…October 11 isn’t just an ordinary day for me. It’s my birthday and a day dedicated to girls around the world by the United Nations. This year’s theme — my voice, our equal future — will acknowledge their struggles and amplify their voices as they stand up for their rights.
Where would you be if no one had paid your school fees?
I didn’t grow up poor but at some point in my early adult life, my mother became a widow. As many of you know, our mothers’ wealth is usually insured for as long as their partners lived. When mothers weep for their departed beloved, what’s primarily stirring their tears is life without a pay check enough to cater for the kids. Years of undercurrent family feuding automatically lock many women and children out of their rightful inheritance. And so we became poor.
Luckily for my mother, I had just graduated from university. Unfortunately for me, it was the early 2000s when Nigeria’s job market had begun to shrink. Kids who studied overseas, especially in the U.K., were returning home with their “abroad certificates.” To be honest, it made the job hunt harder for we the local hatch. Nigerian companies just loved to see those CVs. They still do.
Suddenly, securing a good job became unlikely with only a first degree. To become more competitive, many graduates of that decade began augmenting their CVs with a second or third degree, as did I. It was the year 2009 and I was already working two jobs, which barely paid my bills. One, client service, was an 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and paid N40,000. The other, TV presenting, was on weekends and paid N15,000. The latter was my dream job.
A second degree was impossible with the two jobs. And I had no daddy.
I enrolled for a part-time course at the Lagos State University, anyway. There are other ways a girl can make money in Lagos without taking a regular job. For example, half a semester’s tuition would cost me several blow jobs. Sex, often unprotected, would cover the whole tuition and a wardrobe change. The choice was mine. I once tried to negotiate like this; “You know sir, I’m a really smart girl. I can make this money a hundred times and pay you back with interest, once I get a job with this new certificate.” No, it didn’t work. I was told there are no guarantees. Haha. I know you’re all dying to know what I eventually decided. I’ll tell all in my memoir.
…I consider myself lucky compared to many of the ten million plus girls in Nigeria currently out of school. The situation is even worse now with the coronavirus pandemic. Deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty caused by the pandemic could force at least 9.7 million children out of school forever by the end of this year…
With half my tuition paid, money I saved from my two jobs, I had to strategise on how to evade the debt collectors on examination day. Get to the exam hall, write as fast as possible, sit at the end of the hall so it’s hard for the invigilators to find me. Akin Ogundeji, my class representative that year, was in on the plan. May his soul rest in peace. He would stall the debt collectors to buy us more time to write. I heard one of my classmates wonder how a popular TV presenter couldn’t possibly afford to pay tuition.
Hard to explain, but I managed to graduate among the top five students that year, despite writing most of my exams within half the stipulated time. Now an alumna of Columbia University, the world’s most prestigious ivy league journalism school, I remember how that disturbing period of my life, which paid off eventually, shook me to the core.
Still, I consider myself lucky compared to many of the ten million plus girls in Nigeria currently out of school. The situation is even worse now with the coronavirus pandemic. Deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty caused by the pandemic could force at least 9.7 million children out of school forever by the end of this year, according to Save the Children. Of this number, girls are likely to be much worse affected than boys, with many forced into early marriage.
As an international journalist, issues like this form the core of my reporting across the African continent. A decade ago, I decided to be part of the solution and started Project Smile Africa, a community led Non-Governmental Organisation with a mandate to do whatever I can to help any girl child determined to succeed declutter the space between her dreams and her destinations. After all, I too know well how difficult it is for girls to rise, be seen, be heard, and be independent. We’ve since helped many girls, mostly from poor communities, eliminate their legitimate excuses; no shoes, no school bags, no pencil, no sanitary towel, and taught them to avoid teenage pregnancy, the worst killer of dreams.
…for those of you still wondering what the fuss about girls is all about, and even demanding a day “for the boy child.” Think of it as a last minute effort to correct generations of social policies and constructs that robbed women and girls the opportunity to get education, to vote, work, to earn equitably, to own properties and the likes.
That’s why October 11 isn’t just an ordinary day for me. It’s my birthday and a day dedicated to girls around the world by the United Nations. This year’s theme — my voice, our equal future — will acknowledge their struggles and amplify their voices as they stand up for their rights. The declaration was adopted a year after I started Project Smile Africa and I could never have imagined it would be celebrated globally on my birthday.
And for those of you still wondering what the fuss about girls is all about, and even demanding a day “for the boy child.” Think of it as a last minute effort to correct generations of social policies and constructs that robbed women and girls the opportunity to get education, to vote, work, to earn equitably, to own properties and the likes. See it as an attempt at equity for women. I’m not an idiot, I know it will never suffice for all the losses. But, it’s a great start.
Tonight, I’ll have dinner with friends to celebrate the day. Would normally be at a secondary school with a bunch of teenage girls, but not this year, due to the pandemic. Since the greatest gift I’ve ever received is tuition, I’ve asked my guests to head over to www.projectsmileafrica.org to donate as little as a dollar, instead of buying me any fancy gifts. Funds raised will be spent on girls in some of the poorest communities who’ve been told “there are no guarantees you’ll return to school, ever.”
Look outside your window, beside you, and or around you. Every girl you see deserves an education with no strings attached!
Happy International Day of the Girl Child.
Adesewa Josh, a graduate of the Columbia journalism programme, runs the Project Smile Africa.