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Politics and Society

Slum School is in Session

In Nigeria, 10,5 million children are not in school. Those who live in slums are at greater risk of growing up uneducated. While one non-profit social development organisation is working to solve the problem by taking education to their doorstep, the government shows little sign of following suit.




In Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria, children row canoes.

Between four and nine years old, they sit in twos at either narrow end of the wooden hull. Sometimes, you see a child row alone. The children are running errands and selling goods for their parents. From a distance – perhaps because of my poor eyesight – they are barely visible as they glide across the water. Some of them are in it, bathing and playing. The water is an indecisive green in parts, grey-black in others. The canoes and the children are not its only occupants. The water also carries balled-up pieces of paper, nylon bags, plastic bottles, half-eaten food, deflated footballs and dead animals.

The Makoko community is located on the fringes of the Lagos Lagoon, underneath its popular and well-travelled icon: the Third Mainland Bridge. It was founded as a fishing village in the 19th century but when there was no longer space on land – the result of a spike in Lagos’s population – the residents simply created a village on water. There is no verifiable data but it is estimated that the population of the community stands between 40 000 and 300 000.

“Nobody knows; there’s no [credible] data available,” says Monika Umunna of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in a feature on the community for The Guardian. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is one of the most active non-governmental organisations at work in Makoko.


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According to Orondaam Otto, the founder of Slum2School Africa (S2S), a social development organisation, about 10 000 children in the community are out of school. The statistic is staggering but not unlikely. For every adult I see, there are at least three to four children running around, playing.

The community, which thrives through timber production, is a maze of small aluminium and wood structures set on stilts over the water or on wet, spongy land. If you stretch out both hands in any one spot, you can touch two homes. If you turn, you may touch more.

“There can be as many as 11 people living in these small houses – a man, two wives and eight children,” Otto tells me.

We are in a canoe, taking a ride through Makoko’s busy waterways, which are choked with other boats. Our canoe is guided by a boy in his late teens. He does not speak English. Otto directs him with his fingers, pointing out the direction we want to go.


As we move along, some of the younger children wave when they see Otto, cheerfully calling out, “Education!” “Slum2School!” Their parents and other adults also join in the greeting. This is their chosen nickname for him.

He waves back, priest-like, and asks them, “Why are you not in school today? Go now!”

Some of the kids who are on the spits of land just off the waterways sprint off, presumably heeding his instruction. Others are in canoes, still completing the day’s tasks. They smile and nod. They return to navigating.


School is Out


Otto has been visiting the community weekly for the last five years to carry out his organisation’s work: to spread awareness about the importance of education; to provide the children with the means and resources for school enrollment, and to provide them with free health care, insurance and mentorship. Slum2School (S2S) is entirely volunteer-driven, with more than 40 teams that provide these services.

The organisation also ‘adopts’ and upgrades schools in the Makoko area, equipping them with the resources they need, such as computers, books and competent teachers. It runs an early development centre for two- to seven-year-olds in one of the schools, providing textbooks, toys and a safe space to play. It has also launched a Computer Development Centre that is used by more than 25 schools in the Yaba area, where Makoko is situated.

Otto tells me the reason the Makoko’s children do not attend school is simple: On the long list of their low-income families’ pressing needs, education tends to rank below sustenance.

Yet a number of schools have sprouted in the community. I see one as Otto and I return to the community’s marshy land. In red paint, the school announces itself as ‘Jesudegbe Primary School’; its motto: ‘Education is the movement from darkness to light’. It is a rough mass of grey, unpainted bricks. Its walls are completely broken down on one side, so you can see into the building. The roof has caved in, with aluminium sheets and wood littering the floor. I do not see any desks or chairs.

The daily cost of admission for these kinds of schools, Otto tells me, is N30 (USD0,13).


Another reason Makoko children are not in school is that the state does not provide them with any that suits their location or economic conditions.


Low on the List

In July 2017, Lagos’s otherwise bare walls, road dividers, lawns and gardens were covered in posters and banners. At that time the city was the stage for a flash-mob-like campaign performance: people chanting, waving colourful banners and stickers. It was the local government election season.

The posters were especially plentiful in Yaba. Candidates advertised themselves as being dependable, transparent and accountable. They promised good performance and hard work. As the season reached its climax, days before the election, an especially big campaign was being held on a major thoroughfare, Herbert Macaulay Way, creating a long snake of gridlocked traffic. The aspiring candidate – his head sticking out of an SUV with a convertible roof – moved in a slow procession of his supporters who were wearing shirts that bore his face and his intentions if elected. The horde walked right past the entrance of the Makoko community. They did not go in.


This is a metaphor for the sustained neglect the community faces from the state, which often ignores its constitutionally required duty to ensure ‘the provision and maintenance of primary, adult and vocational education’ for all its citizens. What scant attention Makoko receives from the government is usually contained in the pages of a demolition order.

In the last few years, Lagos has launched a campaign of destroying waterfront slum communities, and forcefully – often fatally – evicting their residents. Otodo Gbame and Badia East are recent examples. The former is now a construction site for the development of a luxury apartment complex.

On 16 July 2012, four days after the State Ministry of Waterfront Infrastructure Development issued a 72-hour quit notice to Makoko’s residents, a band of machete-wielding men arrived in the community. Their job was apparently to ensure compliance with the ministry’s notice. They set fire to targeted structures and deployed armed police officers who used their weapons indiscriminately among the civilian population as reinforcement. At the end of their operations, one resident had been killed and 30 000 people – including children – had been rendered homeless. It is likely that the state will return to Makoko again.


