Last month, my 5-year-old daughter fell off the monkey bars at her school and broke her wrist. I was told by our family doctor to take her to what he believed to be one of the best private hospitals for orthopaedic emergencies in Lagos. An x-ray at the hospital confirmed that it was a full fracture at the wrist with the bone almost entirely displaced so the orthopaedic doctor called in the orthopaedic technician who set the bone and applied the cast, while my brave daughter tried not to scream in pain. They advised us to stay the night to manage the pain, and after a harrowing night, during which she received painkillers every 2-3 hours, we were discharged with an instruction to come back in three days so the doctor could check the swelling. We did, and he declared that she was healing fine and he would do another x-ray in two weeks to determine if the cast should come off or if we should wait one more week. We went home and I was glad that she seemed to be back to her old self and ready to go back to school (though not to the monkey bars!)
Two weeks after the incident, and a couple of days before we were due to go back to the hospital for the second x-ray, my husband’s friend, a Nigerian orthopaedic surgeon in the United States, came into town and asked to take a look at my daughter’s wrist. My husband took her to see him that morning and called me enraged because the x-ray showed that the fractured bone was still displaced and the parts still touching had begun to fuse together. I tried to stay calm as I listened to our options – we could either leave as is because she would still have about 80% use of her wrist though she would not have full motion and may not be able to do intense gymnastics OR he could operate on it that night because he was due back in the States the next day. Of course, as fellow Nigerians, you know which option I went for – who was I stop my daughter from becoming an Olympic gymnast someday? It took another 12 hours from that 8:30am appointment before we got the go-ahead to bring my daughter in for the surgery because the doctor had insisted on finding the one anesthesiologist he trusted in Lagos to work on cases involving children. They finally wheeled her into surgery at 10pm, where they proceeded to separate and reset the bone, put a pin to hold it in place and apply a much firmer cast. By the time they brought her out of surgery at 11pm, still sleeping but breathing on her own with an occasional whimper, I had sung every praise and worship song I knew, instructed every angel in heaven to guide the doctor’s hands and paced the entire hospital until my feet and lower back hurt. The doctor showed me a new set of x-rays they had done to make sure the bone was properly aligned and was surprised when I told him the first doctor hadn’t done that. He gave instructions on how to take care of the cast and promised to return in three weeks to remove the pin and assess the wrist.
I tell this story to illustrate two things – one, that our country’s healthcare system is so compromised that even people who can afford to pay for the best healthcare services often cannot get them locally, and two, there are good Nigerian doctors who come back often to contribute what they can to propping up a system that might collapse totally without their support. This is not only true for healthcare but for education and many other services that Nigerians living abroad take for granted everyday. So, when I am in a setting where people start denigrating Nigerians living abroad, I often jump to their defense because really how many people are willing to put their children’s education and health at risk when there are better options elsewhere? In fact, to be perfectly honest, there are several moments within the past seven years we have been back in Nigeria that I have begged my husband to let us move back to the States, especially since I still run my executive coaching business in New York, because life is just so much easier and my business so much more profitable to maintain in New York than in Lagos. However, several events within the past few months have made me refocus my energy on Nigeria.
First, there was Brexit. The racist incidents that followed the Brexit decision, particularly those targeting the immigrant population not associated with Brexit (Africans and Asians) were jarring and some Nigerian friends who had made the UK home for several decades started to feel the intensity of their “otherness.” Young Nigerian graduates felt the impact of this otherness even more as they applied unsuccessfully for jobs in the UK and found themselves still at home, in apartments their parents in Nigeria paid for in currency that became increasingly expensive as the Naira depreciated further everyday. Though it was troubling to see this happen and I empathised with friends and cousins living in England, I did not think too much about it because I have never lived in the UK and don’t have any close ties to it. However, as many predicted, Brexit became a precursor to something more frightening for those of us who were immigrants in the United States.
On the morning of November 9, as our plane came to a full stop at the gate in Lagos, everyone traveling from the States turned on their phones and gasped. It was midnight in the States and, though a winner had not been projected, Donald Trump was clearly in the lead. This prompted a lot of nervous chatter from my fellow passengers who were mostly dual residents like me, with, as we say in Nigeria, one leg in Nigeria and one leg in America. What would a Trump presidency mean for us? As I left the plane, I told them it was time for us to commit to rebuilding Nigeria so we stop relying on other more developed nations to provide the needs that cannot be met here. On a personal note, I decided to focus full time on an initiative I had only spent part of my time on for over fourteen years.
