Nigerian-born Chris Imafidon is a Professor at the University of Oxford, England. Though autistic, Imafidon, whose children have been described as world’s brainiest kids, tells Nonye Iwuagwu Ben-Nwankwo how he got to the height he has achieved
You were at the University of Ilorin recently during their graduation and you said you would give a scholarship to the worst graduating student. Why?
We understand you have placed such bet before…
You might need to ask my grandmother that because she believes that every child, without exception, has a lot to contribute to the society. She would find out what you are capable of doing. In my own generation, I try to implement what she lived by. She didn’t just preach it, she did it. She was interested in every child. I did what she would have done. She is gone now. But I am here to represent her voice. I must not let her voice be unheard in my generation, I will always echo it and my mantra is that every child is a genius. If every child is a genius, then it shouldn’t matter if you are at the top of the class, bottom or middle. The lecturers were arguing with me but I told them that they would see what these people they judged the worst students would become. I would give them scholarships and if they don’t beat the ones you say are the best students after three years, I will publicly apologise.
Yes, David Cameron tried it with me and he lost $25m. That was what we used to build our first school in Birmingham. He said that for my child to pass the General Certificate of Secondary Education exam at the age of six, it was just the gene. I told him it didn’t have anything to do with the gene. I told him to give me the worst performing schools and I would work with the least students and he should come back nine months later. He laughed at it. But when he came back nine months later, he knew what he saw. I spoke to the children, I mentored them and I adopted them as if they were my biological children. I didn’t even teach them all the subjects, I just spoke to their personality and I used one or two subjects as samples and they were flying. In one year, they beat the best.
But so many people believe that smart kids are born smart and not made to be smart…
Shakespeare said some people are born great while others achieve greatness, and some others have greatness instilled in them; giving us a suggestion that when God makes people, He makes some one way and the others another way. God is not jobless to make some human beings with half brains. Don’t ever say somebody is useless. You are not even insulting the person, you are insulting the God that created the person.
But in your own case, who saw that greatness in you? Was it your mother?
I still tell you that everybody is smart. That is the truth. However, I remember that in my secondary school days, I remember that my Physics teacher said I could not do Physics. I took it like that and I went home and I mentioned it to my mother. My mother quickly called her mum – my grandmother and they went to the school. They almost beat up the Physics teacher. He even had to beg me that if he said anything I didn’t like, I shouldn’t tell them at home.
Your parents would have loved you so much…
Yes, my mother had a son that died before he was two years. After that, she had another son that also died. So when I came, they used to drive flies away from me. They never allowed anything to touch me even when I was a baby. My father was the only son of his mother. To carry the family name, you must have a son and you protect the son. So anything I did was monitored by my parents and grandparents. All my friends that used to play with me, because of their parental input, scored lower than me. I ended up being different. So if every parent would believe that his child would achieve, that child would indeed achieve. We just need to work out the formula that would make that child achieve what you want him to.
So your mother or grandmother had a formula for you too?
Yes, mine was football and my mother knew I liked football. But then, whenever she saw me with football, she would take it away from me. She would say I wasn’t working hard enough. But my grandmother would buy me another football and say she would give it to me provided I came first in the class. In fact, I would say my grandmother is the professor and not me. She did all the work to ensure that I am what I am today. If not that she kept ‘bribing’ me to do this and that, I would have just done anything I wanted. So when you saw me working hard to pass an exam, it was mainly because of the football I was promised. I remember a day in my secondary school that I was given my report card, I didn’t go home, I went straight to my grandmother’s house and I gave her the report card. She cooked special food and after that, even while still wearing my uniform, I took the ball she had bought for me and went to the field to play. I played football till it was dark. Remember I hadn’t gone home then, so my parents were looking for me. Later, my father heard I was somewhere playing football. He was angry with my elder sister for allowing me to play football. My father caught hold of me and asked me for my result. I told him I took the first position and he said I made it up. I told him to ask my grandmother. He went to my grandmother and asked her and she told him she gave me the ball because I took the first position in school. He asked her why she didn’t tell him and she said, ‘you, how many times did you ever come first in school?’ So that is the story of my so-called intelligence. It wasn’t based on the love of school, it was based on the fact that I would gain something if I did well.
