As a new academic session begins next week in most schools across the country, a new life also begins for 60 brilliant pupils, drawn from educationally disadvantaged rural communities in Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers States by the NNPC/Shell Joint Venture for a pilot of its 'Cradle to Career' Scholarship Scheme. Bukola Olatunji reports
Many of their names aptly describe their new experience - There are three 'Gift(s)' and 'Godgift'. Then there is 'Hope', 'Victory', 'Profit', 'Miracle', 'GreatTalk', 'FirstLady' and even 'Goodluck', among the 60 boys and girls, who were beneficiaries of the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) of Nigeria Limited 'Cradle to Career' Scholarship Scheme, launched recently in Port Harcourt.
Only a few months ago, they were tucked away in their rural communities, some, as they said, without basic amenities like electricity, good roads and potable water. With the exception of a few, whose parents are either teacher or head teacher in public schools, majority of the pupils are children of farmers, fishermen and petty traders.
But for mother luck, one of them, Raphael Okpakoemo, second right on the front row in the photo above would not have made the list. THISDAY learnt that he came first in the test conducted by SPDC at his school, Olomoro Primary School, Olomoro, Delta State. But some unscrupulous individuals wanted to get a substitute for him by claiming that he could not attend the programme.
Shell however insisted on getting to the root of the matter by dispatching someone to go look for the boy in his village. When the messenger, arrived on a motorcycle to ask for Raphael Okpakoemo, behold, lucky Raphael was the first person he saw to ask.
His mother, Mrs. Victoria Okpakoemo thanked God and SDPC that her son did not miss the golden opportunity. He was brought to Port Harcourt to join 59 other pupils at a three-week orientation programme, organised for them at Brookstone Secondary School, to prepare them for their new experience.
They have been divided into two groups and are now students of two of the best schools in Rivers State - Brookstone and Jepthah Comprehensive College, also in Port-Harcourt. The total cost of their secondary education, including books, uniforms, provisions, sandals, slippers and all, will be borne by SPDC. Although the company will enjoy an undisclosed discount on schools fees, the schools charge about N1.2 million and N950, 000 per student, per annum, respectively.
Shell had been awarding scholarships since 1953 and currently awards about 2, 700 secondary and 850 tertiary scholarships annually. Acting Managing Director, Mr. Vincent Holtam said at the closing ceremony of the orientation programme and formal launching of the scheme that if successful, it will gradually replace the existing traditional secondary school scholarship programme.
Social Performance Manager, Mr. Emeka Obi explained, his company found that those who took the secondary scholarship were children based in Port Harcourt, Warri, Owerri, Umuahia , Ughelli and similar cities, “where they have reasonable forms of primary education, where the infrastructure exists, there are teachers and once in a while, ministry officials are able to visit and monitor what is going on.
“We found out that children from the interior, right inside the swamp communities, don't feature and these are the people who need scholarship in the real sense and it does not also mean that they are not potentially endowed, and so we started thinking of what we can do to target those people specially and we came up with this programme”, he further said.
Children in the urban centres were disqualified from writing the aptitude test for admission into the programme. “Also, one distinguishing feature', Obi said, is that for our existing Secondary Scholarship Scheme, beneficiaries must have spent the first year in the secondary School. But all these children you see have just finished primary six, for the first time we are catching them at that level.”
Holtam said the scheme “promises to bridge educational inequalities, promote access to quality education and foster literacy in the Niger Delta region. It will also contribute to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goal on Education in the Niger Delta.”
After brainstorming with an educational, non-governmental organisation, CINFORES for more than one month, Obi recalled, Shell came up with how to fish out the best in the rural communities and presented this to Commissioners of Education in the three states. They all, separately, bought into it.
“The very first time they came here, I wept. I saw helplessness. After three weeks, we could see some of them displaying high level leadership qualities and taking leadership responsibilities that they would never ever have imagined to come their way in life. So, I see here today, Commissioners sitting down in waiting. I see Engineers, I even see Governors and Presidents of this nation sitting down here today. All it requires is to give them the attention, nurture, mentoring and monitoring that they need to progress in life and that is what we have decided in my team in Shell that we are going to do”, he said.
Delta State Commissioner for Basic and Secondary Education, Hon. Juliet Oti Agoba and representatives of her counterparts in Bayelsa and Rivers States, as well as proprietors of the two schools thanked Shell and charged the students not to let them down.
Mr Bunmi Ekundare, who represented Intel at the ceremony thanked SDPC for being a worthy partner and announced that each of the children would get a gift from his company.
Chairman of Brookstone, who was one of the students' trainers, said, they were taken through a rigorous programme of academic, co-curricular, spiritual and life skills; as well as values, attitudes and leadership development. Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”, he charged all that involved in the scheme to “believe in the dreams we have for these children.”
They now have beautiful dreams indeed. Eleven-year-old Gloria Agunwa wants to be a Medical Doctor. Her mother is a Teacher and father, a Headmaster in a public school
At 14, Maxwell Seimokumoh is the first of his mother's six children and one of his father's 13. Since he finished primary school last year, he had been helping his parents, both farmers, on their farm. The native of Iseni in Bayelsa State, now wants to become a Footballer
A Fisherman from Bayelsa State, who simply called himself Alama pleaded that he and his wife, also a Fisherman, want Shell to make their 12-year-old son, Tenededia, “somebody in life.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Ochioma Agi and his wife, Monica, both farmers expressed happiness that their daughter or Son, Mercy, the last of their four children, is on the scheme. The first and only son, Mitoviya, who attended the ceremony, had dropped out of school and is a transporter. His two sisters are married, but Mercy wants to be a Lawyer.
With their news, drama and soul-stirring songs presentations at the ceremony, all learned within the last three weeks, the students appeared set to take on the world.