Her gentle, soft hand strokes the hair of the beautiful, little girl. She touches the chin of another pupil, a little boy. Her eyes beam with delight and fulfillment as the children cling to her. Mellifluously, she begins a nursery rhyme and the innocent kids pick up the chorus. She, along with all the kids, chimes the song excitedly. As she returns to her office, her heart wells up with even more conviction; she clasps her hands on her face as she realises the depth of her influence in the children’s life. She pauses along the flight of stairs and sprightly sprints to her office. An office lit with kids’ stuffs: books, crayons, cardboards, paintings, pencils and photos. Founder of Gifted Minds, Somachi Kachikwu, who is also daughter of a former Minister of Aviation, Kema Chikwe, is going places with her educational centre. You can call it a made-in-Nigeria school. It’s local but with a global outlook. It’s global but richly localised. Somachi, with an infectious passion for kids’ development, national unity and advancement, speaks with Stanley Nkwazama about her efforts at helping all kinds of children at her educational outfit. She also offers a rare glimpse into her background; talks about the role her mother and grandfather played in her life and her vision for the next 10 years
Who Somachi Kachikwu is
Somachi is a young lady from Imo State. I am a mother of four beautiful children. My parents are Chief and Ambassador Kema Chikwe. I grew up in Enugu. I attended the University Primary School. Thereafter, I went to the Federal Government Girls College, Owerri, which was one of the most amazing schools of the time. That is really where a lot of my foundation and skills started – and my determination to succeed. Following my secondary education, I went to Wesleyan University, United States of America. It is a top arts college in Connecticut. After that, I came back to Nigeria, did my National Youth Service Corps and got married. I worked for a while at Platinum Bank and the Federal Ministry of Finance. I took a break and started having kids. I went back to do my master’s degree at the University of London. I returned to Nigeria before moving again to the US. I worked for a company called Kimonics. It’s an international development firm. I was in the US for about five years and then moved back to Nigeria, about three years ago. So Somachi has been around, putting together different bits of my life and building my career.
Actually, I kick-started my career in international development; I studied Economics and Women Studies. As I came back to Nigeria, I was thinking: do I want to work or what should I do? By then I had four children and when you have children, education becomes a priority for you. You begin to notice the gaps. I think every mother really would do well as a minister of education because you know you want the best for your child. Therefore, from wanting the best for my children I started realising the gaps in education, at least in the city of Abuja. There are great schools in Abuja but you know schools always have their strengths.
My mum is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, influence in my life. She is a great educationist who rose to become a minister and later an ambassador. Growing up, I was very close to her. I am still close to her. My elder brother and sister went to boarding schools but my younger brother, Naeto, and I were always with her. As a child, I was always in her shadow – be it when she was mobilising women or involved in grass-roots politics; also, when she was doing her PhD in Education. She would pick us up from school and drive to Nsukka for her classes. We would be doing our homework while waiting for her. When you are a child, you do not know the impact some of these things will have on you. As you grow up, you begin to have interest in similar things. Yes, my mother was a great inspiration because she strongly believes in education as a bedrock and foundation for success and leadership.
About Gifted Minds Academy
Every child is gifted; what we do in Gifted Minds Academy is that we find the gifts and we harness and grow that gift in a child. Our services include, academic enhancement; we have lessons for children and in-house lessons. We have private tutorials where we match a tutor to a child. We also have online tutorials. We also partner an India-based high-performing tutorial service, which involves virtual online classes. We have preparations for different exams and book clubs. We are passionate about reading. Outside the services, we work with children. We also train teachers and provide capacity building for schools. We also run an educational consultancy outfit which caters to the needs of parents and children by helping parents to map out educational plans for their children.
Mapping for Children Matters
I think it is important because other than when you map out educational plans for your children, it guides you to the kind of schools you want them to attend, activities for participation and goals you are setting for your child. I notice that a lot of parents when their child is 15, they will say they want their child to go to Harvard. You start from day one; you put your child in a certain school. And you expose him to various activities. That is what we do, depending on your goals for the child. From a parent’s interest or depending on the child’s learning abilities or learning style, we are able to come up with a plan. We pick the right schools, the right activities and ensure your child grows up with a proper development plan.
