‘Education is so important’ – England and Saracens star Maro Itoje looks to Africa
Maro Itoje says education can free youngsters from a “cycle of poverty” as he invests his own money in an initiative designed to help schoolchildren in Nigeria.
The England and Saracens forward, who was born in London but has Nigerian parents, initially hopes to transform the lives of 40 pupils in Lagos, supporting them as they progress through school and college.
“Education is so important because it gives people opportunities, it gives people the ability to create their own destiny,” Itoje told the BBC World Service.
“Without education, people are often handcuffed to the whims of society, but with education you have the ability to make the life you want for yourself.”
Itoje’s project is called the Pearl Fund and financial support will also come from donations and corporate partnerships.
The scheme will focus on ensuring orphans, fatherless children and those living in poverty complete primary and secondary education.
With the World Bank estimating that up to 40% of Nigeria’s population live below the poverty line and with more than 10 million children not attending school, the 28-year-old Itoje says there is a “great need” for the kind of backing him plans to provide.
“The Pearl Fund is an academic scholarship which is looking to take young disadvantaged Nigerian children on that journey of academia,” he said.
“We’re going to support them from the start of primary school and throughout their academic life.
“More than likely, without this kind of support from either individuals or NGOs (non-governmental organisations), these people would just continue to be in the cycle of poverty.”
Itoje, who has 67 caps for England and six for the British and Irish Lions, won a scholarship of his own to study at the prestigious Harrow school.
He is already planning to expand his project within Nigeria and beyond.
“We’re starting in the Badagry region on the outskirts of Lagos,” he said. “We are also looking to have an additional program in Delta, which would be a university scholarship programme.
“And with our partners World Vision (a UK charity focused on alleviating child poverty) we hope to operate in Ghana.”
Although he was born and educated in England, Itoje says his upbringing was very Nigerian.
“I can’t separate that from who I am. It’s shaped my worldview and influenced my thoughts and behaviors,” Itoje said.
“It’s created the man I am today.”
Itoje urges England to capitalize
When it comes to activities on the pitch, Itoje won his fifth Premiership title with Saracens in May and will shortly turn his attention to the World Cup which begins in France in September.
Head coach Steve Borthwick, who replaced the sacked Eddie Jones in December, is the man tasked with following up the England team’s run to the final four years ago in Japan.
“I’m extremely excited,” Itoje said. “We have a new coaching staff and these World Cup pre-seasons are great because it gives us time together as a team which we wouldn’t normally have.
“It gives us time to build and gel, and World Cups don’t come around very often so we need to make the most of them when they do.”