From public nuisance to public hero: Why Williams is promoting boy-child’s interest
Seated quietly and dressed simply with his phones in his hand, you could never guess that this man had a rough upbringing, was a truant and street menace and was almost raped once, experienced prison life before abandoning that rough lifestyle, leading him to start Boys Lead Foundation.
Born in Lagos, Owolabi Williams said even though he grew up in a two-parent household with his siblings, “my father was physically around but not present in our lives. We were raised solely by our mum and she did every single thing two parents are supposed to do for their children. Everything was on her, feeding, education, clothes, well-being, discipline and so on, she did it all. Growing up, my mum had the most influence on me accompanied with a lot of caning and spanking. I used to play on the streets, fight and do all sorts of things that boys do.”
Quickly turning to truancy as a result of his surroundings, he said, “I would say I had a very rough upbringing as a boy; I didn’t have a father figure as a role model. As that was what we could afford then, I attended Igbogbi College in Somolu, Lagos and while I am not painting the school black in any way, I used to resume school at 9a.m and close before noon. Regular students resume at 8a.m or even earlier, but my friends and I used to be on the field playing football and just being a general truant. I was in boarding house then and was hardly there and our seniors took advantage of this.”
“Whenever we got to school, we used to first go eat at one popular buka at Fadeyi before doing anything and our principal then, Mr. Ojutiku would run after us with his car, trying to drive us back to school. Rather than go through the main entrance, because we knew our teachers would be waiting with canes to beat us, we would jump the fence at the back to get into the school compound; not that we had any interest in attending classes of any sort. Those were on the days he bothered to pursue us as some days, he was fed up and left us alone, and even then, we left school before 11am. School was boring as far as we were concerned and we quickly lost interest and this continued till graduation. I had a friend then that when we left school, we used to hang out and do what boys do. “Going home, we don’t pay transport fare, we either get into a fist cuff with the bus conductors, persuade or plead with them or try to outsmart them and they couldn’t overpower us. I used to box and fight a lot for pleasure not for sports, played basketball for Milo and football for Puma football club.
“In the process of looking for people to look up to after graduating from secondary school, we ran into a gang consisting of some cultists on our street then who were well known to us. We used to give them a lot of respect and women flocked around them, so, naturally, we thought that was how to attract women and be liked and respected. We quickly got into the lifestyle and my mother used to beat me a lot. Even when playing football, I was always getting into fights and all these including my street lifestyle stalled my growth and education.”
But how did he come about the turnaround? He narrated: “An occurrence changed my life and spurred me into creating a safe haven for young boys in 1995. I met an older guy on my street that started paying my bus fare and bought one or two things for me. One day, he invited to a nearby hotel for a chat, which I readily obliged, but asked a friend to follow me. On getting there, he asked me to go get a bottle of soda drinks from the reception and while I was away, he told my friend who was still in the room with him, to kiss him. I rushed back excitedly, with the drinks in my hand and when I got back to the room, I didn’t notice anything. After taking the drinks, he asked my friend to go return the bottle and he then started groping me and asked me to kiss him. I was shocked and started resisting with all my might and that was when my friend came in and met us. It was later he told me that the man tried the same thing with him but we never said a word to anybody. That man could have raped us that day and I believe strongly that so many young men have experienced or are experiencing this without saying anything and this is one of the main reasons I started this foundation.”
Shortly after this incidence, he managed to gain admission into the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro and obtained a national diploma in Estate Management and went on to Lagos State University (LASU) to read public administration where he unfortunately dropped out to pursue his desire of relocating abroad. “At this point, I was doing one or two businesses but I wanted to relocate abroad but didn’t know what to do and how to go about it but I found a way and moved to America.”
