The break of a lifetime

Rafat Salami


My plan was to triumphantly write about how four children, intelligent, but lacking in opportunities, were given a surprise scholarship that will see them go through a boarding school for six years.

I was going to write about their first day of resumption, their excitement at attending a private boarding secondary school which boasts of comparatively cheap fees and modern facilities; how their parents and guardians were left in disbelief when they dropped them off and also extolled the man who chose to be anonymous but who has told me he will give scholarships to four indigent children every year.

I was going to tie back to the beginning when I was contacted by a gentleman who follows my posts and activities on social media and invited me to a meeting.

At that meeting, he told me he wanted to give back to the society and he would, therefore, beginning this academic year, be looking for indigent children.

He assembled a team; I was invited to a meeting which mandated me to do the leg work.

Part of my schedule was to work out how the children will be selected.

We mulled different options vis: placing an announcement on Human Rights Radio but we quickly discountenanced that because we could be potentially overwhelmed by requests.

We were to go to IDP camps; we also suggested visiting schools in the suburbs of the FCT. We adopted the last.

We chose to go to public schools within the FCT and after a few considerations, we narrowed down to Kuje Area Council where we went to two schools – Science Secondary School and Junior Secondary School.

At the Junior Secondary School, when we got there, the headmaster was not available, we were told he had an assignment outside the school but at the Science Secondary school, everyone was else was there. We later spoke with the headmaster who was very welcoming, warm and receptive.

I intended to write in detail, how at the Science Secondary School, the headmaster Mr. Ohimege Idris, after listening to Yunus Salaudeen and I, immediately asked one of the teachers to get him a list of their vulnerable children.

Then I was surprised that within five minutes, we had the list in our hands. He apparently had the list as he told me they were children that he and many teachers usually support in some way – some of them with school books, writing materials; some cannot even afford a meal and they sometimes support those children.

I could understand one or two names but not 43 names. I was taken aback and disbelieved him.

Being a perceptive person, he apparently read my mind, as he asked me to pick any three from the list, which I randomly did. Within five minutes, they were before me. Seeing them, I needed no further explanation.

One had worn out rubber sandals on his feet, making me wonder why he had them on at all because he was literally barefoot.

The other, a girl, looked small for her age and she had disheveled hair; her clothes hung loosely on her.

While I was taking all these in, another teacher came in with a girl who she said had soiled herself twice and should be taken back home for some dry and warm clothing.

She was shivering. Indeed, Abuja appears to have seen more rain in June than at any other time.

The headmaster sent for her older sister and then detailed a member of staff to take them home. I wondered how a girl of about 8 years was soiling herself.

I was told these two girls, siblings and one of their older cousins were slow academically and they had appealed to their guardian that they should be moved to a school for special needs children.

The guardian, I was told, refused to move them so they remained in the school.

I told the headmaster, I would love to see their guardian and we set a date for that, and again I wondered how a public school as big as the Science School would not have a special education unit to cater for such children.

I made a mental note to get back to this case of children with special needs. I am told there are two siblings and their cousin.

I still would have written elaborately about getting qualifying examination papers from Epitome Model Islamic School in Mararaba Nasarawa state, the choice of school the sponsor made.

Then I would have written about heading to the school to conduct the entrance examinations on July 16 and how the whole process went.

Let me just mention here, that though it was an examination for children leaving primary 6, I was the one who needed to learn some life lessons.

I was humbled by the zeal of these children who obviously understood that their education moving from primary school to secondary (high school) rested on the exam.

From the beginning, I fell in love with a few of them- they asked very intelligent questions, they were very attentive to instructions, they were particular about details—in between the four papers they wrote, they had a ten-minute break.

So during the break, one of them came to me to ask how many pupils we would be selecting for the interview. I told him, four students. Then his face dropped. “What happens to the others?” he asked me. I had no answer but mumbled that somehow Allah would send an angel to them just as someone was here to help.

I was emotional about one of the children whose name was not on the list given to me but who hung by the window asking to write the exam. He was the scruffiest of them all, he had a torn uniform, he was dusty, wore oversized shoes, and was so unkempt but kept appealing to be allowed to write the exam.

One of the school staff apologized for the omission of his name. He came in to write. He scored the lowest of the marks as he couldn’t even write his name, he could not answer any question in mathematics. I also made a mental note to check back on him. He clearly also needed special intervention.

One thing I learned was to never take it for granted that every child had writing materials.

Nearly half of the 44 children came without any type of writing material at all and they were not really bothered. It appeared they had a formula, so they arranged themselves in a way that no two children with writing materials sat together.

It was only when they started writing names on the answer script that it occurred to me that they methodically sat to address a problem.  It was strange to me.

So we sent for writing materials just a few blocks away from the school. We had to wait for another 15 minutes before the examination took off. It was smooth. I also made a mental note that moving forward, we could be donating writing materials to some of these schools.

With the script in my hands, we took pictures, dispersed the children and we sent the papers to the EMIS to grade and get back to us. The top four students were admitted – 3 girls, one boy.

Excitedly I broke the news to the headmaster of the school and asked him to kindly convey our congratulations to the parents of the children that secured the scholarship worth 6 million naira each spread over a 6-year period.

We set a date for the presentation of the admission letters to them. Then the twist began.

One of the parents refused the admission offer. The other was hesitant, while two others jumped at it, immediately sending their children to the school; not even waiting for the formal presentation of the admission letters.

The parent who was hesitant waited for the first two to report back about the school, then two days after that, I got a call that he would take the girl to the school.

Then we were left with the one who was adamant. She is a widow. She has several other children and this girl who admission was given to, was the only one who supported her with house chores, and her mother could not afford to let her go to a boarding house far away from her.

Now, how does one break the cycle of poverty?