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Omar Jaga: One of the "nowhere" schools of Djibouti

Simon Thacker's picture
Also available in: Français
Everyday more than 4,000 trucks carrying goods out of the ports of Djibouti-city head west towards Ethiopia. The route passes through a barren, austere landscape where temperatures can soar to 50c. The road is poor and the going laborious. About an hour out of the city, after miles of heat and emptiness, the road turns and a small schoolhouse appears. There is nothing else, no turnoff, no village, or any other natural feature of the landscape that would explain why it would be built here at all.

World BankWe have come as part of an implementation support mission. As we pull off, we see an encampment at some distance: small, low huts made of interwoven branches covered with mismatched plastic sheets and cloth dot the side of a hill. There are perhaps thirty of forty of them. Djibouti usually receives less than one inch of precipitation a year, but the rains have not come for six years now. The nomadic peoples who depended on their herds grazing on what little can grow in this inhospitable environment, have lost almost everything and so the Government of Djibouti, recognizing the threat, has begun to build schools like this one in an attempt to help. They seem to be built "nowhere" in particular across the hinterland -- hence their name. 

The school in this case, a simple three-room construction, sits on a clearing in the rocky desert. The patch of ground in front of it, usually reserved for children to play at recess, is fenced off with barbed wire to prevent camels from destroying the three small trees that have been planted. The school offers the first five years of primary education to 155 students through multi-shift teaching. Five teachers live onsite in a two-room building: a head teacher and his wife have the main room and so use the front door; the four other teachers share the second room and, out of a desire not to disturb, enter and exit through a window.

World BankThe nomads come and settle at the school for three reasons: for the well the Government has dug nearby, for the simple meals the schools offer to students, essential to survival during this time of drought, but also for something else, something that the families recognize as just as important, a chance for a better life. In this hardscrabble, hard-fought daily existence, it is somehow amazing that aspirations and ambitions are still possible at all. The PTA representative who meets us, a father of nine, hopes that one or two of his children will do well enough to continue to the middle school 20 km away, but he is reluctant to send his daughters. It wouldn’t be safe and, besides, at 12, they’ll be getting married, he tells us.

But whether these nowhere schools can live up to the parents’ expectation is a great challenge because they face very particular issues of service delivery. The students as well as the teachers have very special needs in these isolated locales.

We are invited to visit a 3rd grade class of about 30 or so. Many of the smiling, inquisitive nine year-olds are very small. Unfortunately, for many of them, the lack of proper nutrition and brain stimulation in their early years will leave them with life-long development shortcomings.  At the same time, there are other students as old as sixteen in the class still trying to attain the basics of the grade. They tower over the others. It is clear that many in the class cannot follow the lesson either because they do not understand the French used in class (since they speak Afar with their family), have walked as much as 3km in the heat to get to school and are exhausted, have not eaten well or simply cannot concentrate. We ask one or two to read a sentence or two in French or Arabic: the results are disappointing.

World BankAnd yet there are many options available: using maternal languages in early grades, training teachers to work with the undernourished and with large, heterogeneous groups are three that come to mind. At the heart of the matter lies a greater question, though: how to address the needs of the teachers. Newly trained teachers are posted around the country for three-year stints, sometimes to sites like these. It is not difficult to imagine how challenging that must be. Of the two teachers we met, one was clearly engaged, something which translated to his classroom where the students were interested and involved. Another, however, was visibly depressed: cut off in this setting with very little stimulation, he seemed to be ‘shutting down,’ his classroom a place of lost souls. Research suggests that it takes on average about five years for a new teacher to become proficient – provided she or he is supported professionally. And, yet, at this nowhere school, the local education advisor, responsible for 11 other schools in the area, cannot visit Omar Jaga more than once a month.

Outside the classroom, I watch as the trucks roll by toward Ethiopia and imagine the goods being carried -- new fridges, cars, perhaps even iPads. The road is a lifeline of a modern flourishing economy.  The trucks never stop here, however, although once a wheel did fly off a truck and hit the school house wall. My colleague, Mourad, who has been at the Bank far longer than me and has worked in such poor countries as Chad and South Sudan, doesn’t remember seeing such desolation.  Nomads are resilient people. Will they revert to their nomadic lifestyle as soon as the rains return? Probably some might.  However, for the time being, they see the school as their only hope for a dignified future for their children.