By Shola Oshunkeye
The road to Oke-Ila Oragun, an agrarian town in the Ifedayo Local Government Area of Osun State, is defined by a vast rain forest with lush green panoply of branches that lure the visitor to lean forward to take in its full splendour. This cool midmorning, the labyrinthine combination of mountains, valleys and snaky roads that define the horizon as well as the edges zoom past the visitor in ways that make him gasp, not in horror but in awesome adoration of the explosive creative power of the Almighty. Here, nature gives a superlative expression.
After about one-and-a-half-hour drive from Osogbo, the state capital, a big billboard with a giant photo of Oba Adedokun Abolarin, the Orangun of Oke-Ila Orangun, strategically positioned at a T-junction, zooms into view. Its bold arrow directs the visitor to the right. Another five minutes on the road, Abolarin College beckons. Two more minutes, the team walks into the warm embrace of the lawyer-turned-monarch. Clad in blue jeans trousers with a striped T-shirt with a faze cap to match, Oba Abolarin greets the team enthusiastically and goes straight to business. For the next two hours, the King would run the team through the college where he is trying to redefine qualitative education in Nigeria. “Mr. Oshunkeye, welcome to Oke-Ila,” he says with his signature luxuriant smile.
Located on a tableland, and with a student population of 130, Abolarin College sits with majestic pomposity on a 10-acre tableland. Equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and excellent boarding facilities that accommodate all its students, the school is strictly dedicated to brilliant but indigent students, especially those picked from the streets.
Though the college competes squarely with, and could even beat many of Nigeria’s elite colleges in terms of curriculum and facilities, it is absolutely free. It is solely funded Oba Abolarin, with the support of kind-hearted Nigerians who, after visiting the novel college, often pledge one project or another. And they never fail.
“For me,” says the monarch, “this work is a missionary work. Freely I received, freely I am giving, and will continue to give, God supplying our needs. God who gave the vision has been making the provision. From my experience on this project, I discovered that Nigerians are very kind, loving, and generous. When they have the means, they support progressive ideas very generously, Nigerians have been wonderful to us on this project.”
Now, do not ask Oba Abolarin to name these “very supportive Nigerians”. He won’t oblige you because “they often make the pledges between them and their God. As such, they would not be happy if I begin to reel out their names in the media. God knows them and I’m sure He will compensate them in multiple fold.”
However, the monarch discusses the vision and the mission of the college with relish. The vision of Abolarin College, the founder says, is to bring hope to otherwise hopeless kids and groom them to become leaders that would help Nigeria achieve the dreams of her heroes past. And mission? To build a world-class institution for brilliant students from poor or broken homes, where, though they may not enjoy the luxury of Ivy League institutions where money, power and influence reign, they are availed the same qualitative education, offered at astronomical costs by the elite schools, at zero cost to their parents or guardians, regardless of their ethnicity and creed.
Of a truth, Abolarin College flaunts its pan-Nigerian profile like a banner. Though Oke-Ila Orangun, Ifedayo Local Government, and Osun State respectively are its catchment areas, the school admits students from as far as Benue State and Cross Rivers State. The Head Boy of the school is from one of the Niger Delta states.
The founder, Oba Abolarin, says in no distant future, the school would cast its net wider to admit Almanjiris from the core north. And he assures that they will find a comfortable habitation in the college because it is not faith-based. Rather, it prides itself in its diversity, with its eyes firmly focused on leadership; grooming leaders that would help take Nigeria to its pride of place in the comity of nations.
For instance, students freely practise their religion without compulsion on any. The school pray together the Christian way in the morning assembly while Muslims observe their prayers in the afternoon and evening. They also fast throughout the month of Ramadan.
“We are trying to promote diversity,” he reiterates. “We respect the religions of our children. They practise their religions and they respect themselves. They have a lot to teach Nigerians on peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. We can build Nigeria, we cannot afford to be famished. That is all this school is all about; to be the best out of Nigeria. And the future is key.”
Though the founder is a staunch member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a Protestant Christian denomination which celebrates Saturday as Sabbath with sanctimonious devotion, and commits its members to the vegetarian diet, students and staff are fed with meat and fish “anytime we can afford it,” reveals Oba Abolarin.
“Eating meat here is luxury,” he continues. “But our food is highly nutritional. This has nothing to do with my being an Adventist because I eat meat if I want to. But we just cannot afford it all the time. If we can afford it, I will give them all the time. Meat or no meat, we eat balanced diet.”
It’s dinner time and some students and kitchen staff are preparing the dining hall. As they begin to serve, Oba Abolarin orders that I and my team be served. It is a steaming beans porridge and it is so tasty that you could perceive the aroma from the gate. “Check for yourself,” the founder advises us as we settle down at table. “Yes, it is a balanced diet,” he quips as I nod my approval.
Apart from being fed with top quality meals to keep them healthy, the students also equipped to the hilt for their academic pursuit in the college. They are given personal laptops, school uniforms and bags, prescribed textbooks, learning aids, writing materials, and other materials that could accelerate assimilation.
Abolarin College compels students to be proficient in at least three languages-one local, English and French. A student can learn more if he or she chooses to be a polyglot. To ensure that they adapt well in the agriculture value chain, the students are made to cultivate the land and grow their food. They spend at least one hour on the school farm four days a week and between 6a.m. and 9a.m. every Sunday. The students grow all the food they consume. It doesn’t stop there. They work with the kitchen staff to cook their meals. They do their laundry themselves, clean their dormitories, clean their environment, and generally take care of the school compound. And they do all their chores with joy and a high degree of efficiency. Division of labour is deeply rooted in the college.
