Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram refuses to convert to Islam

Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria. March 22, 2018. Aisha Bukar Kachalla, one of the recently released Dapchi girls in warm embrace during family reunion.Abuja—Fifteen year-old Leah Sharibu likes biology, hanging out with friends and wants to be a doctor – but for the moment, she's also the only girl kidnapped a month ago still being held by Boko Haram – because she refused to convert to Islam.

Now, there's growing fury in Africa's most populous nation: A growing backlash against the government and Boko Haram has spawned a day of prayer, threats of court action and even a new hashtag going viral – #DapchiGirls.

Nigerians, quite simply, want Boko Haram to bring back the girl.

"It's unacceptable that the girl is yet to return to her parents," said Esther Mzaga, housewife in an Abuja suburb, as she expressed dismay over the inability of the Nigerian government to secure Leah's release. "The government must do everything to bring her back."

In mid-February, militants from Boko Haram, which loosely translates as "Western education is forbidden," raided the Government Girls Science Technical College in Dapchi in the northeastern Yobe State of Nigeria and took 110 girls hostage.

The extremists returned most of the girls to the town – about five reportedly died – dropping them off in the middle of the night in town under an agreement with the government that included withdrawing Nigerian soldiers.

But they kept Leah, says her father Nathan Sharibu.

“My daughter is alive but they wouldn't release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They told her they would release her if she converted but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also overjoyed because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”

Now the pressure is growing intense for the group to release the student – or at least the government to do something about it.

Olapade Agoro, chairman of the National Action Council, an opposition political party, threatened to drag President Muhammadu Buhari to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if the government doesn't secure her release. He says he believes that the government's negotiations favored Muslims – Leah was the only Christian student taken.

“President Buhari should engage his negotiating machinery to get Leah released unconditionally… since it is obvious that the federal government negotiated to get the other Dapchi students released," he added. "Nigerians deserve to know, if it was part of the negotiation that only those who are Muslims or ready to embrace Islam would be released by the Boko Haram."

He also offered to switch places with Leah.

“It is unfortunate that Leah is being subjected to further physical and psychological trauma because she insisted on holding on to her religious faith," added Agoro. “It has now become a crime to be a Christian in Nigeria.”

President Muhammadu Buhari, meanwhile, is already under fire for the kidnapping: He has for almost a year said Boko Haram was defeated. Now, he said he would redouble the government's efforts to bring back Leah including declaring an amnesty for those who surrendered from the militant group.

"Leah Sharibu will not be abandoned," he said.

Still, hopes were dashed over the weekend after Nigeria's chief of police said Boko Haram was going to return her. They didn't.

As a result, churches across the country marked Sunday as a day of national prayer for Leah's release, with more special prayer days planned if she isn't returned.

“We are concerned that the negotiators engaged by the federal government could not secure the release of Leah Sharibu because she insisted on not renouncing her faith and converting to Islam," said Rev. Samson Ayokunle of the Christian Association of Nigeria, adding that Christians must be fervent in their prayers in churches so that God may answer and facilitate her return.

The kidnapping was reminiscent of one four years ago when almost 300 girls were taken from their school in nearby Chibok, sparking the worldwide #Bringbackourgirls campaign that also attracted celebrities and former first lady Michele Obama to speak out.

Although the majority of those girls have rejoined their families, are still missing.

Now the #BringBackOurGirls campaign says they will sue the government for more information, also on the Dapchi kidnapping.

"Our immense pleasure at the return of most of our #DapchiGirls notwithstanding, the questions we posed to the government of Nigeria still stand, as well as our notice to commence legal action," said Sesugh Akume, the campaign's spokesman.

Her parents, meanwhile, can't forget how their hopes were dashed last week when Leah was not among the girls returned.

“My heart was broken when I searched through the released girls and could not set my eyes on my dear daughter, Leah,” said her mother, Rebecca Sharibu, as tears streamed down her face. She fainted soon after and had to be hospitalized.

She recounted what happened according to Leah's classmates the last time they saw her – just as they were being released.

“What her school mates told me was that my daughter was told she must recite the Kalima Shahada (the Islamic profession of faith), and said she does not know how to recite it, that she was not brought up as a Muslim…so they told her that if she didn’t know how to recite it, then she should come down from the vehicle," she recalled. "She had already boarded alongside others that were ready to come home. They said my daughter would only be brought back home the day she knows how to recite Kalima shahada."

Her parents, meanwhile, also liked to reminisce about Leah, the eldest of two children, and how she loves bright colors, especially gold, and is an affectionate, lively, happy child who adores reading and chemistry.

She also loves to help with chores, said Rebecca Sharibu, as she sat within her compound – a small fenced off home fenced in a corner of Dapchi — with two cooking pots steaming next to her on charcoal stoves.

“If Leah were home, she and her little brother would attend to everything in this compound – she would not let me do anything," she said.

But she wants answers now, as well as her daughter.

“My concern, question to the government is that since we were told that the negotiation was done for all the schoolgirls, why did government accept that only my daughter be left behind when others’ were freed and even brought home," she asked. "So I am begging the federal government, if they negotiated as if they loved all the girls as their own, then they should do everything to help release my own girl."

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Cameroon residents fear for their safety as gang violence intensifies

November, 13, 2017. Congo district, Douala, Cameroon. Young people sitting for some on motorcycles under a banner of awareness against crime and consumption of narcotics.DOUALA, Cameroon – If he steps the wrong way, Thierry Essiane feels an excruciating pain in his left thigh where he was stabbed in July as he tried to stop a street fight.

"We could not watch this gruesome show without reacting,” said the 23-year-old motorcycle taxi driver. “We also grabbed knives to fight. One of them wanted to stab me in the belly. I dodged, but the knife went into my left thigh.”

The perpetrators fled but not before they wounded some onlookers and stole items from nearby stalls. When police arrived on the scene, they stopped a furious mob from lynching a man who didn't escape and was accused of bringing the gang to the neighborhood.

"While the police were escorting the man to their vehicle, someone in the crowd threw a large stone and he fell to the ground.” said Hélène Delli, a 38-year-old local resident. “He was bleeding and was taken to a hospital.”

In Douala, the economic capital of this central African country, this scene is becoming increasingly common as young men armed with knives, machetes and sticks roam the streets, often murdering, looting and raping in conflicts with other gangs.

In this case, the attacker was a child who was probably younger than 15, and a refugee, say authorities – Cameroon host almost 350,000 refugees from the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Chad and Mali.

After a coalition of Muslim rebels called the Seleka overthrew Central African Republic President François Bozizé in 2013, for example, around 230,000 Central African refugees fled to Cameroon, according to the UN.

Also, tens of thousands of Nigerians fled Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram militants who have been running rampant in their country. Cameroon forcibly returned 100,000 of them back home in recent years, garnering criticism from human rights groups.

They and other refugees came to the once-tranquil streets of Douala in hopes of finding jobs and other opportunities. But the breakdown of security in their sprawling communities has led to gangs perpetually fighting in tit-for-tat conflicts.

“There are some who avenge one of their own who has been attacked,” Beti Minyono Dominique, commander in chief of the Douala security forces in Cité-Cicam, a district where the gangs are concentrated. “Then there are those who are paid by people who want to settle accounts with their enemies or opponents. The majority of these aggressors are foreigners.”

It's become a major issue in the city, say locals.

"The phenomenon of gangs is a gangrene that is flourishing," said Henriette Ekwe, a political analyst, newspaper publisher and founder of the Cameroon’s chapter of Transparency International, a corruption and governance watchdog group. "A gendarmerie officer recently confided to me that without knowing the layout of certain neighborhoods, law enforcement officials become easy prey to bandits.”

There are no official figures on gangs. But security forces have arrested hundreds in street fights that led to several murders and hundreds of injuries in Douala this year, said local officials. But law enforcement rarely produces results. Police recently rounded up dozens of young suspected gang members but later released them for lack of evidence.

Neighborhood gang leaders who did not want to be quoted said hundreds of men were in street gangs in each neighborhood of the city of 3 million. They said they could easily bribe their way out of jail.

Benoit Yapelendji is a refugee from the Central African Republican. A former member of the anti-Balaka, a Christian militia in the Central African Republic that opposes the Seleka, he joined a gang of around 10 fellow refugees in Cité-Cicam.

"We do not attack people," said the 17-year-old horse taxi driver, caressing his dreadlocks. "We live here as a family with the brothers of West Africa, too – even the police are in the family. Someone can come and ask us to help solve a problem. Everyone comes out with his equipment. Me, I take my machete to do the work.”

In the Central African Republic, Yapelendji was working in a vehicle repair shop in Bangui when civil war erupted at home. The eldest of four children, two of whom were killed by Muslim militiamen, he takes drugs before street fighting.

"It's cocaine that gives us the strength and courage to fight," he said.

Meanwhile, police are now concerned over vigilantes getting together and lynching gang members – a whole new escalation in the street wars.

“To respect human rights, law enforcement forces refuse to brutalize suspects,” said Dominique. “But some people take this attitude as a sign of weakness.”

Most residents, meanwhile, say they have experienced gang violence and just want it to stop.

