The first time 18-year-old Christian Asogwa used a desktop computer was last April when he sat for the Nigerian university entrance exams.
He spent the first several minutes of the two-hour exam, taken at a centre in the south-eastern state of Enugu, struggling to find his way around the screen.
Before he could settle down to answer the multiple choice questions, which required him to click with a mouse – he was stumped.
“They asked us to put our name and registration number and I didn’t know how to do it,” he said.
“I asked the person sitting beside me and she showed me where to press the capital letters and all that.”
Christian had known in advance that the exam would require him to use a computer, but his state-run school in the Enugu town of Ngwo had none.
His father is dead and his mother earns little selling baby items, so there was no-one he knew who could afford to buy him one for practice or to pay for private lessons.
He had resorted to learning from videos on YouTube but describes being nervous when eventually faced with the real thing.
When the results of the exam, known as Jamb (Joint Admission and Matriculation Board), were released days later, his score of 208 out of 400 was too poor to qualify him for admission to study his choice of law.
Christian is now one of about 240 candidates registered for next year’s Jamb who are undergoing free preparatory lessons, including how to use a computer, sponsored by a group of people who come from Ngwo but now live in different parts of the world. They call themselves the Ngwo Yellowpages.
“We found out that 70% of our 218 children who took Jamb failed,” said Alex Onyia, a member of the group and CEO of Educare, a company in Lagos that provides software to educational institutions and businesses.
“That means 70% of them are not getting into school [university] this year.”
Concerned about the possible impact on crime rates and the youths’ prospects, Mr Onyia organised about 12 volunteers, including their local senator, from the Ngwo Yellowpages WhatsApp group which is made up of more than 500 people.
“With my background in education, I knew that the best way to help people is from bottom up,” the 33-year-old said.
“The long-term plan is to revitalise the entire education system in our community. The short term plan is to get our children to pass Jamb.”
They employed teachers for the various Jamb subjects and secured a local youth centre as the venue.
They welcomed any interested candidate living in and around Ngwo. The intensive training sessions began in July, with morning classes for candidates like Christian who will be retaking Jamb, and evening sessions for those who are still in school.
After the first month, the students were taken to a nearby technical institute and given their first assessment during which they were required to sit in front of desktop computers and answer test questions as if they were in an actual Jamb exam, with Educare providing the software.
“We noticed something significant. A lot of people had never touched a computer before,” Mr Onyia said.
“You only saw a computer on the whiteboard, you’ve never touched a computer before and you’re writing Jamb? So we saw that there is a knowledge gap and also a technology gap. The failure was massive.”
A 2020 survey by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics showed that while more than 95% of Nigerian youth aged between 15 and 35 can surf the internet, just about 45% had basic word processing skills.
The Jamb exams were traditionally written on paper until 2012/13 when the Nigerian government switched to computer-based testing – to reduce the chances of malpractice including corruption from invigilators bribed to alter answers, to stop result sheets going missing or getting destroyed in transit and to reduce from months to about 72 hours the time it took to publish results.
Bosun Tijani, Nigeria’s new minister for communication, innovation and digital economy, published a blueprint in October that highlights a goal of increasing digital literacy in the country to 70% by 2027, including a focus on schools and teachers.
Many Nigerian schools offer ICT as a subject but do not have any or enough facilities.
Some photos on social media once went viral of a teacher in a government school in Ghana who, faced with the same challenge, improvised with detailed chalk diagrams of a Microsoft Word screen.
“Our teachers tell us that it is simple to use a computer, that once you get to the Jamb exam hall, you can just ask someone to show you how to use it and it is simple,” said 17-year-old Naomi Nkechinyere Mba, who also attends the free Jamb preparatory classes.
“They tell us that all we need to do is to focus on our books.”
Naomi will be taking the Jamb for the first time next April, but was nervous when she took her first assessment test at the training centre.
“I was palpitating. But the second time, I got used to it,” she said.
After each monthly assessment, the teachers identify which students were nervous or unfamiliar with the computer.
“We do a bit of computer appreciation for them to know how to use a mouse, how to use technology,” said Chimezie Aneke, the administrator of the programme. “It’s something they can learn in a few minutes.”
Mr Onyia has promised the students that he, Senator Osi Ngwu and the Ngwo YellowPages will sponsor all of those who score above 300 in the Jamb with full scholarships for the entire duration of whatever course they choose to study in any Nigerian public university.
He describes being pleased at seeing many of them now scoring higher in the monthly assessments.
His social media posts about the project have led to people from around Nigeria getting in touch with him for advice on how to replicate similar initiatives in their own communities.
“I know that we may not be passionate enough to help other villages, but if more people can support their own people collectively, we’ll definitely have a much better Nigeria,” Mr Onyia said.
The free lessons in Ngwo are scheduled to continue until shortly before the next Jamb, in April. Christian, who is now proficient with a desktop computer, is keen to retake the exam.
“I am very, very confident about next year’s Jamb,” he said.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a freelance Nigerian journalist and novelist based in Abuja.
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