Nigeria: Amid Challenges, Local Work Matters

Jean Herskovits in the TY Danjuma Foundation Abuja headquarters with Funmilola Ajala, Taraba State Coordinator.
5 June 2014
guest column

Kaduna — Nigeria news – in-country and internationally – is dominated by the kidnapping of schoolgirls by the militant group Boko Haram and the wider insecurity the abductions represent. Meanwhile, despite almost daily attacks, concentrated in northern Nigeria, work to improve the lives of the country’s poorest people continues. Jean Herskovits, a trustee of the TY Danjuma Foundation, one group engaged in that work, shares her impressions.

It's what on the ground that matters most. Have TY Danjuma Foundation (TYDF) grantees been able to better the lives and brighten the futures of disadvantaged, deprived and often disabled Nigerians? Indeed they have, and we, as foundation trustees, see the proof on the ground.

The vision of its founder, General Danjuma, who launched the foundation five years ago--a successful business career followed his 1979 retirement from the military--has had a real impact on real people. In emphasizing local initiative and involvement, foundation grantees have shown that lives in at least some of the most impoverished and neglected parts of the country can be enhanced. For the trustees, of course, this is enormously gratifying.

But for me it also awakens deep anger to see in today’s Nigeria so much wasted talent, so many blighted lives. TYDF has demonstrated what comparatively modest amounts of money can accomplish. And it saddens me to see how little has been done in the countryside with billions and billions of dollars of government revenues.

Traveling outside Nigeria’s major cities, I see rutted rural roads, scarcely different from those I drove on in the early 1970s. Many main roads are worse than they were then. I see dilapidated school buildings and clinics dating from those earlier years in too many places.

To reach a foundation-supported education project, I see what once was a much-traveled road across southern Bauchi State, lively in the 1980s with commerce and other activity, all but deserted now.

To reach a similar project in the Federal Capital Territory - including the capital city of Abuja - we first drive from the city on one of the six-going-on-eight lane highways, being widened by German company Julius Berger, a recipient for decades of some of Nigeria’s most prestigious and lucrative road and building contracts. Some thousands of trees have come down in the widening process.

And then, still within the FCT, we turn off onto a dirt road, all but impassable in the rains, to get to a village that takes three times as long to reach as it should, never even having been tarred.

These on-site visits give us necessary context. They show us what works, and what doesn't work, and what we must do in this time of national crisis. Happily, the trustees do not find this an onerous chore; much of what we see is inspiring.

Instantly rewarding, for example, are the stunning and immediate benefits from medical interventions, cataract surgery and the provision of eyeglasses. Visits to grantees ProHealth International in Wukari and Care Vision Support Initiative (CAVSI) in Takum, both in Taraba State, show us that the needs are as great as the joy when they are met.

And beyond the celebration of someone’s regained vision, whether by surgery or corrective lenses, a world often opens for someone else. That someone, often a child who has had to provide ‘sight’ for a parent or sibling, can now go to school or acquire new skills.

Different, and to my mind, even greater challenges face the grantees who dedicate themselves to educating children and training young adults for productive work, again in impoverished, mainly rural communities. The most successful have a deep sense of mission.

Consider the Fahimta Women and Youth Development Initiative (FAWOYDI) in Bauchi State and the All Children Charity International Foundation (ACCIF) in Kaduna.

Hajiya Maryam Garba, Fahimta's founder, is a force of nature in her determination to put girls in school in the most neglected parts of Bauchi. She has used TYDF support to build separate toilets for boys and girls, durable classrooms and teachers' quarters.

With community support in a remote village in the southeast corner of the state, and with subsequent government cooperation, the number of children in school has dramatically increased. Improved living conditions for teachers will, we hope, improve the quality of the children’s education in tandem with better teachers’ morale and increased presence.

We were able to meet four girls from that school who are going on to secondary school. Perhaps that seems a small number, until you learn that before them, not a single girl from there had finished primary school. Now, there are many who will.

Hajiya Garba is also mentoring other TYDF grantees who have similar missions. Her success, her courage and determination inspire us as trustees. One of Nigeria’s most pressing needs is education in the north, especially for girls. Adding to the tragedy of the girls who were abducted in Chibok is the resulting fear parents and children have of their attending school.

In Kaduna, Mrs. Ranti Daudu, who in 2004 started ACCIF - the NGO for children with disabilities – two years ago began a new project with TYDF support. Concerned about the many disabled young people she saw begging on the streets of Kaduna, she started a program to give 20 of them each year the skills to become financially independent. Some were paralyzed by polio. Others had hearing and learning problems. Some had both.

We trustees were privileged and excited to attend this program’s second graduation ceremony in March. It was a joyous occasion. The graduates came in singing and dancing. Even the polio victims, propelling themselves on their knees as usual – protecting their hands with rubber sandals -- swayed to the music.

Then they treated us to a play, in which a few of the graduates afflicted by polio pretended to return to the streets to persuade others like them to stop begging and join the ACCIF program.

All 20 graduates, now skilled in tailoring, shoemaking or computer repair, were about to become entrepreneurs. Each received a rented market space and appropriate equipment to set up shop—a sewing machine or a machine to stitch leather, or a computer terminal, keyboard and mouse.

Those whose machines required electricity - typically sporadic or non-existent from public services - were also given a small generator.

It’s clear that the aim for everyone - staff, many also disabled, and students -- is to continue to bring those reduced to begging into productive work. “There is ability in disability,” is their proud, and moving, refrain.

For me it is an honor and a privilege beyond measure to be associated with the work of the Danjuma Foundation and to see that work where it matters most. I am fortunate to have known General Danjuma for decades, and I admire many things about him, not least his aspirations for the foundation he has created.

I wish TYDF to be a practical model for others with the resources—and they are not few in Nigeria—to make additional efforts to give hope of a better future to more of their fellow Nigerians who live with little hope now.

Jean Herskovits, historian and long-time student of Nigeria's past and present, has visited the country annually since 1970 and up to four times a year since 1998. Research professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, she writes and speaks frequently about Nigeria, as well as U.S.-Nigeria policy.

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