The faded sign outside the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School declares: “The school where every child matters”.
That is the mantra of its founder Zannah Mustapha, a soft-spoken 58-year-old lawyer and mediator from Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria who was recently named the 2017 winner of the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award.
“This is the place where every child matters, no matter what religion, background or culture,” he explains in an interview with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “Our aim is to make positive changes in their lives.”
In 2007, Mustapha founded The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School for orphans and vulnerable children in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Boko Haram has terrorised the area since 2012, killing 20,000 people across the Lake Chad region and displacing millions.
Over 500 pupils
During those first waves of violence, Mustapha feared that growing insecurity and the ensuing military crackdown were producing a generation of children with no education, and that this would in turn create even more problems for what was already one of the poorest regions of the country.
“There were children everywhere, on the streets all alone,” he says. “I kept wondering what would happen to my daughter if I died, who would pay for her education? I realised I had to act.”
Pointing to a tree-covered corner of his 6,000 square metre compound – the fruit of a successful property deal – he says: “That is where we used to play ping-pong, but I decided I did not need that much space. I replaced the tables with a small building.”
From the seed of that building today has grown a school with 540 pupils, of whom just more than half are girls. Four times as many children are on the waiting list. In the headmaster’s office, piles of applications are stacked together in one corner.
Last year, in response to the growing demand for classroom seats, a second school opened just a few kilometres away from the first, on the banks of the River Gadabul. This school currently has 88 pupils, but in time will be much larger. The expansion plans also include a sleeping quarters.
The schools are among the only functional primary education institutions in Maiduguri.
“We simply cannot keep up with demand,” says Suleiman Aliyu, who has been at the school since its creation.
A school for all children
In keeping with Mustapha’s deep belief in inclusivity, those at the school come from both Christian and Muslim families as well as from both sides of the conflict.
“This place is protected because all sides of the conflict are represented here and we teach Islamic and so-called Western education. We teach Arabic, French, English, maths,” says Aliyu. “This is all Mustapha’s achievement. A child is a child to him whatever its background.”
The students pay no fees, which is the main barrier that thousands of poor Nigerians face when receiving basic education. They receive uniforms, a meal a day and healthcare services.
“There is no way a child will learn with an empty stomach,” Mustapha says.
Thirteen-year-old Hauwa Madu is an orphan and among the displaced children at the school. Tears tumble down her cheeks as she recalls the death of her father three years ago. Shortly after, her mother died giving birth. Hauwa moved in with her aunt and uncle who have six of their own children, some of whom resented the presence of the newcomer. At the young age of ten, Hauwa faced a life with no education and little hope. Her dreams of becoming a doctor were in tatters.
Her aunt, however, heard of Mustapha’s school. Hauwa was accepted and since then her life transformed.
“When I think about my parents I become sad, I miss them,” Hauwa recounted. “But I love this school and studying. I have two really good friends…Mr Mustapha is a really good man. He takes care of all us here. He gives us food, books and free study. I still want to study medicine and I think I have a chance.”
For Mustapha, the schools were not enough. His foundation has also created an association for widows, the Future Prowess Widows’ Cooperative Society. The association offers widows support, collectively and individually, to start their lives again.
Hamzatu Amodu Buba was four months pregnant when Boko Haram soldiers shot her husband dead. She heard about the association through other women in a similar situation and thanks to the cooperative, she managed to apply for a grant from the ICRC, which she used to set up a small vegetable juice business.
“Life is so much better,” she says. “Life is still tough but I’m hoping now to be able to save and in time afford my own shop where I can sell the products I make. Mustapha has helped us all so much, he is so good.”
Near the school, Mustapha has made available some 16 hectares of land, now farmed by displaced people living in nearby shelters.
The head of the foundation’s farm project, Sharif Abubakar, fled his home after it was overrun by Boko Haram two years ago.
“This man has changed the life of so many people here,” Abubakar explains. “He has provided free farmland, free education, he even gave us seeds at the start and planted his own crop to show us what could be done.”
Releasing the Chibok girls
Mustapha’s philanthropy has won many admirers. Unlike senior politicians, he has no enemies and has links to all sides of the conflict. This led to him becoming one of the chief mediators in efforts to obtain the release of the Chibok schoolgirls who gained worldwide attention when they were abducted by Boko Haram militants in April 2014.
Altogether, 276 girls were kidnapped. In the confusion immediately after the kidnapping, 57 managed to escape, but the rest were driven far into the Sambisa forest.
Mustapha made contact with the abductors and after a series of confidence-building measures, he was able to negotiate the release of 21 girls. Last May, he had a major breakthrough when 82 girls were set free by the group.
“As they realised what was happening they were very excited and happy,” he recalls with a broad smile. “I am sure more will come out soon.”
Mustapha, who grew up in Maiduguri alongside some of Boko Haram’s leadership, hopes that the mediation efforts to release the Chibok girls will broaden to include negotiating peace with the insurgent group – and eventually, to an end to the violence.