An MUSC chaplain works to help children growing up in his home country of Nigeria
Father JohnBosco Ikemeh discovered you can go home again.
In 2010, the MUSC chaplain traveled to his West African homeland. There, he had an epiphany that led him to his true life’s mission — building a school for the poorest of the poor.
Upon landing in Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent, Ikemeh headed to Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State. As he made his way through the city, he was swarmed by throngs of children balancing baskets piled high with oranges, vegetables and nuts atop their heads. Ikemeh surveyed their earnest faces, heard their pleas for sales.
In that instant, he was transported 50 years in the past to his own childhood in war-torn Nigeria when he was the one selling what he could to support his family – bread, kerosene, gasoline. He was 7, begging others to buy his wares. It was a painful reminder of a distant time in his life.
It was the bloody Biafran Civil War of 1967. Caught in its grips, his family lost everything — their restaurant, their home, their comfortable way of life. They lived in Umuihi, Ihitte, present-day Imo State, the village that served as ground zero during the conflict. The leader of the Biafran secession established a headquarters and his personal bunker at the local Madonna High School.
Ikemeh’s village became a military base and subsequently, a target for bloodshed.
Biafra, a former region located in the Christian southeastern part of the country, was fighting for independence from the Nigerian government. Instead of liberation, the people endured unimaginable genocide, starvation and loss. Images of starving Biafran children — naked, ribs showing through their stretched skin, stomachs distended from extreme malnourishment, arms and legs that looked like sticks — were plastered across the Western evening news, shocking the world and bringing attention to the death of 2 million people, half of whom were kids. Those who survived became refugees in their own country — including the Ikemehs.
Before the civil war, Ikemeh’s family was doing well. His mother had a restaurant in Port Harcourt, his dad, a supply business. But once the war set in, the Nigerian administration instituted a total economic blockade, ensuring the Biafran food supply was crippled.
Soon, his family of 12 had no home, no source of nutritious food or prospects for employment. They were living in between the bush and a refugee camp. For most Biafrans, plants, termites, crickets and grasshoppers were the closest thing to nourishment they could find.
While life was bleak, Ikemeh’s greatest joy was attending school. He loved science. But many days, it seemed, an education was just not to be – in Nigeria school isn’t free. The cost of elementary school at the time was $1 per year.
But the price he paid was actually higher than that – just not in money. The headmaster would perform roll call, and kids like him who hadn’t paid their tuition were called forward during assembly.
“I really wanted to go to school,” Ikemeh said. “Kids who could pay would go to class. Kids who could not were flogged with a tree branch in front of everyone and had to walk home. Looking back, it was as if it was the child’s fault that they couldn’t pay. I’m one of 10 children. My parents could not afford to pay for all of us to go to school. Seeing those kids, the feeling it brought back, the memories of all the things I had to do, I realized I am a survivor. I had to do what I had to do to raise my tuition.”
Some time back, Ikemeh read a book that made a lasting impression — “He Leadeth Me.” Little did he know how very true these words would be in his own life.
“When I arrived in Nigeria and saw kids hawking in the streets and mothers with shovels and headpans waiting to be hired at construction places, something touched me. To be honest, I never had the experience I had that day. It came to me completely different.”
He said he knew God was leading him to do something transformational. Those street kids were putting themselves at risk for rape, kidnapping and abuse to earn money, when they needed to be in school. He knew education would be the only way they could possibly have any chance at a future. He also believed he was being led to make it happen.
“Seeing those kids on a school day, I wondered how many of them were doing what I was doing when I was a kid. Knowing what education did for me, I was determined to give them a school as a way of giving back.”
He remembered the kindness of those who helped him go to school and shape his love of God and those who treated him and his family in the refugee camp. They inspired him and provided hope.
“At first I wanted to be a physician,” he said. “Thanks to the influence of the doctors who took care of us in the refugee camp, I wanted to be like one of them. I would visualize where I would build my clinic. I would visualize myself taking care of the poor for free — just like they were taking care of us. That was my dream.”
But at other times, he saw himself as a man of the cloth.
“Sunday was a good day for us; we would play soccer and play on the fields, until one day, I saw kids serving Mass in one of the processionals.”
He was taken by the beauty of the crisp white surplices and long flowing red cassocks the altar boys wore. At the age of 12, he joined their ranks.
