ILORIN, Nigeria (Reuters) – Shade Ajayi had never set foot in a classroom until middle age. Now 50, the businesswoman is happily learning to read and write alongside students nearly four decades younger than her.
Donning the pink dress and bonnet that make up her uniform, she joins hundreds of similarly dressed pupils at a school in Ilorin, in Nigeria’s western Kwara state.
“I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform,” she said.
As a child, she worked in her aunt’s shop instead of attending school. She now runs her own business making and selling purses and bags, but believes her inability to read or write is holding her back.
Ajayi signed up to attend school in the last academic year, only for it to close due to the coronavirus pandemic. But schools reopened in January and Ajayi finally got her chance.
Sitting at a wooden desk, surrounded by pupils aged 11 to 13, she politely raises her hand to answer questions.
Ajayi’s teacher, Nasrat Busari, said the mature student appeared completely undeterred by the age gap.
“She has been coping well with them: playing together, talking together and discussing things together,” he said.
It has been hard to juggle school and work, and deal with the stigma. Her daughter, Shola Adeboye, said she was initially embarrassed that her mother attended school alongside children, but later came around.
“She has always wanted to be educated but she couldn’t (until now),” Adeboye said sympathetically.
Ajayi still makes bags and purses after finishing classes at 4pm, and an apprentice serves her customers during school hours.
She intends to continue her education for four more years, saying it will help her business.
“People around me can read and write and they are succeeding in their businesses,” said Ajayi.
And of those who might ridicule her efforts, she said: “It’s my duty not to pay attention to what they’re saying.”
(Reporting by Seun Sanni. Additional reporting by Temilade Adelaja; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Libby George and Gareth Jones)