KAGA BANDORO-KABO, Central African Republic, 27 June 2008 – On a recent visit to the northern regions of CAR, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador witnessed first-hand how schools have begun to reopen, improving the lives of children affected by conflict here.
Since 2003, armed groups have fought each other in the north, resulting in the displacement of nearly 300,000 people. Some families have fled to neighbouring countries, but the majority have fled into the bush to escape the continuous clashes on the main roads. In the bush, thousands of families live in harsh conditions, struggling to survive.
Last year, UNICEF and the Italian non-governmental organization COOPI worked together to help reopen 104 schools in north-western CAR, allowing more than 32,000 primary students to enrol. About 60 per cent of the schools are located in the bush, serving families too afraid to move back to their villages.
‘Against all odds’
On her visit, Ms. Farrow went to the Benah 2 primary school in the bush close to the border of Chad, as well as the Zando school along the Kaga Bandoro-Kabo axis in north-eastern CAR.
At Benah 2, she encountered 300 children eagerly scribbling away on blackboards. Many of them were out of school for two years or more before their communities linked up with UNICEF and COOPI.
At a health post in the Begoua District of Bangui, CAR’s capital, Mia Farrow holds a three-month-old baby who is waiting to be vaccinated against polio.
UNICEF has supported the training of 300 parent-teachers in this region, where most teaching staff fled during the height of hostilities in 2003 and 2004. Students are now being taught with the national curriculum so that when peace returns, they children can be reintegrated into the general state-run school system.
“This is inspiring,” said Ms. Farrow. “Against all odds, parents have come together to try to educate their children.”
Ms. Farrow noted that the odds are stacked against the children of CAR. Living in the bush means being exposed to diseases and snake bites, and most families have no access to health care. Food is scarce, so families live on wild fruits and the little they can grow in their temporary environment. Water sources are usually rivers or streams where waterborne diseases flourish.
Rebuilding roads and communities
During Ms. Farrow’s visit to the Kaga Bandoro-Kabo axis, she witnessed the rebuilding of the axis road to facilitate much-needed travel and trade. UNICEF and its partners are also rebuilding wells along the axis, and seven schools have been established or reopened with the assistance of the agency.
One of these, the Zando school, was set up by villagers who began returning from the bush during 2007. UNICEF supported the initiative with school kits for the children, teacher training for parents, and plastic sheeting to serve as a roof for the temporary school structure.
Zandi, 10, has joined Class 1 since he has never been to school. “I like reading and I like poetry and I think it’s important to go to school,” he said Zandi while fiddling with his blue UNICEF school bag. “I used to live in the bush with my family. It was difficult. Now I’m happy to go to school.”
School is improving children’s lives
In an emergency setting, a school is more than just a school. It provides an entry point for humanitarian and government organizations to protect children against rights violations, diseases and malnutrition.
Mia Farrow takes notes during a visit to a ‘bush’ school in the north-western CAR province of Ouham-Pendé.
More than 135 children are currently enrolled in Zando school. With more and more families returning to rebuild their lives in the villages they fled, the school community is preparing to build a solid structure with more classrooms.
Ms. Farrow was encouraged by the progress she witnessed in CAR. “I thought a year ago that it was hopeless, but with the coming of the humanitarian community things have improved tremendously,” she said.