Boko Haram returns kidnapped girls, but few still remain

NGR180322AA001LAGOS, Nigeria — Boko Haram extremists returned a majority of the 110 girls kidnapped from their school a month ago even as dozens remain missing, the Nigerian government said Wednesday.

Early Wednesday morning, Boko Haram fighters drove into the northern town of Dapchi in nine vans and dropped the girls off just after Nigerian soldiers were withdrawn, according to Alhaji Baba Shehu, a resident of the town, and other witnesses.

"(Some) girls all ran away to their home before being counted," he said, adding it was unclear how many of the girls were returned. "Still, we are happy. God has answered our prayers and our daughters are back."

The government reported that 76 of the 110 girls had been freed. Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the release was obtained through "back-channel efforts," "a pause in operations" and with the help of "some friends of the country." He added that the negotiations for the release of the remaining girls was still ongoing.

A month ago, Boko Haram attacked the Government Girls Science Technical College attended by the girls, part of an ongoing campaign in northern Nigeria to terrorize schools and villages: The group's name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language.

As they dropped the girls off Wednesday, they told residents: “This is a warning to you all,” according to the Associated Press. “We did it out of pity. And don’t ever put your daughters in school again.”

The government earlier this week had already moved to close down boarding schools in the area out of fear of further kidnappings.
Meanwhile, parents headed for the town, hopeful that their child was among those freed.

Hajiya Aisa Bukar, 35 whose daughter Aisha Kachalla was among those that returned, said she was moved beyond words to see her daughter.
"I'm more than excited," Bukar said. "I'm so happy to be with my daughter."

Bukar said she took her daughter to a hospital in Dapchi before the arrival of the Nigerian military who took the girls into their custody.
In the past month, there has been growing anger among residents and parents over the way the government had handled the kidnapping: It initially denied the students were abducted, then told parents the day after the kidnappings the girls had mostly been released.

On Tuesday, an Amnesty International report accusing the Nigerian military of failing to listen to multiple warnings of an imminent attack fueled that fury in Dapchi – a report the military called false.

Last year, the Nigerian army claimed the militants had been defeated in military terms, although not eliminated.

Parents and residents are also upset because four years ago, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls, 100 of whom remain missing from a school in Chibok, 170 miles away, sparking the viral #Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

It shouldn't have happened again, parents said. Meanwhile, it's clear that the militants are far from defeated.

Bukar said she was on ground to witness the arrival of the Boko Haram convey of vans who dropped the girls around the Dapchi market square. They were clearly unafraid and in control, she noted.

"One of them waved a black flag with Islamic inscription," she said. "They stopped to take pictures with our youth."

Photos: March 22, 2018 - Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria - Aisha Bukar Kachalla, one of the recently released Dapchi girls in warm embrace during family reunion.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ ARA Network Inc. (03/22/18)

Story/photo publish date: 03/21/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Holy Rhymes: Kenyan priest suspended for rapping

Father Paul Ogalo entertains his congregation with the rap. He is wooing them to the faith and to get them in profit earning activities to benefit the society. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo|ARA Network Inc.)NAIROBI – On a recent Sunday morning, the sun shone brightly over St Monica’s Catholic Church in Rapogi village in western Kenya. The house of worship was packed wall to wall. The choir’s singing filled the nave. Everyone waited for their favorite priest to appear.

Soon, Father Paul Ogalo appeared at the pulpit dressed in flowing white robes and began to preach to the multitude of worshippers.

“God is great and through Him we can defeat drug abuse, food insecurity, diseases and environmental issues,” he declared amid cheers from worshippers. “We should all come together as youths and discuss activities that benefit the society.”

It seemed like a normal mass in Kenya, where worship can border on the boisterous.

But immediately after the sermon, 45-year-old Ogalo transformed the venue into a concert space – he changed his vestments to black shorts and a white shirt and began to rap, pacing around the pulpit with microphone at hand.
“Yeah! Yeah! Please come to Jesus, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest….youths come to Jesus, youths come Jesus…Ah!” he rapped as his audience – young people, elders, nuns – go wild.

Ogalo is an ordained Catholic priest who uses rap to preach the gospel.

His methods are controversial. Critics like Bishop Philip Anyolo, who is chairman of Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Ogalo had been suspended from celebrating public mass for one year as of June 18. During that time, he can celebrate private masses but not conduct regular services.

“Rap music is not part of our liturgy. People come to church for worship not rap music,” Anyolo said. “He can do the rap outside but not during the liturgy mass. He is a man who was ordained to be priest and offer leadership and worship for the people, not drama. We have only suspended him for one year to examine himself and come back reformed.”

But Father Ogalo defended himself, saying church doctrine does not oppose rap or any other kind of music or dance to preach the gospel. He said he changed his way of preaching in 2007 after several youths died in stampede in a concert in Nairobi, including one youth from his village. The youths had gone to seek entertainment that they could have experienced in church.

“I’m not doing anything wrong because the church doctrines do not oppose the use of music to preach the gospel to the youths,” he said. “I began to rap so that I could reach many youths with the gospel of Jesus Chris.”

A recent survey on alcohol and drug abuse conducted by the country’s National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse showed a high use of drugs and alcohol among schoolchildren

Ogalo said his preaching style will help eliminate such vices. His rapping is drawing more youths to join the church. That, in turn, will have a positive impact to the society, he said.

“My music is saving millions of youths,” Ogalo said in an interview. “I encourage youths to come to church where they can sing, rap and dance for Jesus Christ as they engage in activities that will change their lives because youths are the leaders of tomorrow.”

His style of preaching has certainly excited Catholics throughout Kenya.

His congregation at Rapogi parish calls him ‘Father Masaa’ while youths and others across the country call him Paul S.W.I.T. meaning “Paul Sees the World in Turmoil.” When Ogalo oversaw services, hundreds of youths filled the church while others stood outside the church, glimpsing him through the window.

