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  • Writer's pictureFortunate Ekwuruke

A Story of Salem: Reflections on Education for Housing Insecure Children


“Aunty, you be rasta?” I was greeted by some men from the community, who I perceive mistook my mini-twist hairstyle as locs and an affiliation with Rastafarianism.

“See as una dey do like spiderman.” Jeers from other local men as myself and other volunteers attempted to cross their version of the Red Sea.

“Wetin be ‘together for good’?” An inquiry from a gentleman, intrigued by the slogan on our volunteer t-shirts.

 

Peaceful. Safe. Complete. Perfect. These are the first words that pop up on a Google search of the word “Salem,” the name of a slum community located within Lekki Phase 1 in Lagos, Nigeria.


On September 9th, 2023, I encountered Salem community for the first time as I joined The Destiny Trust as a volunteer for their Back-to-School Outreach program. I have been going on slum outreaches with this NGO since 2019 and honestly speaking, it is one of the things I look forward to the most whenever I visit Lagos.


The purpose of this particular outreach was for school enrollment. The conditions that create and define slum communities are extremely complex, which makes interventions equally challenging. One of the most practical forms of support has been ensuring that as many children as possible are able to attend school, a main priority of The Destiny Trust (TDT) and a core component of my own academic research agenda. While education does not solve all the issues, it works in providing a steppingstone for the child who has been wrapped up in these conditions by no fault of his/her own.


No matter how many times I visit these types of communities, I’ve been unable to desensitize myself to the physical setting. There’s no way to downplay the depth of poverty and social exclusion present within the slums. Nevertheless, there is an even more pressing reality that overwhelms me: the significantly high number of young children in these communities. In slums that are populated by families, such as Salem, households with multiple children are fairly common. With parents struggling to take care of themselves, one can only imagine the difficulties involved in ensuring the physical and emotional needs of each child are adequately met under these conditions.



As we began organizing for the enrollment, I watched as hundreds of children struggled to form a line to have their name registered. They were all so eager, as if they would be walking away with tangible gifts, like someone promised them ice cream or sweets. At a point, I wondered if they even knew why they were lining up. The way that they were struggling to be in line and to be in the front, one may have thought that there were a limited number of whatever it is that they were lining up for available. As I and other volunteers were helping to keep the children organized in the line, I kept emphasizing to them that everyone would be registered, no matter if they were in the front of the line or in the back. My speech didn’t seem to make a difference. Or maybe they didn’t understand my New York City version of Nigerian pidgin. It is always a challenge to organize young, energetic children anywhere in the world. Despite the chaotic nature of it all, internally, there was joy within me that these children really desired to go to school.




Little by little, the amazing TDT staff and volunteers were able to get every child’s name and information to register them for school, over 300 children! Major shoutout to the TDT staff and volunteers. The type of patience and passion that is needed for this work is not common. They really are amazing! When the students arrived in school the following week, they were to receive their new uniforms, backpack, and school supplies courtesy of The Destiny Trust and other sponsors. And they did! Yes, click the embedded link here. As the enrollment came to an end, I watched as the children left the outreach site and went back to their individual lives, anticipating the start of the school year. The same evening, I was set to return to Chicago and prepare for my own upcoming school year.


There’s an excitement attached to the newness of a thing which naturally tends to diminish over time. As a rising fourth-year doctoral student, the excitement of school, as one can imagine, is quite nonexistent. The primary motivation for me is understanding the opportunities that will be available to me upon completion of my program, not only in terms of personal accomplishment but also in terms of impact within the field of education. At the end of the outreach, I was left wondering: as the newness of enrollment or the excitement of new uniforms and school supplies slowly diminishes, what will be the motivation of these students? Do they have long-term motivations, something to keep them going when they find themselves in the middle of the journey with limited tangible byproducts from their educational experience? What does education mean to children who live in slum communities? Is it just an abstraction or something that they believe can yield concrete outcomes?


In interviews that I have conducted with other young people who have lived in slum communities, I’m starting to see how important this question is, especially for those who desire to provide access to education for children in these settings. How do we market education, a long-term solution, to people who are looking to solve short-term problems, primarily daily food and shelter? What do they expect education to do for them? Well-meaning people like myself truly believe that education, accompanied by other structured supports, can make a big difference. However, it is equally important to know if these children believe that for themselves, and if not, what can be done to allow them to see the possibilities presented by education.


The way these students understand education and how their conceptualizations can inform interventions of public and private actors is a primary component of my dissertation research. It's been highly reaffirming for me to see the practical relevance of my research within the field. I hope to be able to share some insights very soon. Full transparency: I don’t really know how to end this reflection, so I’ll just end it like this.



Written by Fortunate Kelechi Ekwuruke, September 22nd, 2023


All photos courtesy of The Destiny Trust.

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