I will always tell you this story. I remember James Okina calling me to a meeting at Fiesta Fries in Calabar, sometime in 2014/15. What did he call me to speak about? About Street Children! I sat down dumbfounded, just listening. How old was he? Where did such a passion come from? How old was he again? If you had told me that year that I was sitting next to a would-be Three Dot Dash 2017 Global Teen Leader, anyway, I would have believed you.
Hello there change agent! Let’s meet you!
My name is James Okina. I’m 18 years young. I have a very wide range of interests and skills but primarily and actively, I serve as the Director of Street Priests; a youth-led, non-profit that is passionate about solving the societal challenge of street kids. I am a 200 level student of Business Management at the University of Calabar, Nigeria.
Apart from school, what else do you do?
Pretty much everything I am skilled in and interested in which are videography, photography, sports, music, business e.t.c. But when I am not facilitating social change, doing school work or any of these things, I like to go on a road trip or any whirlwind adventure and yes! I love adventure! (With glowing eyes).
Great! That sounds big. So, say, how was growing up for you?
I was born on the 6th of July but for many years, I thought I was born on the 7th of July. This was because of how complicated my childhood was. The early years of my life had its blessings but also a lot of burdens.
My parents were greeted with one of those burdens I would have to deal with for most of my life shortly after I was born when the doctors diagnosed me with chronic asthma. I wanted to be a normal kid but asthma was a major setback and had me bedridden too often. Handling asthma was easy at first because I had the blessing of a loving family. My parents were civil servants who earned decent salaries and had enough to look after me and my two brothers. They were able to afford quality education for all three of us and there was always that warmth and peace that enveloped our home.
At age eight, my parents began to have heated quarrels and sometimes they exchanged words for over two hours right before our eyes. These events tore me apart and it wasn’t long before they began to fight physically and all those events introduced me to a severe traumatic period in my life. My grades began to nosedive and I had asthmatic attacks more often. Things only began to get worse. My parents finally separated in the fall of 2007.
Wow, very interesting. Over the years you’ve developed an intense passion for street children, what brought about this passion?
I and my older brother had to move in with my dad whilst my younger brother stayed with my mum after the separation. Life with my dad was very unfamiliar and unfavorable for the growing adolescent that I was, my dad was almost never around and we had to look after ourselves. Gradually I started making friends with street-smart people who influenced me to do the wrong things and I began to live a dangerous lifestyle while battling asthma and so many times, I almost lost my life.
In 2013 I began to meet the right people and very worthy of note is my cousin “Tochi”, a Computer Science graduate from the University of Calabar who stayed with us throughout his stay in Calabar. He got me born again and that was how I became a Christian. And through afterschool programs and mentorship schemes that got me off the wrong path, I started out on a new path, passionately to influence positively, children, at-risk youth, street children and anyone who was struggling to find themselves positively.
What do you wish people would know about street children?
It is really hard being a street kid, having to look after yourself in very severe conditions at such a young age. I know what it feels like and I don’t wish it for any kid. The chances of survival or having a normal life are very slim without aid. Very worthy of note is the resilience in their spirits and the hope that burns in their young hearts with disruptive talents and potentials. Bottom line is: We have all sorts of greatness walking the streets in form of these kids and ignoring them would be our biggest mistake. I also like us to remember that the Boko Haram we have today were once kids that were not engaged positively.
Your commitment to positive change is very commendable and highly visible. Well done James. Are there any new projects you are currently working on?
Wow! Well, at Street Priests (a youth-led NGO I direct) we are working on a lot. We are currently working on a platform that would allow people give directly to kids on the streets from anywhere in the world and that is all I can say for now.
You’ve spoken so much about your life and I’m positive people are beginning to get really inspired by all you’ve done at such a young age. What particular experiences would you say, in your life has shaped who you are today?
I feel like everything that has happened in my life has culminated to who I have become – my upbringing, my parents’ separation, becoming born again, literally everything! I feel really blessed and grateful for the pains I have had to go through. The opportunities and people I have met in my life have all cumulated to this moment
You seem to be a teenage superhero. How do you juggle between school and your other activities?
It’s not easy, I must say. Juggling between all these activities has not been very easy but it has been rewarding and also overwhelming. I try to do simple things like scheduling, having an itinerary and I pray before I start my day so God helps me keep it all together. That’s it!
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, what are your hobbies?
I like to play the keyboard, watch documentaries, make documentaries, take photographs, listen to good music, go swimming, read memos and good books and sometimes write articles about things that bother me. I love engaging kids also.
You were made a 2017 Global Teen Leader, tell us about this experience.
I felt very blessed and meeting all those very inspiring young leaders from around the world really inspired me to do more and be more. It was such an overwhelming experience and was a many firsts for me.
After all has been said and done, what excuse do you wish youths of today would stop giving about school and life in general?
The thoughts, “I am young” and “I have all the time in the world.” I call it the greatest form of self- deception. I even hold the notion that life begins at 14. Crazy, right? Well if you look at everyone who is somebody in this world, you will discover that they all have something in common, which is the fact that they started very early, some of them even before they were teenagers. So to any young person reading this, I’d like to say now is the time to start consciously investing in yourself and building yourself into that person you want to become. Don’t say tomorrow! Get up! And get to it!
Thank you so much Mirabelle!
And thank you so much, James! Wow! The inspiration from this brief interview has nearly knocked the breath out of my lungs!
Do you wish to stay in touch with James and ask him more questions? Here’s a way to reach out to him! Or rather, ways.
Facebook: James Okina / Street priests
Instagram: _JamesOkina / street.priests
Twitter: @JAMESOKINA @STREETPRIESTS
Interviewed by: Mirabelle Morah
Edited by: Nten Mpama