Dr Abiodun Laja is the Executive Director of the Lekki British School, Lekki, Lagos. She started a private school at 27 and recently celebrated her 40th anniversary in the education sector. In this interview, she told SAMSON FOLARIN how becoming pregnant at 19 changed her career path and the challenges she had faced over the years
You started a private school at 27 at a time when such venture was a preserve of retired teachers. How did it happen?
Back in my secondary school days at St. Loius, Ibadan, I was good at mathematics and my father, who was an accountant, felt I would make a good accountant. Unfortunately, I had a baby immediately I left secondary school. My father was very angry with me and I was angry with myself as well. He took the baby from me at 11 months and I went to London to study. The early motherhood, however, changed my perception. While I was nursing the baby, my mind switched from being an accountant to education of children.
However, I observed that I loved children. I taught at Adrao International School for two years. There I saw that not only did I love children, they loved me as well. At times they would go home and start writing notes about what I wore to school. When I got to the school in my car, they would fight over who will carry my bags.
That summer, I went to Disneyland in Florida with my kids. I saw there was much to attract children. I saw a lot of things and characters – like Mickey Mouse, and the rest of them. So, I decided to start a school when I was only 27 years.
How did your parents receive the news?
When I told my mum, she said I should go back to work because I would go hungry. She said, ‘How many of your mates do you see going into school ownership? Have you ever seen any young person in that field? Most of the people are retired teachers with a lot of experience’. But I didn’t listen. I wanted to show off something new. I was determined to go into it. Here in Nigeria, it was all about passing exams, going to school. But I wanted a school that was full of fun; things that would interest children more.
How did you get approval for the school?
I had got a bungalow in the Palmgroove area of Somolu and did some designs with very attractive colours. I noticed that anytime a family drove past that place, the children would point to the place, saying that was where they wanted; because of those characters and attractions.
When I went to the Ministry of Education for approval to open the school, they refused. I changed the school’s resumption dates three times. After the third time, I went to the Ministry of Education at 7am to meet the Permanent Secretary. He came in around half past 8am and I had to sit without food till around 5pm when he finally called me in. He said he would not give me approval because his officers had yet to inspect the facility. I told him I had been calling them for the past six months without any response. He said there was nothing he could do.
I got very emotional and walked out of his office in tears. While descending the stairs, I bumped into a clerk, who pushed me away. When he saw that I was in tears, he showed some empathy. I asked where the office of the commissioner was and he told me.
I met the man’s secretary, who said he was attending to a lady and I could wait. Around 5.30pm, I saw the secretary step out to go to the toilet and I quickly entered into the office. When he saw me, he was taken aback. I guess my tears and dressing also got his attention. He asked the lady he was chatting with to excuse him. He got up, gave me a handkerchief and said I should wipe my tears first. He was a gentleman to the core.
He asked what the problem was and how he could help. I told him the story. The first thing he said was that I looked familiar. He asked if I knew one Dr Laja, who happened to be my sister. Immediately, I said yes and felt a bit more relaxed. Apparently, he lived in the same area with my family.
I told him that I had been calling the inspectors to see my school, and they had refused to come. So, he called the lady in charge of investigation. Immediately she entered and saw me in front of him, her countenance changed. He asked her if she knew me, and she said yes. He asked if she was aware I had changed my resumption dates three times and I had given the parents Monday as another resumption date, when it was already 5.30pm on Friday and I was yet to get any inspection or approval.
He found it difficult to contradict his permanent secretary. But he tapped his table and said although it was difficult, he would do it. He asked that I opened my school on Monday and inspection should follow afterwards. I can never forget Dr Abisogun Leigh for his role in the opening of the school.
Despite being young, you had four locations in three years. How did you do that?
I had only three classrooms when I was about to open, with about 60 registered pupils. But when I opened the school after getting the approval, I started with 117 pupils. That was in the first week of 1977. When I saw that the classrooms were too tight for the pupils, during the Christmas holiday, I built five additional classrooms.
