By Segun Odegbami
I have a little story to tell. It may provide a little insight into one of the most daunting challenges that will confront the new government of Muhammadu Buhari, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Even as I narrate it, I am not so sure what lessons we can draw from it.
I will narrate it nevertheless. It started almost four years ago when I visited Maiduguri, the city most afflicted by the Boko Haram insurgency.
The crisis is fueled by an army of youths in an area of Nigeria that has a large number of the estimated 16 million (or more) out-of-school children in the country that may harbour the highest concentration of illiterates in the world, plus an ocean of unemployed, unemployable and unskilled youths, who see nothing beyond the bleak future that lies ahead of them. That’s why joining an insurgency that promises temporary relief becomes a viable and attractive option!
I met with the governor of the State, Kashim Shettima, and in a few brief minutes told him about the sports academy in a little village in Wasimi, Ogun State, and my idea about how the school may alleviate the poor situation of a few of the youths of Borno State, who were unable to return to school as a result of the insurgency.
He listened with rapt attention. I told him we could use the passion of the youths for sports (football in particular) to convince some of the those with talent in football to enroll into schools outside the troubled state, to keep them in the schools, to give them some education that they essentially need, provide a full dose of their youthful passion and fulfill their dream one day of playing professional football and becoming famous and successful like Tijani Babangida and Jay Jay Okocha.
Governor Shettima immediately took up my offer to send a few Borno students that were temporarily not going to school to Wasimi in South-West Nigeria, an experiment that would be the first of its kind in the history of the state and, indeed, Nigeria.
The International (Sports) Academy is a non-profit NGO, a secondary school for children gifted or interested in sport, but who might have difficulty with their academics but seek opportunities to pursue their football dream.
The Academy does not discourage any of its students from choosing to play professional football, it only ensures that they do so after acquiring a basic secondary education, an absolute necessity for every Nigerian child that wants to avoid the pitfalls associated with illiteracy and the almost certain difficult life after sports!
The insurgency in the North East of Nigeria provided a perfect backdrop for my experiment.
Governor Shettima persuaded me to admit five students from the State. The motivation for the lucky students for the programme was the opportunity of high-level football training, plus exposure to competition and international scouts. The academy promised all of that plus an education and a get-away from the theatre of the orgy of killings in Maiduguri!
Within a few months the State ministry of education conducted a selection process and sent the five students to the sports ‘laboratory’ in the heart of Yoruba-land, a bold experiment of the impact of such exposure of youths at such a young age to such cultural orientation.
The students arrived the academy at the start of the 2012/2013 academic session. They were supposed to have just completed their Junior Secondary School so, they were all enrolled into SS1.
One week into the session the school’s principal drew my attention to a shocking discovery. The students, brilliant with their football ability, were far behind the other students in their academic capacity.
Indeed, two of them could neither read nor write. Their communication was limited to a few words in broken English. The difference in the standards of education between that part of the country and the South was clearly apparent.
Obviously, the Borno students had thought they were coming to a typical football academy that would open up for them the opportunity for a possible place in professional football in Europe. Academics were not emphasized to them. They discovered that only after they arrived the academy and found that they had to engage in the academics, obviously a new journey that will test their will and spirit to the limit.
Recall that two of the students could not speak any English and so could not follow the teachings in class.
The other three were a little bit better as they could communicate a little and had an understanding of what was being taught them.
We had very few options what to do. What we knew we would not do was to send them back to the hell in Maiduguri. We had to make the best of what was a very challenging situation.
Let me cut a long story short.
This is the third year into our experiment. It has been very fruitful for the students and enriching for the academy.
We dropped the two students with the most problem from the SS1 class, as they could not cope. We created a new classroom for them with two specialist teachers in English and Mathematics. With the help of the National Mathematics Centre in Abuja we set up a centre in the school specially for the teaching of mathematics. The centre now supports not just the two students but also the entire school.
The academy also set up an English language centre for the accelerated teaching of English language for those with learning difficulty!
So, for the past two and a half years the two students that could not cope with the SS1 class work because of their initial lack of communication skills have been studying English and Mathematics. In the past year they have included a vocational course in photography into their curriculum.
The other three students have caught up with the rest of the class and are ready to enroll into a university! They are presently sitting for their WAEC examinations.
The ‘miracle’ is that none of the five students is now eager to go to Europe anymore to pursue a football career at the expense of their education.
Indeed, the two students training in professional photography returned from the last holiday break with a new and exciting proposal – they want to return in September 2015, spend one extra year and attempt to sit for WAEC! That’s how ‘hungry’ they have all now become for education without diminishing their interest or even their chances in professional football. They have both passed their proficiency ‘tests’ in English language and can now communicate well and effectively. They are now very comfortable with their numeracy. How quickly they can catch up in the other subjects in the next year to enable them sit for WAEC is now our exciting new challenge!
The work the academy has done with the Borno State children will make an interesting case study for the Federal Ministry of Education. A British educational curriculum design consultant has already been in Nigeria examining the methodology and curriculum that have transformed these students from where they once were to where they now are.
They have become the ambassadors of a unique aspect of the work of the academy. Their peers in Maiduguri who have been trapped in the warp of the Boko Haram insurgency for the past three years would envy them not just for their new academic achievements but also for their proficiency, their new found confidence, their very improved football skills and their very bright prospects for a good life into the future!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Segun Odegbami/Guardian