Growing a business in Nigeria is one of the hardest things ever. It won’t be fair to compare anywhere else in the world I have worked with the country. I have never owned a business outside Nigeria. I think major challenges for me will be convincing parents on the need to invest in their children’s education. Sometimes people see my flyers and say it is too expensive. I think our process is affordable. It is a sacrifice because you will spend money and you will fly your child to London, the US, Switzerland, the Gulf and Emirates. I think parents just need to prioritise. In investing in your child’s education, there are many benefits to reap in the future. Another challenge is that at least once in a week someone from some agencies knocks on your door, if it is not tenement rate, it is FCDA for business. It is difficult to budget because you don’t know what is coming your way next. The unclear tax system in Nigeria worries me stiff. It is not clear to businesses, what is due and when it is due and then you just have random people knock at your gate every now and then. I think between that and convincing parents to invest in their children, the final challenge is training teachers; getting qualified teachers. Starting from October, we’ll begin to be offer pre-teacher workshops because we realised there is scarcity of well-trained teachers in the city and we cannot wait for government to put it in the budget. Interestingly, everybody has rushed into the teaching profession because the jobs are not there. Every unemployed graduate rushes to teaching as a means of survival. The truth is that not everybody has the calling to teach. You need special skills to deal with that. With that skills gap, from training teachers for a fee, we have decided to start training teachers for free. That is our own way of giving back since everyone is saying ‘Change begins with me.’ We are concerned about building teachers’ capacity. Even if they do not work for us, they work for someone else’s school. They are teaching another person’s child and the impact of teachers is important in our society.
Handling Children with Different Needs
My partner, Kemi Ehilabo, is a trained teacher. She has taught in England for several years. She has an amazing assessment programme. If any child walks in here, the first thing we do is to assess him before we can start work. Before we start any kind of intervention, we assess the child. We have a series of assessments. Based on that, we are able to figure out the child’s learning styles, abilities and then we design programmes suitable for that child’s learning. However, some children have unique learning needs. Some of these needs fall into the category of what we call special education. We partner with certified special educators who come in to provide needed interventions. We have kids who are in different ranges of autism spectrum. When they come, we don’t put them in a class with regular students. I am talking about the Autism Care Initiative, run by Dr. Julia Ejiogu in Wuse, Abuja. She runs an excellent programme. She was trained in the US, has a lot of experience with all levels of special needs.
Beyond Exclusive Education
In the next 10 years, we have a range of services we are rolling out. I would want at least one or two of our products to be in every home in Abuja. I would want when people think education, they will think about Gifted Minds knowing we offer quality education services and techniques. The target of every business is to make money. But, our target is to enhance leadership skills. That is my own way of impacting on the society. If every Nigerian is brought up with leadership skills, I think in the next 10 years, we will not have a problem with leadership or good governance. I think education is a great pathway to build citizens of Nigeria.
Like Grandfather, Like Granddaughter
It really wasn’t intentional. That is what amazes me. Sometimes when you look at me, I am really on the same path with my mum and grandfather. My mum ventured into politics. At least, I know I am consistent with my late grandfather, Nathan Okeoma Ejiogu. So, it impresses me any time I think my grandfather was a very great man. I am proud that I am able to continue a legacy that he started. He was passionate about education. He worked hard to ensure there was inclusive comprehensive education, so that children all over Nigeria and not the South-East, had access to education – an education that impacted on their lives and equally enabled them to make a difference in the world. I think my grandfather will be very happy. I could imagine him looking down and smiling.
Satisfaction and Quitting Attitudes
I am very happy. Every time I get feedbacks from parents: ‘My child is reading properly. ‘My child is more confident in school.’ ‘My child got straight A’s.’ Whenever I hear that, I am fulfilled. It actually makes me happier than a bank alert of more money in my account. Bank alerts make me happy. But achieving set educational goals for parents makes me happier.
