Reverend Father Charles Ogada caters for the poor, providing them water, education, healthcare and spiritual needs, through his Spiritan Self-awareness Initiative. This trained Catholic priest said his upbringing by parents who promoted universal good for people and his training as a seminarian, added to his encounter with an Indian sage, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, took him back to the basics of serving humanity starting from children. He tells Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu that he aims to change the selfish approach to living by the average human being, by tackling it from the roots. Excerpts
What motivated you into catering for the rural poor?
I’m a Roman Catholic Priest of the Holy Ghost Order. I was trained as a Catholic Priest but something happened. I was searching and then I went to India in my search in 2001 and I met a man, they call him a Guru Master but I call him a friend and what he was doing was mind-boggling. I saw practical Christianity; I saw ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’, as thousands of hungry people are fed every day. I saw ‘I was sick and you cared for me.’ In fact, let me not exaggerate, millions of people come to his super specialty hospitals and they are treated with so much love completely free of all costs. So, thousands of students are trained and given integral value-based education and it’s of no cost. I was thirsty and you gave me water, more than 800 draught-stricken villages he sends water. I saw Christ in action.
Just to confirm my own experience. When I was 17 years old, I didn’t want to be a priest, I was studying to be a medical doctor. But something happened and I had an encounter with Christ, and He asked me a basic question: ‘what would you want to do with life?’ And the answer was in the question because there was nothing else to do with life but to love and to serve you. It’s important to understand what this means because when you said when I was hungry and you gave me food, the ‘you’ really means everyone. That was actually what made me change my mind to find an environment where I can truly, without attachments to family, to children or to business, give all my energy, my life, my time towards loving God and serving Him and His people. Now, when I went into seminary, I almost gave up hope because what I was seeing wasn’t my experience until I met this master called Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
When I came back and I started, I was sent to a remote village where poverty was synonymous with living. There was actually no water in that village, they live on harvesting rainwater during rainy season and they harvest this rainwater and store it in earthenware or store it in gallons. There are some rich people there also but they are close to themselves. So, we started with what we called Liquid Love Water Project and I started with nothing. So somehow we got connected with UK Department for International Development.
But it has a story. One day, I met a little boy he was about eight years in the hot scorching afternoon, it was dry season and he was licking unripe orange. You know, if you have ever tasted unripe orange it tastes like vinegar. I was almost like curious and I asked him why are you doing that? What he said brought tears to my eyes, he said, ‘I am thirsty’. This boy must have come back from school and ran straight to his mother’s kitchen looking for a drop of water and he couldn’t find one. The only thing he could find was vinegar.
That really reminded me of Christ when he was hung on the cross and he was thirsty and he said, ‘I am thirsty’ and was given vinegar to drink. I went to Australia that same year, and in a family gathering, they asked me to tell them my experiences in Nigeria and I was telling them about this little boy. After a week I came back, they wrote to me that they want to give that village water.
But they were thinking of hand pump, so after a geological survey, it was discovered that the depth of water is 480 feet down. So, they couldn’t do it, but that’s a story. With the UK Department for International Development, we were able to take water to seven villages and that day what happened when water started gushing out in the pumps could only be experienced. The joy in the women in Ebe Village in Enugu State because the women bear the brunt of it, they travel 14 kilometres to fetch water. That was the starting point.
So what has happened since then?
At present, we have done four water projects in Gwagwalada. That Liquid Love Water project is multiplying; not just limited to Ebe but it’s expanding to communities that lack water. In fact, the ones in Gwagwalada are even more serious than the ones in Ebe because they drink mud water and it causes the disease to their children. The water project was the first thing we did. The people use to tell me ‘if Jesus came to our village and turns water into wine it will not be a miracle; the miracle will be to turn wine into water.’ Now, there are no schools in the villages. The rich take their children to good schools and good schools are not found in the villages. When I was there, I volunteered myself in teaching in the community primary school and it’s really disheartening to see humanity being wasted.
Was that what inspired your founding a school in the community?
