The school in the desert
Agadez, November 2018.
Abbo Bilalane, 58 years old, four years ago singlehandedly launched the first “nomad boarding school” for Tuareg girls and boys – providing free education, accommodation and healthcare for over 80 children aged seven to 12, all without any international funding or outside financial support.
After years of travel in Europe during his youth, and frustrated by his own country’s lack of governmental support and underdeveloped infrastructure in comparison to what he saw abroad, he returned to Niger to help coordinate the Tuareg rebellion of 1990 – 1995. At the end of the conflict, rebels who could read were absorbed into the army. Those who could not were left out in the cold. “I knew then that I had to create the change I wanted to see on my own,” he says. “I was illiterate, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t find educated people to teach other Tuareg children and change their future.”
Educating girls was particularly important to him: after spending so much time in countries where women were highly qualified decision makers, he felt ashamed that girls in Niger were denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential. In 2014, after saving all of his income for nearly ten years, he built the first free boarding school for nomad girls and boys. Four years on, and there are now 43 girls and 38 boys in attendance full time.
The scale of what he’s achieved shouldn’t be underestimated. Niger is widely recognized as the least developed country in the world – coming in at number 186 out of 186 countries on the Human Development Index – and simultaneously believed to be the most dangerous place for a girl to grow up. Girls raised here have the lowest literacy levels in the world, and while programs have been established by agencies such as UNICEF to try and improve their educational access in the cities, those who live as nomads have little to no opportunity to go to school. After all, they might stay near a town for a few days, but within a week, their family will move on, and they’re forced to drop out all over again.