The future is female, but let me tell you why. Tokini Darego is a final year Law student at The University of Leicester who founded the charity Educate Our Girls . Not only is she carving out a bright future for herself, having emigrated from Nigeria to the UK in 2013, her empathy led her to empower young girls in Africa with the right to an education. A great one at that.
What propelled you to start your own NGO?
I’ve always wanted to be able to help other people and questioned why poverty should exist? I remember as a child going with my mum to certain places and visiting certain areas in Nigeria where I would literally stop and be like, especially when I see kids, ‘Why do these kids have no shoes? Why can’t they eat?’.
As time progressed, I realised that girls in particular suffer a lot more and are disadvantage more so than boys. You can have a poor family that has a boy and a girl, but the girl still suffers more. She has to take on more responsibility. She becomes the mother of the home, she does the cooking, she does the caring, the house chores – all of that. If there’s ever a choice between who should go to school, they will always choose the boy over the girl.
I remember having my hair done somewhere and the mum asked a girl, who must have been 10 years old, to go and sell food on the streets. It was really weird because her elder brother was there playing football with his friends, yet his younger sister was told to go sell food on the street. She’s being threatened that if she doesn’t sell it, she’s not going to go to school.
“First of all, why is a 10 year old girl selling food on the road? Secondly, why is her education the first thing you think to threaten her with?“
Whereas your son’s education is left untouched? I want to help as many girls as possible. Put as many girls back in school as possible and not just any school, but good private schools.
What was your action plan when starting out?
I started fundraising on campus. We had a store in our Student Union, where we used to do bake sales or have events like talk shows. Things went really well and we moved online to GoFundMe. I spent that summer in Nigeria to find a team of people I already knew in Nigeria. So I reached out to old friends from high school, people who were now in University or who are Graduates in their professional roles. We found some young female entrepreneurs, on Instagram, who were in Nigeria at the time.
What I wanted to do was essentially go around doing a campaign for a week, we’d visit really poor areas and rundown schools, gather the young girls and speak to them. I wanted the speakers to be a team of young women or girls, who also did really well for themselves. So that the girls we are campaigning to, can question that actually ‘I’m not seeing this in in my family home. There are really young successful women out there and I can actually be that as well’. I had a team of 10 girls doing talks in the first year and we spent a week campaigning. While I was in Nigeria, someone was like ‘Oh why don’t you register and set up a proper NGO?’. That was how I went about setting up the charity.
Why do you think families tend to choose the boy to go to school more than the girls? Is that a cultural belief?
It’s cultural and it’s societal. I feel like even here in the UK, in the workplace, we’re still having the argument that men are paid more than women doing the same job. This is a worldwide problem that even in developed countries, we still haven’t gotten it right yet. I remember one of my friend, who is from a well to-do family, had finished her undergraduate degree and got a first. She wanted to further her studies and do a Masters, but all her family were against it. They said ‘No, you’re a girl. Why do you need to study so much? Are you trying to be in competition with your husband? You need to get married’.
They couldn’t understand why she needed to study anymore, so her parents refused to fund her Masters purely because of that. And again, it’s the idea that for a woman, no matter how much you study, the pinnacle of success is you getting married and having a family. For some, if they have a choice, their daughters will go to school. But they can’t even afford to make that choice.
How long does the summer program last?
I run the campaign for a week long, usually Monday to Friday in the summer. Each day we visit 1-2 schools. Before the summer, we reach out to community leaders and schools in rundown areas. We tell them we’re coming and that we want to speak to the girls at the schools and check it’s ok. We’ve never actually been turned, as long as they know you’re coming and we say ‘just give us one hour’. We do two schools each day, so one school in the morning, one school in the afternoon and we try to keep the schools within the same proximity so we’re not traveling too far. When we get there, they gather all the girls. We spend an hour speaking to the girls about the importance of being an independent woman, pursuing their career and focusing on their education. At the end of it, we let them ask us questions which usually turns out to be very, very funny.
Do you have any examples?
I remember one time this girl asked ‘What if I want to become a doctor and my husband doesn’t want me to become a doctor?’
This was primary school. I was so taken aback because I was just like, why do you think this would be your first barrier to becoming a doctor? The fact that your husband does not want you to be that? First of all, you can’t be thinking about that right now. Secondly, I was just like, that’s how to know if someone is for you. Let’s be honest. I had to explain to her that if a guy is telling you something that’s good for you, something that’s going to make you successful, that’s going to give you a career or allow you to earn money, is not good for you – that’s a red flag.
What’s involved in the curriculum and how do you introduce it?
