Call it love for education. Call it war against poverty. You will still be right, for just like the late nationalist and former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, the Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, and his wife, Mrs. Lillian Uche Okechukwu, strongly believe that education is not just a way to escape poverty, but also a way of fighting it. And they are not alone.
According to the Global Partnership for Education, ensuring quality education for all is not only central to the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), but in particular the goal to end extreme poverty.
Likewise, a UNESCO Global Monitoring/Education Commission Generation Report provides empirical evidence on the impact of education on individual’s earnings and economic growth. According to the report, 171 million people could be lifted out of extreme poverty if all children left school with basic reading skills. That will be 12 per cent drop in the world total. Also, the absolute poverty could be reduced by 30 per cent from learning improvements outlined by the Education Commission.
Going further, the report shows that education reduces economic inequalities. It shows that if workers from poor and rich backgrounds received the same education, disparity between the two could decrease by 39 per cent.
In “Milestones in Educational Empowerment”, a compendium of the strides of The Toby Okechukwu Foundation in education across Aninri/Awgu/Oji River Federal Constituency, Okechukwu recalls how Singapore moved from a small, poor, tropical island with mostly uneducated and unskilled tiny and thinly populated Third World nation that she was at independence in 1965, to a First World nation courtesy of education and the visionary leadership of Lee Kwan Yew.
“No nation makes progress beyond the quality of its educational system. More so in the competitive world of knowledge-driven economies where the successes of the leading economies – U.S.A, China, Japan, Germany, India, U.K, France, Italy, Brazil, Canada, South Korea, among others – are underlined by heavy investments in education and Research and Development (R&D).
“The story of South Korea, which broke into the club of trillion dollar economies in 2004 is particularly interesting, as it achieved in just a few decades what took many developed nations of today centuries to achieve. Also, India, which could only muster a measly $189.439 billion GDP in 1980, rose from an agrarian economy to a knowledge economy. India hit a $2.94 trillion GDP to overtake U.K and France and become the fifth-largest economy in 2019.
“Human progress can only come through the mastery of every operating environment; and I am supremely confident that education provides the right of way to that path.
“My wife and I believe that a journey of a thousand miles starts with just a step. We also appreciate the fact the market will remain empty all should everyone wait in the comfort of his or her home for others to fill the market before venturing out. Therefore, we decided to invest in the education of our people as the greatest and most basic empowerment there is and as our modest contributions towards changing the dwindling fortunes of education in Nigeria, and by extension the nation’s woeful economic and development narratives.
“It is a path we have chosen and hope to walk till the end of time, God’s grace”, Okechukwu writes.
Making a difference
Since its establishment in 2012, the Toby Okechukwu Foundation has continued to make a difference by giving back to the society in the areas of education, healthcare, and vocational training, and poverty alleviation. It has devoted ample resources to capacity building of teachers, infrastructural interventions, provision of instructional materials, and ensuring that most indigent children obtain at least a Senior Secondary School Certificate.
Before 2021, about 3,000 students have benefited from the Foundation’s education grants, which enabled them to register for the West African School Certificate Examination, WASCE. The Foundation has also donated instructional materials to public schools in Greater Awgu in addition to sponsoring the training of Science teachers in the Scientific Equipment Development Institute (SEDI), Akwuke, Enugu.
Through the interventions of the Chairman of the Foundation, a number of schools have been renovated and new blocks of classroom erected. He has also assisted with school furniture. Furthermore, Mobile Science Kits for Physics, Chemistry, and Biology have been provided for all the public in secondary schools in Greater Awgu, in addition to other instructional materials.
2021: Back on a familiar track
Continuing in the established traditions, it was therefore fanfare and rekindling of hope, as the Foundation doled out educational grants to 600 beneficiaries drawn from 60 public post-primary schools in Greater Awgu to help them pay for their West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) fees on the fringes of the yuletide. Students, teachers, teachers, community leaders, and stakeholders were particularly ecstatic since the outbreak of Covid19 pandemic prevented them from gathering in like manner in 2020.
