Fatuma Omar Ismail: A scholar born into squalor

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

270,000 people are marooned in the hopelessness of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp. But one extraordinary Somali girl found a way out. Daniel Howden reports

If Fatuma was an ordinary Somali girl, she might well have been traded for some cows or a couple of camels by now. At 15, she's at prime marriageable age and as the daughter of a poor family, her bride price would be a comparative bargain. Luckily Fatuma is anything but ordinary. Born in the war-ravaged Somali city of Kismayo and raised in the world's largest refugee camp on the border with Kenya, Fatuma Omar Ismail now spends her days in the leafy surroundings of Nairobi's best girls' school, Kenya High.

She got there by beating every other student in north-east Kenya.

At first, the young Somali can appear to be shy but that exterior belies an inner strength born of an intense competitive spirit. Asked to test a microphone by saying the first thing that comes into her head, she replies: "Number one."

In Kenya, access to secondary school depends on your mark out of 500 in an exam sat at age 13 or 14. A mark of 250 or more is considered good. Anything over 300 for a girl, in a system which still favours boys, is exceptional. Fatuma scored 364.

Grace Wachuka, an education specialist with the non-government organisation Care International, worked in the refugee camps at Dadaab for five years and has taken a special interest in Fatuma.

"In Kenya," she says, "for a girl to get over 300 marks means she is very bright. For a girl to do that in Dadaab is outrageous. Fatuma is one in a million."

When Fatuma talks of her life-changing exam results, she is a picture of frustration. "I was expecting to get 400-plus," she grumbles. "But the moderators cut some marks I think."

Midway through her second term at the Nairobi boarding school, Fatuma's presence here is still a surprise, even to senior members of staff who privately admit that they would prefer the handful of scholarships at Kenya's elite national schools to go to Kenyans.

Most of the other pupils in their regimented ranks of red and grey uniforms made it to this imposing school from the comparatively well catered-for suburbs of the capital or places like Central Province.

The imposing institution, built under British rule from grey stone, is the alma mater for daughters of ministers, businessmen and judges.

But the refugee girl is not intimidated. "I don't care even if their father is President," she says without aggression. "I know where I came from. I know why I'm here. We sleep in the same beds, we eat the same food."

It wasn't always so. Fatuma studied for her exams in a shack built from flattened, empty cooking oil cans provided by the UN's World Food Programme. There were at least 100 pupils to a teacher in her class and almost all the teachers were untrained volunteers.

Dadaab is a dust-blown trinity of overcrowded refugee camps, built to hold 45,000 refugees, on the arid plains that divide Kenya from its northern neighbour, Somalia. Today it shelters 270,000 people in conditions Oxfam describes as "conducive to a public health emergency".

Some of the best stories have humble origins but few of them emerge from Dadaab. Understandably, Fatuma is a hero in the camps and the sometimes awkward teenager at Kenya High knows that thousands of refugee children are counting on her to blaze a trail for them.

When news of Fatuma's scholarship came through there was a rare party in Dadaab's Hagadera camp. The heroine of the hour remembers celebrating with fizzy drinks.

"School is not a priority at Dadaab – girls don't have an equal chance," says Ms Wachuka. "Fatuma has triumphed in very difficult circumstances."

From the age of 12 she "had a dream" of going to a national school in her host country and wasn't going to be put off by naysayers who told her that refugee girls could not go. "It can be done," she says. "I've done it."

Her eventual aim is to study medicine and one day return to Dadaab as a doctor. "If there is peace in Somalia," she adds, she would like "to go and help people there where there are not enough qualified people."

The teenager understands that she is a role model and has a simple message for other young Somalis.

"You know education is the key to success. First go to school, work hard and choose a career. Work hard, aim higher and be nice to people."

This is almost exactly the advice Fatuma's mother gave her eldest daughter before putting her on a UN flight out of the refugee camp and into a world unknown to either of them. The culture shock must have been immense but has been managed with another maternal tip: "Don't take these things too seriously." The lawns and courtyards of Kenya High are eerily quiet for a school of nearly 850 pupils. The watchword here is discipline.

They are certainly a world away from Fatuma's first school in Kismayo. The Somali port is now the stronghold of the radical Islamic militia, al-Shabaab, where last year a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death in a sports stadium after reporting that she had been raped.

Fatuma remembers the school she left at age eight as a place you "would hear gun shots and fighting ... You would see people killing each other."

After a lifetime of wearing the hijab in front of other people, the most difficult adjustment has been wearing the compulsory uniform of a skirt and a short-sleeved blouse. The awkwardness of the transition is doubtless compounded by being 15 and relatively tall. Fatuma carefully folds her gangly limbs into the smallest space possible but she is far from invisible.

She admits that her new life is not always easy. She misses her seven brothers and sisters and speaks to her mother by telephone only once a month. Her scholarship pays for boarding fees and uniforms but nothing more. There was no money to pay for the nine-hour bus ride to Dadaab during the Easter holiday, so she stayed in Nairobi.

Faced with the brightest girls in Kenya Fatuma is no longer "number one". In her first term, she lagged behind in the two national languages, English and KiSwahili.

But there is plenty of reason to think she will catch up. Remarkably, she came near the top of her class in computer education, having never seen one before; and has taught herself to swim butterfly, having never been in a pool before reaching Nairobi. But it's not enough for her.

"I don't feel good. In my school I used to be the best," she says. This is followed by a note of polite defiance that lands somewhere between a promise and a warning: "They are not brighter than me. They are just better at the moment."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before