In 1999, I moved to Nigeria from the United States to set up Junior Achievement Nigeria (JAN). I had graduated college two years earlier and had joined Goldman Sachs as an investment banker. I became a Junior Achievement New York (JANY) volunteer at Goldman, and loved seeing the faces of my students in the Bronx when I went there to deliver JA programs that taught them about business and prepared them for the real world. I wished I had known all that I was teaching them at their age because I would have known what I was passionate about sooner and avoided so many false starts at college. I mentioned this to the JANY president at the time and he encouraged me to contact Junior Achievement International (now Junior Achievement Worldwide) because he knew that they had started to expand to Africa. Within months, I was in Lagos with the president of JA Houston to meet oil companies and gauge their level of interest in funding JA in Nigeria. I also visited business leaders like Hakeem Belo-Osagie who agreed to join the board if I would come back and run the organization. I did, and it was the best decision of my life.
JAN became a wonderful phenomenon in Nigeria. The odds were stacked against us because companies did not do much CSR beyond contributions to orphanages and the major international foundations totally ignored our proposals because we were not in the poorest African villages providing relief to severely malnourished children. If we were going to fulfill our mission to inspire and educate young Nigerians to become ethical business leaders and entrepreneurs running socially responsible businesses, we had to lead by example, therefore we developed a Board of Directors consisting of Managing Directors from ten leading companies in Nigeria, who ran the organization like they ran their own businesses. We published annual reports that accounted for every dollar and naira raised, recruited professionals as staff and as volunteers to teach JA programs, first in private schools in Lagos to test the materials and customize them to the Nigerian curriculum then in public schools across Nigeria’s major cities. By 2002, we had reached over 100,000 students in Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Jos and Port Harcourt and the organization was poised to expand into more disadvantaged schools in more cities in Nigeria. I was happy with our success and left my full-time role as Executive Director to move back to the United States to get married and pursue my MBA. I returned to Nigeria several times a year for board meetings and to coach my successors.
After fourteen years as a Board Member, my fellow Board Members unanimously decided to bring me back into the full-time Executive Director role last month. Earlier this year, after sixteen years of successfully reaching over 660,000 Nigerian students, the Board decided that JAN had to contribute more to the development of young people in the North, particularly those displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast. As the JAN infrastructure typically catered to children in school, we started to develop the capacity to deliver our empowerment programs to out-of-school youth. We hired a program manager with much experience dealing with the out-of-school youth population in the North, developed partnerships with several organizations that rehabilitated street children, and started a small pilot in Lagos to learn as much as we could about this population’s needs before setting up a regional office in the Northeast. As the enormity of the task we were facing hit us, the Board decided that I needed to leave the private sector once again to focus full time on leading Junior Achievement Nigeria.
I am excited about this challenge but also quite overwhelmed with what’s at stake. As we conduct listening tours across the country, it is evident that we are failing the younger generation. Over twelve million school-aged children are out of school, and of those that are in school, over 90% of them are in public schools that are not equipped with trained and motivated teachers, adequate facilities, resources or technology required to teach a 21st-century student. Fewer than 20% of elementary school children obtain the pass mark (which in most states has been dropped to 50% or lower) to get into secondary schools and even fewer than that pass the matriculation examination into universities. Over 80% of those that are lucky enough to graduate university are unable to compose a decent business letter, much less pass the aptitude tests given by most employers.
There is hope, however. We had a competition recently for one of our JA programs – the Company Program, in which secondary school students learn the nuts and bolts of setting up and running a business and actually form a real company within their school premises that they run for up to six months before entering the competition for Company of the Year. Schools within the same region compete first, then regional winners advance to the national competition in Lagos. We were blown away by the ingenuity of these students, some of whom have nothing but the shirts on their backs to call theirs. A group of students from Ajegunle, a Lagos suburb notorious for its filthiness and criminal tendencies, won the competition with a remote-controlled dot matrix LED display they developed and sold to small businesses within the Ajegunle community to advertise their goods and services. Version 2.0 was battery operated to deal with the constant power outage in Ajegunle! That is just one example of JAN students who are creating powerful businesses to meet their community’s needs because a volunteer chose to spend an hour a week coaching them and believing in them to rise above their circumstances.
On this Giving Tuesday, as you move beyond the feast of Thanksgiving Day and the frenzied shopping of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I hope you will take some time to reflect on how you too can make a positive difference in Nigeria. We are not asking you to move back home (yet), but we are asking you to do something positive – give your time, your expertise, your money, anything – to contribute toward making Nigeria great again (to borrow a phrase from your president-elect). If you are in Nigeria on vacation and would like to volunteer in a classroom to inspire our future leaders, please visit our website (www.ja-nigeria.org) to sign up as a volunteer. If you would like to partner with us to teach a skill to a group of out-of-school youth, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If your travel plans don’t involve coming to Nigeria anytime soon, but you would like to make a fully tax-deductible donation to JAN, please visit our parent website https://www.jaworldwide.org/donate/ and select Nigeria on the drop down list. If you’re not sure what you want to do, just write to us and we will contact you with options. No gift is too small, whether it is of your time or money. There is too much at stake for you to do nothing.