Conversations About Nigerian Education: Interview with Father Stephen Ogbe, O.p
Sustainable Development Goals: 4, 5
- SDG 4 - Quality Education
- SDG 5 - Gender Equality
Stephen Ogbe is a passionate and resourceful fundraiser with over 10 years’ experience in coordinating donation activities for individuals, corporations, charitable foundations, and religious organizations. He has a wealth of international experience which includes educational and fundraising programs and consultations in the UK, Germany and Hong Kong, amongst other countries. He holds a B.A in Philosophy, a Masters in Project Development and Implementation (MPDI), an M.A in Theology from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania and Certificate training in Positive Psychiatry and Mental Health from The University of Sydney, Australia. Stephen is a catholic clergy of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans).
In anticipation of our interview, Father Stephen Ogbe sent me pictures of the sand-filled site which will house the school that his faith-based organisation is in the process of building, a school partly for out-of-school children. In one of the pictures, there was a score of children strutting behind him. A few things stood out to me in this image: a young boy who looked more camera-ready than his counterparts, two children wearing matching outfits and the fact that the only two girls in the shot were disassociated from the group. Father Ogbe’s organisation, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), is building the school in Northern Nigeria. The education challenge is larger in the Northern part of Nigeria than in the South, and the picture I analyzed earlier provides a visual representation of one of the catalysts of the problem: the girl child is often left out of the education conversation.
Trying to achieve Target 4.5 of Sustainable Development Goal 4, eliminating gender disparities in education, is an onerous task in Northern Nigeria and Ogbe admits this wholeheartedly.
“You see, it’s a very difficult situation. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the girl child is given out to marriage at a very early age so, apart from poverty-related reasons, it is also the pride of the parents to see that they have their children out of the house. If you tell them about education, you are challenging that status quo.”
Yet, Ogbe and his colleagues are willing to deviate from the status quo in order to enable young girls enjoy their fundamental human right to education.
“We were able to talk to the parents and to their local community leader. We told them that we want both genders in school, not only the boys.”
Ogbe practices and advocates for community engagement. Going into local communities and having conversations with parents and local leaders turns these two gatekeepers of children’s education into allies.
“For the construction of the school, this is how we started: we found somebody who knows the local leader very well. He introduced us to the local leader and we discussed with him,” Ogbe said “We said we’re bringing a development to their locality – formal education, and told them what we are targeting: to help them see the light of education.”
With the parents, there is a lot more convincing to do and Ogbe employs persuasive tactics by pointing, for example, to the female leaders in the Northern part of the country making great strides.
Such women are representative of the extra-ordinary talent that is present in Nigeria despite the problems that persist.
“Right now, some of the women occupying very strategic positions in Nigeria are from the North. We present parents with these concrete examples and they are able to see the possibility of their daughters transforming their lives, their community and society.”
Recalling other factors aside from gender inequality that negatively impact the success of SDG 4 in Northern Nigeria, Ogbe cites religio-cultural reasons.
“People are not able to make a distinction between religion and culture as it relates to education. So that is part of the problem,” Ogbe said.
While some parents do not see the need for education in general, others prioritise religious education at the expense of what they perceive to be “formal education.”
“Even though their religious education is important, they should pursue that alongside western education so that they don’t see their religious education as all-important and relegate formal education,” Ogbe added.
It would have been remiss of him to omit the problem of insecurity in Northern Nigeria; it was in this region that an extremist organisation kidnapped 276 school girls in 2014, a story that achieved worldwide infamy and popularized the hashtag, “Bring Back Our Girls.” In narrating issues that his organization is facing in setting up the school, Ogbe comments on insecurity.
“One of the big challenges we're having now is how we can fortify the location, and that purchase is pretty expensive. We’re going to be responsible for the children so we must ensure that they are secure,” Ogbe said.
When asked what international organizations can do to foster the work of his organization, Ogbe mentions funding. “Every step of the project is expensive,” he acknowledged. Yet, even before raising the mountainous issue of funding, he requests investment in human capital.
“To have a successful project, it means that the human agents behind that project must be developed. So international organizations can partner with us by carrying out staff development for us.”
Recalling more barriers that are obstructing his work, Ogbe brings up COVID-19. Not only has the pandemic halted construction for nearly two months, it has hampered the ability of donors to fulfil their commitments.
“Many of the funders of the project have lost a lot of their finances. Some of them have lost their jobs and the businesses of some others are no longer thriving. They made promises based on what they had at a point in time, but with the pandemic, everything has come crashing down and it would be very insensitive to talk to them about their promises,” Ogbe explained. “So it’s affecting us adversely, but we work with the few that are willing to help us.”
Despite the deluge of challenges caused by the global pandemic, Ogbe has managed to find a silver lining. The pandemic has taught him lessons about life, change and generosity.
“The pandemic has challenged us to know that things can change overnight, so we should be flexible in making plans.”
Regarding change, Ogbe also thinks that local-global partnerships could assume a new format, inspired by the world’s swift transition to virtual engagement since the onset of the pandemic.
“This time, two, three years ago, Zoom was not well known so it's also possible that international organizations can help us in a way that we can have a partnership with other institutions which may not require physical presence,” Ogbe said.
Akin to many others, the Dominican Priest has been moved by how humans have lent a helping hand to one another in this difficult time in history. For Ogbe, such display of kindness heralds hope.
“I also believe that the pandemic has kind of generated a new level of fundraising, a new level of charity, a new level of generosity. If you look at the way the world has come together as one family during this pandemic, we see that many people are empathetic towards one another. So I also believe that there will be people, institutions and organizations that will be sympathetic to the cause of these children who have been forced out of school and may never see the four walls of a classroom.”
Aside from holding on to faith in humanity, Ogbe turns to his faith to keep him steadfast in his desire to see more children break generational cycles of illiteracy.
“God has given us this vision and God will support us by bringing us ideas and structures that will help us.”
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