"Two boys came into the hair salon and asked for our mobile phones,” said Martine Essombe, who said she handed over her phone immediately. “Outside, other young people were taking old people out of their homes to beat them up, saying they were avenging their friend. Frankly, we're not safe anymore."

An alternative version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.

Teachers at a Kenyan Refugee camp gets some needed support

Teacher Ochwor Onak Okwier, 37, teaches his students at Friends Primary school in Kakuma which hosts more than 8000 refugee students. Okwier received training from Teachers for Teachers, a group formed in 2016 by Columbia University Teachers College Professor of Practice Mary Mendenhall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Lutheran World Federation and Finn Church Aid. [PHOTO: Tonny Onyulo] KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya – Six years ago, Ochwor Onak Okwier wasn’t sure if he was properly educating his students. Today, two years after completing a teacher training program, he’s more confident.

“I know my students will understand what I teach them,” said Okwier, who fled Ethiopia in 2004. “I know how to prepare schemes of work and interact with my students. I can see results. Our students here are now performing well in national exams.”

Okwier, 37, is among a new generation of refugees taking advantage of training programs that aim to help refugees educate their neighbors in camp schools. While the programs aren’t perfect – experts said there is plenty to do to improve refugee education – they’re offering hope to those who have often grown up in exile from their homelands.

“I’m now a good teacher,” said the father of five children, four of whom were born as refugees in Kenya.

Okwier receiving his training from Teachers for Teachers, a group formed in 2016 by Columbia University Teachers College Professor of Practice Mary Mendenhall, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Lutheran World Federation and Finn Church Aid.

The group has helped train and continually mentor around 550 refugee primary school teachers in Kakuma. The program offers coaching to trainees and mobile mentoring with international teachers via Whatsapp and other apps.

“The program helps keep otherwise isolated teachers connected to the world,” she said. “They feel more valued as teachers, more authentic, less spontaneous, less tentative.”

The program was an outgrowth of the Teachers in Crisis Contexts Working Group that Mendenhall and others established in 2014 to produce learning materials to help refugees in Kakuma realize their human right to an education. The camp is home to more than 185,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the UN. Around 86,000 students attend schools in the camp or in Kenyan secondary schools.

“The fact that the camp has been there for 20 years and there was little or no training happening for those teachers just seemed ridiculous if not unethical and irresponsible,” said Mendanhall.

Helping qualified refugees become teachers – they usually must at least have a high school degree – was also a clear way not only to develop skills among refugees but create an environment where refugee kids are more likely to learn, she added.

“Many of those teachers are highly motivated, especially the ones who grew up in the camp and know education is one thing those kids can take away from the experience,” she said.

Okwier agreed.

“Life as a refugee is very hard,” said Okwier. “You have no access to anything, but you have to live like other people. As refugee teachers, we are the only people who can understand the challenges of these students and what they are going through as refugees.”

Today, refugees comprise around 85 percent of the teachers in Kakuma schools, said Mendenall. The rest are Kenyan citizens.

Around 73 percent of Kakuma children attend courses, said Ahmed Shale, an education specialist from Finn Church Aid. That’s better than the international average of 50 percent, he said.

Refugees in Kakuma speak several languages including English, French, Arabic, Swahili and other local languages. But surprisingly they learn basic English, Swahili and Sheng – a newly forming language that combines English and Swahili that is popular among camp youth.

But, of course, refugee teachers face plenty of challenges, Mendenhall and Shale said.

Less than a third of refugee teachers have gone through training, said Shale. Many students have experienced trauma that impedes their learning. Teacher turnover is high, students and educators often have no evidence of their academic record and money is a constant headache.

“There have been numerous challenges like lack of documentation, lack of continuity and funding,” said Shale.

Most importantly, the average teacher-student ratio is 1 to 103. “It’s unheard of,” said Mendenhall, who has seen classrooms with 300 students. “You had arms and legs literally hanging out the windows and doors.”

In most of the classrooms across the camp, children fight for available space with as many as six sharing a desk. Some sit on the floor, others stand at the back and in the aisles. Okwier has 200 students in his classroom at Friends Primary School, for example.

Another problem is that, while Kukuma students can sit for Kenyan exams – technically, the camp schools are Kenyan government-run operations – refugees are banned from working legally in Kenya. Many go to Nairobi, Mombasa and other cities to work illegally.

At the same time, if refugees return home, they often don’t have credentials to work at in their native countries.

Mendenhall said she and her colleagues are thinking of how to address the problem.

“There’s a lot of discussion more on the global level or even on the regional level of figuring out how to have cross-border agreements or regional agreements…very nascent conversations about what could a more universal curriculum for refugees looks like,” said Mendenhall. “There is no answer to that questions but people are starting to think about that a little more broadly.”

In the meantime, Michael Kwoth, 24, who completed his secondary national examinations last year, said he was exploring one option that was available to high school graduates. He wanted to train as a refugee teacher so that he can give back to his community.

“I also want to train as a teacher so that I can teach and improve the lives of my fellow refugees,” said Kwoth, a South Sudan refugee who fled civil war in 2009 with his father. His mother was shot dead by militias on their way to the camp.

“I’m waiting for the next intake so that I can join and train as a teacher,” Kwoth said. “I want to see these children get a quality education.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al Fanar. 

Education a difficult goal for Somalian girls who go under brutal FGM ritual

SomGirlsMOGADISHU, Somalia –Nasra Ahmed, 13, hasn’t gone to school this year. She wanted to study. But she can’t attend classes because over the December holiday she underwent a brutal female genital mutilation, or FGM, procedure.

“I can’t go to school,” she said. “The pain still stings. I can’t walk properly. I didn’t want this to happen to me. I thought about escaping, but I couldn’t because my hands were tied.”

Nasra was in eighth grade at the Jabir Bin Hayan Primary School in Mogadishu before she was cut. When she visited her parents in western Somaliland over the break, she said they gave her to a traditional circumciser.

“I didn’t know this could happen to me. My mother had promised us that we’ll not undergo FGM because she wanted us to excel in education,” she said.

Nasra is now unsure if she will go back to school. Most girls in this East Africa nation are expected to marry off immediately after undergoing the procedure. Pregnancy usually occurs soon after.

Around 98 per cent of women and girls in Somalia have undergone some form of FGM, which involves the removal of the labia, clitoris or other parts of genitalia of girls and young women, according to the United Nations. Untrained surgeons often perform the ritual in unhygienic conditions. Women commonly suffer debilitating scarring, infections and other medical problems afterward.

As a result, thousands of Somali girls have abandoned their education, experts said. Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrolment rates for primary school-aged children – only 30 per cent of children are in school and only 40 per cent of these are girls. The percentage of girls usually drops as they move to higher grades because they get circumcised and drop out of school.

“It’s a challenge to educate a girl in Somalia, especially in central and Southern Somalia,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, an expert in Somali affairs and chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya. “Many families prefer to marry them off at an early age after they have undergone FGM. The girl child has no space in Somalia because there’s widespread child marriage perpetuated both through culture and religion.”

Muna Omar, a teacher at Istanbul Primary School in Somaliland, said a significant number of her 11 to 12-year-old female pupils never return after school holidays because most of them had undergone female genital mutilation during the break.

“Most of girls here drop out of school at the age of 11 to 12,” said Omar. “When schools are closed they are taken by their parents and forced to undergo FGM. After the procedure, you will never see them again. They get married to old men and disappear forever.”

The 28-year-old English teacher said female genital mutilation in Somalia is a transition into womanhood. Once a girl is cut, she becomes adult and can enter into early marriage.

Omar said the trend was worrying everyone in the Somali education sector. The number of girls continues to drop yearly despite the government’s effort to make it possible for girls to access education.

“We need to do something to ensure that these girls can still access education even after they have been married and given birth,” she said. “We will have no girls in classes if the trend continues.”

Fifteen-year-old Hamda Abdullahi has been a victim of female genital mutilation that cut her education short. She was cut at the age of nine and married soon after to a 25-year-old man, she said.

“I was very bright girl,” she said while carrying her two–year-old son. “Maybe I would have become a teacher, doctor or even a pilot. I was forced to undergo FGM during school holiday. I got married to a man I didn’t know after he brought ten cows.”

Abdullahi’s older sister could have been successful, too, had she completed her studies. She said her sister was cut by force during holiday, taken out of school, married off and has now had four children.“She used to be at the top of her class in all exams,” she said. “But her dreams were cut short.”

Female genital mutilation is not the only barrier to girls’ education in Somalia. Parents keep girls at home to help them with domestic chores, added Rajput.

“Household chores keep girls too busy to attend school,” she said. “Parents believe that their girls should stay at home and help them with work. Girls have low self-esteem and lack interest in education because there are social norms that favor boys’ education.”

The Somali government has joined forces with local and international nongovernmental organizations to stop female genital mutilation and create girl-friendly spaces for study and after-school clubs as well as sanitation facilities for girls to boost their enrollment.Many Somali schools don’t have girls bathrooms or sanitary napkins and other materials for adolescent girls.

“We are working to achieve gender equality in education so that our girls can go to school like their male counterpart,” said Somali Education Minister Abdirahman Dahir Osman.