He said God brought a priest into his life — one who would become his champion and change his future forever. When Father Kevin Ikpah visited their church and saw him serving Mass, he invited Ikemeh to live in the church quarters that housed orphans and other poor children.
“Oh, my goodness! What a gift! Little did Father Kevin know, he was giving me an opportunity to continue at school. I was at a point where my dad said we can’t do it. He was offering me an opportunity for free food and free school,” he said, his face beaming.
That one gesture set him on a course for success. He joined the Dominican Order. He graduated from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, with degrees in philosophy and theology and a master’s in clinical psychology. He then earned another graduate degree in systematic theology and his Doctor of Sacred Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California.
In 2005, Ikemeh relocated to South Carolina to serve the men and women in uniform at Joint Base Charleston. He also accepted a chaplain position at MUSC, where he provides comfort and support to patients, students and staff.
Architects said the school would require 10 acres of land. For the next several years, he bought little parcels of land, as he was able to afford them. By 2014, he had the property.
Then his contract with the military ended.
“That’s what was giving me the extra money. I only had MUSC and couldn’t even pay my mortgage. Talk about depression,” he said. “I have all these dreams and now where is the money going to come from? What am I going to do next?”
One morning he woke up at 2 o’clock, knowing he should start a nonprofit. He shared his idea with Father Gabe Smith at St. Joseph’s in West Ashley. “Why not,” his friend asked, encouragingly.
Ikemeh shared his dream with the parishioners, who rallied around the project. The church commits two special collections a year to support the Karis School project. Additionally, the African Education Outreach was created to raise awareness and money for the school.
He calls them the poor of Yahweh — the local children who have nothing, whose families can’t afford tuition. According to the World Bank, the average yearly income in Abakaliki is $2,450.
To try to get ahead is an uphill task, Ikemeh said.
It’s not that these children don’t have the latest clothes, he said. “They have nothing. Often times I’m going with suitcases of shoes and clothing. When we were clearing and bulldozing, the rats started running, and the kids were chasing them. That’s a big meal for them. They were barefoot and completely naked chasing rats. That is their world, unfortunately.”
Today, the one-classroom schools once constructed by missionaries before the war are now dilapidated and roofless. Children study under the shade of nearby trees.
Ikemeh has a different vision. He wants these kids to finally have a real shot, a real school — not just classrooms, but laboratories; not simply blackboards on which titrations and computations are explained, but real chemistry and biology equipment they can experiment with; not just paper and pencils, but laptop computers they can learn on.
The school will also have good teachers, nourishment that doesn’t include rodents, purified water, safe and comfortable dormitories, a playground, a soccer field and other exercise areas, he said. And in the wake of the 2014 kidnapping of 276 school girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram and the recent Feb. 21 attack on a Nigerian girls’ school where 90 girls are still missing, there will be a security fence.
“This school would be better than what I had. If it is not, it will not bring out the best in them. I want a school that whatever be their talents, they can develop them.”
Kids like him fuel his mission. The poor will receive free tuition. Funds will be generated from families around Nigeria who want safe, high-quality schools for their children.
“Boarding schools beyond the standards of their communities attract people from other parts of Nigeria. Think about the girls taken by Boko Haram. As long as the school is good and safe, parents who can afford it will send their kids to study there. They can pay the tuition and that will offset tuition for the locals who can’t afford it.”
Ikemeh said this will be transformational for them.
“It literally means opening the world to them — giving them opportunity to compete in the world, because right now they have no chance at all.”
The land is cleared. Some roads have been constructed, the privacy fence is in progress and he hopes that soon the classroom and dormitory blocks will begin to be laid. The community had no running water, so that had to be resolved. Water is flowing, he said, but the underground water is still contaminated. The people drink it anyway. Water Missions International is constructing equipment for them and will install it. The people will finally have pure water.
There is a very long and costly way to go.
Ikemeh pays for his own trips. Flights are almost $1,600 — tough on a chaplain’s salary, but important, he said.
“I see God leading us, even when we don’t realize what is ahead of us. If we pay attention, if we let God, he will lead us to where he wants us to be.”
For information or to help Ikemeh and the children with donations, visit African Education Outreach or mail P.O. Box 1066, Ladson, S.C., 29456.