“I really love the way he preaches, he has changed my life forever,” said Joel Odis, 23, a recovering drug addict. “He uses the language the youths understand. When I met him, he advised me to stop taking alcohol and drugs and engage in activities that build my future.”

Some clergy agreed with Ogalo’s suspension.

“I don’t support what he is doing,” said a priest in a Homa Bay who asked not to have his name published. “We cannot turn our churches into social gathering where people dance and entertain themselves. We should respect the house of God.

Dickson Onyango, 30, another member of the Rapogi parish, thought it was a shame that Ogalo couldn’t take up the mic in the service of God.

“I can’t miss a mass service if Father Paul Ogalo is leading the mass,” Onyango said. “He makes the service entertaining and you can’t sleep in church. He is the person we need as youths.

He particularly liked the priest’s green sensibility.

“He’s using rap music to reach out to the millions of youths and also to educate people on the importance of conserving the environment through tree planting and need to embrace farming,” said Onyango.

A version of this story can be found in Religion News Service.

Fearing Al Shabab, Somali parents pull children out of schools

June 2013 - Somali guard in Mogadishu souq. (Photo by: Ernest Sipes|ARA Network Inc.)NAIROBI – Pain, anguish and desperation still lace Maalim Mohamud voice as he talks about his 13-year old son Ismael.
Ismael Haji disappeared mysteriously on his way home from school in the town of Baidoa in southern Somalia two years ago.

“I still feel the pain as a parent. I can’t believe that I will never see him again,” said Mohamud, 45, a father of five who now lives in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. “He was the hope of this family and we loved him. We miss him so much.”

Mohamud says he suspects that al-Shabaab militants kidnapped Ismael with three other students from Baidoa primary school. The Al Qaeda-linked terror group regularly enters villages and demands that families give up their children. If parents resist, the militants often capture youngsters and force them to join their ranks.

“We suspect that they were kidnapped by al-Shabaab soldiers because they have been ordering us to hand over our children as young as seven years to help them fight,” he said.

Mohamud’s predicament is only one of many cases of child kidnappings that are becoming a major concern in the country which has experienced three decades of civil war.

Children between the ages of nine and 15 are increasingly facing horrific abuse in war-torn Somalia as al-Shabaab forcibly recruits young fighters to help fight against Somali and international troops, according to Human Rights Watch. The jihadists subject the children to "indoctrination and military training," the group says.

In January, Somali soldiers with the support from the American troops stationed in Somalia conducted a raid on an al-Shabaab camp and freed at least 32 child soldiers. The team of U.S. Special Forces offered both tactical and technical assistance to the Somali troops in the raid in the Middle Shabelle region in southern Somalia.

In February, Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government told Reuters that the abductions illustrate how Somali troops and their allies are making headway against the terrorists. “It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” said Osman. “It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror."

Still, the prospect of a press gang abducting their children has led parents of hundreds of children to keep them out of schools where they might be vulnerable. Other kids have left school as their families have left villages in remote areas and moved to major cities like Kismayu and Mogadishu to escape al-Shabaab.

Bashir Abdalla, 16, who now works as a waiter in Mogadishu, was forced to leave his home in town of Berdale in southern Somalia when the militants threatened to kill everyone in his family if he wasn't willing to train and defend his country as a jihadist.

Abdalla was in 10th grade at the time. He said friends who had escaped from an al-Shabaab military training camp told him that children like him join fighting units in their mid-teens after three months of training.

“I was very scared for my life and I had to run to Mogadishu and look for a job,” said Abdalla who is now living with his aunt. “I had to drop out of school because I knew they will kill me and my family. I was very worried.”

Human Rights watch said more children are likely to drop out of school and flee their rural homes if nothing is done to save children from this East African nation.

“Al-Shabaab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes.”

Elders in the south, or community leaders with vast decision-making powers, are deeply worried over the situation, saying the future of their communities are in jeopardy.

“We’ll have no male children in the region if the trend continues,” warned Ahmed Aden, 65, an elder from Bay who now lives in Mogadishu. “We are losing our sons every day because they are being killed by the hundreds. Our children are not going to school and their future is uncertain.”

Al-Shabaab has been battling the UN-backed government in Somalia for years. The group has carried out a string of attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the Garissa University attack that left 148 students dead in April 2015. The group has been pushed out of most of the large cities it once controlled, like the port city of Kismayo, but it remains a potent threat.

In early March, a bomb exploded near a security checkpoint outside parliament in Mogadishu, killing two soldiers. In October last year, more than 300 people were killed in Mogadishu after twin car explosions, making it the deadliest attack in the country's recent history. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for both attacks.

But as African Union Mission to Somalia is expected to withdraw its 22,000 troops by 2020, residents in this east African country are worried about the future.

“Foreign soldiers should not leave Somalia. They should in fact increase the number so that they can defeat al-Shabaab," said Mohamud. "I cannot wish anyone to go through the anguish I have been through.”

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

Protecting Babar: Kenyan children learn about elephant conservation

KEN180428TO014SAMBURU, Kenya — Wearing traditional brightly colored beads and robes, a group of warriors recently sang and danced in this central Kenyan region as part of an event to encourage the protection of elephants and rhinos.

“There will be no more poaching in my area,” said James Ntopai, 25, a Samburu warrior and a project coordinator of Kenyan Kids on Safari, a conservation program for children. “The community now understands the importance of conserving elephants and other wildlife.”

Kenyan Kids on Safari provides Kenya's youth with the opportunity to join tourists, medical volunteers and others on safari to experience the local fauna. The idea is to discourage poaching fueled by the high prices of elephant ivory and rhino in the United States, Europe and China. Ivory is used for piano keys, billiard balls, jewelry and, in China, identification chops, or stamps used to sign official documents. Rhino horns are an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

“When these kids get the opportunity to view wildlife they realize that they are not enemies with the elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo because this wildlife brings many tourists to their lands,” said Ntopai. “We train these kids to become conservationists because they are future leaders who will determine the fate of Kenyan wildlife reserves for the world.”

