Laure Tijani and a Story About Nigerian Elitism Done Right
How a successful retiree's faith-based philanthropy is transforming lives and disarming religious intolerance in Nigeria.
In 1943, an American psychologist Abraham Maslow attempted to describe the basic needs of humans through their social class. He posited that humans are motivated by five basic categories of needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation.
To Maslow, a strive for food, water, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs occupy people at the lowest base of the community while the elite hustle for self-actualisation needs. Self-actualisation needs refer to the desire to be fulfilled and become the best that one can be. This need is personal and can be impossible to achieve.
While writing this story, I asked a couple of friends what their ultimate dreams (self-actualisation needs) are. Their responses included building exquisite houses, vacations, leg-shaking orgasms with beautiful people, and becoming role models in their industry.
While these are valid dreams which one expects to be common to most people, there are however, a few people whose self-actualisation needs differ from the norm. These people become fulfilled by helping others. One of them is Oluwafunmilayo David, founder and owner of Gems Evangelical Mission.
Oluwafunmilayo David: The Retiree Who Wants More
For most of her career, Oluwafunmilayo has been a successful corporate lawyer. At 50 years old in 2007, life was primed for her to seek more comfort. Her children, whom she schooled in the most expensive secondary schools in Lagos, Nigeria and facilitated their university studies in foreign countries, were also actualising their dreams.
It is hard to picture a better time to travel around the world and live life to the fullest. Yet it was at 50 Oluwafunmilayo realised her zeal for self-actualisation.
"The call (to run a local charity organisation) came over several years," the soft-spoken Oluwafunmilayo said on the telephone. She narrated how God called her to open a community-based ministry, Gems Evangelical Mission and a community school for underprivileged children. "It got to a point where I knew I had to do it. It is an experience you cannot put down on paper. Just know that you have to do it. This is what you are called to do."
When the charity launched in 2007, one of its early activities was a 'Feed the Poor' initiative. At the time, Oluwafunmilayo and members of the mission would take food to underprivileged people on the streets of Lagos.
At one of these 'Feed the poor' outings, she learnt of a community in Idi Araba where poor people converge. For operational ease, the agency readapted its strategy to feeding these poor communities against the earlier approach of going around the streets of Lagos. After more than a year of feeding this community of poor people, Oluwafunmilayo says she got another lead from the ‘Holy Spirit’ that she should open a homeschooling institution for out-of-school kids in the community.
The school is called GEMS Preparatory Mission School, and it has today produced over 100 graduates. Most of these out-of-school children who are predominantly from the impoverished northern part of Nigeria, cannot read and write when they are enrolled in the institution. They are tutored in Oluwafunmilayo's compound, taught vocational and other life skills, and then sent to secondary schools on scholarship.
While all this is commendable enough, it is what comes next that makes this story truly noteworthy. For the first time since inception, a product of GEMS Preparatory Mission School and a product of the Idi Araba Hausa community has not only broken the secondary school ceiling but is also going on a fully sponsored scholarship to university in Rwanda.
Laure Tijani is a 21-year-old from Kano State who landed in Kigali yesterday. In the light of the current state of female education in northern Nigeria, her success is not just an inspiring story from GEMS, but also a much-needed symbol of possibility for a region where only 4 percent of girls complete secondary school education.
Laure Tijani: The Muslim Diamond Who Came First In Christian Religious Studies
"Hello Laure,” I said. “How do you feel as you are about to make history?"
On the other end of the telephone was Laure, the brightest product of GEMS Evangelical school, soon to travel (now travelled) to Rwanda on a full 4-year scholarship to study at African Leadership University in Kigali.
To speak with me, she had to visit Oluwafunmilayo's home that Monday afternoon and hold the interview alongside her erstwhile benefactor.
"I am fine, sir. I feel happy that I will be going to the university and my siblings do say they want to go to the university too.”
Despite being described as brave and confident by Feyisara Osinupebi, her secondary school principal, it is easy to understand her initial shyness during the interview.
For her, our chat was an unusual conversation, meandering through her past in Kano where she came from, to a future no one in her family or immediate community in Kano had ever lived.
When Laure was 4-years old, she moved along with her parents from Kano to Lagos. In Lagos, she dropped out of school because her parents did not have the financial capacity to sponsor her and her younger brother’s education at the same time.
Luck shone on Laure when she was enrolled into GEMS Preparatory Mission School as a beneficiary from her community. To her individual credit, unlike other people from the community who had under-used the system, she was determined to max out this golden opportunity despite coming from a culture that practises early marriage.
Laure resumed at GEMS Preparatory Mission School as a 9-year-old wara seller and occasional beggar’s guide. After primary ‘home schooling’ at GEMS and performing excellently on the entrance exam to Redeemer’s International Secondary School, she was awarded a full-ride scholarship funded by the school’s Alumni. Thus an erstwhile beggar’s guide destined to get married before her 14th birthday and disappear into nothingness instead got to spend 6 years at one of Nigeria’s most exclusive secondary schools.