Apart from the robust and well-rounded curriculum designed to make them intellectually sound and, more significantly, become wealth creators, the classrooms in Abolarin College would compete favourably with those in Nigeria’s elite schools.
The College has functional and well-equipped Computer laboratory, Biology, Chemistry and Physics laboratories, as well as standard classrooms fitted with modern learning aids. The teachers are top-notch and they do their best not only to develop the students intellectually but also groom them to become men and women of character, citizens imbued with high moral rectitude and deep sense of patriotism.
The college also has a large multi-purpose hall equipped with facilities for indoor games like table-tennis. The expansive hall has a big liquid crystal display (LCD) television set empanelled on the wall to your left. Here, the students are made to spend an hour or so every day to watch news around the world on cable TV. This, according to the King, has proved very useful in broadening the students’ knowledge of world affairs.
Oba Abolarin, who holds a Law degree, a Bachelor’s in Political Science, and a Master’s in International Relations, all from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, is also a member of the college’s teaching staff. He teaches Government to Senior Secondary 3 students. He teaches styles to the same class, especially the girls.
“When I tell them to sit down properly, sit like a lady, they know what I am saying,” he says. “If I see that something (e.g. the strap of your brassiere) is coming out, I don’t need to tell anybody before I make a move and tell her what to do. Again, I instruct them that nobody, the Kabiyesi (king) inclusive, must touch you, if you are a girl. And if you are a girl, you must not come to my office alone. You must come in pair. I tell them, don’t even trust me your father. I will not take child molestation from anybody, especially, if you are girls. Thank God, we have never had any ugly incident because I will fight any case of child molestation with every fibre of my being.”
The monarch has his hands full. He resumes at the school at 11.a.m. every day and closes at 6p.m., except when he holds court in the palace or has any related function to attend. Tedious as the routine may seem, the traditional ruler says he enjoys it.
“This is my future,” he enthuses. “This is their future. Whenever I am not in the palace, I am here working. It is a load of work here. Once I am through with the palace, I come here. That is why I want to look smart. For me to be smart, I have to come to the level of my children and move from one point to another. And to look smart, I have to dress like this (in jeans). For me, this is a missionary work; and if it is a missionary work, all the others may come later. This is a time for us to work. This is a time for us to sow. We are into a serious missionary work.”
Apart from being intellectually sound, the students are also groomed to be independent-minded and be able to create wealth rather being job seekers when they are ready to go into the world. Consequently, students are encouraged to learn one skill or another to complement their academic pursuit.
And the students have grabbed that philosophy with both hands. Indeed, some of them have already grabbed their destinies in the hands.
To fair-skinned Sewa Kolawole, a 17-year-old SS2 student, Abolarin College is God-sent. The sixth of her parents seven children, she used to hawk pounded yam and soup round Oke-Ila Orangun before she could feed. When she was not on the streets, hawking, she was moving from the house of one friend to another for ‘companionship’, and would sleep anywhere night fall meets her.
Life could not have been harder for any kid Sewa’s age. Of her father’s seven children, only two are in school-Sewa and her immediate younger sister. She says her father doesn’t believe in education and could not be bothered about what direction the wind of life blows them. Much as her mother, a petty trader, loved to see her kids educated, her modest income couldn’t support them. Sadly, the mother died last year at the age of 45.
However, just as Sewa thought all hopes had been lost, a powerful ray of light appeared at the horizon. Abolarin College came to her rescue. She got admitted to the school and everything took a 360 degree turn. An ‘A’ student, the girl not only aspires to pass out of the college as the best graduating student, she hopes to study medicine in the university and become one of the best doctors Nigeria ever produced.
As she works hard and prays to God to actualize that dream, another dream is unfolding. Her voice sonorous as a nightingale, she is nurturing a singing career, writing songs and performing anytime the occasion arises in the school. As a practical demonstration of her singing ability, Sewa serenaded the team with Whitney Houston’s epic song, I’ll always love you.
Other students demonstrated their skills. For instance, Opeyemi Odutokun, a 17-year-old student from Ikirun in Osun State, has already started earning money by drawing and painting. Like Sewa, he aspires to be a doctor, with drawing as his second job. And he is confident he will make a great success of both professions. Here are budding Waka music Queens in the house too. Fatima Ahmed, a Fulani girl from Ilorin, Kwara State and Miriam Mustapha, also from Ikirun, dazzled the team with their a cappella performance. Waka Queen, Salawa Abeni, would not be lacking in successors by the time she retires. There is even a model in the house. Beautiful Mary wants to be a model and she is working hard at realizing her dream. She got the hall screaming and whistling with her catwalk.
Oba Abolarin adds all these up, and declares: “We’ve got many talents in the house. There are too many talents among the poor. There are too many talents especially in our rural places. All they just need is somebody to open the door for them.”
He, therefore, urges Nigeria’s billionaires to extend their milk of kindness to street kids, boys and girls roaming the streets from sunrise to sunset, either hawking or begging or doing petty thieving by establishing institutions that would restore hope to them and help them grow into responsible adults.
“If we (the elite) fail to be kind,” Oba Abolarin says, “if we fail to show compassion and take care of the poor amongst us, it may explode in our face one day, God forbid. I get scared when I look at the way and rate at which things are going. There are too many people who lack the very basic things of life. They don’t have. They extremely poor and they are now in the majority.”
Need we add anything?