Education despite itself
Reconstituting education policy for a fragmented society.
“Education has to bring better life into existence, and the evolutionary progress of society depends upon it.” – John Dewey.
With the fall of the central government of Somalia in 1991 and the ensuing struggle for power and resources, education like other sectors of the Somali economy came to a standstill. As most schools closed doors and educational properties were looted or destroyed during the mayhem, many teachers, educators and students fled the country seeking refuge outside of Somalia. Many who could not afford the long journey relocated internally to relatively safer areas as internally displaced persons (IDP’s).
As a consequence, there are very few publicly owned and funded educational institutions that remain fully functioning in the politically fragile Somalia today. The Somali Ministry of Education, for example, oversees a handful of schools under its stewardship, with funding support coming from international non-governmental organizations.
Publicly supported educational systems of the past with centralized curriculum, assessment and standardized systems of teaching and learning have been completely replaced by privately-run and fragmented school systems. Unlike publicly funded education systems, most private schools levy tuition fees from students, utilize foreign curricula and generally use languages other than Somali as the medium of instruction.
Primary school students in class. Photo: Courtesy of Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education, Somalia
Even though the military government of 1969–1991 instituted compulsory education polices, adopted a uniform curriculum throughout the country and ensured the centrality of the Somali as the preeminent language of instruction in primary and secondary schools – all elements that led to massive school enrollment and literacy expansion – education after the fall of the state became rudimentary, emergency-based and where available, prohibitively expensive.
Costly private education, often forcing parents to make the hard choice of who is schooled among their children, created intolerable gender and income imbalances in the classroom, especially in the upper secondary and higher education levels. As a consequence, the gap between school-aged children enrolled in schools and those deprived of the right to education remains large.
Out of 8,284 school teachers and administrators surveyed by the Ministry of Education in 2011, only 1,197 are women, making the ratio of male school staff to females in that study a dismal 8 to 1. In higher education the ratio gets worse with 10 male teachers to 1 female teacher. Gender inequalities are found throughout the education system of Somalia with the highest incidence being in the teaching force.
Even though article 26 of the UN declaration of human rights proclaims that education is a human right, more Somali children remain unschooled, illiterate and unsafe. As a consequence, Somalia remains at the bottom of most international human development indices and lacks the capacity to make tangible progress towards the critical Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s).
To clearly understand the prevailing condition of education today and the stages of educational development, one needs to retrace the social, cultural and historical contexts in which the formal education system and its inherent politics came about. It is the purpose of this article to shed light on these complex issues that are at the core of the current negative educational trends in Somalia and to lay the foundation for policymakers to reverse these trends through comprehensive education policy.
The role of education in society
It is widely believed that education is primarily identified with formal schooling, though in theory it goes far beyond, extending to the realm of informal, non-formal and lifelong learning. A comprehensive analysis of education may include concern for the intellectual, social and human development. In many communities and nations education has been particularly significant as an instrument of public policy, in the sense that it not only advances the overall human conditions but also becomes the vehicle in which national agenda intended to resolve societal problems is delivered.
Therefore, the main objective for providing basic education to the masses is generally a national pursuit of achieving equality among its citizens and the development of an educated labor force and citizenry necessary for a stable system of governance. Public Education has been and continues to be used in many societies as a tool for social change imparting desired values, norms, attitudes and skill-sets necessary to meet the national priorities and to enhance national development.
In fragile states such as Somalia, where the “public” is taken out of education, and the role of the state as a policymaker is contested, private education keeps the education system going albeit fragmented and at a heavier cost to large segments of society. However, it is not an overstatement to underscore that private education is uniquely incapable of achieving the noble aim of educating the masses and to effectively replace the critical role of publicly provided education. In that sense, a public education system which responds to existing societal needs under either a national platform or a non-political arrangement is essential and best suited to articulate comprehensive national education needs with the potential to seriously reverse current negative educational trends.
It is widely known that the prolonged political conflict of the past two decades effectively divided Somalia into three or four distinct political and social communities such as Northeast, Northwest and Galmudug zones, all the while effectively reducing government controlled areas into the “South-central” zone.