Omar encouraged girls to enroll in schools countrywide so that they can excel in education and take an active role in the country’s academic, economic and political sectors.

“We want to see women taking the leadership of this country,” she said. “We want to see female lecturers, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs.”

Nasra agreed. Despite her discomfort, she had her sights set on education.

“I want to heal and go back to school,” she said. “I will not accept to be married off and drop out of school.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media.

Boko Haram continues kidnapping spree

NGA140615AU003Abuja – Outrage, frustration and fear reigned Thursday in the aftermath of the Boko Haram abduction of almost 100 school girls earlier this week with families of the missing accusing the government of lying about finding some of their children.

“How could they have deceived us all along?” said Abdul Dapchi, 27, whose two sisters were among the missing.

On Monday, militants from Boko Haram, which loosely translates as "Western education is forbidden," raided the Government Girls Science Technical College in Dapchi in the northeastern Yobe State.

Police and the education ministry initially denied that the students were abducted. On Wednesday, the Nigerian military said it rescued 76 girls and recovered two students’ bodies.

Then the Yobe state Governor, Ibrahim Gaidam, who visited Dapchi town on Thursday, said, contrary to claims by the Nigerian army, that no girl was rescued. Also on Thursday, the Nigerian government admitted some girls were missing but has not disclosed how many after claiming all the girls had been rescued.

In the confusion, which is reminiscent of what followed the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, parents grieved.

Modu Goniri, 45, a civil servant and father of two girls kidnapped Monday, said he was terrified over what could be happening to his daughters – escaped and rescued Chibok students have recalled sexual abuse, forced conversions to Islam and forced marriages during their captivity.

"I can't sleep since my daughters have gone missing," Goniri said.

He added that he was outraged that Nigerian officials had let Boko Haram kidnap more girls.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted that he would do everything he could to bring back the girls: “I share the anguish of all the parents and guardians of the girls that remain unaccounted for. I would like to assure them that we are doing all in our power to ensure the safe return of all the girls.”

But parents now say they have yet to see their children. Goniri said the parents have counted 94 missing girls. And neither his nor other parents’ children he knows had been found.

“It’s not true that some girls were rescued," he said. "No one can actually say the whereabouts of the girls, they have disappeared completely without any trace.”

Geidam addressed parents Thursday afternoon at the school where the Boko Haram militants struck. He had no information suggesting that anyone knew about the whereabouts of the girls or whether they were rescued, said Goniri and others who attended the meeting.

Dapchi said the crowd of parents and relatives grew incensed when they realized that reports that the military had found some of the girls were likely false. “We were all angry,” he said.

The incident came four years after 276 girls were abducted from their school 170 miles away in the town of Chibok, sparking the viral Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. Last year, the Nigerian army claimed the militants had been defeated in military terms, although not eliminated.

On Thursday, #BringBackOurGirls spokesperson Sesugh Akume said the chaos reminded her of four years ago when the Chibok girls were taken.

Hundreds of thousands of people called for action using #BringBackOurGirls on social media after that kidnapping, and then-first lady Michelle Obama held up a sign bearing the slogan. Hundreds of thousands also signed a petition calling for the girls to be returned.

She addd that the military deserves credit for finding the Dapchi girls if they had actually been found. But if the girls were still in the captivity of the militants, the government bore responsibility for raising and then dashing the hopes of anguished mothers, fathers and brothers

“There have been conflicting reports on the incidence among state and federal institutions and officials,” Akume said. “This draws dreadful and eerie similarities with the confusion that surrounded official communication following the abduction of our #ChibokGirls (in) 2014 who have remained with the Boko Haram terrorists for 1,410 days today.”

Photo: June 15, 2014 - Chibok, Borno state, Nigeria - Remains of vehicles burnt by Boko Haram near Chibok town, where 276 school girls were kidnapped by insurgents on the night of 14–15 April 2014.
Credit: Ameen Auwalii/ ARA Network Inc. (06/15/14)

Story/photo publish date: 02/22/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Somalian school for Yemenis provides hope

SOM301107DA002MOGADISHU, Somalia –Sudd Khalif, 16, was among 35 students in a classroom competing recently to answer a teacher’s question in a packed classroom at the Yemen Community School here.

He needed to study hard because he intended to become a doctor someday, he said.

“I want to achieve my dream from Somalia,” said Khalif. “I had given up in life. But I thank God that everything is going well now. I’m now lucky to access education like other people.”
Khalif fled Yemen’s civil war in his country two years ago, postponing his dream of studying medicine.

Now he’s among 5,800 Yemen refugees who are trying to make a new life in Somalia – an irony given how Somalis in the past have often fled to Yemen to escape violence in their country.

But with the help of the United Nations and international humanitarian groups, Khalif and thousands of other Yemen youths are receiving a basic education, often for the first time.

Civil war has engulfed Yemen since March 2015, killing more than 5,000 people.The conflict between forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a Sunni, and those allied to the Shiite Muslim Houthi rebel movement has become a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The UN has warned of cholera, famine and a host of other issues as the civil war has raged.

“The conflict in Yemen has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world – a crisis which has engulfed the entire country,” said UN statement released in late December. “Yemen has passed the tipping point into a rapid decline from crisis to deepening catastrophe.”

The toll has been high on Somalia.

Around 34,000 Somali refugees in Yemeni have returned home since the war began, according to the UN. The weak government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has struggled to accommodate them while also fighting al-Shabaab extremists linked to Al Qaeda as well as a devastating drought.

The Yemen Community School has more than 229 boys and 191 girls from Yemen aged between 5 and 17 years old. Since its construction in 1978, various militias that have controlled either Somalia or Mogadishu have run the school. Some used the building as their headquarters during the civil war.

The school became a reception center for new refugee arrivals from Yemen and a distribution center for refugees and returnees. With the support of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Action Africa Help International, a regional NGO, rehabilitated the school with the goal of helping exclusively Yemen students.

More than one third of the world’s refugee children are missing out on education, according to UNICEF. In Somalia, tackling that problem is hard. The East African nation has one of the world’s lowest school enrollment rates in the world. Only 42 percent of primary school age children attend school and only 40 percent of those children are female., according to the UN.

The Yemen Community School gives kids much-needed structure and stability, said Action Africa Help Somalia project manager Abdullahi Keinan. It has also become a base for other outreach efforts, he added.

“We are providing quality education to Yemeni refugee children in Somalia,” he said. “We are also working with partner agencies to run a humanitarian logistics warehouse supplying non-food items.”

Action Africa Help Somalia provides students with books and meals and covers their expenses to attend the school. Most students in Somali pay a fee for their education.

Ismael Aden, a teacher at the Yemeni school, said children attending classes are given meals as part of school’s feeding program to boost the enrollment.

“I’m very happy as a teacher to impart education to young people who are looking for it,” said Aden. “These students are determined to achieve their dreams despite the challenges they are going through as refugees. This is amazing everyone here. It’s encouraging teachers and donors.

Importantly, teachers in the Yemeni school use Arabic as the language of instruction.Along with Somali, Arabic is one of Somalia’s official languages.

“We use the Saudi Arabian curriculum,” said Aden. “This is important because it allows Yemeni children who are used to their curriculum to transit without any problem.”

Halima Noor, 28, a parent who has two children attending the school said her two sons were receiving an education that was superior to their formers school in Yemen.

“I feel very happy when I see my children going to school,’ said Noor, who arrived in Mogadishu three years ago after her husband was shot dead by rebels in her hometown of Sanaa. “I know they have a bright future and this makes me happy when I’m sad. It removes my stress. I feel my dreams are still alive.”

Khalif felt the same way.

“I want to become a doctor because I have another chance to make it,” he said. “I can achieve my dream from anywhere.”

An alternative version of this story can be found here.

Cape Town may run out of water by this summer

b_172_129_16777215_00_images_SA131209aa002.jpegCAPE TOWN, South Africa – Yasmin Dawood, 40, a stay-at-home mom, has been working hard to stick to the city’s limit of 13.2 gallons per day for individual Capetonians.

But it hasn't been easy.

She showers once a day, quickly, with her six year-old daughter, keeping buckets in the stall to catch excess water that she uses to flush toilets – when they absolutely have to be flushed.

Her daughter, Asma, wears a special new drought uniform that needs less washing, said Dawood. On days when she participates in sports, she wears her athletic uniform to school to avoid laundering her regular outfit.

Her younger daughter Sara, two and a half, gets bathed in a bucket.

“If we need an extra shower, we use a facecloth,” said Dawood, who lives in Cape Town’s affluent suburb of Rondebosch. “If our hair is dirty, we use dry shampoo – it works quite well.”

Cape Town and its surroundings are suffering a severe drought. Three years of low rain levels and an unseasonably dry winter means that average dam levels are hovering just over a quarter full. The metro area of 3.7 million has less than 90 days’ worth of water in its reservoirs. The countdown to Day Zero has begun – the day when the reservoirs drop below 13.5 percent and the city must turn off all taps.

Officials had estimated it would arrive in April or May: On Tuesday, Cape Town officials pushed the date back to June 4.

