LIMANI, CAMEROON - Children at the Government Primary School Limani dance with joy as they meet each other in class for the first time in several years.
Cameroon has re-opened 40 schools on its northern border with Nigeria that were sealed four years ago because of threats from Boko Haram insurgents. But while students are happy returning, many of their teachers are absent and have been replaced by troops from the Multinational Joint Task Force still fighting the Islamist group.
The children’s school in Limani is one of the forty near northern Cameroon’s border with Nigeria that authorities reopened this week, citing improved security.
Cameroon closed around sixty schools in the area beginning in December 2014 because of the threat from Boko Haram.
The Islamist militant group, whose name roughly translates as “non-Islamic education is a sin,” had launched an all-out assault on villages near the Lake Chad area.
Cameroon says hundreds of Boko Haram fighters attacked and torched schools, including the Limani primary school.
Ibrahim Nassourou was nine years old when the school was shut. He and his parents fled to a neighboring village where Nassourou was unable to attend school.
He says when he was told that their school in Limani had been reopened he shouted with joy because he can now again persue an education.
Cameroon authorities are touting the absense of a major Boko Haram attack for the past year and are urging parents to return their children to the re-opened schools. Troops are protecting the schools, they say.
But parents are reluctant to trust promises of safety. Only about 20 percent of the students have come back.
Teachers are also noticeably absent.
At the Limani Primary School’s Class Five, troops from the Multinational Joint Task Force have traded their weapons for teaching manuals and chalk.
Cameroon-born staff corporal Blaise Fonkon says teaching is part of their social outreach program.
"We have [a] humanitarian line of operation. In that humanitarian line of operation, we have of course the school situation. Through their school, if they actually know what they are supposed to do here, they will be engineers, they will be teachers, they will be doctors and I am sure that they will change this country," Fonkon said.
Classroom teacher Edison Abunaw says despite assurances of their safety, most of his teaching colleagues do not wish to return.
And between Boko Haram’s attacks and kidnappings, and villagers hiding in fear, he says, the fate of many former students is still not known.
"We used to have about 500 to 600 pupils, but we have about two hundred [now]. Most of the parents, they don’t tell us what happened to their children so we are confronted with situations where we cannot easily explain what happened to the child," Abunaw said.
Abunaw notes classes only started September 3, so he says it is too early to say if more teachers and students will return.
Cameroon is giving absent teachers two weeks to come back to their jobs.
Mayor of Fotokol town Abouzari Mahamat says the government has promised to rebuild schools that Boko Haram damaged.
He says the engineering corps of the Multinational Joint Task Force, which is fighting Boko Haram, has promised to construct new classes and repair those that were destroyed. Mahamat says, thanks to the presence of the troops, peace is returning and children can now go to school.
But Mahamat acknowledges that reconstruction has been slow because contractors also worry that fighting could return.