Y! O! U! T! H! In quick succession, United States Ambassador W. Stuart Symington and over 30 Makoko schoolkids spelled out the word “youth.” Subsequently, they jointly chorused the word with renewed vigor.
“The most important thing in Nigeria is the youth,” Ambassador Symington remarked following the spelling exercise. “The reason why the world cares about Nigeria is because of its youth. Remember that you are not just learning for yourself, you are learning for all of us.”
“One of you will discover a cure for a disease,” he continued. “Another person will find a way to encourage farmers and herders to live together in peace. One of you will take a picture and that picture will be worth more than a million words. Some of you will become great authors and you will take people to places where they have never been.”
It was a Sunday morning. The schoolchildren were all smiles. The Ambassador’s remark was more than enough encouragement for the children who are challenging the stereotypical perception of slums as desperate places inhabited by the hopeless.
The Ambassador was visiting the Makoko community to meet with the students of the Slum2School Africa program, their parents, and the program’s volunteers. Slum2School Africa is an NGO that provides instructional materials, health and psychosocial support for dozens of schoolkids there.
The founder of the initiative, Otto Orondaam, is a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow.
Orondaam’s Slum2School Africa has reached no fewer than 32,000 schoolkids in various underserved communities in Nigeria including Makoko.
Symington, the boisterous Missouri-born diplomat, engaged the kids in an interactive session and learned about their career aspirations.
Offering words of advice, he emphasized the benefits of education, skill acquisition and volunteerism, as they seek to achieve their life goals.
“Tell me about you career aspiration,” Ambassador Symington threw a question to the audience.
“I want to learn how to code,” one of the kids responded with a smile lighting up her face.
“As you learn how to code, as you learn how to do animation as you learn how to fix things. I want you to be a helper. Get someone who doesn’t know (how to do these things) to sit by you and learn,” he advised.
Apart from being exposed to classroom learning, the Makoko beneficiaries of the Slum2School Africa initiative are also obtaining vocational skills at the center situated inside the Anglican Primary School, Makoko.
Ambassador Symington toured the facilities and viewed some of the good produced by the students including shoes and bags.
Community leaders were also on hand to engage the Ambassador on the neighborhood’s history and the challenges facing the sprawling settlement along the Lagos lagoon.
Speaking through an interpreter, the Ambassador underscored the importance of ensuring access to quality education for the community’s children.
According to him, children are most successful when parents are supportive and involved with their education.
Following the meeting, the community leaders took the Ambassador on a guided tour. Seated in a wooden canoe, the Ambassador and his team were paddled through the length and breadth of the Makoko community.
From the children peeping through the windows of the shanty houses standing on stilts, to the young women selling their wares on the water, the Ambassador received a rousing welcome.
As soon as they sighted the Ambassador and Orondaam in the company of their community leaders, the children chanted “education.”
Following the tour, Ambassador Symington spoke to reporters who joined him in his tour. “I wanted to underscore not just the importance of education but I wanted to underscore the importance of the kinds of skills people are learning here…This visit is a reminder of diversity, resilience, hard work, hustle, caring for family and making a way forward for themselves and their family,” he stated.