It Takes a School

by Jonathan Starr

February 7, 2017


It is early summer 2011, near the end of our second year at the Abaarso School in Somaliland, Africa. The prolonged winter drought is well behind us, and the rainy season is in full effect, bringing with it the stacked pyramids of juicy watermelons and luscious mangoes for sale on the street corners of nearby Hargeisa. A good rainy season, when the desert blooms and the cattle get fatter, is always critical, but today the environment around me is little more than white noise to my mission at hand. My assistant headmaster has just ended our lengthy phone call with an alarming comment, delivered to me so casually that one might think it was a joke. Unfortunately, the absurdity we are dealing with is no comedy.

“Oh yeah, Jon,” Harry Lee had blurted out, “I almost forgot to tell you, but there was a militia at the front gate. They came to kill you, but it’s cool now.”

Harry and I have a wonderful working relationship. He is a twenty-four-year-old American with a Chinese father and white mother, and when he had taken the position at this educational dream project of mine—an English-language boarding school in Somaliland—he had thought he was going to be teaching math courses and maybe organizing the school’s basketball program. He quickly became my expert for just about everything—construction projects, water delivery schedules, program coordination, student life, and now security interface. He seems relaxed with telling me my life has been spared, probably because crisis management is our daily routine and in his mind this one is already behind us. If we are to succeed in this tiny breakaway republic, we have little time to waste. By all official definitions, Somaliland is still part of Somalia, but when a country has been in civil war for decades, national borders have little meaning, no matter what is “official.” Somaliland operates like there is no Somalia.

I had been walking down a hallway of the main school building when Harry reached me on my mobile. We are always working and often coordinating, and I usually have to take phone calls on the move. Today’s crisis, a gang of angry villagers climbing up to the school’s gate in an old vehicle, isn’t going to slow me down. I know who is behind it and I know he wants us Americans to leave, even though that would destroy the school. The indignation that I feel, that anyone would interfere with the education of these incredible, deserving children, is immediate. These interlopers haven’t struck fear. They have drawn my fury.

It’s not that I discount the risk and danger of being here. We regularly receive security alerts from the U.S. State Department and officials in the United Kingdom, including an urgent warning not long before this that a kidnapping was imminent. In fact, with the recent death of Osama bin Laden, foreign outposts are on highest alert, with retaliation being a huge possibility.

I have been working extremely hard at making the Abaarso School safe from attack. We have a perimeter wall and several guard towers, as well as a sizable security force. Who comprises the security team is in constant flux as we struggle to get it right. Some guards are described as SPUs, Special Protection Units; others are “watchmen.” The SPUs are police units provided by the government. These guys are armed with AK-47s and have some training, but they have the distinct attitude of working for the government, not us, which they tell us every time we catch them “asleep” on the job. The private guards or “watchmen” are usually civilians from the village, and they do not carry weapons. In addition to the sizable disadvantage of being unarmed, such “security” is more likely to side with the villagers than the school in local disputes, and, in fact, the troublemakers at our gate include some of this former “security.” Sometimes we have a combination of both kinds of security, but no matter what, the issue of loyalty is always part of the enthusiasm or lack thereof. There are usually eight to ten security personnel on duty, and thankfully, to date, there has not been any need to fire a weapon.

I am all too aware that serious harm or even death is a possibility. I am a non-Muslim, white American in a challenging landscape, which undoubtedly raises suspicions about my intentions. I am a target for many people—jihadists; those Somalia unionists against Somaliland’s secession; fired employees; and even those who view my high-quality school as a threat to their for-profit schools. In 2003, a British couple, both of them educators who had taught in one part of Africa or another for thirty years, was assassinated on the compound of the SOS Sheikh School about one hundred miles east of here. They were gunned down by Islamic extremists who stormed their house as they were watching television in their living room. Two weeks prior to this, the same group had murdered an Italian humanitarian worker. Now there are very few foreigners in Somaliland, and those present rarely interact with locals outside of high-level meetings in offices and hotels. Foreigners are a target, and then here I come, a native New Englander with a vision for making something great, a restless urgency to accomplish it, and no tolerance for anyone or anything blocking my progress. The very fact of my presence, not to mention my style, has already made me some enemies.

Harry had handled today’s showdown well. To their credit, the SPUs on duty did not let the gang of villagers in. As they all stood outside the gate talking, a student who had seen what was going on went to find Harry. As usual, Harry was brilliantly calm and controlled. First, he managed to find our head guard to ask him if the men had guns. No, no weapons, he was informed. Next, Harry peeked out the gate, where he saw a group of eight to ten men crouching in the hot sun, chewing the natural stimulant qat, which is widely used in East Africa.

The head guard spoke some English, so he could translate between Harry and the Somali-speaking band of intruders, which included Shamiis, the daft old lady from the village whose mouth was always green with qat. Harry’s approach was to be as friendly as possible, hoping it would soften the aggression. One of the men said over and over that they had come to kill me, but they would settle for me leaving the country. Harry wasn’t convinced they wanted to harm me, rather just threaten me. With recent events, he was pretty sure that the threat came from a personal enemy, not a more political group. Someone had put them up to this and he knew who it was. Harry concluded the group at the gate wasn’t up for much confrontation, either; chances were they’d received some qat as a payment for creating this disturbance.

It turns out Harry read them right. When the school’s call to Al Asr sounded, he gave them a way out by suggesting they meet again the following day, being pretty sure the group of villagers didn’t want to interfere with a religious obligation. He told them he would relay their threat to me, but he personally didn’t have the authority to make me leave the country or even come out now, and I was a stubborn guy, so I might be hard to convince. He was glad not to involve me, as I have a tendency to be righteous, which would only have escalated things and caused more harm than good. “Go back to your village and think about it,” he advised them, and they motioned a retreat. Whether Al Asr was the reason or not, they piled into their van and left.

Those behind these threats have no idea who they are dealing with. My time in Somaliland has transformed me into my own brand of extremism. The school’s success is my singular goal, and its failure my only fear. I rarely see my family, speak to friends, or think of anything else. Abaarso students have become my family, and their futures are now my reason for existence. I am never going to abandon Abaarso, not even with a threat on my life, because I can’t conceive of life if Abaarso fails. I am already 100 percent in.


Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Starr. Excerpted from It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s #1 Failed State.

It Takes a School Cover
Barnes and Noble


Jonathan Starr founded and led the private investment firm Flagg Street Capital, worked as an Analyst at SAB Capital and Blavin and Company, and as a Research Associate within the Taxable Bond Division at Fidelity Investments. Using a half million dollars from his personal finances, Starr created the Abaarso School in 2009. His work in Somaliland has been written about in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, CNN, and the Christian Science Monitor.