Imagine a neighborhood floating on water, where roads look like rivers, and where children play on vast bridges and verandas and rafts. Imagine a community where you take a boat to school, where you rely on water for employment, for transportation, for nourishment and sustenance. Makoko is a fishing village floating on the vast Lagos lagoon in Nigeria, where traffic looks like a snarl of canoes, skiffs, dinghies, and rafts that twist and turn down maze-like riverways between floating buildings; a city where life rises on stilts sunk deep into the silt and sand of the river, or floats on top, bound tightly to beds of air-filled barrels. It is in this vibrant, but poor community that Betty Abah found herself last year heading the opening of a community center to aid in the education of children. It is something Betty never thought she would be doing when she began attending school herself.
How do we really know where our lives paths are going to take us? How do we determine what we are going to do, and who we are going to become? Betty Abah studied to become a journalist, attending the University of Calabar for her bachelor of arts, and the University of Lagos for her master’s degree. She was eager to report on what she saw happening in the world around her. However, she found that as a journalist, although she was in the middle of many events that she had strong opinions on, she was bound to a role that did not allow her to be active in changing the world for the better.
“I wanted to be more involved in people’s lives,” she said, when we met at the Commision on the Status of Women in March. “I wanted to be more involved in issues, especially those issues that impact the vulnerable in society.” So Betty decided to make a change. She started engaging in advocacy work, trying to become a voice for those who are not heard, those living in the communities where she grew up. After several years she began CEE-HOPE, The Centre for Children’s Health Initiative, in Lagos, Nigeria. “Lagos is Nigeria’s biggest metropolitan city, but it also has over 100 slums, with some of the poorest, most impoverished neighborhoods in the entire country.”
“Not much is being done to bridge the gap between those who are well off and the poor, so I decided to go into those communities, communities that I am from, and see how I could help the children. What I discovered was that children, and especially girls, are disproportionately affected by poverty, and that without education, these quality of life issues cannot be addressed.” These are neighborhoods, like those in Makoko, where having a penny a day is the difference between whether you can attend school or not, whether you can find a boat to take you to school, or whether you miss the many opportunities of education. From helping to provide scholarships to subsidizing orphanages and communities centers, CEE-HOPE has grown to be active in more than 10 states and cities, although the majority of their work is still focused on the poor areas surrounding Lagos.
In Makoko alone, over 500 girls from a floating city of over 100,000 are enrolled in their programs. After more than five years of work they are seeing some of the students who started in their education programs attend college and continue pursuing their education. But Betty believes they can do more. “Everything we do, it is just a drop in the ocean—there are so many that need our help. But if we all come together we can make a difference for those who need our help.”
The Makoko community center has become a center for learning; a place where children can go after school for help with their lessons; a place to take classes in computers and technology. A place to learn about scholarships and new educational opportunities. A place where Ms. Abah is trying to “Inspire hope one day and one child at a time.”