Wednesday, 18 April 2012 11:00

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye Interviews Boniface Duru On His Humanitarian Work In Rural African Communities

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About a decade ago, Boniface Duru, a priest from the Catholic Diocese of Orlu, Imo State, Nigeria, residing in Rome, founded an NGO called Azione Verde, which has for many years now offered scholarships to many brilliant but less privileged children and free medical services to a lot of rural dwellers in Nigeria. In this interview with Nigerian Journalist and Writer, UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE, Duru speaks on the activities of his group, the state of education and healthcare delivery in Nigeria, and the future programmes of his organization.  



Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye [Left] Interviewing Boniface Duru

 Since your NGO has an Italian name. I think it would be appropriate to commence by saying what it means in English.

Well the NGO is called “Azione Verdewhich means “Green Action”. And the name emerged from our philosophy that “children are the basis for development.” Children must go to school and not work. They must be properly taken care of. I believe that a nation that has no care for her children has no future. So green is a sign of hope, a sign of the future, and a sign of health and even wealth. Green is always a positive sign wherever it shows. So that is why we chose the name – the Green Action, and our attention is focused on the children and the sick. So that’s why it is called Azione Verde

Thank you. I had wanted to ask you the areas you focus on, but it is like you have touched briefly on them. I understand you have built a school in a rural community in Orlu in Imo State and that annually you fly in a number of medical personnel from Europe to attend to the health needs of people in some rural areas. Maybe, you can elaborate on this.

 We have two basic areas of attention: one, we concentrate on the children because we believe that to make a positive impact on the future and  development of a nation, there is need to educate the children. So our first focus is to make meaningful and lasting impact on children. Actually, I am against the aspect of humanitarian efforts geared towards bringing used clothes and then food items for the people. No, I believe that the only way to sustain development is to prepare the children, give them a different culture without obliterating the positive one they already have and then you would have made a lot of contribution to national development. Our second focus: to sustain a nation, there is need to also take care of the sick because a sick nation is a weak nation. In a nation where several of the people that constitute the workforce are sick, then the ability to produce and develop is grossly reduced.


 Boniface Duru With The Azione Verde Medical Team In Orlu Imo State

  Tell me more about your healthcare programme.

We actually do what we call village to village treatment. Once every year we bring in doctors and nurses from overseas. Each time we bring in about 40 people – doctors, nurses and medical assistants – and then we move from village to village visiting  sick people. And where we encounter very serious cases, we refer them to good hospitals and pay the bills. In some occasions, we have had cause to fly people outside the country for further treatment and brought them back when they became  healthy again.

Where do you attend to the people? Do you have some kind of affiliation with some hospitals or do you create temporary health centres in classrooms or community halls in those villages?

When we started, we were using the seven hospitals owned by the Catholic Diocese of Orlu inImoState. So we would put out announcements inviting people requiring medical attention to come to those hospitals. These structures were on ground and spread throughout the diocese, so we used them at the beginning. Then, gradually, we started using other structures. For instance, when we went outside Orlu to Mbaise (ImoState), we used a health centre. And when we went to other places, we attended to the people at their community squares.

 Could you recall when the idea of founding an NGO occurred to you?

I wouldn’t want to use the term, “the idea of founding an NGO” occurring to me. I would rather say it was the NGO that came to me. Well, my intention was to make a positive contribution to development inAfrica. When I came toRome, I became a chaplain in a hospital for four years. So during the first two years, I saw the difference between the way the doctors there took care of their patients and the way it was done here in many of our hospitals. It dawned on me that a lot of deaths which took place here and still take place were caused by carelessness on the part of our medical personnel. Down here, we have many hospitals but only very few can qualify to be called hospitals indeed. This brought tears to my eyes as I reflected on the many avoidable deaths that occurred in our hospitals regularly. Every day, I wept at the hospital, as I considered that very simple sicknesses that killed people inAfricacould easily be taken care of given the right personnel, equipment and drugs. So, that moved me to begin to question the quality of drugs used in our hospitals and how far the relevant supervisory agencies go to ensure control over what is given to patients and all that. So I was worried and started thinking about it. I started holding meetings with some of the doctors there asking them whether they would be willing to join me to visit my country if I was able to put together an organisation and they readily agreed. Down here there is hardly any control on the quality of drugs being brought in.

