So, 10 years and 8 months ago, I met a little girl who challenged me, inspired me and eventually shaped my life and the lives of thousands of others. This week, we paid her a surprise visit in Abuja. I hope her story will inspire you.
In December 2011, we met a little girl in Makoko paddling a large canoe, 10 times her size. She was 8 years old and never been to school. We were overwhelmed by her strength, so we trailed her to her house by the waterside. Why is a smart girl like her not in school? We wondered!
She jumped off the boat and went to the back of the hut where she was drying fish. She would later take the smoked fish to the market with her mum to sell. She was such an inspiration, but we knew she needed to be in school.
One of the conversations that challenged us was hearing that girls weren’t meant to go to school and this was a myth we had to dispel in the community. So, we asked her parents to give us a chance with her and that was how our journey began.
While we didn’t have a favorite child, Sisianu was smart, always happy and we took Sisianu as our special child. I genuinely wanted to see her succeed. We eventually got her family to allow us to enroll her into school. This was such a great win for us.
The negotiation process wasn’t easy, but we did it and that was one of our first recorded successes at Slum2School. This became our springboard, propelling us to speak to more families and eventually enrolling 114 kids into school in 2012. The community celebrated and so did we.
Sisianu was so passionate about being in school. She would arrive at school before 7am and help clean her classroom. She eventually became the best in her primary school class. She went on to win trophies in athletics and represented us at various sports competitions. We were so proud of her. “Can you see that girls can achieve great things?” We would brag about her during advocacy campaigns.
Her inspiring story inspired many caregivers to allow us enrol their kids in school. So in 2013 we enrolled 220 additional kids to school and 350 in 2014. Sisianu became our little ambassador and we didnt want to see her fail. But her journey from 2016 wasn’t linear, it was filled with ups and downs. She excelled at many points and also failed at some. What’s happening to Sisianu? We were very worried.
Being a girl isn’t easy, but being a girl having to take care of all your younger siblings while helping your mothers fish business, in an environment where education isn’t regarded as priority, is even more difficult. Sisianu’s education became threatened.
In 2016 her performance dropped and she started missing classes regularly. We got our counseling team to work with her and a lot was recommended. There were several distractions and responsibilities she had besides her education. In 2018, she lost the motivation to go to school.
That year her grades were reallly poor. She missed most mentorship sessions, and we observed several social patterns that led kids to eventually drop out of school. At this point we knew that she needed to leave her community and go far away where she could focus on her education.
We packed her bags, bought her a 1 way flight ticket and flew her to Abuja to join our kids on Scholarship at Word Of Faith Schools but she failed the scholarship exam.
She scored 34% and was not offered a scholarship. We knew she would perform poorly but we had no alternatives. At this point our option was to either send her back to Makoko or pay the annual school fees which was about N1,000,000 per annum asides her upkeep and travel costs every quarter. In the end we would spend over N1.4m/year and this wasn’t something we had ever done.
We could also take her to a less expensive school but we didn’t want to isolate her from others and further damage her self esteem. But how do we pay such amount of fees for one child when it could support 30 other children? We were faced with a tough decision.
We had meetings and eventually decided to enroll her in Word of Faith School Abuja together with our other kids while working towards raising funds for her fees, travel expenses and her upkeep. It was a very tough decision but that was the only option we felt Sisianu truly deserved.
3 months later, she wrote her first term exams & from scoring 34% in her scholarship exam, Sisianu aced all her results with 8As and 4Bs. I was shocked and so was everyone. This was the first time since 2017 we saw the shining star that we had always known. How did this happen?
I remembered the day we all saw the results of her scholarship exam and she saw that she had failed. She cried bitterly. We also cried. She didn’t want to go back home so she promised that if she was given another chance she would do her best and make us proud. We trusted her!
In February this year, while I sat in the library preparing for my exams one snowy evening in Boston, I got a call from a random number on WhatsApp. It was very unlike me, but I picked up and I heard a voice screaming, “Uncle it is Sisianu”, “Oh how are you Sisianu” I responded.
She said, “I haven’t seen you since 2020 and you haven’t come to visit me since last year. You promised to visit us every year.”
“I am in school and I haven’t been around since last year.” I responded
“But you taught us to always keep to our promise.” She replied.
Those words felt quite heavy to respond to, so I paused and reminded her “but your mentors uncle Ekene, uncle Aaron, aunty Hauwa, aunty Ajibike and many others visit you often right? “Yes”, she replied, “we would be graduating from school this year, please try to visit us”
“I am using my aunty’s phone to call you and I have to give it back to her. Goodbye Sir.” The phone went off.
It was so tough to continue reading so I packed my bags and walked out of the library. It was indeed a long walk back home that night as I had a lot to reflect on.
At that point I had so much going on, and wasn’t sure when I was going to be back but I promised myself that I would visit her and our other kids before they graduated. Last month Sisianu completed her WAEC, passed her JAMB and this Wednesday she completed her final NECO exams.
Together with our leadership team in Abuja, I paid her a surprise visit at her school right after her final NECO exam. She spotted us from afar and this was what her joy looked like. She told me that she is the General Secretary in her school and shared all her achievements.
She shared her plans for the University and her gratitude to everyone who supported her. Reflecting on her journey left me truly speechless and teary, seeing that through her we’ve made a complete circle.
I am so thankful that we didn’t give up on her throughout the last 10 years. I am thankful to everyone who believed in her and in us.
Since 2019 after we took 4 of them out of Lagos to Abuja, Deborah has graduated and is a first-year student in Benson Idahosa University. Mariam is the deputy senior prefect; Mustapha is one of the best graduating students and Sisianu, she remains our shining star, ready for a new journey in the University and continuously inspiring everyone across her community.
Our goal is that she attends one of the best Universities in the world we ask that you join us to make this dream possible for her.
Written by Otto Orondaam, the founder of Slum2school Africa.