A trip to the Horn of Africa reminded this school leader how education can be a force for good in the world
“Your armed guard will meet you at the checkpoint.”
When I embarked upon my teaching career, this was not a sentence I expected to read in a school visit itinerary. However, before a recent trip to Somaliland to visit the inspirational Abaarso school, it certainly caught my eye.
However, since returning, I realise that by being drawn to this sentence I had fallen into the fallacy that plagues Somaliland today – a focus on the fearful and the unknown when, in fact, the country is defined far more by hope, a hope built on education and its power for good.
Somaliland: a history lesson
Before we go any further, a brief geography and history lesson would perhaps be helpful: despite being independent and self-governing since independence in 1991, Somaliland is not an internationally recognised country, and therefore it is defined by most governments as being part of Somalia.
While officially the Federal Government of Somalia governs the country, in reality al-Shabaab, an organisation associated with terrorism in the region and that openly looks to remove all western influence from Somalia, holds considerable sway in the south of Somalia.
As such, Somalia is renowned as one of the world’s most dangerous countries to visit, and most governments advise not to travel under any circumstances due to “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health issues, kidnapping and piracy”.
Somaliland could not be more different, though. It has experienced fewer terrorist situations than London in the past decade and the culture is warm, kind and open, with people welcoming visitors and eager for you to learn about their culture. At all times during our visit I felt safe and welcomed.
So why did I find myself travelling with an armed guard through the dusty Horn of Africa to this remote school?
The visit was conducted to run a series of interviews with scholarship candidates who had applied to join the school I work at in Switzerland as part of a partnership we have had with the Abaarso network since 2020.
The students we were meeting were studying at the Abaarso boarding school for Somalilanders, which provides a high-quality education under a transformational educational vision. It was only formed in 2009 but has already helped hundreds of students to achieve remarkable things.
For example, we met alumni who had returned from studying at Cambridge and Ivy League universities, whose lives had been transformed by the school and whose intention and objective now was to modernise their country and create a better Somaliland for future generations.
The school itself operates by offering an entrance exam to youngsters around the country, who can apply to attend.
If successful, they are then offered places at Somaliland’s best school, staffed by passionate and experienced international teachers, and offered an accessible and transformational boarding education that focuses not just on academic success but leadership, character, sports and kindness to prepare young people for an ever-changing world.
A big part of Abaarso’s work is giving their students the chance to study abroad at other international schools – of which we are proud to be one, offering a place for a student to attend for three years.
We will soon be welcoming our third such scholar. In previous years we had always conducted these interviews online, but now we felt the need to connect with the school in person.
It was for this reason that I found myself travelling in a 4×4 with an armed soldier to visit this unique place, and having the privilege to meet a young person whose life we could change through education.
If I was daunted by this thought on the plane journey over, the interview process was even more difficult than I imagined.
I interviewed one scholarship candidate who had 31 siblings (some areas of Somaliland maintain an acceptance of polygamy), and another who had been shot and injured in the crossfire of a conflict they did not understand.
I also met a young man whose goal in life, coming from a single-parent family with four sisters and being the first to attend school, was to support female empowerment in his country and ensure that his mother no longer has to work carrying vegetables to the local market, which aggravates her back injury.
We met 11 fantastic young applicants and picking between them was almost impossible. Balancing the opportunity, their ability and their back stories was a battle of head versus heart.
Yet I knew that those who were unsuccessful were still left in the brilliant hands of the educators at the Abaarso boarding school and were being given the best opportunity possible to improve their lives and the lives of their families.
For myself, the visit was a timely reminder that in a world filled with corruption, greed, conflict and selfishness, education is an undeniable force for good.
I would urge any school that has the means to consider contacting Abaarso and helping it with its mission to provide a positive future for the talented and driven young people of Somaliland. They, too, can help to spread this message of hope.
Tomas Duckling is the deputy school director at Aiglon College, Switzerland