High school students are finally back in the classroom in Maiduguri, Nigeria, more than two years after secondary schools were shut in fear of attacks by Boko Haram. A high school teacher told FRANCE 24 about his joy at returning to teaching, despite the challenges that he and his students face.

Islamist militant group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden”, started attacking schools in northern Nigeria around 2009. Many of the schools they targeted were located in Maiduguri. This town, located in Borno state, is considered the birthplace of the insurgency.

In spring 2014, Boko Haram carried out some of its most savage school attacks to date: slaughtering dozens of students at Federal Government College in Yobe State in February and kidnapping hundreds of girls from Chibok, in Borno state in April.

By May 2014, the Borno state government felt they had no choice: they closed all high schools that month.

Though the security situation eventually improved as Boko Haram was weakened, efforts to re-open Maiduguri’s 13 high schools were slowed by the fact that many school buildings were used to house Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who fled to the state capital to escape Boko Haram.

After several false starts, high schools in Maiduguri finally reopened in October.

Schoolboys in uniform head to school in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Children in school uniforms are once again seen on Maiduguri'sstreets.

“There was no way we could ask students to come to school when we risked being attacked at any time”

Moussa (not his real name) is a science teacher at a secondary school for girls. 

Our school was closed on March 14, 2014, the day that Boko Haram attacked the Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri. We could hear the fighting going on from our school. The whole town was cordoned off and we kept the students on lockdown. The next day, we sent the students home with their belongings. We expected to reopen in a month but the security situation kept deteriorating and the school attacks became increasingly violent.

Finally, the state government decided to close all high schools. It was the right choice- we didn’t have proper security and we risked being attacked at any time. There was no way we could ask students to come back.

“As a teacher, you want to teach”

For the next two and a half years, we waited for schools to reopen. My colleagues and I would report to the school every Monday and Thursday, in hopes that we’d get good news.

I can’t even describe the torture. As a teacher, you want to teach. The joy is to impart knowledge. We were still earning our salaries but we were stuck, we couldn’t do anything. And everyone was afraid.

Finally, last year, the state government said that they would reopen schools. But they kept pushing back the date. Most schools were being used to house IDPs. After the IDPs were moved earlier this year, many of the buildings still needed significant repairs. For the time being, the government has just patched them up.

Structurally, our school is ok, but it was both burglarized and vandalized. We lost a lot of our instructional materials. I need chemicals to teach chemistry, for example, but most of my chemicals are now expired.

“When I last saw my students, many of them were little girls. Now, three years later, they are women”

On the day our school reopened, we welcomed 73 students. Back in 2014, we had 1,983 students. [Editor's note: After the first day, enrolment continued. By November 1, 558 students had enroled].

Those students who returned were in high spirits. For me, it was bittersweet. We lost track of many of our students during these past few years. We don’t know if they were displaced or transferred schools.

Also, when I last saw my students, many of them were little girls. Now, three years later, they are full-grown women. I was happy they were there, but sad, because I kept thinking: they should be in college right now. I had to control my emotions in front of the classroom. It was better to show them the beautiful part than the ugly part.

No amount of words can be used to describe the extent of what Boko Haram has done. Many of my students witnessed atrocities, some saw their parents killed with their own eyes. Their lives were almost destroyed, but now they are back to the system. Two years is a long time and so I have a lot of refreshing to do with them so we can start where we left off. But I told them they must forget about the past and concentrate on the future. I have to give them the confidence and courage to go forward.

Life in Maiduguri remains tenuous, however. On October 29, two suicide bombers blew themselves up, one near the Bakassi IDP camp and the other by a fuel depot. The bombers killed seven people and injured at least 24.