When his middle school students tossed away barely used pencils, Wonah A. Odaji gathered them up after class, sharpened them and mailed them from New York to the children in his village in Nigeria.
Now, around 20 years later, by borrowing money from his 401(k) and from his credit card, he has built a school for them.
Like Odaji did, the children in Ayeko-Yala, a farming village in Cross River State, grow up with plenty of mangoes, yams, cassava melons and oranges.
But they do not grow up with pencils, books, paper or chalk and a slate even if they’re lucky enough to go to school.
Like his classmates when he was a child growing up, Odaji did his lessons on wood with a piece of charcoal from village fires. They wrote and studied in English. Yala, their mother tongue, is not a written language.
The Yala tribe is “a minority of minorities,” said Odaji, a math teacher at Tottenville HS on Staten Island. “So we have no good roads, no electric power, no water system.”
Too often, crops are left to rot because there’s no way to get them to market when road conditions are bad.
A new block of classrooms awaits its tin roof. Every summer, Odaji returns to his village to teach, buy building materials at the market and supervise construction at the school.
People are so poor in this village of 20,000 “that 50 percent of the children do not go to school,” he said. “They can’t afford the tuition.” Decent, free public education is nonexistent in Nigeria.
The bright boy of a subsistence farmer determined to do what he must to pay his son’s school fees, Odaji did so well in school that he began tutoring other children at age 12.
Odaji’s father did not live to see his boy grow up into the kind of educated man he dreamed of, but Odaji more than fulfilled his parents’ dream. Scholarships took him to the University of Lagos in Nigeria and then to the University of Hull in Great Britain.
When Odaji came to America in 1987, he went to CUNY on a partial scholarship, then taught math in Brooklyn middle schools for the next 15 years. In 2003, he began teaching at Tottenville. All throughout his rewarding career as an educator in America, he never forgot his village and the poor children who couldn’t go to school.
Next on Odaji’s list is digging bores to bring running potable water to the school.
Now, Odaji-Agbo College, the K-12 school he named in honor of his father and grandfather, stands proudly in that village. He wants it to grow into its name, expanding over time into an institution of higher education.
“We have three buildings now, two of cement block and one of wood, with tin roofing,” said Odaji, who began construction six years ago. “But so many children are coming because it is so affordable that we have to teach outdoors as well.”
No fewer than 500 students are enrolled, studying English, social studies, physics, chemistry, math and biology. There are 15 teachers, and the principal is a graduate of the school.
The students’ families are too poor to pay the teachers, he said, so he pays them from his union teacher’s salary.
Every summer, when Odaji is in Ayeko-Yala, he hires village men as carpenters, buys building materials directly from the market and supervises construction, thereby keeping costs down to half the going rates.
Under the auspices of his nonprofit United Family, Inc., USA, Odaji has organized an elementary school in another village and two workers’ cooperatives to uplift the lives of the mostly illiterate farmers and to educate them about AIDS.
On Odaji’s wish list is building more classrooms, drilling bore holes for clean drinking water, getting a van to transport children to school from interior villages, buying an electric generator and getting shipping containers for all the supplies and books he’s been collecting over the years.