Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The street mentor

Her sweet, sonorous voice and clear dictions on the phone raised doubts if I was indeed talking to someone born and bred in one of Lagos’ notorious settlements — AJ city (Ajegunle). Helen Atim Sosu, the vice chancellor of The Street University, speaks with REBECCA AKINMOLAYAN about her project and her vision for the Nigerian youths.

I’m Helen Atim Sosu from Badagry, Lagos State. I studied English Language at the University of Lagos. I have done a bit of TV presentation, acting and writing of books, which include mine. I am into The Street University Project (TSUP).
How the school started

It was borne out of passion and desire for a change. It started about three years ago in Ajegunle, the neighbourhood where I grew up, when we admitted some young and promising Nigerians. Two years ago, we came out with the book, The Street University: A compilation of poems meant to get to the youths. They welcome it and expressed the desire for change. This desire enabled the group to organise its first workshop at the All Seasons Plaza in collaboration with the Lagos State Ministry of Education, which outside coming to monitor the workshop, brought public schools students. Our first workshop had speakers such as Jahman Anikulapo; Azuh Arinze; Talal Wehbe, MD, DigiPrints; and Orits Wiliki and others. Our workshops, normally titled Our Story, creates interactive fora between students and speakers.

Selection of students

It is a project that many youths want to be part of. After applying, they undergo a selection process to ascertain those it would really be of help to. We are particular about those youths with little or no opportunity to improve on themselves or do things that would empower them to the next level of life.

The Street University

The university is segmented in three stages; red, yellow and the green stages. It is free. The red light stage is the workshop segment called Our Story; it’s where motivational speakers meet with the youths and talk to them about life. The average Nigerian youth is thinking about yahoo-yahoo, aristoism, runs and other vices as a way to make it in life. Even those in secondary schools are into all of that. At the workshop, speakers reveal how they were able to make it in spite of challenges. Since it is an interactive session, the youths bare their minds on this country and the environment; but at the end of the day they are motivated to set positive goals for themselves and set agebda to achieving them irrespective of their ugly past.
After this, those that are still interested in the project will move on to the yellow light stage, where they are taught beads making, arts, drama and leather crafts according to their choice. Beads making is a short course that takes weeks while the lengthy ones such as drama and leather craft takes about six to eight months. We had a green white green carnival some time as ago as a means to showcase our products. The green light stage is where they can start earning money for themselves; they are encouraged to make money and take entrance examinations into higher institutions to further their education. While doing this, they can use what they have learnt to earn money and see themselves through school. It is at this stage, we allow them to be on their own, knowing they have learnt much and can fend for themselves. We start with them in their impressionable age, that is, from 13 years to 25. Though there are times we accept those who are older, but such a person must be willing to change and also to learn a skill.

It’s been challenging all the way because we depend on personal funding and support from individuals, who believe in the project. So, funding is our main problem, though some corporate bodies and indivials have made promises, they are yet to materialise. We believe with focus and persistence, people will see the reason for the project and partner with us. Black Image, a theatre and dance company run by Mr. Ola Thompson Tabi, has been very supportive. They saw the vision and decided to support us through their acting school. The Lagos State Ministry of Education has also been very co-operative. The ministry has brought students from different public schools to attend our workshops. The last one was in April at UNILAG and the turnout was wonderful. Salvador Vocational Centre handles the leather and crafts classes while the DigiPrints is planning to train our students in printing. We also have few companies providing us with materials. We are looking for more partners as a tree cannot make a forest. The youths are the leaders of tomorrow, so, we need to help them to give us a better tomorrow. We are putting all hands on the deck so we have to partner with those that mean well for this country, who are ready to support our youths. We believe that since what we have is not a flash in the pan, we will definitely make more people to see why they should be part of it. When you are accosted on the road by some idle youths or attacked at home, you should ask yourself, “if I had sponsored these youths would they have had time to do this?” They are doing that because they are idle. If we get the support we need, we believe that many youths will not be idle. Because what we do in the TSUP are things that will engage them positively. Apart from training them in different crafts, they also learn from many avenues outside such things as commentaries, TV programmes that entertain them.

Plans for the future

We are working towards creating more awareness through TV, radio programmes and magazines, so, that everybody can see what we are doing and get the chance to showcase his or her talent. We are working towards having microfinance banks support our graduates financially in business and other things. Later on, we want to put up reality shows, so, we are calling on corporate bodies, government parastatals and well-meaning individuals to be part of this; it’s going to be entertaining, educative and informative with live speakers.

Your motivation

I grew up in the heart of Ajegunle. It was a challenge to get to where we are. Life was not a bed of roses for us, I remember treking long distances to and fro school. We had a strict mum, who did not allow us to play much with the kids around, so, we had enough time to read. We were lucky because our parents told us, we must read to pass common entrance exams to enter the good secondary schools. When I was growing up, I had a lot of children from more privileged backgrounds as friends. When I visited Ajegunle (sometime in the past), I still met some of my mates there, and it dawned on me that only a handful of us came out of the place with success stories. I realised that a lot of my peers had not changed much because of lack of encouragement. This was what led me to start TSUP, to effect the right change on the youths.

With more resources

We hope to have a vocational centre, where we can do all the training and workshops. Also, by the time some of the students finish with TSU and their education, they will also see the need to support the upcoming ones. We want continuity even after our death.

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