Ayodeji Rotinwa: The brilliance of Orondaam Otto’s Slum School project

by Ayodeji Rotinwa


In Nigeria, 10.5 million children are out of school. Those who live in slums are at greater risk of growing up uneducated. While one non-profit social development organization is working to solve the problem by taking education to their doorstep, the government shows little sign of following suit.

In Makoko, in Lagos, Nigeria, children row canoes.

Between four to nine years old, they sit in twos at either narrow end of the wooden hull. Sometimes, a child rows alone. The children are running errands and selling goods for their parents and from a distance, perhaps because of my poor eyesight, they are barely visible as they move across the water. Some of them are in it, bathing and playing. The water is an indecisive green in one part, grey-black in another. The canoes and the children are not its only occupants. It also carries balled-up pieces of paper, nylon bags, plastic bottles, half-eaten food, deflated footballs and dead animals. The Makoko community is located on the fringes of the Lagos Lagoon underneath its most popular and well-travelled icon: the Third Mainland Bridge. It was founded as a fishing village in the 19th century but when there was no longer space on land, as a result of a spike in Lagos’ population, the residents simply created it for themselves on water. There is no verifiable data but it is estimated that the population of the community stands between 40,000 to 300,000 people.

“Nobody knows, there’s no [credible] data available,” says Monika Umunna, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, one of the most active non-governmental organizations at work in Makoko, in a feature on the community for Guardian UK. According to Orondaam Otto, founder of Slum2School Africa (S2S), a social development organization, about 10, 000 children in the community are out of school. The statistic is staggering but not unlikely. For every adult I see, there are at least three to four children running, playing around. The community, which thrives through timber production, is a maze of small aluminium and wood structures set on stilts over the water or on wet, spongy land. If you stretch out both hands in any one spot, you can touch two homes. If you turn, you may touch more.

“There can be as many as eleven people living in these small spaces – a man, two wives and eight children,” Otto tells me.


We are in a canoe taking a ride through Makoko’s busy waterways which are choked with other boats. Our canoe is guided by a boy in his late teens. He does not speak English. Otto directs him with his fingers, pointing out the direction we want to go.

As we move along, some of the younger children wave on seeing Otto, and cheerfully call out, “Education!” “Slum 2 School!” Their parents and other adults also join in the greeting. This is their chosen nickname for him.

He waves back, priest-like and asks them, “Why are you not in school today? Go now!”

Some of the kids who are on the spits of land just off the waterways sprint off, presumably heeding his instruction. Others are in canoes, still completing the day’s tasks. They smile and nod. They return to navigating.

School is Out

Otto has been visiting the community weekly for the last five years to carry out his organisation’s work: to spread awareness about the importance of education, provide the children with the means and resources for school enrollment, as well as provide them with free health care, insurance, and mentorship. Slum2School (S2S) is entirely volunteer-driven with over 40 teams that provide these services.

The organization also ‘adopts’ and upgrades schools in the Makoko area equipping them with the resources they need such as computers, books and competent teachers. It runs an early development centre for two to seven-year-olds in one of the schools providing textbooks, toys, and a safe space to play. It has also launched a Computer Development Centre that is used by over 25 schools in the Yaba area, where Makoko is situated.

Otto tells me the reason the Makoko kids don’t go to school is simple: On the long list of their low-income families’ pressing needs, education tends to rank below sustenance.

Yet, a number of schools have sprouted up in the community. I see one as Otto and I return to the community’s marshy land. In red paint, the school announces itself as, ‘Jesudegbe Primary School’, its motto: ‘Education is the movement from darkness to light’. It is a rough mass of grey, unpainted bricks. Its walls are completely broken down on one side so you can see into the building. The roof has caved in with aluminium sheets and wood littering the floor. I do not see any desks or chairs.

The daily cost of admission for these kinds of schools, Otto tells me, is N30 ($0.13).

Another reason Makoko kids don’t go to school is the state doesn’t provide them any that suits their location or economic condition.


Low on the List

In July 2017, Lagos’ otherwise bare walls, road dividers, lawns, gardens were covered in solicitous posters and banners. At that time the city was the stage for an odd, flash mob campaign performance: people chanting, waving colourful banners and stickers. It was the local government election season.

The posters were especially plentiful in the Yaba area where Makoko is situated. Candidates advertised themselves as dependable, transparent, and accountable. They promised good performance, hard work. As the season reached its climax, days before the election, there was an especially large campaign held on a major thoroughfare, Herbert Macaulay Way, creating a long snake of traffic. The aspiring candidate – his head sticking out of an SUV with a convertible roof – moved in a slow procession of his supporters who were wearing shirts that bore his face and his intentions, if elected. The horde walked right past the entrance of the Makoko community. They did not go in.

This might be a metaphor for the sustained neglect the community faces from the state which often ignores its constitutionally required duty to ensure “the provision and maintenance of primary, adult and vocational education,” for all its citizens.

What scant attention Makoko receives from the government is usually contained in the pages of a demolition order. Lagos recently launched a campaign of destroying waterfront slum communities and forcefully – often fatally – evicting their residents. Otodo Gbame and Badia East are recent examples. The former is now a construction site for the development of a luxury apartment complex.