 But we have NAFDAC in Nigeria here?

Even NAFDAC does very little. In Europe, there are no drugs coming in from China but Nigeria is full of Chinese drugs and it is this same NAFDAC that allows these drugs to come in. And some of these drugs are not qualified to answer that name. So I was worried about this. Then on the other hand, I saw that the cause of most problems in Nigeria, and in Africa, is illiteracy. We are mostly illiterate people. Even many of those who claim to be educated are not properly educated; and as you know, there is this saying that half-education is dangerous and that is what is causing problems in many places in Africa. So I said: how can children be trained? How can we make positive contributions to development? The only answer was that children must be given quality education early enough before they become adults and become preoccupied with many other things. You remember the expression Tabula rasa. Tabula rasa means a vacant human mind occupied by no thought or experience, just like white paper. And on a white paper you can write, but on a paper already filled with several writings, you cannot write. So only children have the mind that could still be described as Tabula rasa, a kind of clean slate with enough space for you to write something on. But sending these children to school is not enough. Their education must be combined with formation. Education and formation produce balanced human beings. Education without formation may produce giants, but they would be negative giants. The result is always destructive. So that was why I started putting together these ideas, and writing them down.  And from there we took off, and from stage to stage, we got to where we are today.

 How is your secondary school doing? 

Yes, we have built a secondary school. You have seen the pictures, but actually we want to upgrade it now to aUniversityofScienceand Information Technology because we want to make a contribution in those areas of learning.


Now, your school is located in a rural community. I don’t know how much you charge as fees, but I hope it is such that can be affordable to the people there.

Yes, we are not talking about the fees now. We are talking about the quality of what is being offered, and the effective operation of the institution. Well, for your information, we have about 1,000 children benefiting from our scholarship programme. We select children who are orphans, those from very poor families, and those who are very intelligent. So the condition is not just that the person cannot afford to pay his or her fees. We also want them to be able to demonstrate a capacity to cope with the standard of education we are advocating. That is what actually forms the basis for the school. And we are trying to use it to change the society like I said before. We want to form and educate children and mould them to become responsible and productive members of the society. When education is combined with formation, it produces balanced human beings that are very responsible.

It is like for now your focus is Imo State?

Yes, for now the base of this organization is inImoState. Why? I am fromImoState, and as they say, Charity begins at home, but the horizon of the organization extends far beyondImoState. We have people benefiting from our facilities everywhere. For now there are no children attending our school. We use different structures. So a child inAbeokutacan go to a school inAbeokutaunder our scholarship, because we started the scholarship programme before we built the school. The children are attending schools at different places, but they must be recommended.  So every academic year, our secretariat pays their school fees wherever they are. We are responsible for their fees, books, uniforms, bus fares and several other things. Sometimes, a child costs us about a hundred thousand naira a year, and sometimes more than that. We have already produced a medical doctor through our scholarship programme. We have also produced a psychologist who is at the moment at the orientation camp in preparation for the compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC).

Now, let’s return to your healthcare programme. How do you get your volunteers? Do you have people who are regular on your list? Are they all from Italy or do you have some others volunteering from other parts of Europe?

If you look at our magazine, you will see that our organization has a universal spread. It is called Azione Verde Internationale because of its international nature. We have people from theUnited States. We have some doctors from several other places who are members of our organization. We also have members fromMalta,Canada – in fact, from all over the world. Anyone from anywhere who appreciates the value of what we are doing can become a member.


 The Azione Verde Medical Team At Work

 So you have permanent members then, or is it that each time you are coming to Africa, you advertise for volunteers and people respond?

