Solomon Elusoji attended a student empowerment programme in a Lagos suburb and writes about the power of charity in shaping the lives of young people

On a cool morning in May, as early as 9a.m., students of Lagos State Model College, Badore, in their hundreds, filed into the school hall in their checks and white uniforms. Each of them wielded a book, Insight: Nuggets of Excellence for Teenagers by Maryam Popoola. They were attending a personal learning and development programme organised by Tomeb Foundation and sponsored by ExxonMobil, and the book would be the focal point of the programme’s discussions.

Maryam Popoola wrote the book as a 16-year-old, when she was in her final year at Secondary School, last year. She attended Crescent Nursery and Primary School and graduated as the Overall Best Pupil of her year. She then proceeded to Dowen College, Lagos, where she had the privilege of being appointed as the Deputy Head Girl of the school and also graduated as the Overall Best Student and the school’s 2016 valedictorian. The book is a comprehensive summary of the issues affecting young people in secondary school and contains valuable lessons on how they can achieve academic, moral and spiritual excellence.

Incidentally, Maryam is a daughter to the founders of Tomeb, Mr. Tunde Popoola and Alhaja Mojisola Popoola. “When she put this book together, we decided to ensure that it gets to the hands of thousands of people, because it is an impactful title for people in her age bracket,” the Senior Popoola told THISDAY.

So, after the book was published, Tomeb partnered with ExxonMobil to donate free copies of the book to select students in Lagos State. Badore’s Model College was the chosen school and the foundation went further to arrange for a personal development and learning programme, where eminent speakers are invited to read chapters from the book and explain them to the mass of listening students.

That morning, May 29 to be precise, Mr. Tunde Popoola took to the stage, after a short speech had been delivered by the Principal of the College, Mr. Abdulfatai Lawal. In a prime suit and wearing a dashing smile, Mr. Popoola, who is an enormously successful banker cum economist cum accountant, shared a snippet of his early days with the eager students. “I grew up in the village,” he said, “and when I was going to school, because my father was a farmer, I would go to the farm on Friday and come back on Sunday.”

But being a farm boy did not stop Maryam’s father from achieving his dreams. “You can become anything in life, but you must be ready to do all that is required to get to the top,” he said.

He started Tomeb, together with his wife, Mrs. Popoola, when he realised that there are a lot of children who miss their way simply because they just couldn’t get someone to give them direction. “So we decided to focus on empowering young people and rural communities, to help them move to the next level,” he said. “We have particular interest in young people, entrepreneurship, education and sustainable development; these are our four focus areas.”

The foundation also awards scholarship to young students in rural communities at the Junior Secondary School level. More than 80 per cent of their scholarship recipients are now in the university.

After his speech, Mr. Popoola stepped down for the invited speakers, who are all lifelong professional achievers, to weave their magic on the audience.

The first speaker was the Country Managing Director, Accenture Nigeria, Mr. Niyi Yusuf. Yusuf, who also supervises Accenture’s Ghana office, is the Chairman of Junior Achievement (JAN) and a member of Tomeb’s board of trustees. A double honours graduate of Economics and Computer Science from the Obafemi Awolowo University, he has keen interest in youth development and is an advocate for integrity, hard work, selfless service to humanity and an enduring belief and trust in God. A soft spoken reader, he ran the students through the book’s third chapter, which is titled: ‘What It Takes To Succeed As a Teenager’.

“The way you define success will change as you grow in life,” he explained after reading. “To my mind, success is a journey. It is about setting goals and achieving them. It doesn’t matter where you start from. You only need to have faith in God to direct your path, have faith and belief in yourself, be hardworking and put in that extra effort that will make you extraordinary.”

He also advised the students to be patient and ready to persevere, because nothing good comes easy. He told the story of legendary Olympian, Michael Phelps to illustrate his point and referred to the 10,000 hour rule – an idea closely associated with pop psych writer, Malcom Gladwell, which holds that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class in any field or vocation.

The second speaker was the former Executive Director of Fate Foundation, Mrs. Elizabeth Olofin, who stepped off the podium and engaged with the students intimately. A trained teacher, human resource expert and small business consultant, Olofin is currently the Managing Consultant of Kitbenj Nigeria Limited, a consultancy outfit with focus on issues of empowerment, entrepreneurship, and growth. She obtained her Bachelors degree in Zoology from the University of Ibadan and her Master’s degree in Education Management from the same university.

Olofin read from the fifth chapter: ‘Important Habits to Cultivate’ and focused on the idea of being still. “If you don’t learn how to be still, you will never be able to achieve,” she said. “You must learn how to observe quiet time, go into the recess of your mind and consider things.”

Stillness, she pressed, helps to uncover one’s identity and protect it. “It will help you to find what gift you have; then after you have discovered that, you must practise and be prepared to share your fruits with others.”
A Professor of Medicine from the University of Lagos, Mrs. Fatimah Abdulkareem, took the third lecture, reading from Chapter 10: ‘Towards Academic Excellence’. Abdulkareem, who is a consultant in gastrointestinal and liver pathology, obtained her medical qualifications from the University of Calabar and the University of Lagos. She has held several positions of responsibility, both at work and in various other charitable capacities.

She advised the students to never settle for less. “It is not everybody that is something today that was somebody yesterday,” she said, before urging the students to follow through with God and diligence. “If you follow and obey God and put in a lot of hard work, everything will be easy for you,” she said.

The last scheduled speaker for the day was Mrs. Titi Akinsanmi, the Public Policy and Public Affairs Government Relations at Google, where she is involved in understanding, shaping and developing Google’s policy direction and implementation of its strategic initiatives across key markets in Sub-Sahara Africa. She has almost two decades of expertise on Information and Communication Technologies in the public, private and civil society sectors across five continents. So it was no surprise that she read from chapters 7 and 8 of Maryam’s book, which details the ‘Good and Bad Sides of Social Media’.

Donning a white jacket over a black skirt, Akinsanmi was a crowd favourite, as the students got excited about her accent. But, more importantly, it was the topic – social media – which got them really simmering with interest.
Akinsanmi told them that being on social media was a great thing, as it helps them to connect seamlessly with one another and makes it easier to access information. But she also warned them against falling into its many pitfalls like hacking, cyber-bullying, exposure to inappropriate material, defamation, piracy, and catfish, among many others. “I recognised very early that technology gave me an edge,” she said, “but I am imploring you, as young people, to make the right choices.”

At the end of the programme, students and teachers of the College, were obviously sated with wisdom. “It was very beneficial to the students and even to the teachers, in terms of the core values exhibited in the book published by Maryam and extolled by the speakers,” the Senior Education Officer of the College, Mr. Animashaun Kolawole, told THISDAY. “We have been rightly blessed and made aware of things we can do to put ourselves on the path to excellence.”

The College’s Head Girl, who had earlier led the national anthem in Yoruba, Miss Khalidat Sulyman, told THISDAY she had taken away so much from the programme. “I have learnt, today, how to pursue my dreams, and what it takes to be a complete person, in character and behaviour,” she said. “This is something that I believe will help shape my future and that of the other students present here today.”