Editor's note: Hamzat Lawal is an activist and currently the Co-Founder/Chief Executive of Connected Development [CODE]. He is working to build a growing grassroots movement of citizen-led actions through Follow The Money for better service delivery in rural communities. He shares his inspiring story below.
It was one of those rainy days in the London metropolis. A young African man, dressed in traditional regalia that distinctly looked Nigerian, was seen entering a chauffeur-driven car outside Park Avenue Belgravia in London.
He must be from a royal family, for he was too young to be a politician, I told myself. Perhaps, he was one of those children of the rich, powerful, corrupt Nigerian politicians. But, wait a second. This cannot be; the sleek car was marked Al-Jazeera. I became curious. This boy must be very important.
So, as if ferried by unseen wheels, I found myself gliding closer to the boy in the luxury car. I wanted to know more about him. Maybe, we could become friends. With some kind of magic, I vaporized and found myself right inside the car.
Then, I got the shock of my life. The young man in the car was me. Hamzat Lawal. Could this be happening? Unbelievable!
That was exactly how I felt the first time I was given VIP treatment during one of my international assignments. On that day, I had an interview session at Al-Jazeera, London office, and a chauffeur came to pick me. I still feel that way sometimes: A rather out-of-body experience at the pedestal that activism has placed me upon. Yes, I also feel blessed. But it is always as if I am watching my life play out before me.
Somebody might say it is because things are happening so fast for me. A young man in Nigeria, born without privileges and family connections, yet has found a voice and a spotlight to be a role model for other youths. Below 30, he is the Chief Executive of one of the most impactful non-profits in Nigeria, with a global recognition and acceptance. Surely, he must be giddy with glee.
But to me, it is all about fulfillment. I truly feel fulfilled, not because one is rich or powerful or influential, but just because with my passion and energy I have been able to influence change and impact people’s lives. I have been able to contribute my little quota in entrenching more informed policies and decision making; where people will have a voice and the government is able to look beyond its comfort zone to actually address developmental issues.
Activism is my life. In fact, I enjoy it when I am called an activist. But I am acutely conscious of the fact that being passionate and straightforward alone did not get me to where I am today. This article – and others that will follow – shall tell the whole story.
With the advantage of hindsight, I can say that my personality and natural proclivities were the foundation upon which my present career is built. But the trigger that set my life off into the future that is now unfolding before me, is my contact with a particular individual (and his organization) and a particular people (and their trauma).
Mr. Ewah Eleri, the Executive Director of International Centre for Energy, Environemnt & Development (ICEED), is a perfect gentle man. I met him at a time in my life when I was on transition from adolescence to adulthood, therefore the impression he had on me was as profound as it was paternal. Ewah, as he likes to be called, is a man of no contrived airs. He is highly cerebral and very simple at the same time. Being one of the pioneers of climate action in Nigeria, he played a central role in streamlining my exuberant energies towards development work.
I worked for ICEED as a rep serviceman from an IT firm, when I was just a back-packing “IT nerd”, full of youthful techie zeal. Looking back today, I could describe myself then as a novice, who was trying to build a career in the evolving information and communications technologies sector – computer hardware, software and related stuff.
Three years down the lane, when I was already developing itchy feet to broaden my professional horizon once again, Ewah discovered me.
He called me one fateful day and said, “Young man, do you like the work you are doing? If I give you an opportunity would you like to work with me?” I noted that he said “work with me” instead of “work for me”.
He gave me a very attractive offer as the IT specialist for ICEED. My job was to ensure that their systems were secured from external incursions, viruses and malware. I took the job.
Six months later, Ewah noticed that I was bored. Apparently, he perceived that there was a vacuum somewhere; as my personality never allowed me stay on one routine for too long. So, on this particular day, he came to my desk and wrote in front of me www.unfccc.int and said, “Hamzy! (he was the first person to call me that), go to this website and read about climate change. This site will help you get all the information you need about climate change. It will enable you understand the kind of work we do here and why we do what we do.”
I took my boss seriously. At that time my work just required technical tasks; I did not have capacity on organizational agendas and processes. I visited the UNFCCC website. I did a lot of research. I read and downloaded so many PDF documents. I read about all the meetings surrounding the Kyoto Protocol, and Rio Conference of I992. I went through the COPs and their resolutions; and the countries that signed on to them.
Then I got really interested. Something deep inside me came alive as I read those documents. I could not explain the feeling, but it was as if I was in my zone!
I joined Google groups because there were several of them, including youth-based ones involved in different activities. As I started getting e-mails about different activities and campaigns; I then joined a lot of campaigners and activists online. These were people who were carrying out action on national, regional and international levels calling on world leaders to take action.
This situation effectively took me back to my Boys Scout days in primary and secondary schools where I was actively involved in frontline environmental awareness and grassroots campaigns. I suddenly amassed a deep community consciousness, building on my last tasks as a Boy Scout troop leader in my Senior Secondary School days.
In 2012, something struck me concerning the lead poisoning that took place in Zamfara state two years earlier. I suddenly realized that nobody was talking about the disaster and the people affected after the fatal incident happened, killing more than 400 Nigerian children. There was no information and no details about present development. I then stumbled on the group Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontiers) from whom I inquired briefing on the matter.
The MSF made me understand that a community called Bagega existed in Zamfara with about 1500 children still affected. They let me know that the government was not doing much about alleviating the suffering of the communities who were suffering from the impacts of artisanal mining. They told me that the money that was allocated for the required intervention in the villages was looted by corrupt politicians and public officers.
I then felt an imperative to get first hand information; so I informed MSF that I wanted to visit Bagega.
This was how I made my first trip to Zamfara, guided by MSF. After a journey of over fourteen hours I arrived Bagega and some other impacted communities, where I witnessed the suffering of children firsthand. I saw toddlers convulsing in care centers. I saw the misery in the eyes of mothers. I felt the helplessness of health workers as they struggled with scarce resources.
I recorded voices and took pictures of the visit, and the more I went through my notes the more something deep inside me came alive. A new energy was birthed in me. As the African would say, sleep left my eyes for good. I could not think of any other thing but how to help these Zamfara children.
When I came back to my desk at ICEED, I could not fully concentrate on my work anymore. The visions and sounds of Bagega kept playing in my mind like a broken record from a horror movie sound track.
To be continued....
Mr Lawal tweets via @HamzyCODE
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