A Makoko floating school under construction. According to Orondaam Otto, the founder of Slum2School Africa (S2S), a social development organisation, about 10 000 children in the community are out of school. Photo: Flickr/NLE

Living on the Edge of Hope

Otto and I have now left Makoko’s waterways and are at S2S’s early childhood development centre. Here, a medical intervention programme facilitated by S2S is taking place, with the children undergoing vision and dental tests. According to Otto, S2S has directly enrolled 650 children in schools over four years. The retention rate of enrolled children is at 66%.

“Before Slum2School, I couldn’t be proud of myself,” says Samuel Iroko, a 16-year-old S2S beneficiary whom we meet at the centre. He is wearing a Manchester United jersey and blue shorts.


“I couldn’t read or write because at the primary school I was attending before, they didn’t teach us well. It was Slum2School that enrolled me in a new school. They provide me with my school needs, like bag, uniform, sandals [and] textbooks.”

Samuel wants to become a doctor but at his old school, he was the subject of jokes by neighbourhood kids who were better at reading and writing than him. He wouldn’t talk in their company because they would make fun of the way he pronounced words or formed tenses. He thought because he couldn’t read or write as well as his peers, he could not possibly become a doctor.

These days, in his new school, his ‘mates’ don’t make jokes about his spoken or written English anymore. “I want to treat sick children in our community.” He says. After a pause he adds, “Not only our community. I want to treat all sick children.”

There are more stories like Samuel’s.

Sharon Disu, 13, wears her hair low, very close to her head. She is now in her first year of the Junior Secondary School that Slum2School enrolled her in. She tells me her favourite subject is English. When her father died, she thought she would not be able to continue her education. Now? “I want to become a lawyer,” she says.


Five years ago, Sharon was like many other kids in her community. She paddled a canoe across the community, selling smoked fish for her mother. At the age of eight, she had never been to school nor stepped into a classroom. S2S reached out to her parents to support her education. Today, she’s the best performing student in her class and volunteers to ensure that dozens of other children within her community are enrolled in school as well.

According to UNICEF, 60% of Nigerian out-of-school children are girls. I ask Otto if Slum2School factors this imbalance into their work.

“We try to advocate so there’s a change of mind-set in families where they don’t think girls have to go school,” he replies. “We try to ensure that girls are not just monitored but mentored. In these communities, girls as young as 15 get pregnant because there is no proper mentorship and guidance.”

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A Worsening Statistic


The Lagos State Government – on paper at least – has not been entirely idle in making sure there are more stories like Samuel’s or Sharon’s. In May 2015, the State Ministry of Education made public an Inclusive Education Policy. One of the policy’s main objectives is to ensure that all out-of-school children complete their basic education.

The policy also seeks to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by the world’s nations, of ‘education for all’ (particularly children with disabilities, girls in difficult circumstances, and those belonging to ethnic minorities and hard to reach communities) through access to free, qualitative and compulsory basic education.

By its own stated criteria, Makoko’s children should be covered by and benefit from this policy. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. And the Makoko education gap repeats itself across Nigeria. According to UNICEF, there are more than 10,5 million children out of school in Nigeria. This estimation was made in 2014 and is often repeated to the day. However, it is likely that this number is no longer an accurate measure.

Since 2014, the North-East region has come under an increasingly violent wave of attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. In 2015, Amnesty International announced that an estimated 2 000 women and girls, aged between 7 and 17 years old, had been kidnapped by the insurgency, and to date there is no consensus data on the exact amount of children missing. In addition, according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report in the Washington Post, at least 10 000 boys have been kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. Boko Haram, which believes Western education is a sin, has also targeted and burnt down hundreds of schools in the region.

“Let us not look at the statistics as just numbers. Let us remember that each child that makes up the 10,5 million is a human resource that can boost the economy,” Otto says. “Imagine an economy with 10,5 million graduates who are creating jobs, building businesses, starting enterprises… See the opportunity.”



The Government Steps In?

In 2016, the Nigerian federal government announced a four-year educational reform draft plan that outlined strategies to reverse the number of children who are out of school. The plan will help the government raise the national net enrolment rate by enrolling 2 875 000 pupils – including 1,5 million girls – annually over the next four years. It will also renovate schools destroyed by Boko Haram and construct 71 874 classrooms annually for the next three years. The plan also proposes to recruit more female teachers to serve as role models for female pupils.

Yet the Federal Government of Nigeria consistently underfunds the education sector. In 2017, it allocated only 6% (N448,01 billion) of its national budget (N7,30 trillion) to education. This falls far short of the 26% that is UNESCO’s budget recommendation for education in developing countries. Among the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sub-region, less wealthy states such as Liberia (12,1%), Cape Verde (13,8%) and Benin (15,9%) allocate more to education.

Money – although of consequence for Makoko parents and for Lagos State’s real estate plans – may not be the education sector’s most formidable challenge in Nigeria. At least not in Makoko.


In 2016, the community’s representative in the upper chamber of Nigeria’s legislature, Senator Oluremi Tinubu, allocated N213,000,000 (USD698,361) to provide ‘educational facilities’ in her Senatorial district (Lagos Central).

The facilities in question were toilets.


This piece was produced as part and with the support of the BudgIT Media Fellowship 2017.