Meet the Woman Changing West and Central Africa, One Child's Smile at a Time
Nkeiruka Obi had it all, as far as corporate careers go. Well-educated with several business degrees including an MBA, she was the head of private banking at one of the biggest banks in Nigeria, working exclusively with high-net-worth individuals.
The job was fulfilling, but it kept her in the office from around 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. This, she says, kept her out of touch with life around the streets of Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria.
“Lagos is a very busy city and I never got to see what’s happening because I was always in the office,” she tells Global Citizen. “It can get strenuous, as you never have any other life outside of work.”
But, one night on a drive back home with her husband, Obi got a reality check.
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“This particular evening I saw a whole lot of children trying to clean our car windscreen," she continues. My husband explained that they were street children trying to eke out a living."
The experience left her with a question that she could neither answer nor forget: why would anyone leave their child out at that time of the night?
It’s in Obi’s nature to question, find solutions and, most importantly, act. And she does so swiftly. This trait has seen her manage a demanding corporate career with also writing books on the side. So naturally, she felt compelled to act.
“I had done my national service [Nigeria's compulsory nation building and development programme for graduates] and had the opportunity to work with UNICEF," she says. "I made an enquiry the next day with the child protection officer to find out why there wasn’t anyone trying to help these children."
What she discovered left her more shocked than the scene from the previous night.
“There were people and organisations that worked with street children, who got funds from UNICEF, but they used the money to run their offices instead of helping the children," Obi says. "The officer told me that if I really wanted to help, there was one organisation that I could support."
That organisation was Child Lifeline, which works with children experiencing homelessness in the city, providing shelter, education, and food.
And so her journey as a children’s advocate began. As always, she looked inward at what’s within her power to help. She had recently written a book, The Termites Of The Cradle, and had pledged a share of the profits from sales to her mother’s church project. She decided instead to donate all profits to Child Lifeline and encouraged her family and friends to also give their time.
The funding brought in as a result of Obi's book was used to start a scholarship fund that succeeded in educating 28 boys over the course of five years.
“I told them that I wanted to help the children and that it had to be a collective effort,” she says.
Next, she focused her energies on founding Sisters Unite for Children, which works with girls who live on the streets. As well as shelter, the girls also receive basic education in English, Maths, and vocational training. She says from the beginning of her work with children, it was important to work with organisations that offered a holistic approach.
For Obi, the approach has to create and offer safe spaces, and rehabilitate and equip children with life skills to break them out of poverty. Equipping young people with these life skills can either come from ensuring they have access to formal education, or vocational training too to improve their communiciation and trade skills.
After the children are rescued and rehabilitated, they are reintegrated back to their families or foster ones.
“Providing a family setting addresses the underlying stigma faced by children who live in homes,” says Obi.
Her voice is filled with pride when she talks about what some of the children from Sisters Unite for Children have achieved. “It has been amazing,” she says. “One of them made first class in communication and another second class in computer sciences. Many others have also found trades. We have a welder, a carpenter, a tailor, and a bank teller.”
Even though she found her calling on that night many years ago, it wasn't until 2010 that Obi finally left banking. The life-changing decision came after a man who had mistakenly walked into the Prestige banking offices and recognised one of Obi's books. Months later, he called to ask if she knew someone who would be a perfect fit for an organisation with which he was involved, called Smile Train.
Obi had an introductory meeting with one of the organisation leaders, and realised that the time had come for her to leave banking for good. Now, she's the charity's programme director for West and Central Africa.
“After our conversation, I went online to look for photographs of children with cleft differences and believe you me, I had never seen a cleft child before then,” she says.
She made a poster with photos of children with clefts asking anyone who knew people with the condition to call her. “I left them at my church’s noticeboard and had 17 calls in a week," she adds. "I arranged a visit to a Smile Train partner hospital for treatment.”
Globally, 1 in 700 children is born with a cleft lip or palate. The condition causes difficulty breathing, eating, and speaking. Smile Train estimates that more than 170,000 children are born each year in developing countries with cleft lip or palate.
Throughout Africa, where beliefs run deep and myths are often passed from generation to generation without being challenged, being born with any sort of disability or a medical condition that people don’t understand can be incredibly difficult.
One these myths is that cleft and other differences are a result of witchcraft and that children born with them are evil spirits, Obi says, and as a result, families often isolate children from the rest of the community or kill them.
Another barrier to treatment is lack of facilities, equipment, and skills around West and Central Africa, according to Obi.
“Sierra Leone, for instance, has one paediatric surgeon and there are many more cases to handle than a cleft birth, which is not life-threatening," she says. "This is why I say the sufferer dies a million times before their death because there is no way they will have a full and productive life if the cleft is not repaired.”
Smile Train works in numerous countries across the African continent, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Equatorial Guinea.
In total, the organisation has been able to reach more than 35,000 children in West and Central Africa since 2012.
“We go to communities with posters showing pictures taken before and after surgery," Obi adds. "We visit churches and mosques, and work with community influencers like chiefs and governors as well as presidents, first ladies, and ministers of health to educate people and demystify cleft palate. Nobody should be left to suffer.”