KANO, NIGERIA – It is like schools the world over: ebullient children hurtle up and down the stairway as teachers try to keep some semblance of order. There are satchels and lunch boxes, colorful art, rows of wooden desks carved with graffiti by pupils. There is also a school motto: “Knowledge for success.” This is Maitama Sule Girls Academy in hot and humid Kano, northern Nigeria, where the simple act of learning has become a show of courage and defiance.
The Islamist militant group Boko Haram killed 185 people in Kano on a single day in 2012 — its deadliest single attack. The school is now on alert in case of any attempts to repeat the audacious kidnapping of more than 200 girls in the city of Chibok.
“Almost all the girls, we are of the same age,” said pupil Rabia Nura, 16, pulling at her pristine white hijab repeatedly but showing no nerves. “It was devastating because you just feel like you are the one — in your school you were abducted, you cannot see your parents. It is really alarming.”
Hundreds of parents have called Maitama Sule, a private secondary school, since the Chibok abductions, asking what security measures have been taken and anxious for reassurance that their daughters will be safe. But staff are determined that education must go on and have incorporated discussion of the incident into its lessons.
Nura, whose favorite subject is chemistry, is everything that the fundamentalists despise: confident, loquacious and determined to become a doctor and the Nigerian minister of health some day.
“We the girls are the ones that make a nation together. We as the future mothers, as the future wives, as the future ambassadors of our country, we all have to be educated, so that the country will develop everything all right in the society.”
She is among 400 girls and 40 boys studying at the school, which started with eight pupils in 2005. Christians and Muslims learn side by side. The number of security guards at the gate has been tripled since the Chibok kidnappings and visitors’ bags are now routinely searched. It is indicative of how the way of life has changed in Kano and many other Nigerian cities.
Martins Felix, the school principal, said: “When the attack came in 2012 it was shocking; it has never happened in the history of Kano. Growing up now for these kids is very challenging. When my little girl of 7 hears any bang she says, ‘They’re bombing again, they’re bombing again.’ “
Felix, a 46-year-old Christian, believes education and job opportunities for young people are crucial to the long-term defeat of Boko Haram. “Idleness is the devil’s workshop. You see them from morning to night with nothing to do, no income, and they start thinking how can they make it.”
Kano, under Shariah law, is the second biggest city in Nigeria, commercial hub of the impoverished north and the home of Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote. It has a history of religious clashes and is still trying to recover from the 2012 atrocity. But to some there is a glimmer of hope. The Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Fatima is surrounded by razor wire and worshippers are scanned with a metal detector at the door.
Priest Gabriel Ikor said: “Overall the security situation is improving. Before it was a daily occurrence: you heard a bomb blast, people were shot. It’s not like that now.”
Some give credit to the army and state security service, although their records are far from unblemished by allegations of brutality and ill discipline.
State Gov. Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, said he has only 8,000 police compared with the smaller state of Kaduna’s 12,000 and Lagos’s 32,000, but has compensated by working with forces such as the Hisbah, a strict Islamic organization with 9,000 members intent on cracking down on “immorality,” and a neighborhood watch program comprising about 35,200 vigilantes.