Virgo Onyene is a professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Lagos. She is also the mistress of the popular Moremi Hall in the institution.
Onyene started her advocacy for the girl child as a result of her mother’s widowhood experience with six girls. Going down memory lane, she revealed why she is so passionate about girl child education.
She also talked about the role of women in governance, her background as a woman who rose from the gutter to the Ivory Tower and why she is preaching the gospel of “leave no one behind education.”
What is your advocacy about?
Forum for African Women Educationists (FAWE) is an African regional NGO and the essence is primarily for the education of the girl child. Extensively, the NGO deals with girls, women, single mothers, as well as women in vulnerable positions in life.
We also do coalition for education for all girls (EFAG). We take care of these girls’ primary and secondary school education. That is why we have girls club and mentoring programme to cater for the educational needs of the girls.
We also do investments. There was a proposal we pushed that we used to train girls who need skills acquisition to survive, and also for entrepreneurship programme. We also leverage individual skill of members.
It is commendable that people are now saying anybody that is addressing anything that concerns women and girls should be encouraged, acknowledged and funded. If you are running women education, the government, right from the local government, to the state and the federal government should sponsor it.
Why do you take the girl child education so serious?
I am passionate about the education of the girl child because of my background. My mother had six girls and a boy. My father died many years ago while we were still young, while my mother died last year.
My father did not want to take a second wife but there was pressure on him to marry another woman who will give him a male child. My father read to Standard Three or Six as it were then. So, he was educated. My only brother was a year and half when he died, and the six of us, all female were left to survive with our mum when he died.
With that experience, I went through widowhood with my mum. I left my father’s house as a teenager to live with my father-in-law and mother-in-law for three years before I wedded my husband, and then came down to Lagos.
I went back to school as a mother. Even though people saw me all the time as a hard working student, they didn’t know I had had a baby. Before my father died, he told me that without education, I won’t be able to go farther than my mum. He said: ‘If you don’t go to school, you are blind’. I was very brilliant.
I rose from the gutter because my people were typical business people. My husband was very well-to-do without me knowing. I never took his money to buy anything for myself. Those days, my husband was in the business of importation of tyres. They would import rice and put the rice inside the tyres from abroad.
So, I didn’t go to the market to price garri, but the only thing I did was buying gas. I didn’t know the tricks of making money, I focused all my attention on my books. I take my children to school, and then go to school myself. We even thought of taking the children somewhere because it was only schooling that made meaning to me.
When my husband came to ask for my hand in marriage, my father insisted that I must go to school and my husband promised my father that he will see me through school. But after we got married, his people used delay tactics to delay me from going back to school.
But my mind was made up. I wanted to be educated. So when I made my papers––I got six credits in GCE––everybody was happy for me. Some of us were geniuses but nobody encouraged us from the beginning.
I went from the gutter to the Ivory Tower. I learnt that education can make a person better. I had wanted to be a politician but I decided to send people to school instead. I have trained 53 in higher institution. Today, in Anambra State, there are up to eight doctors that I paid school fees for and there are many more people that have benefitted from my scholarship too.
Can you talk about your vision for your NGO?
We have only one woman in 774 local governments in Nigeria. My vision is to start up a leadership connect programme for 2019. When I start it, I will link many women that are dragging their feet to pursue political posts with those who are willing to go in too.
They may not necessarily be members of either FAWE or Unilag or any other organization, but should be interested in seeing women in leadership positions.
When women have a focal group in their areas and people become conscious of their political terrain, they will know that their input is required in governance. They will also know the tools to use to fight corruption.
The earlier we do something about bringing good and genuine people into power, the better for us in Nigeria. If people are sensitized and properly aware of their rights to vote, things will change.
We also need to enlighten those in government. Because many of our lawmakers have no political education, our policies are outdated. Nigeria has no political culture, therefore, we need a new crop of leaders who will build it.
An average Nigerian man or woman who is an elite is sick of this country because they know that there are many bad things happening to our economy but they can’t change it because they are not part of the political process.
When we succeed with those who have gone to school, first degree will be nothing because many people are not doing anything to refresh themselves, hence they cannot move with the times.
We need to address this issue by putting down the foot of the woman, and carefully train the girl child. Women have to train themselves, expose themselves to proper knowledge. They need to tap into static knowledge from their reservoir to do what is exclusive to development.
What’s your style?
I wear any colour I come across. My style is corporate because I work in a corporate environment and I follow the organization’s mode of dressing. I follow things the way it should be.
I do not like scattering things. I like order and whatever I put my hands on, I like to see it accomplished. I also believe in the Trinity––God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I talk to each of them one by one. If I want to talk to Jesus now, I go to where he was born in Bethlehem and I will tell him how wretched he was born and the similarity between us. I will tell him to answer me and do what I am asking of him and He gets things done for me.
What makes you tick?
Dedication, determination, and diligence make me unique. I set my goals, I reveal my goals, and I follow it, step by step.
Have people you were good to in the past offended you?
Yes. Sometimes, they don’t even remember my kindness to them. Many of them don’t remember the good you did for them. They want where they will go and pay so much money to get what they want, but I do it for them free of charge and they walk away. They walk away without looking back or try to help others like they were helped.
How do you relax?
I try so hard to relax because I don’t have time to relax. I don’t sleep until after 12 midnight and I wake up by 4:48 am. I force myself to lie down and once I get up, I am off. I do my exercises because I want my liver and body to cooperate.
Who is Professor Onyene?
She is a child of multiple heritages who believes that she has talents. She believes that if everybody cooperate with one another and share the same vision, things will go well.
I am ambitious. I have passion for accepting other people, getting people to achieve their goals because I believe that service must be thorough. My life mantra is ‘live and let live.’