Sanwo-Olu and the Pepper Girls, By Lasisi Olagunju
I experienced him for the first time as he was introduced as Imam Orimadegun. He was asked to preach at a Muslim burial service last Saturday in Osogbo, Osun State. He picked the microphone and announced that he was not going to preach about the dead. He said his sermon would be for the living. Then for about forty-four minutes, in very competent Yoruba as taught by his ancestors, he spoke to the future of his listeners. “You can do whatever you like with your morning,” he told them, and continued: “You can also do anything with your afternoon. But your evening has the franchise to do whatever it likes with you…” A man’s ‘evening’ is his old age which can be pleasant or awful depending on how one spent the early stages. The Imam’s theme was education and he developed it with the rare brilliance of a griot. “No one should write off any child,” he begged his audience. No child must be left behind is a battle cry among apostles of learning. And that exactly was what this Imam kicked off with. He begged in parables; he quoted Obafemi Awolowo; he spoke in proverbs; he sang Haruna Ishola, he sang Yusuf Olatunji and sang Ayinla Omowura. There is an epidemic of hatred for learning all around us. Nigeria has 10.5million out-of-school children. There are more of them in the north than in the south. But the south is as sick as the other side. It is racing to beat the north on that dark journey of peril.
The Imam deplored the ascendancy of illiteracy and valorization of unexplained wealth among the Yorùbá. He averred that principles, not miracles rule the world. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, pioneers that argument: “everything in nature, both in the lifeless and in the living world takes place according to rules…” Ignorance can’t birth prosperity. You can’t reap pawpaw on an Iroko tree; there can’t be paean without pain. I also know that empty sacks can’t stand upright. The preacher added in very dark tones that because of this age’s revulsion at education and animus for learning, in less than fifteen, twenty years’ time, illiterate criminals with blood money will govern the Yorùbá space where great men of ideas once ruled. A pall of silence descended on the tent and its occupants.
Tying his message to the grim air of the burial event, the Imam bellowed that if anyone would die well, they would educate their children. If a nation would have peace, it would tuck its children under the duvet of quality knowledge. You can’t die well if your existence has birthed curses for the world to grapple with. I heard him and sighed. My mind drifted that moment to William Shakespeare in Henry VI: “an ill life, an ill death.” The preacher’s rendition of Haruna Ishola’s song reminded me too of how that master philosophised education. Ishola said education is “cord of success that endures forever (okùn ọlà tí kìí já lailai).” Then the Imam went personal, drove his mind into a compound in that town for more on his thesis. A ravishing bride almost caused a civil war among siblings because her beauty was out of this world. But that was decades ago. The same woman is alive today – old, spent and without admirers. Shakespeare was right: “And as with age his body uglier grows, So his mind cankers…” Education is not like that lady’s beauty; its gold glitters forever. The Imam further delved into history: a hundred years ago, there were three big men in Ibadan. One spent his wealth to become Olubadan; one was a populist socialite who spent his vast wealth on the foibles and inanities of an applauding street; the third spent his wealth to educate all his children. Then the Imam asked his audience: between the three, whose atubotan (afterlife) is most enduring? He needed no answer. Muslims don’t clap at their religious events but this Imam finished his sermon and the audience exploded in applause.
His finish was perfect. He wound down his sermon and left almost immediately. I watched him go and asked myself whether he had watched a trending video of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and two out-of-school girls on a street of Lagos. Heavily laden with buckets of pepper, the kids were not in school. Why? The governor stopped and questioned them. They said their parents did not have money to pay school fees:
“Is it a private or government school?”
“So your parents haven’t paid; is that why you are not in school?”
“They haven’t paid,” the girls nodded and chorused while the older one quickly cut in: “But I have just come to Lagos.”
“Oh. You have just come to Lagos”
“From which state?”
“How old are you?”
“So, where are you going? You are going to grind pepper for your parents?”
“Where do you stay?”
“How can I get to your parents? Do you know their numbers?”
Shakespeare says in Romeo and Juliet: “these griefs, these woes, these sorrows make me old.”
Prescient. Adversity is colour-blind; it knows no tribe and creed. The girls represent Nigeria’s unity of tragedy. The country is ugly because it has lost its soul and has no space for the underling. The nine-year-old girl is Christian and Igbo; her name is Amarachi. The second is Muslim and Hausa/Fulani. Her name is Suwebat; she is 12 years old. Her parents relocated to Lagos from the north recently. To do what work? We do not know. But they came with a 12-year-old girl and threw her into the acid rains of Lagos’ streets.
