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Aisha Saleh… unstoppable star out of a Lagos slum

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Her dream to represent Nigeria at an international children’s conference was dashed by immigration officers in Lagos but she has not given up hope. Nicknamed by some as ‘Nigerian’s Malala’.

From the most unlikely places and amidst the darkest odds, stars keep emerging on the Nigerian horizon. One of them is 14-year-old Aisha Saleh who is currently making waves following the alleged frustration of her efforts to represent Nigeria at the International Children’s Conference in Geneva, Switzerland hosted by the United Nations recently (commemorating the 30th anniversary of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child).

Aisha was born in Lagos on December 21, 2005 ago to petty trader Zainab Saleh and taxi driver Saleh Mohammed. At age seven, she lost her mother thus she and her younger brother Mohammed moved in to live with her grandmother in Monkey Village, a very impoverished neighourhood sited in a valley off the highbrow Allen Avenue in Lagos.

But the dark circumstances of her childhood and surrounding environment have not deterred Aisha from shining like a luminous star. Well known among her peers, school mates and teachers as an academic genius, Aisha spent only four years in primary school as against six as she was promoted twice. Right from her nursery and primary school at Opebi Primary School in Lagos, and currently in Junior Secondary School Three at Opebi Grammar School, also in Lagos, Aisha consistently takes first position in her class. Her eloquent and apt answers to questions and her unusual intellectual depth continue to outstand her teachers and school mates alike.

A polyglot, from age 10, she was alrady speaking five languages including English, Arabic, Hausa, Yoruba and Egun. Aisha who is talented in arts and designs, hopes to become a lawyer in the future in order to bring justice to oppressed children and people in general as she witnesses in her neighbourhood all the time.

In 2016, at age 11, the Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE), a child’s rights and development non-profit, started work in her community, engaging the children, starting an educational empowerment program and mentoring the children about their rights among others.

CEE-HOPE also started the Girls-Go-for-Greatness (Triple G) club and after discovering Aisha, made her the community coordinator of Triple G and also community librarian. Aisha currently helps to enlighten the children in Monkey Village about their educational and human rights, educates parents against marrying off their girl children (as child marriages and teenage prostitutions are rife among the Lagos’ urban poor and impoverished neighborhoods). She also gives out books to fellow children. Besides she enlightens the guardians in her neighbourhoods originating from neighbouring countries about the criminality of not sending their wards to school but using children as young as five as househelps.

Aisha also helps to coordinate children and teach toddlers during CEE-HOPE’s annual summer school program in the community.

At CEE-HOPE’s events both within and outside her community, Aisha shines brightly with her performances and scholarly contributions.

Since 2016, CEE-HOPE enrolled Aisha on its girl educational scholarship program to help her realise her educational dreams. In the past she was also awarded scholarship by The Women’s Helping Hands Initiative (TWHHI), an initiative of Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo (wife of the current vice president of Nigeria which works with underprivileged children in Lagos.

Betty Abah, founder of CEE-HOPE which works with children in slum communities and beyond, describes Aisha as ‘a clear-cut genius, an unstoppable meter and one of our biggest discoveries.’

Aisha recently spoke on her botched trip to Switzerland, her activism in her community and future aspirations.

Childhood Influence
I was living with my parents and younger brother. But then, when I was seven, I lost my mum. We had to come and live with my grandmother in Monkey Village, a slum area in Opebi, Ikeja, Lagos State. My grandmother took care of us until I started primary school. I performed excellently in primary school and as a result was given double promotion so I spent four years in primary school. CEE-HOPE discovered me in 2016 in Monkey Village and since then, I was made a child right’s defender and volunteer of CEE-HOPE. My childhood didn’t prepare me in any way for what I do now because we were poor and, living in such an area, it was all impossible. But God has sent CEE-HOPE to be helpers to me. I thank God because I know nothing is impossible when God says yes.

My inspiring work at Monkey village
Some of my inspiring work that I do at Monkey Village are: I am the leader of the girls’ club in my community; I am also the community librarian and I teach the toddlers in the community during my free hours and during CEE-HOPE’s summer school program. In addition, I talk to parents to send their children to school and not to marry them off early. My desire is for everybody to acquire a good education.

Breaking boundaries at 14, being an agent of change and adding value to the society
For me to be an agent of change to my society, am very happy and I know one day I won’t only an agent of change to immediate community or my society but to the world at large.

My Impactful work with CEE-HOPE
Okay, I have been working with CEE-HOPE since 2016 when they came into my community. That time, most of the children here were not in school. After they organised three weeks of summer school with us and donated school materials and put some of us the girls on scholarship, things improved. I think more than 90% of the children are now in school. We also don’t have child marriages here like that again. Also, the books given to me as Librarian, I borrow the children and many of them are now interested in reading. Some of them have read more than 10 books and they keep asking for more. I also coordinate them to go for computer lessons at CEE-HOPE office in Ogba. I also believe that many of the parents want their children to be like me so that can be selected to travel abroad too. Also, because of what happened, many people now know about Monkey Village. So I believe that I am a good ambassador for my community and I believe that better things will come for us. Some people even call me Malala of Money Village.

Barred from travelling because of immigration issues
At first, I was excited when I heard that I would be traveling to Switzerland to attend the child’s right convention anniversary where I was going to meet stakeholders, other teenagers like me and big celebrities. It took us three weeks to get the international passport. The passport office people at Ikoyi were asking for different kinds of documents and we were going back and forth to get the (documents). I was missing school because of that but the people at the passport office kept delaying until I missed my trip. They said it was a lie that I was about to be trafficked and they set up a panel to investigate us, and even with all the letters and documents from the organizer in Switzerland, from Amnesty International in Abuja, from CEE-HOPE, my school results showing that I always take position, they refused. It was when one big woman called another big man in Abuja, and the passport was produced in one day and the PCO personally gave me. My father’s own was produced in two days (because he was to travel with me). When we got to Abuja, the Embassy of Switzerland said it was too late to give us visa and my father and I just returned to Lagos very sad. All through the flight I couldn’t eat or talk. But I know Almighty Allah will guide me through. More opportunities will surely come.

Dear President Buhari…
I will like to say the President of Nigeria should talk to the people at the passport office that they should never look down on anybody because they were once like that before they became who they are today. I know they did that to me because they saw that me and my father are poor. In those three weeks, I saw many people bringing their children, even small babies to get international passports for them and none of those people were stopped or investigated. Apart from my case, I am sad because they must have done that to so many other poor people who could not even talk to journalists just like I did and their dreams were killed by these same people. It is very wrong and the president should stop them.

Knowing there are people out there rooting for me
I am aware my story has gone viral, I read some of the reports and I feel happy and I really appreciate knowing there are people out there rooting for me.

Being a Ruby Girl
My outstanding academic performance and work with fellow children in my community.

Dear marginalised teenagers striving to be better…
My advice to the teenagers out there striving to be better is that there should not be discouraged or join bad groups. They should read their books and avoid bad habits that may damage their lives and future. Our dreams are bigger than our present environment and one day, things will be better especially if they face their studies well. May God guide us through.


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