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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 December 2006, 06:50 GMT
Nigerian school's 50-year success
Sheila Solarin with pupils
Sheila has been a mother figure to thousands of pupils
When Sheila Solarin began building a school in Nigeria in 1956, she had little idea whether it would succeed.

But today, 50 years on, the Mayflower school boasts more than 6,000 pupils, and has one of the best reputations in the west African country.

More than 20,000 pupils have passed through the school which Sheila, 82, formed with her late husband Tai.

Sheila, originally from the Wrexham area, said: "I think it's the biggest gift you can give anybody."

Sheila met her husband while both were in the forces following the World War II.

In 1952 they decided to move to his native Nigeria, and both worked in a high school.

But they disagreed with the politics of the day and religious discrimination in schools, and decided to build their own in a town called Ikenne.

Using breeze blocks made from clay, they constructed two classrooms, each able to accommodate 36 pupils.

Sheila said: "They had their bunks at the back of the class, and the desks at the front.

"We didn't ask anybody what their ethnic background or religion was, we simply wanted to provide an education for all the children in the area."

Sheila Solarin with family
Sheila with son Tunde, his wife Fade and grand-daughter Seun

The school became more popular, and Sheila and her husband were forced to extend, making it one of the biggest in the country.

They even made the furniture on site, much of it using wood from trees Sheila planted herself.

Today, the secondary school - now controlled by the state - holds more than 5,000 pupils, half of which stay in accommodation built by Sheila and her team.

She and her family still manage a primary school, which holds an additional 1,200 pupils.

Sheila said: "The state took over all secondary schools in 1976, but we still keep a fatherly eye on things there, and we still run the primary school.

"It hasn't been easy, running a school with no public water supply, and an extremely erratic electricity generator.

"The political situation isn't very stable, but there are some very hard-working people out there.

Sheila Solarin with school staff
Although retired, Sheila still keeps an interest in the school

"I count myself lucky, being able to provide an education for them. I think it's the biggest gift you can give anybody."

Sheila officially retired two years ago at 80 and passed much of the responsibility on to her son Tunde.

She now suffers from Parkinson's disease but still keeps an active interest in the schools herself.

She spends six months of the year living in California with her daughter, and the other half of the year in Nigeria.

She said: "I still keep in touch with many of the pupils. We've produced many scientists and doctors who now work all over the world.

"I'm just grateful for the chance to have helped them."

She added: "In school, every pupil has a number, and it's the most important thing they have - they never forget the number.

"I was walking in London some years back and someone shouted out: 'Oga (boss), I'm the sister of number 2,000.'

"It's amazing how many pupils keep in touch.

"When I get back to Nigeria there's always a constant stream of visitors in the house for the first three weeks."

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