Auspiciously, each zone has a designated ministry responsible for education, and considers itself separate and distinct with little collaboration from the others. Ironically, a handful of educational umbrella organizations that tacitly cross all existing political boundaries practically manage and run schools throughout the country. However, their success depends on their ability to maintain political neutrality, their acumen to recruit locally and their support of the local political agenda.
Currently, Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrollment rates for primary school-aged children estimated at 42 per cent. Of those attending schools only 36 per cent are girls. The number of out-of-school and at risk children and youth aged between 6–18 years has been estimated at 4.4 million, out of a total population of 9.2 million. Out of every 10 school-aged children in Somalia 6 of them are not in school. UNICEF’s 1998 “State of the World’s Children” reports that literacy rates for men and women in Somalia were at 36 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
The following table shows enrollment disparities that highlight existing barriers to education at all levels.
|Net attendance rate (%)||Total||Male||Female||Urban||Rural||Richest||Poorest|
|Primary school NAR||23.0||25.1||20.8||41.1||12.1||53.2||4.5|
|Secondary school NAR||6.8||9.1||4.5||13.6||1.3||21.3||0.3|
|Gross attendance rate (%)||Total||Male||Female||Urban||Rural||Richest||Poorest|
|Primary school GAR||33.4||37.5||29.1||60.1||17.3||77.0||6.2|
|Secondary school GAR||13.2||18.1||8.3||26.0||3.0||38.1||1.0|
|Primary age in school (%)||Total||Male||Female||Urban||Rural||Richest||Poorest|
|Secondary age in school (%)||Total||Male||Female||Urban||Rural||Richest||Poorest|
|Entrance and transition (%)||Total||Male||Female||Urban||Rural||Richest||Poorest|
|Primary net intake rate||4.0||5.1||2.9||7.4||2.2||10.7||1.0|
|Primary gross intake rate||25.4||26.6||24.1||39.6||17.7||35.5||11.3|
|Primary entrants with ECCE||14.9||14.9||14.8||21.6||6.7||32.9||0.0|
|Transition rate prim.-sec.||80.3||83.9||73.9||82.7||52.4||86.7|
|Repetition and completion (%)||Total||Male||Female||Urban||Rural||Richest||Poorest|
|Primary repetition rate||2.2||1.9||2.6||1.5||3.9||1.8||6.3|
|Primary dropout rate||2.3||2.0||2.7||1.5||4.2||1.1||9.0|
|Secondary repetition rate||2.6||2.2||3.3||1.2||12.0||1.0||86.3|
|Secondary dropout rate||2.7||3.1||1.8||2.6||3.1||3.2||0.0|
|Survival rate to grade 5||91.6||93.6||88.8||96.9||80.7||96.6||80.0|
|Survival rate to last prim. grade||85.0||86.1||83.3||91.3||70.8||92.1||62.7|
Table 1. Student Enrollment Data (UNICEF – Education Statistics: Somalia)
To reverse these educational realities, Somalia needs the development of a socially responsible educational curriculum organized around a national authority or a non-political educational consortium (if national authority continues to be contested) that will lead to the development of a more standardized, coherent and relevant education system that ensures the academic and career preparation of future generations.
Access to relevant basic education is not only a right, but is recognized as an indication of poverty reduction and potential decrease in child labor. A basic reading skill of a school graduate, for example, often guarantees opportunities for many people to be lifted out of poverty and into an independent living. Thus, public education is critical in the promotion of universal values, peaceful coexistence and human development.
While globally seventy per cent of children not enrolled in primary and secondary schools live in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, failed states such as Somalia face disproportionately greater challenges in the provision of equal access to basic education. In addition, the global financial crisis has put developing countries under pressure to reduce public spending, and development aid commitment from rich countries continues to fall short. A review of Somalia’s educational past will help shed some light on the magnitude of the challenges facing the nation and offer strategies for future resolution.
The foundational Qur’anic school
Education has been an important aspect of the Somali national consciousness before the advent of Western colonial systems. Teaching and learning centers could be found in settled communities throughout the coast of Somalia. Even though informal and non-formal patterns of education including apprenticeship training of trade, fishery, commerce, poetry and other craftsmanship were commonplace in the region, Islam provided the first structured formal schooling program. Teachers trained in the Qur’an and methods of recitation and memorization were trained in places as far as Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia among other centers of learning in the Middle East.
