What is the ethos behind the charity? Can you tell us about the issues you are facing and the work Stepping Stones does?
There is a strong child rights activist ethos behind the charity. The issues that we work tirelessly to address include children’s lack of access to basic education, low levels of literacy, witchcraft accusations and child trafficking. We work with small partner NGOs in the Niger Delta region to provide education, healthcare, skills and protection to vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
The deeply held belief in and fear of child witchcraft cuts across all tiers of society. This fear stems from the belief that a spiritual spell can be given to a person through food and drink. The soul of the person who easts this spell will then leave the body to be initiated in a gathering of ‘witches’ and ‘wizards’. The initiated person will then have the power to wreak havoc, such as causing diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid, cancer. All problems in life are seen to be the handiwork of these ‘witches’. In recent times, it is thought children have become the target for initiation by the elderly 'witches' as it is believed that they are more susceptible to their spells and are quicker in action.
The following have being identified as the major causes of child witchcraft, abandonment and killing:
• Religious profiteering
• Extreme poverty
• Disintegration of the extended family structure
• Ignorance and superstitious beliefs
• Broken marriages
What inspired you to start Stepping Stones?
I had done social work and charity work before getting into this career and I guess that I have always wanted to do this kind of thing from an early age; although I didn’t think it would be quite so serious and stressful as it often is! The only thing that ever drives me and gives me any inspiration with my work is the desire to affect positive social change; a belief that we are making a change, doing work that no-one else will touch, saving the lives of children by changing the minds of their parents. I have a great family and good mates who help me through the dark times. I’ve also developed pretty thick skin. There are a lot of changes that need to take place in the Niger Delta so this is what makes me continue to wish to work in this field.
I was lucky to meet a wonderful woman – Grace Udua – during a trip to Nigeria in 2003 to carry out research on the impact of the oil industry in the region. Grace was a headteacher at a local school and after a visit one day she offered me her family land to work with her to build a school for disadvantaged children. I then met Naomi (my wife) a few months later and we shook hands on going to Nigeria to build the school and set about raising the funds needed to do so.
The main thing we did was just put on lots and lots of different fundraising events – carboot sales, sponsored bike rides, auction of promises and lots of raves! Eventually we raised about £12,000 and set off to Nigeria. We had loads of support from friends and family who really bought into the idea. To be honest raising the funds and setting the charity up legally were easy tasks. The real work began when we got to Nigeria!
In the end Grace’s land was actually too small to build the school on so a local chief – Victor Ikot – who is a very wise, lovely man, donated a huge plot of land for the school. Chief Ikot is a renowned local educationalist and could see the impact that having such a school in his community would have. Thankfully his kindness now means that around 260 children have access to a fantastic education and we are now working with him to build a secondary school at the site.
What have the highlights of running this charity been? What have been the hardest moments? Highlights include the opening day of the Stepping Stones Model School, the child rights protest at the Governor’s house and making our first Nollywood film – The Fake Prophet. Hardest moments have been terminating the partnership with one of the NGOs we worked with – CRARN – finding out that children you have worked with have been killed or trafficked and dealing with serious intimidation and threats from government and some church leaders.
Can you tell us a little about the other partners you work with in order to support the community and strengthen what you can achieve?
We have a number of formal and non-formal partner organisations that we work with ranging from small NGOs like the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development who we support to monitor, document and prosecute cases of child rights violations in the Delta, to much bigger ones like the University of Uyo who we are working with to train and resource 4000 teachers in a fast-track reading and writing method.
Unfortunately Nigeria has a pretty terrible reputation and it seems that this puts many charities off from working there. Also, the Niger Delta region is well known for a breakdown in social order caused by years of oil exploitation. This makes it the most volatile and dangerous region. It also means that the need is often greatest here. Unfortunately though most charities seem to prefer to take the “safe” option and locate their operations in stable, safer places like Ghana and Tanzania. I think they call this “development tourism”!
How did the documentaries ‘Saving Africa’s Witch Children’ and ‘Return to Africa’s Witch Children’ come about?
They came after an article was printed in a women’s magazine and the independent film maker – Mags Gavan – contacted me to see if we wanted to work with her. At the time we had Sky, Al-jazeera and CNN all wanting to work with us but we chose to work with her as we felt that she had integrity. We received wide-spread support from thousands of people around the world, which we are very humbled by and grateful for.
What advice would you give to individuals looking to work in charity or looking to register a charity of their own?
It’s not easy to find work in charities without doing lots of internships or working for very little. In some ways it may be easier just to set up your own charity if you find a need somewhere. My main advice would be to be prepared to work very hard for little or no money for a long time, to take risks, and to believe in yourself and your own ability to make a change.
What are the future hopes and developments of Stepping Stones Nigeria?
Our hopes are that we will be able to establish an effective model to put a stop to the abuse of innocent children in the Niger Delta, roll out literacy training to thousands more teachers, establish a new child rights centre in the Niger Delta and ensure that the widespread violations of child rights that takes place due to the belief in child witches does not continue.
And finally, who are your IDOLs?
Ken Saro-Wiwa – Nigerian Human and Environmental Rights Activist. Hanged by the Nigerian military Junta with support from Shell.
Fela Kuti – Musician and Human Rights Activist.
More people should know about these two inspirational figures.
Find out more from:
Watch ‘Saving Africa’s Witch Children’ here
Support the Prevent Abuse of Children Today (PACT) campaign:
Interview: Jessica Duffin
Images: Robyn Hammond