As a result, everything these days in this southern city revolves around water – and saving it, say residents.

“Life is very water conscious,” said Dawood, who lives in Cape Town’s affluent suburb of Rondebosch. “Every drop counts."

The water crisis is changing lifestyles but it is also hurting livelihoods, residents say.

Westley Byrne, 29, works as a director’s assistant in the city’s thriving film industry. He says, work has been scarce since the crisis began.

“A lot of international projects that used to come here now would rather skip the country because of the drought,” he said. “We often host big Hollywood projects and they wouldn't want to take a risk if there's is millions of dollars at stake.”

"I am definitely considering leaving Cape Town for a bit," he added. "I don't know how bad it's going to get and I know other people I have spoken to feel the same way, but only if day zero comes."

Still, he adds, so far, he and his neighbors were managing.

 “People are concerned but in a way, they are still hopeful," he said. "We actually had some light rain last night, so I popped my car outside for a wash.”

Even with conservation efforts, Evodia Boonzaaier, 33, a city government worker, said she thought people weren't doing enough to conserve water. 

She also noted residents of the low-income townships have not altered their consumption habits much. Many lived in homes that already lacked running water – they already shared public water pumps and didn’t consume as much as their wealthier neighbors – who are feeling the crisis more.

“We have run out of plastic buckets, items to capture water,” she said. “But it’s also easier for us because we can afford it. These people are poor so it would be harder for them.”

Boonzaaier and her family had already been contemplating a move to Canada. “With the water crisis, it makes the decision easier," she said.

Editor Ngubani, a 27-year-old domestic worker who lives in the township of Capricorn, said Boonzaaier had a point. 

“Life hasn't changed much here,” she said, adding that people drink, cook and clean like normal. “People know there is a drought. But they haven't changed.”

"I'm worried because water is precious,” Ngubani said.

They and the rest of Cape Town was in for a rude awakening when “Day Zero” inevitably arrives, she added. City officials have said the rainy season that begins in the spring could mitigate the situation, but won’t likely solve, the city’s problems.

Meanwhile, Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson said water consumption had reached a record low as the city has reduced water pressure, farms cut irrigation and residents reduced usage. The city would enact other measures to reduce usage even further, he said.

“This is very encouraging, but we cannot afford to relax our efforts," said Neilson.

Still, the pushing back the date for Day Zero gave some hope, and has left some looking at thhe bright side.   

"I think it had been the positive thing for my family," said Dawood, referring to the crisis. "We are learning to respect our environment. It’s a good lesson.”

Another version of this story can be found here

Ruling party of South Africa wants to oust Jacob Zuma

January 29, 2018 - President Zuma presents the State of Peace and Security in Africa report at the Level of Heads of State and Government at the 30th Ordinary Session, AU (Photo: The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa)JOHANNESBURG – Many South Africans expressed a sigh of relief after the country's ruling African National Congress party announced Tuesday that it would push for President Jacob Zuma to resign even as he continued to resist stepping down.

Finally, it's a beginning to the end that has dragged on too long, said Nabila Patel, 33, who works in public relations in Johannesburg.

"We are positive about Zuma leaving because South African can begin its journey on the road to recovery," said Patel. "I thought Zuma was an inadequate president…who showed signs of corruption and weakness."

Although the president has not resigned yet, the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) delivered a letter to the president early Tuesday officially informing him of the party's decision to "recall" him at a meeting of its national executive committee, South African daily News24 reported.

On Tuesday, ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule said it would happen sooner enough.

“We are giving him time and space to respond," he said at a press conference in Johannesburg. "We haven’t given him any deadline to respond (but) when we recall our (president), we expect (him) to do what the organization expects him to do."

The president, however, is holding on – he refused to resign, the outlet reported. As a result, parliament is expected to hold a vote of no confidence this month to force him out – presidents in South Africa are chosen by ruling party lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, not by voters directly.

And while Zuma has survived a number of such votes before, this time his supporters see him as a political liability and he won't likely survive the measure.

"We know you want closure," ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday to voters gathered to mark the 100 year anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president.

That is because while the ANC has the stature of being the key player that fought white minority rule and is credited with the dismantling of apartheid almost 25 years ago, corruption scandals involving Zuma have sunk its popularity.

Now, lawmakers are looking toward national elections in 2019.

"The (ANC) is undergoing a period of difficulty, disunity and discord…and (looking for) a new beginning," said Ramaphosa.  “Our people want this matter finalized, so the NEC is doing exactly that – we want closure.”

"We must work together as Madiba (Mandela) taught us," he added.

Zuma, who took office in 2009, has been embroiled in corruption scandals throughout most of his two terms. Late last year, South Africa's top court ruled that he violated the constitution when he paid for multi-million-dollar upgrades to his private home with state funds. Soon, a judicial commission is expected to begin examining allegations of influence peddling and illegal contracts to Zuma cronies while prosecutors are mulling reviving corruption charges tied to an arms deal two decades ago. Zuma has denied all charges.

Still he has allies, especially in his home state of Kwazulu-Natal. And he has the legacy of a freedom fighter: Zuma has been part of the ANC for almost six decades and led the intelligence arm of the movement's underground military wing. He was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island where Mandela was also held.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa, Zuma's expected successor, has held private talks with the president on a power transition setting off concern about backroom deals and the governing style of the country's possible next leader.

"I have got mixed feelings," said Johan Van Vuren, 32, a photographer in Johannesburg. "Zuma was an idiot, and I am happy he is out – at this moment there is not much worse than him, and it can only get better."

"But I don't really know if Ramaphose can be trusted," he added. "I know the all the controversy about Zuma but the fact that (Ramaphose) has to force Zuma out of his presidency early – which is how he became president in the first place – makes me wonder if we not in for more of the same."

Another version of this story can be found here.

American conservationist and anti-ivory smuggling activist murdered in Kenyan home

NAIROBI, Kenya – The death of a famed American conservationist and activist against ivory smuggling has sparked a murder mystery in Kenya.

Esmond Bradley Martin, 75, authored several undercover investigative reports on ivory smuggling and rhino in several countries around the world.

He was found stabbed to dead on Sunday in his home in the affluent Nairobi suburb of Karen on Sunday, police said.

“We are investigating this murder and the killers will be arrested,” said Nairobi Police Commander Japheth Koome. “The American conservationist was found dead in his house in Karen with injuries on his neck.”

His wife, Chryssee Martin, told police that she found her husband's lifeless body at around 4 pm on Sunday when she arrived home from a nature walk. She told police that she and her husband live in separate houses in the compound.

Martin, his wife and colleagues Lucy Vigne and Dan Stiles had recently returned from a research trip to Myanmar, where they worked on a new expose on ivory and rhino horn trafficking, she added.

The former UN special envoy for rhino conservation had two employees at his highly gated compound, a gardener and a cook, at the time of his death.

“We are yet to identify the attackers, but we have already questioned a gardener and a cook who are employed at the home,” said Ireri Kamwende, Nairobi police director of criminal Investigations.

Police added that investigators and witnesses found no signs of a struggle.

Martin was among the world’s leading opponents of the illegal trade in animals and animal parts.

The U.S. citizen risked his life for decades investigating illegal sales of ivory and rhino horn.

His major achievement was successfully lobbying China to shut down its legal rhino horn trade in 1993 and ivory trade last year.

Those bans have failed to shut down black markets completely, according to government statistics and wildlife groups. But they have helped drive down the price of ivory, said Save the Elephants, a Kenyan group, last year.

He would travel to China and around the world, disguising himself as a buyer to find out details of black market prices, said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of WildlifeDirect, an animal rights and conservation organization. She eulogized Martin as a global authority on rhino horn trafficking, saying pachyderms lost a great champion.

“Esmond was at the forefront of exposing the scale of ivory markets in USA, Congo, Nigeria, Angola, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos and recently Myanmar,” Kahumbu posted on Twitter. “He always collaborated with Save the Elephants and worked with many of us generously sharing his findings and views.”

Martin first came to East Africa from the US in the 1970s, when there was widespread slaughter of elephants in the region especially in Kenya, followed by rhinos in the 1980s. In Kenya there were around 20,000 rhinos in 1970, but by the 1990s most had been eliminated, Martin told the Nomad Magazine last year.

“The puzzle was: why were all these rhinos being killed, and where was the horn going?" he asked. “I was looking at the illegal trade in the Indian Ocean based on dhows, and my wife and I wrote a book called Cargoes of the East. Around that time, we discovered that most of the rhino horn from East Africa was going to Yemen.”

His latest report was published by conservation group, Save The Elephant, last year. The findings of a report said that there had been a decline in the ivory trade in China in anticipation of a ban. The 88-page report was authored with his wife and his colleague, Lucy Vigne.

"With the end of the legal ivory trade in China, the survival chances for elephants have distinctly improved," Esmond told the Kenya’s Star Newspaper last year. “We must give credit to China for doing the right thing by closing the ivory trade.”

Martin will be a huge loss to the international conservation community. Many paid tribute to him on social media.

"Conservation has lost an important figure‚ elephants have lost a great champion and the shock of Esmond’s death will be felt around the world,” Save the Elephants posted on Facebook.

