IUPUI professor Scott Pegg was sitting in the hot Nigerian sun in June 2002, carrying a carved cane, wearing a traditional African shirt and two-sizes-too-small hat, preparing to be the first European ever to be awarded a chieftaincy in the Ogoni tribes.
Scott Pegg, at his chieftaincy ceremony in Nigeria in June, meets with Ogoni King Felix Sunday Bebor, G"Beredeela the seventh of Bodo City.
Pegg"s involvement in the Ogoni area started several years ago, when he met Owens Saro-Wiwa, who inspired him to join the Ogoni Solidarity Network as an activist.
Pegg"s first trip to Africa was in April of 2000, where he met the Rev. Moses Nyimale Lezor, director of the Bebor Nursery/Primary School in the village of Bodo. At the time, the school"s 200 students were meeting in a church, whose space they were quickly outgrowing. A donation from the Canadian Consulate General had helped them start a five-room school building, and the Rev. Lezor asked Pegg"s help in raising money to complete it.
Bodo is a subsistence-level village, with an average yearly income of $300. "There"s just no way they"re going to be able to pay $10,000 for a new building," Pegg said.
Pegg and his fiance, Tijen, decided to ask their wedding guests to forego gifts in favor of donations for the school. They hoped to raise $2,000; the response was so great that Pegg and Tijen formed the International Friends Committee to continue to raise funds. So far the undertaking has generated $16,000.
The Bebor school"s population is now 500 students, with another 10-room building near completion. Bebor is now the only school in Ogoni with its own buildings.
The fund-raising continues; the 10-room building remains to be completed, but scholarships and teacher salaries have been raised, and they have plans to expand the project to build schools in Saro-Wiwa"s home village of Bene.
Infrastructure is the main expense. Tuition for each student is only $8 per year. "To me, it"s one of the most amazing bargains on the face of the planet," observed Pegg.
"One of the questions we get a lot is whether or not the teachers are educated themselves," Tijen Pegg said. "And when we went this year, we found that their level is pretty sophisticated, much higher than we"d expected. The fourth grade students are doing fractions. It"s pretty striking that a rural Nigerian village can keep up with that level of sophistication."
In his travels to Nigeria, Pegg learned that one of the biggest obstacles to education is the extremely high level of corruption.
"People ask us, why are you doing this? Why isn"t the government helping?" Pegg said. "And in rural Nigeria, government as the source of building roads and building schools is nonexistent. The only contact with government is when a policeman is shaking them down for a bribe."
"The teachers at the secondary school are on strike because they haven"t been paid in so long," Tijen explained. "The government just doesn"t pay them."
With the corruption in mind, Pegg added he"s careful to make sure the money is being spent on the buildings and not corruption and bribery. He sees photographic proof of each improvement in the buildings before sending more funds, and he believes that seeing definitive progress encourages the donors.
Pegg said the project has attracted about 70 donors in all, mostly in $50-$150 increments.
The Rev. Lezor makes a point of creatively thanking donors; he comes up with new awards and names them for donors, such as the Best Behaved Pupil award. And it works. "There"s been a pretty high level of repeat donors," Pegg noted.
Pegg said all the money goes directly to the school, with the only expense being the exchange rate. Everything else, including travel, comes out of his pocket. "There is no office, no letter head, no cocktail luncheons."
The Peggs work as consultants and advisors to the project, not bosses. "One chief said, "We want to use the resources of the West, but we want to have an indigenous school that supports our culture,"" Pegg said. "And I think he was surprised when I said, "That"s exactly what I want.""
When the Peggs traveled to Bodo in June 2002, the Ogoni tribe honored Pegg for his efforts by awarding him the title of chief. He"s only the second person connected to the Bodo village to receive that honor in 50 years, and the first European ever. One thousand people turned out for the ceremony, which included Pegg being awarded a carved cane in the shape of a crocodile swallowing a rooster, a traditional shirt and hat, and, for reasons that were never entirely made clear, Fleetwood Mac music.
The council of Ogoni chieftains was present, as was Ogoni King Felix Sunday Bebor, G"Beredeela the seventh of Bodo City, who donated the initial land for the school buildings.
Pegg was dubbed Mene Edee the first of Bodo City. The "Chief of Light."
The outpouring of affection they"ve received caused the Peggs to wonder just how differently things might have gone if the oil companies had approached the people of Nigeria with a little more respect.
"It might have given them a different set of circumstances...[Oil company executives] tend to see themselves as superior people and the locals as impediments to getting the oil Ö If the oil companies had just opened up to them, they wouldn"t have thought the companies were out to destroy them or their lifestyle."