Wednesday, 6 May 2015
How I became an undergraduate at 14
At 14, you were already a student in the university. How did that happen?
Well, I just decided to take JAMB (the Joint Matriculation Examination) because something told me that I could, based on my records as a kid. My daddy agreed because I had always been a smart kid. So he got me the form and said I could go as long as I didn’t go to a distant university, because I was a child.
I had already taken examinations for university education in the UK and US but my dad said I should stay back. When my JAMB results came out, I did very well. So, I got to the university before I could even take WAEC. The school then said I would get a provisional admission until I got my WAEC results. Luckily, it came out fine and I made all my papers.
You must have felt out of place in the university at that age…
Oh yes! I did feel out of place. My only comfort at that point was that I had always been a big child, so I used to lie about my age. I remember meeting a smallish friend who said to me, ‘Hi, you look very young.’ I said the same thing to her and she said, ‘Well, I’m 26′ and I said, ‘Well, I’m 20′.
So, you can imagine my shock when I started seeing course mates who were 30, 29 or 28 then. It was very hard for me. I was very angry but my father insisted since we had a deal, I could see it through. Then, I would go on holidays to see my age mates still giggling and being pampered. But I was getting ready for lectures. It was tough but I thought I could pull through.
Did you have any carry-over?
Of course, I was just a regular Nigerian lady. In my first year, I had a carry-over. I am not that perfect; not everything went through for me. I broke down at some point because the pressure really got to me. I succumbed to peer pressure and dating. My father guided me so much so that he was always in my room. So, the pressure got to me and I think I failed just a course in my first year.
Towards the end of school, I got hitches that I don’t like to discuss. It was actually what spurred me to activism and made me decide to be a voice to the voiceless. Everybody goes through it when you have lecturers harassing you when they see potentials in you. I was into sports. I won medals for my school. I played squash and badminton. I was also in the school’s judicial arm.
I was a bright kid, but when my age became known throughout the campus, everybody wanted to bully me. It was really hard and I would rather not talk about it.
So, that was really what bought you to activism?
Yes. I mean, I led protests in school, even at that age. I told myself I must fight every injustice against me and others. I promised myself I would read as much as I could and acquire as many certificates as I could. So, I went back to school and got a diploma in Computer Network Engineering. I became certified by the highest regulatory body as a Microsoft System Engineer. I continued to take courses in catering, policy formulation and all of that.
In 2004, I joined the British Council for the first ethical training in the UK. I was part of that delegation. When I came to Lagos in 2000, I started working with this NGO called African Youth for Transparency. It was just coming up then. I also represented Nigeria in the first HIV/AIDS conference in Germany. That exposed me to the activism field. I started interfacing with youths worldwide to know what challenges they were facing and all that.
You were not doing any regular job?
Oh, I did several jobs. But I was always off and on. Money was never a problem for me, not because of my parents but because I had always been enterprising. While in school, I was baking. I was doing make-up. I even travelled to France to study it. So, I am a certified make-up artist. I entered interior decoration and wood carving. Basically, I did everything that could fetch me money, except prostitution.
While doing all of these, I had a regular job with Angels Foods as a manager. They were serving Airtel then. I was the marketing manager. But it never derailed me from other things I was doing.
At what point did you relocate to the US?
Interestingly, I never relocated in that sense. My stay in the US became steady in the last three years. I realised that many youths do not have any input in the development of treaties, bilateral trade agreements and all that. So, I connected with a lot of NGOs in the United States and everywhere to really delve into this.
How were you able to sustain all of these?
At a point, I had to quit my job, of course. I started a campaign called INigeria conceived during the rebranding years. I realised that many Nigerians were not proud to disclose their identities abroad. But I have never had that thing. Even before you ask me, I tell you I’m a Nigerian. They would say you don’t look Nigerian and I would ask: how do Nigerians look? So, I made shirts and vests that I put everywhere.
Having interacted with youths across the globe, what stands out the Nigerian youth?
I have been at this for 15 years and I have found that the most unique thing about us is our resilience. I have seen the most dilapidated places in Nigeria and you still see youths smiling and hoping. You never can get that anywhere else. They would have exploded or caved in. But we are resilient and that is so unique.
