Celebrating a rare Nigerian jewel
By Betty Abah
If today the world comes to a sudden, screeching end and is rolled over as a worn-out scroll, the likes of Dame (Dr) Christie Toby educationist, administrator, church leader and philanthropist extraordinaire, would make heaven owing to their sheer good deeds. But in contrast, many Nigerian journalists wouldn’t. Rather, I imagine them beaten into a long line, trembling and awaiting their sledgehammer judgement from a stern-looking God in the hereafter. Their offence: their gross failure to highlight or celebrate impact-making and accomplished Nigerian women in preference for politicians, villains in borrowed heroes’ robes.
How could you know the story of, for instance, Onyema (not real name), an SS 2 student of the Christie Toby Inclusive School in Iriebe, Rivers State and not cry? How could a boy so brilliant and so promising end up totally blind at only age 12? How worse can a health system get in a country? Yet, amidst the questions, Christie Toby gave him hope.
One day in September 2012, Onyema came down with symptoms of malaria. At the hospital in Port Harcourt where his parents took him to, the family physician wasted no time in dispensing Fansidar, the ubiquitous malaria drug, which was later suspected to be expired. And that was how his ordeal began. A few days later, his skin turned scaly white and he fell into a coma for a week. When he came to, his upper and lower eyelids were glued together and wouldn’t open. Opticians in Port Harcourt and Lagos trying to ‘operate’ on his eyes to force it open did more harm. He developed a fungus infection in the eyes. A paediatrician in Port Harcourt, in the light of his seemingly hopeless case, asked the boy’s distressed father to ‘take him home’ as according to her, his vital organs must have by then been compromised, even without her cross-checking. By the time he was taken to India several weeks later as a last resort, the teenage boy had lost his sight. Amidst the despondency, the Christie Toby Inclusive School came to his rescue. He was admitted into the school and in no time got back his academic and bubbly bearings back. Today, an upbeat Onyema is quite articulate about his future dreams. Besides playing several musical instruments in the school band, especially the trumpet, Onyema now 16, came tops in the Junior WAEC and Junior NECO in 2015 with 14 Distinctions!
‘I want to be a lawyer so that I can fight the widespread injustice and right the dysfunctionalities in our system,’ says Onyema. ‘If our system were working, this would never have happened to me,’ he told this writer in the school vicinity recently, a broad smile on his light-complexioned, cherubic face shaded by dark goggles.
Yet Onyema is just one of the several beneficiaries of the school established in 2008 by Mrs. Toby, a retired teacher and top-notch career civil servant, to cater for students with disabilities. In fact, another blind student first scored seven A’s in her West African Examinations Council (WAEC) exams and her results had to be thoroughly scrutinized by WAEC before being eventually released. The unique thing about the school is in its inclusiveness. Rather than put up a school for ‘deaf and dumb’ or blind children exclusively, thereby reinforcing the pervasive sense of discrimination and segregation, she established one which is a mix of regular students and those with special needs such as hearing, sight and physical impairment and slow learners. The school is one of only two in Nigeria and the only privately run institution of its type in the country. And this far the experiment has worked perfectly well in ensuring a seamless mix of the school children, whether impaired or not. It has reduced discrimination, enforced cohesiveness among them, and most notably, regular students go away skilled in sign language proficiency (with which they communicate with those with hearing and speech impairment while in school) and even Braille. Many children whose parents would have shoved away to a corner of their houses owing to the stigma attached to their disabilities, have now found hope, indeed a new life through the magnanimity of one woman.
Many of the special-needs students, drawn from several states in the country, are also on the school’s scholarship so that their parents’ financial incapacity would not cripple or blur their life’s dreams.
In the view of Dame (Dr) Toby, setting up the inclusive special education school was an investment in humanity, a gesture of love for society’s rejects. “I believe in the saying that in Africa, there is no idiot. Some may be slow learners. No doubt, we should give them a chance by giving them the right environment. Through this, we will get them there.”
