Mrs. Lara Gureje-Oderinde is the President of Jewels of Africa Foundation (JOA), a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, California, United States of America, is poised to help less-privileged youths, who are in middle and high schools in West Africa, to secure scholarships and have access to educational enrichment programmes as well as provide teaching aids to schools. The foundation which has been operating in Nigeria for over four years is visible in Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo and Delta states. Recently, JOA held a one week teachers’ training programme at Halifield Schools, Maryland, Lagos for over 100 secondary school teachers drawn from both public and private schools drawn from across the state. In this interview, she talks about the work of the foundation.
Please give us a snapshot of your background.
I was born and raised in Nigeria. I attended both public elementary and high school in Nigeria before travelling to the United Kingdom for my undergraduate and postgraduate studies more than 30 years ago as a teenager. I left Nigeria out of a divine opportunity presented for me to go and study Law in the United Kingdom, and that was parents’ dream. Of course, the story later evolved and I ended up studying Computer Science. Then 22 years ago, I relocated to the US right after college as I was recruited and brought over to work for BP-Amoco from the UK. I have moved around quite a bit in my career and have since called California home.
I left Nigeria when the country was still thriving and the best education in the land was offered in the public schools. Parents simply had no reason to send their kids to private schools unless there was a special need for that child. It was the joy of every parent to send their children to their own alma-mater as those had long reputation of excellence.
So how did the foundation start?
The Jewels of Africa Foundation was born out of the big void I saw in the country’s public education system. Having left Nigeria over 30 years ago, I am disheartened by the change and level of decay in the educational system in the country. Growing up in Nigeria, my educational journey was made so much easier and interesting by the immense financial support from churches, missionaries and philanthropists to public schools in those days. The current situation of the educational system in Nigeria is a far cry from what it used to be. I understand firsthand that youths from the rural regions of Nigeria are being disenfranchised as they have no means of accessing quality and functional education. I have travelled the landscape of the country in the last five years and have seen so much neglect and brokenness in our schools across the board. Education in Nigeria has become more of a privilege for the ‘haves’ in the society as the underprivileged have been left behind in the under-served public school system.
Not wanting to sit on the sidelines and lament on the brokenness I see, I decided to do something about it and be part of the solution to restore the educational system to what it should be. I started off by engaging with my alma mater, St. Margaret’s School in Ilesa (Osun State). I kicked off a multi-pronged strategy to augment teaching and learning experience with after-school programmes, books and teaching aid supplies. The vision for Jewels of Africa Foundation Inc. was birthed as an offshoot of these initiatives.
What do you want to achieve with this?
The JOA’s Problem Statement is simple and very transparent without any sugar coating. We have a systemic problem with our public school education in Nigeria that requires an urgent systemic solution. Our youths in Nigeria are currently being cheated out of the future, they deserve to compete globally with their peers, not by a broken education system. JOA’s mission is to restore and transform Nigeria’s public school system and make it functional; making sure functional education is the right of every child and not a privilege; raising and developing 21st century creative and innovative talents out of our public school system; partnering with government agencies and our educators in the land to resuscitate our public school systems and use it as a platform to revive our economy; raising future generations of African leaders ready to change Africa’s storyline.
We believe together we can achieve this when we’re intentional about it and we work collaboratively. We believe every society must be very intentional about rightfully educating its future leaders. We also acknowledge the fact that our government alone cannot fix and support our current challenges in education. This would require active and ongoing collaborations with individuals and NGOs like JOA.
Jewels of Africa Foundations(JOA) is committed to generate much needed help to support the urgent educational relief and assistance for our youths, aka ‘jewels’ to remain relevant and competitive with their peers globally. We aim to provide them with enabling tools and the opportunities to make it through secondary and tertiary education levels, thus helping break the cycle of poverty that is endemic in Nigeria and across rural Sub-Saharan Africa.
What have you done to ensure that these objectives are achieved?
We have been operating in six states (Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Oyo, Ogun and Delta) for the past four years and recently extended our offering to Lagos State this year with the rollout of our first empowerment training for teachers, which took place in August from 12 to 16, 2019, in Lagos.
We’re intentional about the programme as we believe teachers and educators hold the mystery to unlocking the greatest potential and creativity in a child if we give them the right tools and resources to rightfully engage our 21st century learners. We believe our greatest investment to transform education and make it more functional for our youths ought to be in our teachers. Simply put, every child has a great opportunity of being successful if we position a highly effective teacher in their classrooms.
We offer enrichment innovative programmes in entrepreneurship, robotics, engineering and technology to talented youths from different African countries in partnership with Ashesi University, Ghana. In this programme, we expose and discover the talent in every child; position these youths for a brighter future in their gifted vocation, to help change their storyline and position them to better compete with their peers globally in science, technology, entrepreneurship, mathematics and innovation.
We adopted some public schools into our teachers mentoring programme for continuous engagement and support by our trained educators/coaches to assist with curriculum planning, lesson notes and content delivery in their classrooms. We offer university scholarships for underprivileged and talented scholars (aka ‘jewels’). We also donate books and teaching aids to local public schools. Through our partnership with Chevron Nigeria, we have donated over 60,000 to local public schools in Delta, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun, Oyo and Ogun states in the last two years to help students and teachers in desperate need of functional educational materials. We’re currently expanding this programme to other states in the country.
We’re engaging JOA Scholars with community services activities during the long vacation as a way of instilling philanthropic spirit with a sense of social responsibility in them. Each scholar is assigned a community service in their local community and schools to draw social impact on classroom environment and infrastructures.
In 2017, we kicked off local engagement with community leaders, parents and guardians as part of building support group and a stronger community around our youths to facilitate accountability and functional learning in our public school system.
What’s the drive behind JOA’s efforts to run the training programme for teachers in Lagos after 4 years in Nigeria?
We’ve always had this drive to put our blueprint in Lagos but the timeline of when is what we couldn’t put together quickly. I left this country over 35 years ago, and when we, the six members of the board of JOA came together and we knew we needed to do something about the state of education, the leakage and decay that we saw in the educational system of the country. When you look at the landscape of the country in terms of education you’ll know that it is not the same as you move from state to state.
Firstly, we spent a period of a year where I literally came to the land and did a feasibility study, travelling through the public schools in the southern region to get a good understanding of what is going on, what we have and where to start the journey from. We wanted to be very intentional and strategic around it, that this is a systemic problem, we see leakages everywhere, so where do you start in all of these mess? There were a lot of ideas that came up, however, we adopted what I will say doctors adopt in an Emergency Room, where they look at the patients sitting across the board, and then look at who is going to pass out in the next 30 seconds or minutes versus someone who can still last the first 24 hours.
The person that may last the next 24 hours might actually have the most problematic case but because that person may still survive the next 24 hours, they will rather deal with the one who has few minutes to pass out.
I will say that was really what Jewels of Africa did; as we looked through the landscape of the country, state by state, case by case we didn’t see Lagos as the grayest area in the country because we knew that when aids come to the country, Lagos is easily accessible but as we look into the other regions of the country, I saw things I had never seen before. And this is the same country where I was born and enjoyed the same public school education; I went to the same schools that I attended and I saw that nothing was happening in the classrooms. So we had to prioritize the states and decided to go deep before we came to Lagos.