ITHACA — Peter “Obele” Abue had already made a life as a Catholic priest in Nigeria before he came to Cornell University, but he was on a mission of sorts. He had already founded in 1999 the St. Joseph's school for orphaned children in his rural village of Idum-Mbube, Nigeria. But he knew there was also great need throughout the country and continent, and he believed that free access to quality education provided the best hope for bringing Africa out of poverty.
To help his project along, Abue enrolled in the doctorate program in Cornell's education department — where he met Derek Cabrera, a classmate who would become his partner in a fledgling not-for-profit organization, Children of Rural Africa (CORAfrica).
The pair hopes to build five more schools in rural Nigeria by 2012 and then spread into other African countries. Each school should include a health clinic, a community well with clean drinking water, a library with Internet access, an agricultural station and a small-scale financing institution to help villagers start sustainable entrepreneurial efforts that could support the school.
“We want to create something that is owned by the community members themselves,” Abue said. Cabrera said he saw firsthand the need for organized schools in new buildings when he visited Nigeria with Abue last month. Children gathered for lessons under open-air thatched roofs or buildings that might be condemned in the United States, he said.
Around two-thirds of Nigerian children attend school, and approximately the same proportion of adults is literate, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Similar or lower percentages are found throughout sub- Saharan Africa.
“We want to have an effect on the way people think about Nigeria,” Cabrera said. “It was the most friendly, hospitable place.”
CORAfrica is seeking donations in America for its various programs, but Cabrera said there are many others ways to get involved.
Starting as early as January, Cabrera and Abue plan to guide Americans on “working vacations” in Nigerian villages. Others can volunteer stateside or help bring promising villagers to master's programs abroad through the organization's U.S. Scholars Program.
The intent of the scholars program is for individuals to eventually return to their villages with new perspectives to incorporate with local knowledge and culture. Abue practices what he preaches, so to speak, as he will return in July to his diocese in Nigeria, now that he has completed his doctorate in education. Cabrera, who also finished his doctorate this year, will manage the U.S. side of CORAfrica in addition to working a research job in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.
Future Nigerian schools will not necessarily double as orphanages, but they will provide housing if needed to children who don't have parents or whose parents are too impoverished to care for them, Cabrera and Abue said. “The big thing,” Abue said, “is we need to raise awareness of the need to come to the aid of rural Africa.”