For the children: How we are connecting to Nigeria: Making a difference in the Diocese of Nsukka – bringing hope and education for a better future

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, July 29, 2012

For the children: How we are connecting to Nigeria

We are a poor people but we are a happy people.” That’s what we heard from two different priests on a recent trip to Nsukka, Nigeria, to see firsthand the partnership between our Office of Catholic Schools and the diocese there.
Carol Fendt and Esther Hicks prepare for the week's conferences. They were working at the Carmelite monastery where they lodged. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
Bishop Francis Okobo of the Diocese of Nsukka looks over plans for the model school on June 30. Construction on the school will begin this fall. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
The delegation from Chicago meets with the Education Committee in Nsukka on June 30. The state-of-theart professional development room they met in was financed by a donor from Chicago. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
(Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
Students of St. Catherine's Comprehensive Secondary School, an all-girls' school with resident and non-resident students, smile for the camera on July 1. The girls were outside in their common area following final exams. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
Students at Sancta Maria Nursery School in Nsukka finish exams on July 2. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
Carol Fendt, a former Catholic school teacher and principal and co-director of the Prairie Group, an education research group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, talks with Sancta Maria Primary School students on July 5. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
The headmaster of Holy Infant Nursery and Primary School walks past one of the classroom buildings on the campus on July 7. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)
A teacher corrects exams for her students at Holy Infants Nursery and Primary School in the Diocese of Nsukka on July 7. (Joyce Duriga / Catholic New World)

We are a poor people but we are a happy people.” That’s what we heard from two different priests on a recent trip to Nsukka, Nigeria, to see firsthand the partnership between our Office of Catholic Schools and the diocese there.

I traveled the 6,000 miles to Nigeria at the end of June with four educators from the Archdiocese of Chicago. They were going to offer professional development to teachers and principals in the diocese and to move one step closer to the building of a model school and to improve health care in Nsukka.

The people in Nsukka do without many of the things Americans take for granted, like clean water and regular flow of electricity. The government provides a fraction of the electricity needed for everyday use, and it is intermittent. Most people rely on generators for their power. However, fuel costs are high so not many people can afford to run their generators for long every day. Cases of malaria and typhoid are common and unemployment is rampant.

Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa with 170 million people. It also produces the most oil. But most of the proceeds from the oil companies are siphoned off by corrupt officials and very little is put into infrastructure and into building a stronger country.

Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960. Military rule made for a rocky start and a civil war from 1967-1970 wiped out around 3 million people, many from the region around Nsukka.

The life expectancy in Nigeria is 49 years for men and 53 years for women, according to the CIA World Factbook. It is second in the world in number of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Church in Nsukka

The Diocese of Nsukka is young itself, just 21 years old. It has 100 parishes and is adding more every year. The parishes usually have satellite sites, or stations, within their boundaries and many are in the process of building church buildings. They construct buildings as the money comes in. It’s much like how parishes formed in the Archdiocese of Chicago more than 100 years ago.

In the elementary schools, the quality of education and the environment varies but all would be considered inadequate and poor by American standards. Teachers have few materials with which to teach so they teach by rote with the children memorizing what they need to learn. The secondary schools are a little better.

In the earlier levels it is not uncommon for the teachers to lack formal training themselves, especially in rural areas. And the pay is low. Catholic school teachers are paid $1 a day and government school teachers are paid $2 a day.

Classes themselves are held in very simple, sometimes makeshift, conditions. The primary school buildings are often basic cement structures like barracks and frequently there are no walls or dividers between classrooms. Conditions are cramped and students gather around a blackboard for instruction.

Sometimes classes are held in half-built structures. Building in Nigeria is a pay-as-you go system because bank loans are uncommon and the penalties extreme.

The schools don’t have the funds to feed the children during the day. Many of the children are malnourished.

Reaching out

It’s a bleak picture and one that led native son Father Willy Odo to reach out to the archdiocese for help while he was living in Chicago and training in the archdiocesan tribunal in 2006. While he was in residence at St. Aloysius Parish, 2300 W. Le Moyne St., Odo met Esther Hicks, director of Catholic identity and mission for the Office of Catholic Schools, and she led him to then-superintendent Nick Wolsonovich to discuss how the archdiocese might help the schools back in Nsukka. From there a partnership was born.