Then, I saw a lot of children coming from Anthony Village and Gbagada areas of Lagos and I decided to open a second branch in Gbagada. I added two more branches, with the headquarters at Ikeja. I named the school ABC Nurseryland.
So, from ABC Nurseryland to Lekki British School; how did that transition happen?
I started a secondary school in Ikeja which really didn’t click. I discovered there was something about that neighbourhood that was not allowing me to settle. When I moved from Gbagada where I was living to Ikoyi I knew I had to give up the college.
Before I moved, I had applied for a secondary school site in Lekki and I got about 25 acres in the Lekki Scheme 1, the largest in the area. I couldn’t do anything for almost four years because I was afraid. Besides, there was no water or electricity in the place then. I didn’t have any idea where the funds would come from and how we would start.
But I started developing the place. I didn’t involve any partner because I don’t believe in partnership, which can be dangerous when one has the wrong person as a partner. It was around this time I caught the gift of hearing from God which took me to another level.
What role did Pastor Enoch Adeboye play in the establishment of Lekki British School?
I attend the Redeemed Christian Church of God. One day, I was talking with Daddy GO in his office at the Redemption Camp about the secondary school and he was saying, ‘my daughter, why don’t you start the secondary school at Ikeja.
At that instant, I heard God speak to me and I shook. He asked me if I was alright, and I said yes. I asked if he didn’t hear when God spoke. He said, ‘What did our father say?’ I said, ‘He said the school should start at Lekki’. Immediately, he held my hand and prayed, ‘God, thank you for this decision. Thank you because once you have spoken, it is settled’. He didn’t hear anything, but he agreed with me instantly. That is one huge respect I have for him. He didn’t say he is a pastor and I must follow his advice.
When he heard about the opening of the school in 2001, he personally came to inaugurate it. It was the first time he said he would do such a thing. And when he walked in, I was excited and ran to meet him. He said, ‘My daughter, this is a big school, you have a big dream, and we serve a big God’.
Why did you choose the British curriculum?
The idea came when I visited the proprietor of a school while planning for the secondary school. I asked the woman where her year six students go for their secondary education and she said British School of Togo. She said during the last session, a plane was hired from Nigeria to take them there. I was surprised. These were parents who could afford to send their children to England, why were they not sending them there? I discovered it was because they didn’t want to lose the African culture.
I took out time to visit the so-called British School of Togo. All they did was just the British curriculum. So, something told me, you can do it. That was how I got the inspiration to do the British curriculum.
It’s been 40 years since you started this journey. Looking back, what challenges did you face? Was there any time you felt like giving up?
Never. There was never a time I felt like giving up. I am a perfectionist. But at times, one is handicapped with funds. So, money has been a major constraint.
Also, when you have a friend who knows what you are going through and is not willing to help. I, however, always console myself with one thing; God will not share his glory with anyone. And his word says many are the afflictions of the righteous, but He delivers him from them all. I have never said I would give up. I believe strongly that this is a calling from God because if I didn’t have that baby, I wouldn’t have gone into education.
But why didn’t the early pregnancy break you down? This is what has damaged the future of many teenagers. Why was your case different?
It is because of my person. I don’t know how to give up. I have lived my life accepting challenges. I have never given up. I can cry all night, but once it is morning, I am done. But to say that something is impossible, it is never in my dictionary.
The man I had my first child with was the one I had all my children with. It was not planned, but I made up my mind not to abort, even though I was 19 years old then. I was telling my classmates that time that I was expecting a baby and they thought I was joking. I was still the leader of the basketball, volleyball and netball teams.
I believe it was to give me a turnaround in life. That time, it was like a crime as well. One cannot move forward; but I didn’t allow it to move me. The boy is now a brilliant lawyer; a New York attorney.
I once wanted to go into oil business and I met my uncle, the late Bank Anthony. I told him and he laughed and said it was a mafia thing. I laughed and told him to give me the form for mafians. He liked my aggressiveness in business and he supported me. I run with three mottos in life which have kept me going: “Don’t let anybody disappoint you”, “Nobody is indispensable” and “Be politically and financially strong”.