On getting to America, Williams was struggling to find his feet and it was around this period he was offered a position to lead a youth group at a local Church. “I don’t know why I was told to do that, I wasn’t the best of examples to lead a group of young boys but I guess they saw something in me. Around this same time, someone from the Church preached the gospel to me and I was so touched by the message that I decided to give my life to Christ. I started experiencing a turnaround and decided to study psychology at the Houston Community College to be better at leading the boys I was mentoring. I then went on to get an entrepreneurship certification in the business school of the University of Houston. I would like to add that I wouldn’t say I was so bad in the sense of the word because I wasn’t too far gone to not know the difference between right and wrong and I guess in a way, this helped to turn my life around.”
“When I relocated to the USA then, I worked in the prison system and talked with a lot of young men and juveniles at the Youth Offenders Programme (YOP). They told me a lot of things and their situation was so sad, very young boys with two life sentences and they would never see the outside world again. I interacted actively with them and most of them confessed that they didn’t have any positive influence to look up to when they were growing up, had to fend for themselves and they quickly turned to a life of crime. Most of these young boys belonged to gangs that they still partook in even right there in prison. After resigning from the job less than two years in, I started Boys Lead Foundation and believe me when I tell you that we have a major problem amongst young boys and men.”
With the objective of guiding troubled young boys to retrace their steps, the foundation has programmes that help to re-integrate young offenders into the system. “We see young boys that get high on tramadol and other substances and do bad things with consequences. We enroll them in a three-month programme; get a therapist to come speak with them as well as counselors to guide them. We also try to keep them in school with the Keep A Boy In School (KABIS) Project, get them back into school if they have dropped out and wish to get an education, mentor them and introduce them to our entrepreneurship programme, the Boypreneur Challenge.
“We want boys to become heroes and while we have a lot of organisations and foundations working for the girl child and raising fantastic girls and women, nobody is guiding these boys and we are raising bad boys. There is no balance; we are doing so much for the girl child and one way or the other, their paths would cross and that poorly trained boy would introduce the well-trained girl to tramadol, prostitution, trafficking and rape. However, if the boy were well trained, he would know he doesn’t need to indulge in all these negative vices. My male cousins used to lure women into our house and try to rape them and personally, I have prevented several rape cases from taking place.
“The best time to have an organisation to train and re-train our boys is now and we want to encourage many people to get into the field of boys mentoring and development with us, we cannot do it alone. Rather than repair the man, why not mould the boy? This year, we are targeting five thousand boys, forming a club called Boys Ville as well as work in 50 communities. Doing this without funds is a challenge, right now as we are self-funded, existing in three states with staff, running costs and overheads and so we are calling out to people that are passionate about the Nigerian boy child to join forces with us so that we can help create a better space for the girl child. I appreciate everyone and parent that is trying to raise the boy child because it is not easy but our utmost desire is to raise heroes.”
The foundation has also perfected arrangement for its yearly conference whose theme is
The future is Him. “We are trying to tell our boys that they’re important too just like the girl-child. We have the international girls’ day but there is nothing like that for the boy child and we are advocating strongly for this at the United Nations and UNICEF. Our speakers and trainers at the Abuja conference will handle character development, behavioural changes, leadership classes and so on, making boys realise who they are, take charge of their personalities and how to rule their space.”
Lamenting that men do not want to get involved in self-help programmes, he said, “We try to involve men in our programmes, but it’s not easy as just a few that have an understanding of the advantages appreciate what we do. They ask us, ‘what do you want to say?’ and they don’t even listen when we try to speak with them. We need to break this cycle and ensure that negative traits do not continue. I was raised by my mum with an absent father and I decided I was going to break that cycle and be there for my kids, educate them and give them the best of my emotional, psychological and physical support as a father.”
“I know it is not easy but fathers, please raise your boys well as much as you can. I would tell young boys, you can make it on your own even if you do not have a positive role model as a father; find mentors and people to guide you.”
“My mother would encourage reading the book of proverbs which has 31 chapters, one for each day and you would read it aloud whenever you did anything wrong and I can say that this shaped me more than I realised. Parents expose kids to all sorts of things; ensure you are exposing them to positive things, as they would find it hard to deviate from that path when they grow up,” he concluded.