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Giving lives meaning up North

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
27 February 2021   |   4:20 am
I am a daddy’s girl; my father is my world. I can’t say I worship my father, but I love him because he is someone you can sit and talk with; not just his children, but also anyone.

Hajiya Aisha Bagudu is the Founder and CEO of Mass Literacy for the Less Privileged of the Almajiri Initiative (MALLPAI), set up to drive out illiteracy in communities, enrich the minds of youth and help develop unskilled women. Aisha who is wife of the Kebbi State Governor, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, has twenty years experience in humanitarian work with focus on community development. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she spoke about her foundation and the ongoing effort to change lives of less privileged women and young people, especially the Almajiri.

You once mentioned that your father had a huge impact on you, especially with your passion for humanity. What kind of relationship did you have with your father?
I am a daddy’s girl; my father is my world. I can’t say I worship my father, but I love him because he is someone you can sit and talk with; not just his children, but also anyone. I met a lot of people who talked about my father a lot. In fact, I met a man at the airport recently who said I remind him of a man who helped him a few years ago; he was talking about my father without knowing I’m his daughter.

He said he was taken to the police station – Ibrahim Coomassie was the IGP at the time – and my father was Coomassie’s friend. He said my father helped him out by paying his debt and giving him money to start up a business, while his people were crucifying him. Since I am a very private person, I didn’t disclose to the man that I am the daughter of his helper. Even when he said he wished he knows the family, all I told him was that he’s late.

As a daddy’s girl, how did you feel about his passing?
It did touch me; I miss my dad. Most of the time, I find myself talking to my father as if he was there with me. I will usually pause before I take decisions and imagine what my parents would think. Sometimes, I feel they direct me when I take action.

At what point did you decide to set up MALLPAI Foundation, what really led to that decision?
I have always had interventions and people kept telling me to register my activities as a foundation; hence, this has been on before my husband became a governor. People think it is a political project; it is not a political foundation or State Government pet project. This is Aisha Bagudu’s pet project; MALLPAI is my baby.

What spurred your interest in education?
Mostly in our culture, we do not take the girl child education seriously; we are more concerned with the boy child because we feel he is head of the family. Some people have the mentality that when a girl child is educated, she ends up being married under a man. I am not saying it is wrong that our girls get married and become mothers, but then, if you see a mother who is educated, it is quite different from an uneducated mother.

Even from the upbringing of her children, there is a huge difference and this is not just in the western education they get, but also all round, including mannerism. I keep telling people to give their children at least basic education; being able to read and write not necessarily having a PhD. An educated mother will be able to put her children through basic homework they get from school.

Take the lockdown period for instance and the online learning methods, it will take a mother with basic knowledge to assist her child or effectively communicate with the teacher if need be. When you help one child with education, you help the whole society. Some parents want to have their children in school, but they cannot afford to, and so when you step in and make the payment, you have changed that family forever. I keep saying that if you can afford to train one child in a family, you have done a lot for that family. If you notice, when a child goes to school and come back, they will be playing with their sibling, teaching them the same thing they learnt. So, by training that child, you are also training the whole family.

How have you managed running the foundation with your task as wife of the governor?
I try to separate my programmes at MALLPAI with the State Government; if I have a programme with the foundation, I put it up and don’t mix it with the governments. Most of the time, I allow MALLPAI staff to lead and I will be at the back. I will usually be there to grace the occasion, say a few words, but most of the speeches will be done by MALLPAI staff; it’s either I say vote of thanks or goodwill message. That way, people will know it’s teamwork. But if its government’s work, I’m usually at the forefront.

Over 11 years running the foundation, what has been the experience?
I have gone through emotional feelings because of the things you see; sometimes you can’t sleep, you cry or you can’t even eat. Working on this foundation changed my life completely. The biggest experience for me is realising that this world is not fair; a lot of what we fight over are unnecessary, we don’t need them. If you are involved in charity and humanity work, you find out that spending money is only right when it is channeled to those who really need them instead of buying fancy handbags and outfits.

You do a lot around the girl child, what is the situation right now up north?
I have a centre in Kebbi registered with the Ministry of Education, so, what we usually do is teach married women who dropped out of school and trains them with skill acquisition too. We also make sure they sit for General Certificate Examination (GCE) for those who are interested, and we guide them through school after their result is out.

We have polytechnics and university in the state, so what we do is pay through their first year, and since they have acquired a skill, we ensure they set up so they can raise money to see themselves through school. We have successful stories from those who are determined, because it is not every time that the blue-collar job pays. With your skill and education, you can be successful. MALLPAI also helps her beneficiaries get loans, which we also do through the CBN, but we don’t stand as guarantors.

What is your take on the Almajiri system in the northern part of the country?
I think I am among the first persons, as a female that started taking on the Almajiri issue even before President Jonathan took it up. We educated a lot of them at the time, we have a doctor today who was an Almajiri; he doesn’t want to be mentioned in public and we respect his privacy. We also have a nurse and some others who are now teaching at the centre in Kebbi.

