Beena Youdowei, Chief Operating Officer, Muk-David International Ltd with graduates of the Presidential Amnesty Programme on their graduation day

By Temisan Amoye

Bogije? Where is Bogije? My mind wandered. I was very sure I had neither heard of nor been to Bogije.

I had just received a text containing the address of a vocational institute I planned to visit the following day. My destination was Muk-David International, where under the Presidential Amnesty Programme, ex-agitators from the Niger-Delta region are trained in leather works, (shoes, slippers, handbags, school bags, laptop bags, shoe boxes, tissue boxes, trunk boxes, belts).

As an indigene of the Niger-Delta, I had certain sentiments towards the amnesty programme, I felt it wasn’t a win for all, just the top shots, the foot soldiers still have to deal with living in polluted environments, meagre resources, marginalisation, and just about every other ill that caused them to embark on the agitation in the first place. The lean monthly paycheck whenever it comes, can barely do enough to sustain one life in today’s Nigeria.

Secondly, I also started to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the programme, with reports of rife corruption, paucity of funds, and the ex-agitators only being concerned about the stipends and nothing else.

So I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about embarking on my trip, and it turned out to be a trip, took me over three hours to get to my destination on a wet day. If you are wondering, Lagos isn’t so big, it’s just choked.

I meet Mr Lawal Kayode, General Manager of Muk-David International, and he leads me into a multi-story apartment building in a gated compound that serves as a hostel and workshop. We end up on the last floor, where the studio, classrooms and workshop are located. There were 29 sewing machines, cutting tables and a whiteboard. It was empty as afternoon classes hadn’t started.

Mr Kayode leads me into a room, where my sentiment starts to take a hit. I see a huge display of shoes, slippers, sandals, handbags, well-stacked trunk boxes and other leather works made by the students. On close inspection, I am stunned at what I see. The designs are up to date, well-crafted. What I see amazes me, because I know months back, the students had no knowledge on making these products, and the future prospects can change lives for generations to come.

The leather school bags, adire suit carriers and gladiator sandals catch my attention. I know better, but I still blurt out the obvious question to Mr Lawal, they made all these? “Yes, there will be an exhibition on their graduation day”, he replies.

We move into another room that serves as a computer room, and storage for the products they have designed. He informs me that they are also given basic computer training on Microsoft Word, to help augment the leatherworks training. He then shows me a table that contains some of the first works they did earlier in their training, and right there you could see the growth they had experienced in their 6 months training.

Knowing the background of the students and how difficult it is to manage individuals in a group, I ask Mr Lawal about his experience since joining Muk-David. “You know they are ex-agitators, to manage people, is not easy at all”, he said. ”What I understand about them is that, if you respect them, they will respect you. That is how we have been managing each other.”

Just before afternoon classes, I manage to have a quick chat with two of the trainees, Okosi Ebi and Stephen Lawrence.

Speaking on her training, Rivers state indigene Okosi Ebi said, “ We have been trained to make shoes, sandals, palm slippers, handbags, boxes, shoebox. My experience has been wonderful, to me personally I really am enjoying it. When I came I didn’t know how to do any of these things, but now I can do handbag, shoe, palm slippers, sandals and belts too”.

She states that there is a massive difference in her life since she started this training, and she hopes to put her training to good use. “ My plan is when I leave here I want to go into sandals, and also to do belt and handbag. Those are the ones I know how to do well, that I will go into it after here”.

Bayelsa-bred Tiebeni Lawrence speaking on his time with Muk-David Int. says, “My experience are so many, now I can work handbag, palm, and sandals. So I have experienced a lot here. The starting was difficult for me, but now I am improving.”

“I was not doing anything before here, though I know how to fix tiles, but no work.” Just like Okosi Ebi, he hopes to set up shop after he graduates, “After this training, if possible I get my shop to produce handbags, palms, and sandals”.

Lawrence would go on to win the best trainee at the graduation ceremony a week later.

These skills the trainees have obtained represent a massive boost, and could change not just their lives, but can help set generations unborn on the right path.

After my discussion with both trainees, I meet up with Mr Lawal, where I ask if they have had a case where a trainee withdrew mid-way into the training, and he replies in the negative. He tells me the day registration for trainees opens, the trainees are briefed on what the training entails, and anyone who feels he can’t cope is given transport fare to return back. It could also have something to do with the no-training, no-stipend policy employed in the Amnesty programme.

Next, I meet Beena Youdeowei, the Chief Operating Officer of Muk-David International Ltd, we discuss her experience being a vendor under the Presidential Amnesty Programme amongst other things. Excerpts below:

Beena Youdeowei, Chief Operating Officer of Muk-David International Ltd

How did you start?