Killing elephants is illegal in Kenya. A government crackdown has reduced the number of elephant deaths to 60 last year from 96 in 2016. The number of rhino killings moved from 14 to nine in the same period, according to the Kenyan government.

But, the carnage continues. The elephant population in Kenya has dropped to 415,000 – or 110,000 fewer than a decade ago, officials said. According to the World Wildlife Federation, black rhino populations in Kenya and nearby countries have risen from 2,600 in 1997 to more than 5,000 today due to conservation efforts. But hundreds of thousands once roamed the region.

Kenyan KIDS on Safari also takes care of young elephants abandoned by their parents after they fall into watering holes dug by locals that the animals can't escape. Some members also search for and destroy elephant traps laid by poachers. Others report suspicious people in national parks to the authorities.

Officials said targeting kids and warriors in the fight against poaching and wildlife conservation could help end the slaughter of elephants and other wildlife.

“If we train kids on conservation we are going to win the war against poaching,” said Samburu National Reserve warden Gabriel Lepariyo. “When kids grow up they will be able to conserve the wildlife.”

Rather than gain money through poaching, Lepariyo works to convince local tribespeople that they could benefit from a booming sustainable tourism industry if they safeguard wildlife. “I want to encourage the community to keep the wildlife as their source of income in future,” he said.

Wildlife-based tourism generates nearly $10 million annually, or around 14 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product, according to Kenya’s government report released last year. One in 10 Kenyans works in the wildlife tourism sector, the report added.

Now, said Todd Cromwell, the founder of Kenyan Kids on Safari, it was time for the African continent to concentrate on children if they were to save elephants and other wildlife. Many parents now teach their children to fear big animals as threats to their crops and competitors for grasslands where livestock graze.

“The savior to protecting these elephants is kids,” Cromwell said. “We are educating local kids in wildlife conservation to become ambassadors. If they are all well-trained then there will no poaching in future. They will not allow it to happen.”

Kenyan KIDS on Safari also offers education scholarships to Samburu and Maasai kids, provides toilets for local communities, drills boreholes for water and erects solar panels to bring electricity to remote villages.

“We want to empower them so that they can understand how the world looks like,” Cromwell said. “Our aim is to ensure that they protect the wildlife at all cost. They will have the lights to scare wildlife at night instead of attacking them. If their kids get an education, then they will understand the importance of conserving wildlife.”

Many kids who attended a recent Kenyan KIDS on Safari training program said they were going to start wildlife clubs in their schools to teach others what they had learned.

“I love elephant because he looks innocent,” said 13-year-old Dave Sambaya. “I will tell my friends to stop killing elephants and to love wildlife because it brings us tourists.”

Ntopai vowed to do the same in his village.

“I encourage the young kids and all of you to continue spreading the word about conserving the wildlife,” he said. “When we invest in kids there will be no poaching.”

Photo: Pastoral kids receive training on how to conserve wildlife in Samburu, northern Kenya.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (04/28/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/07/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

A language divide disrupts education for some in Cameroon

CMR18032018CL003DOUALA, Cameroon—Pertula Ngeng Yuh wants to take the exams she must pass to receive her country’s General Certificate of Education and graduate to secondary school. But the 15-year-old girl must wait at least two more years. She’s now taking the first of three years’ worth of “ordinary level” courses before she can take the exams.

“In my new class, children are younger than those like me who come from the English-speaking side,” she said, referring to the language divide in this predominantly French-speaking Central African nation.

Pertula and her mother fled to this coastal city more than a year ago to escape an increasingly violent conflict in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest Region, where a crackdown on protests by Anglophones escalated into military clashes between armed secessionist groups and government troops.

The tensions along the language divide have become so intense that many young Cameroonians have fled to neighboring countries in Africa, and some have even joined the thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who have migrated to Europe seeking a new life.

For Pertula, relocating to Douala was a setback educationally.

In September 2016, she started taking ordinary-level courses at Wum Catholic Mission School in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Region. A few weeks after classes started, however, teachers in the region went on strike to protest discrimination against English-speaking Cameroonians. More militant protesters later threatened to burn down the school if it opened.

“People warned us that if we went to school they would burn our school,” recalled Pertula. “Later, they burnt the French section of the school. Students stopped going.”

Pertula’s mother, Sen Stella, had already paid her daughter’s school fees and bought books. But in Douala, where Pertula and her mother now live in a single room, school fees are almost five times higher– around $200 a year. The teenager needed to save money for nearly two years before she could enroll in school. She now attends the College of Hopes, Arts and Science in Douala, where she’s started her ordinary-level studies from the beginning.

Stella also needs to pay for her daughter’s transportation to school as well as meals. “All those things are heavy on me as a single mother,” she said.

The family’s plight is not unique.

“With all that happens in English-speaking areas, children are lost,” said Marcial Mbebi, a leader in the Cameroon Federation of Education Unions, a teacher’s labor group. “The student is entitled to 900 hours of classes in a school year. When you cannot cover those hours, there is a problem. We advise parents to do private classes at home to catch up.”

That option is impossible for Pertula, who often performs odd jobs to help her mother pay for school. Still, she plans to go back to northwestern Cameroon as soon as possible.

“If school reopens in Bamenda, I will go back because here we have only computer and science lab, but in Wum, we have all the labs,” she said, adding that she intends to study literature and someday become a journalist.

But there is little reason to go back today.

After more than a year of protests and clashes that have claimed at least 150 lives, according to a recent United Nations report, most schools in largely English-speaking Northwest Cameroon remain closed, the Internet is shut down in many areas, and dissidents remain in prison and continue to demand equal rights.

For years, Anglophone regions in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions have been underprivileged, compared to Francophone areas, according to the U.N. report. English-speaking Cameroonians complain that they have been shut out of jobs in education, the judicial system and government. More than 40,000 have fled to Nigeria in the past year, according to local aid officials. It’s not clear how many are internally displaced or have fled elsewhere.

