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North-East: A universe of poverty and hope

By Olusola Sanni
01 June 2016   |   3:15 am
The North-East geo-political zone is widely known to be playing catch up in Nigeria’s rapid drive to development. A lot of the stunning statistics depicting the deplorable ...
PHOTO: www.un.org

PHOTO: www.un.org

The North-East geo-political zone is widely known to be playing catch up in Nigeria’s rapid drive to development. A lot of the stunning statistics depicting the deplorable state of human development index in the North-East have often underplayed the narrative. Whereas statistics can capture the number of children out of school and the number of children who lack access to daily balanced diet, but how does statistics help capture the manpower deficit of a largely uneducated and underfed population.

Apart from the statistics, even media reportage of the problems in the North-East has not done justice to the humanitarian problem in the region. Most media reportage on the region in recent time has been from the perspective of the Boko Haram insurgency, and, therefore, the region has even become victim of journalistic bias because its story tilts towards reporting the exploits of the terrorists than the actual victims of the terror.

No doubt, the North-East needs government’s attention to rebuild its infrastructure in the aftermath of the ruinations of the Boko Haram vandals. But much more than the bridges, roads and private homes that have been destroyed, is the neglect and rustiness that has become of the minds of the young population of the North-East. In many places across the region, schools have been closed for almost three years as a result of the Boko Haram menace. While hospitals are a rare sight, even patent medicines stores have for long been under lock and key, thus shrinking further the already restricted access to health care.

Its out-of-school children is the highest globally and access to good food is an uncommon privilege to many children in the region. But in the middle of the darkness and gloom that has constricted the North-East is a clear ray of light. I was an invited guest to the 2016 commencement ceremony of the American University of Nigeria in Yola. The university’s President, Professor Margie Ensign took me through several of the institution’s humanitarian initiatives which included the Adamawa Peace Initiative, the Technology Enhanced Learning for All (TELA) project, the Feed and Read programme among others.

The AUN prides itself as the pioneer community development university in Africa and the credentials of the extensive work it has done across communities in Adamawa State and other parts of the North-East region give fitting testimonials to that claim. Each student of the university has a community development project dedicated to them, and all these programmes are coordinated through the Atiku Abubakar Centre for Leadership Entrepreneurship and Development Apart from providing a roundtable for Christians and Muslims, the Adamawa Peace Initiative played a crucial role in absorbing the almost 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) that thronged Yola on the heels of the Boko Haram terror attacks.

According to President Ensign, “As the Boko Haram crisis grew, we found ourselves feeding close to 300,000 people for 18 months with little external governmental or relief agency support.” The Peace through Literacy, IT and entrepreneurship scheme also recently undertook training for local farmers on how to use mobile telephone technology to obtain information from the internet that could help boost and promote their trade.

The AUN-API network has also espoused the Chibok Educational Initiative through which 15 of the 58 girls who escaped from the kidnapping are undergoing intensive individualised academic programme to help prepare them for the JAMB and WAEC examination.

Of all these initiatives, none caught my fancy like the Feed and Read Programme for vulnerable children, orphans and children from poor homes. Typically, access to good food is a big issue amongst many of the young population of the North-East. The Executive Director of the AUN Schools, Nkem Uzowulu, a veteran school administrator, who happens to be the driving force behind the Feed and Read programme, explained the workings of the scheme.

He noted: “It is amasing to see the joy on the faces of these children, and sometimes the food they eat here is their only meal for the day. The depressing part of the story, however, is that we noticed some of the girls come to school with nylon bags and rather than eat their meals, they will turn the food inside the nylon bags. We asked them why they do that and the response they gave is that they feel guilty eating here while their other siblings at home are hungry, and therefore, they prefer to take the food home and share with their siblings.

“A uniform label in the United States saw the Feed and Read story on the internet and chose to support the programme by giving school uniforms to these children free of charge. Another global courier company, FedEx agreed to ship these uniforms for free and now the children are very proud to wear the AUN uniforms. They never could have imagined that was possible. “The impact has been enormous. The Feed and Read girls started when they couldn’t look at up and greet. But now, they look at you and say, ‘good afternoon.’ “There are some of them who do not want to go to formal schools and for that category we are taking them through our AUN Entrepreneurial Schemes.“We have heard real stories of some of the boys who confessed that they didn’t join Boko Haram because of the Feed and read programme. That made us realise that there is an alternative to Boko Haram and that alternative is education and access to opportunity.

At the end of my interview session with the Executive Director of the AUN Schools, I found a reason to agree more with one of the AUN valedictorians who said: “The AUN has taught us there is a very thin line between the university and the community.” It is an expression that provides a theoretical framework for how a university can be asource of positive influence to a universe, no matter how dark that universe may be.

Sanni, a journalist and deputy director at the Atiku Media Office, sent this piece from Abuja.