With the establishment of Qur’anic schools throughout the Somali inhabited communities in the Horn, it became necessary for the Arabic alphabet and the basic grammar of the Qur’an to be transliterated into the native tongue to allow for the non-Arabic speaking Somali learners easy access to the reading, writing and memorization of the Qur’an. Qur’anic schools then and now remain outside of the national education agenda and are mostly left in the domain of parents and communities. Qura’nic schools generally stress on the development of literacy skills in Arabic as well as rote memorization for pupils aged 3–15, while few of these schools provide training in arithmetic and character education programs.
Qur'anic school students in session. Photo: Abdinur Mohamud's archive
Somalia being a nation of poets with strong oral tradition, the focus of memorization of Qur’anic schools came in handy to a society that is adept in all forms of rhythmic language and poetic recitation. It was not until the return of a Somali scholar from Arabia by the name of Sheikh Yusuf Al-Kowneyn, that a successful attempt was made to transliterate the Arabic alphabet and grammar into Somali, which led to the opening of the gates of Qur’anic education to the masses. With the new transliteration, many Somalis jubilantly gained full access to the syntax and basic morphology of the Qur’an. This necessary innovation therefore helped transform religious learning in Somalia and provided new educational opportunities to the masses.
The transliteration method of the Sheikh continues to be utilized to this day wherever a Somali-style Qur’anic school is offered. Moreover, Qur’anic schools and adult learning centers that offer programs in Arabic, Islamic history and Jurisprudence remained as the only centers of formal teaching and learning until the advent of Western colonial administrations of the early 20th century. Young and adult Somalis are known to have travelled long distances in the pursuit of furthering religious knowledge to centers of higher learning in places such as Mecca, Medina, Cairo, and as far as Bagdad in Iraq.
Qur’anic schools have seldom been incorporated into the national education systems mainly because of the fear of government interference in what many proponents view as belonging in the realm of the family and community. Ironically, most if not all Somali children go through Qur’anic schools before and during their enrollment in primary schools. However, little structural and pedagogical progress has been made in improving the tools, methods and the overall quality of teaching and learning. In essence, contemporary Qur’anic schools are not markedly different in style, method and substance from the ones erected by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Kowneyn a century earlier.
Efforts by the British administration to train Qur’anic school teachers in the North while paying their salaries in return for expanding curriculum offerings with literacy and numeracy courses were not successful. Even as recent as 1994 UNICEF initiatives to expand access to public education by assisting some 400 primary and Qur’anic schools benefiting 110,000 children faced huge barriers. Very few, if any, Qur’anic schools, today offer literacy and numeracy programs in either Arabic or in the native language, as part of their educational mandate.
Ironically, the role of Qur’anic schools in the acquisition of knowledge in Somali society is undeniable and its direct influence on literacy development is not at all disputed. However, governmental and non-governmental support for Qur’anic schools remains absent, even though observers note that Somali children who attend these schools tend to pick up learning at the formal schools much faster than their peers.
Recently, a group of educators meeting at a national education conference in Mogadishu recommended that Qur’anic education be made part of the national education system, receiving unequivocal support from the Federal Government of Somalia. Even though this is seen as a positive development expanding educational opportunities for many Somalis, it remains to be seen when it is implemented.
The birth of the formal school
The introduction of the modern school began with the arrival of the colonial administration. Unlike Qur’anic schools, government sponsored formal schools were instituted in urban centers in close proximity to colonial rulers. These schools echoed the single classroom schools of the West taught by a single classroom teacher.
The modern school curriculum began with basic literacy in Arabic, Italian or English and numeracy courses sufficient to meet the clerical demands of the colonial administrations. Islamic studies and Arabic were weaved into the curriculum to not only respond to the demands of the populace to enhance their acquisition of religious knowledge but to curb the widespread perception that a hidden agenda of the formal school concept was to discreetly “Westernize” Somali children. The main perpetrators behind this view were religious clerics who felt threatened by the expanding influence of formal schools, their unwavering governmental support and their advanced tools.
