Opinion

Inside the culture of shipping black British boys to boarding school in Africa

For many black British boys, being sent to their parents’ home countries to finish their schooling is more than just an empty threat. Ruth Fajemirokun speaks to some men who have come out the other side, to get an inside perspective on how it can affect them

Picture this. You wake up alone, in the clammy heat of the tropics. Far away from the harsh British winds and the neverending raindrops so familiar to you. Sounds like the start of a much-needed holiday right? But you’d be wrong. You search around for something, anything recognisable to you, to home. But there’s nothing. You’re alone, almost as though you’ve been shipwrecked. The suddenness of it all is a tough adjustment for anyone, a last resort tactic that can break hearts and spirits.

That’s the reality for many black British teenagers, more often boys, who are sent to their parents’ African motherlands – maybe Nigeria or Ghana – to study in boarding schools scattered across the continent. It’s a phenomenon that has become so common within the community that the Association of Private Educators in Nigeria (APEN), held an exhibition in London last year with 25 schools called the ‘Top Nigerian Private Secondary Schools UK Education Fair 2016’.

“I felt betrayed to an extent, but maturity helped me realise the situation was my own doing due to my behaviour,” Ladipo, a 25-year-old from east London tells me. “But part of me held hope I’d come back home soon.”

Those scattered emotions Ladipo felt are part and parcel of puberty, as hormones course through the body and teens try to find their feet, straddling the fence between boyhood in the periphery and adulthood distantly ahead. Those treacherous times come with bad attitudes and often a slump in grades, something few self-respecting African parents could ever tolerate. Children are for bragging about and changing the Sky remote, not talking back and acting up. Some lads even have the temerity to join gangs, and this is when the warnings begin.

Kids will hear loud booming sentences like, “Pull up your socks or I will send you back to Nigeria before you can say Jack Robinson.” But these threats often fall on deaf ears.

“My mum always used to say she was gonna send me to Naij [Nigeria] if I didn’t start getting As in school,” David, 27, explains. “I thought it was all lip service to be honest, ‘til I went there for my granddad’s 70th birthday and I got left there and everyone else came back to London.” This ploy of leaving the teen and returning home is one that’s used commonly, and the effects can be devastating.

Dr Julie Scheiner, a leading child psychologist, tells me: “Being left would leave a child or teenager in a total state of shock. Everything known to them would have been taken away. It could be extremely traumatising, having the people you trust the most leave you.”

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For many young Black British boys, being sent away to Africa is a punishment for ‘bad bahaviour’

But that’s just one layer of the anguish oscillating on the inside. Some of these kids suffer a kind of reverse fresh off the boat condition, where the socialisation they experienced in the UK is so ingrained that they initially have a difficult time assimilating into the country. A country with various languages and accents too, which could throw off even those with the thickest of skins. A country enriched with vastly different cultural norms, even between tribes, something Ladipo found difficult when he first started his Nigerian boarding school experience. 

“The adjustment to the seniority culture was something I wasn’t expecting,” he says. “Anyone senior to you in Nigeria is deemed with respect and they can literally send you to do menial tasks. That was new for me, especially in a school environment.”

The cultural whiplash facing these boys can seriously affect them. Displacement like the type these young men go through can dredge up questions of identity, or the lack of it. It forces them to ask themselves tough questions like, who am I? How do I survive in this new environment? Where do I conform and where do I stay the same? And they’re questions these boys are often forced to answer before they are really ready. But how come some adjust to the situation and make the most out of it, while others don’t recover from the initial feelings of being misled, deceived and abandoned?

“That’s the oldest psychology question ever. Nature/nurture, what we inherited from our parents versus what we learnt and soaked up from everything around us,” says Dr Scheiner. “Some of these kids will use this experience to better themselves and go on to excel, why that is, is case dependent.”

David reiterates this, telling me: “My experience in Nigeria definitely shaped me. It helped enforce self-discipline I already had. Being responsible for washing and ironing my clothes weekly and having to study by myself to adjust to the Nigerian academic system [helped me] develop the life skills I needed to do well in my A-Levels and at university.”

Britain’s favourite boxer - and now world heavyweight champion - Anthony Joshua, had similar things to say when speaking earlier this year before his fight with Wladimir Klitschko. “I thought I was going there [Nigeria] on holiday,” he recounts. “I wasn’t prepared for it. At the time you think ‘why?’, but as you get older you think it was good that you experienced it. It was good for me. It was a change, 5.30 in the morning, up [to] fetch your water, put like an iron in your water to warm it up. Your clothes had to be washed and ironed. It wasn’t an issue but I wasn’t prepared. [But] it was good discipline [for me].”

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World boxing champion Anthony Joshua was sent to Nigeria for school when he was younger

On the other end of the spectrum are the boys who don’t benefit from the almost military-style, disciplinarian nature of the Nigerian secondary education system. Kids in today’s digital age are, in many instances, less resilient than the older generation. African baby boomers often fail to see or understand that. The blind belief that how they were raised and taught,“never did them any harm”, and will work equally well for their children is flawed at the very least. By neglecting to use nuanced teaching methods, boys who simply don’t respond to that strict learning style fall between the cracks.

“I got beaten while I was in school in Portharcourt. From teachers and from older students,” 23- year-old Arinze tells me. “I even got held back a year as I didn’t do well in my exams. It just made me angry to be honest with you, so when I finally came back to London, I let out that anger on my family and anyone I felt was disrespecting me.”

The task of deciding whether your son should school abroad is not one to take lightly, Ladipo admits. “It’s not guinea pig experiment, every person is different. I’ve heard stories of kids returning from Nigeria and becoming worse, as there’s the belief that it can’t get any worse from there on. Parents need to assess their child’s character to determine if it would be beneficial.”

Some parents just don’t do their due diligence there, but the decision is almost always one made out of love and a desire for their sons and daughters to become their best selves. Speaking to Elizabeth, a mother from south London, cemented for me. “I just know what my son is capable of and seeing him not reaching his potential is painful to see,” she says. “I’ve toyed with the idea of sending him to school in Ghana for about 18 months now. I really just want him to be the best he can be.”

It’s a tough one for all involved. There’s no book teaching you how to be an ace parent or a YouTube channel about being the perfect child. It’s important though, wherever you kids go to school, to keep the line of communication open at all times, in both directions. Puberty will pass, facial hair will grow and as the boy turns to a man, the values instilled at home and at school will rise to the top.

*Some of the names in this article have been changed by request.

(Illustration: Joe Waldron/all other images: Rex Features)