To some Africans in U.S., children’s education is best left to the homeland

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Comfort Elujoba attends Carleton College. She attends Towson University. This version has been corrected.

July 16, 2012

Twelve-year-old Oladimeji Elujoba kept getting into fights at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown. Every time the teacher took attendance in the morning, she would stumble over his polysyllabic name and inadvertently elicit jeers and giggles from his classmates.

“I’m not the kind of person to watch people laugh at me,” Elujoba, now 17, says matter-of-factly.

And so he fought. He fought so much he got in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, after-school detentions. His parents, Ruth and Olalekan Elujoba, worried.

“One of the teachers in the middle school called me,” Olalekan Elujoba recalls. “They had suspended him and said that if I don’t take any action on this, I will spoil the boy’s future. I couldn’t sleep that night.”

Within a few weeks, Olalekan Elujoba had decided what to do. His two sons, Oladimeji and Kunle, later followed by his daughter, Comfort, would go to boarding school.

Doregos Private Academy, to be more specific.

In Lagos, Nigeria — 5,424 miles away.

Counterintuitive? Certainly. After all, for families such as the Elujobas, the whole point of coming to America is to stay here. Ask them why they came to the United States, and the Elujobas will simply stare at you, perplexed. The answer is self-evident: When you win the visa lottery as they did, you pack up your things and you go. So to book three tickets and send their children, ages 11, 12 and 13, back to the country they had not lived in since they were toddlers seems extraordinary.

But the decision made by the Elujobas and a small number of other families reflects a discomfort shared more broadly among immigrants from Africa. For all the material advantages this country offers — the jobs, the houses, the roads, the higher education — the Elujobas insist there are still pitfalls. They don’t like the expensive child care, the lax public school system, the sense of entitlement that comes with living in a country so privileged.

“Kids here, they do whatever they want,” Ruth Elujoba says. “There is no fear of parents in their minds.”

She tells an anecdote about the time she was washing her car and saw a group of 14- and 15-year-olds across the street smoking: “I called my husband and I said, ‘Look at these kids. What are they doing?’ All the information we kept hearing about kids carrying guns to school, joining gangs, we decided we will not wait until something like that happens to us.”

Praise for African schools

Sending children back to be educated in their parents’ country of origin “is not just happening among Nigerian immigrants in the United States,” John Arthur, the director of African and African American studies at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, says in an e-mail. “Despite the stereotypical media portrayal of Africa and anything associated with Africa as underdeveloped, the region has some of the best educational systems in the world. These prep and public schools emphasize STEM courses,” or classes focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

Arthur says the quality of Africa’s education system is seen in the number of Africans who pursue postgraduate degrees at esteemed universities around the world.

It is hard to establish firm numbers, but many of the elite private schools in Abuja and Lagos boast at least a few American-born Nigerians in their ranks. Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls in Lagos has 21 U.S.-born Nigerians out of a total of 364 students. Ibadan International School, a smaller school in the southwestern part of the country, has had Ni­ger­ian Americans attend in the past.

What is easier to gauge, at least according to Edem Andy, a high school physics teacher in Prince George’s County who has taught in the United States and Nigeria, is the academic advantage that children who are sent back to Nigeria gain when they return to the United States.

During his 16-year stint as a teacher in the county, he has noticed that those children come back “better organized [and] basically more prepared. A child that has been to school in Nigeria knows how to study and take notes, which is lacking with American kids.”

He credits the Nigerian school system, which prizes mastery over self-esteem and ranks its students stringently. Nigerian students also attend school earlier, starting kindergarten as early as 3 or 4 years old. Because school is a luxury, Andy says, Nigerian students take their schoolwork more seriously.

That rigor is something Vicky Akinola, a 24-year-old business analyst from Upper Marlboro, struggled with when she was sent back to Nigeria at the age of 12.

“We had to write notes verbatim from our teachers’ lectures, and I wasn’t used to that,” she says.

Then, of course, there were all the other forms of culture shock — the suffocating humidity, the foreign accents, the frequent use of corporal punishment, the food, the uniforms, the tacitly accepted bullying of younger students by older students.

“I think I cried for the first year and a half,” Akinola says.

Lara Showunmi, a 25-year-old Silver Spring native who works at a rehabilitation clinic, was sent to Nigeria for school three separate times on account of her self-described insubordination.

“The second and third time it was really hard,” Showunmi says. “Like washing my clothes for myself, fetching water by myself — all of that was hard.”

Still both Showunmi and Akinola, who spent three years as a boarding student at Doregos Private Academy before returning to the United States to start college, say that, on the whole, it was a good experience.

“I would say it changed my whole perspective,” Akinola says. “You see people really struggle there because there’s no middle class — you’re either poor or rich. It really opened my eyes to what goes on outside of the U.S.”

Her father, Bode Akinola, a real estate broker, agrees. He had to refinance his home to afford to send three of his four children back to Nigeria, but the results were worth it, he says.

“My daughter, before she left to go to Nigeria, I couldn’t get her to do her homework,” he says. “She was getting failing grades. When she went there, believe me or not, it totally worked.”

Not according to plan

Not all Ni­ger­ian Americans who are “sent back” think it was worth the trouble. Rasheed Adeokun, 22, of Lanham spent three years in Lagos attending King’s College, one of Nigeria’s few prestigious government-run schools.

“I guess my parents’ grand master plan was to send each of us back when we were 10,” he says.

After he got into a series of fights with his brother while there, his mother decided to send them back to the United States. “Experiment over,” Adeokun says.

But the transition back was difficult. In Nigeria, Adeokun enjoyed his status as an American. Students assumed he had met Hollywood celebrities, and they got to sample the bags of Doritos he brought with him.

Returning to the United States, where Adeokun started ninth grade when he was 12, proved disorientating. Nigeria’s entrenched social conservatism made the comparatively liberal behavior at the American high school jarring.

“Seeing kids kiss openly in the hallways, not even boys and girls, but gay couples,” he says. “In Nigeria, you have teachers going nuts even if it was just boy and girl, so that I wasn’t used to.”

His newly acquired Nigerian accent and his youth didn’t help matters. The experience was so negative, Adeokun opted out of school altogether for a while, joining the Marines after his freshman year of college. He is now a marketing junior at Bowie State.

Though Arthur expects the trend of Africans sending their American-born children back to Africa to continue, Andy and Bode Akinola are not so sure. The recession has made it harder for parents to afford the hefty school fees, which can reach up to $6,000 a year per child, excluding travel and living expenses. Growing civil unrest in Nigeria hasn’t made parents in the United States any more comfortable about sending their children back to their ancestral homeland, either.

The Elujobas, however, are convinced that all the extra hours Ruth, a nursing assistant, and Olalekan, a security officer, put in to pay for boarding school were worth it.

“They know when to go to school, when to study, even when we are not home, they know how to call us. I think they acquired more knowledge at home and they’ve grown more mature,” Ruth says.

Their youngest son, Kunle, is finishing up his last year of secondary school in Nigeria, and their other two children are in college, Oladimeji at Montgomery College and daughter Comfort at Towson University.

Oladimeji has no regrets about the experience.

“Now I know how to work,” he says, the remnants of a Nigerian accent still clinging to his speech. “I know practice makes perfect.”

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