Lagos, Nigeria – Blessing was nine years old when she stopped going to school nearly eight years ago. Her family simply couldn’t afford it.
“I was just at home doing nothing ” Blessing, now 16 years old, recalls.
It wasn’t until she met Seyi Oluyole three years later that finishing school in Nigeria seemed possible.
“Aunty Seyi helped me to return to school,” she says smiling.
Oluyole, a choreographer and scriptwriter in Nigeria’s commercial city of Lagos, started the Dream Catchers dance group in late 2014 to help street kids and those from low-income families get an education.
The idea was dreamed up 10 years earlier when Oluyole’s family moved to a slum in the Ebute-Metta neighbourhood of Lagos after her father lost his job as a banker.
When planning a worship night at her church, the now-27-year-old realised how much the kids loved to dance. But many of those wishing to be part of the dance group weren’t in school, and Oluyole knew she needed to help.
About 10.5 million children, aged five to 14 years old, are not in school in Nigeria, according to the UN children agency, UNICEF. Only 61 percent of children aged six to 11 “regularly attend” primary school, the agency said.
Although basic education (primary and junior secondary) is free and compulsory, lack of adequate funding from the government has made public schools unattractive to many parents.
Many children whose families cannot afford private schools stay at home or find ways to make money on the streets.
According to UNICEF, nearly half of all children aged five to 14 – about 21 million – in Nigeria are involved in child labour, and the number is highest among the youngest children.
Recognising the need, Oluyole says she started requiring that children attend school in order to be in the church’s dance performance.
The dance group continued in an informal capacity for eight years before Oluyole left for university, but she would continue practising with the children during her holidays. In 2012, she left for the United States in hopes of pursuing her master’s degree.
Two years later, she returned to Nigeria and eventually started the dance classes again, this time in a more formal way.
“It wasn’t really an easy choice and I had people who didn’t think it was a great idea,” she says.
Twenty kids came to the first class, and that’s when the Dream Catchers group officially began.
“We are not chasing any dream, it is possible to chase a dream and not catch it. What I see is that there is a dream we have and the goal is to actually catch it and make so many things come true,” Oluyole says.
In February 2015, she got a script-writing job on the Nigerian soap opera Tinsel. When she received her first paycheque a month later, she immediately went to a private school and enrolled one of the Dream Catchers 10-year-old dancers, but she doing so for other dancers proved to be hard without the needed monetary support.
That’s when she turned to recording the dancers, which totalled about 11 at the time, performing dances to hit songs in hopes of getting a well-known artist to share their work or invite them to perform.
But after several videos went unnoticed, Oluyole doubted that she would financially be able to keep the group going.
“I just told myself I was going to give this whole thing one more year and if nothing works out I was going to drop it and move,” she recalls.
That year had almost come to an end when popular Nigerian disc jockey and singer DJ Spinall teamed up with one of Nigeria’s biggest Afrobeats megastar Wizkid to produced his new song “Nowo”. The song was a hit, played in bars, barbershops and in the streets all over Nigeria.
The Dream Catchers rehearsed a dance to the song over and over again.
One sun-baked Sunday afternoon in early March 2018, just after the students came back from Sunday service, some of the kids were hungry and there was barely enough food to go around. But Oluyole had often used dance as a distraction.
“Let’s go and do a video,” she recalls saying to the four young girls, including Blessing, present. Wearing berets and their yellow, striped knee-high socks, they performed their dance to Nowo at a nearby junkyard.
We are not chasing any dream, it is possible to chase a dream and not catch it. What I see is that there is a dream we have and the goal is to actually catch it and make so many things come true.
The next day, Oluyole posted the video on Instagram. Gradually, the video began to go viral. Popular blogs, influencers, and other dance channels on social media raved about the performance.
By March 10, supermodel Naomi Campbell posted the video on her Instagram page, attracting close to one million likes. And singer Rihanna also shared the video to celebrate her success of crossing two billion worldwide streams on Apple Music. Her post got nearly three million likes and more than 50,000 comments. It was also shared by star P Diddy.
“It was when Rihanna posted that the video caught fire,” Oluyole says.
Meet the 'Dream Catchers – a group of Nigerian children dancing their way to stardom. pic.twitter.com/0zo1UXPo1m
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) February 6, 2019
In the months after the viral video, the Dream Catchers troupe, also known as the Ikorodu Talented Kids, performed in a local TEDx conference and at an event to celebrate Children’s Day organised by the Lagos state government.
Despite the success, the troupe still struggles to obtain the financial support needed to keep the children in school, housed and fed.
“I would say we were not where we used to be,” Oluyole says. The popularity “didn’t bring about the change I had in mind, we got plenty promises but no serious action. But getting donations isn’t as hard as it used to be before; we have more followers now who are interested in the kids.”
Still, the local community recognises the good Oluyole and her troupe are doing.
Modupe Rahmon, a teacher in a public primary school in Lagos, has been following Oluyole’s work for years.
“I was amazed when I learned of Seyi [Oluyole] and how she is using dance to encourage them to go to school, and not just that, but to stay in school and become better people for themselves, their families and the society at large,” Rahmon tells Al Jazeera.
“Getting kids back to school is compulsory for their growth and for the overall development of the nation,” she says.
Today, 10 children, including Blessing, live with Oluyole in a three-bedroom apartment in a gated estate. Their school fees in private primary and secondary schools range from $215 to $315 for each child every school term, which usually runs for about three months.
“I feel happy and comfortable that I am going to school,” Blessing says. “I want to study hard so I can become a very big person in life and so that I can help other kids from poor homes.”
Oluyole admits that while she is helping these kids return to school, much more work needs to be done to reach millions of children who are not receiving an education.
Oluyole has set her sights on starting an arts academy that could house at least 50 children and open its doors for classes to many others.
“Millions of children are out of school, poverty levels are high, and thousands loiter in the streets,” she says. “Addressing these challenges take really a lot of time – with our work we’re doing our own bit, and hopefully with more funding and support we can scale it to reach much more children even though that doesn’t necessarily reach everybody.”
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