An alternative version of this story can be found here. 

Kenya's opposition leader refuses to concede, prepares for "inauguration"

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addresses the crowds standing up through the sunroof of a car during the August 8 presidential election that was nullified by the country’s Supreme Court. Odinga is now planning to swear himself in on January 30. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo)NAIROBI, Kenya – Political and ethnic Tensions in this East African country could boil over when opposition leader Raila Odinga plans to stage a presidential inauguration ceremony on Tuesday – two months after President Uhuru Kenyatta took the oath of office after a hotly contested election last year.

"It will be a historic day that will end bad governance in this country," said Norman Magaya, chief executive of the National Super Alliance, a coalition of opposition parties led by Odinga. "We are going to swear him (Odinga) in as the People's President and hand him the instruments of power. We are also expecting a number of dignitaries who have already confirmed their attendance."

Attorney General Githu Muigai has warned that Odinga risks being put to death for treason if he proceeds with the swearing-in ceremony. Only the chief justice of the country's top court can designate the head of state, said Muigai recently.

"Any attempt to swear in any person as President other than one elected in line with constitution and in a manner provided for in the law is unlawful, illegal, null and void," Muigai said. "The punishment of committing treason is death. The swearing-in of any person not declared by electoral body, and who did not win the election, is unacceptable."

Odinga and his supporters boycotted Kenyatta's November inauguration and refuse to acknowledge his victory.

"The only way to stop people from stealing elections in the future is to have two governments in place: the one that was elected by the people and the other that was appointed by institutions allied to the government," said George Nyongesa, 37, an Odinga supporter who helps organize so-called "people's parliaments," or unofficial political meetings on the streets that officials have sought to ban, saying that are illegally posing as parallel political institutions.

Kenyatta was declared president after an October election that was a rerun after the country's supreme court nullified the results of an August vote amid questions over the electronic transfer of ballots. Kenyatta won 98 percent of the October vote, but turnout was only 33, or less than half of the elections two months before, according to the election commission, because Odinga's supporters refused to go the polls. The opposition leader claimed election officials failed to reform the process despite clear evidence of Kenyatta's tampering.

Violence marked the election season, with 60 people dying during protests, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. Most were protesters killed by police and government-allied militia.

On Friday, the National Super Alliance released what party leaders claimed were the authentic results of the nullified presidential election from election commission computer servers. The figures suggested that 50.24 percent of voters chose Odinga versus 48.92 percent for Kenyatta.

Coming as preparations for Odinga's swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi's Uhuru Park were in top gear, the release excited Odinga supporters countrywide. The National Super Alliance claims that as many as one million people would attend the event.

"I will be going next week to Nairobi to see Baba [Odinga] take an oath," said Erick Odhiambo, a fisherman at Lake Victoria in Kisumu, 250 miles from the capital. "If we want Kenya to move forward then Raila must be president. He is not corrupt and tribalist like other leaders."

Kenyatta and Odinga are associated with different alliances of Kenya's ethnic tribes. But Odinga has often said he would rule without distinction between the country's ethnicities.

With the government expected to intervene before the ceremony occurs, analysts said Kenya was heading for a constitutional crisis.

"It will be an act of treason no doubt," said Nazlin Umar Rajput, a political analyst based in Nairobi. "The penal code is clear. The constitution only gives oath of office to an elected president. What Raila is trying to do is to extort and blackmail the government, holding the nation hostage for a power sharing formula."

But Peter Wafula Wekesa, a political analyst at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, said Kenyatta's government cannot simply ignore Odinga's influence in Kenya's politics. His followers comprise a significant share of Kenyatta's constituents.

"Unless there is a compromise among the key political players, this country could be headed to the dogs," warned Wekesa. "Chest thumping among the key players will certainly ruin all the gains that we have made as a country."

The political circus has affected the country's economy. The World Bank estimated that Kenya's economy expanded by only 4.9 percent last year due in part to political turmoil. That would indicate the slowest annual expansion in five years.

"The current political uncertainty is hurting our economy," said Rajput. "Poverty has risen because there are no jobs. Tourism has gone down due to the travel advisories. The stock market index has also been adversely affected by negative market responses."

But Odinga's supporters will better opt to through tough economic times than having a leader they don't recognize as their president.

"We want justice," said Nyongesa. "We want Odinga to be president. He will solve our economic problems. If he is not sworn in, then we are ready to go to the streets."

Another version of this story can be found here.

Gambians want to enact justice against former president Yahya Jammeh

BANJUL, The Gambia – It’s been more than a year since voters rejected Yayah Jammeh after living under his oppressive rule for almost 23 years.

Lamin Fatty is one of the thousands of Gambians who fled his country while Jammeh’s security forces began targeting dissidents, journalists, homosexuals and others. The climate today under current President Adama Barrow is totally different, he said.

“I can see smiling faces of fellow Gambians interacting freely, mot like before when secret agents were suppressing people’s views on politics and even religion.” said Fatty, who lived in neighboring countries for 10 years. “Freedom is back.”

But now Fatty and others are now demanding justice, too, as they ask what might become of Jammeh and his associates who are now living in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

“We want Jammeh to be brought to Banjul,” said Yusupha Mbaye, 36, who has been confined to a wheelchair since police shot him during a student protest in 2000. “Fourteen of my colleagues were killed as well. I want to know why he ordered his boys to shoot and kill my colleagues. Until that is done, our minds will not be at peace. We need justice and we need it now.”

President Barrow and lawmakers have set up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to compile the testimonies of those whose rights were violated under Jammeh and discuss ways to potentially redress those crimes.

“It is important to have an accurate and impartial historical record of the violations [and] document them for posterity to ensure that never again do we encounter a reoccurrence of such abuses,” stated the legislation that created the commission.

Human rights activists applied the move. “The victims have been patiently waiting for this for long,” Sabrina Mahtani, an Amnesty International researcher based in West Africa. “It’s a positive step towards ending impunity.”

But Mahtani and others were concerned that the commission, which should begin work in the coming months, can pardon those found guilty of crimes during Jemmeh’s presidency if they tell the truth about their actions. Mahtani believed murder, rape and torture were too serious to merit absolution. The commission cannot pardon crimes against humanity.

American lawyer Ruud Brody of Human Rights Watch is working with victims who expect to appear before the commission, said he was sure he could prove a long list of atrocities during Jemmeh’s reign.

“I am working closely with the victims,” said Ruud Brody, who helped prosecutors evidence to convict Chadian dictator Hissane Habre of summary execution, rape and torture in 2016. “We are documenting series of human rights violations perpetrated by the former president and his close aides. This has given us a clear picture of what happened and how we can achieve justice for the victims.”

The process has already started. Last month, President Donald Trump froze Jammeh and his affiliated company’s assets in the US, saying Gambian officials had listed $50 million he’s absconded in public funds. In announcing the move, the U.S. Treasury cited a string of human rights abuses under Jammeh, including using his elite force, the Junglers, to assassinate enemies and sow terror.

It’s not clear if Gambians will ever get closer to Jammeh than his bank accounts, however.

The president of Equitorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, is a ruthless dictator who has been in power for 38 years. His country never joined the convention that accepts jurisdiction of International Criminal Court, so he has no obligation to extradite Jammeh.

Amadou Scatred Janneh, 55, a leading member of the #Jammeh2Justice campaign that advocates for bringing Jammeh back, said he and his supporters would still try to convince other regional leaders to put pressure on Obiang to send their former president home.

“Yayah Jammeh must be charged and tried for the gross violations of human rights committed under his direction,” said Janneh. “We will not rest until Jammeh gets a fair trial, something he denied us his victims for 23 years. We will continue to mount both political and legal pressure to see him extradited to face justice. Putting Jammeh on trial is the only way to end impunity in The Gambia and Africa as a whole.”

Mohamed Sandeng, a college student, agreed. His father, political activist Solo Sandeng, died in detention in 2016 after he was arrested at an opposition rally in Banjul. The family exhumed Sandeng last year. A medical examiner determined that state officials tortured and murdered him.

The younger Sandeng believes some of the men who killed his father are now due to appear before the commission. “My family is still trying to accept the reality of living without the head, my father,” said the 20-year-old. “He needs to face justice for the soul of our father to rest in peace.”

An alternative version of this story can be found here.

Cape Town dangerously close to running out water

SA131209aa002JOHANNESBURG – Murad Ebrahim turned on the shower in his gym locker room. The newly-installed showerhead delivered a gentle stream, then shut off shortly after.

“Two-minutes showers,” said Ebrahim, 39, a publishing house executive. “You barely get to soap your body.”

In his and the other shower stalls in his Cape Town gym, buckets catch any excess water that doesn’t go down the drain. When they fill up, the gym gives them to customers for flushing toilets.

Cape Town and the surrounding region of South Africa is suffering from a severe drought. Three years of low rain levels and an unseasonably dry winter means that average dam levels are hovering just over a quarter full. The metro area of 3.7 million has less than 90 days’ worth of water in its reservoirs.

