INTERVIEW: Kate Omenugha: I Used To Read In Toilet

Anambra State Commissioner for Education Prof. Kate Omenugha

Prof Kate Omenugha is the Commissioner for Education, Anambra State. A self-confessed feminist, committed to the cause of the marginalised in society, she is also a bibliophile who regaleS you with books read as a schoolgirl. The former Head, Department of Mass Communication, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO in the state capital, Awka, on a myriad of issues, including her attempt at encouraging reading culture among students, the giant strides she has made on education and what informed her feminist persuasion. 

A photo went viral last year of you dressed in a student’s uniform to office. What statement were you trying to make?
(laughs) I had to identify with the students who went to the Silicon Valley and won World Technovation Challenge gold medal. I told them, since they did us proud, I was going to wear their uniform. So I dressed like that to the Anambra State Government Exco meeting to identify with my students. I could be the senior prefect of Regina Pacis Model Secondary School, Onitsha. Sometime this year, St. John’s Science and Technical College, Alor, went to Tunisia and won bronze at the Festival of Engineering, Science and Technology (I-FEST). In 2016, Anambra schools performed well in competitions in Singapore and Indonesia. To me, it was an indication that the global competitiveness promised by Governor to umu akwukwo (students of) Anambra is coming to pass. We are trying to raise children who are confident, who can face the world.

Much is being said of dwindling reading culture in Nigeria. Are you not worried about this development?

What we have done in Anambra is to use the idea of role modelling. When Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike celebrated his 50th anniversary as a writer, we used that to showcase our students; show them what they can be if they work hard. We presented that opportunity for them to write stuffs, which we published as Echoes of Tomorrow. I got students from village schools, trained and made them read his citation; they also dramatised it.

Again, when the wife of the state governor wrote the biography of her husband, Willie: An Intimate Encounter, we used that, once more, to engage the students. The governor was there, together with his wife. Students turned the book into poetry, story and drama. We did recitation from the book, in partnership with Read Association of Nigeria.

Now, in our schools, every Tuesday, we have what call an uninterrupted, sustained silent reading. At a particular time of the day, everywhere will be shut down; everybody must hold a book to read for 20-30 minutes, including the gateman. When we started that project, we saw that many of our students were reading at frustration level.

What do you mean by that?

They can’t read as expected they would read. We call it frustration level. Since we started that, their reading ability has improved; they could write stories, which we have published for them. So we do a lot of capacity building for both students and teachers. We encourage the students to write through many means. We encourage them to tell their stories. We encourage them to form reading hubs.

Some states donate books to schools outside of what is on their reading lists as a way of encouraging reading culture among students. Are you thinking in that direction?’

With the Ihezie Foundation, we have got over 1 million books, which we have given to our schools. The Read Association has also brought four containers of books, which we are going to give out next year. We have formed reading hubs, and we have reading ambassadors for most communities where they encourage students to come together in clusters and read. We do book donations. We have given out a whole lot of books to schools. However, giving books does not translate to reading; that’s why we created reading ambassadors and reading hubs. In one or two communities that have worked well for us, we got volunteers passionate about that, forming clusters and getting the students to sit together and read. The advent of new media has not helped matters, but we are making progress.

Don’t you think parents have a big role to play in making their children develop reading culture early in life, for old habits, they say, die hard?

Parents have a lot of role to play here. I was still in primary school when I read all the classics, including King Solomon’s Mines. My father gave me all the books, and I used to read in the toilet. Some of our teachers who were my contemporary say they knew I would get to this level; they will tell you how they would be busy washing clothes and I would be busy reciting poems and dramatising things. So I agree with you. My parents taught me to read. My father taught me poetry as early as primary 2.

Do you believe in feminism?

I am a feminist. I like that word “feminist”. It is in my PhD dissertation. Throughout my childhood, I felt trapped by two things: my sex and colour. Feminism means change, creating and making an attempt to change, no matter the gender that is oppressed. There are no fast and hard rules about it. The point is that there is a patriarchal society that, most times, leaves the woman at a great disadvantage. If talking about it and trying to change the society to begin to recognize that we may not be equal but equally human beings, then I am a feminist. Are you a feminist?

Not entirely sure, madam (laughs).
Feminism is not all about women. That’s what some people don’t understand. But because women’s animosity is at the receiving end, people tend to associate it with women.

From the academia to managing education for Anambra State Government, how was the transition?
It was a little bit of shock when I first came here. In the university, we have our way of doing things. I was Head of Department of Mass Communications for 6 years. I was the Director of Unizik FM. But, to me, the university is a more structured place kind of place where you probably would know what comes up next. Here, you don’t know what is going to come next. You have to contend with the bureaucracy in the service and its channels of communication. You have to contend with a little bit of politics within the ministry and the main politics within the structure. You have to learn how to combine your administrative duties and your political duties.

