This article is dedicated to Nigerian students who on an ongoing basis and in varying degrees are dehumanized, denigrated and depleted by our education system. I especially think of all the school girls and boys that are subjected to sexual violence and all forms of harassment by their teachers and the system in general. May you find the courage to break the silence and through that find a path to healing and self-reclamation. As a collective, may we unite to fight back and create an education system that is just, equitable and dignifies us all. I thank all my research participants especially those in Abuja and Anambra that shared these delicate and painful experiences with me.
TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT & VIOLENCE
RP: He locked the door. You know, the office had two doors, I went inside to drop something. Immediately I entered, he entered the first door and locked the first door (main door). So, by the time I was trying to come out of the second door, he was already naked. He brought a vaseline.. he said, if this is my first time, it is not going to………… To some extent, he really affected me. For me to struggle with him (I struggled with him in the office,) I battled for myself until I had to pretend that I was almost passing out. What saved me then is the kind of check material I was wearing (my compound wear), it did not have a zip – It was just a round neck and the down was just below my knee.. it was not something you could easily prop up or tear…that’s what helped me that day.
Across the nation, innocent young girls in public schools (and some private schools) are pushed by our education policy makers/administrators to make impossible choices – have a sexual relationship with their teacher or fail in school. When presented with illegal fees imposed by school authorities, female students are expected to pay with their “body or time”. The male students that cannot afford these fees stand the risk of having their results seized or not released at all. With our education system following a “pass by all means necessary” mantra, students in public schools are left to the whims of their luck, the sexual desires of their teachers, the human capital needs of their teachers and the level of seriousness of their principal. In the background, the public managers of our disgusting and dehumanizing education system don’t care about the qualification of teachers, if teachers are paid, if teachers are teaching, if students are learning, if students have the resources to learn, if schools are safe, if the school environment is conducive yet students are expected to write and pass final examinations.
Below is the story of Deborah (pseudonym), she attended a public school in Abuja. She was ‘specially’ introduced to her Math teacher by an older student:
It started with my senior, she took me to his office and was like: “this my junior is also a lefter” (lefthanded) and he was like: “Wow, he loves lefters.”. Then he started making this expression: “Lefters are brilliant” and sometimes, he will invite me to his office to mark some assignments. So, there was a day I went to his office to mark an assignment for him. And then he was like: he likes me and I am like: I do not understand – like me in which aspect? academic or what? and he was like, no.. he wants to have an intimate relationship with me. And I told him: Number 1, we are not age mates, Number. 2, I am your student and by making these advances, you are belittling yourself and at the same time, you want to destroy me. I am just a youngster coming up, what are you trying to introduce to me?
So, there was a day I went to his office to mark an assignment for him. And then he was like: he likes me and I am like: I do not understand – like me in which aspect? academic or what? and he was like, no.. he wants to have an intimate relationship with me. And I told him: Number 1, we are not age mates, Number. 2, I am your student and by making these advances, you are belittling yourself and at the same time, you want to destroy me. I am just a youngster coming up, what are you trying to introduce to me? So, he was trying to make it look more fun for me, saying – school is going to be stress free and if I like, I should not come to class and not do anything. He knows how best to talk to other teachers to cover up for grades for me…. So, he started with- I should kiss him and I was like: Sorry Sir, I cannot do that. And he was like: he is asking for just kissing and I am already rejecting what if he is asking for more than and I said that he is on his own because he will not get that from me.”
So, he was trying to make it look more fun for me, saying – school is going to be stress free and if I like, I should not come to class and not do anything. He knows how best to talk to other teachers to cover up for grades for me…. So, he started with- I should kiss him and I was like: Sorry Sir, I cannot do that. And he was like: he is asking for just kissing and I am already rejecting what if he is asking for more than and I said that he is on his own because he will not get that from me.” That was just encounter one. Even though she was introduced to him as a junior student, he waited for her to get to senior school (SS2-3) where her grades will matter the most. During the course of these years, Deborah explained that he attempted to rape her EIGHT times!
C: So, was he the one that tried to rape you eight times?
D: yes, he was the same person…. there was a specific time he went naked in front of me.. I was trying to hide my face – I did not want to see his nakedness, he held me by my neck side and tried to weaken my arms, I acted like I was already suffocating and passing out, that was the fear (that I might pass out) that made him keep off me that day.