People keep saying we send them to school and we don’t give money; we teach skill acquisition and then allow them monetize their skills. That way, you will be helping yourself and not leaving everything to the foundation; we want to ensure that they are independent.

For the Almajiris, taking them back home without a proper agenda of what you want them to do for themselves is not ideal. These people will still sneak away because they are used to that kind of lifestyle. If we are going to stop this completely, we should help them and their parents too. Hence, what we do is to train their parents with a skill so that the children will come home and assist their parents with that skill and not just sitting down. If the parents don’t have money or skill, how can they look after their children?

For those without parents, we look out for their caregivers; we train them so they can take care of them. We also involve doctors who train them on their hygiene, which they all lack. Even the disabled, MALLPAI has to factor all these in its programmes and interventions for the Almajiris.

So, all these changed my life completely and shows that owning a lot of properties is just vanity; we should have a contented heart and live comfortably with it. Most times, we go to IDP camps, which are not even recognised; I keep saying that the government alone cannot handle all of these responsibilities. When you say everything has to start and end with the government, we won’t move forward, we will be stagnant. But the little bit from every one of us can take us farther.

When you have food in your fridge and you know your neighbour has not eaten, it is more fulfilling to share a portion of food with that neighbour. Growing up, we used to eat communally, because we all knew each other in the community; todays, it’s no longer so. I remember an incident that happened as a girl, I was asked to get items from the market; on my way back I stopped and was playing. A man who saw us playing for a very long time, having passed through a number of times, picked up a branch from a nearby tree and chased us home. We got home and couldn’t tell anybody that a stranger chased us away, even though he said to us, ‘you won’t go home and send the items you were asked to buy, later you will say there’s no food for you to eat.’

Today, people can no longer do this to children. Unlike in the past when the society takes care of children, now it is no longer the case. We don’t look after the other child anymore; it is just my children and I. When you correct the other person’s child, they will start keeping malice with you. So, how do you expect this society to move forward?

How do you feel seeing those who have benefited from your foundation living their dreams?
I am glad and happy; it lifts my spirit. One time, I was feeling down and complaining and then this boy walks in and says he has brought me his result and said, ‘thank you very much for changing my life. Because of you, I now know the value of being educated.’ That alone lifted my spirit and tells me I have achieved and touched a life.

You recently partnered with the Israeli government to set up an ICT centre in Abuja, what’s the idea behind the initiative?
We had an e-learning centre donated by the Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria because of what we are doing for the less privileged kids and Almajiris. They donated computers and desks to help train them in the modern education system.

So, we will look for schools that are willing to participate with the consent of their parents and also look for kids that are vulnerable and we will take charge of training them. The center is there, let’s see how we go; it’s a gradual process for us.

You started this work before your husband became the governor. Transiting from being an ordinary woman to a governor’s wife, how much has that helped with the work you do?
Firstly, I wouldn’t have been able to do this job without my husband’s support; he is a very good person, an understanding and loving husband and I will forever be grateful. Being his wife as a governor, he has always supported me; there has been a lot of changes and some doors have opened too.

You are quite humble as a first lady, where is this humility coming from?
It’s coming from my parents; they instilled it in me. My father said that if you are climbing a ladder, climb gently, because when you are coming down, you will use the same steps. When you are in a position, don’t carry yourself too high because one day, you will leave that position and still be with the same people. When you treat them right, you will get same back.

Running this foundation, you must have encountered some challenges, share with us?
Yes I do, especially when seeking for fund. The first thing people will say is that you are a governor’s wife, and I keep telling them that even though I am, I didn’t sign agreement with the governor and the NGO is owned by me not the government. Sometimes, asking for support is beyond money.

For instance, we built a house for a blind man, a comfortable house; he has three wives and very beautiful children. So, while seeking for funding, we sort for blocks, sand, doors and windows donations; people can physically see what they have donated. We also seek for used items; some people have excess clothes in their wardrobe, which will make a difference for another. If we need to provide borehole or toilet in a community, we will reach out for help and show the donors where they can erect it, so they don’t think we want their money for any personal gains. A lot of people ask me how come my NGO doesn’t have money and I say it is because anything that comes in goes; we don’t save it because there are piles of projects waiting to be executed.

Do you have any of your kids following your line of service to humanity? How far do you want the foundation to go?
I want this foundation to strive well after I am gone. My children are into the foundation; they join me in my activities and they know that it is good to help others and share what you have. And they know me well that if you have to get my attention at home, just say ‘MALLPAI’ and I will raise my head.

There’s the issue of a lot of women not getting involved in politics or up the ladder in their career, what do you think women should be doing to close the gap with men?
When you give a woman a job to do, she will do it with her heart, to the best of her ability; she doesn’t want to fail, she wants to deliver. There is this instinct in her that wants to make her deliver and with time, if given better opportunities, she will do a very good job and I can see that if positions are given to them, they will deliver. As women, we should continue to support each other rather than criticising and bringing ourselves down. By becoming a team as women, I think we will make a better Nigeria. Being hateful of each other will take us nowhere.