Meanwhile, the education grant has helped many students in Greater Awgu to sit for WAEC free of charge, thus lifting the burden of some parents, especially those who could not afford the fees.
Speaking for the Foundation, Dr. Godwin Udeughele, described the selection process was impeccable.
“This selection process for the beneficiaries is one of the best processes we’ve had since the inception of this program. There was no petition or complaint as it is very transparent.
“Toby was supposed to pay for everybody, but because resources are scarce, he said he could only pay for 600 students from his constituency. What we did is that in every school we get to, we do simple random sampling by having a piece of paper wrap that will tally with the number of the entire students. In all the 60 secondary schools, we randomly selected 10 students. That was how we got the 600 beneficiary students gathered here today”.
Handing out the cheques, exercise books, and instructional materials, Hon. Okechukwu, on his part, said he was only trying to compliment the efforts of Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi to lift education in the Enugu State.
Thanking former Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ekweremadu, for setting the pace for him and other lawmakers in the state, he said, “I must let you know that the intervention we do in education was set forth by Ikeoha Ndigbo. We have had testimonies of people who were able to go to school just because of his Foundation”.
He further emphasised that Nigeria’s future depended on the ability to educate the citizens.
“The difference between someone who is roaming about in the village and the person who has gone to school is education. Sometimes, people think that the best way to overcome poverty is to have education. It is not only the best way to overcome it, but it is the best way to fight it. So, you must always take education very seriously”.
Ekweremadu, in his remarks, commended Okechukwu and his wife, Lillian, for their humaneness, and urged the beneficiaries to put the opportunity to the best use.
“I believe our children will appreciate this gesture by being good citizens, reading and passing their examinations so that as they advance they will remember this day. Then when they grow up and have the opportunity, they can also extend this kind of gesture to others.
“I advice you to shun hard drugs and on no account should you join cult groups. People, who made it in life, did not do so through drugs and cultism. If we had indulged in drugs and cultism, some of us would not have reached where we have reached today. I implore you to concentrate in your academics and avoid antisocial vices”, he stated.
Member representing Udi/Ezeagu Federal Constituency, Hon. Dennis Amadi, commended Toby Okechukwu for bringing in a new style that gives competitiveness in the educational sector.
Speaking the minds of parents and other stakeholders, the Commissioner for Education, Enugu State, Prof. Uche Eze, who was represented, commended the Foundation for “taking heavy burdens off the shoulders of parents”.
The principal of Rosary High School Awgu, the host school, Rev. Sister Aniekwe, recalled: “The day I was told that I would host this year’s educational empowerment programme, I was so happy and excited because it is the bridge to the future of so many students. So, I thank God for today”.
On her part, the principal, Girls High School Ihe, Awgu LGA, Mrs. Felicia Onyeazo, described it as a miracle that despite the random selection process, the indigent students were usually the lucky beneficiaries.
“We usually hope on it as the last hope for students, who have no way of paying their fees. And the surprising thing is that God helped those students who don’t have hope of paying their fees because most of them were the ones who picked the yes”, she narrated.
Therefore, a Chief Supervising Principal with the Enugu State Post-Primary School Management Board, Mazi Emeka Ikpenna, and the President General Obeagu Town Union, Awgu LGA, Comrade Anthony Abba the urged more people to emulate Okechukwu to expand the opportunities.
It was all smiles for the benefiting students and schools as they sang and danced, appreciating the Toby Okechukwu Foundation and pleading to justify the kind gestures extended to them by studying hard and being of good character.
Miss Chioma Ude, a student of Rosary High School Awgu, said: “I’m really excited and I pray that God will grant him his heart desires. I will try my best to pay him back by reading my books and passing all my exams”.
Although only 600 students benefited from the 2021 education grant, there was something for everyone and every school in Greater Awgu as the lawmaker, through the Foundation, handed out 24,000 exercise books to public schools in the federal constituency, with each getting 400 pieces in addition to magic boards and other instructional materials. Thus, the people of Greater Awgu are keenly looking forward to the next edition.
To many, therefore, these gestures by Okechukwus and his family is the typical case of lighting the candle rather than blaming the darkness.