C: So, he locked the door and started stripping naked?
D: He locked the door. You know, the office had two doors, I went inside to drop something. Immediately I entered, he entered the first door and locked the first door (main door). So, by the time I was trying to come out of the second door, he was already naked. He brought a vaseline.. he said, if this is my first time, it is not going to………… To some extent, he really affected me. For me to struggle with him (I struggled with him in the office,) I battled for myself until I had to pretend that I was almost passing out. What saved me then is the kind of check material I was wearing (my compound wear), it did not have a zip – It was just a round neck and the down was just below my knee.. it was not something you could easily prop up or tear…that’s what helped me that day.
With increased pressure from the teacher, she challenged her perverted teacher and in return, he tried to emotionally blackmail and brainwash her: That was how he kept on pressurizing me often, often, often…what amazed me the most is that this man got married not up to 4 months before he started acting like this. So, I asked him, is it that you don’t love your wife or what. The proverb he gave me is: “It is someone who wears a shoe that really knows where it pains him or her”. If you are saying that you are not comfortable with this marriage, then why did you go into it? From the aspect I saw, he was trying to brainwash me. I feel like he loved his wife before he married her.. but he was trying to give me the impression that he did not love his wife…but I knew within myself that I am deceiving myself. So, that aspect of keeping up was a challenge. The experience shook me up and I was not myself till I graduated.
With limited success, the teacher goes after her male friend – Ebele. Few weeks later…the man began to punish the boy – Ebele (Deborah’s study buddy).. that he is the one taking me away from him and since he is so close to me, that means he must have done so many illegal things with me. Me and this boy have nothing in common apart from academics. So, he goes to the hostel, he flogs this boy. He seizes his key to the cupboard, he frustrated this boy.. To the point that he went to this boys house and told his parents that the boy is not concentrating in his academics but rather following ladies in school. From there, the boy got frustrated; me and him had to part ways because of the teacher.
To survive, Deborah started avoiding male teachers all together, opted out of boarding house and reduced her attendance frequency. For reasons she did not elaborate on, she could not tell her parents. You cannot walk up to a teacher to teach you something you don’t understand in class because you are scared that as a female, when you get there, it becomes something else.. He might just start picking interest in you from that very moment…All these things are mostly affecting the female. Deborah did not bother reporting this teacher because amongst the students, there were well publicized stories of how students were punished for reporting their teachers. In other reported cases, the school authorities pushed students aside.
D: If someone should go out to the authorities to report, number 1, they will deny it.. they will say that there is no witness to it. And as well, him as a teacher will totally deny it and find a way of putting the blame on you. There are other teachers who also have the same character with him and when he has more back up, there is no way the voice of the student can come out to stand for herself……They feel that students are always liars because there was a time that a man was banging into the girls’ hostel at night, he came the first time and raped a girl. Before our eyes, we saw that he raped a girl and it was showing that he raped a girl. But when we took the complain to the school authority the next day, the school told us that number 1: he did not rape the girl and students were like: Were they blind?…. This man came back the second time. A student had to fight with him and he used his belt head to wipe a student at the head and she bleeded and when she went to the school authorities, they told her that she injured herself and no one came to the hostel. Students were like, “are they blind?” “can they not speak up for themselves?” The school authority will always want to cover the name of the school despite the bad things going on in the school.
Sadly, this is not the story of just one student in one random school and region in Nigeria. This is also the story of Gloria (pseudonym) that attended a public school in Rivers State. This is the story of Maimuna (pseudonym) that attended a public school in Lagos State. This is the story of Adaeze (pseudonym) that attended a private school in Jos. It is also the story of Richard, that attended a community secondary school in Cross Rivers State.
