IYARA is a community in Warri Delta state, Nigeria, which has a large number of out-of-school children, a situation Okpo Zion is hoping to remedy with his education initiative, the Clever Minds Educational Foundation.
The initiative seeks to provide free education and food for indigent children.
In December 2020, Okpo worked at Iyara community, mentoring children so that they could access quality education. This eventually led to his setting up a school, the second since he started his advocacy.
His drive is borne out of his experience. He had to cater for himself by doing odd jobs, including working as a house help at 16. His dad lost his job after his secondary education. Just like his siblings, he couldn’t proceed to higher education.
Okpo, who is from Edo state, said they were living in abject poverty. Many times they go to bed without eating.
He eventually moved to Warri in the neighbouring Delta state as a house-help in exchange for tertiary education – this he explained was not easy. After four years, he eventually got an Ordinary National Diploma before leaving the house. He would eventually get a Higher National Diploma in 2015.
This cemented his resolution to help as many indigent kids as possible to get an education without going through hardships.
According to Unicef, Nigeria has about 10.5 million children who are not in school, even though primary education is officially free and compulsory.
Okpo’s dream berthed when he left his work as a radio presenter in 2017 to start his first orphanage school called Clever Minds free primary school in Edjebba, a community in Warri.
The school now has 223 orphans and indigent children, Okpo tells the ICIR.
Ayiri Edema, now 17, is one of the beneficiaries of Okpo’s outreach. At the age of 12, Ayiri was already on the list. Clever Minds took over his care, feeding and education. They, however, did not house him.
“We only provide education, food, and other basic needs for the orphans; we don’t house them. If we find out that they don’t have shelter, we take them to an orphanage house,” Okpo explains.
In February, Ayiri showed his appreciation by buying Okpo a pack of soda when Okpo celebrated his birthday.
“I had to save up from my token in the orphanage house to buy him Pepsi when he was celebrating his birthday. He’s like a father to me,” Ayiri tells the ICIR.
Currently, Ayiri is on a Clever Minds scholarship to Christ the King College in Delta state.
Through his mentoring project in the Iyara community in 2021, Okpo met Success Christopher.
Success, who is 12, stays with her mother at a makeshift batcher.
In September 2021, she was among the 100 children admitted to the new free school in Iyara. Selection is made one per household.
Success’s mother told the ICIR that none of her nine children attends school until Clever Minds selected her for its education project. She said she was abandoned by her husband to cater for their nine children. They could barely get food to eat.
According to Unicef, Nigeria has the second-highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 per cent of children under five.
An estimated two million children in Nigeria suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), but only two out of every ten children affected are currently reached with treatment.
This might have triggered Clever Minds foundation to also provide food for its school children.
Celebrating nine months of the existence of the Iyara school, Okpo wrote on Twitter that “Today makes it nine months since God used me via Clever Minds educational foundation to start the first free private primary school for orphans and out of school children in the slums of Iyara community Warri. 100 Children get free education & food daily!. To God be the glory”.
He told the ICIR the school currently admitted children from primary one to primary five. He, however, hopes to expand the classes eventually.
“Unlike the first Clever Minds school in Edjebba, Iyara’s Clever Minds doesn’t have nursery classes. We only take children from primary one to five.”
“The school, however, follows the normal ministry of education standards, having gotten approval to operate. The school also harnesses talents with our after school program that teaches dance, and other life skills called the extend the day programme” he explains.
The out-of-school children phenomenon
While Zion and some other individuals are trying to provide solutions to the menace of out of school children in the country, statistics have it that Nigeria has one in every five cases in the world.
This records almost one-quarter of the number of children that should be in school.
A Section of Nigeria’s Constitution affirmed that the government would be responsible for ensuring equal rights amongst children to access education.
Section 18 (1) of the 1999 Constitution states, “Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.”
The part further stated that “Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end government shall as and when practicable provide (a) free, compulsory and universal primary education; (b) free secondary education; (c) free university education.”
According to child rights and education advocate Adegbite Taoheed, government policies are sometimes part of the challenges.
He said, “most times, policies that could have a direct impact in addressing these issues linger more than supposed. You and I know that before a law passed by the national assembly can be effective in all states, it’s to be domesticated by the state assembly. So, take the Child Rights Act, for example. Despite the fact that it became an act in 2003, it took many states of Nigeria close to two decades before getting it domesticated. Most times, in the process of this domestication, some laws lose their essence. And that’s very bad.”
Adegbite listed other challenges to include the need for a behavioural change in family planning, availability and unconditional access to quality family planning services.
“This will give way to practical solutions as child spacing will automatically bring down the number of children per parent. Aside from this, complex societal notions and religious ambiguities are hindering factors. For instance, you can’t talk about family planning freely in many parts of the North. It has to be child spacing if you want to have an almost seamless advocacy. Else, you may be attacked. This is where inclusive community engagement with custodians of culture and religion comes in. And as highly referred stakeholders in most northern communities, I believe their constant efforts to clear off grains from chaffs of these religious notions and ambiguities will go a long way.” Adegbite explains.
Funding and challenges…
Okpo sees the foundation’s inability to cater for more than one child per household as a challenge.
He also noted that in the Iyara community, people are sceptical; they do not believe the services are for free and think it is politically driven.
“It hasn’t been easy to get people’s acceptance”.
“Some would say, how would it be for free, but five years to this time, we are moving gradually to where we hope for”, he states.
Funding is also a challenge, but Okpo said they have not needed to crowdfund as that is not their style.
In a Twitter post celebrating the birthday of Tony Elumelu, the founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Okpo credited him with providing the seed grant to start the project.
The Tony Elumelu Foundation has, over the years, awarded grants to finance innovative ideas across Africa.
Okpo told the ICIR the foundation gets support from people, which has sustained them over time.
He said, “We have people that support us; Olu Warri support us, Slum to school supports us on a yearly basis, a foundation called grace sustain Africa supports us on a yearly basis also.”
“Donation from people around us, though we have never called for crowdfunding, we have also received support from Delta state government, the Tony Elumelu Foundation too.
For some, it’s once, and for some, it’s standard – regularly -. For example, slum to school supports us with N1 million every year.”
Iyara community chairman Eze Odile David notes that they have thousands of out of school children, and Okpo’s school can only take a limited number.
He hopes the school will expand to include ICT labs and secondary school.
“If perhaps we see some individual that will help him (Okpo) to get him to expand his school or build an ICT lab for this community, we will appreciate it”, Eze notes.