We don’t eat alone in Nigeria; you don’t use the word ‘I’ but ‘we’. Our lives are built around others and the society. The Nigerian youths are also very intelligent and brilliant. They are so brilliant but they don’t get recognised because we don’t get to speak. The youths are so suppressed that we lose our identities.
A man is told to be an engineer and not be a caterer. The lady is told to choose tailoring and not mechanical engineering. So, the stereotypes have really affected us. We are so respectful that we tend to do what we are told. We don’t want to fail those expectations.
Unfortunately, we have crossed the era of computer age to information age. Nigerian youths can now access what happens everywhere. That is good but it is also a doom in that it leads to frustration seeing what others are doing elsewhere. They compare themselves a lot, forgetting we don’t have the same standards.
What has kept that ‘Nigerianess’ in you despite your global exposure?
I will say the love for my country and family. I come from a closely knit family. My parents always taught me to maintain family ties. It is a problem that people don’t talk anymore face to face. We don’t invest physical time into relationships again. So, it is easy to cut off from somebody without a sense of loss. That is why it is easy for youths to join terrorist organisations because there is no more conscience.
When you meet someone physically, there is something about that person that sticks with you unlike calls. So, my love for Nigeria has always been because of the roles I know I have to play. I have seen people suffer and how my family helped out made me decide to give back to this society.
Thinking about it, if you compare Nigeria with developed countries, we are so awesome. We’d blossom in few years. If we have come this far in so such a little time, you can imagine what will become of us in the nearest future. You go to some places in Nigeria where there were no roads and you suddenly see mansions springing up with massive development. So, there is something amazing about us and we are going places, for sure.
I get angry when I hear we have unemployment crisis, because there is so much to do here. Our youths have many things to do. There is no reason why any of us should be idle. I have done so much in the social sector and given back so much to people. I have done great. That is just a sector. There are several others that people can explore.
We are still used to things being handed down to us. We have been so negative that we don’t see any possibility again. We indulge in pity parties. But we have got to change that. We have to prove that we constitute the greater percentage of the population. We have to produce results that will convince the older generation.
You have met a lot of global leaders. Which of them left permanent impressions on you?
Oh, my God! I have met a lot of people. I have met Ban Ki-Moon, President Barrack Obama and Mitchelle. I didn’t just meet them, I shook hands with them and had fairly long conversations with them. Obama and Moon were two people I had always wanted to meet and I got my wish. It was awesome meeting them. They made a huge impact on my life. Meeting them convinces me I’m great and I could achieve anything. I have met about 10 presidents that I really care about. Most of them I met during the presidential summit last year during the Mandela Washington Fellowship in the US.
Last year, you got a proclamation for Nigeria in the New York. Can you briefly talk about that?
The proclamation was by the Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. It was at the United Nations indigenous people’s forum, which I hosted. It was an acknowledgment of the contributions of Nigerians to the State of New York. From last year, every May 16 is dedicated to celebrating Nigeria and Nigerians in New York. The next edition will be classy. It’d be an opportunity to exhibit the best we have to offer.
Other states in the US like Arkansas and others are willing to also celebrate Nigeria in their localities so that we can have access to special funding and grants in those places. So, I chose that project to celebrate our ingenuity.
How much of an Igbo lady are you?
Oh, I will say 100%. When I go home, I still process the palm fruits. I pick the kernel and pound it until the oil comes out. I still speak my language fluently and extremely. I mean, I don’t joke with it at all. I love our foods so much, even though I am careful now because of my weight.
I’m in touch with our cultures and traditions. That is why I try to talk to our youths there. In fact, one of my projects this year is to tour the South East and talk on the importance of inclusivity. They need to learn how to live with others and tolerate others. No matter your culture, nobody will accept your culture is better. You must learn to accept others for who they are.
You have identified exclusivity as a problem in the South East?
Yes, I have. Look at the elections, for example. To me, as a youth activist, I was embarrassed that my people voted based on ethnic considerations. I was confronted by my friends in other tribes. I realised that if we don’t stop that, we could get into real, big problems. For me, voting for someone should be about competence and performance. It should never be about tribe and religion. Yet, we keep making that terrible mistake.