing for class the next day.
He soaked his uniform in the water and began to scrub, rinse and scrub, getting into the flow of the task. Besides the sounds of the soapy water, he could hear students shouting in the school yard. Probably just classmates back from the nearby town, he thought.
The shouting became louder, then he heard gun shots, and a familiar call to prayer “Allahu Akbar,” which sounded odd to his ears because the last evening prayer was at 8pm. A chord of fear struck him as he realised that this strange call was the war cry of Boko Haram who had been threatening to attack the school for months. Without pause he ran to the head boys room, who directed him to warn as many boys as possible. By that time, 10.30pm, many were in their beds.
“They started shooting and piling up bodies in one room,” said Hamza who remembered the night in chilling detail, “when they see you are not dead, they shoot you,” he said noting the gunmen’s violent determination to kill.
The killing, burning and looting did not stop till the early hours of the next day. Hamza and a friend hid in a bushy area near the school to wait out the massacre. At first light, Hamza decided to return to the school grounds to see if there were any boys that needed help.
With each step closer to the school, the more frightened he became. Dead bodies lay on the pathways he had walked with friends, the injured cried out for his help.
One particular boy who was bleeding profusely in the neck called him over. He asked about his younger brother and pleaded with Hamza and a friend to find him.
“We went apartment by apartment until we found his dead brothers body. We carried his brothers body to him,” said Hamza, “when we showed him his brother, it wasn’t even up to five minutes and he too died.”
It was reported that 59 boys between the ages of nine and eighteen were killed that night. Hamza puts the figure at closer to a hundred. FGC Buni Yadi was a co-educational school with a mix of about 800 boys and girls, but only the boys were killed. It was reported that the girls were locked in a mosque and told to go home and get married.
Mausi Segun, described this disturbing pattern of attacks where male students were killed but girls got more lenient treatment. “They were intimidated to stop attending school. If they didn’t stop they were targeted for abduction,” she said.
Twelve of Hamza’s friends died that night. Friends that he described as so generous they would share their meagre school provisions like packets of Indomie noodles with him.
As he walked away from FGC Buni Yadi that February morning in a state of shock and exhaustion, he couldn’t believe what had just happened. He heard the distant sound of sirens grow louder as an army convoy made its way towards the school where the bodies of children lay smouldering in their rooms.
Three weeks later when Hamza was recuperating in his family home in Damaturu, Yobe state. A public notice was released by the Ministry of Education stating that all FGC Buni Yadi students would be transferred to FGC Maiduguri with immediate effect.
Hamza’s soul was on a tightrope connected to his body, a rope that would break loose at any moment. That’s how he described his time in FGC Maiduguri. The constant bombardment of the city and the many near attacks of the school made all the students jittery.
“We couldn’t learn anything because of the noise, and they (the school administration) didn’t let us go home so that we would be safe and have peace of mind,” he said. He described many instances in the middle of prep when suddenly students would start screaming and running out of the buildings because they thought gunfire was erupting in the school and Boko Haram had arrived.
During that time the FGC Maiduguri community was suffering greatly with overcrowding. Students who had been transferred from troubled local government areas like Buni Yadi, Bama, Gwoza, Chibok and Damboa were jumbled together in a school meant for less than half of them.
“Sometimes they would cook in the halls and some children would cry out that they didn’t get any food because there were so many of us,” Hamza recalled, he met many students who did not know where their parents were or if they were alive.
When the bombardment didn't stop, the students were given a two-week holiday. Hamza came home determined never to return to FGC Maiduguri again. He would instead focus on Islamic studies and train to join the Nigerian army, a dream that had developed with the rise of violence he had experienced in the last year. His dream was to be a vengeful soldier.
The future dreams of many students adapted to fit the current reality. Ahmed, 18, a former student and survivor of the FGC Buni Yadi massacre, remembered how passionate he had been about the Sciences as a fifteen-year old at Buni Yadi.
Then, the college was known for its excellence in Science education with its many teaching laboratories. All of them were burnt to a crisp during the attack. He now specialises in the Arts at his current school because of the lack of properly maintained labs.
Schools and educational institutions in Yobe state were devastated during the insurgency. Like Borno, there was a mass closure of schools in 2014 in a desperate attempt to gain some semblance of control over the spate of attacks on schools in the state.
“Honestly when I close my eyes and think about the situation, I could cry,” said Hamza, “sometimes I would look at my friend and get this feeling that it could be the last time I would see him, because if the insurgents burst in, I don’t know where he would go and I would go.”
About the Project
"I began reporting for the "Education is Forbidden” Project in September 2015, with a curiosity to understand the experiences of students living at the front lines of the Boko Haram conflict in northeastern Nigeria.
With the support of a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, I travelled to schools and universities in Adamawa, Yobe and Borno state to see first-hand how students were attempting to complete their education despite the disruption of a seven-year conflict. I found stories that touched on transience, memory, history and trauma.
There was a schism in the way students were described in books and media and the current reality so I used illustrations from Nigerian school books and snippets of other media imagery to take a more abstract approach to the storytelling.
I interviewed numerous students, teachers, educators, politicians and activists who all spoke of the urgent need for the rehabilitation of the Education sector in Nigeria and the need for safety policies for schools. Statistics and reports can’t by themselves convey the anxiety and vulnerability of a student that feels unsafe.
A pock marked blackboard exposed over a portrait of a school girl, can begin to communicate a lingering trauma and infrastructural decay that began decades before, but is now destabilised by conflict."
- Rahima Gambo, October 2016