While she was at RISS, the Council of British International Schools in the United Kingdom recognised and conferred her with an award recognising the ‘student least likely expected to succeed but succeeded.’
In 2021, she attempted both the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) and NECO exams and came out in flying colours. She won several prizes and awards at her high school graduation, including - amazingly - being named the best student in Christian Religious Studies. For reference, Laure is and has always been a Muslim from a devout Muslim family from Kano State.
Through all of this, despite attending a secondary school which describes itself as one with “a strong bias for Christian education,” Laure was never pressured to downplay her Islamic faith or adopt Christianity to fit into her new environment.
One might wonder how many diamonds like Laure are still in the rough, so I asked Oluwafunmilayo if she recognised Laure's potential in the rough. Her response was philosophical.
“When you throw your leg into the ocean to catch fish, you'll catch all sorts. She's not the first one doing well. The difference is that she has been consistent, and she chose not to marry. The challenge we had with most of them is that they went off to marry, but Laure has decided that she wants an education and she's not in a hurry to go marry.”
Feyisara Osinupebi, Laure's principal, at RISS credited Laure's success in the school to her willingness to make school her home, despite being older than them and having a unique background.
She didn't feel inferior. We tried our best and someone had taken up the job of making sure that she had her book and her uniform. She did not lack what other children had. One other thing that I feel was that other students accepted her.
According to Osinupebi, the following noteworthy incident proved that Laure was everyone's darling while she was in school.
We usually have what we call the Honour Roll in the school. What that means is that at the end of each half of the term in the school, the people that are in the top five of each class are called out to the assembly and given placards. I recall that every time Laure's name was called, the entire hall would stand up and give her a standing ovation.
According to UNICEF, over 18.5 million Nigerian children, most of whom are girls, do not have access to school in 2022. These are millions of potential Laures whose lives could turn for the better if discovered by people like Olufunmilayo David. For Laure, the adventure into a future that once looked improbable if not impossible, has finally begun.
Letting Love Lead In A Religiously Divided Environment
“The walls in my house are white. Within one week, my walls had adopted another colour.”
Operating a thriving business in Nigeria is difficult enough. Running an educational non-profit organisation that incurs expenses without commercial revenue however, is in a different galaxy of difficulty.
Somehow, Oluwafunmilayo’s GEMS Preparatory Mission School has not only lasted about a decade, but actually grows a little stronger every year. The school currently has 20 students on-site and caters for the welfare of 14 other students in secondary schools. It also pays school fees for non-members.
The umbrella GEMS Evangelical Mission too has maintained its regular presence in Idi-Araba, Lagos. The foundation gives interest-free loans to businesswomen and has catered for 500 children and 500 adults every Christmas since 2008.
Commenting on the challenges facing the school, Oluwafunmilayo said:
First, we need volunteers. But we don't have the culture of volunteers in Nigeria. Everybody wants to be paid before they are committed. We realised that we shouldn't rely on volunteers if we want to do this thing properly. These are the lives of children being affected, so I needed a greater sense of commitment. We quickly got rid of the volunteers and we started paying people.
The challenge that we have always had is the funding. People ask, ‘where do you get your funding?’ and I just say I ask the next person that comes my way. I can say this and I'll say it loud and clear: God has been our main sponsor. Every month, we go from zero to hero. What I mean by that is, for example, this is the salary paying time, we have paid some salaries, we have not paid some, but there has been no month that God has not provided. At the end of the month, we pay salaries, our bank account goes to zero.
One thing He promised that and has kept to, He told me anything you need for these children, ask me and I will provide and He does that. He has done it for 15 years unfailingly. Month to month, He makes provisions, in miraculous ways and I have no reason to doubt him in the future.
This mission can be quite frustrating. Like the parental support that the school expects for example, when we send our children to school - we help them with their homework; we help them with their extra-curricular activities - that is lacking because the community does not value education.
In all of this, Olufunmilayo refused to entertain any questions about why a Christian charity would be so committed to assisting members of a devout Northern Muslim community in a religiously and ethnically divided environment like Nigeria. A few days before I spoke to her, news had emerged of the horrific lynching of a Christian student Deborah Samuel in Sokoto State by a Muslim mob who accused her of blasphemy.
Without acknowledging this or going into detail, she simply stated that her calling is to serve “God’s children” - regardless of the faith they profess.
At a time when Christian-Muslim religious tensions in Nigeria are particularly heightened, the example of a remarkable young woman starting her life and a retired lawyer 3 times her age may just be the story everyone needs to read.
Editor’s Note: Readers who wish to donate to GEMS Preparatory Mission school and sponsor other gifted but underprivileged students like Laure can do so using the following account details:
Account Name: GEMS Evangelical Mission
Bank Name: Guaranty Trust Bank Plc
Naira Account Number: 0157177535.
USD Account Number: 0161708158
GBP Account Number: 0161708165