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School of Hope

School of Hope
By France Griggs Sloat

The River Niger flows by the village of Agenebode in west Nigeria. It’s quiet here, and Sister Fidelia Nnenna Chukwu likes to stand at the entrance of the Father Piotin School, where she is the principal, and watch the water flow past. It brings her peace, especially on days when the frustrations of her job overwhelm her. “Nature is at its best here,” she says.

Unfortunately, it is the peacefulness of the geography that’s the source of her troubles. There is no road through the town and no bridge to the other side. Its residents must get there by boat, and as a result there is no development and no real economy. Though she exudes courage, optimism and hope, she admits that since returning to the school after two years at Xavier earning a master’s degree in educational administration, she’s found only frustration.

Every day, she walks across the dusty courtyard of packed orange dirt, puts on her faithful smile and welcomes the 500 children in their bright blue uniforms to the school —a long, low unfinished cement building with no windows, doors and, in many places, roof. There is no bathroom, just an outhouse with corrugated tin doors and no running water.

“It is sad to look at the environment where teaching and learning take place,” she says. “There’s no protection, no security. My office is mobile—I carry things back and forth. I have the desire to practice all that I have learned, but only God can make it real. I don’t know where to begin.”

Fidelia was the first to attend Xavier from her order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., agreed to sponsor the sisters from Nigeria who wanted to earn their master’s degrees and return to improve the schools back home.

Fidelia was at Xavier two years, but she became a fixture with her bright Nigerian clothing and her penchant for bursting into song. “She was just like an ambassador of God here,” says John Cooper, director for graduate services.

The opportunity to put her new-found knowledge to work occurred as soon as she resumed leadership of the school, started in 1991 by the village grandmothers. But she still has to deal with the everyday things that drain her emotionally.

“I feel so bad when the kids come around to ask me for drinking water and I have nothing to offer. As soon as I am able to purchase a car, I can bring in some water for them to drink.”

She’s trying to start a capital campaign for structural improvements—water tanks, roofs, doors, windows—and a daily meal. She imagines a celebration on the school grounds near the peaceful River Niger.

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