England Rugby’s Maro Itoje on art, activism and breaking the poverty cycle
Maro Itoje says he has so much for achieve in his personal and professional career – starting with ending the education disparity in Nigeria
He’s so synonymous with British rugby that even a sporting novice might ask: ‘Where’s Maro?’ if they noticed him missing from England rugby’s starting 15.
In doing so, Vitality Ambassador and England lock, Maro Itoje has become the personification of safety in the second row, and his career is showing no signs of plateauing.
Now an international veteran, he is no less the star of the national team than he was in 2016 when making his debut for the Lions.
Seven years on, he’s a decorated athlete with 67 caps for his country and a trophy cabinet brimming with winners’ medals.
Amongst them are three Six Nations championships; five Premiership titles for his club, Saracens; and three European Champion Cup wins; he’s also a mainstay of the British & Irish Lions, and in 2021 was voted the Player of the Series by his teammates – and that’s only scratching the surface of what most 28-year-olds dare to dream about in their lifetime.
Maro is, after all, outside the realms of rugby, a youngster, and this gentle giant, standing at 6ft 5 inches, is by no means done with his enviable career.
“There’s so much I want to achieve,” he tells Vitality Magazine
Now on course to play in one of the biggest tournaments of any sporting elite's calendar, he’s poised to add another title to his vitrine – this time, on a global scale “Winning a world title would be an absolute dream of mine and to be a part of the team that goes and does that, that would be unbelievable,” says Maro.
Likewise with Saracen’s, he’s geared up for another season of challenges
“There’s so much more to do with my club, we’ve achieved these great things in the past, but to go and create more memories through winning trophies and European titles, that’s the goal,” he says.
With a career built on a series of highs, so too comes the pressure to perform.
True to himself – a wise head on young shoulders – Maro shrugs off the stress of stepping out onto the field by keeping his perspective.
“Whether things go well, or they go badly, the sun is going to go down and it’ll come back up again,” he says.
“You feel pressure over things that you care about. If you don’t care, it’s more than likely you wouldn’t have any high degree of feeling or any pressure at all.
“For me, it’s a good sign when I’m under pressure, or I feel pressure that I care about what I’m doing.
“In periods of pressure or criticism, or anything like that, I just try and focus on the things I need to focus on. But nothing is ever really as good or as bad as it seems.”
In parallel to being a top-line rugby player, Maro wants to underline his legacy away from sport as an activist.
He’s made no secret of the fact that he wants to use his platform to provoke conversation around socio-economic issues that will, ultimately, drive change
Alongside a patronage of The Black Curriculum, a social organisation that encourages students to engage with black British history, and as a “deep lover of African art”, he launched a ‘powerful’ art exhibition dubbed A History Untold in 2021.
Showcasing everything from mathematical artifacts to art and music, the installation put Africa’s contribution to world history centre stage.
“My house is littered with art,” says Maro pointing to the various examples in his home.
“It’s good to bring the mind away from rugby from time to time. Life is all about balance, it’s all about having a balanced point of view, which is something I always aspire to have in my life.”
The Pearl Fund
Proud of his heritage, Maro was born in Camden, North London, to Nigerian parents, but his upbringing was scarcely like many Nigerian-born children.
“If I was to be born again, it is more likely that I would be born into abject poverty,” he told The Times. And visits to his native Nigeria later in life would bring the English lock’s ‘birth lottery’ to the fore.
A politics graduate and schooled at Harrow, Maro is live to the opportunities his education has brought him; and so, through his charity venture The Pearl Fund he intends to tackle the education system blighting the most disadvantaged Nigerian children.
“I think one of the most important and impactful ways of positively shaping a child’s life is through education,” he explains.
Following a ‘cradle-to-college' approach, the first group of 40 pre-school children, from Lagos’ most deprived area, are expected to be selected for the programme to start school in September. A number that is very important to his foundation.
“I want to grow sustainably; I want to start with 40 children in year one and as we grow sustainably, then we’ll look to do more and more,” says Maro.
Kids who are living in abject poverty, fatherless or orphaned are at the top of Maro’s priority list. “Orphaned kids are in a pretty tough situation and the level of need there far outweighs that of children in developed countries,” he says.
“The goal is the take these school kids from the start of primary school, throughout their whole primary and secondary education and support them in their universities education if they wish to do so.
“It’s a fairly long commitment, it’s almost twenty years’ worth of support that will go to these children... I wanted to try and create something that has a meaningful impact in changing the life trajectory of these children. In order to do that, I believe that a level of long-term support has to be given.”
Today, more than 22 million children across Nigeria are out of education, according to the fund, and are at risk of being exposed to terror, gangs and sexual violence. Maro’s 40 children might be a drop in the ocean to the wider education crisis across Africa, but that’s not going to dissuade him from his cause.
“Education is the great equaliser,” affirms Maro.
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