Knowledge, passion, vision and innovation
“It is our belief that the secret to getting it right in our country lies in our ability to train a multitude of teenagers that totally understand these roles and understand that the life they live now was created by a different generation. Hence the life they will live in the next five to fifteen years as well as that of the unborn children is totally dependent on them today.” – Chizoba Imoka, excerpt of opening speech at UVA Annual Teen Conference (15/10/2011).
In 2006, at the age of 19, Chizoba Imoka, an undergraduate student of Economics at University of Alberta, Canada, came up with the idea of setting up Unveiling Africa Foundation (UVA/unveilingafrica.org), an international non-profit body that unites and connects Nigerian teenagers around the globe for positive social change. Ten years later, Chizoba is now a PhD student at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in the University of Toronto, sharpening her vision and laying the foundation for an ambitious educational reform programme in Nigeria. At the end of her studies, her immediate goal is to set up a teachers’ training college in Nigeria, based on a framework of inclusion, social justice and African-centred education.
When asked how she came about UVA, Chizoba said: “When I first arrived at Grand Prairie Regional College, some of the questions I received were startling. Students and other community members found my hair strange and often referred to my African clothing as a ‘costume.’ They wondered if I lived with elephants at home and how the hungry children in Africa were doing. There were other Nigerian students at the college with similar experiences. So I started thinking: how can we engage the community so that students like us don’t get asked such questions? This led to us organising the first ever-African show of its kind in the city. It showcased our culture in a way that did not exoticise us but instead led to meaningful engagements about Africans and the continent. The success of the show kept me energised and curious.
“Two years later at University of Alberta, it became clear to me that changing the way Africans were perceived was beyond what an African show could do. These perceptions were rooted in a toxic mix of racist relations, a history of ‘civilising’ and ‘saving’ Africans, and the belief that Africans were ‘primitive’ and helpless. Ironically, I learnt more about my history and the social issues of the continent as an undergrad in Alberta than I did in high school in Nigeria. I then set up Unveiling Africa Foundation to counter these perceptions while providing a platform for African youth in diaspora to contribute to the continent’s development.”
Over the years, UVA has been spearheading a progressive revolution aimed at re-writing the story of Africa. In engaging with young people, Chizoba found out that Nigeria’s educational system was “exam-oriented/teacher-centred” and, as a result did not equip young people with the requisite skills to transform their passion and interest into social change projects. She discovered that the Nigerian educational curriculum was thoroughly Eurocentric in a way that disconnected from Nigeria’s history, the lived experiences of Nigerians and the socio-political context. This led her to start a process of rethinking “an alternative approach that ensured a culturally relevant curriculum, promoted social justice and geared towards developing the next generation of Nigerian leaders.”
To achieve these lofty dreams, Chizoba accepted that the starting point was for her to get a good education that will put her in a good stead to help the army of young people stuck in a backward looking system of education. She has a vision of raising a new generation of leaders that will spearhead Nigeria and Africa’s democratic transition. “For this to happen,” according to Chizoba, “the education system must become African-centred while being reflective of the immediate socio-political-economic context and responsive to the aspirations of the diverse African communities. Such an education system will naturally develop young people that are passionate and skilled to run the affairs of the continent. It will also contribute to ending Africa’s intellectual dependence on Western knowledge systems, and help restore cognitive justice for those who have gone through an education system that does not reflect their history and everyday experiences.”
Over the years, UVA has brought thousands of Nigerian schoolchildren to participate in democratic nation building through civic engagements, political advocacy and community service. It is also helping young people to understand the issues and challenges plaguing Africa, with a view to figuring out how to address them. Instead of spending time complaining about Africa’s problem, students and young people are helped to focus on how to fix them. “The ability to complain about the issues also comes with the responsibility to do something about them,” she told her audience at UVA’s 2nd Annual Teen Conference in October 2011.
In 2013, Chizoba received the Heroes Award for Selfless Service to Africa at Atlanta, United States of America. In January 2016, she was presented with the highest honour of Massey College – the Adrienne Clarkson Laureate in Public Service, both for her work with UVA and for raising awareness about the importance of diversity at Massey College. In May 2016, Chizoba again had the pleasure of receiving the University of Toronto’s Adel S. Sedra Distinguished Graduate Award, an honour bestowed annually on a graduate student who excels both academically and in leadership.
Chizoba is an avid reader and a gripping writer on the African condition. She combines her PhD research work in Comparative International Development Education and Educational Administration at OISE, Canada, with superintending over the affairs of UVA in Nigeria. She is a Junior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and also one of the youngest members of the Global Agenda Council on Civic Participation of World Economic Forum. Here she is bringing her knowledge, passion and expertise to the study of the most pressing issues facing the world.
On her blog, she describes herself as “an educator in training, student, entrepreneur, friend, sister and most importantly, a lover of everything beautiful, bold, unique and African.” After 10 fruitful and fulfilling years of UVA’s pioneering work with a broad cross-section of Nigerian teenagers, Chizoba now has a clearer mental picture of what she wants to do with her life and the sort of contribution she wants to make to society. Age is on her side.
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.