 Yes, like now, if you visit our website you will see the date of our next visit toNigeria. So those interested to be part of our programme can apply. Already, some nurses are applying from theUnited   States. Anybody who is interested can come.  It is not limited to some people.

I heard that you received one of the highest honours in Italy for your humanitarian services. Tell me about it?

 Yes, I received this award in 2010 and it is an award given only to Italian citizens from the Basilicata Region, but for the first time in their history, they selected me as one of the recipients. Why? Because they saw the value of what I am doing. It is not just about what I am doing in Africa, coming toNigeriaregularly to render some help. But then they had also seen the positive effect of my work on their own young people, because inItalyalone this organization has about a thousand volunteers; and then from time to time we are having meetings. I re-educate them on the value of appreciating our common humanity, as we strive to achieve a better understanding of others outside our immediate environments. It is also another way of exposing the young people to international frontiers. So when we bring them here, they see our people, and see that we don’t live on trees, for instance. They see that those living here are also people as they are, and when they go back home, they join me to re-educate their own people. And I must tell you that they enjoy coming here. For 12 years we have done this and we have had no accidents. For this, they selected me and gave me the award.


Boniface Duru And His Team With Governor
Rochas Okorocha Of Imo State

 Now, you are talking about re-education, new attitudes towards other people and better appreciation of others outside our immediate environments. In 2007, a young Nigerian wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled: “Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa”, and observed that humanitarian efforts in Africa by Western celebrities and NGOs appear sometimes to be geared towards promoting “the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death.” Now I would like you to talk about the people volunteering for your organization? What is their attitude towards Africa? Is it a case of embarking on a hazardous mission to the jungle to “save” some perennially helpless creatures? Or do they come to meet human beings faced with challenges just like any other people on earth?

Actually, when you read the founding philosophy of this organization, you will see that I made it clear that men should meet men on common grounds, where I will shake your hands because I appreciate you and you shake my hands because you appreciate me. So when I talk to them, I tell them that we have no problems about food. Yes,Nigeriahas no food problem.Nigeriahas no clothing problem.Nigeriais not a poor country.Nigeriahas a basic problem of mismanagement, and, if you like, corruption. And if you want to changeNigeria, you have to help form the children who tomorrow will become the protagonists of their own environment. If anybody is coming toNigeriabecause he wants to give out food to some suffering, starving people, that is wrong. You can say that aboutRwanda, notNigeria. You can say that about   some other African states, because they lack food and water.  So, overseas I tell them: don’t bring food toNigeria, we are rich. Don’t bring clothes to us; we may even have more than you have. Come to us and see how we are. We want to educate our people. Some people don’t have equal opportunities and this is created by corruption, as you know. So, one very effective way to combat this corrupt practice is to help these children become adequately equipped to become the protagonists of their environments. The only way to empower them is to give them education. And not only education; you have to give them formation too. A lot of people say to me out there: we want to come toNigeriaand adopt children. And I say, no! We want you to come and visitNigeriaand see how you can help us form responsible future leaders and agents of change. When these children become doctors and lawyers, they can then come overseas and then your meeting with them will be a dignified one. Indeed, if you come overseas and see our people suffering and see what our people sell there to make money, you will weep. Some young men are out there selling toothpastes, buttons, socks, underwear; they go from one house to another. Sometimes they don’t even sell anything; they just ask for help. They tell people: please help us, we are poor. So this is a problem. And the only way you can avoid the continued reoccurrence of this problem is to properly train these children. I live overseas and I am able to talk to five thousand Italians and they listen to me. Why? Because of that little education and formation that I got. So if we are able to give it to our children today, in 10 to 15 years, they will do the same thing. And when you have people like me or 2,000 people with the same vision, then our country will change automatically. 

 Recently, you met with the governor of Imo State, Mr. Rochas Okorocha. I want to know if there is any form of collaboration you discussed with him to further what you are doing?

