AUN President, Magaret Ensign (R), interacting with some of the enrollees of the programme

Solomon Elusoji writes about a little initiative that hopes to encourage more children to enrol in schools in Northern Nigeria

When Mrs. Nkem Uzowulu retired from Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education in 2014, she dreamt of long, quiet days, hibernating from a life of service. Just over 60 years of age, she had spent 35 years of her life educating young people. Education is a passion that consumes her, but she felt she was done and it was time to go home and pursue other things. Still, it took barely a year of rest before she decided to come out of retirement.

In 2015, the American University of Nigeria (AUN) offered her a job as the Director of AUN Schools. Unable to resist the lure of returning into the classroom, she took it. “Education has always been fulfilling for me,” she says. “And getting the AUN job was like the icing on the cake.”

As Director of AUN Schools, Mrs. Nkem is in charge of the AUN Early Learning Centre, the AUN Academy (Elementary and Secondary), and the Charter School. She is also in charge of AUN’s Feed and Read programme, an initiative that hopes to solve the education crisis in Northern Nigeria.

In June 2015, AUN’s President, Margaret Ensign, announced the Feed and Read Programme, which was initially targeted at Almajiri boys. Almajiri, an Arabic word, are children who leave home in search of Islamic knowledge. In an ideal world, the community supports these children with food and upkeep, as they leave their families to become servants of Allah. But, in Nigeria, where the poverty rate is astronomical and welfare structures are scarce, Almajiris take to the streets to beg for their daily bread. Usually, having little to eat, they are impoverished and have no access to western education. So, the Feed and Read programme was designed to allow some of these Almajiri boys, who hang around the AUN gate in Yola, to receive one meal per day, prepared by a local vendor, while also receiving literacy lessons. The programme would turn out to be a big success and, in early 2016, the Feed and Read programme for girls who are increasingly taking to the streets, having been orphaned or displaced from their homes by Boko Haram violence, was launched.

“It is for them not to be vulnerable,” Mrs. Nkem says, her eyes fluttering with enthusiasm. “Apart from giving them a meal per day and teaching them basic literacy and numeracy, we also teach them vocational skills like soap-making, so that wherever these girls go, they can be able to sustain themselves.”

A lack of basic education and unemployment among young people in the North-east has been blamed as two of the biggest factors in the frenetic rise of terrorist group, Boko Haram, who can easily entice these idle and vulnerable youths with adulterated and violent religious evangelism. Although the Nigerian Military has had huge successes against the group in recent times, valid fears remain that they could make a bigger comeback if the underlying problems of illiteracy and unemployment are not dealt with. The AUN’s Feed and Read programme was designed to fill that need.

In February 2016, about two weeks after the programme kicked off, THISDAY visited one of the Feed and Read sessions for girls, which holds every weekday inside the premises of the AUN Academy. It was a lively and engaging session, with a lot of energy, delight and play infused into the learning process. The instructors use a system called “Jolly Phonics”, a fun and child centred approach to teaching literacy through synthetic phonics. With actions for each of the 42 letter sounds, the multi-sensory method is very motivating for children and teachers, who can see their students achieve.

The curriculum used for the girls, some of whom might have never before stepped inside the walls of a classroom, was also specially created and designed with a specific target – to ensure that they leave the programme with the ability to read and write.

At first, the AUN chief, Ensign, provided funds for the programme from her own pocket, but as it grew, the university has begun appealing to international donors through the AUN Foundation, a non-profit based in the United States. Recently, the university received funding from the Irish government, with which it launched the girl’s version of the programme.

At the point of entry into the programme, the girls undergo a baseline assessment to know their level of literacy and numeracy skills; subsequent assessments are done as they progress in the programme, in order to understand how fast each of them is learning. Girls with similar learning speed are grouped together, so that slow learners can get more attention while the faster learners can move at their frenetic pace without being held back. After they have registered, they will be given Identity Cards, so that the facilitators can be certain of those in the programme and be able to track their progress.

The original number of girls to be admitted into the programme was 50. That was the number specified by the Irish Government, who put down the seed funding for the programme. But as more girls trooped in, the President, Margaret Ensign, decided to increase it to 70. Still, that would not be enough, as more girls showed up. The current number of girls in the programme is 126.

The demography is mixed. There are Christians and Muslims in the group, and their ages vary between three and 17. The age range was supposed to be between 7 and 17, but when the younger ones showed up, the President advised that they should not be turned away.

The foot soldiers of the programme include volunteer students and staff from the American University of Nigeria and the AUN Academy. There are also facilitators grafted from within the community.

One of the volunteer staff for the programme is the Director of Early Learning at AUN Academy, Mrs. Blessing Bello. “Teaching is my life, my passion,” she says. “So, for me, it’s a dream come true. The children have grown in leaps and bounds. I’m so proud to be part of this project.”

The first day the girls came, Bello reminisces, they were fighting and jostling for food; it was difficult to get them on a queue and behave in an orderly manner. But, two weeks after, they now take turns, sit orderly and even wash after themselves. “These might seem like small changes, but just seeing them learn gives me joy,” she enthuses.

“I am doing this so that we can have less people who are illiterate,” another volunteer, 15-year-old AUN Academy student, Hadiza Jika says. “They are learning really fast. But we need more support to expand this. We need more facilities and more people to teach.”

Mrs. Nkem, too, knows that more funds injected into the programme will help it expand. But she seems to be more concerned with the group of girls currently in her care. “We all look forward to coming here every weekend,” she says. “We have made a lot of progress in two weeks and everybody is excited. AUN is a development university and we are very concerned about affecting their community. We have this burning desire to reach out.”