We work on finding a private school in a particular catchment area that we want to work with, for whoever we pick to attend that school. Each year we pick one girl from a government. In Nigeria, in most government schools there’s not a lot of learning going on. Sometimes you go there and there’s no teachers, no blackboards, the kids are just running around. From all the schools we visit throughout the week, we speak to the principal of the school, to recommend a girl to us. Someone they believe is intelligent and driven, because we realise going from a government school to a private school can be a lot of pressure academically.
The first year that we did it we must have had 7-8 girls comes to the exam. On Saturday the exam is held in the private school. Again, it’s one of the requirements of the private schools, because they want to know that whoever they’re taking on can cope with the work. The exam helps us essentially pick and they sit a Maths and English exam. While the exams have been marked, I sit down with each of them and ask them about themselves, where they’re from, what their family background is like and what they want to achieve in life? I want to know that you are motivated and you’re determined, that you want something out of your life essentially. Then based on the scores and my conversation with them, then we then decide who’s picked. Come September, they start at that private school.
Do you help the girls prepare for the exams beforehand?
We don’t get involved with the studying process because then that’s going to take, literally, me going to different people’s houses. Sine we’ve already told the principal of the school like two months in advance, they’ve already decided what girl they’re going to recommend and kind of tells the girl. So in her mind, she already kind of knows that she has 1-2 months to prepare. It’s a very basic exam, so it’s not something that you necessarily have to really study for. It’s something that you either know or you don’t know yet, because it’s such a basic Maths and English exam.
Have you ever faced any objections from their families, seeing as you mentioned some of their barriers led back to the family home?
Most of the time the families are very excited about it. At least for them, that’s one less person’s fees they have to pay for. The first girl for instance, she’s in boarding school because we thought about putting her in the right environment. Where people who also want the same thing might give her motivation. Sometimes it’s difficult having the support of the family at home or have the opportunity to study at home. The second girl is in day school actually. I know her parents personally and I’ve met them a few times. The thing is, they’ve literally always wanted their children to go to school as well, but they just never had the finances to afford it. So for them they can’t even believe that she’s in school, where she and they are more than happy with it.
From from the money that you raised, are you able to fund the girls education all the way through or is it just for a year?
It’s supposed to be throughout, because there’s no way you would put someone in a private school that their family probably can’t afford and then say you’re only gonna sponsor it for a year. The first girl who’s in boarding school her first year cost £1700. For the girls who sit the exams, we’re not just going to send you home. So we’ll give them like a cash reward. The first year we bought new school bags for everybody who came to sit the exams. In the bags we had sanitary pads, socks, books and stationery. Money also goes into the campaign, logistics, transportation, food, all of that. Hence why I try to keep it within a week so I’m not just spending money and that way, most of the money is going towards school fees.
Wow. That’s commitment. In case you want support her charity, Tokini set up a Patreon Account (hint hint).
I just set it the Patreon, like 3 months ago? So we do need a lot more Patreons. It’s around £3 for the first type of subscription, then moves up to £5. I know that people always have like, their money’s being pulled left, right and centre. So I wanted to stay at a level where anyone can contribute.
Do you notice any positive changes changes once they’re in education?
Yes, definitely. I try to stay in close contact with the school, monitor their results and get an idea of how they’re performing. She’s in the top four of her class at the moment. I just find that so amazing that she’s done so well, I’ve been told that she’s now even running for the senior prefect of the school. During their birthdays, we had a little surprise for them. We sent a team to go visit them in the school with cakes, drinks and gifts we bought them. We try to maintain that relationship with the girls, so it’s not a case of we just dumped you in a school. I call them during Christmas time to make sure they’re doing okay and then every time I go back in the summer, I’d go and visit them personally as well.
What’s the most fun that you’ve had? Has there been a funny moment during your whole time doing this?
The most exciting moment generally is just watching the girls that we’ve selected grow. I guess sometimes when you go to the schools for the campaigns, the girls you can tell, they’re so excited and they ask silly questions. I literally can’t help but laugh and think wow I used to be like this! Most times it’s more than 100 girls that would speak to at a time. Sometimes you can tell they’re so excited, when you ask them a question, they just giggle and giggle and act all shy. They LOVE having their photos taken, especially with me. When it’s time to go, they’re always like ‘Noo! One more picture, one more picture!’
How can we, as readers and listeners, help you guys out?
I would say definitely recognising our privilege. In some African countries, even in some European countries, it’s [poverty and lack of education] a worldwide struggle. People do struggle at very different levels. If you can, call people out when they’re mistreating or being unfair to someone. Like when I did it with the lady who threatened her daughter’s education, so she would sell food on the street.
Interview conducted by Mickey Jones.