Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Unfortunately, in many countries, including my own, too many children are still being denied an education. According to the latest statistics, Nigeria has 10.5 million children out of school, the highest number in the world. Most of those children come from the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities, and 60 percent of those children are in northern Nigeria.
I grew up in poverty, within a disadvantaged community much like the ones where Nigeria’s out-of-school children live. Yet my story is a testament to how education can improve one’s station in life – it very literally lifted me out of poverty.
Although I am originally from the southeastern part of Nigeria, I grew up in Kano State, in the northwest. My father was a junior police officer, while my mother was a petty banana trader. Neither one of them ever studied beyond primary school education. To pay my way through school, I had to support my mother by hawking bananas every day after school and during public holidays. Tray-loads of bananas can be quite heavy for a 10-year-old child. I remember days of walking long distances to sell bananas, and at one point I thought I would go bald in my later years due to the mark the heavy tray left on the top of my head. Some days, when I was unable to complete sales, I was reminded that my family needed all the money it could get to send me to school—I had to keep pushing.
Despite the challenges, I was lucky to have a mother who believed, like Nelson Mandela, in the power of education. Even if that meant hawking enough bananas to send me to university 900 kilometers away from home. Through hard work and some good fortune, I eventually graduated as a medical doctor in 1998. Those early years practicing as a doctor among disadvantaged communities were an eye-opener. Every day, people would present themselves with diseases that could have easily been prevented, if only they had been armed with the right information.
While working with Nigeria’s National Programme on Immunization, I heard about the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship Program. At the time, I had never come across the term “social justice.” Yet I realized it’s what I had been doing: ensuring that the rights of the most vulnerable members of society are respected, and that programs – be they in health, water and sanitation, or education – take their needs and aspirations as a starting point.
Through the Fellowship, I pursued a master’s degree in community health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, in the United Kingdom. Beyond giving me access to a quality education, the Fellowship also paid for me to attend short courses at Oxford University, and broadened my networks. Once back in Nigeria, I even became a mentor to postgraduate students from the Liverpool School who came to Nigeria to conduct their research projects – just as I did mine in Zambia.
Everything rises and falls on education, and we are greatly damaging our continent’s future by not educating our children. We are also failing to help them become tomorrow’s leaders – leaders who would be best placed to advocate for the needs of their communities and come up with solutions to their problems.
In my current role, I lead efforts to ensure that all levels of government in Nigeria implement Universal Health Coverage so that that catastrophic health expenditures do not push people into poverty. An easy way for government to achieve this is providing health insurance for every Nigerian. Because of the education I received, I now find myself able to speak to local, regional and national authorities on behalf of marginalized communities, making their voices heard. Perhaps more importantly, I work directly with communities to educate them about health, and empower them to hold their elected representatives accountable.
Unfortunately, most people in Nigeria are not as lucky as I was. In 2015, around two thirds of students who sat for the country’s national entrance exam could not find a spot at a Nigerian university. Those who choose to study abroad often rely on scholarships, but those have come under threat in recent years following the country’s financial crisis.
It’s a well-known fact that education brings about many benefits, including huge potential impacts on a child’s health. Evidence shows, for example, that when girls are educated, they make better decisions regarding their health and wellbeing, and eventually that of their own children. Education also increases people’s earning capacity and gives them a voice to demand just and fair policies.
While I was fortunate to make it to medical school and later benefit from support from the Ford Foundation, as a country we cannot keep waiting for international donors to solve our social problems. As a first step, governments at all levels in Nigeria must provide free access to education for those 10.5 million out-of-school children.
Beyond that, we need to tackle our higher education woes, something that the country’s numerous high-net worth individuals can support. These individuals have an opportunity to foster the leaders of tomorrow by taking a leaf from the IFP quest to improve opportunities for education for marginalized communities, and start their own initiatives. Ultimately, we need to equip our nation’s most vulnerable communities with the right education so that they can go on to contribute to our nation’s health and prosperity.
Ifeanyi Nsofor is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch. He received support from the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship Program to complete a master’s degree in community health from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.