The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Nigerian girls tell a different story

A Nigerian teacher holds a sign reading “Our girls must go to school” as she and others take part in a protest rally against the killing of 173 of their colleagues by the Islamist Boko Haram group in northeastern states during their insurgency, in Lagos, on May 22, 2014. Protesters also took their call for the release of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram to Nigeria’s president, as U.S. military personnel headed to Chad as part of the rescue effort. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

It isn’t easy for a girl to get an education in Nigeria.

The world’s attention has been focused for over a month on the kidnappings of a schoolful of girls in Nigeria by an Islamic extremist group called Boko Haram that doesn’t believe in Western education and or in education for girls. The fate of the girls is still unknown, and the United States is helping in the effort to find them. At least 173 teachers have been killed in recent years during the Boko Haram insurgency in several northeastern Nigerian states, prompting a protest by educators and others in Lagos on Thursday.

The predominately Muslim areas of northern Nigeria have the country’s highest illiteracy rates — with women at 67 percent compared with 51 percent of men. But even in other areas where female literacy is higher, girls face impediments to getting an education that men don’t, including teen pregnancy, early marriage, and cultural and religious beliefs that prevent girls from going to school. And in cities where girls can go to school that will lead them into an elite profession, such as law, the girls themselves don’t have much say about their educational path.

Olivia Iloetonma and Sheila Chukwulozie can attest to that.

Sheila Chukwulozie, 20, who is completing her second year at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was born in Lagos and went to school in Abuja, where she was put by teachers on the “humanities track.”

“You rarely saw a boy taking history,” she said. Sheila asked a lot of questions, but, she said, “that was almost seen as a negative” because kids who did that were seen as not paying attention or as trouble-makers. Teachers, she said, made no effort to make the subject material relevant to her life so she “went through school feeling lost.”

That all changed when she decided to further her studies before going to college at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, an unusual residential high school for students from around the world. It offers an elite two-year program for students identified as potential leaders who take challenging courses, get involved in entrepreneurial projects, and perform community service projects. The curriculum combines African and leadership studies with traditional advanced Cambridge courses. Many graduates wind up going to elite U.S. colleges and universities, and all are asked to return to Africa and work there for 10 years to help transform the continent.

“Suddenly my math studies were related to my ideas on improving the arts industry and improving gender equality throughout Africa,” she said. “They encouraged questions. I was able to ask the questions that bridged what I was learning to why I was learning which made me more passionate about learning. Information wasn’t dry and boring anymore but could affect my personal life if I could find a way to translate its meaning to other people.”

When the Nigerian girls were kidnapped,  she said she first got angry at the terrorists who took them, and then she got angry at everybody, including herself for not doing enough to fight the social attitudes that objectify women.

“This may be a generalization but people everywhere rate women on things that have no significance to their lives and then make these physical attributes their whole essence,” she said. “We’ve put a price on these girls’ heads. Boko Haram knows what the price is…. Everyone is saying girls should get an education but there is a difference between a girl in school and a boy in school. Girls will wake up and not want to go to class because last night someone called her ugly or laughed at her for being flat-chested. It’s all these crazy things that break down your morale. So when you are in a class with a male you are not learning the same things. You are checking your body every second.”

ALA funders provide graduates with loans to attend college that will be forgiven if the student returns to Africa. Sheila says that she and other students don’t need forgiven loans to return to Africa. That is what they are dedicated to do. “We don’t need encouragement.  It’s what we want to do anyway.”

Studying theater, dance and international relations, she is planning to drive change back home by using the arts to educate local communities about issues of gender discrimination, a subject about which she feels strongly.  She started a program three years ago while at ALA called “EmoART”, a year-long after-school program for teens that infuses the arts with lessons in emotional intelligence and the self-sufficiency of an entrepreneur, all aimed at helping reduce gender discrimination and gender-based violence. It’s not just about teaching women, but men, too.  “Women empowerment is only one part of this problem.”

Now meet Olivia Iloetonma, 22, who is graduating from Vassar College with Phi Beta Kappa distinction. She was born in Aba, Nigeria, where she went to school on a path she said was largely determined for her by teachers. They put her on a path to go to law school, where she had no real interest in going. “Nobody cares what the girl child wants. This is a society in which women are valued only in positions when they can be controlled.”

What she wanted from school, she said, was a “way to know more.” Three weeks before she was set to go to law school, she decided to go to the African Leadership Academy to broaden her learning and find out what else life had to offer her.  The school provided her opportunities to meet world leaders and to start her own business with four classmates, a beauty salon called TEN50.

“In many ways my life truly began when I got to ALA,” she said. “We had core values of excellence and curiosity…. We were encouraged to build solutions to any dissatisfcations we had with the school or the community around us, and to challenge everything.”

Olivia, who had a double major at Vassar of international studies and Latin American studies, is returning to  Africa to work as a financial analyst for Dalberg, an investment advisory and asset management firm, where she is going to work both for the financial and social returns.

“I am working  with them because I am passionate about building successful businesses in Africa,” she said. “I went to ALA to see if I could do anything outside of law. Once I started my own business at ALA, I realized it was something I was passionate about it. Investing in successful businesses in Africa is what I am hoping to be my life’s work…. Knowing everything I know about the continent, I can’t imagine a life not working trying to live that dream.”

She also wants to invest in education for girls.

“The kidnapping of the girls has made it kind of a shameful time to be Nigerian the past couple of weeks,” she said. “It shows how much we don’t believe in the potential of half of the population… and are working to control it. The kidnappings though are a manifestation of something that is a larger problem … It’s not just in Nigeria, and that’s why there is a proper global response.”

(Correction: Sheila Chukwulozie went to school in Abuja, not Lagos.)