“I was initially asked to come and do the reclassification of the women in the programme with three other women (Ms Ibiba Don Pedro, Mrs Ebikedoumene Gbafade and Ms Hilda Dokubo). We made some recommendations, and we were later asked to come and implement the recommendations. The first set, we trained women in tailoring and fashion design under a sister company named Balamere Investments. The first two sets contained 50 women, then the third was 22, another batch of 22 followed after, then 20 women in the last batch. In the last 3 batches, we had a mix of men and women.

As we went on, we decided to expand their knowledge, by training them in bead making, hat making, necktie and leatherworks to expose them a little in those areas. After the last training in fashion, we decided to apply to train in shoe and bag making and that was approved.”

Experience so far

“I always believe that because a lot of the delegates (trainees) have had no access, things we take for granted aren’t that common to them. You can imagine in a class that has a wide range of people, who have most likely never been in a classroom. Some have been to primary school, secondary school, some are NCE holders, and sometimes there’s a situation where in a class of 50 people, you have just one person who is a graduate. So working with all these individuals in the same classroom with diverse backgrounds is very challenging.”

Example

“I have a meeting with them, and one person stands up to ask a question, I answer. Another asks the same question, I answer. By the third time, I should naturally be getting frustrated. Initially, I did, I am a human being, over time I realised people have different levels of understanding and comprehension. So I met them one-on-one in private to find out what their story is, when I understand their story, I am able to communicate and relate better. So when they ask a question, I know the background, I am able to explain it in a way they will understand.”

“I also ask the instructors to break it down, one of the things we do is simple math and English assessment, then we know who can’t read and write.

Initially, it was easy to discreetly group them in three classes, beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Beginners start from basic ABC, intermediate we try to help with tenses and for advanced, it mostly reading, they read and when they find a new word, they mark it, at the end of the reading, we use the dictionary to explain the words and its use(s).”

Is the basic literacy part of the scope or you included it?

“Yes we infused the basic literacy because as a tailor you have to be able to write, so many things you need to do.”

Initially, it was tough, many didn’t like the fact they were learning the alphabet, and a trainee once complained that someone described her as “one of those women wey dey learn ABC”, so she was very upset. So I said yes, you are learning ABC today, if you dont learn it, you will still get that insult, if you do, they can’t use it against you again.

It was a lot of work counselling and explaining why it is important to read and write. I also made sure the instructors respected them. It is easy to get kids in a classroom to learn, it is not easy getting adults to do so.

Why continue?

“Why I continued, someone was doing her PhD programme and wanted to talk to the students for research. We gathered about 7 of the women, and she asked how they got into the Presidential Amnesty Programme, their role, and what the training is doing for them. They started talking about all they had achieved so far. One said, now I can spell my daughter’s name, husband’s name, and write my own name.” She said.

” When they started opening up, I just started crying, I couldn’t help it. I thought wow, this is really life-changing. They also spoke about their initial resistance to learn. For me, that day I became a winner, I knew we were changing lives, but I hadn’t realised to what extent.

It’s a programme that is changing lives, the way I look at my own programme is this, if you give me fifty people and only three learn, to me that a 100% success, because I am coming from point zero. If one person learns, I have succeeded. I thank God, so far, we have managed to train every student who walked through our doors.

Its very rewarding, even for those who don’t learn as much, you see when they are going back, their lives have changed. My goal is that each trainee leaves with a minimum of two skills.

Like I said the things we take for granted, when you are sick, you go to a hospital, but when they are sick, they go for a massage and native medicine. There is nothing wrong with traditional medicine, but if there’s a better alternative, why don’t we do it.

We had a situation where a little girl that came with her aunty dislocated her leg, so she was taken to the hospital after I insisted, and they put a POP on the leg. Two days after, I get a phone call that the POP has been removed, and guess what they put in place? two sticks and cloth to tie it. Initially I was angry, but I understood and had to explain that the POP is to make sure the leg is held in one place. We had to go back to fix another POP.

There is a lot of work that goes in before the training, like the first set of 50 women had three months basic literacy training. We insisted on it for them to get the full benefit of the training. But with the reduction in training time to six months, we try to infuse it on Saturday which they rebel against, they tell me it is their free day, they won’t agree. It’s a constant fight to explain things to be able to get results.

Some people look at the amount of money and say people are chopping the money. Yes, you are going to have that too, but there are some people who are doing the job and are making sure lives are being changed.

There’s a lot of success stories, but it is easy for people outside to say its not a successful programme.”

Take for example, Miebi who was initially reluctant to learn, but is now an Assistant Instructor at Muk-David, and an employer of labour back home in Yenagoa.