John, a 25-year-old English-speaking Cameroonian who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, has been living on the Greek island of Lesbos for more than a year now. He was in his third year of studying engineering in Bamenda when he got arrested during a protest. He managed to escape and now is stuck in Greece, where he’s waiting for refugee asylum status.

“My father is a contractor,” said John. “I worked in his business since I was 17, first as a builder. No one believed I was the son of the boss. After a few years, he took me to work on marketing and designing, and supervising. I worked while studying engineering. I wanted to do greater things than him.”

He earns money translating between English and French. But ultimately he’d like to leave Greece and go to Canada and resume his studies there.

Rather than trying to remain in school elsewhere in their home country or fleeing abroad, some Anglophone Cameroonians have pursued other options like learning a trade.

Itoe Julius, 16, fled the English-speaking Southwest Region and went to Douala, where he began working in an auto repair shop. He hopes to learn enough to open his own mechanics’ business in less than a year.

“Every time the boss unmounts an engine, he asks me to come and see how we do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the violence that forces people like Julius to flee their homes continues. More than two dozen people were killed in a firefight between government troops and unidentified gunmen in the town of Menka in northwestern Cameroon on May 25, Reuters reported. The exact circumstances of the clash were not clear, but the death toll makes the incident one of the deadliest in the conflict so far.

Photo: March 19, 2018 - Douala, Cameroon - Grace Yeah taught for ten years at a catholic mission school in Nord West (Anglophone). When the crisis started, the school was closed and she waited for many months hoping that things will change. She left and currently works in a restaurant in Cameroon's economic capital.
Credit: Christian Locka/ ARA Network Inc. (03/18/18)

Story/photo publish date: 05/30/18

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar Media.

ISIS pushes farther into West African country of Mali, raising fears of violence

21 April 2018, Bamako, Mali. The Djicoroni Para market in Mali's capital has given a new opportunity to Hamady Touré who now works here. The market is a secure place for Touré that is far away from his native region where ISIS affiliated groups endanger trade.BAMAKO, Mali - Hamady Touré, commercial agent, worries about his relatives who live in Menaka, a town around 730 miles northeast of Bamako, the Malian capital.

The Islamic State in the Sahel, a division of the terrorist organization, has been putting down roots in the months since its jihadists killed American soldiers in neighboring Niger in October 2017, according to Touré, government officials and others.

They join already an active chapter of Al Qaeda whose members drove a car bomb into a military base near Timbuktu, killing a United Nations peacekeeper and wounded seven French troops on April 14.

"Three days don’t go by without one hearing the news of an assassination by the terrorists,” said Touré, who helps companies find customers in the massive West African country. “There is something to be afraid of. The worst thing is that vehicles carrying civilians drive on explosive devices that the terrorists place.”

Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs Tiéman Hubert Coulibaly took the Islamic State threat seriously.

"The current momentum in the Middle East can have consequences for the stability of Mali and the rest of the Sahel region,” he said, adding that he was afraid Islamic State fighters might leave Iraq and Syria and redeploy in Africa.

Those fears are growing despite the international response to the terror threat in Mali.

Around five years ago, the UN sent 15,000 peacekeepers to Mali. France has 4,000 troops in the region. Five regional countries - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – have created a joint force of 5,000 troops to secure their borders against rampaging militants, too.

Additionally, Malian officials and ethnic Tuareg rebels who sought more autonomy for their northern region singed a peace agreement in 2015, ending years of war. Today, many Tuareg militias that signed the 2015 agreement are helping in the fight against the Islamic State.

“The main target of these armed terrorists is none other than the local authorities and religious leaders,” said Fahad Almahmoud, spokesperson of the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-Defense Group, a Tuareg militia.

In their patrols near the border with Niger, the self-defense group and another Tuareg force, the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad recently claimed to have found the vehicle of the four American soldiers killed in Niger in late 2017. They circulated photos of the vehicle that appeared accurate. The groups are now discussing how to give the vehicle to U.S. authorities.

But opposition politician Tiébilé Dramé said the government needed to do more. Despite the international help, more terrorists appear to be moving into Mali while ordinary citizens are seeing little reason to believe in their leaders, he said.

"The fault is the current governance that is bad,” said Dramé. “More than 500 schools are closed in the center of the country because of insecurity.”

The security situation in Mali has been precarious for at least three years.

In November 2015, Islamist militants killed 20 people at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and a local terror group were blamed. Several local jihadist groups joined forces to create a bigger organization affiliated to Al Qaeda a year ago, too.

The terrorists have lost battles, too. Last month, they claimed to have killed a lieutenantof Adnan Abu Walid, leader of the Islamic State in the Sahel.Abu Walid has disseminated numerous jihadist propaganda videos in the region.

Critics have said the militias have too much power, too, however.

Last month, a UN report said the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-Defense Group and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad conducted extra-judicial executions, illegal arrests and detentions, recruiting child soldiers and other human rights violations in the country’s north.

“It is necessary that both the Government and the armed groups investigate serious violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law committed by their structures and their members,” said Special Representative of the Secretary General Mongi Hamdi when the report was published. “This is in the interest of victims’ rights and for the reconciliation and establishment of a lasting peace in Mali.”

France recently proposed that the UN impose sanctions against warlords who impede the 2015 deal.

In the south, Malian army and Dozo hunters – a traditional armed group – stand accused of similar abuses against the Fulani ethnic community, a Muslim people with Arab roots who are often accused of harboring loyalties to extremists.

"The Malian army is making summary executions of civilians suspected of terrorism,” said Nouhoum Cissé, a member of a defense organization of ethnic Fulanis. “In the center of the country, when you have the appearance of a Fulani, you can be suspected of terrorism.”