Yes, the Governor was very positive about what we are doing because it also tallies with his own vision. The other day, somebody was asking me whether I sold my own ideas to Governor Okorocha? I only replied, as they say, that great minds think alike. He found out that what he is doing is in line with our own work. So he was very happy. That was that. He welcomed us. Actually, we didn’t get anything from the state government because my organisation is not asking for money. We do our things ourselves. Our collaboration is on the level of ideas. He also supported us by giving us security, but, like I said, our collaboration remains on the level of ideas and vision. ImoStategovernment is not funding Azione Verde and Azione Verde is not fundingImoState. The governor is just is a good, hardworking man. That is all.

 Now, the credibility of any NGO depends to a large extent on its sources of funding. So who are the people funding your NGO?

 Yes, many people, many Nigerians always ask me this question.  Journalists, too, have shown interest in our source of funding. We don’t have any big brother. Like I told you, we don’t ask for money from anybody. We don’t even have grants. We source the funds ourselves. The volunteers that come with me pay their air fares. We also make contributions to arrange for what we eat and how we stay. So nobody funds this organisation. For the work we are doing, we have our levies. Everybody levies himself, all the members of the organisation. So sometimes also, we do a few collections from ourselves for the running of the school and the other structures. So, we don’t have a European Union (EU) grant or something like that. We have not even gone to the EU to ask for any. A lot of people who know me personally as a priest, however, make some donations. Not much money, really, but it’s helpful. They give you what they have, and they are happy about the way the funds are managed and the transparency with which everything is carried out. But I must tell you that 85% of what we spend is based on my personal effort, then the remaining 15% comes from the group.

 The year 2012 is still young, what have you scheduled to accomplish before it runs out? 

We want to inaugurate our university. We are trying to find the funds for the registration, because, you know,Nigeriademands a huge amount of money as deposit from people wishing to establish private universities. So we are trying to do that and then finish it up. This is what is basic on our agenda. Our organisation is ten years old. Actually we hit ten last year but we are doing our anniversary this year and we are also enlarging the scope of our work. For instance, for the first time, we are extending our mission toCongoandCameroonbecause we have opened our offices in those two countries. So we will inaugurate our office inCongothis year.

That’s important because I was wondering whether you don’t intend to reach out to other African nations? So, it’s good you have said that. Now I want to look at the quality of the school you are setting up. You know that many schools these days have the problem of standards. How do you intend to ensure the realization of the standard you have in mind?

Actually we are trying to introduce an innovation in education. Like I said, we are establishing a university of science and information technology. We have a group of experts inItalywho are drawing up the curriculum. We want to train our students to be productive and not just to acquire ‘head knowledge’. We are not aiming to turn out people who merely memorize their lessons shortly before entering the exam hall in order to merely acquire paper qualification. We want to produce tested scientists so that in a very short time, we’ll start sending back technology toEurope. That’s what the school is all about. Being a journalist, too, I will want to teach what I studied. I will want a situation whereby we do journalism differently. Within our school we will have our own television and radio stations where our students will practice. This is what we want to do.


Boniface Duru With Former Imo State Governor Achike Udenwa At Government House, Owerri

 You said you are upgrading the secondary school to a university?

Yes, we will move the secondary school to another location but still under our management. My intention also is to repeat this model of secondary school everywhere inNigeria. So as soon as we take off, the secondary school will be sited in every state inNigeriaand it is our secondary schools that will feed the university.

So nobody can come from outside?

No, no!  Because we want to have these children formed. Personally, I will teach them on the use of ideas to change the nation because what is Azione Verde today is built on ideas. And when you have an idea, and follow it and put it into practice, it becomes a reality.

Do you think your university will be able to absorb all the people your secondary schools would be turning out every year?

Yes, the university will do that in the first few years. Then as the number of students grow, so will the departments and campuses of the university.  We can, for instance, have a secondary school inAbeokuta, and then after four or five years, we would have a department of the university inAbeokuta.  And then if we have one in Calabar, we will repeat the same thing there. So that is the intention.