There, I realised that every child is good only that humanity makes them to be bad because they don’t give the opportunity to manifest their inherent goodness. In a school of about 200 people or thereabout, you have maybe four teachers and there are no books. That was what inspired me to start a school called Embodiment of Love Academy and we started with 14 kids. We started with an orphanage home because there are many of them that don’t have homes. Even though you provide quality-value free education, they wouldn’t be able to access that education. We started with 14 kids, 12 from the orphanage home and two from the village in 2012. The school has grown so big that it’s almost a thousand students now from nursery school to primary to SS1 because we are growing with our students and it’s one of the best schools if you reckon the schools in Enugu you count our school. Last year was the first time they wrote their Junior WAEC and they made beautiful results. In fact, all of them made ‘A’s in Mathematics, there was no ‘B’ in Mathematics. This school I must tell you, it’s such a special school that if you tell a child not to come to school for a day, he will begin to weep. Kids love coming to school, they learn with love and with happiness. The school is special in the sense that it integrates the full training of all the aspects of the human personality. You discover that people go to school, they are academically bright but they are emotionally ignorant and they are emotionally dull. We have what we call value-based education whereby we train the emotive aspect of the child and we integrate values in everything that we teach in the school, so that when a child is growing, he is growing with values.
You realise that what we are suffering in this country today is a problem of violence; children are not taught how to be compassionate from the kindergarten. In our school, you will discover a child cannot kill an ant. Some parents ask me, what are you doing to my child, why is it that my child cannot kill an ant? I say to him if your child can’t kill an ant, it means he cannot kill a human being; he has compassion for a living thing and if this living thing doesn’t do you anything, why would you kill him? These values are integrated into the learning process so that when a child is finishing 17 years of education, he is speaking values. He values truth more than life itself because he knows that life without truth is no life.
Human value is the beauty of human life; so, when you lack human value, you are no longer a human being, and children must grow with this. What the country lacks is values, it’s not intelligent people, people who are intelligent but they are not truthful, people who are intelligent but they are not compassionate, people who are intelligent but they are dividing the country. We have so much diversity in this country but everybody is claiming to his own aspect, there is no getting this diversity and the strength of it out and this is the core aspect of the school we started.
That is what makes the magic when children begin to develop emotionally you see that their academic intelligence also grows in correlation, when a child has concentration, has love, the child will understand more, the child will pay more attention in the classroom and then character modification becomes very easy because you don’t need to tell your child do your homework. A child does his homework because the child has values, he has the intention and he has a purpose. We are trying to set up a model for the country so that when this model grows, then we will be able to multiply it to other schools because we invest in our teachers. Once you get a teacher who has values, you can’t tell a child smile. Immediately, you smile the child will smile. When you live the values, the children will automatically live the values. When you train a child, the child will build more hospitals, the child will give more water to people who are thirsty.
Are there other aspects you are also looking into?
After the school, we now went into the hospital. I have seen mothers die because they don’t have proper medicals. I have seen a mother and the child die at childbirth and it can be corrected. So, we started a hospital, this is the only hospital I know of in Nigeria whereby there are no cash counters. Everything, including the card, is totally free from admission to the pharmacy to consultation to treatment to discharge. But we are not just giving quality free medicals but with love because we train our doctors and our nurses to see Christ in every patient that comes into that hospital. So, the hospital is no longer a hospital, it becomes a temple of healing.
What level of support is given to your NGO?
You know when I came from India, I started with N20,000, I moulded the blocks for the orphanage house. I started with nothing. Apart from the water project that was sponsored by the UK Department for International Development and that family that gave $15,000, we did the water project but more problems came. I told you one thing that when the will is selfless- omnipotent, there is no selfishness in it, the universe supports it. Now, when we started the school with 12 kids – 10 kids from the orphanage and two kids from the village, my sister resigned from her work in Lagos and she became like a mother to the children. We started Nursery 1, Nursery 2, Nursery 3 and Grade 3 and then the school started to grow from donations from Australia. You remembered I told you I went to Australia. The next year, two couples from Australia came to visit me. I told them don’t come, the place is dangerous, they wrote back and said ‘if we die now we didn’t die early’. I told them there is no home for you and they wrote back and said ‘are you living on a tree? If we come we are going to live on a tree with you’. Then I knew that their faith was strong. I asked them to come. Their coming gave me a lot of strength; when they went back, they started organising money, sending $500 or $1000 every month for me and my kids. Suddenly, I became a father and mother of 12 kids.
Are you still a Catholic priest?
That is what I am but it’s difficult because some priests also don’t understand this kind of priest that is open to every religion.
Some of the things you espouse appear to fly in the face of the oath you may have taken or the rules because the Catholic Church is well-regimented organisation. Are you having any problem?
Serious problems, not just one, if you say the problem it will become an understatement. In fact, when we started this, I don’t really blame anybody. It’s just a question of one’s level of understanding. In fact, they told me to close everything. I said okay, I have no attachment, send somebody because nobody would even go there to live because the conditions are so severe. I don’t have a room, I sleep on the ground with the kids. But it’s the love that binds us together.
What is the next project you are executing?
First of all, we just finished what we call Gift of Limbs in partnership with Ash Claims Da Foundation and Enugu Ministry of Health whereby we gave close to 180 artificial legs to people who have been amputated. Now, we are going into Gift of Life. Gift of Life is even more important than Gift of Limb because if you don’t have a limb you can still live but if you don’t have a heart you can’t live.
So what does it entail?
It entails a lot of things. Number one, we are partnering with the Sanjeevini Hospital, the same hospital opened by this Master in India. This Sanjeevini Hospital has conducted more than 7,000 open heart surgeries for pediatric patients and these patients could have died. What amazes me is, you look at a child you don’t know whether the seed in that child is to be the governor of the state or the president because if the seed is not preserved they cannot grow into the tree. But you don’t know what the seed is going to be when it’s just like an ordinary seed you can’t see it. Now children are dying and the most painful thing is to look at your own death and you cannot do anything about it. The poverty exists not only in Nigeria but in the remote villages, so we are partnering with the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in their Centre of Excellence for Heart Surgery and this is our maiden edition. The doctors from India are coming in January to do about 25 open heart surgeries. But that is a start; there are other Missions that come to UNTH also. Last time, they came from America and Italy but the difference we want to create in this one is to empower our surgeons so that they will be able to do the same operations their counterparts do elsewhere.
What is the biggest problem you face?
The biggest problem I face is to see a child in need of education and I cannot take him. Out of 10 that come to us we are only able to take one. During the entrance exam last September, I was staying in the office from 6a.m. to 12 midnight. You see parents lining up but because we have limited facilities, if a teacher handles more than 25 or 28 then he cannot perform and you have to have classrooms for them to stay, you have to have books for them to read. There are so many other logistics you have to take into consideration before you take a child otherwise it goes into swallowing more than you can chew and then when you do that the quality is dropped. But it’s so painful to send children away and their parents are crying, some of them don’t have parents so that is my biggest challenge.
How did your growing up influence the work you are doing today?
I had very good parents, my parents are late but they gave their lives for me and for us. We are nine in the family and I’m the first. My father was a teacher and he taught me selflessly and when I was in the seminary my father had cancer and I had to leave the seminary to take care of him. During his process of dying, he actually revealed to me what life really means, it’s a long story but on his deathbed he said to me ‘don’t leave the seminary’ because I was leaving the seminary he didn’t know, he said ‘don’t leave the seminary many will come to you’. He taught me to serve, in his deathbed he was more worried about his children (his students) who is taking care of them. We trekked like three kilometres to school when we were small going to primary school; my father was teaching in the primary school that we attended. After school, my sister and her friends were going home trekking and my father has a scooter, she saw her father and was very happy and she was about to climb the scooter my father said no, ’if I carry you what am I going to do to rest’. She said ‘but you are my father,’ he said ‘I’m also their father and he left.’ He refused to carry her. This tells you the selflessness in him. So, he gave me the background, the strength to do what I’m doing. My father had only two trousers because he was teaching Old Saint Maris Academy and he never comes back home with any money because it’s deducted from source. But he is also a farmer but my parents gave me that background of selflessness and I know that the joy of it is more than anything you can quantify in terms of monetary value.
What do you see as the final point of this your effort?
My dream is not school, my dream is not a hospital, my dream is not water, my dream is that children are transformed. There is no need of building a school when a child is not transformed when a child doesn’t have love, peace, and truth. These are divine values. When you say the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of God is the values; the love, the integrity, the righteousness. That you are living a righteous life is the kingdom of God and this is my dream. So we are trying to set a model whereby, it’s like science you see it work here, you see it happening then you will be able to say since it works here it can also work there and then we begin to multiply it and begin to expand it. Education in human beings is a science. I go to Kenya, Canada and other countries training people.
That means you have plans to open other locations?
If I don’t, it means I’m dead. We have actually acquired another 205 hectares of farmland in Ogurugu, a remote village near Kogi State and poverty there is terrible. Once we go there, we start with the three things that we are known for: Educare, bringing values into education, Medicare, bringing love and care into the health sector and Sociocare.