“What are you doing?” I asked my friend in Yoruba language.
“I am reading,” Aysh answered.
“I know,” I scoffed. “I mean, why?”
It was totally strange seeing a homeless child reading. Aysh and I were part of the street children of Tollgate, Lagos. None of us knew how to read. Like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, we were mostly orphans trying to survive. I lost my parent in an accident when I was nine and found myself on the street before my 10th birthday.
In the streets, there are no skills, no talent and no compassion; you had to fight for everything—and most importantly, there are no books. There were over 5,000 of us living by the Lagos-Ogun state border town.You had to queue to use basic things like toilet or washing your clothes. To sleep, I had to sneak into empty stores at dark hours and lay a cardboard on the ground. The children on the streets are used to the mosquitoes, to the cold, the rain and the dangerous animals and people that roam the city at night—the children on the streets don’t know how to read. In the streets there was no future, and you had to battle dozens of challenges to survive the day.
"In the streets, there are no skills, no talent and no compassion; you had to fight for everything—and most importantly, there are no books."
I curiously asked Aysh where she learned to read. She told me about a school that was doing a “Street Reading Challenge Program.”
I shrugged and turned to leave since I never cared about learning how to read. The public school admission process required submitting your tax papers. Streets boys aren’t tax payers; we were wild children trying to stay alive. But a girl I’d always liked was reading a book. She sounded so intelligent and unlike any of us. As I tried to join my gang of urchins to go out and beg for the day, I noticed half the people driving by staring at Aysh curiously. I froze as I saw pride, respect and hope in their eyes. Before that moment, the only expression I ever saw on strangers’ faces when they spotted any of us was pity and hopelessness. That day, I saw hope.
I dismissed my crew and returned to Aysh. I was totally curious, and I wanted to learn to read as well. I felt grateful when she told me that the school in charge of the reading program will provide three meals if I finished my entire reading lesson and behaved well the following day. Ultimately there was also a scholarship if I can read on my own within 3 months.
"In the streets there was no future, and you had to battle dozens of challenges to survive the day."
I enrolled into the program and survived the oral interview. The school was going to provide accommodation and feeding for the successful students, and this really motivated me to work hard. I had to make certain changes and get rid of my street attitudes since I badly wanted to leave the streets and get a warm bed and scholarship. The most important thing was learning to read, and the books were helpful. I enjoyed the colorful books, they took me to enchanting places I never knew existed, and I found so much comfort and joy opening their pages.
My reading skills improved gradually and with time I was given books without pictures. The first non-picture book I really enjoyed was a short story titled: “Call of the Wild” written by Jack London. The story explored the main character’s struggle against the cold and dangerous weather in Yukon, Canada. I realized I shared similar challenges with the character who unfortunately didn’t survive the weather. Reading helped me heal; it exposed me to the struggles and stories of other people. I realized everyone had their struggles and pains; I realized it was important to be positive and strong. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist made me realize that many children in the world are going through similar challenges I had faced and there is a need to create more reading programs to help young people.
Bookers International School's “Street Reading Challenge 2014,” which was sadly discontinued in 2018 due to lack of funding, changed my life forever. They had saved over 1,000 homeless children like me from illiteracy and turned many of us to their students and lover of books.
The program was extremely extensive and on Fridays we are given a large book. We must finish reading over the weekend and summarize on Monday to the class teachers. Even the school I later realized was named Bookers’--simply because of the founders’ passion for books and learning. It was a very sad day when the program was canceled, and I daily worried about those children who would never have similar opportunities like me.
"There are 13.2 million out-of-school-children in Nigeria; a greater percentage of these young people will live in crushing poverty for the rest of their lives."
Today, the numbers are on the increase; there are 13.2 million out-of-school-children in Nigeria; a greater percentage of these young people will live in crushing poverty for the rest of their lives—many will never be able to read a book. Young women are the greatest victim of illiteracy as it exposes them to trafficking, becoming child-brides, prostitution, diseases, violence and death. All these problems I believe can be solved with a literacy program that can expose these young people to the unlimited benefits of education.
A world where every child could read is definitely a goal worth pursuing, and this what I intend to dedicate my life to accomplish.
This post is one of the three winning entries of the second World Bank Group and Financial Times Blog Writing Competition.