A young Nigerian, Nkechikwu Azinge, is making waves by her decision to assist people with sickle cell disease, writes Damilola Oyedele
Nkechikwu Azinge’s sense of humour and humility is evident in all she does. She showcases an ability to laugh at herself. An example that readily comes to mind was her narrating how she almost fell while curtseying to the Queen of England.
Just 28 years old, Azinge has already met personalities many people can only dream of. She has been honoured by the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, and has met world renowned footballer, David Beckham, all in recognition of her work with the Sickle Cell Aid Foundation (SCAF) which she founded in 2010.
In 2015, the University of Warwick doctoral candidate in Law was awarded the Queen’s Young Leaders Award, for her commitment to serving humanity, and she also bagged the Commonwealth Youth Achiever award in the same year.
In 2016, she was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons in Nigeria. The Queen’s Young Leaders (QYL) programme selects exceptional young persons who are proven inspirational leaders in their communities.
While its requirements are similar to the requirements for the Commonwealth Youth Achievers, the QYL gives preference to individuals who have overcome challenges to achieve their goals.
“I got to meet House of Lords members, Steve McQueen and other important personalities, but meeting David Beckham was definitely the highlight of my time at Buckingham Palace. I’ve never been a football fan but my dad and brother have always been. They are die-hard Manchester United fans and were over the moon when I informed them of his possible attendance – proxy excitement maybe? I was glad to have meaningful leadership conversations with him and also took selfies,” she said.
The surreal experience of meeting the Queen, and shaking hands with her was an overwhelming experience.
“I missed my steps whilst curtseying,” she said as she laughed. “To be honest, it still feels surreal because I grew up with great admiration for the British monarch. I may be fortunate enough to interact with various human rights activists and captains of industries, but there are few greater honours than being acknowledged for my service to the community by Queen Elizabeth,” she told THISDAY.
The experience is however beyond just the handshake, it remains a symbolic validation of Azinge’s work with the SCAF, from inception. The recognition has exposed her to leadership courses at the University of Cambridge, which she adds, has been instrumental in steering the foundation in the right direction.
The Sickle Cell Experience
For her, sickle cell hits close to home. While not a carrier of the disorder herself, she watched as her twin, Nkem, suffered from the debilitating effects of sickle cell disease. The discovery was met with unanswered questions, uncertainties and endless nights of pain, she recalled. Instead of adopting a defeatist attitude, she sought ways to help, even if it meant deploying tough love.
“Her frequent crises made me more disciplined and alert. For instance, I would threaten to report her if she didn’t take her drugs. We would do our assignments on time – in case a crisis came. Given the expectations of our parents, no reason is enough for failure,” she said, adding that those experiences prepared her for the future, and culminated in the establishment of the foundation.
“My primary inspiration for SCAF was borne out of watching my twin sister undergo series of crisis in Nigeria. Her health however dramatically improved when she moved to England (for school). I became curious as to how the less privileged with sickle cell disorder get access to quality health care like my sister did. I was further perplexed by the lack of awareness and stigma attached to sickle cell disorder. It is for these reasons that I sourced out like-minded persons and together we started SCAF,” Azinge pointed out.
The foundation, which has reached over 17,000 people across the six area councils of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) including Abuja, conducts free genotype tests, and encourages people to know their genotype. It is also involved in sensitisation about sickle cell anaemia condition. The foundation is funded mainly through grants and donations.
In a Family of Lawyers
Azinge’s choice of career seems natural – she was born into a family of lawyers. Her father is the popular Professor Epiphany Azinge, a law lecturer and former Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS). And, her mother is Dr. Valerie Azinge, also a lawyer.
Two of her siblings are lawyers. One can only imagine the kind of conversation in their home. She agreed that the arguments in the house get very interesting, and have been helpful for her thesis.
“My twin sister is the only one who did not study Law. She is a software engineer. Everyone has their views and argues strongly. My twin is catching up with legal stuff now.”
Growing up was exciting, she recalled, and added that her parents chose to discipline through corrections and thought-provoking conversations, rather than spanking.
“My siblings and I spent our formative years in Abuja. I grew up addicted to reading Nigerian novels. My favourite was and still remains Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe. I also loved to listen to Kanye West to the irritation of my three amazing siblings. I loved playing video games and I was always the goalkeeper whenever my brother and cousins played football. Your guess is as good as mine, I sucked at both,” young Azinge said.
The NTIC Influence
Her can-do spirit was not just influenced by her family background, but by her secondary school, Nigeria Tulip International Colleges (NTIC) formerly Nigeria Turkish International Colleges.
“My formative years were spent at NTIC, and thus, I can proudly say that my ideas, thought patterns and zeal to excel were formed at the college. More important, NTIC made me believe that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. For instance, during my first two years at the college, I struggled to keep my grades high. Mr. Orhan, my mathematics teacher, consistently pushed me to excel not just in mathematics but in other subjects. His hope in my abilities was met with self-doubt and uncertainty. One day, he called me out to solve an equation and said, ‘I know you can do this. I believe in you,” Azinge recalled.
“This statement spurred faith in my abilities. Needless to say, I solved the equation correctly. After then, I studied harder than ever in all my courses. Surprisingly, my grades improved and I ranked top of my class till my graduation. Thus, I have no doubt that the qualities instilled in me have remained crucial in enabling me make decisions and overcome challenges,” she added.
While in junior secondary school, Azinge was inclined to the social sciences. She was gravitating towards human rights, after seeing the impact her mum was making while working at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). She, however, performed better in the sciences in the Junior WAEC exams, and was therefore placed in the science class.
Her school, NTIC however stepped in, and placed her in social sciences class.
“To date, that remains one of the most profound decisions I have made as it made me realise my power to wheel my future,” she said.
She admitted that most competitions in NTIC at the time were focused on the sciences, but she was encouraged to participate in writing competitions. Things have however changed as there are more social science competitions both nationally and internationally that students can participate in.
“NTIC provided a platform for specialised trainings and excellence in different ways. Firstly, I had amazing teachers, specifically in literature, government and art who used different but unique approaches to instill knowledge and skills in me. Secondly, I was privileged to be able to join a number of clubs, such as the literature and writing club, junior achievers, etc. These clubs offered me specific training on key areas and prepared me to engage in internal and external writing and business competitions,” the young achiever noted.
The Present and the Future
The young lawyer plans to specialise in regulatory/compliance law, which involves ensuring that financial institutions obey the law so as to mitigate risk and ensure financial stability and integrity. She also hopes to eventually toe her father’s path, and teach.
She seems on the right path, she is currently a teaching/research assistant at her university, teaching Law and International Business Environment, and Financial Services Regulations.
Azinge is responsible for facilitating group discussions on the subjects and responsible for preparing and delivering lectures on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) and enforcement/supervision regarding financial institutions. She is also responsible for communicating key areas of concern deduced from tutorial discussions to module conveners.
The QYL awardee also doubles as the journal/blog editor, Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal of her institution.
She obtained her first degree in LLB at the University of Leicester, UK with a second class honours (Upper Division) and her master’s in Law at the University of Warwick where she graduated with a distinction.
She expects to round off her doctoral program in September. On the sidelines of her busy schedule, the young achiever enjoys photography, travelling, and reading.
Would she return to Nigeria?
“I’m not sure at the moment, but if God wills, I’m hoping to work here for a few years and then return to Nigeria,” she said.