 Through the Faculty of Education, you will be able to train and retrain some teachers for your schools?

 Yes, some of these children will become teachers automatically because they will go to specialize inItalyand in other parts ofEurope. And then, definitely, they will come back to the school and teach. Not all of them will come back, you know, because some might want to go into other areas, but some of them will definitely come back.

 In Imo State today, many parents are withdrawing their kids from private schools and enrolling them in the public schools since Governor Rochas Okorocha came into office and started his programme of restoring quality in public schools and also introduced his scholarship scheme.  Don’t you think this might pose a formidable challenge to those of you running private schools?

Well, what Rochas is doing is good if that will be sustained. That is what we all want. But you still must understand that the state system lacks formation and this is why the church-owned or private schools with vision must still strive. So,  the private school operators must not be threatened by this development because it is what we all are looking for. But the problem lies in the sustainability because the next administration might not be able to sustain what Rochas has started today. Rochas may be there for the next four or eight years. Then, after, him some fellow might come in and the system might crash. But even if the thing is sustained, private schools can co-exist with public schools and complement each other. We are all pursuing the same goal of providing quality education to Nigerian children.  It is left for parents to look at what each institution is capable of offering and choose where to enroll their kids.

 You keep talking about combining education with formation. Now assuming Rochas or any other governor is attracted to such an alternative and then invites you and your team to come and sell the idea to the public schools system? 

That would be fine. It would be for us a big victory. We can reinstate what was originally in the public schools because in the past our schools run by the Irish were known for the combination of formation and education and that was why when the colonial structures started crumbling, the educational structures followed suit. Those you see among public servants behaving responsibly in the various offices were mostly those trained by those expatriates. And when we – the latter day students – took over, the structures started crumbling.

You’ve made your point, but I wonder how many people out there that would readily agree with you about the positive values of colonialism.

Yes, you cannot tell me that colonialism had no positive elements. Colonialism had a lot of positive elements and I was just saying now that our inability to separate the positive elements of colonialism is the problem we are having today because we seem to have retained and sustained only the negative elements. Today what happens? The colonial masters built roads fromEnugu,CoalCity, to Port-Harcourt because they wanted to move the coal from there to the sea ports and then to their country. Today what are your politicians doing? The first week they assume office, they build the road only to their villages. Is it not the same thing? So they only picked the negative aspect but don’t let us forget that some of these colonial people died here in order to help us.

Well, we hope to find a more convenient time to further explore this interesting subject, but for now, do you have any final word to the youths of this country especially about values?  

 Yes, I still feel that we can change our people but you know the problem there is that nobody gives what he does not have. Sometimes we blame the youths but the youths have nothing to offer because nothing was given to them. The failure of our first generation politicians to carry over the positive values of our colonial system into the new dispensation is at the root of the leadership crises in the country. Instead, when they took over, they started fighting a system that had sustained them and destroyed even the beneficial structures they had inherited,  when they had nothing to offer themselves. And because they did not have a better alternative, they were unable to produce those saints and those angels that will sustain and move our country forward. And that’s why we have remained where we are.

Thank you very much for your time.

 Thank you for coming and  speaking with us.


 Interview Conducted Saturday, March 10, 2012 (Lagos, Nigeria) and first published in Sunday Independent newspaper (Lagos) April 22, 2012

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Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, an influential commentator on public issues, is the Editor-In-Chief and Head of the Editorial Unit of a Publishing Outfit in Lagos, Nigeria. He was until recently on the Editorial Board of Daily Independent, a national newspaper published in Lagos, where he wrote a highly regarded column (SCRUPLES) on the back page of the paper every Wednesday. The column now appears on Tuesday. His articles have equally appeared in several newspapers, magazines, books and journals in Nigeria and around the world and on several internet media sites. Many of his articles are archived on his blog:;  He could be reached with: