Fiona Lovatt: A Beacon of Hope in the Trembling City of Kano by Auwal Sani Anwar

  Two weeks ago, a friend from Lagos that I met on Facebook, with an unusual name, Isqil Najim, asked me to see if I could meet one 'white' lady named Fiona that was living in Kano, my hometown. I didn't really know why, yet it was not polite to ask. But when Isqil initiated a three-way online chat, I asked her to tell me, but she surprisingly said, 'just come and see'. Her excitement was exuding through the screen so much that I was pinned to an appointment on the following Saturday. Honestly, I was not sure I was going to make it due to a series of engagements at work and the fact that I was not resident in Kano. Well, now I know, if I had failed, I would have missed what turned out to be, for me, the most remarkable encounter of the year 2012. and 2011.

On Saturday, last week, with my kids on vacation in Katsina, I picked my wife and drove to Kano. Of course, we visit my parents, relations and friends all the time. But this time, I told her, we were going only to greet my parents and then see Fiona. 'Who is Fiona?' my wife asked with creased brows. 'I don't really know her,' I said tentatively, focusing on the road and wondering how 'stupid' I sounded. But my wife just shook her head and buried it back in her book. I'm sure she reckoned, 'It can't be that bad, after all, he's taking me along.' The silence thereafter, from Zaria to Kano, was simply too loud. Now, just yesterday at the market, she was fingering a traditional leather bag. When I asked why, she said, 'I am thinking of a gift for Fiona.' I had to smile.

But I was not smiling when we reached Kano last Saturday. It was a town under siege, barely recognizable from its boisterous past. Only long queues of cars at countless checkpoints and scared citizens trying to pretend that all is well. It took one and a half hours to drive from Zaria to Kano but it took another two and a half to get to Fiona's house in Kano. I was mad, exhausted and confused. I thought, Kano would die if something was not done quickly and effectively. How did it get this bad! Within that circumstantial torment, we arrived at Fiona's residence, which was located at about 100 meters inside the Sabuwar Kofa Gate of the old city.

It was a small house with a passage the opened out to a large courtyard. Fiona, a tall white woman with a warm, radiant smile received us at the passage and ushered us in. She was dressed in a traditional Hausa blouse, wrapper, head tie and a veil. I was very happy to see that she was perhaps in her late 40s or early 50s, not a young woman. and I'm sure my wife was happier. There were about five boys working in the courtyard. Fiona called their attention, introduced us and then led us to a set of chairs and table outside one of the rooms where we settled. And that was when the story began.

She opened with thanking me for the trouble taken to come and see 'them'. She apologized for the traffic in Kano, the difficulty in movement and the heat. She offered us the fruits on the table and told us to be comfortable, 'this is our house' she said. I was thinking I should be the one apologizing since she was the guest in my country, my hometown, when she focused on my companion. I introduced my wife and mentioned where she worked. Fiona's eyes sparkled with admiration. I think from that point, until we left, Fiona only glanced at me a few times to answer my questions but her attention was fully on my wife. No point saying my wife was glad. I thought she was equally so mesmerized she forgot I was there.

In just a few a minutes, we realized we had before us a remarkable, brave, brilliant and compassionate human being worth multiples of her weight in Gold. The wisdom that flowed from her soft but firm voice and the gesticulations of her hands overwhelmed us. My wife was so unconcerned despite noticing how glued my eyes were on another woman. This was not just another woman. This is a living legend who must be appreciated, respected and revered. And I will tell you why.

Fiona Lovatt Davis is a white lady from New Zealand who came to Nigeria briefly in 2001 to attend the 2nd Pan African Reading Conference hosted by the Reading Association of Nigeria. But long before then she was a young woman in a teacher training school back home, who was asked to beat an errant kid during teaching practice, as a pre-condition for the award of her certificate. Fiona argued that she did not have to use a cane to instill the right tenets in a school kid. As the system refused to listen to her, she took the errant kid out and spoke to him. In the end, the kid was so remorseful that he agreed to cane himself and went back to the class crying. Young Fiona earned her certificate. But that convinced her that she had to do something to change the ways of teaching in New Zealand. Eight year later, she opened her own school, using her own home-developed methods and took an aim to accomplish her dreams. A few years later, Fiona and her methods were celebrated in New Zealand. But that was just the beginning.In one of the poor schools she visited in New Zealand, she noticed there were no books in their library. Fiona came back home, asked her children to give up the books they didn't need, a whole carton, which she took to that school. Fiona called her friends to donate books for schools. Many of them obliged her. Within a short while there were as many books in the poor schools as there were in those of the rich. That was how the Book Project was born.

