Boko Haram stole the headlines when it kidnapped hundreds of girls in 2014, but beyond the headlines lies an even larger threat to Africa’s largest country. Tens of thousands of displaced children and teachers, and hundreds of destroyed schools have resulted in a hunger and literacy crisis that threatens an entire generation, a country and an entire region.
Northern Nigeria has the highest percentage of children not in school in the world. In northeast Nigeria, an estimated 78% 6-17 year-old’s cannot read, and according to a 2013 survey, nearly 42% cannot add two numbers with a sum under ten. The numbers for girls are even worse with only 20% of women are considered literate.
The low literacy and numeracy rates are exacerbated by the number of children who are displaced, separated from families or orphaned; large numbers of displaced teachers; and schools that have been destroyed or closed due to the violent extremism in the area that targets the very education that is Nigeria’s best hope. Against this backdrop, it is not entirely surprising that Nigerians in the northeast suffer the highest illiteracy, unemployment and poverty rates. These ingredients can be highly combustible.
To address these pressing issues of education and meeting the most basic of needs, the American University of Nigeria (AUN) has partnered with local religious and community leaders to establish a program for vulnerable Nigerian youths.
Education has been shown to positively impact people’s economic independence, health status, civic engagement and enjoyment of civil rights. The ‘Feed and Read’ program offers a low-cost, highly scalable and replicable plan to address the situation.
“Carefully targeted, modest amounts of assistance and practical intervention, make it possible to put the brakes on the accelerating suffering. Within 6 months our goal is to get all of the participants to be able to read and do basic arithmetic, addition, subtraction, division and multiplication of two digit numbers,” according to AUN President Margee Ensign.
The program goes beyond teaching literacy and numeracy. Like school programs that world over that provide meal programs for students, AUN serves a daily meal consisting of rice, beans, spaghetti and a sachet of water to all students in the Feed and Read program. It costs less than $2 per day to feed one child.
After six months, the children will have improved by their literacy and numeracy by 50% on average scores. The first six-month program ends in August. The U.S. Special Representative to the United Nations Samantha Powell visited AUN recently and called efforts like Feed and Read a model for other countries.
“I think what you all have done here is really a model for how universities, not only in Nigeria but all around the world, can wade into some of the most complex and seemingly intractable challenges facing their communities. It’s also a model for how you shape a rising generation of leaders,” Ambassador Powell stated.
The long-term goal of Feed and Read is to reduce the number of vulnerable children in Yola by providing nourishment, basic education and skills training. If this is successful, Nigerian youth, who otherwise have little or no hope for a better future, will be able to move into more traditional school settings, find employment, be able to resist the entreaties of extremist groups such as Boko Haram, helping to bring long-term stability to the region.
For the time being, hundreds of children gather each week to be taught their lessons, sitting on plastic chairs or the dusty ground, often in the blazing sun. These hundreds are the fortunate ones. Many more yearn for an opportunity to learn to read and write. What’s stopping them is limited resources. If there were more resources, even at a couple of dollars a day, more children would have the chance to get ahead.
It’s not just the young girls AUN is focusing on, either. The TELA program (Technology Enhanced Learning for All) helps both girls and boys in rural areas obtain basic literacy and math skills via radio and tablet technology. This program targets the 20,000 Nigerian children and adolescents who are orphaned, displaced, homeless or at-risk. USAID provides funds to provide the tablets for the children.
Another great initiative is Peace Through Sports, which teaches conflict resolution skills to at-risk boys and girls. Sports is a natural bridge between cultures, religions, ethnic groups and nations. It is, after all, based on the universal language of play. The participants are mostly uneducated, unemployed and have no future. The program gives them hope. The sports tournament is a productive outlet that prevents these at-risk young men and women from being recruited by Boko Haram.
The programs being offered to these vulnerable communities in Nigeria are not just giving the individual girls and boys hope, they are a vital rebuilding tool for a country that has been racked and ravaged by extremist violence for many, many years.
“We will never know exactly how many children have been killed by Boko Haram. We know hundreds of thousands have fled their homes and survived. But they have nothing. Some don’t even have parents – they have been killed by Boko Haram or lost contact with their children in the chaos of running for their lives. There are an estimated 2.2 million displaced people in Nigeria. At least 150,000 of them are in the town of Yola where AUN is located,” states the website. That is a sobering number which really brings the problem in clear view.
Ensuring the next generation of Nigerian men and women are not easy targets for groups like Boko Haram are more important than ever.
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