Locals and visitors to South Africa’s most popular city for tourists can only use 13 gallons of water per day starting in February. For those who consume more, the city’s water utility will charge a special levy that is three times higher than the current rate.

The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Residents here are awaiting “Day Zero,” or the day when water supplies in Cape Town’s reservoirs drop below 13.5 percent. Mayor Patricia de Lille estimated recently that Day Zero will likely be on or around April 21. Low rainfall and high consumption, despite the city’s best efforts to promote conservation warn the public, are taking their toll, she said. 

“We have reached the point of no return. Despite our urging for months‚ 60% of Capetonians are callously using more than the 87 litres [23 gallons] per day,” De Lille said in a January 18 news conference. “It is quite unbelievable that the majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards day zero. At this point we must assume that they will not change their behavior.”

The city has already designated 200 collection point where Capetonians will stand in line, under army and police supervision, to collect 6 gallons of water daily meant for washing, cooking and personal hygiene. Each collection points will accommodate around 20,000 people per day.

The city has options to address the crisis, said Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Environmental and Geographical Science Future Water Institute. “There’s an extraordinary amount of commitment from city officials and they will be really unlucky to get to day zero,” he said.

Winter has been working with the city to find alternative water sources, most of them aquifers, or water saturated in rock deep in the ground. Millions of gallons of water could be in the region’s aquifers, he said.

“We know where the high storage of water lies. We know how far to dig. We know the amount of water that is stored there,” said Winter.

Digging for water doesn't come cheap, however. The Cape Town water utility’s deficit has ballooned to $138.3 million, or more than half the total budget for the year. based on the latest consumption figures for October 2017, said officials. That number is widely expected to rise further.

There have been calls from the public that the city should have had better contingency plans for a drought, given the Western Cape is a water-scarce environment with a Mediterranean climate. But Winter explained that the chance of the region experiencing a three-year drought, given the historical data was one in 1,000.

Cape Town even received a C40 Cities Bloomberg Philanthropies Award in 2015 for its conservation program, beating 91 cities.

In the meantime, many Cape Town residents are making do.

Roxanne Josephs, 29, and her dog, Ruby, have both cut down on their shower time. She washes Ruby only once or twice a month.

“I’ve started using baby powder on her because we walk, run and hike a lot,” said Josephs, a law student at the University of South Africa. “I also only take her out when it’s cool outside, so she doesn't need as much water and the same applies for me.”

As Josephs’ experience illustrated, the silver lining is that during crises like these, people and cities change the way they think about how they interact with the environment and how we become more water efficient, said Winter.

“Sometimes you need a crisis to become a reality to see a change,” he said.

Another version of this story can be found here. 

Female genital mutilation condemned by teenage girls and activists

Iten, Kenya – A Pokot woman sits with others at Kaptul village in northwest Kenya. Many here have been forced to undergo FGM per local customs. More than 2,000 girls from the community are still recuperating in the bush out of fear of being arrested by authorities. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo)ITEN, Kenya –Rachael Chepsal, 14, clutched her Bible as she recalled her terrifying ordeal of undergoing female genital mutilation without anesthetic last month.

“I’m still feeling the pain,” said the girl, who lives in Kaptul, a village in northwestern Kenya. “The old woman used a sharp knife that was not sterilized. When I was cut the blood flew. I was terrified because it was not something I chose.”

Chepsal is among more than 2,000 girls from the ethnic Pokot community sent to this remote town by their parents to lay low while they recuperate from the procedure, which has been illegal in Kenya since 2011, said village elders and others.

The surgeries normally take place in August and December when schools are closed.

Chepsal is in seventh grade. Her aunt made arrangements for traditional women circumcisers to abduct her from a local market last month They bound her legs with ropes and forced her to succumb to the operation. “I was in great pain,” she sobbed. “I cried until I passed out. I bled profusely. I was thereafter treated with herbs, salt and water.”

FGM is a global problem. More than 200 million girls and women around the world suffer the consequences of genital mutilation, according to estimates by the United Nations. The agency predicts that if the current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to FGM by 2030.

In Kenya, 21 percent of women admit that they are circumcised, according to Plan International, a humanitarian organization. The prevalence of female circumcision varies widely by background characteristics. Eleven percent of women aged between 15 to 19 years are circumcised. More than 40 percent of women between the ages of 45-49 years are circumcised.

“FGM is illegal in Kenya, yet the problem is not widely enforced,” said Lindsey Pluimer, founder of With My Own Two Hands, a non-governmental organization that provides education to Maasai girls. “These communities live in rural parts of the country and it is hard to enforce since they reject the modern aspects of Kenya society.”

Joseph Lorot, 70, a Pokot elder, said the cutting wouldn’t stopping because it’s deep-rooted in the African culture.

“Some parents still believe that their uncircumcised girls will not be married,” said Lorot, who hosts five girls who are recovering from the procedure in secret. “Men from these communities are making the situation worse by shunning these girls. Men who decide not to marry uncircumcised women are rejected by the community and denied inheritance.”

Traditional women circumcisers, who are paid at least two goats or $30 dollars to perform the ritual, maintained that FGM was the only rite of passage into womanhood and the procedure also controls sexual arousal outside marriage.

“I don’t think anybody can stop the practice,” nodded Lucy Chenagat, a traditional circumciser. “It’s our culture. We cannot live without it. Some of the people who are telling us to stop the practice are already circumcised and their daughters have been cut. Why shouldn’t they allow others to be cut?”

However, experts have warned locals of the dangers associated with FGM.

“There are risks of infection and the possibility of bleeding to death,” noted Pluimer. “This procedure has been done on pregnant women as well. Women who have had FGM are significantly more likely to experience difficulties, including high rates of c-section, during childbirth, and the babies are more likely to die as a result of the practice.”

Meanwhile, members of the ethnic Samburu community in northern Kenya are giving up the long-practiced tradition of circumcising girls as a rite of passage. Local Samburu schools now offer alternatives to female genital mutilation, like coming of age ceremonies. Samuel Leadismo, a Samburu warrior, is leading the fight against the practice.

“I’m helping my community to ensure there are no cases of early marriages, female genital mutilation and also school dropouts,” said Leadismo, the director of Pastoralist Child Foundation. “FGM in Samburu community has gone down. I will not allow the practice to continue in my community because I know the effects of FGM.”

Some girls in the Maasai, Pokot and other ethnic groups hope that open-mindedness would come to their communities soon.

“It was a bad experience for me,” said Chepsal.“I don’t want my sisters to go through the same experience. FGM can kill. I saw young girls crying in pain and no one could assist them. This practice should be stopped.”
Another version of this story can be found here.

U.N. staff still rape despite pledges by U.N. leaders to end the abuses

CAR20160323CL002BANGUI, Central African Republic — The United Nations became embroiled in one of its worst scandals in 2014 when shocking allegations surfaced that U.N. peacekeepers were raping women and children in this impoverished, war-battered nation.

Today, blue-helmeted soldiers and U.N. staff still rape with impunity despite pledges by U.N. leaders to end the abuses, victims allege.

"I am ashamed of the so-called international community," a tearful Marie-Blanche Marboua said as she described how a U.N. soldier raped her 10-year-old son a year ago in Bouar, 300 miles from this capital city. "My son is still traumatized."

"I have realized that nothing must be expected from these white people," she added. "Now, I put everything in the hands of God.”

The U.N.'s international peacekeeping forces were sent to Central African Republic to stabilize the country after more than a decade of civil war. While there, soldiers sexually abused hundreds of boys, girls and women, according to child rights organizations and the U.N.'s own records.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged the exploitation and pledged when he took office a year ago to crack down. In August, he appointed a victims’ rights advocate.

“Sexual exploitation and abuse have no place in our world,” Guterres said in September. “It is a global menace, and it must end.”

Last year, U.N. officials pledged to improve funding and staffing for sex abuse cases. Atul Khare, under-secretary general, said those efforts have led to a 50% drop in assaults on children by peacekeepers across the globe during the first 11 months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

"We believe our new strategy is bearing some initial fruit," said Khare, who conceded that "even one allegation is one too many."

Uwolowulakana Ikavi-Gbetanou, a spokeswoman for U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bangui, said abuse cases have declined in this country because of new steps, such as more training of personnel and aggressive investigations of allegations. She said the U.N. also is increasing outreach to local communities to help them report abuses and provide immediate assistance.

Even so, the U.N.'s own watchdog said in a June report that while progress has been made, much improvement is needed, including recording complaints and following up on accusations.

Human rights groups dispute claims of fewer assaults, saying the U.N. still does not have an accurate account of abuse victims.

"The U.N. is claiming things are getting better, but it is in complete control over the assessments of people coming forward, said Paula Donovan, a former U.N. official who is co-director of AIDS-Free World, which tracks peacekeeper abuses. "They are police, judge and jury."

The number of victims is far higher than the U.N. reports, said Remy Djamouss, president of the Center for the Promotion and Defense of the Rights of Children in Bangui. His group takes the testimonies of children abused by peacekeepers.

Some victims and their families fail to report assaults because they don't know how to file a claim, believe there won't be an impartial investigation or fear reprisals. "So people are not coming forward," Donovan said.

