Dreams, drive, and a Nigerian doctor

JOS, NIGERIA – Twenty years ago, Daniel Shehu Danlami Salihu didn’t know what he was going to do.

Freshly out of high school, he was eager to begin studying to become a doctor, but an instructors’ strike had closed the universities.  It was already October, and the driven young man wanted to do something productive with his time.

That’s when he heard at church about a new computer school, ECWA Information and Computer Science Institute.  Begun by American missionary Dr. Anthony Petrillo, it wasn’t affected by the strike.

It might not have anything to do with medicine, but at least it would keep Salihu’s mind active and his energy occupied.  Even though admissions had closed weeks before, he applied to the program and was accepted.

“I remember being one of the very privileged people to be learning from a missionary, like getting into Noah’s ark,” Salihu said, adding that it was an especially tremendous opportunity for someone from a poor background.

Computers were so rare in Nigeria then that the twelve-year-old hand-me-downs they used were new to them.  Some of the students were just out of school, some still in it, and others were older but wanted to learn about computers.  Some even had master’s degrees, but all of them felt blessed for the opportunity.

“It was like a second family to me, another home,” Salihu said.  “Dr. Petrillo treated us like his children.  It was a real blessing.”

Salihu said the students came out of the program as the best computer users in the area.  Other schools offered computer training but were not as good, even though they cost more.

“Dr. Petrillo took us from the bottom up, nuts and bolts.  He gave us a better understanding of it all,” Salihu said, adding that their first lessons were in typing and how the computers worked.  “That was important because then you’re comfortable.  The computers don’t scare you anymore.”

Another difference from the private computer schools was that Petrillo taught his students biblical truths, family values, and how to please and honor God with the skills they were learning.  Students used scripture to learn typing and for other examples.

“‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’” Salihu recited spontaneously.

Those lessons had a profound effect on Salihu, who said he was “somewhat agnostic” at the time.  Petrillo noticed the young man was struggling with some questions, so he loaned Salihu copies of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.

“It was like a cold glass of water in a hot, hot desert,” Salihu said.

Salihu enthusiastically led his classmates in discussing both works, and he said that Lewis’ well-reasoned presentation of Christianity and Petrillo’s tutelage strengthened his faith.

When the medical schools reopened, Salihu discovered that his computer training was more useful than he’d expected.  Whereas many of his classmates needed remedial work to learn computers, he was able to focus on learning medicine.

He completed his studies and became a doctor, and he also earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Liverpool’s online program.   He is currently pursuing a PhD in public health online.

He now works for USAID, using computers and statistics to help protect orphans and vulnerable children.  He and others throughout Nigeria are working to gather and combine information for a baseline evaluation.  Once they determine the status quo, then interventions can be planned and evaluated.

“It’s all about producing strategic information for policy decisions,” Dr. Salihu said.  “What cannot be measured cannot be managed.  You need data to understand problems …. You need statistics to make decisions, to plan.”

A father of three young daughters, he dreams of helping improve his country for them and other children.  The information he gathers and analyzes will help improve health, education, nutrition, shelter, psychological and social well-being, and economic, legal, and household protections for the children of Nigeria.  He also dreams about forming his own non-governmental organization and a consultancy, both of which are registered but dormant.

In the meantime, though, this dreamer is awake and active, working to change Nigeria because someone discipled him faithfully and taught him skills more valuable than they first seemed.

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