But did you know that your children would ever become world’s smartest kids?
I don’t think they are the world’s smartest kids.
But that is what they are known as; they are even in the Guinness book of records…
It was because British Broadcasting Corporation keeps a record every year during the day the result is announced. There is a programme that BBC runs, CNN later joined them. They usually showcase the best students in that year. So, the first year, Ann Marie, my first daughter passed GCSE exam while she was in primary school. She was the youngest schoolgirl in that year. They had to feature her and interview her. The next year, her younger sister passed the same exam even at a younger age. She was nine then. Then the media said nobody had ever had two siblings from the same family getting that position. Then, Samantha, my third daughter came and wrote that same exam at the age of six and even doubled what they scored. So they just believed that it is in their gene for them to do that well. That was when they started saying those rubbish and calling them world’s smartest kids.
But how could a six-year-old pass GCSE exam?
She didn’t read any book. She just played games. You don’t need to read any book to play ‘ayo’. She understood big concepts just by playing ‘ayo’. It is funny that they are called the brainiest. They are not. They are just a people that consistently performed well. And to show that they are not the brainiest, I told the BBCwhen they were interviewing me to give me the area with the worst school result and they gave me Hackney. I looked for the worst schools there and that was how I started getting students who are not biologically linked to me and we applied the same concepts and they passed very well.
How did you get to know the Queen of England?
I don’t know if the story is true but I was told that the Queen’s granddaughter told her that the GCSE exam was so hard and the next morning when the Queen was reading the newspaper, she read about a little girl that had passed the exam at primary school. This was the exam that her 17-year-old granddaughter said it was hard. She was marvelled! She asked how it happened and they told her that my child was a genius and we could also have used African voodoo. She then told them to go and look for me. I didn’t know who the Queen was then. I only knew she is a powerful woman whose picture is on the currency. I never knew she could like me because I was following what my grandmother said I should do. She gave us an award and she became interested in knowing how we were able to do what everybody found so difficult. That was how our royal journey started. But it is not difficult to pass; you only have to know the steps.
What are the steps?
Just know the limit of your mentality. You have to have a mentality that you can do something. Then you have to have a mentor. The mentor would help you construct the next step, which is the module that you would follow. Then you have to have a modality.
Why did you migrate to the United Kingdom by the way?
What I wanted to study was not available here and in Africa, I had to go to the UK for it.
What’s the course?
It’s a postgraduate qualification in a specialised aspect of ophthalmology. I wouldn’t want to bore you with it. But the essence is that you will be able to wear contact lenses in the normal eyes and you don’t have infections and inflammations or redness. I had to study it either in the US or the UK. My options were limited. I did my first degree in Nigeria. The career path in Nigeria is traditionally British. The country went gaga and changed everything to American. But then, it didn’t play any role in what eventually became of me. What became of me was learning to learn. As such, I get irritated when people tie themselves to one profession or one job.
Nobody would know you were autistic…
I was autistic!
Were you stigmatised as a child back then?
Of course. I was teased and taunted by my colleagues and friends. People would always pick on you. People would always laugh at you. One of the signs of an autistic person is stammering. The society will laugh at you. If you have good parents, they will reassure you and protect you. I never allowed such to stop me. My grandmother made sure of that.