How are you giving back to society?
I have a ministry for the poor called the Never Drying Fountain. It caters for the education of the poor. I have not stopped doing it even in the midst of lack. Based on divine leading, I once educated a 15-year-old boy I met on a bus in 1999. That case was particularly difficult because I educated the boy with the loan I was supposed to use to build my school at Lekki. He is now the CEO of a company. At another time, it was my housemaid. I have trained children of my carpenters, hairdressers and many more. I have assisted about 24 to 30 people quietly. It is something I have enjoyed doing and will keep doing. At times I asked God if I was not wasting my resources because some of them have been ungrateful, while others have misbehaved. But in all, God has been glorified.
You seem to have a lot of qualities, some of which you have developed in the course of building your career. Which can you say has been largely responsible for your success?
God and God alone. When he leads you, you can’t go wrong, except you are hearing from somebody else. When it is God that is talking to you, follow him 100 per cent. There is no way, even in crisis, that he will leave you. He will strengthen you. My faith was shaken when the school was locked up because of the loan facility from the bank. I was shaken, but I refused to give up. It all ended in praise and I had to get a saxophonist to play all around the school in celebration of the victory.
Stakeholders in the education sector based on certain indices say the standard of education is falling in Nigeria. What do you think is responsible for this?
The first thing I noticed is that because teachers have issues with their salaries their attention is divided. They need something to bring them income. So, you see teachers selling crates of egg, mince pie, doughnuts, which is not healthy for education. I think the government has been able to resolve that problem.
Government is building some schools now that are good. But the question is, will they get the right equipment, the right teachers, the right people? Good teachers are not easy to come by. Most of the teachers in LBS, at least 80 per cent of them, are IGCSE certified. That is, we must have training for our teachers, especially those in secondary school.
What is your stance on corporal punishment and is it true you don’t allow phones in your school?
I love children and they love me. I don’t beat children. There are so many ways you can discipline a child. For instance, when you tell pupils they will be coming to my office, they get scared. I have governors’ children here and they get punished like other children.
I don’t allow mobile phones. If I find them, I break them. I see phones as heavy distractions. It is the most disgusting thing that can happen to any child. There is nothing that they don’t do with their phones.
In the last 40 years, what would you say are the achievements of the school?
We have a good school and good results. The best thing you can have is good results. Wherever our pupils go, they are excellent. We have many of them doing exceptionally well.
Recently, I went to Reddington Hospital for a test. When the person I booked an appointment with was not around due to an emergency, I asked to see any doctor available because I was in a hurry. They called a particular doctor. He was a tall man. Immediately he saw me, he started laughing. I was wondering if he was a parent in my school. I asked who he was and he said he wouldn’t tell me and I should follow him. I refused to follow him.
There were five people at the counter and they urged him to tell me his name. I said I was going away if he didn’t reveal his identity. He said, ‘Hello Ms Laja, so you haven’t changed. You want to go because I didn’t tell you my name?’ I said, ‘Yes. You are clowning and I don’t have your time’. When he said, ‘I am Dr Fatai Balogun’ I screamed and we hugged. He was the first pupil to step into my school at Palmgroove. He called his mother and told her he had just seen me, and she started screaming. It was a great moment. The mother was an illiterate, but she said she would give all her children the training she never had. She had five children, two of whom are now doctors, and three are engineers.
What advice do you have for youths?
I invited a lot of young people in 1978/1979 and challenged them to start their own schools. I told them that they could do it as well. I assisted in establishing about eight schools with some of those young people. Even now, I still tell people there is nothing impossible.
The government is getting it right with the youths. There is always a youth forum now, where they talk to the youths and encourage them. What I think they need now is job creation. When there is job creation, the youths will not be idle. It is idleness that leads to crime. A lot of the crimes today are committed by the youths because of this. They need money and work.
What is next on your plan?
I am still dreaming. There are more plans for the future. We have not reached the climax yet.