“Our office gets asked many, many favors from all over and we can’t do it basically because we don’t have enough contact or enough information about a situation to help. This was a special situation,” Hicks said. “We felt the integrity of his work and his way of living in the archdiocese was worth taking a chance on.”

Odo, who is the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Nsukka, said he was impressed with the Catholic schools in Chicago and saw hope for his people. Even though his background is in canon law he understands the importance of education.

“I know how it has opened my horizons. I know how it has helped me also to assist the society for the better,” he said. “I also believe that if our society has to grow — to become what it should be — people can do it only when they are educated.”

So in 2006, Cardinal George and Nsukka Bishop Francis Okobo agreed to a formal partnership between the church in Chicago and Nsukka to build a better future for Nigeria through Catholic education. Hicks was appointed the U.S. director of the project with Odo directing the Nigerian side.

In just a few short years, bonds have been forged, teachers and principals have been given a voice and training in modern teaching methods and plans have been laid for construction of a model school with building set to begin this fall with the nursery section.

Once the $5 million school in Nsukka is finished, it will serve students from 3 years old through college, and incorporate a teachers’ college to educate the diocese’s future educators. The group is still raising money to fund all of the construction.

It begins

Hicks made her first visit to Nsukka during Holy Week of 2007. She said it was an eyeopening experience.

“I knew we had to think very broadly about the problems,” she said. Education is a piece of the complex societal puzzle. “If we didn’t understand as many pieces as we could we wouldn’t do much good in the education part of this.”

She came back to Chicago and formed a “committee of interests” comprised of people in education, health care and construction who were interested in the effort and had the skills to help.

The committee also started working with foundations and donors to generate financial support for the project.

The following year, a group traveled back to Nsukka and trained people there to conduct an assessment of all of the school buildings in the diocese. They were trained to measure the buildings — inside and outside. What resulted was a report that showed the bishop — for the first time — all of the school buildings the diocese had and their condition. Chuck Newman of Newman Architects and Schools for the Children of the World was instrumental in this process.

The group also held meetings and workshops with diocesan leadership and school personnel to compile a report assessing the state of education in the diocese.

“We got the positives and the negatives,” Hicks said.

Another report was compiled on the health care side. From early on, Hicks said they knew that health care and education efforts had to fit together.

“There is a lot of illness in the villages. Children come to school not well. We know that there are a lot of kids that have HIV/AIDS complexities in the family so there is a lot underlying the situation, much of which is not talked about,” Hicks said.

In 2009, the partnership held its Future Search Conference. Hicks is certified in major planning processes for situations like the one in Nsukka. From there the group produced its guiding Vision 2020 plan that has 17 major goals in four categories: education, professional development, health initiatives and infrastructure. It’s a large plan that dreams big.

“That gave us a direction,” Hicks said. “Out of that evolved the education workshops we’ve been doing and the health initiatives we’ve been doing.”

Last year, the partnership formed an education committee in Nsukka that works together with an education committee in Chicago.

“For one year now this committee has been working here with us and the change is immense,” Hicks said. The local educators have taken more of a leadership role in the partnership and have more of a buy-in with the effort.

“We plan with people here [in Nsukka]. It’s never separate.” she said. “It’s a partnership of peoples, meaning that everybody is at the table no matter where we are located, everybody has a say. Those who have a say are really putting the future together for these people.”

State of education

For years, there were no Catholic schools in this area of Nigeria, after the government took over all the Catholic institutions following the civil war in the early 1970s. At that time they expelled all of the missionaries — including the missionary bishops operating the dioceses at that time.

Following the war, Blessed Pope John Paul II reorganized the dioceses, appointed indigenous bishops and tasked them with rebuilding the church. They began to build parishes and new schools.

According to diocesan officials, the government has since realized the value of a morality-based education and has begun returning the schools they took in the 1970s. However, the government is offering no support for the church to take back these schools and there are many complications.

The students educated in those government schools from the 1970s are today’s educators, said Father Fidelis Ikpe, the director of education in the Nsukka diocese, and they lack moral and educational standards valued in Catholic schools.