One 17-year-old girl said she did not report being raped at gunpoint in June by two peacekeepers in the city of Bria because sexual assault by U.N. soldiers is so common. She said many friends and neighbors ended up having children as a result of being raped by peacekeepers.

“I did not tell people that I was raped by the peacekeepers because they would make fun of me," said Merveille, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy as a sexual assault victim under USA TODAY's policy.

Another young victim is still waiting for justice. The 13-year-old girl said she was attacked two years ago at Camp M'Poko near Bangui’s international airport.

"Three white soldiers told me to come get candies and cookies," recalled Joanna, whose last name also is being withheld. "One of them covered my mouth with his hand and then the two raped me. I want these people to be punished.”

Peacekeeping soldiers, who come from dozens of countries, usually are sent home when they face sexual abuse allegations, as required under U.N. rules. That policy has become a shield for alleged abusers, according to child advocates.

For example, after France withdrew its troops from a non-U.N. peacekeeping mission here in 2016, French prosecutors declined to file charges against soldiers accused of raping six children, ages 9 to 13, in 2013-14.

"The victims come to tell us how a white soldier did this, another did that,” said Claudia Toussonekeya, an attorney with the Central African Women Lawyers Association, which records dozens of complaints of sexual abuse by soldiers and other foreigners in the country.

“We tell them that we can do nothing, and that even (Central African Republic's) justice system cannot do anything. They take it badly, but we cannot do otherwise," she said.

In fact, several peacekeepers have been punished, according to Nick Birnback, chief of public affairs at the U.N. peacekeeping unit.
He said U.N. records show six soldiers serving here were jailed for abuse or sexual exploitation and one was dismissed by his government from 2015 through 2017.

Yet during the same period, according to the U.N.'s own records, there were 255 alleged victims of abuse, 141 of them children.

Birnback said abuse charges against peacekeepers across the globe are handled more aggressively now, with 92% of participating countries looking into allegations, up from 42% five years ago. The average time it takes a country to appoint an investigator has fallen from 79 days in 2012 to eight days currently, he said.

In addition, the U.N. has set aside $1.7 million to compensate victims. "We are witnessing a change in the mindset of both the member states and the U.N. itself," Birnback said.

While soldiers who are accused are sent home, U.N. staff members can be tried locally because most don't have diplomatic immunity. Still, the U.N. doesn't deal with them harshly enough, complained AIDS activist Donovan.

"If you rape a child, you might get investigated, but that is an investigation that will lead to demotion or getting fired, not jail," she said. "They don't want their people spending time in a jail in Central African Republic."
U.N. figures for 2015-17 show that one civilian working for the mission here was sanctioned with a contract termination because of abusive behavior.

AIDS-Free World and other groups are pushing for an independent court modeled after the International Criminal Court in The Hague to handle these cases instead of the U.N. That's because the U.N. often hides information and pretends investigations have already been carried out when they haven't been, children's advocate Djamouss charged.

The local groups want to name and shame accused rapists by publicizing their identities and possibly deter other soldiers from committing assaults. But the U.N. won't reveal identities because it says alleged perpetrators have a right to a presumption of innocence, Djamouss said. To date, not a single convicted rapist has been publicly identified in Central African Republic, according to Djamouss.

Local officials remain silent because they are embarrassed about the scandal and view the peacekeeping mission as a powerful force that provides desperately needed foreign currency for a barely functioning economy, said Pierre Marie Kporon, a researcher at Bangui University who specializes in child rights violations.

"When you touch the international community that pays the salaries of civil servants, you risk having problems even with the government,” Kporon said.

As allegations of rape persist, many people here feel betrayed by an organization that sent troops to make life better for the country's citizens.

"We were told that (the peacekeepers) came to protect us,” said Beatrice Mokoyo, 45, a farmer and mother of seven near Bangui. "Instead, we see that it is the (peacekeepers) who cause the rapes. It makes me sick."

Photo: March, 23, 2016. Gadzi, CAR - Soldiers from Minusca, which in French stands for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central African Republic, on patrol in Gadzi, a town located 400 km from Bangui.
Credit: Christian Locka/ARA Network Inc. (03/23/2016)

Story/Photo publish date: 01/16/2018

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Legacies of The Nigerian Civil War still stand as Igbo people yearn for new nation

NGR170904AA002ABUJA, Nigeria – During the opening match of the qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup, Chinedu Gabriel, 27, refused to stand in honor of Nigeria's national soccer team.

"I'm not a Nigerian," said Gabriel, a motorcycle parts dealer in a suburb of Nigeria's capital, Abuja. "I'm a Biafran."

Almost 50 years after Nigeria's civil war put down a secessionist movement among the nation's Igbo community – one of Africa's largest indigenous groups – sentiments like that are common among the Igbo who want a state of their own, known as Biafra.

And over the past year, the uptick in armed robbery, ritual killings, kidnappings and separatist agitation have sent tremors across the country as deep-seated frustrations of the Igbo mount.

As a result, with the economy in crisis and the fight against Boko Haram ongoing in the north, Africa's largest nation is being stretched to the limit, say analysts.

"With the Nigerian military trying to contain Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, opening another front in the southeast may prove expensive, particularly now that oil revenue has fallen sharply,” said Jeff Okoroafor, a political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, citizen's rights group.

The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria first attempted to secede back in the mid-1960s, which triggered a three-year civil war that ended in 1970 and killed more than a million people.

Beginning in the early 2000s, new secessionist calls ramped up again amid frustration over the handling of postwar reintegration efforts. But the new impetus comes from more recent grievances: The level of development in Igbo strongholds mainly in the south pale in comparison to those in Nigeria's north, say locals.

"The Igbo feel they are not part of the government, that government is too far away from them and they are not getting the dividends of democracy," said Okoroafor, who himself is Igbo as is almost 20 percent of Nigeria's 186 million people.

Most of all, with a deteriorating economy that is hitting their strongholds hard, the Igbo leadership says they are driven to fight due to a bleak future outlook for their children.

"Under the present Nigerian government, the Igbo are staring face to face with the brutal reality that the full energy and potential of their youth will never be realized in Nigeria but only in Biafra," said Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of Biafra Independence Movement.

The latest surge in pro-independence centers around Nnamdi Kanu, a Nigerian-Briton, who in 2015 founded the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to rally independence supporters. He was arrested soon after on charges of treason and spent 18 months in jail before being released on house arrest.

He is taunting the federal government from his stronghold in the south, and inciting unrest, say military officials.

To quell the dissent, the Nigerian government began launching military actions in the region over the past year – especially targeting Kanu: Imposing dusk to dawn curfews in Igbo strongholds following clashes involving the military and members of IPOB, also at his residence.

Known as Operation Python Dance, the military says the operations were training exercises meant to "sharpen the skills of participating troops," according to Army Chief of Training and Operations, Major General David Ahmadu.

But the Igbo disagree.

“The invasion of Nnamdi Kanu’s home was brazen show of military (highway robbery and plunder) and sheer prostitution of power without authority,” said Prince Uche Achi-Okpaga, spokesperson for Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a socio-cultural Igbo organization. “Operation Python Dance is a deliberate ploy to (tie up) the southeast like a conquered territory.”

Peter Okpara, director of internal conflict prevention and resolution at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Abuja, says the government is just doing its job by quelling dissent and keeping the peace.

“If care is not taken, it may lead to something much more sinister,” said Okpara.

Some believe all this will come to head as the country heads for elections in 2019. President Muhammadu Buhari thwarted a boycott of local elections in Anambra state in the Igbo south in November: A candidate from the opposition All Progressive Grand Alliance was elected governor.

"After Anambra 2017, in 2019, there’ll be no elections on Biafra land,” said Kanu in November. “My message is that there’ll be no elections in Biafra land ever again until they give us date for referendum (on independence)."

Some say that while the pro-independence fight is localized, it is having an impact nationally.

“It was because of the IPOB agitation that the issue of restructuring (Nigeria) is now a national debate – people are now asking for resource control, that power should not be concentrated at the center but with the federal states," said Okoroafor. "Politicians are now bringing up the issue of restructuring as part of campaign promises as they seek to win elections. In a year or two, (there will be more pressure to) devolve of power in a bid to make the states stronger.”

Meanwhile, people worry about the insurgency's current impact on the country. Combined with an ongoing battle against Boko Haram in the northeast, a global fall in oil prices that has led to mass unemployment and a rise in crime and unrest, they say the government is falling behind.

“There are structural challenges that are leading to some of this,” said Okpara. “The hope is that the nation will address those structural problems…and come up with solutions.”

Some believe there is a good chance Nigeria will come out stronger.

“At the end of the day, it is about leadership – I see a prosperous nation that has the capacity to advance, that has the ability to move ahead in terms of development," said Okoroafor. "But we need leadership that can give the people that sense of belonging.” 

On the street, though, there is doubt.

“The way things are going in Nigeria, I’m afraid we may experience another major conflict,” said Chukwudi Abel, a civil servant working in Abuja. “The government needs to act fast to stop the drift toward anarchy.”

An alternative version of this story can be found here. 