Among the first school teachers who led the new model of education were Somali students returning from Aden (Yemen) and Khartoum (Sudan) schools seeking to advance education in their homeland. Chief among them were Moallim Jama Bilal and Mohamud Ahmed Ali, who both later became vanguards and fathers of Somali education. These two educators advocated for the expansion and construction of formal schools throughout the country, trained new teachers and rejected calls by detractors to dissuade the public from what they termed as schools of Westernization.
Incidentally, the language of instruction in formal schools in the South was Italian, due to the Italian colonial influence and Arabic, while the British colonial administration naturally advocated for the use of English and Arabic in the North. Arabic being the language of the religion adhered to by the Somali population was already commonly used throughout the country and is now integrated into the official national curriculum.
Regrettably, the native tongue –Somali – was not considered as a medium of learning at the time since it only existed in spoken form and thus lacked the basic functional script to enhance its potential. However, silent versions of the Somali script using Arabic alphabet, Latin and a local variety known as Osmania named after its author Osman Yusuf Kenadid were all used sporadically, but did not gain national following.
As many graduates of the formal schools joined civil service and administration of the government during independence in 1960, the role of the school as an agent of modernization and a pathway out of poverty enhanced the appeal of the formal school to the masses. In comparison with other African states, the Somali national budget on education at the dawn of independence was not on par with neighboring countries estimated at 7.5 per cent of the Gross National Product (GNP) compared with 18 per cent in Kenya and Tanzania, and 27 per cent in Uganda. Nevertheless, the foundation for a modern education system in Somalia was definitely established.
Table 2. Enrollment figures from independence 1960 to 1980 (UNDP 1981).
The new Ministry of Education in the first independent government of Somalia began a campaign of extending public education opportunities beyond the urban centers and into the rural and nomadic areas. Attempts to develop the Somali script were hampered by bureaucratic squabbles and the Somali language remained un-written until 1972 when a new military regime took power and promised the expansion of public education. Despite the many detractors of the military regime’s efforts after 1970 to implement in Somalia “scientific socialism” and its harsh political and social policies, most observers acknowledge that Somali education began to take-off faster and at a higher pace during this period.
Incidentally, literacy rates at the time did not exceed 5 per cent of the total adult population and did not penetrate deep into the nomadic and agrarian communities outside of the urban centers. However, the military regime began a national literacy campaign to galvanize public support with the catchy slogan “Bar ama Baro – Teach if you know, Learn if you don’t” thus requiring the full participation of all citizens.
A seven month literacy campaign focusing on the art of reading and writing the new script started in urban centers and transitioned to rural and nomadic areas utilizing school teachers, administrators, students and other public servants in government to staff the project. A number of literacy centers were opened throughout the nation staffed by middle and high school students supervised by their teachers. Reading and writing programs using the new script were implemented throughout the country thus expanding literacy development.
At the end of the campaign, Somali leaders proclaimed a 65 per cent success rate of the project and promised efforts to sustain the program. As a consequence of the language development policy success and the public’s desire for learning, a new compulsory education law was enacted radically increasing primary school enrollments from around 40,000 pupils in 1970 to nearly 300,000 pupils in 1979. While girls’ enrollment in schools was approximately 20 per cent of primary school students in 1970, that figure expounded to 40 per cent by 1979. In addition, the percentage of female teachers in primary schools rose from about 10 per cent in 1969 to about 30 per cent in 1979.
Somalia seemed to be on the right track with the expansion of education, unified curriculum throughout the country and the use of Somali as the language of instruction in schools and government administration. Higher education institutions however, continued the use of foreign languages especially Italian and English due to a lack of sufficient native faculty as well as difficulty in publishing scientific textbooks and other educational materials in Somali.
Education during the military regime (1969–1990) was free and accessible to the masses closer to urban communities, even though it was not readily available in remote areas. With the massive recruitment of teachers through a national teacher recruitment project known as the “primary program”, many middle school graduates and high school students were trained as primary school teachers to meet the growing demands of teachers throughout the country. Enrollment gap between boys and girls was largely reduced while the percentage of female teachers in primary schools increased significantly.
The declining years
The decade of 1970’s saw international gas shortages and higher inflation that warranted global economic decline that negatively affected the education budgets of many developing countries. International lending agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began to emphasize policies known as “Structural Adjustment Programs” requiring developing nations’ to balance their budgets by undertaking austere budgetary measures including the introduction of school fees.