“He wasn’t interested in learning sewing as far as he was concerned, he told me he was into scaffolding in Yenagoa. I asked if he was making a lot of money, he said he was. I said can you do me a favour, he said yes, I want you to learn this thing so you can teach your wife and daughter.”

He sat down looked at me for a while, and promised that he would do it. He left, about two weeks later, I saw him at the work table with another lady, and I was like what are you guys doing, he said we are working. I went upstairs, asked about what they were doing, and I was told he’s helping.

He understands when they teach him, so he is able to help his classmates. So I noticed he started helping his classmates. I kept encouraging him, and at the end of the day he was the best student.

I immediately empowered him with a regular sewing machine, industrial machine, generator and everything he needed to set up. So he did set up. I later invited him and another student to come for training in shoe and bag making being held by Balamere Empowerment Foundation. He did and though he sews now, he does more shoes and bags. This was in 2017.

We always have a community service component in our training to help better reintegrate the ex-agitators at the end of their training. For these trainees, we had an outreach in six primary schools in Delta and Bayelsa states, where trainees made sandals for the best student in each class as well as the headteacher in the school. The instructors I had were slowing the process. So I reached out to Miebi to help, and the work he did was better than what the instructors did earlier.

After that I said I need you, can you come to Lagos? Do you have someone to look after your store, he said yes. While you can work with the instructors as an assistant instructor, one of the instructors will be taking you in advanced bag making. That was part of the deal, of course I gave him a stipend.

But also like for the graduation and exhibition, he sewed the clothes for all the students, including the sash and skirts for the models. He also is currently being empowered by the Amnesty Office.

Challenges

Funding

This particular set has been very challenging, the office was funding, and they changed the rules in the middle of the game. They later said that due to paucity of funds, contractors should finish the job before full payment. Now you get 15% upfront, and you have to finish training before you get paid. This includes their in-training allowance.

What can 15% do?

That’s the problem, it can’t do anything. In this particular set, they paid two months allowance and four months is outstanding, so imagine. But the fact that you have taken the 15% means you are committed. You don’t want to wake up to someone looking for you saying you took the money and ran away, whereas you’ve put in more than you took.

The truth is getting half training is nothing, that is the drawback.

Difficult trainees, staff, instructors

You have instructors who usually say they (ex-agitators) can’t do it, if I tell them to teach the trainees a particular style, they will say “the students will not be able to do it”. Even these ones (points to pictures of finished products) I have to talk to the instructor and say you know what, I agree with you they can’t do it, let them still go through the process. Once I had to tell one, you don’t know the capacity God has given to anybody, you can’t determine that someone will not understand. Lets try it first and see. It is a constant battle with the instructors.

I tell my instructors if you respect the students, they will respect you, if you look at them as illiterates and treat them as such, then be ready. I also tell my staff, be ready for anything, don’t talk back if they insult you, just act like you don’t care.

Once I found out an instructor became involved with one of the female students and was helping her do her projects. When it was discovered, we removed everything the student did, removed the instructor and then got the student to do what she could.

I told the instructor, for compromising the student, you have deprived her of knowledge, and I asked him to leave. And now look at the bag she did, very nice, without the help of any instructor.

Steps to improve the Amnesty programme

Improved funding

“I think the funding part is really critical because, without funding, the job is very difficult for the vendor/service provider. Considering you are dealing with high tensioned individuals.

When funding isn’t given on time, it creates a problem, and the PAP office should go back to the original plan, where the service provider does not have to bring 85% of the funding but is funded in tranches by milestones.”

Adherence to original plan

“Also, the FG needs to go back to the original plan where the Amnesty programme is just is the stop-gap measure before the massive development of infrastructure. This programme only takes care of thirty thousand persons. What happens to millions of Niger Deltans who are affected by an ongoing ecocide (Ecological Holocaust) as we speak. The FG needs to keep its promise made to the people which made them accept the armistice in the first place.”

Conclusion

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve them, they are my people. I am grateful for the fact that after talking to them, they are willing to learn. What they have done, I am always surprised, because I know where they came from.

I am selecting ten of them for scholarship in advanced training at Balamere Emp. Foundation.

On what will be done with their works after the training is over, Beena reveals that they are donated to the less privileged.

“After the graduation and exhibition, what I usually do is we gift it to people who are needy. We keep them for about a year. A lot of the products that our students have made, we have given to flood victims and others in need.

Final thoughts

For all my earlier pessimism on the Presidential Amnesty Programme, I leave Bogije with a more open mind on the programme. Yes, corruption is rife, funds are scarce but the positive effect it is having on individuals and their families are too impactful to overlook or trivialise. 

More accountability from those in charge will help ensure the programme reaches its goal to create a meaningful impact in the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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