It's hard not to smile when you hear an African man pay homage to the cadences of west central Scotland.

Fr Chiedozie Ezeribe, a Nigerian priest, pitched up in Renton a few years back and was quickly enchanted by the locals’ dialect in this edgy enclave of West Dunbartonshire. “I’m from The Rintin,” he declares, dutifully inserting the glottal stop where the ‘t’ normally sits and deploying the declaratory and no-nonsense definite article.

How Fr Chido (as he’s come to be known) got to “The Rintin” and what happened when he did lifts your spirits in another week when Humza Yousaf and his political elites were indulging in their favourite pastime of disparaging their fellow Scots.

Since then, Fr Chido has been on a 15-year tour of duty in Catholic communities across the West of Scotland which has taken in Clydebank, Cumbernauld and his present permanent posting at St Dominic’s in Bishopbriggs.

“My bishop in Nigeria agreed I could transfer permanently to Scotland on the proviso that I must make two return visits every year to ensure I keep in touch with the students,” he says.

What had started with a holiday to Scotland in 2010 became a regular annual exchange visit whereby priests from Africa provided holiday relief for Scottish priests.

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“I fell in love with Scotland as soon as I got here,” he says. “I loved the weather: everything is so green and so refreshing. The people in Glasgow are unique in how warm and friendly they are. People here talk to you without any introduction.

“In other places, no-one would sit near you. Here, they just come up to you. Renton? Oh my goodness. The air is so pure and beautiful. Sometimes I just pop out the door just to sniff it. I’ve not visited any other European country since then.”

In each of these parishes, once they’ve heard Fr Chido’s story, local people have spontaneously donated tens of thousands of pounds to a remarkable project that he established in the Nigerian state of Minna.

It’s a tale of hope, redemption and compassion set against the backdrop of the continuing HIV/Aids pandemic and the attacks by Boko Haram’s Islamist death squads targeting Catholic communities and moderate Muslims in Northern Nigeria.

It all started in 2011 when Fr Chido established the Stella Maris Academy in the Minna diocese as a primary school where the children of families affected by HIV/AIDS could receive a free education and meals. Many of them have experienced profound trauma and so there are psychological care programmes too.

“In Nigeria, some people are not happy about us educating the children, especially the girls. Islamist fundamentalists believe that girls shouldn’t be educated and so I was considered a problem. I focus on female children mainly by encouraging them to come to school. But we have a solid rapport with Muslim community leaders who appreciate what we’re doing.

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“Local tradition often dictates that young girls are married off at 12 and 13. Often, these are arranged on a transactional basis where selling off the girls becomes the means of economic survival for poor families.”

In recent years though, Fr Chido’s return visits to Nigeria have become increasingly dangerous. The death squads have already murdered some of Fr Chido’s brother priests, including a friend who was burned to death last year after his house was surrounded by gunmen.

On a recent return visit he was questioned by local police chiefs after Islamists had complained that he was trying to convert Muslim children to Christianity. This is a serious allegation in an area where Catholic Nigerians are excluded from any government positions and where Christian villages are deliberately deprived of basic services and amenities.

“We absolutely forbid attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity,” he says. “We have Muslim people working at our Educational Foundation and local Muslim community leaders have oversight of our activities.”

Even so, on his last visit home he was pulled aside by local police and told that his life was in danger and that they couldn’t guarantee his safety. When he returns to Nigeria this summer for two months there is no guarantee he’ll be coming back.

The Herald: Fr Chido: As those people were dying I knew we had to create opportunities for their children (Gordon Terris/The Herald)Fr Chido: As those people were dying I knew we had to create opportunities for their children (Gordon Terris/The Herald) (Image: Gordon Terris/The Herald)

It was only through the testimony of moderate Muslim community leaders that he was allowed to come back to Scotland the last time.

The priest though, is undaunted, believing that the responsibility of providing an education to vulnerable and disadvantaged children in Nigeria far outweighs any concerns about his own safety.

“Nigeria’s biggest challenge lies in overcoming tribalism and religious politics,” he says. “People in the poor north are too often bought off by politicians offering them crumbs before every election and who then fail to lift a finger to help them in office. Poverty and illiteracy are wielded as weapons of suppression so that people can’t ask questions. People in the South, where I’m originally from, are much more affluent and more educated than the North and thus more independently-minded at every level. This is my contribution to empower people to stand up for themselves. We need to break this vicious cycle. We care about building communities, including Muslim ones. We believe that the more people are educated the more they can overcome official barriers and divisions.”

Boko Haram literally translates as “western education is prohibited” and Fr Chido accuses western media outlets of preferring to portray them as unaligned bandits and opportunistic kidnappers for fear of offending the hard-line Islamist lobby.

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“In the last mass kidnapping, more than 200 children were seized with only around 130 returning. Yet the official government line was that they had all come back. They even staged an official celebration.

“The truth is, though, that young girls had been sold off and some of the older boys had been brainwashed to help oversee their camps.”

The AIDS pandemic was the catalyst for Fr Chido’s work after he’d volunteered as an HIV worker. He found that, right at the point of death, the final wish of parents was that their children be looked after.

“It affected me greatly,” he says. “As those people were dying I knew we had to create opportunities for their children, but there was so much discrimination against these children; so much rejection.”

He tells of parents visiting schools to demand that teachers prevent the children of AIDS victims from using the same toilets of their own children and how their own communities also rejected them.

“So, we started finding foster homes for them where some of the foster carers were people who were already living with HIV. They were happy to take these children in and add them to their own families. It became a movement. I can still see that first intake of 164 children walking through the gate. As that first group were leaving school a few years later they came in to say farewell. ‘Thank you for giving us an education’, they said. Then one of them said: ‘What next?’ and that floored me. I then realised I’d effectively done nothing. Primary education meant nothing. I was not equipped to begin a secondary school, but I was pushed to by that question.

The Herald: Fr Chido: It helps these children to understand that not everyone hates them; that people they don’t know care about them (Gordon Terris/The HeraldFr Chido: It helps these children to understand that not everyone hates them; that people they don’t know care about them (Gordon Terris/The Herald (Image: Gordon Terris/The Herald)

“The next year I started the first class of secondary high school. I got our staff together and said, we must do two things here: start secondary education, but also vocational training. So that as the children are progressing through secondary education they’ll also be learning skills.

“After six years of secondary education and vocational training they will then be empowered to make a future for themselves. As soon as they step through the doors of that secondary school they begin a programme of skills acquisition.”

Initially, it was the HIV orphans and then word spread about what was happening. Many local women were housewives whose husbands provided the household income. Now though, many of these men had been slain by the death squads. “There was no way I was going to shut that gate to these women. I had also come from a similar situation after my own father died. My mother was left to bring up six of us in terrible poverty. Yet, she insisted that we must all go to school.”

He talks too of the hidden benefits attached to the donations that come from Scotland to help children who have encountered little but rejection in their lives. “It helps these children to understand that not everyone hates them; that people they don’t know care about them. It will help them to show kindness to others. This is how you break the cycles of rejection and hatred.”

You can find out more about the projects in Minna diocese through the charity, Minna's Children - a charity registered in Scotland providing food, education and support for orphaned, impoverished and traumatised children through the Stella Maris Education Foundation in Nigeria. Minna's Children is a non denominational charity open to all.