When Fiona came to Nigeria in 2001, she was moved by the dearth of books for school children. On getting home, she began mobilizing to get school children to donate their used textbooks to children in Nigeria. The drive took hold. Public libraries and schools served as collection points all over New Zealand. Competitions were organized amongst school children to see who would collect more books. The intention was to collect enough books in one week to fill a 40 ft container for shipping to Nigeria during Christmas. This was achieved.

On hearing about the beautiful work she was doing, the Global Bridge NGO partnered with her and shipped the books to Nigeria.Today, in 2012, over 190 schools in Nigeria owe the books in their libraries to Fiona.

Fiona went back to her country and continued her remarkable work of reshaping education in New Zealand. She had always hoped to come to Nigeria to deliver training and literacy workshops to teachers and to oversea the distribution of the books in the schools. In 2012 she got that opportunity to come back and do that, but this time, she had a related but by far more remarkable and brave mission.

She told us that when she heard all the bad news about 'deaths' in Northern Nigeria, she could not reconcile it with the nice, amiable and resourceful people that she thought she saw back when she was here in 2001. The story that the almajirai were being used in killing people did not sit well in her cranium. And if that were true, she resolved that she had to do something about it. She could not sit down in New Zealand while kids were reportedly being misguided into wasting their own lives and others'. Fiona arrived Nigeria at the time foreigners were being advised by their countries to stay away. In fact, just as she was settling in that house, where some other foreign aid workers were staying, the Kano bombs blasted. And as soon as the day curfew was lifted, she was the only foreigner that stayed in that house. She was in Kano for a reason, to help solve the problems, in any way she can, thousands of miles from her home.

Fiona asked the almajirai that were sleeping every night in the passage to move into the house where she gave them rooms. They could not believe where this angel was coming from. Fiona called them, interviewed them and made a deal with them. She was going to give each one of them some money to learn a trade and run it to earn a living. The money was not for free; they were to be paying back in installments from portions of their profits. They were to bring in five more younger ones to live with them as a junior set. As Fiona trains them, the older ones are to take care of and mentor the younger ones. Those boys agreed. The deal was struck and the began. Those were the boys we saw repairing a wheel barrow in the compound.

Fiona teaches those kids for at least two hours everyday. She made them find seedlings and grow plants in the compound which they donate to their neighbours. Fiona goes out everyday and relates with the community. In a few weeks she became a darling of all, a beacon of hope. Fiona began her job of going to schools to organize workshops on better teaching and curriculum development. Fiona reasoned that the best thing to do was to incorporate the teaching of English, Maths and Science in those Tsangaya (Almajirai) schools as they are, hoping that will somehow help in bridging the gap. Some organizations in Kano bought the idea and supported it. Now a considerable number of schools have enriched their curriculum in that respect.

Fiona said, her intention was for those kids to maintain that house and be rehabilitating more and more almajirai even after her departure. That when she mentioned the issued in a Radio programme in Kano, one man phoned in and pledged to pay one-quarter of the rents for the kids. As she spoke about them, our eyes were glued on her. The compassion in her eyes when she considered their future could melt any heart. She was worried that 'her sons' might miss the road again, and that was why she was trying so hard to build a solid, impregnable foundation of a better life for them.

That was when I understood why Isqil wanted me to meet Fiona (whom he had met online too). He wanted me to see how one woman came, from 5000 miles away, to change the lives of at least 10 kids, in my hometown, that would have been begging on the streets (probably) for the rest of their lives. He wanted me to reflect on our lives here where we throw away our kids and expect the world to take care of them. He wanted me to be ashamed of myself watching a woman from another part world doing what I and my friends should be doing to arrest the situation. Imagine if all the households in Kano will take one almajiri in as their own, the way Fiona did for ten. Imagine if we took interest in those Tsangaya schools and support the introduction of some subjects with our resources, even formalization of the schools.

Fiona did not wait for the Government of New Zealand to change the curriculum. She opened her school and changed it. People saw the effect, liked and adopted it. She did not wait for Nigerians or their Government to procure books for the kids in those schools. She went back home and did something about it. Fiona did not wait for the parents of almajirai or the or the Government to do something about their plight. She travelled 5000 miles to practically save their lives.

As I reeled in awe of her greatness, Fiona said, 'I love it when I go out to the streets and see that I can change lives and make people happy just by being a little nice. Too many people need help. In New Zealand, I'll leave my house and move around, nobody needs any help. I cannot even intervene when my neighbours are fighting. Everyone is on his own. Nobody cares about anybody. But in this community, there is love, peace and need. Why don't we exploit them to make God and ourselves happy?'

Well, Fiona has shown us what to do and how to go about it. Now it is our turn.

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