On 16 July 2012, four days after the State Ministry of Waterfront Infrastructure Development issued a 72-hour quit notice to Makoko’s residents, a band of machete-wielding men arrived in the community. Their job was apparently to ensure compliance to the ministry’s notice. They set fire to targeted structures and deployed armed police officers as reinforcements who used their weapons indiscriminately among the civilian population. At the end of their operations, one resident had been killed and 30, 000 people – including children – had been rendered homeless. It is likely that the state will return to Makoko again.

Living on the Edge of Hope

Otto and I have now left Makoko’s waterways and are at S2S’s early childhood development centre. Here, a medical intervention program facilitated by S2S is taking place, with the children undergoing vision and dental tests. According to Otto, Slum2School has directly enrolled 650 children in schools over four years. The retention rate of enrolled children is at 66%.

“Before Slum 2 School, I cannot be proud of myself,” says Samuel Iroko, a 16-year old S2S beneficiary who we meet at the centre. Samuel is a dark-skinned boy with large eyes whose nose flares as he speaks. He wears a Manchester United jersey and blue shorts.

“The primary school I was attending before, I cannot read or write because they don’t use to teach us well. It was Slum2School that enrolled me into a new school. They provide me my school needs like bag, uniform, sandals, textbook.”

Samuel wants to become a doctor but while he was at his old school, he was the subject of jokes by neighbourhood kids who were better at reading or writing. He wouldn’t talk while in their company because they would make fun of the way he pronounced words or formed tenses. He thought because he couldn’t read or write as well as his peers, he could not possibly become a doctor.

These days in his new school, his ‘mates’ don’t make jokes about his spoken or written English anymore. “I want to treat sick children in our community.” He says. After a pause he adds, “Not only our community. I want to treat all sick children.”

There are more stories like Samuel’s.

Sharon Disu, 13, wears her hair low, very close to her head. She is now in her first year of the Junior Secondary School that Slum2School enrolled her in. She tells me her favourite subject is English. When her father died, she thought she would not be able to continue her education. Now?

“I want to become a lawyer.”

Five years ago, Sharon was like many other kids in her community. She paddled a canoe across the community selling smoked fish for her mother. At eight years old, she had never been to school nor stepped into a classroom. S2S reached out to her parents to support her education. Today, she’s the best performing student in her class in Junior Secondary School and has volunteered to ensure that dozens of other children within her community are enrolled into school as well. According to UNICEF, 60% of Nigerian out of school children are girls. I ask Otto if Slum2School factors in this imbalance in their work.

“We try to advocate so there’s a change of mind-set in families where they don’t think girls have to go school,” he replies. “We try to ensure that girls are not just monitored but mentored. In these communities, girls as young as 15 get pregnant because there’s no proper mentorship and guidance.”

A Worsening Statistic

The Lagos State Government – on paper at least – has not been entirely idle in making sure there are more stories like Samuel’s or Sharon’s. In May 2015, the State Ministry of Education made public an Inclusive Education Policy. One of the policy’s main objectives is to ensure that all out-of-school children complete their basic education. The policy also seeks to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by the world’s nations, of ‘education for all’ (particularly children with disabilities, girls in difficult circumstances, and those belonging to ethnic minorities and hard to reach communities) through access to free, qualitative and compulsory basic education.

By its own stated criteria, Makoko’s children should be covered by and benefit from this policy. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. And the Makoko education gap repeats itself across Nigeria. According to UNICEF, there are over 10.5 million children out of school in Nigeria. This estimation was made in 2014 and is often repeated to the day. However, it is likely that this number is no longer an accurate measure.

Since 2014, the North-East region, has come under an increasingly violent wave of attacks by the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. In 2015 Amnesty International announced an estimated 2,000 women and girls, aged between 7 and 17 years old, have been kidnapped by the insurgency and till date there is no consensus data on the exact amount of children missing. In addition, according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report in the Washington Post (firewall) at least 10,000 boys have been kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. Boko Haram, which believes Western education is a sin, has also targeted and burnt down hundreds of schools in the region. “Let us not look at the statistics as just numbers. Let us remember that each child that makes up the 10.5 million is a human resource that can boost the economy,” Otto says. “Imagine an economy with 10.5 million graduates who are creating jobs, building businesses, starting enterprises… See the opportunity.”

The Government Steps In?

In 2016, the Nigerian federal government announced a four-year educational reform draft plan that outlined strategies to reverse the numbers of children who are out of school. The plan explained that the government will raise the national Net Enrolment Rate by enrolling 2,875,000 pupils – including 1.5 million girls – annually over the next four years. It will also renovate schools destroyed by Boko Haram and construct 71,874 classrooms annually for the next three years. The plan also proposes to recruit female teachers – particularly – to serve as role models for female pupils.

Yet the Federal Government consistently underfunds the education sector. In 2017, it allocated only 6% (N448.01 billion) of its national budget (N7.30 trillion) to education. This falls far short of the 26% UNESCO budget recommendation for education in developing countries. Among the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sub-region, less wealthy states such as Liberia (12.1 per cent), Cape Verde (13.8 per cent) and Benin (15.9 per cent) allocate more to education.

Money – though consequential for Makoko parents as well as Lagos State’s real estate plans – may not be the education sector’s most formidable challenge in Nigeria. At least not in Makoko.

In 2016, the community’s representative in the upper chamber of Nigeria’s legislature, Senator Oluremi Tinubu, allocated N213, 000, 000 ($698,361) to provide ‘educational facilities’ in her Senatorial district. (Lagos Central)

The facilities in question were toilets.


This piece was produced as part and with the support of the BudgIT Media Fellowship 2017.



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