Left to me –I call myself a technocrat –I could just down and be working; but you find out you can’t do it that way. You have to do the politicking that goes with the position. Sometimes you may go round and round and won’t even come to the office in a week. I have to device a means to attend which particular functions. Education is such a robust ministry. If you keep moving about all the time, you find out that the students will suffer. Thank God, we have a governor who also understands that, so it has helped in the long run.

You are regarded by stake holders as one of the best education commissioners Anambra State has ever produced. Coming into your office, I can see dozens of awards dotting your table. What differences have you made since you came onboard?
His Excellency, Chief Willie Obiano, made my job easy. When we came in 2014, he already had a blueprint on education. What I did was to internalise the blueprint, and work with it. It has a strategic objective that the learning needs of all must be met through equitable distribution of resources and learning of lifelong skills and ensure we are one of the three states in the lowest illiteracy rate in Nigeria. The governor said no child should be left behind. Then he said, “We want to give umu akwukwo ndi Anambra education that is globally competitive.”

To be able to do that, we looked at education from three-pronged areas: infrastructure –which does not only mean the building; it means state-of-the-art equipment in those areas; teachers’ welfare, which includes capacity building for teachers, prompt payment of salaries, exposing our teachers to competitions. And we have the students’ welfare, which include giving them good environment, ensuring they are exposed to global competiveness and participating in competitions.

For the governor, education is about ideology; it is what you believe that you profess, and what you profess that you do. So it was easy for me. For I knew what His Excellency wanted me to achieve. If you talk about some of the feats we have achieved, it has helped us really to ensure that no child will be behind.

In practice, is it working?

It is working, because, when we came in, an area that was highly neglected was the physically challenged. The first thing His Excellency did was to give free tuition for the physically challenged in the state; those in public schools don’t pay a kobo. If you go to Basden Memorial Special Education Centre, Isulo. When we came in, that place was a dungeon. You would never believe anybody lived there. The wife of the governor (Mrs E.V. Obiano) was the first person to go there. She cried and drew my attention to it. So we put a secondary school there, which is already in the sixth year now. It’s amazing how time flies. The other day, the governor gave them a bus, together with nine other schools. We renovated that place, built teachers’ quarters there, and made the place look like where somebody was living. Whether gifted child or physically challenged, we said nobody should be left behind.

We also started the revamping of our technical colleges. We used to have 11; now, we have 12 technical colleges. We are building 700 capacity hostels for all the technical colleges. We believe technical colleges are where to go, because we believe they solve the problem of unemployment, for we produce the middle level manpower that will help us in that regard. We want in this state what we call Education for Employment, and what we are trying to do is to run a bridge programme, bridging the gap between education and industry. We recently finished the Entrepreneurship Fair for students, to mention a few.

Do you have legacy projects to be proud of?

We are doing the fencing of about 43 boarding schools. We have completed 10 already of the girl’s boarding schools. We started with those ones first. Here, we don’t do anything half haphazardly. Now we are doing 43, and these 43 also include the technical colleges. We have also, through the Anambra Universal Education Board, renovating a lot of schools. He have retooled about 60 science laboratories out of the 256 schools that we have. There is a possibility of an upscale. We have also ensured the upgrade of our schools, with majority of them using whiteboards due to the health hazards of using blackboards.

We have also grown the capacity of our teachers, because we believe that quality teachers will make quality education. For example, we took our teachers to Singapore on a study tour, about 25 of them, to learn the Singaporean model of technical education. Just last month, we took two sets of our teachers and education officers to Dubai for some study tour, too. Some of them were people who we had to find a way to reward. This year’s Teachers Day Celebration, held at Eagle Square, Abuja, saw Anambra State wining four out of the 25 awards nationwide. In 2017, we won the Overall Best Teacher in Nigeria (Clement Okodo) and, in 2019 ,we won the Overall Best Administrator in Nigeria (Ezenwa Amara). So we build the capacity of the teachers all the time. We have done the one for Mathematic, English, History and Sciences. We have also done the one for literature in English. We found out that literature-in-English was our greatest downfall. So we gave the teachers some tests, and many of them didn’t do well.

And they were teaching literature-in-English schools?
Yes. We did our WAEC segregation, and we found out that literature was our greatest dampener. So we decided to boost the capacity. We gave them a test, and many didn’t do well. For the lady who scored 82 percent, her name was included among the teachers we took to Dubai for capacity building. Those things are not just what you just choose anybody. It is no longer a story that we do well with our students.