I was born into a polygamous family in Abia State, Nigeria. Growing up as a young girl came with challenges, especially when it came to my education.
My dad recognized the huge responsibility of having a large family of 19 children and four wives. He set out to pay our school fees but compelled his wives to handle all of the other responsibilities that come with feeding and schooling children.
My mum was my dad’s fourth wife and also his last wife. She didn’t mind the other wives and she was determined to make her home a safe haven for all of her five children (three girls and two boys). But living in this family left her with no other choice than to hustle more in her farming and local soap production business to feed us, clothe us, and buy the books necessary for our academic pursuits.
It was difficult for her to fulfill these enormous responsibilities alone, especially considering her lack of formal education. As my mother’s oldest child, I looked for means to help her.
I would wake up as early as 5 a.m. to hawk corn pap (a Nigerian breakfast delicacy) before school. After this tedious responsibility, it was not easy to arrive at school on time.
I can vividly recount the flogging and other punishments from my teachers for coming to school late. When I would explain to my teachers the reasons for constantly being late, it would only attract mockery from my fellow students.
Meanwhile, my father was basking in the euphoria of having paid my school fees and was not bothered by any other issues concerning school. At one point I was on the verge of dropping out of school. But my mother was undaunted. She was determined to see her children through school. She never allowed any of us to drop out. She saw greatness in us and was willing to do every reasonable thing humanly possible to allow us to get an advanced education.
In spite of the financial difficulties—and in spite of the ridicule from fellow students who only saw my immediate poverty—I managed, by the grace of God, to finish my secondary education. My mum’s doggedness was a pushing force in my life. And with financial and moral support from my half-sister, I was able to secure admission into a polytechnic.
In Nigeria, education at a polytechnic is associated with people from poor homes. It involves only two years, compared to the four years needed for a university education. While students from better homes went on to study another two years to achieve a Higher National Diploma, I was compelled to accept a job offer as a cashier in a maritime company at the end of my two years.
Today, I have overcome the challenges of my upbringing. My experiences as a young girl from a poor home in a rural community in Nigeria inspired me to start an organization (the Grassroots Women and Girls Empowerment and Gender Equity Initiative) to encourage young girls from poor homes to cope with the challenges they face.
The shame and ridicule for always coming to school late were a serious emotional burden on me. Although primary education is now free in Nigeria, parents still engage young girls in hawking wares to buy books and other educational materials. I took a stand to ensure that young girls will not be forced into child labor to help their parents finance their education.
I know from experience that the true costs of getting an education go beyond school fees. We are partnering with rich families in the urban centers to source used textbooks and educational materials to distribute to indigent students in rural schools. We also organize seminars and workshops that empower young girls in rural homes.
My vision is to ensure that girls in rural communities in Nigeria have the chance to become the changemakers they are born to be.
Jane Kalu is a contributor from Nigeria. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.