For centuries, Malians and Fulanis lived together in harmony, said Cissé. Now they are poised to kill each other. He noted that terror attacks have also driven the Dogon, an indigenous people attached to African cults and values, to create self-defense militias, too. Dogon and Fulani groups have clashed as a result.

The chaos doesn’t strengthen Mali against militants, said Cissé.

“The question is who benefits from this situation. It does not benefit the Dogon. It does not benefit the Fulani,” said Cissé. “Those who benefit are the terrorist groups.”

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

Education in Somalia starts with teachers

Somali students attend a class session. Somalia's Ministry of education, through the help of the Global Education Fund, is now training primary and secondary school teachers to improve the quality of education for its students.MOGADISHU, Somalia – Rahma Ali has a newfound sense of purpose.

“Teachers are key to the success of any education system,” said Ali, a teacher at Hamar Jajab Primary School in Mogadishu who recently completed a teacher training program with the Global Campaign of Education, an international coalition of education advocates and NGOs seeking to improve education in the developing world.

“It’s very hard to find someone in poor country like Somalia who has both the qualifications and the training to be a teacher,” she said. “But we are very happy to receive the training so that we can give our children a quality education.”

The outbreak of civil war in this East Africa nation in the early 1990s took a terrible toll on education in Somalia.

Only 30 percent of primary school-age children and 26 percent of secondary school-age kids attend classes, according to the UN Children's Fund, or UNICEF. Only 18 percent of children in rural households attend school.

Violence, poverty, lack of teachers and school facilities – including shortages of desks, books and other educations materials – are among the many hurdles to improving the Somali school system, according to the Lutheran World Federation, which supports 7,000 students, teachers, school staff and others in educational training programs.

Where children are learning, they’re often studying lessons that have little relationship to their peers throughout the country.

“There is not yet any national Somali curricula implemented, so every school and every state do a little bit as they like,” said Lennart Hernander, the federation’s representative in Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. “There are no enough trained and untrained teachers. Most of the parents also have to pay for their children to attend school, which many of them cannot afford.”

But, as Ali’s experience illustrates, the tide is slowly turning.

Since August 2017, Somalia has been training primary and secondary school teachers with $33 million in funding from the Global Campaign for Education, an international coalition of education advocates and NGOs seeking to improve education in the developing world.

“We want to raise awareness of importance of teachers in quality education,” said Adam Mohamed, national coordinator of Somali Coalition for Education for All, a member of the campaign. “The teacher’s education policy document will help the country to acquire better quality teacher which is key for achieving quality education for all the Somali children.”

The training is providing crucial qualifications and training, give educators a chance to share their experience and help Somalia develop uniform rules and regulations for the teaching profession throughout the country, said Ali Afgoye, who oversees implementation of educational policies as director of the Somali Ministry of Education.

“It’s good program that ensures teachers earn qualification of teaching to deliver quality education to students,” said Afgoye.

Afgoye hoped teachers in the program would share insights from it. Somali officials were now building or renovating around schools. Tens of thousands of students were expected to come to classes in the next few years, he added.

The Global Campaign for Education is not the only teacher training occurring in Somalia.

The training has also spread to other parts of the country.

In the self-declared state of Somaliland – where violence is less frequent and the government is more stable – education ministry officials have been especially successful training more teachers, especially female teachers, to fight gender inequality in regional schools where only 3 percent of women are teachers.

The Somali Education Mministry’s Teachers Training Department has also trained at least 35 teachers in recent years.

“We are training teachers to make them more professional,” said Mohamed Abdi, a lecturer at the Banadir Teacher Training Institute in Mogadishu. “Teachers who are not well-trained cannot provide a quality education. They will fail students. Lack of trained teachers contributes to lower enrollment of students.”

The biggest challenge is finding qualified people to train as teachers, however, said Abdi.“Many of [Somalis] do not qualify to train as teachers, so we are forced to lower the entry grade so that we can have more,” he said.

But progress is being made. Somalis are embracing school as their country’s education system grows more robust.

“We are now confident to take our children to school because we have trained teachers,” said Hassan Mohamed, a father of six who has been taking his children to a madrassa, an Islamic religious school in Mogadishu. “Our children used to grow old in schools but still struggle to learn basic literacy and numeracy. Some of them used to drop out of school without being able to read or write properly.”

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

Refugee students who fled from Gambia wish to return to rebuild their country

Kemo Bojang is a second year political science student of the University of The Gambia in the capital, Banjul. He believes that the regime change has opened the space for political discussion.FREETOWN, Sierra Leone and BANJUL, Gambia – It’s been more than a year since President Yahya Jammeh left office after 23 years in power.

His fall has given higher education in the tiny West African nation a new lease on life.

Kemo Bojang, a second-year political science student at the University of the Gambia, said he now feels like he can really learn about politics because the academic environment is open to free discussions.

“I am now proud to pursue my career as a political scientist,” said Bojang. “Before now it was impossible because several opposition politicians and students were pursued, arrested, killed and imprisoned. Their crimes were for expressing their political rights. Gambians can now express themselves freely without being harassed. Even our teachers can now channel their grievances to the government with frank deliberations.”

The University of the Gambia in Banjul is the only higher education institution in the country of 2 million people. Today, it’s halls and walkways are bustling with young people.

But thousands of the university’s students fled between 2016 and 2017 when Jammeh began cracking down on demonstrations against his regime. The crisis came to a head when Jammeh said he would resign in December 2016. But then he changed his mind. Under pressure from Gambia’s neighbors – including the Economic Community of West African States’ threat of military intervention – he left office in January 2017.

Police regularly arrested and harassed students who dared to protest the regime. An untold number of students and other protesters and dissents disappeared. Most are presumed dead.

Current President Adama Barrow has pledged to investigate their fates. He’s also promised to probe the April 2000 killing of 14 students by riot police after they protested the killing of a colleague and rape of female student.

Students are now returning to the university now, however.