Yet the Christie Toby Inclusive Educational Centre (comprising nursery, primary and secondary school section) is just one of the six schools across Rivers State run by Mrs. Toby, who is known to generations of students, especially girls in Rivers State, as the ‘articulate and strict teacher/principal’.
The others are ABEC Secondary School (full boarding), ABEC Day Secondary School, ABEC Nursery and Primary School, Archdeacon Brown Advanced Level Centre (ABALC), Mary Virginia Nursery and Primary School, all through whom Mrs. Toby provides ‘quality and affordable’ education in a country whose education sector remains bedevilled by general inefficiency and mass failures. As a testimony to the quality of education dispensed in the ABEC schools, their alumni have continued to shine brightly across the global skies. For instance, Ebuka Okwuokonye, a 2009 graduate of ABEC Secondary School is a widely-sought, high profile software development expert who has developed prodiguous software for leading Nigerian institutions including the Bank of Industry, Covenant University, SAHCOL, Elizade Toyota and Diamond Bank.
A thoroughbred teacher, Rivers State-born Dame (Dr) Toby, 75, is reputedly one of the first women in the South-South to obtain a P.hD. in Education. The Ph.D which she obtained from the University of Port Harcourt in 1990 was preceded by a Masters degree in Education from the University of Bath in Britain in 1982, a first degree from the University College, Cardiff in 1978 and National Certificate in Education (NCE) from the Rivers State College of Education in 1975.
A woman committed to fine details, she left huge legacies as a teacher in several schools across Rivers State, starting in 1963 at age 22. Owing to sheer hard work, she climbed the ladder to the position of principal. Indeed, she is well known in the region for her feats as principal of St. Scholastica Girls’ High School, Bakana, Rivers State between 1979 to 1981.
To her credit, she not only succeeded in restoring the dignity of the school which lay in physical and reputational ruin, she re-affirmed its status as an all-girl school, enforcing the removal of the male students amidst fierce opposition. Also as principal of the Holy Rosary Secondary School in Port Harcourt (1982 to 1988), she left behind the same legacy of enforcing high standards, innovative administration and discipline. Thus, after retirement form the Rivers State Civil Service as a director and still burning with the zeal to keep nurturing children, she decided to embark on the journey of running her own schools, not only to continue in the tradition of excellence, but to also realise more of the personal innovativeness she typically weaves into her work with schools but which were sometimes stifled by official bureaucracies.
Dr. (Mrs) Christie Toby’s legacy however is incomplete without a citing of her profound philanthropy. From driving to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps across Rivers State and the South East, distributing relief materials during the Civil War as a young woman and a social worker with the World Council of Churches, to providing scholarships to hundreds of indigent students, or supporting young clergymen and assisting widows, Dame Toby, a knight of the Anglican Church has touched uncountable lives and noiselessly so in the last six decades plus.
Regarded as the Mother Teresa of Opobo Town, the grandmother of eight has supported countless persons from inside and outside of her hometown, notably widows, and indigent and childless women. She even founded a philanthropic and social club, the Opubo Bibi Mu Ere Ogbo, to fend for her women. Through these, she has built houses for some, given accommodation to others, or even employment to scores of women and their family members.
Timothy, 35, a young Opobo man rates Mrs Toby as second after God on his reverential scale. How did his path cross with that of this great woman? One day in 2004, as wife of the then deputy governor of Rivers State, Mrs Toby was going home for her mother’s burial. While at the bank of their riverine Opobo Town, she needed porters to carry her loads to her family house. A teenage boy showed up and offered to help in exchange for a few Naira notes. Mrs Toby obliged but afterwards asked why the youngster was at the riverside and not in school at that hour. He reeled out his problems. He was the sixth child of his mother. His father, a Benue man living in Opobo, had sired six of them. After some time, he took his older five siblings and left off to his farmland and new concubine in Benue, leaving behind Timothy and his sick mother. Typically, Dame came to his rescue, sponsoring his education from that point, J.S.S. One, to the university (Rivers State University of Science and Technology) where he read Mass Communications. After graduation while waiting for his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Mrs. Toby again came in, buying him a commercial tricycle so he could sustain himself and his mother.
