Feysal Osman: Making a Difference in Education

Somalia has suffered more than sixteen years of violent civil war. More than half of its population is younger than eighteen, and these young people have grown up knowing only conflict and hardship.

Feysal Osman grew up in this place. He was twelve when he found work as a translator for U.S. soldiers in Somalia, a benefit of having picked up a little English from the troops stationed near his community. He was lucky; some boys he knew were being recruited to fight with the warring factions within his country. Describing Somali youth, Osman writes in an email, "Most are out of school, either illiterate or semiliterate, with little hope for the future. Many are displaced and have witnessed and sometimes participated in violence." What strikes him most, however, is their resilience and capacity to survive.

Somalia has one of the world's lowest student-enrollment rates, and there is extremely little public financing for education. In addition, the country's division into three administrative zones in 1991 created distinct ministries of education that operate with little coordinated planning. These factors, coupled with persistent outbreaks of violence, make Somalia a challenging place for teaching and learning.

Osman works to improve the situation through the Somali Interactive Radio Instruction Program, run by the Education Development Center, an international nonprofit health and education agency. SIRIP produces and broadcasts instructional segments on basic reading, math, and life skills such as health and conflict prevention. The EDC broadcasts the segments five times a week via a shortwave radio signal.

As the program's regional coordinator in south-central Somalia, Osman promotes the broadcasts and related supplemental materials to schools and youth organizations in the capital city of Mogadishu and other nearby communities. He uses the broadcasts to support teachers, many of whom have no formal teacher training, have little in the way of instructional supplies, and are working with groups of seventy or more students at a time.

The SIRIP programs use stories, songs, role-playing activities, and other engaging formats; teachers facilitate interaction and extend the program's themes. Now in its third year, the program has reached more than 200,000 learners and 12,700 teachers. Recent research shows that students learning with SIRIP are performing significantly better in math and literacy than those students not participating in the program.

Osman, whose own education includes training in information technology, education, and conflict resolution, is clear about the huge challenges facing the teachers he works with: "Whether a nation succeeds or fails or remains mediocre depends very much on the qualities of educators a country generates," he says. He's sure Somalia's peace "can only be achieved by approaching our problems and disputes with open, educated minds."

Mary Kadera, a former teacher, is a freelance writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and volunteers with local environmental organizations.
Read the Q&A

How do you use the Web, or other technology, in your work?

I constantly use the Web to gain access to a more theoretical knowledge related to my work field, improve technical skills, and broaden my personal experience in the light of prominent educationalists past history. Also, I regard the Web as critical means to fulfilling key obligations of my task. Typical sites include those for the Education Development Center, the Institute for the International Education of Students, the Academy for Education Development, Outreach International, Education for Development, the Global Youth Action Network, and TakingITGlobal.

Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?

I was inspired by several research books and reports, including the following:

  • "A Chance to Learn: Knowledge and Finance for Education in Sub-Saharan Africa"
  • Achieving Education for All: Pakistan: Promising Practices in Universal Primary Education
  • Achieving Education for All: The Case for Non-Formal Education
  • "Caribbean Region: Access, Quality, And Efficiency in Education"
  • "Early Childhood Education: Good Practice in Achieving Universal Primary Education"
  • Education for a New Era: Design and Implementation of K-12 Education Reform in Qatar
  • "Education Policy Analysis: Focus on Higher Education, 2005-2006"
  • "The Business of Education: A Look at Kenya's Private Education Sector"
  • The Link Between Health, Social Issues, and Secondary Education: Life Skills, Health, and Civic Education
  • "Toward Universal Primary Education: Investments, Incentives, and Institutions: Task Force on Education and Gender Equality"
  • World Yearbook of Education 2001: Values, Culture and Education
  • World Yearbook of Education 2002: Teacher Education: Dilemmas and Prospects

Another factor that inspired my work was the situation of my country. Pervasive violence, anarchy, and lawlessness have continued to inflict insuperable harsh sufferings on the Somali people. The consequences of emergencies such as displacement, breakdown of family and social structures, erosion of traditional value systems, lack of governance, absence of accountability, and lack of access to basic social services make me always think of sustainable change within my community.

Who are your role models?

My role models are Katherine Yasin, an instructional-design expert; Stuma Makokha, with Uganda's Gender-Based Violence Prevention Network; David K. Serem, an education professor; and Osman H. Abdi.

What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?

I would give the following advice to those who consider me as a role model: In the first place, it is crucial for you to create a vision of the future for your community that takes into account the legitimate long-term interest and development of your nation. You must be able to forecast and foresee the future challenges your country is facing. Whether a nation succeeds or fails or remains mediocre depends very much on the qualities of educators a country generates.

To motivate your team or subordinates to strive for higher levels of achievement, you must be brave enough to make decisions based on what you believe, rather than be influenced by special interests. Moreover, you will have to be psychologically robust and willing to move out of your comfort zone and endure the culture shock of operating in a new environment, which requires a high degree of tolerance and a high threshold for frustration.

Naturally, it is not enough to be a visionary. You must be able to develop rational strategies to move toward your vision. Among the qualities of an effective educator is the ability to develop rational strategies, motivate action, and allow freedom of thought as well as the willingness to take risks. You must be knowledgeable in order to enable others to develop effective strategies and must be a thinking person, engaged in lateral and innovative thinking.

People are normally resistant to change. Thus, you must inculcate the belief that change is necessary and good. Another aspect of effective guidance is that you should provide space for and even invite constructive criticism. People should be able to freely voice their views or objections and have their questions answered.

What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?

I am driven by the philosophy that development in education and technology will bring about long-awaited change for my community by creating more opportunities and developing skills among the society. My vision is all about change and innovation; it is about change for the better -- better life, better productivity, and better alternatives.

Somalia is a fragmented country that has suffered more than sixteen years of violent civil war. Yet despite overwhelming odds, young people have often demonstrated enormous resilience and capacity to survive. With adequate support, guidance, and skills, they can provide the foundation for building peace and rebuilding lives and communities.

I do my work believing that by promoting education and technology awareness, by fighting illiteracy, we might eventually eradicate ignorance and unemployment and, with the help of others, live in peace and harmony.

What is your mantra in the face of adversity?

Technology is the key to better education and information today.

What has been easier than expected about the SIRIP project? What has been harder than you expected?

SIRIP programs were launched in April 2006 in two main regions of south-central Somalia -- Mogadishu and Merca -- as pilot programs. There were not encouraging signs at the beginning, but within a very short time, everything went beyond expectations. Schools demanded the program and showed their willingness to support, contribute to, and participate in the programs -- the first of their kind in those areas. I never expected such impressive acceptance from these communities.

In my country, children remain the chief victims of continuing violence -- dropping out and displacement of young kids from fighting are the hardest obstacles.

Next article in "The Global Six 2008" > Heba Ramzy

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Elyse B (not verified)

Learning by shortwave radio

I was in Malawi this summer, and friends that work with USAID had organized and funded a similar program to start this year in Malawi. They were moving to Uganda and hoping to organize the same program there. When we think of "distance learning" we need to be open to what that might look like in other countries. I was really excited to read how this program has impacted learners in a similar environment as in Malawi.

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