Teachers at hundreds of schools in northern Burkina Faso recently closed their doors after a school director was murdered and others were threatened by suspected armed jihadists. However, the Observers team spoke with one teacher who refuses to be intimidated and is continuing to teach, albeit outside the classroom.
In late January, armed men visited several schools in Soum province (located in the Sahel region). They told the teachers to abandon the current curriculum, start teaching courses in Arabic, and instruct students on the Koran. The armed men also told female teachers to start wearing the veil or face consequences, and then headed to the Malian border. Terrified by the threats, some teachers fled immediately and many schools closed.
A month later, on the night of February 27, armed men attacked police stations in Baraoulé and Tongomaël, two cities in the same province. Once again, the assailants fled towards the Malian border. Ansarul Islam, a jihadist group that operates on the border between Burkina Faso and Mali, claimed responsibility for the attack. Previously, they had carried out a deadly attack in Nassoumbou (once again, in Soum province) on December 16, 2016.
Then, on March 3, a school director and a local man were murdered in Kourfayel, a village located about seven kilometres from Soum.
Once again, after the attack, the assailants fled to the Malian border. Even though no one has yet claimed responsibility for the double murder, many suspect Ansarul Islam. Many schools have decided to close amidst the chaos.
“I got frightened after our colleague was murdered”
I didn’t really take the threats made against schools in late January seriously, but all of that changed after our colleague was murdered on March 3. I became very frightened and decided to close my school, just like many other school directors. We made the decision ourselves in the absence of any direction from authorities.
Since then, many schools have been closed in Soum, as well as in the neighbouring provinces of Oudalan [Editor’s note: Oudalan is also in the Sahel region] and Loroum [in the northern region]. The students now just stay at home. Many teachers are from other provinces and have gone back to their own towns.
"If we stop working, the jihadists will have won"
When the school closed, the parents of the students asked me to come to their homes to keep teaching their children. They didn’t want their children to stop their schooling and fall behind. As a result, I’ve been giving classes at least three hours a day at the homes of my students. I try not to think too much about the threats, so that I don’t let the fear creep in.
If we stop working, the jihadists will have won. Another reason that I am so determined to keep teaching is because education is not always valued in the region. Many families don’t send their children to school regularly—they keep them at home sometimes so that they can work and help out around the house. So if we stop classes, then it is as if we are validating what these parents believe—that education is a secondary concern.
"It feels like we’ve been left on our own to handle this situation"
I don’t know of any other teachers who are still working, even amongst those who have stayed in the region. But we act as a support network for one another. Morale is extremely low. When one of my colleagues is not doing well, I tell them, “It’s hard but you can’t give up because, if you do, it will be like leaving the region to the jihadists!”
Aside from the fear, what is really hard is that the authorities aren’t really responding to the situation. It feels like we’ve been left on our own to handle all this [Editor’s note: The minister of National Education and Literacy did visit to the region in late January and again in early March to help reassure local people]. The only thing that I’ve noticed is that now there are patrols in the area. However, there are no security measures specifically aimed at protecting schools.
In addition to increased military patrols, local authorities have also established a curfew banning cars from roads near the border between 5pm and 6am in an attempt to “reassure the population”.
However, these measures remain “very inadequate”, according to Mamadou Barro, the secretary general of the Federation of National Unions of Workers in Education and Research (Fédération des syndicats nationaux des travailleurs de l'éducation et de la recherché). He told FRANCE 24 that authorities had “failed to come to the aid of a person in danger” in the incident in which a school director was killed, because there had already been a number of threats made against the teaching community at that point.
FRANCE 24 reached out to the minister of Education and Literacy, who said he was unable to comment about the measures taken to reinforce security in the zone. He simply stated that 380 primary schools, 17 junior highs and 15 high schools were currently closed in Soum as well as 190 primary schools, seven junior highs and eight high schools in Oudalan. These account for almost all of the educational establishments in the region. He did not, however, have information about school closings in Loroum, another neighbouring province.