A knight of the Anglican Church, alongside her husband, Alabo (Sir) Dr Gabriel Toby, former Deputy Governor of Rivers State, and a leading light from Opobo Kingdom , has served as Lay Secretary Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) for the past twelve years), having served as a lay preacher for several years. Dame Toby is among others, a member of the Diocesan Board of the Niger Delta She and a life member of the Bible Society of Nigeria. In 2012, a perennially inventive Dame Toby teamed up with fellow women at the St. Cyprian’s Church (Niger Delta PH Diocese) in Port Harcourt to start the Baby Moses Foundation of Women Group Six (whose leader she is), establishing a home to carter for babies born by stranded young women.
Until recently, she was also the Chief Commissioner (national head) of the Nigerian Girl Guide Association of Nigeria (NGGA), an association which she led to unprecedented height, inspiring, training and empowering thousands across Nigeria, and for which she has continued to be a vibrant part, and to which she currently serves as National Adviser. She is also a past head of several other bodies within and outside Rivers State, where she served meritoriously.
Known for her administrative acumen, Dame has a well-known knack for reviving moribund institutions. Just as she did for her former public schools where she presided, she also, as Sole Administrator of Delta Hotels Limited (a chain of 14 government-owned guest houses and guest houses including Olympia hotel and Airport Hotel), successfully breathed life into it between 1995 and 1999, turning around the run-down conglomerate into sparkling and highly functional company. She simply turns dusts into gold anywhere she goes. It was no surprising that the Nigeria Institute of Management made her a Chris Abebe Awardee in 2003 in recognition of her administrative acumen. A Fellow of the Nigeria Institute of Management (FNIM), she is a former National Vice President and current council member of the Institute.
Her husband of 51 years, (Sir) Dr. Gabriel Toby), remains a strong pillar of support for her, being himself a staunch politician, leader in the Anglican and Rotary club of Nigeria and a well-respected elder statesman.
Even at nearly 76, Mrs Toby continues to carry herself with poise, agility and unmistaken amiability. She also continues to oversee her six schools, relating warmly with staff and student in a bursting simultaneous blend of vivacity, strictness and sheer acumen; a strict direction here, a hug here, a pat on the back, all within a few minutes.
‘We don’t call her MD or boss; we all know her as ‘Mummy’, said a smiling Mr. Mbaka Ngwiate, registrar of the ABEC Group of Schools.
Mother to another amazon, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, former Commissioner for Information and Communications in Rivers State and immediate past Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), an award-winning journalist and publisher (the first female in Nigeria to win the CNN African Journalist Award, an Alfred Friendly Fellow among several awards). Mrs. Semenitari is currently Executive Director of the ABEC Group of Schools.
Why has Dame (Dr) Christie Adata Toby remained largely uncelebrated especially outside the Niger Delta despite her elephantine accomplishments in several spheres of life, and more recently in the area of inclusive education in Nigeria? Is a National Honour too much for this unique gift to the nation and to humanity?
‘I think she is under-celebrated, in view of her huge accomplishments in her stewardship as a civil servant and in other areas’ said Mrs. Semenitari. ‘And that is basically because of the type of persons my parents; are, not wanting to blow their own trumpets.’
But she also blames the shortsightedness of the media. ‘Another thing is that the media is largely based in Lagos, and most times they don’t look beyond their noses, thus persons who have done amazing things are just not given due recognition.’
If these accomplishments, these impacts don’t count, then I don’t know what else should. So, while our journalists jostle for vintage shots of those who steal our country bat-blind whilst many others toil day and night serving humanity, unnoticed, I hold up Dame Christie Adata Toby this day as my heroine even as the world celebrates women in this month of March.
Abah is a journalist and child’s rights advocate
Dame Christie Toby