Declining wages, skyrocketing food prices and other basic commodities and the undue burden of additional costs associated with school fees, school uniform and other educational tools, discouraged many parents to send their children to school or had to make the difficult choice of deciding who among their children should be schooled. As a result, the gender gap in education significantly widened as well as the gap between rich and poor children. Consequently, education was no longer seen as a way out for many economically disadvantaged communities as they previously felt and was increasingly considered detrimental to their survival.
A mass migration of teachers and other professionals to the oil rich Middle East propelled the decline of the quality teaching and learning in Somalia. Teachers' absences were common and widespread at the time with little supervision from educational authorities.
A 1989 ILO report indicates that although primary school grades provided a number of literate school-leavers, its main goal was to act as a preparatory stage for secondary education. However, a sizeable number of primary school graduates did not proceed to secondary education, but became self-employed or began working at a younger age. These young workers constituted a significant proportion of the labor force employed outside the modern sector.
As for the secondary school graduates, the same trends were observable. Out of 16,153 high school students enrolled for the 1984–1985 school year, only 703 graduates transitioned into the Somali National University, the only major university in the country. The quality of higher education declined due to inadequate funding, declining overall quality of life, as well as the harsh policies of the military regime.
Prior to the civil war, average life expectancy was 43 years and the mortality rate for children under five about 25 per cent. Somalia already had one of the lowest adult literacy rates in the world before the advent of the war, a situation that was further exacerbated by the continued instability.
Post-civil war education
The Somali education sector can be summarized as one of the few surviving sectors in the Somali national economy. Unlike health, transportation, and other public sectors, the survival of the education sector came out of a desire of the populace to continue educating their children during tumultuous times. The Somali private sector historically played a significant role in providing basic and adult education services when it controlled over fifty percent of educational services at the dawn of independence, but lost its edge during the civilian and military administrations when private enterprise was categorically suppressed and emphasis was placed on the construction of a sound public infrastructure.
A 1978 World Bank study described Somalia’s renewed focus on public infrastructure as follows:
“Since 1970 the Government has adhered to a program of "scientific socialism", emphasizing egalitarianism and social justice, development through the public sector, nationalization of certain foreign enterprises, and the formation of cooperatives. While the Government has always stated that there is room for private initiative in Somalia and several privately financed projects have been implemented, the main emphasis has been given to development of the public sector. The Government's development efforts have been characterized by austerity and self-reliance.”
With the fall of the central authority in 1991 and the abdication of its central mission, former school teachers, local businesses and other educators took it upon themselves to resuscitate and jump start the educational system by establishing small scale private schools to meet educational needs on a temporary basis. These were later expanded and linked through umbrella organizations that eventually replaced the role of public education and often acted as a natural substitute of the state.
These efforts produced several umbrella organizations that continue to provide primary and secondary education services throughout the country with a capacity for curricular development, assessment and teacher training. As of school year 2010–2011, umbrella education organizations served over 210,000 primary and secondary school students attending over 845 schools.
Table 3. Student enrollment figures by zone (UNDP 2007).
In addition to school fees, umbrella organizations receive additional funding from international non-governmental organizations (INGO’s) who are unable to provide direct services themselves due to security concerns. Islamic charitable organizations, on the other hand, gained a foothold in Somalia during the civil war when Western NGO’s relocated outside of Somalia.
Among the significant projects of Islamic NGO’s include the development of a “national” curriculum that encompassed elements from the various regional curricula such as Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. Although the language of instruction remains Arabic for the humanities and English for scientific subjects, the Somali language is commonly used by teachers as a supplement to allow for better communication with students. Irrespective of political considerations Somali high school graduates seek opportunities for higher education throughout the country if opportunities for foreign scholarships become limited.
That being the case, there is little evidence of policy collaboration and coordination between the Somali Federal Ministry of Education and other regional education authorities as a consequence of languishing social and political differences and the absence of genuine national reconciliation. As a result, the quality of education, teacher training, rigor of the curriculum and the academic preparation of school leavers throughout the country varies, making it impossible to compare and contrast quality of education provided throughout the country.
