Miango, Nigeria: One Thursday this March, hundreds of children filed into an uncompleted building in the middle of the sleepy town of Jebbu Miango, on the outskirts of the central Nigerian city of Jos around noon. Some were coated in dust from head to toe.
They were there to attend classes organised by Jebbu Miango Reads, a volunteer group with 40 members – some are teachers and the rest cater to the children’s welfare – from the city centre.
Mary Rago, a 15-year-old girl, was the oldest among them.
In recent years, the host community Jebbu Miango has experienced violence on an almost annual basis due to an ongoing pastoralist conflict in farming settlements across central Nigeria – or the Middle Belt as it is also called.
For decades, the agrarian, mostly Christian residents have alleged that nomadic Fulani herdsmen, predominantly Muslim, invade their communities, destroy their crops and maim or kill locals. But due to climate change and population boom, the crisis has exacerbated in recent times.
Thousands have died and many more have been displaced. According to a 2021 report of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), Plateau state has recorded more than 2,000 deaths since 2005.
Between July and August last year, as the rainy season approached, Jebbu Miango experienced another episode in which 71 people died. This April, 10 people were killed and 19 others injured in Bassa, the community’s host local government area.
An overlooked effect of the violence has been the closure – or in some cases, burning – of schools in several communities across the Middle Belt. Even the University of Jos has been shut since 2018 – twice. A combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and separate, intermittent, religious clashes in Jos, the state capital, has also kept children out of classes.
When Rago’s community was burned, she and her family ran helter-skelter, picking as many possessions as possible while flames went up around them. She was in her second year of junior secondary education but her school, part of an orphanage which housed 156 children, was razed in the attack.
“I miss school and my friends so much,” she told Al Jazeera, her voice barely audible. “They burned it.”
Bridging the gap
Jebbu Miango Reads and a public school which recently reopened are the only options available to children like Rago across Bassa.
It began in August 2019 as the brainchild of Kangyang Gana, then a 32-year-old missionary worker and plant science and technology graduate from the University of Jos. She noticed a gulf between pupils in Jebbu Miango and those in the city when she was posted to the community by her church.
So, she began a Bible-study group for children to bridge the gap.
“You will find a child in grade three and the child cannot read [and] identification of the alphabet is still a big problem,” Gana told Al Jazeera. “We started learning and we had the idea of building a library so that students can come so that we can have one–to–one with children who are struggling.”
She began the initiative by bootstrapping but then donations started trickling in from social media users. That funding is being channelled into building a permanent structure.
It began with only 15 pupils but there are now 200 of them. Two are preparing for university entrance exams later this year.
Three times a week, the children cluster excitedly into the building, some having walked a few miles from their homes.
That Thursday, some of them ran into the premises, skipping steps to make it in time for the assembly ground where they lined up in ascending order of heights, sang, prayed and did physical exercises to get ready for class.
Afterwards, the rowdy affair quietened as pupils were split into different classes to study letters, numbers and sentences depending on the level of the pupils. Some were taken aside for one-to-one tutoring.
But while the number of students has increased, violence has constantly punctuated studies, even the pupils remain disconnected from the conventional education system.
‘Two steps backwards’
As the classes ended at 3pm, the students went, books in hand, back to their homes, the majority of which are still under reconstruction. Some of the mud houses have been fitted with new zinc roofs, reflecting harsh sparks of light.
In early April, organisers put the classes on hold as attacks resumed in the community in which the state government said more than a dozen houses and schools were burned by armed groups. The last attacks displaced their families to Miango and some to Jos. So, Gana moved classes temporarily to Miango where most of the families were taking refuge.
“It is a vicious cycle of madness and violence,” she said.
Nenkinan Deshi, a volunteer coordinating the programme, decried the constant interruption of academic work. “It is like we take one step forward and two steps backwards,” he said.
The programme has managed to continue and does its part in rebuilding the affected communities since the children and their families cannot migrate fully from their ancestral lands.
The team is taking on an ambitious project of building a community library despite the threat because it believes education is non-negotiable.
“We hope that there will be peace,” Gana said. “The children, having learned to read and write, can come into the library and pick a book and learn something for themselves.”
In the time the schools have been closed, the government has barely given any attention to Jebbu Miango – or to the lack of social amenities there – as is the case with most rural communities across Nigeria.
Over the last two years, Plateau’s state budgetary allocation for education has been halved. In 2019, the approved budget was 12.2 billion naira ($29.4m), and 10.7 billion naira ($25.8m) the following year. Last year, only 6.1 billion naira ($14.6m) was approved.
Crystal Ikanih-Musa, regional advocacy manager for Malala for Africa Fund, says initiatives like Jebbu Miango Reads and their organisers are “the only stakeholders doing something about [child education in Nigeria]”.
But she warns that such solutions for the sector’s systemic issues are like “putting Band-Aids on a deep would, or acting as Panadol to ease pain from an underlying illness”.
Early this year, UNICEF reported that 10.5 million Nigerian children are out of school, the highest rate in the world. More than a tenth of those are in the Middle Belt alone, according to the Universal Basic Education Commission.
Stakeholders in the education sector say reality is bleaker.
“That statistic is really lower than the reality on [the] ground,” said Swanta Bonat, director of community outreach for Educational Change, a nonprofit working to improve access to education in rural communities nationwide. “The people who bear the brunt of decisions adults make are children. When you shut down communities because of violence, everything stops.”
“When you come to the core North, you will find rural villages that are totally disconnected from the [social amenities] grid,” Bonat told Al Jazeera. “There are children there that have never heard about schools.”
Nonprofits like Jebbu Miango Reads filling the gap are important because they “focus on specific areas” at the grassroots, she said.
Despite the challenges in furthering her work, Gana sees the initiative’s efforts as imperative and education as non-negotiable. Currently, the team is taking on the ambitious project of building a community library.
“Rome was not built in one day,” she said. “What I told myself from the beginning is that … we may not be able to help every child in the community, but we are playing our part.”