Our Evolving Response To Covid-19: A Nigerian Education Project
This covid-19 pandemic has claimed a very bold landmark in the history of our human experience. For me, after more than 40 years serving in the nonprofit humanitarian sector, this pandemic has proven to give a most devastating pinch on our goodwill. But it is not the end of humanity, and neither will it kill off the goodness in humanity. As a matter of fact, this pandemic is also opening up new avenues for future development and creativity.
Let me spend a little time discussing what has been happening in our Nigerian mission lately. Our African Action on Health & Education (AAHE) has an administrative office in Owerri, and its program development and implementation sites in Enugu State. Our on-the-ground effort in Enugu State was aimed at establishing an innovative educational program system that offers technology and computing as basic tools in education. If Africa's children will be able to compete in the international world, they must be equipped with technology education and computer literacy is the entrance into that world. We had moved two of our most dedicated workers from Owerri (Imo State) to Enugu (Enugu State) to form the core of the new program there. Note that Enugu was the original capital of the south-eastern states of Nigeria, and the heart and capital of the former Republic of Biafra. It still is a main hub for the region, with its international airport.
From two initial staff members, we have grown the technical and educational staff at Enugu to a solid 14 teachers who are all graduates of regional universities and colleges. Most of these teachers have come to us by way of a Federal Government of Nigeria program called the National Youth Service Program (Youth Corps). Youth Corpers are very recent university graduates who must serve one full year at a recognized and assigned program location in the country before being allowed to proceed with their future plans. AAHE is a recognized entity that offers relevant work experience for Youth Corpers. After their service year, some of them have applied to continue working with the AAHE organization. The availability of 14 already certified staff teachers and the possibility of more for the future had placed AAHE at a very advantaged position by the end of 2019. By early 2020, AAHE was developing its unique programs and as many as 12 area schools had signed up as collaborating partners for its technology and computer education programs. However by March 2020, the pandemic lockdown was already in place, schools shut down, life as we knew it came to a halt, and all income and partner commitments to move forward froze out. COVID-19 had taken over and all the agreements with schools were shelved. Individuals, families, organizations, and others must adapt quickly to this imposing situation.
I know something about what life has been like for American children since the lockdown. Schools were closed; teachers stayed home as did the students. However with WiFi internet and home computers, students were able to do distance education in some ways. Google pulled out its programs. Microsoft did the same. Then came Zoom. Schooling did not just stop. Here in America, we learnt to adapt even as we continued to check out the human devastation -19 poured on our populations. The home became school, playground, etc. The challenges have been deep and often confusing, and this great country is still asking when, how, and if schools will reopen?
When I called out to our teams in Nigeria and Sierra Leone to check on what was going on with kids' education, the response was shocking. They spoke of a radio station that had class lessons for one hour a day. Kindergarten kids and up to college students were expected to listen to the radio for an hour for class lessons. I got reports of families with old transistor radios but no good batteries. So the children went out to play outside, or followed their parents to the farm. Many of the girls will never again return to school because in the few months of no-school, and not knowing when it would end, they said yes to marriage proposals (second, third, fourth wives in some cases) and some will be having babies in the next few months. Stories coming out of rural areas of the country are not good. So much of the progress made in education in parts of Africa just came to a halt at best or even went down the drain in this pandemic. But we are not giving up here. We are on a mission!
A few weeks ago, we had phone conferences with our teams in Sierra Lone and Nigeria. Our Nigerian team has spent some time reworking the programs there. Now they were thinking: what if distance learning has to become a major part of the future of education? Anything better than the one hour a day radio classes for the children? How can we inspire a new but grounded model of educating the children that will not be handicapped by this or future pandemics?
The AAHE staff has tasked itself to develop its website (www.aahenigeria.org). Now they are developing and recording web-based educational programs for school children. They are developing an app so people who have access to the internet can log in and take classes online. They are building the infrastructure for what may become one of the newest innovative teaching tools on the African continent. They are talking with Communications companies in the region about WiFi hotspots at some local school locations. To facilitate these emerging programs and work toward sustainability, will AAHE operate its own school system? These are ideas that were not in view just six months ago. From Washington DC, we have stood by their sides, inspiring and urging them on in this enterprise. Covid-19 should not stop the African revival.
Dr. Chris N. Egbulem