Education in government schools is sub-standard, Ikpe said, and much like in the United States, parents will pull together the money for tuition at Catholic schools “so that their children are educated in a proper way.”

Parents are charged tuition to help support the schools — usually around $30 a year, plus uniform and material fees — but parents cannot pay enough to cover all the costs. It costs about $350 to educate a student for one year on the primary level.

Besides the lack of clean water and electricity and poor infrastructure, there are other challenges to education in Nsukka, Ikpe said.

Foremost, many teachers lack the proper education needed to help students. That is one area where the Chicago partnership is helping with professional development. Also, the schools lack the finances to provide good materials for educating. Libraries are small, if they exist at all.

Sometimes the government provides materials for the primary levels. On the secondary level, parents are asked to cover the costs of textbooks for their children along with tuition.

“Sometimes the parents cannot afford providing all this for the children,” Ikpe said. The schools then try to have those books on hand in the library for the students’ use.

In the hinterland, or rural areas, there are other challenges, namely the parents don’t value education.

“They want their children to get married without basic education, and to go and work on the farms,” Ikpe said. “Sometimes they do not consider it a necessity that girls should be educated.”

In an attempt to change this view, the diocese offers seminars at the churches telling of the need of education for all. They often bring along girls who are educated to speak with the families.

Those in rural areas are often extremely poor and don’t have the means of paying school fees. They are subsistence farmers, only producing enough to feed the family. “For them a basic necessity is to feed the family, not to go to school,” he said.

A new method

The limited access to teaching materials is one of the reasons the partnership decided to train teachers in the nursery or preschool level in the Montessori method of teaching.

During this trip Sister of St. Joseph Barbara Jean Ciszek, principal of the Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center, 1651 W. Diversey Parkway, along with first grade teacher Jeanne Henry from Holy Family School in Inverness, trained a group of 50 nursery school teachers and principals in Montessori (see related story). They came from 15 schools throughout the diocese and will be pilot sites for Montessori education.

It was a special time for the Chicago delegation because the meeting took place in a newly constructed professional development room that was paid for by a donor in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The room is equipped with electricity, ample light and power sources, four ceiling fans, a marble floor and security bars on the windows. It’s also set up for multi-media presentations. It’s a room that stands out among others in the pastoral center.

Hicks and Carol Fendt, co-director of the Prairie Group, an education research group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, simultaneously held a two-day leadership conference for 100 teachers and principals.

During the second week of their stay, Ciszek and Fendt visited the pilot schools while Hicks made the rounds to the Catholic hospitals to work on the health care side of the partnership (see story in next issue).

Making a change

Callistus Mamah is a young member of the Education Committee in Nsukka. He teaches government at a Catholic secondary school.

At last year’s workshop he learned to change some of his teaching methods for the better.

“We were meant to know that a teacher is not just there to teach, but that the teacher should be a leader and that the failure of the students should not be blamed on the students but on the teacher because maybe they couldn’t carry out their job efficiently,” he told the Catholic New World.

Having heard some things like that in last year’s workshop he said he corrected some of the ways he was teaching. For example, before “once I got into the classroom I would say what I wanted to say and then go away. Sometimes they may want to ask questions and I would say ‘I don’t have time,’ or something of that nature,” Mamah said. “But at the end of the seminar last year I got to know it is a wrong method.”

He said the children enjoy his lessons more now. This is a fruit of the partnership.

There is still much work to be done but Ikpe says he sees the partnership making a difference in the schools already.

“We all long for academic and moral excellence. How will it be achieved? The partnership provides us with the standard,” Ikpe said. “When we follow it we arrive at academic and moral excellence.”

Each time the teachers and principals come for a workshop there is a change in the method of teaching, he said.

“When the teachers are not well trained, well, they cannot give what they don’t have,” Ikpe said. Trainings like the one begun in Montessori produces immediate benefits.

“When they get back to the school they have new ideas on what they can give to the children. Before the workshop they don’t have such learning. They don’t have such training and skill,” he said. “So it is only when they are educated that they can go themselves and educate others.”

It is a never-ending process.

“For you to live is for you to learn. Education is very important in every aspect of life,” Ikpe said. “Once one stops learning they die.”