Bakary Jadama, 29, a graduate student in business at the university while also operating a cleaning business in Serakunda, a coastal district near Banjul, returned to the Gambia last year after fleeing to neighboring Senegal to avoid violence.

“I now have confidence in the Government to invest because the circulation of cash is visible and there is freedom,” he said. “Before now, cash was just concentrated in the hands of Jammeh and his close allies. Businesses were forcefully closed without any explanation.”

Jadama was among many Gambians who returned after Barrow said he would ensure their safety if they would come home to rebuild their nation.

That appeal motivated Lamin Drammeh, 34, to return home to pursue a management course at a private business school in Banjul.

“When I was in Senegal, I never felt comfortable. Other Gambians there were not either,” said Drammeh. “But since I returned home, I am now fulfilled and determined that the Gambia is now open and free for all to explore.”

The international community is also stepping in.

In late February, the Chinese government provided 23 scholarships for Gambian undergraduate and graduate students to study in China.

But some Gambians think the country needs to focus on developing its domestic educational capacity.

Janet Bajang Young runs a theatre in Banjul. She believes the change in regime is an opportunity to use theatre to promote civil rights and girl’s education. The government previously banned theatre performances that raised critical issues in society. Officials either refused to issue a permit for performances or arrested actors and producers.

“My desire is to train a group of young girls to use theatre and raise people’s awareness levels on girls’ education and gender-based violence,” she said. “We will do this through personal interaction in schools, markets, community centres to ensure it filters right down. We still see men battering their kids and wives. Some men still think girls should not be sent to school. This is a key challenge we will try to reduce.”

Ibrahim Ceesay, 40, is an English teacher at a Catholic school in Banjul. He was hopeful that teachers would be empowered to improve Gambian schools under current President Barrow.

“Under the former regime, even though we were dissatisfied with the conditions of service, we were not allowed to voice our concerns,” said Ceesat. “Our union meetings were dispersed several times by the police and we were always afraid to raise issues around our welfare. Now we can advocate and discuss with Government on what’s best for the development of the sector. That in itself is a step forward.”

Echoing Ceesay’s thoughts, Bojang noted that most professors at the University of the Gambia were foreign. He also felt that the country needed to develop its native potential more.

“That tells you the education sector in this country was not open for all to participate freely,” he said. “Now my hope is after graduation, I will be able to influence society positively and involve in governance discuss without persecution.”

Some students are already thinking about expanding higher education in the Gambia.

Ousman Diatta, 28, a second-year communications student, wants a broader selection of courses. That might mean the country needs another university or at least new programs, he said.

“One university for the whole Gambia is not enough,” said Diatta. “There has to be competition with specialized and modern courses in development and information technology. If that happens, we will see more youth potentials coming from the Gambia.”

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

Kenyan refugee students defy odds with high scores on national examination

Young girls here are inspired to work hard in their studies and pass exams after some of their peers emerged as top scorers in Kenya’s national exams this year.KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya – Refugee students here and in the neighboring Dadaab refugee camp defied the odds to score high grades in the 2017 Kenya’s national examination for primary and secondary school students.

Their achievements are inspiring others to study with the hope one day attending university.

“I worked hard in class despite insufficient teachers and learning equipment at the school,” he said Somali native Abdiweli Hussein, 20, a refugee in Kenya since 2008 who scored 67 points out of possible 84 in Kenya’s secondary school exams. “Life as a refugee is hard but one needs to focus in studies to achieve their dreams.”

Hussein, who now wants to pursue petroleum engineering at the university, said his success was not easy.

“I don’t know where my parents are,” said Hussein. “I was brought here by my aunt.”

But hard work, drive and passion helped him to achieve his dream.

“I’m very grateful for scoring such high marks despite all the difficulties and challenges that come with being in a refugee camp,” he said. “I want to encourage other refugees to work hard in class because it’s the only way they can change their lives.”

His classmate and fellow Somali, Abdirahman Abdi, 19, scored 73 points out of 84.

Both attend Waberi High School in the Dadaab camp, where more than 235,000 refugees and asylum seekers live. Dadaab is part of a cluster of camps that comprise the largest refugee facility in the world.

In nearby Kakuma refugee camp, 14-year-old Magot Thuch Ayii, a South Sudanese, scored 413 out of 500 in Kenya’s primary school exam, becoming one of the top students in the country. Magot was a student at the Cush Primary School.

Over a million candidates registered for the Kenya’s primary school exams while more than 615,000 took the secondary school tests. The Ministry of Education oversees the exams. Kenya adopted the exams in 1985 after education reforms that established students tracks that include eight years of primary education, four of secondary education and then university study for the best students.

Refugees here and elsewhere in Kenya’s camps have been performing well in both examinations despite the trauma they go through as refugees, said UNHCR officials who run schools in the camps.

“They perform very well despite numerous gaps such as insufficient teaching and learning materials, untrained teachers and overcrowded classrooms,” said Hure Mohammed, the UNHCR’s education officer at Kakuma. “Refugees can perform very well if they are provided with the right school environment and adequate resources.”

Last year’s performance by refugee students has especially inspired other candidates in the camps to study this year’s national examinations.

“I’m prepared and I will pass this year’s exams with high marks,” said Edwin Thon, a primary school student in Kakuma. “Refugees can also become top performers.”

But Samuel Zeleke, 44, a parent in Kakuma Camp, lamented that opportunities, even for the best students, are limited. He appealed to donors and other development groups to sponsor higher education for refugees.

“We’re happy because our children are performing very well,” said the father of seven. “But our children lack scholarship to continue with their education and they end up teaching primary and secondary schools as untrained teachers.

Hure agreed. Limited access to Kenyan secondary schools and few scholarship opportunities continue to pose a challenge to young refugees, he said.

But Thon is determined to work hard and excel in the exams despite all the challenges within the camp.

“I know that I’m going to excel,” he said. “I want to be at the top so that I can get a scholarship.”