A Nigerian girl recounts her horror-filled tale from Boko Haram abduction, conversion and marriage to student life at a university

NGR171201AA005ABUJA, Nigeria – Amina Ali Nkeki was calm as she recalled her ordeal in the captivity of Boko Haram terrorists.

She was 17 when she was among the 275 girls abducted from a school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria in 2014.

“They came in the night. They shot sporadically into the air. They gathered us together. They threatened to kill us if we didn’t do what they said. They quarreled among themselves. At the end, they decided to take us away.”

She suffered sexual assault and other abuse at the hands of the Islamic State-linked militants before she managed to escape last year.

“I never thought I would live to see another day,” she said. "That I am alive today is a miracle.”

Now Nkeki is preparing for another miracle. An American church has agreed to send Nkeki and four other young women who escaped from the clutches of the Boko Haram to Hope International University, a Christian school in southern California.

The Church of the Servant King in Gardena, California has agreed to pay the women’s travel expenses as well as tuition and housing costs that could amount to more than $30,000 a year, according to the university’s website.

The church similarly sponsored 35 Cambodians in the 1980s. Congregants felt like it was time to reach out to someone needy overseas again, said Senior Pastor Rich Read. “We believe Jesus is who he says he is: a man for others,” said Read. “His mandate is to love God and one another. As his followers, we’re trying to express his will. For us, faith is action.”

Nkeki is now studying at the American University in Nigeria, a private school that is unaffiliated with the U.S. government. But when she discovered her good fortune earlier this year, she instantly felt that forgetting her traumatic experiences under the Boko Haram would be easier in the US.

“I just couldn’t believe my ears,” Nkeki said. “I just can’t find words to describe how I felt. It was a message of a new life.”

Most of the Chibok girls have escaped Boko Haram but more than 100 are still missing. Despite the success of the #BringBackOurGirls movement to highlight the plight of the students, their parents are at their wits’ ends.

“We have been trying to appeal to our local leaders but no one seems interested in briefing us about any effort or action by the federal government to secure the release of our daughters,” a group of parents recently wrote in an open letter to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We feel neglected."

Since launching its military offensive in 2009, Boko Haram attacks have killed more than 20,000 and displaced more than 2 million others in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon and Niger, according a recent United Nations report.

Boko Haram insurgents still run rampant throughout the northeastern reaches of the West African country. But Nigerian forces have been tightening their noose around the group, recently announcing that the militants had been extirpated throughout Borno.

That's cold comfort to Nkeki who hasn't been able to let go of her memories. The Boko Harm soldiers forced her to trek for three days to Mbula, a remote town under their control.

“They burnt down the school library and carted our food supplies,” she continued, recalling the first night she was their hostage. “Boko Haram forced us to trek for over two hours and to sleep under a Tamarind tree inside Sambisa Forest.”

The Boko Haram men then asked the girls to convert to Islam, she said. “They threatened to kill all of us if we refused,” said Nkeki, who is Christian. “After they left we got together. Since there was nothing we could do, we decided to go along in order to save our lives.”

Despite threats from Boko Haram, several girls who were Christian or practiced local religions refused to convert.

“They gathered us together one Tuesday afternoon,” said Nkeki, who refused to convert. “They expressed satisfaction that we have all converted to Islam. They asked us if marriage in Islam is good or not. We told them there was no way we could get married without the consent of our parents. We told them our religion does not allow such marriages.”

Punishment followed.

“For us that refused to marry, they detailed us to do menial jobs in their homes, sweeping, washing clothes and doing dishes,” Nkeki said. “They said as their slaves they can choose to sleep with us. They were passing us around among themselves. We saw it was even better to get married because only one person could be sleeping with us.”

As a result, Nkeki was forced to marry Mohammed Hayyatu in order to avoid being passed around. The son of a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Hayyatu, was disillusioned with his life of violence under Boko Haram, and confided to her that he was fed up with the group. 

He planned to escape.

After the Nigerian military sacked Njimiya, a Boko Haram stronghold, they got their chance.

“The Boko Haram were running away for safety,” she said. “My husband and I saw our opportunity to escape.”

They eventually fell in love but her parents raised hell for Hayyatu after their escape, claiming he abducted Amina. But the relented because she had a baby with him while still in captivity.

She began planning their future.

Meanwhile, Read said the church anticipated helping the women and their children come to the country, but not the husbands immediately. Years ago, they originally planned bringing a few Cambodians to the US but took more eventually as they got to know their guests, he said.

More pressingly, the church is preparing a fundraising drive to help cover Nkeki and the other women’s expenses. Read anticipated reaching their target. The church and the women found each other, he said. Providence would do the rest.

“We think there is help that comes from places that we don’t know about,” he said. “Amazing things can happen.”

Photo: December 1, 2017-Abuja, Nigeria. Portrait of Amina Ali Nkeki, 20, at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola in northeast Nigeria. Nigeria's federal government arranged for the released girls to be admitted into the AUN. Nkeki is currently undertaking a one-year preparatory course in social science. She hopes to study accounting so she can work as an accountant in the future.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Amina Ali Nkeki 12/01/2017

Story/photo publish date: 12/23/17

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

In a Refugee Camp, Classrooms Open Up to Somali Girls

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—“Who said girls from Somalia cannot go to school and achieve their dreams?”

Hani Abdalla, a student here who is determined to become a lawyer, posed that question as she addressed hundreds of other young female Somali students on the importance of educating girls.  

Read more at Al Fanar

Somalis Leaving Kenya Face Educational Roadblocks

b_172_129_16777215_00_images_AFR150315aa001.jpegDADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—As students in Kenya's education system sat this year for exams necessary to advance to higher grades or graduate with a high school diploma, thousands of Somali refugees couldn't participate, even though they had also taken classes and studied hard.

"My dreams are now shattered," said Mohamed Swaleh. "I have no future right now."

Read more at Al Fanar


Muslim extremists end religious peace in Mali after appointment of Cardinal Zerbo

BAMAKO, Mali — Dressed in a white frock, the Rev. Samuel Coulibaly, a Catholic priest, smiled as he explained how religious communities have long lived in peaceful coexistence in this West African country.

“In each of our families, there are Christians, Muslims and even sometimes those who are practicing the traditional religion” — animism, Father Coulibaly said.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Zimbabweans hoping for fresh start as Robert Mugabe ends 37-year reign with forced resignation

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe's forced resignation Tuesday after 37 years in power ignited cheers from residents in this southern African nation who said the world's oldest leader had presided over a worsening economy and rampant corruption. 

"We feel very excited because we have been suffering for too long," said Victor Chirwa, 47, a school teacher. "I am happy he is gone — and he must go to prison. ... I hope we will be able to lead a better life."  

Read more at USA Today

Zimbabweans hope for fresh start as Robert Mugabe ends 37-year reign with forced resignation

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe's forced resignation Tuesday after 37 years in power ignited cheers from residents in this southern African nation who said the world's oldest leader had presided over a worsening economy and rampant corruption.

"We feel very excited because we have been suffering for too long," said Victor Chirwa, 47, a school teacher. "I am happy he is gone — and he must go to prison. ... I hope we will be able to lead a better life."

Read more at USA Today

Joy on Harare’s streets as Mugabe exit ends standoff

    Harare, Zimbabwe - It was an unexpectedly low-key conclusion to an era that many ordinary Zimbabweans were beginning to fear might never end.

Residents of this beleaguered capital took to the streets to celebrate as the news leaked out that autocratic President Robert Mugabe, the only leader most here have ever known, had resigned under pressure, bringing to an end both a weeklong standoff over his presidency and his 37 years running the country.

Read more at The Washington Times

What's next for Zimbabwe as uncertainty prevails over Mugabe's future

    HARARE, Zimbabwe — Talent Zvinorwadza, who has been unemployed for years, hopes that his life will improve following the apparent ouster of the world's oldest leader after nearly four decades of rule in this southern African nation.

"I have a family to look after and I am excited by this development," Zvinorwadza, 35, an unskilled laborer, said following news that President Robert Mugabe and his wife and intended successor, Grace, have been placed under house arrest by the military. "I am looking forward to getting a job very soon."   

Read more at USA Today

Zimbabwe grapples with new reality after military sidelines longtime President Robert Mugabe


HARARE, Zimbabwe — Residents along the streets of this capital city grappled with a new reality Wednesday after the military sidelined President Robert Mugabe, its leader for the past 37 years.

Once heralded for seizing power from British rule and the nation's white elites, the 93-year-old's tenure in recent years has been marked by human rights abuses and economic collapse in what was once one of the African continent's most promising and prosperous nations.  

Read more at USA Today

In Odinga strongholds, Kenyans grapple with frustrating election loss

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_KEN161616aa001.jpegKISUMU, Kenya — Under a scorching sun on the shores of Lake Victoria, fishmongers shout themselves hoarse to gain the attention of fishermen selling their catch. Fishing is the economic engine of Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city. But the waterfront has been quiet since election violence hit this opposition stronghold in the lead-up to an Oct. 26 vote that declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of another term in office.

Kenyatta skeptics here see the election as a halfhearted do-over of an August presidential election marred by charges of electoral fraud.

Read more at The Washington Times

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