Zannah runs the only school in Borno State where orphans and children of victims from both sides of Boko Haram insurgency are given free education in a school where pupils are fed freely.
His relentless effort to give assured future for the downtrodden children, which started since 2007, eventually earned him an international recognition especially for daring to promote western education in a volatile clime where doing so was almost a taboo of the Boko Haram insurgents.
Boko Haram insurgents, in their avowed hate for westernisation, had killed more than 200, 000 people and caused the displacement of over two million persons in northeast Nigeria in the last five years.
The Robert Burns Humanitarian Award (RBHA) is a globally-respected accolade supported by Scotland’s South Ayrshire Council, its Winter Festival body and sponsored by Burn’s Crystal. The RBHA is an award in honour of Scotland’s famous poet and icon, Robert Burns who despite his short-lived lifetime has made a statement in his work that lives on for over 200 years after his death. The Award is organised annually on January 25 commemorating Burns’ birthday. This years’ edition which is the 15th one, marks the 237th birthday of Burns.
As barrister Zanna Mustapha walked through the hallway of the prestigious Brig O’ Doon Hotel in Scotland, the venue of the award, on Thursday January 25, 2016, his eyes were filled with tears: he was gripped with mixed emotions.
From the dusty planes of Yerwa (Maiduguri) where he was born, Barrister Zannah was being ushered to the centre stage of the global award as the first African that ever got to that stage of recognition as far as the RBHA is concerned.
Selected from hundreds of nominees, Zannah stood beside two great philanthropists: Doctor David Nott, who is popularly known as the ‘Indian Jones of Surgery’ and Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow, the founder of Mary’s Meal. They stood as the top three finalists.
Given the weight and quantum of their humanitarian services and the number of lives their works may have imparted, Nigeria’s Zannah should naturally be rated the least. But the judges had to look beyond the risks and reaches to factor in the amount of resources at the disposal of the three nominees which enabled them to achieve what they were being recognised for. On this consideration, the Founder of Mary’s Meal whose feeding program feeds over one million mouths daily, across the globe, was knocked out because he was considered a super-rich philanthropist who could easily achieve more than what he is currently doing.
That left Zannah and David Nott on a tie. The judges had to toss a coin to decide who the 2016 winner was. And fortunately for David Nott, the war zone surgeon who despite having a gun bullet still buried in his legs, continues to provide surgical services to victims of war, the coin fell in his favour. That made Barrister Zannah, the first-runner-up.
Though Zannah did not clinch the Award, his nomination will for ever make him a legendary figure in the call of charity and humanitarian services.
Back in Nigeria, Zannah informed LEADERSHIP Friday that he remained deeply humbled “to be found worthy of such honour in recognition of doing something I felt is just a little contribution to humanity, only for it to turn out to even measure up to greater efforts of others across the globe”.
“It is great to be likened to an icon whose work some 250 years ago is still being celebrated today. The legendary Robert Burns in whose honour the International Humanitarian Award was initiated, died in an early age; but he was able to put in place a program that recognizes human dignity.”
“What we are doing in Maiduguri precedes the Boko Haram insurgency; we started the school in the year 2007, targeting orphans and children who are being raised by widows, but today it has become a world view.”
“I have never thought that our efforts would be recognised even at the national level, but I was deeply touched when such big recognition is coming from far away Scotland. I never knew Robert Burns as a humanitarian philanthropist; I only read his poem, ‘Man to Man’ as a student of literature. I am also touched by this nomination because I never knew who nominated me.”
He said the recognition and nomination is an honour he dedicates to the very children for which he is making expensive sacrifices to help them become somebody, in appreciation of their resilience to acquire education in one of the most volatile climes of the world.
“This is an honour bestowed on me; but in doing this work, a lot of people are involved as partners, so this recognition is dedicated to the resilience of these children who stood firmly by my side despite the security challenges that we faced operating in a very volatile environment. It is a dedication to the families of these children, the management of the school and all those who in one way or the other have come forward to assist whenever we go knocking at their doors.”
Looking back at how he started, Barrister Zannah said it all began in January 2007 when he was inspired by his Islamic religious teaching that emphasises “serving humanity to earn better rewards in heaven.” Behind his home Jiddari Polo area, the school started with only 36 orphans.
But beyond this motivation, the lawyer said he also enjoyed the collective support of the community, which enabled him to carry on. The periodic interventions of well-meaning individuals kept him sailing. But his major lifeline is a fish pond that he established behind the school where he breeds fishes for sale and the proceeds go into running the school.
“There are instances where we are almost unable to continue the free feeding of the pupils but with the support of the good-hearted people, we were able to drag on. But today we have passed that stage of difficulty, and we give thanks to God for that. Yes, from time to time we have people coming in trickles to say we want to support you. But our main stay is the fishpond that we are running to support us; apart from that there is no strong international or national support coming to our school.”
Zannah’s school, popularly known as Future Prowess Islamic School, has managed to survive the Boko Haram insurgency at a period when other schools had to close down for over a year due to incessant attacks by Boko Haram insurgents. He said his school does not only provide services for children of victims of the insurgency on both sides of the war, but also ensures that he gives ownership role to the members of the targeted communities.
“In our case, what we did was ensure that the communities own the school, own the program and curriculum. When we were about to start, we called on all the widows and told them that we want to get a future for these children; we need a serene learning environment; and how do we run the school etc.”
“First the widows said they want the children to have Islamic religious knowledge; we said fine. Then we asked about the issue of dressing; they suggested caps and hijabs; we said fine. When we said we wanted to have subject like English language thought in the school, some of the widows resisted it; but we had to diplomatically convince them that in Europe, the white man does not know Arab, but accepts Islam, and we pointed it out that how would the white man feel if he hears that some Muslims don’t want to learn his language; and they agreed that English should be thought; on mathematics, they also objected to it; but we had to explain to them that mathematics has a root in Islam.”
“That was how we diplomatically convinced them to be part of the decision making body in the school. We have ensured that the school has a cross-section of the entire strata of the society. My children are in the school, so are the wards of all the staffs in the school. Even the chief Imam of the area has his children in the school. We did this to give the larger orphan population in the school some sense of esteem and to avoid any form of stigmatisation.”
“We have also introduced a Widow Support program for the mothers of some of the children in the school. Due to the kind of cultural setting they found themselves, most of the widows were once full time house wives; and with the death of their husbands, they became as vulnerable as the children and orphans. We had to organise a trauma session for the widows and the orphans most of whom have witnessed how their husbands and fathers or both parents were killed. We had collaboration with the Swiss Embassy who supports our trauma session through the Federal Neuro Psychiatric Hospital. We have had widows who are adults bedwetting because of the trauma they have passed through; so all these have to be given medication and counselling.”
From a class of 36 orphans in 2007, the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School now boasts of 356 students who are direct products of the school at various stages of their secondary education across northern Nigeria. The school currently has a pupil capacity of 420. This number would have been doubled but the school is constrained by space and little infrastructure.
“At the beginning in 2007, we started with 36 orphans. Most of these 36 orphans are now in secondary school finally year, some are in the university. Most of our pupils have gained admission into Barewa College, Queen Amina College, and some other notable northern schools. We have also introduced mentoring programs that have good samaritans like elders, philanthropists well known in society coming out to take responsibility for the children by playing parental roles. And when they close from schools, during the holidays, they visit these individuals who attend to them as parents do.
“Seeing the children develop academically and even morally, I feel happy and even lucky because I stand like a father to all of them. I am very proud to say I have one of our students that is currently reading medicine in the University.”
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