Where I come from, a child’s name conditions its life. But that is not the case with these girls. Amara’ is ‘Grace’ and ‘Chi’ is ‘God.’ You named your child ‘Amarachi’ – God’s Grace – and you threw her to the demonic gods of ignorance and want. The Muslim girl is Suwebat (Suwaiba in Arabic). Did her parents know the depth of that name they gave their daughter? Suwaiba means ‘Reward for Good Deeds; God’s Gift in reward for Goodness.’ What did the parents think they did to deserve her? Imagine those two names; one is God’s Grace, the other is God’s Gift, yet the bearers were being programmed to fall and fail. To whom do we post the blame? The parents or the nation or the girls? We can’t blame the girls – that would be victimizing the victims. We blame Nigeria for failing its strugglers; we blame the parents for fighting adversity with submission. Birthing those girls and nurturing them to become donkeys on alien streets could not have been the parents’ appreciation to God for the grace and the gift they have.
Nigeria may have challenges of unity but poverty of peace and plenty unites Nigerians. The two girls were seen together, walking shoulder-to-shoulder, conjoined on a barefooted journey of destiny. That moment, they were not Igbo and Hausa; they were victims in search of hope. They were brought together by the painful woes of being Nigerian with its tragic, ironic peculiarities. Amarachi’s mum is a teacher but the girl is a house-help to someone somewhere in Lagos. Suwebat from the north could speak English, but she is not in school. Her parents relocated to Lagos about a month ago. They have no plans to send her to school. The girls were met by Sanwo-Olu at 11am on a week day; they were on a peppery errand as a master’s beasts of burden. It did not matter that the girls’ age mates were in school. Their parents did not care – or could not care. But chance and luck gave them a helper of destiny that morning. The governor has promised to fund their education forever. That is what angels do.
Sanwo-Olu said there are several Amarachi and several Suwebat on the streets of Nigeria. I agree. Global records say so too. They are in every neighbourhood, helpless as life plays ludo with their destinies. They may never have the luck of meeting a governor or a governor meeting them and changing their story. The whole world knows what Sanwo-Olu spoke about and has given our country the dubious crown of global kingdom of illiteracy. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) monitors things like this for the world. Its report deserves to be quoted here: “One in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school. Only 61 percent of 6-11 year-olds regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 percent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education. In the north of the country, the picture is even bleaker, with a net attendance rate of 53 percent. Getting out-of-school children back into education poses a massive challenge. Gender, like geography and poverty, is an important factor in the pattern of educational marginalization. States in the north-east and north-west have female primary net attendance rates of 47.7 percent and 47.3 percent, respectively, meaning that more than half of the girls are not in school. The education deprivation in northern Nigeria is driven by various factors, including economic barriers and socio-cultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in formal education, especially for girls. In north-eastern and north-western states, 29 percent and 35 percent of Muslim children, respectively, receive Qur’anic education, which does not include basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. The government considers children attending such schools to be officially out-of-school. In north-eastern Nigeria, 2.8 million children are in need of education-in-emergencies support in three conflict-affected states (Borno, Yobe, Adamawa). In these states, at least 802 schools remain closed and 497 classrooms are listed as destroyed, with another 1,392 damaged but repairable.” After reading this, what do you think of the future of Nigeria?
And things are getting desperate. You can repair damaged classrooms but how are we going to repair 10.5 million kids mortally disfigured by ignorance and mis-education? There are all kinds of neighbours now eating all kinds of poisonous insects. Banditry; Yahoo Yahoo; Money rituals – all sprouting from lack of education in its right form. The riotous throats of our bad neighbours will keep all of us awake if inaction is our policy choice. It is happening already. That is why a scared Sanwo-Olu used those girls to preach the right to education in Lagos and the Imam followed it two days later in Osogbo with his own message of deliverance from willful ignorance to a Muslim audience.
Everyone should play his assigned role or we all become victims. Sanwo-Olu did well intercepting and rescuing those girls; the Imam did his own with the thoughtful sermon to the right people; I am doing mine writing this. And, tomorrow in Ibadan, I am presenting a book, a 272-page compendium of 53 (out of 539) articles so far published as Monday Lines. The title is ‘Cowries of Blood.’ Distinguished Professor Toyin Falola, with uncommon grace, did two reviews of the work for reading tomorrow. As we continue to interrogate the Nigerian problem, agonizing over how we arrived at this island of shipwrecks, and how to survive it, my eyes caught a paragraph in one of the engaging reviews. It fits what I do here on this topic of a nation of refugees and of endangered kids on dusty streets. Hear Falola: “Through Cowries of Blood, we receive the confirmation of one of our biggest suspicions: that the Nigerian state is extorting its citizens. In this case, not by monetary means but through their blood — their lives, their properties. The price Nigerians pay for being Nigerians. What a conundrum! That a people have to pay dearly for being citizens of a nation. In a world where people are entitled to some benefits for being citizens of their countries, Nigerians live in constant fear, raised heartbeats and palpitations, fearful of who would be forcefully asked to give the bloodied cowry next.” Farooq Kperogi, in a chat with me last week, described Falola as “Africa’s most prolific scholar… (who) has written more books than any African alive.” So, when an elephant like that speaks to our issues, our forest must keep quiet and listen. We were told before we were born that kola nut ripens in the mouth of elders. That is what Falola has done in the reviews, cracking the codes and de-encrypting the password for our collective safety. The time to save ourselves is now.