They are a small group of dedicated women determined to make a difference where they live. Interestingly, these foreigners were driven by a common passion – love, to form the Gatan Marayu Foundation (GMF) in 2008.
Based in Kano, GMF has four founding members: Maryana Fadlallah (Lebanese) and Ina Zein (German) were both born in Kano; Anjali Hathiramani (Indian) and Rasha Ghadda (Lebanese) moved to Nigeria in early 2000. In this interview, they share their thoughts on the challenges widows and orphans face in society.
Daily Trust: What was your first impression when you came to Nigeria?
First impressions on arriving Kano include the overwhelming poverty, the low-income rates of the masses, poor infrastructure and low standard of education. Basic needs like running water, electricity, decent health care and proper education are luxuries for the privileged few.
This is why GMF focuses on the education of orphans in private schools and empowerment of women as we envision a nation with every citizen living a decent, modern life, good health care and an equal chance to good education.
DT: Has your perception changed?
There definitely are traces of growth and development in Kano, which is encouraging. Working with young people who are fighting for an education is probably the best indicator that the youth have the zeal and zest to move this country forward – all they need is a chance at good education and opportunities.
DT: What was the most shocking thing?
Shocking to us here in Kano were and sometimes still are the overcrowded residential areas due to the large sizes of families, dilapidated homes, dirty streets, open gutters, high illiteracy rates, the high number of polio victims and, most shocking of all: the general acceptance of this situation.
DT: Interestingly, you all settled in Kano, why?
We believe this is a divine purpose – Allah’s will. Also, our husbands work and live here in Kano.
DT: You are all foreigners, how and why did you become humanitarian workers in Kano, Nigeria?
All religions teach us, humans, to care for and help the needy and be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. When you see so much suffering and hardship around you, it is only natural to want to reach out and help. As women and mothers, we feel a universal bond to all mothers around the world who share the same experience of pregnancy, childbirth and the challenges of raising children. This common bond unites us and prompted us in 2008 to help make this an experience of gratification for mothers of all social backgrounds. We are grateful to be able to “payback” to the country we live and work in, the country that feeds us all.
DT: Tell us how the name ‘Gatan Marayu’ came about?
‘Gatan Marayu’ means “shield of orphans” in Hausa – a name befitting our goals and intentions. Gatan Marayu Charity Foundation Nigeria was founded by four women in late 2008 who aimed at making a difference in the lives of underprivileged individuals, especially orphans and widows.
DT: Do you all speak Hausa or any other Nigerian language?
One of our members was born and brought up in Kano and speaks Hausa fluently; other members are attempting to learn the native language. From experience, we know though, that language is not a barrier when it comes to the understanding of people’s suffering. Nevertheless, we have built a reliable network of local community helpers who are always happy to translate if needed.
DT: What have been the challenges so far?
Our number one challenge remains the funding for our projects.
DT: What success story are you all proud of the most?
As we grow, learn and expand, we are reaching a point where we want to move away from emotions like ‘pride’ in our work. Each one of us is silently and humbly grateful for the work we are able to do. We see ourselves as tools in the greater picture of human development and growth.
However, looking back, a beautiful story was when a disabled widow and mother of five received scholarships for all her children, a tricycle and capital to open a small business of selling eggs. Today, she is financially independent and says that she prays that all her children will be successful and help orphans when they grow up.
In 2009, a widow with five children approached Gatan Marayu Foundation for help. The Foundation offered all five children scholarships and empowered the mother by giving her capital to start a business. Four years later, the mother died leaving her children with an uncle. The mother’s loss affected their performance in school. Gatan Marayu intervened with moral as well as financial support. Ten years later, in 2019, the two older boys requested our help to start their own business. With the financial resources and proper guidance by GMF as well as the hard work of the boys, they managed to start and maintain a successful business which led to opening a bank account to safeguard their profit.
Lastly, in the early days, GMF helped an elderly woman with educational scholarships for her 3 grandchildren (two siblings and a cousin) The tragic death of three members of her family was not an easy thing for a frail old woman to bear. Throughout the years, life was a struggle for this ageing grandmother. Her only support was her eldest son, a businessman with his own family to fend for. For years, the son stretched his earning to help his mother. In late 2018, the grandmother came to us with the devastating news that her eldest son had been killed whilst on a business trip. By the grace of God, we have been able to put his children back into school and have helped the new widow with capital for a business who now looks after her mother-in-law.
DT: Which story do you regret?
Our biggest regret of the many years gone by isn’t having the funds available to have had a much bigger impact in Kano. Hard work, dedication and skill are important, but not the only attributes needed for impacting a community at large. From regret, we move to response and action and make this our target for 2020 and beyond!
Another feeling of sincere regret accompanies the inevitable cases where individuals have passed away. They are many – sadly- and we are left behind feeling that we should have done and spent more, cared more, intervened earlier, made the last weeks and days more comfortable…. the last day on earth is unknown to everyone and this certainty is gradually sharpening and exhilarating our responses now.
There is this case of an old widow living on her own with no children and no family in town. She had repeatedly asked us for a standing fan to help her cope with the unbearable heat in her room and we did not act upon her wish for months for various reasons. The day our organisation finally bought the fan was the day she was taken to a hospital and she died three days later – while the fan was charging but never to be used by her.
DT: Has any of the students you have trained graduated and how are they faring now?
All GMF students who graduate from high school (SS3) are given the chance to apply for tertiary institutions on a GMF scholarship and many have done so. We have 38 students presently in colleges and universities on a GMF scholarship.
Up to date, 12 GMF students have graduated from colleges and universities in the following areas: Agriculture, Civil Engineering, Computer engineering, Business administration, Computer Science, Economics, English and Social Studies, Igbo language (NCE program) and Nursing.
Their greatest challenge is to find work after they have graduated from college/university and we are witnessing how many of these students have downgraded massively to less-challenging jobs just to earn a living.
DT: The issue of funding is always a major challenge, how have you overcome this?
GMF is transitioning from receiving funds through personal philanthropists into applying for grants from national and international companies with corporate social responsibilities. It is an exciting new step for us and will help us overcome the challenges of funding our projects. We are a charity that invests every last kobo into the cause.
DT: Being an all-women organisation, what in your opinion is the role of women in humanitarian situations and what have you observed about women as victims of humanitarian disasters, and as actors in the response?
From our experience, we know that if you empower a woman, you empower the entire family.
We are a group of women who work primarily on the empowerment of women and their children via education. It is our job to lift these families and help them to progress in life. Being women ourselves, it is in many ways easier to empathise with them and understand the challenges they face. Living in Kano and interacting with women from different socio-economic groups in good times and bad has given us a real insight into the behaviour of women: women will always choose to fend and fight for their families, look after relatives and neighbours, speak out for justice and endure hardship and trials.
A young, unskilled mother with many children losing her husband and only breadwinner of the family; a grandmother dealing with the grief of losing her child and left to care for the orphans left behind; an internally displaced (female) person (IDP) who has lost her home and husband to violent insurgencies; all these women are warriors; silent heroines of stories they didn’t write, choices they didn’t make, and they deserve a chance to a better future.
DT: How do humanitarian organisations develop a shared understanding of the local context, in this case: political, civilian, religiously and culturally?
To gain an understanding of the local context, one has to personally meet and connect with the beneficiaries who are being targeted. It can’t be done from an office desk; there has to be an authentic liaison with the group of beneficiaries. As foreigners, there are some things which initially we couldn’t understand. With time and increased interactions, we have learnt to appreciate the differences in culture and religion and assimilate them into our operations and programs.