In addition, the curriculum provided is less capable of social transformation in the sense that it does not reflect the immediate needs and demands of daily life, be it nomadic, farming or urban communities. This is because the curriculum offered is bereft of critical stakeholder input and generally lacks relevant material geared towards community development in agriculture, health, fishery, commerce and other skills that can immediately contribute to the overall well-being of society. Glaringly absent from the curriculum also are civics and peace education programs that strengthen student behavior, enhance social cohesion, and improve citizenship and the development of national identity.
Quality and relevancy of education
In defining quality education, a UNICEF study published in 2000 highlights the focus of “learning which strengthens the capacities of children to act progressively on their own behalf through the acquisition of relevant knowledge, useful skills and appropriate attitudes; and which creates for children, and helps them create for themselves and others, places of safety, security and healthy interaction”.
The quality of education currently provided throughout Somalia seems to require long-term vision that can articulate comprehensive education policy that is relevant to the lives and modes of development of the Somali people and that can guarantee a better future for the Somali society. Unfortunately, the current political climate has made it virtually impossible for this to occur and any attempt to do so is seen by some as detrimental to their social and political ideals.
The author overseeing qualifying exams for scholarships. Photo: Courtesy of Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education, Somalia
Ironically, the varieties of curricula in use in most Somali schools were intended for the growth and development of children in other societies. They lack the unique historical, cultural, linguistic, civic, religious and other values that shape the Somali society which are critical to the development of future Somali society.
Currently, medium of instruction in schools depend on the type of school and its source of funding. Absence of governmental regulations and oversight causes school systems to differ in the annual school calendar, length of the school year, summer period in which schools are closed, the quality of textbooks, teachers, and school leaving certificates as well as rigor of program. Consequently, no two school systems are comparable in their academic standing, the quality of their teachers as well as the level of college or career readiness of their graduates. Therefore, these conditions forced some foreign educational institutions to question the authenticity of the educational certificates issued throughout Somalia, the academic preparedness of Somali students seeking foreign college admission and their potential to succeed in rigorous academic environments.
In summary, the absence of a nationally articulated vision and philosophy of education in which the education sector, both public and private, can coalesce around and collectively promote, inhibits the potential of education to lay a strong foundation for a better future and transform Somali society.
Conclusion and recommendations
“Somalia is not in need of one leader, but many leaders in all walks of life” – Mohamud Ahmed Ali (father of Somali Education).
It has been more than two decades since Somalia had a functioning state that visibly articulated a long term vision for national education. A generation of Somali children has either been lost to war or is under-educated and unemployable. A coherent national system of education is necessary and critical, if Somalia is to recover from decades of low quality education provided on an emergency-basis and supported from the outside.
Among the critical things the Federal Government of Somalia needs to undertake is the implementation of the educational declaration that came out of the national education conference held in Mogadishu under the auspices of UNESCO and UNICEF in June 18–21, 2013 which will significantly overhaul the education system with the goal of working towards if not attaining the noble aims of the Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015.
Among landmark national education legislation necessary to be enacted are: compulsory education law, right to education for all, provision of free and affordable education, education for the disabled, literacy education for children and adults and equal access to educational opportunities for both boys and girls. As the 40th anniversary of the landmark Somali literacy campaign approaches in the year 2014–2015, Somali authorities should take advantage of this national memorial and expand literacy and numeracy opportunities throughout the country.
With the absence of an authentic national political settlement between the Somali people, and an effective national authority that practically governs throughout the country, the Somali people will continue to be deprived of a transformative, high quality and relevant education, while many young children and youth will continue to remain illiterate, unschooled and possibly a threat to themselves and others. Unfortunately, many of these unschooled youth currently seek illusive power, attention and prestige from extremist groups, essentially becoming their foot soldiers.
A free and accessible basic education system with a comprehensive national curriculum that is relevant to the lives of all Somalis is urgently needed, if education is to uplift and improve the quality of life and guarantee a better future for everyone. Moreover, the Federal Government of Somalia and regional educational authorities must keep politics out of education and collaborate in order to devise a national education framework that allows for the development of a quality and relevant education for all that will lead to better curricular comparability, national authentication and certification in all levels of education.
Abdinur Mohamud, Ph.D.
The author is an Educational Consultant with the Ohio Department of Education, a former Somalia Minister of Education (2010–2011) and the former Chairman of the Somali Studies International Association.
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