BANGUI, January 2014: We could not see inside the locked school room at St Charles Luanga displacement site in Bangui. Mattresses, suitcases, cooking pots, and buckets were piled up against the windows. To peer inside, my colleague Bart stepped onto the corner of a colourful mat where a family had set up home in the sprawling camp. Twenty thousand people are living in the grounds of the church and school, the majority of them children.
It was the week after I arrived in Bangui, and I was visiting major displacement sites with two of my education colleagues. UNICEF is setting up temporary learning spaces in camps like St. Charles Luanga for children who have been out of school since the conflict started in December 5. The priest who manages the compound let us inside one of the locked school rooms. It was full of drawings, decorations and hand-made posters. Students’ belongings were still in the pidgeon holes, and the desks were coated in dust. In neat cursive writing on the blackboard was written the date, December 4 – the day before fighting broke out in the capital, Bangui. The students had not returned since. We heard gunfire as we stood inside the deserted room. I was told it was normal to hear gunshots every few hours in this part of the city.
The priest agreed to re-open the classrooms to the children staying on the site. UNICEF will provide learning materials and teacher training. In other sites which don’t have the same infrastructure, UNICEF is supporting the construction of temporary learning spaces out of tarpaulin. All classes are given ‘schools in a box’ with toys, books, teaching materials, and even radios which teachers can tune into distance learning classes.
Re-starting education is critical for children trapped in the middle of a conflict. It gives them a sense of normalcy, stability, and a safe space to learn – away from the risk of recruitment to armed groups, or other forms of exploitation such as child labor or sexual exploitation. If education is not re-started early in a crisis, an entire generation can be left uneducated and unprepared to contribute to their society’s recovery.
Temporary classrooms are only a short-term solution, and UNICEF’s priority is supporting the country’s new Government to re-open schools as soon as the security situation stabilises. The safe return of all teachers and students to schools is a crucial step on the road to peace and reconciliation in Central African Republic.
Madeleine Logan is the Communications Specialist at UNICEF Central African Republic. Madeleine arrived in Bangui in mid-January and will be reporting from CAR for the next six months.Photos by Madeleine Logan.
Since the writing of this blogpost, the classrooms at St. Charles Luanga school have been reopened.