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

Refugee numbers don't match and UN funds are missing in Uganda

UGA170930TO003BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – Sitting outside her tent in this sprawling camp in northern Uganda, 40-year-old Martha Atong was angry.

She and others were going hungry as Ugandan officials stood accused of inflating refugee figures to pocket millions in humanitarian aid funding.

“I’m suffering with my children because of them,” said the mother of four. “Many of us will die of hunger due to lack of food as they enrich themselves using the money meant for us.”

Atong’s plight is probably far from over. American, British and European leaders are threatening to withhold humanitarian funding to Uganda over the corruption allegations, according to the said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The East African nation hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 14 camps.

But during a recent camp inspection, UN officials found 7,000 people where Ugandan overseers reported 26,000 needing aid, leading to questions about where the funding for the missing 19,000 refugees was going. The fraud has been allegedly occurring for at least a year.

“There’s concern that the numbers are not accurate,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Teresa Ongalo in Uganda’s capital last month. “What we have received from donors is an indication that until we’re able to verify the numbers they will withhold funding.”

In northwestern Uganda, the news sparked anger in the Bidi Bidi camp, which has now become the second largest refugee camp in the world with more than 285,000 refugees.

“We are not receiving enough food because some officials are eating money meant for refugees,” said Charles Lujang, a refugee representative at the camp. “They are using our name to enrich themselves. They should be arrested and jailed.”

The Ugandan government has suspended four camp officials pending an investigation. Investigators are determining whether funding, food and other relief items were sold, used for bribes or involved in trafficking refugee girls.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he would severely punish anyone found guilty.

“The ones who are stealing refugee money will go to jail,” said Museveni, who has ruled this landlocked nation for more than three decades. “They bring shame to Uganda. Because to steal what is meant for refugees, what is meant for desperate people, so, these thieves they will pay.”

The Ugandan government, with support from the UNHCR and the World Food Program, has launched a large-scale biometric data system to verify the identities of refugees in the country. Similar systems have already cataloged 4.4 million refugees in 48 other countries, said UNHCR.

Slated for completion in September, the system will collect fingerprints and eye scans of more than 1 million refugees, according the UNHCR. Refugees will then receive ration cards.

“This is important to us to increase the accountability and transparency not only to the government and UNHCR and partners, but also the donors who are very key in our operation,” said Douglas Asiimwe, Uganda’s refugee protection officer.

But Atong and others they can’t wait so long. Fleeing after she lost her husband to civil war in South Sudan, Atong said the drop-off in aid has forced camp overseers to cut her food rations.

“We are starving, our children are crying (of hunger),” she said. “We nowadays don’t see convoy of trucks carrying food aid coming to the camp. The situation is getting worse and we need help.”

Uganda has been a notable and generous host for refugees from elsewhere in the recent past. Upon receiving refugee status, refugees are given plots of land to cultivate, settle and integrate with local host communities.

The revelation has angered leaders of neighboring nations who have accused the UNHCR of deliberately fabricating figures of refugees from their countries to seek funding for the agency. That funding could have been used for aid to countries repatriating their citizens, to help them get settled and promote economic development, the leaders said.

“UNHCR has refused to recognize that some Burundian refugees have returned home and was using inflated numbers to seek aid,” said Terence Ntahiraja, assistant interior minister for Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations that is struggling to emerge from a 12-year ethnic-based civil war.

Atong was more concerned about the short-term.

“I desperately need food to feed my starving children,” she said. “Those who are causing these problems should be hanged because they are playing with people’s lives.”

Photo: September 30, 2017 - Refugees from South Sudan relax in the Palabek Refugee Camp in northern Uganda. Many here are growing more hungry after UNHCR cut their food ratio from 12kg to 6kg.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (09/30/17)

Story/photo publish date: 03/22/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Nigerians still angered at government efforts to fight Boko Haram, despite release of kidnapped girls

Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria, 19 March, 2018. Parents of the missing Dapchi girls press the government to quickly rescue their daughters. | Photo: Ali Abare Abubakar)ABUJA, Nigeria – The release of around more than 100 kidnapped schoolgirls on Wednesday did little to quell the anger than many Nigerians feel toward their government over the Boko Haram militants who are running rampant in the country’s remote northeast.

Boko Haram militants kidnapped the students from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi last month. Nigerian authorities said the Islamic State-affiliated fighters brought the girls back to Dapchi after “back channel” talks that did not involve ransom money.