A Gifted Genesis
Gifted Minds started three years ago in a small office at Jabi. At the time we were doing only private tutorials and we were saving up. I wanted to get a bigger facility. I wanted somewhere that a parent would put her child. He would have a wide range of activities to do. We have a library and IT room as well. We have a big playground. There are also lots of activities; all types of sporting equipment are made available for the kids. On Saturdays, if parents are going for a wedding, rather than leave their children at home, they can drop them here. By the time you come back, they would have had a wide range of fun and education. It is possible here. Educational fun is part of Gifted Minds’ model where learning is fun and exciting. We want children to enjoy learning because when children enjoy learning you do not push them. You don’t have to. They will enjoy learning; pick up books and want to read; they will see a mathematics problem and attempt to solve it without on their own.
Going Back to Reading
We have Nigerian authors in our library of Nigeria. We have started what we call the ‘Candy Reading’ club. Every month they get a package. In the package we have books, worksheets and a pack of candies. Most children love candy. The idea is that any time a child settles to read, the parent gives them some of the candies from the pack. It’s a little motivation just to get them to read. They have three weeks to read the books. They come to the centre and we do activities around the book. The thing about reading is that you can use books to teach them about so many things. I am also passionate about letting Nigerian children know about Nigeria. Nigerian children go to schools where the curriculum is not foreign. And when it is not, it means they are not learning Social Studies and History. Even for my own children, at some point they could not tell the 36 states and their capital. When I was six, I could have done that. We are using books about Nigeria, by Nigerians, sold in Nigeria and made in Nigeria. The quality may not be great, but I tell parents, not to bother about the quality of the books. I encourage them to look at contents of the books. Let children be proud to read about characters, called Ada and Musa. People they can relate to in their immediate environment. It is hard getting access to children’s literature in Nigeria. It is a field I wish that more people should go into. This month we have a Nigerian author, Chioma Mamah. She wrote a book ‘First day at the Big School.’ She will do a book reading. We are to talk to the children how to be a proud Nigerian. So that is also something that matters to us at Gifted Minds Academy. We teach patriotism. It bothers me when you ask children where they come from and they tell you that they are from America. They are not from America; they are from Imo, Delta or Kaduna State. That is one of the things we try to teach children here.
Public Speaking for Kids
We have an intensive reading and writing programme which is for kids between four and seven years. We make sure that they get their proper tenses right. It is important. When you speak English, tenses will always give you up. Another thing we do is for children who take English classes as their comprehension. We also do reading activities to help improve spoken English. Because we are a leadership centre, public speaking is important. So, we join the children to read out loud and effect the corrections there and then. When you read aloud you are not reading to yourself. As you stand up to read, it helps you to overcome stage fright. You are trained to be bold when you speak in the public.
Finding a Place for Indigenous Languages
Over the summer, we ran a programme where Nigerian languages were part of the curriculum. It is an immersion class. When you enter the class, only an indigenous language is spoken. That is the only way to learn a language and get immersed in it. Sorry to say that getting kids to learn French and Mandarin, is like a lot of parents are literally pouring money down the drain. The child would get some words and won’t be able to speak them. Immersion is really the only way to learn a language. So we do that with the local language as well. Also, we have a great CD. It is a cartoon based in Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba. It is always played once the kids start coming in around 4 0’ clock. It is important to learn to speak one’s language. It is also important for safety and unity; to at least know how to understand and greet in different languages is a thing of joy. We live in Abuja, it would be nice to know how to say: ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘you are welcome,’ etc. When you speak to people in their local language they appreciate it a lot. So while we try to teach people their own indigenous language, we also try to see if the kids can learn the basics of major languages in Nigeria.
Nigerian Children and Parenting
Parents should prioritise their children’s education. The best way to do it is through parental involvement. I think that is the secret to success in every child’s
learning and educational experience. It is how the parents are involved. Once Nigerian parents start creating time to work with the children; assist with their home-work, read with them, do activities with them and sign up for programmes, they will begin to appreciate the difference. I am not saying that grades are not important, but I think also Nigerian parents should begin to look beyond that. If I look back at my mates in primary school, it was not necessary; the people who are successful now are not necessarily the people who were the top three then. I think parents need to have a more holistic view and approach towards the learning of their children. There is really no child that is not smart. All children are smart and eager to learn. Just assist them.