MOGADISHU, Somalia – Two years ago Mohamed Aden was a shoe shiner in Mogadishu, walking the streets of the Somali capital in search of clients even as his friends attended school. Now the 12-year-old boy sits proudly among classmates.
For Aden, a poor boy whose family lives in a derelict building in a Mogadishu slum, the transition from streets to classroom might never have happened without a new government-run program called Go2School that seeks to give a free elementary school education to at least 1 million children.
Many in Somalia are happy with the new program, but the country's al-Qaida-linked militant group this week warned that schools are legitimate targets for attack. Sheikh Ali Mohamed Hussein, a senior al-Shabab official, told reporters on Tuesday that the education program seeks to secularize Somali children.
Despite a long history of such anti-education threats, the donor-funded program has proved popular with parents as well as children who otherwise would have no opportunity to get even the most basic education in a country with one of the worst literacy rates in the world.
On a recent morning, Aden gleefully worked on an English exercise as a teacher stood by the blackboard offering instruction to dozens of boys and girls at Mogadishu's Macalin Jamac School, where some 700 students are trying to catch up on lost school time. Launched late last year, the program has already enrolled more than 35,000 students in 16 schools across the country.
"I'm happy now because I am learning at a school," Aden said. "I'm going to become a doctor when I finish studying."
Abdiwahid Sheikh Ahmed, the school's principal, said his goal is "to bring many lost children back to school."
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, is urging donors to keep the program running. Only 42 percent of Somali children attend primary school, according to one estimate by the U.N. Of those, only about a third are girls.
The poor attendance rates are partly a legacy of instability in the Horn of Africa nation. Public schools collapsed in the decades-long chaos that followed the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991. Schools, expensive to run and often targeted by Islamic militants as agents of so-called Western indoctrination, were among the hardest hit.
Although some private schools exist, few Somalis can afford the tuition in a country where many live in extreme poverty. Annual per capita income was $107 in 2011, according to U.N. data. Unable to go to school, many Somali children have ended up on the streets, offering cheap labor at building sites. Others have been targeted as potential recruits for a terrorist campaign by Islamic rebels.
Somali education officials believe many children can be lured to the classroom as the country gradually becomes more peaceful. The program is funded by the U.N. and countries including Qatar, a key supporter of Somalia's president. Parents only have to pay for a uniform and scholastic materials for their children.
"So far, the program is going well. We want to increase the low enrolment rate in the country," said Mohamed Abdiqadir Ali, a director at Somalia's Education Ministry. "We are also considering setting up mobile schools in the rural areas and regions."
Boys sit side by side with girls in schools run under the Go2School program, a gender mix that has alarmed some parents in this conservative Muslim country. Many keep their daughters away.
Ali, the Education Ministry director, said they are yet to design a standard national school curriculum, raising questions about the quality of teaching now on offer. Some teachers said that often their monthly pay comes late, and others were said to have stopped teaching because of safety concerns amid militant threats.
Some critics, noting the country's lack of strong institutions, worry that the program may be derailed by official corruption.
"It's the most excellent program Somalia is undertaking in decades, but there's question of its sustainability given the country's corruption background," said Mohamed Ali, a retired university professor in Mogadishu.