It’s a simple children’s story about an elephant and a squirrel who are friends. They enjoy doing many things together; however, swimming is not one of them. The elephant loves to splash in the water, but her squirrel friend is afraid. The story ends with the message, “Don’t expect everyone to like what you like, and don’t think that you should like what everyone else likes.” This beautifully illustrated story is just one in a series of books created by EDC for use in Somalia. In this region that is ravaged by conflict, these slim volumes carry a certain weight with them, providing much-needed education through Somali folktales that have been all but lost. They also convey the critical messages of peace and safety.
Years of conflict have devastated the safety, stability, and community of thousands of Somalis. According to the UN Human Rights Commission, about 1 million Somalis have been displaced internally and about 250,000 have fled to neighboring countries. As a result, between 60 and 70 percent of school-age children have lost the opportunity to attend school. The ongoing conflict has also resulted in the slow erosion of many aspects of their culture, which is largely transmitted by oral tradition.
The books, a component of the Somali Interactive Radio Instruction Program (SIRIP), are part of an EDC strategy to support education for children living in this conflict zone. “Educational resources all but disappeared over the last 16 years as schools and materials were destroyed,” explains EDC’s Sera Kariuki. “The readers are developed specifically for Somali children, with stories and images they are familiar with and can relate to.”
To create the SIRIP readers, EDC staff undertook an extensive search to find Somali folktales that could be made into books. Surprisingly, the search took them to a school district in Lyndale, Minnesota, to a teacher who had collected folktales from her Somali students and written them down in both English and Somali.
EDC adapted the stories as a series of books for early readers, and hired artist Michele Shortley to create illustrations. Each book concludes with educational resources and lesson ideas to assist teachers. SIRIP is now developing chapter books for more advanced readers and exploring ways to distribute the books more widely.
Stability amid uncertainty
A program such as SIRIP can help bring some stability in a place where every day is uncertain. EDC’s work in the region is also being advanced by the Somali Youth Livelihood Program, a new program that is helping provide opportunities for education, training, and employment for youths ages 15–24.
Today, EDC works in numerous countries around the world where conflict is eroding the fabric of community. In nations such as Haiti, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Pakistan, EDC programs address the many issues faced by communities in conflict zones, including the need for education and teacher training. EDC programs also promote the development of life skills, such as health, nutrition, hygiene, and environmental awareness, as well as conflict prevention and resolution.
“Conflict prevention and resolution are woven into the content,” explains EDC’s Kit Yasin. “You can easily weave them into the story line—simple things that address how conflict is resolved.” Kariuki agrees, saying, “With SIRIP, we have a real opportunity to teach young people alternative ways to resolve their differences.”
A hope for tomorrow
Interactive radio instruction (IRI) may seem a simple, low-tech approach for the far-reaching issues affecting communities living with conflict. Indeed, the radios are small and powered only by a hand crank or solar energy. But despite that, the impact of IRI programs is extraordinary. In the case of SIRIP, not only does the program reach more than 250,000 Somali children throughout the Horn of Africa, with instruction in literacy, math, and life skills, but it also provides a way to help the teachers, through additional lesson plans and training.
SIRIP seeks especially to advance education among girls, promoting the participation of girls and offering examples of women and girls as positive role models. In addition, untold numbers of adults in the community, known as the “shadow audience,” tune in and receive the same training in literacy and life skills. The content is written in such a way that both children and adults find it educational and entertaining.
“We need to ensure that every child’s right to an education is protected, perhaps more so in a conflict zone,” says Kariuki. “When war and displacement occur, next to the basic needs of food and shelter, education is the most important element in not only restoring a sense of normalcy but also providing hope for a better tomorrow.”
SIRIP is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Originally published on January 21, 2009