The girls’ parents were elated.
"I can confirm to you that, together with the released girls, we are on our way to the general hospital," said Bashir Manzo, chairman of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association.
But not everyone was celebrating.
Nata Sharibu said his daughter was one of the few students still in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.
“My daughter is alive but they cannot release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also jubilant because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”
Others wanted to know more about the government’s talks with the jihadists.
"Lots of questions need to be answered by the Nigerian government," said Jeff Okoroafor, political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, a citizen's rights group. "We need to know the details of how Boko Haram returned the girls. Were there conditions attached? Why didn't they return the Chibok girls alongside the Dapchi girls?"
Okoroafor referred to the Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, a town around 170 miles away from Dapchi. Around 80 of those girls have escaped or been released.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly claimed that government forces have brought the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram to heel.
But Alhaji Baba Shehu said the Dapchi incident suggested that Buhari’s assurances were hollow. 
"The issue of defeating Boko Haram flies in the face of this latest abduction," said Shehu, 40, who is secretary of the Yobe State Civil Society Network, an activist group. "For us in Dapchi, the insurgency has just started."
Dapchi parents said Buhari lulled Nigerians into a false sense of security when he claimed Boko Haram was no longer a threat.
"We were misled into thinking we are safe," said Aisha Bukar, 35, who's 14-year-old daughter, Aisa Kachalla Bukar, is among the missing girls. "They lied to us that Boko Haram has been defeated and now we can't find our daughters."
On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a damning report that said Nigerian forces failed to heed warnings of a Boko Haram convoy that was heading toward Dapchi before the kidnappings.
“The Nigerian authorities must investigate the inexcusable security lapses that allowed this abduction to take place without any tangible attempt to prevent it,” said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director. “The Nigerian authorities have failed in their duty to protect civilians, just as they did in Chibok four years ago. Despite being repeatedly told that Boko Haram fighters were heading to Dapchi, it appears that the police and military did nothing to avert the abduction.”
Amnesty International’s report said Boko Haram militants asked directions to military facilities, local government offices and the girls’ school. Police fled as they approached, the report said. The Nigerian government has also failed to communicate developments in the investigation to parents and the public, the report added.
Instead, parents of the missing girls say the government told them for days that the girls had been rescued, only to backtrack. The government has little presence on the ground, they added. "We haven't seen anything,” said Kachalla Bukar, a member of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association. “We haven't seen much of military presence."
The Bring Back Our Girls group that attracted global recognition in the wake of the Chibok girls’ abduction expressed shock and disappointment over the government’s failures at Dapchi. 
The group's co-convener and Nigeria's former education minister, Oby Ezekwesili, has threatened to sue the Nigerian government unless they can secure the release of the Chibok girls who remain with the militants. 
"It's intolerable and unacceptable that the same manner of abduction took place," said Ezekwesili. "Government has failed in its primary responsibility to protect the citizens."
Boko Haram militants have staged other attacks, too. Recently, they attacked Rann, a village in nearby Borno State. A United Nations staffer and two workers with the International Organization for Migration were killed in the attack. 
But former Nigerian Senator Saidu Umar Kumo absolved President Buhari of blame, saying Buhari also said Boko Haram was a danger. Many Nigerians unfortunately engaged in wishful thinking when the president said Nigerian troops had made progress against the militants.
"President Buhari never said Boko Haram was defeated completely," said Kumo, who is a member of Buhari’s All Nigeria People's Party. "All Buhari said was that the insurgents have been weakened but they can still pose a threat."

A version of this story has been published in The Washington Times.

By Ali Abare Ábubakar

ABUJA, Nigeria – The release of around more than 100 kidnapped schoolgirls on Wednesday did little to quell the anger than many Nigerians feel toward their government over the Boko Haram militants who are running rampant in the country’s remote northeast.

Boko Haram militants kidnapped the students from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi last month. Nigerian authorities said the Islamic State-affiliated fighters brought the girls back to Dapchi after “back channel” talks that did not involve ransom money.

The girls’ parents were elated.

"I can confirm to you that, together with the released girls, we are on our way to the general hospital," said Bashir Manzo, chairman of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association.

But not everyone was celebrating.

Nata Sharibu said his daughter was one of the few students still in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.

“My daughter is alive but they cannot release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also jubilant because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”

Others wanted to know more about the government’s talks with the jihadists.

"Lots of questions need to be answered by the Nigerian government," said Jeff Okoroafor, political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, a citizen's rights group. "We need to know the details of how Boko Haram returned the girls. Were there conditions attached? Why didn't they return the Chibok girls alongside the Dapchi girls?"

Okoroafor referred to the Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, a town around 170 miles away from Dapchi. Around 80 of those girls have escaped or been released.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly claimed that government forces have brought the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram to heel.

But Alhaji Baba Shehu said the Dapchi incident suggested that Buhari’s assurances were hollow.

"The issue of defeating Boko Haram flies in the face of this latest abduction," said Shehu, 40, who is secretary of the Yobe State Civil Society Network, an activist group. "For us in Dapchi, the insurgency has just started."

Dapchi parents said Buhari lulled Nigerians into a false sense of security when he claimed Boko Haram was no longer a threat.

"We were misled into thinking we are safe," said Aisha Bukar, 35, who's 14-year-old daughter, Aisa Kachalla Bukar, is among the missing girls. "They lied to us that Boko Haram has been defeated and now we can't find our daughters."

On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a damning report that said Nigerian forces failed to heed warnings of a Boko Haram convoy that was heading toward Dapchi before the kidnappings.


“The Nigerian authorities must investigate the inexcusable security lapses that allowed this abduction to take place without any tangible attempt to prevent it,” said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director. “The Nigerian authorities have failed in their duty to protect civilians, just as they did in Chibok four years ago. Despite being repeatedly told that Boko Haram fighters were heading to Dapchi, it appears that the police and military did nothing to avert the abduction.”

Amnesty International’s report said Boko Haram militants asked directions to military facilities, local government offices and the girls’ school. Police fled as they approached, the report said. The Nigerian government has also failed to communicate developments in the investigation to parents and the public, the report added.

Instead, parents of the missing girls say the government told them for days that the girls had been rescued, only to backtrack. The government has little presence on the ground, they added. "We haven't seen anything,” said Kachalla Bukar, a member of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association. “We haven't seen much of military presence."


The Bring Back Our Girls group that attracted global recognition in the wake of the Chibok girls’ abduction expressed shock and disappointment over the government’s failures at Dapchi. 

The group's co-convener and Nigeria's former education minister, Oby Ezekwesili, has threatened to sue the Nigerian government unless they can secure the release of the Chibok girls who remain with the militants. 

"It's intolerable and unacceptable that the same manner of abduction took place," said Ezekwesili. "Government has failed in its primary responsibility to protect the citizens."

Boko Haram militants have staged other attacks, too. Recently, they attacked Rann, a village in nearby Borno State. A United Nations staffer and two workers with the International Organization for Migration were killed in the attack. 

But former Nigerian Senator Saidu Umar Kumo absolved President Buhari of blame, saying Buhari also said Boko Haram was a danger. Many Nigerians unfortunately engaged in wishful thinking when the president said Nigerian troops had made progress against the militants.

"President Buhari never said Boko Haram was defeated completely," said Kumo, who is a member of Buhari’s All Nigeria People's Party. "All Buhari said was that the insurgents have been weakened but they can still pose a threat."

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.
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