You must have also taught your kids a lot…
Buy your kids toy instruments. Let them ruin them if they must. It sounds very expensive anyway but you are teaching the child more than any book because the child is doing it and knowing it and fixing it. My children ruined a lot of my computers when they were growing up. I was so annoyed. But they turned out well. That is why my girl had to get me an iPad when she started working. She tried to compensate me for all the devices they ruined. But all that they ruined made them understand the internal workings of the devices. When she went to school, the school computer crashed. The head teacher’s PA called the technical support team to come and fix it. My daughter came in, saw the screen with the error message and said she could fix it since it was the same message that was on the one she fixed at home. She was able to fix it instantly and it started working. When the engineer came, they told him a little girl had fixed it. He insisted on seeing my daughter. She told him what she did to the computer and the man opened his wallet and gave her 20 pounds! She was seven years then. The man looked at the head teacher and other staff members and told them if they had problems with their computers, they should call my daughter first before calling him. That was what changed her entire life. She did Information and Communications Technology exam when she was in primary school. She built the website for the school when she was still in primary school. The website won multiple awards. She became the technical director of the school. Why am I saying all these? As parents, we are very careful with all our devices. We don’t even allow our kids to touch our phones. Allow them! Sometimes, they would even be able to restore and repair it. You don’t know where they will be exposed to tomorrow. Every child is a genius. That is what I believe in.
Could that be why you decided to work with the Child Dignity Foundation?
The society said autism is a disease but autism is a gift. If you think it is a disease, then you cure it. If you see it as a gift, you have to celebrate it and it will replicate. When I heard what the Executive Director of CDF, Amaka Awogu, is doing with autistic kids and those who have Down Syndrome, I decided to key into it. It is irritating to me that we treat autistic people as less than human. We even classify them as disabled. I am challenging the mainstream and I say that I will work with autistic kids and at the end of nine months, if they don’t beat your best, then I will apologise publicly. I know what an autistic child is about. I didn’t read it; I know what it is about.
Did you ever know you would get to this level back then?
How could I have known? Who would have told me?
How is life in the UK? Is there any form of segregation even now that the world is developed?
There is no racism. I can tell you clearly. Anytime they see talent, they forget about your colour. They come here to look for (Nwankwo) Kanu to come and play football for Arsenal. He is not from London, so why did they give him that opportunity to play for them and they paid him millions of pounds even more than the Arsenal boys who were there before him? Talent lifts you above geographical boundaries or even racial boundaries. I am not supposed to have access to the Queen but a goldfish has no hiding place. The Queen read how the kids were doing in school and requested to see me. She said we have 35 per cent pass rate in Maths in England and this man is making primary school children to pass Maths, is it voodoo? My children received royal awards.
Your children passed secondary school exams in primary school, how then did they further their education?
My son and daughter passed secondary school exam and the school board had to meet and they asked themselves what they would do. There was no question paper in that primary school that they couldn’t pass. So they had to vote an amount for them and so, every Wednesday, the head teacher would put them in her car and drive them to a secondary school so that they could join them to do Maths that is appropriate to their level. My younger daughter, Samantha, had to even do double Maths at the age of six. It hadn’t happened anywhere on the planet before her. I am telling this story because I want to let you know that your talent can trump your race, gender, country or anything because it is a competitive world. We blew Guinness books of records. You will not hear so much about Christiana in the press because she is too busy. At 11, she got a scholarship from the national government to go to a university. It is official. You can check it out at the University of Cambridge website. She studied Mathematics and Statistics. At 14, HSBC gave her a place in the bank and after two weeks, they gave her a credit card. Remember she wasn’t entitled to a credit card at that age. After a month, they said she should go to the stock exchange.
In all you do, do you even get tired?
Why? This is my hobby! You don’t get tired of doing what you love. You don’t retire from your hobby, you retire from a job. Your job is the profession you do every day to earn a living. I do what I love and I love what I do. I will keep working and working until I expire. Every single human being is a genius and I would want to open that greatness so that everybody would see it.
For 30 years, you did not return home since you left for England, why?
I wasn’t even supposed to be here now. The first person that invited me to come to Africa was Nelson Mandela. He read about us in the newspaper and he wept like a baby. They had told Mandela that when God was giving IQ, he only gave it to white people and gave the remnant to black people. So when he saw it on TV that a black person defeated a white person in intellectualism, he was thrilled. It’s so painful that he died before we could go there. He didn’t just want me to come; he had wanted the whole family to come when he heard about our story.
Did your grandmother live to see what you eventually became?
That is why I am sad. She didn’t live enough to see my children. I would have loved for her to have seen the fruit of what she planted. She told me how the educational system suppressed the women in her time. I was pampered by my grandmother.