In Gloria’s school, students were asked to pay a “signing fee” for WAEC and according to her, everyone knew the fee was illegal yet compulsory to ‘pass’. She explains: “You have to pay it and there are many ways to do so. You either have the money or your body except you meet the Godly ones”. As for the boys, if they cannot pay, their results will be seized or names will not appear in the result chart. In Ijeoma’s school, trying your best in exams and working hard was no guarantee of getting good grades in school. As she explains, students “still have to do one or two things like getting closer to the teacher, that is, you run errands for them almost every day, go to their houses to help them out also.. Those who do that, get benefits like the teachers adding to their scores”. Essentially, to boost your marks, you bribe with your body or time. Adaeze’s private school in Jos incubated these teacher-student relationships because of the ‘hush-hush’ schooling climate. Adaeze narrated how their “mother in the lord” was quick to accuse female students of causing boys to look at them in flirtatious ways. So, reporting a teacher-student relationship is like calling the wrath of God on yourself. When she moved back to Eastern Nigeria, she observed that these relationships are just as ubiquitous in eastern schools but not as hush hush. In Richard’s case, he saw other male students being punished by male teachers that had an interest in girls that were their friends. He personally got into a confrontation with a senior student that tried to bully him because of his female study buddy that the senior had an interest in. Running errands for teachers was also a main feature in student life at Richard’s school. Teachers were renowned for pursuing their self-interest and not caring about student’s education:
The teachers also used the platform to employ students to work for them as farmers. They did not bother about your education –all they want you to do is: get me this, I want you to put this in my farm…I want sticks to raise my farm…Whoever that did not agree with him is punished, punish any student that did not bring a seedling of yam.. that was how bad it was..I personally worked for a teacher.. I told my parents that I cannot continue. Back then, your parents will not even know because, they themselves cannot come to school to find out what you are doing in school. Like I said, the teacher did not teach us anything, they were all concerned about getting their own personal needs. Some will go as far as taking students to their homes to work for them..
C: So, these farms are in their houses?
R: No. Since this is a rural setting, it is not just in their house, they have it everywhere..
C: if you don’t do it, what will they do to you?
R: it is punishment.. you know that you will not pass your exam. They will not help you for any examination especially when it comes to external examination. His school was also known for teachers not showing up and students “not making their papers”. Just like Gloria, Richard had to leave the school to write his exam somewhere else.
R: I can say that even some of my mates that started school together and continued in that school, today, they are in the street and don’t know what to do. I don’t think they can even spell their name because they did not go there to learn.
The ubiquity of these dehumanizing student experiences in public schools across the nation has everything to do with the social class of the students involved and the fact that unfortunately not all lives matter in Nigeria. We have numerous recent examples of how quick it is to address issues pertaining to private school students: finding kidnapped private school students vs. the missing Chibok girls. Even if a teacher in a high cost private school pursues such predatory relationship with students, a principal standing behind the teacher comes at a heavy financial cost, so it is quite unlikely. Without saying, teachers in high cost private schools will never contemplate asking students to work on their farms or whatever private enterprise they run. With successive governments not properly managing its schools and the government’s ongoing relegation of its responsibility to educate children to private actors, our education arena has become a battle ground for every Tom, Dick and Harry with a wide range of socio-political-religious-economic agendas.
In this battle ground, only the rich ‘survive’. The layers of injustice and inequity stacked against students in public and low-cost schools stinks to high heavens. There is a litany of issues, from the dehumanizing student experiences outlined above, absentee teachers, poor quality teachers, insufficient teaching resources, violent/unsafe schooling environment amongst others. By the government not proactively working to prevent/manage these issues and further requiring students to sit for exams they were more or less not prepared for, our public education managers/politicians literally put public school students on the slaughter table for predatory teachers, principals and WAEC officials.
Extensively discussing what needs to be done about our education system is beyond the scope of this article. But, the first step to any meaningful rebuilding process is fully understanding and naming the problem we have in our hands. From these accounts, it is clear that we have a shameless, economic centered and hierarchical education system that disadvantages and dehumanizes public school students. We also see that our education system is adult centered and student voice is neither honored or upheld. This is connected to ‘our culture’ that suggests children are to be seen and not heard. This amongst other things, needs to change. Students in public and private schools need to be able to report sexual harassment incidents anonymously and to an institution outside of the school. Upholding the dignity of female students should not be up for negotiation nor should it be dependent on the type of school they attend.
Chizoba Imoka is a PhD candidate in Educational Policy & Leadership at Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She is also the CEO of Unveiling Africa, a non-profit that provides a platform for Nigerian teenagers to participate in community mobilization, civic and political advocacy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org