Nigerian-born Maryam Abbakyari (pictured above, right) has been combining her knowledge of Architecture with her passion for her homeland to try and revolutionise housing in Nigeria’s poorest communities through her PhD research.
She explains how The Sir Thomas White Loan Charity’s (STWLC) Education Loan has enabled her to take on this project and how her research has changed her perspective on life.
“I grew up in Borno State, Nigeria, and earned my first degree in architecture there before moving to the United Kingdom with my spouse 20 years ago.”
“Due to having children, I was unable to continue my studies and decided to postpone until I was mentally prepared. When my youngest child was only six months old and I was a single parent, I decided that resuming my studies was the best way forward. I attended De Montfort University in Leicester and graduated with a Master’s degree in Architecture and Sustainability. Following that, I was employed as a lecturer at a further education college, where I taught students who would eventually work in the construction industry – architecture, quantity surveying, civil engineering, and so on.
“However, I later decided to return to education and pursue a PhD full-time in 2020.”
“The timing couldn’t have been worse as COVID-19 hit, leaving me trying to balance my studies while home-schooling my children – all while receiving very little financial support.”
“Fortunately, the university allowed us to take a break from our studies to organise and reset our personal lives.”
The subject of Maryam’s PhD – Framework for Sustainable Housing for the Urban Poor in Developing Countries: A case study of a slum settlement in Nigeria – has been a passion of hers since childhood.
“I chose to study architecture because I wanted to learn how we could improve housing in our community by making it more comfortable, modern, and low-cost, and I decided to pursue this theme for my PhD.
“Many studies have been done in this type of architecture, so I looked at the United Nations website and saw they have an issue of developing housing solutions for certain slums worldwide, and I thought this would be a good place to contribute my knowledge, particularly of Nigeria.”
Maryam spent three weeks in Nigeria in 2021 on a data collection mission to better understand the needs of people in those slums.
“I researched the environment and local policies in that area. As local authorities work to modernise Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, slum residents have been asked to relocate from the city centre to the outskirts.
“The residents, however, refused to leave because this is their ancestral home. They’ve been offered housing before, but these two-to-three-bedroom box-style houses don’t fit their lifestyle needs because polygamy is quite common in northern Nigeria, so these people will have several wives and sometimes even 20 children. They are content with their simple lifestyle and are uninterested in amenities such as washing machines or modern kitchens.
“One of the outcomes of the interviews was that they are very open to being provided with designs by local authorities and examining them before building the houses themselves.
“My challenge is to try and provide a suitable housing design which will fit in this urban setting.”
Maryam’s trip had a huge impact on both her academic and personal life, and she says her outlook has changed.
“It made me feel so humble and really appreciate life! Those people don’t have much, but they were the happiest people I’ve ever seen. I cried several times whenever I left the settlement after the interviews. The way they were so passionate and so united. The household is quite large, but they are not worried about the lack of infrastructure, electricity and water, they find a way to get by.
“I now try to be content with whatever I have, and I have reduced my material aspirations massively.”
Whilst Maryam’s time in Nigeria was a success and she conducted the research required, she was struggling financially and, in order to fund her trip, had to borrow money from friends and family and spend money on credit cards with interest – something she had tried to avoid due to her Islamic beliefs.
Her difficulties were compounded by the fact that, unlike an undergraduate loan, her postgraduate student loan did not include a maintenance loan, which meant that, despite working at a local college at the time, she struggled to provide for her family due to the massive debt repayment.
She had thought about applying for a STWLC loan before her trip, but thought she was ineligible due to the fact she could not provide a UK-based guarantor, so she left it and carried on accruing debt.
However, Sarah Hope, Clerk to Trustees at STWLC, got back in touch with Maryam and encouraged her to apply anyway. Maryam says this gave her the breakthrough she needed.
“The application process was very straightforward. I filled it in, sent it off and then received an email inviting me to an interview. I had no idea whether my loan application would be approved,” she says.
“When I saw the loan was approved, I was totally shocked. I felt like I had won the lottery!
“Even at the point of signing the agreement document, I was thinking ‘Is this real?’. The money was then transferred to my bank account just a few hours later!
“Overall, from application to funds, everything took just a few weeks!”
The loan has been life-changing for Maryam and will allow her PhD studies to continue with ease.
“As I said, I came back humbled after visiting the slum. I thought ‘we’re spending money on things we don’t even need’. Having had the experience of being in debt for several months was so stressful, so I decided to really try and live within my means.”
Asked whether she would recommend STWLC to others, Maryam said: “Definitely! My friend is also interested in pursuing a PhD but is concerned about funding, so I suggested she apply for the STWLC loan and see what happens.
To find out more about The Sir Thomas White Loan Charity’s interest-free Education Loans, which are available up to the value of £10,000 for 9 years interest free, please click here.