Dept of English & film studies
Univ. Of Alberta, Edmonton.
I thank the organizers for the honour of inviting me to hear my story from child refugee to ambassador to writer-in-residence.
I thank the U of Alberta, dept of English & film studies for the opportunity and exposure.
Context of IWD 2022.
Have entitled my discourse escape velocity: what is escape velocity?
The force, energy, needed to propel a rocket up against gravitational pull out of the earth orbit and into space. Apt, because being from a humble background, without a decisive push, one may not be able to ascend. Push has to be relentless, unflinching so as not to fall back to ground zero.
I have divided my discourse into four propellers: sources of the energy:
Caveat: I grew up in Nigeria and our modus operandi may differ from that of other climes.
Are the people who nurture you, let you excel, let you in. Keep you alive. In my circumstances, keep you standing.
We are astride the shoulders of our forerunners, our parents, family.
My mother. Since we are marking the IWD. Currently 98. Catholic. Era of no contraception. Era of high patriarchy. Nine children. 7 females.
Reification/deification of male children.
Digress to explain spirit /evil child that are born, live a while, die, re-enter their mother’s womb to be born again in a cycle of life & death. 3, 4 times. Petty graves.
Mother had two of these spirit children. None died. It required a lot of sacrifices, vigils, hospitalizations where there was no 911 service, no ambulances, no emergency, no health aid. The effort to keep these two children alive was more than the effort to raise the other healthy seven. The phenomenon of spirit child was the sickle cell disease but there was no science then to tell us. Many families buried many SS children; my family, no. This was due to heavy lifting by parents.
Civil war: into this medical conundrum, add the civil war that broke out in 1967. Father joins the war. Mother raises nine children, out of which two, sickly, spirit children. Remember, war is synonymous with lack, uncertainty, hardship, suffering, to inflict the greatest iniquity. To compound a bad situation, the federal side used hunger as a weapon against the secessionist side, blocking imports. All govt effort was geared towards the war. No Medicare. Just skeletal services for civilians. You were on your own. Yet no child died.
Internal displacements: from the city to the hinterland to escape the approaching war. Remember it was the conventional war of shelling and bombing and gaining ground. We fled to the hinterland to escape the air raids. Moved to my maternal grandmother’s riverine village at first. When we sensed the jackboots approaching, we & granny fled to my paternal grandfather’s. Bucolic. We hid in bunkers. Lost uncles. Our school was converted to a refugee camp for fleeing compatriots. Families donated rooms in their dwelling to house scattered classes. Classes 5 & 6 moved to our sitting room and dining respectively. The war kept on approaching. The radio was perpetually on: this town has fallen, that city has succumbed, this enclave has been captured.
Federal forces were gaining ground, advancing. The federal forces wanted by all means to capture our home town, Nnewi, where the warlord, colonel Ojukwu hailed from.
My older brother joined father in the war. Family left was mother, seven girls and a sickly 8-year-old son.
Remember my parents had seven girls, the oldest was 18. My mother accosted my father one of those days he came home: have you thought of what will happen to your girls if the federal forces capture us, if this town, our last hope falls? That night we fled, made our way under the moonlight to the bush Uli airstrip. A cargo plane was offloading relief supplies. We were bundled into it, with other refugees and taken to Libreville, Gabon. International refugees. My mother and her brood. Two sticklers. Father left behind to fight the war.
Three months later, to alleviate my mother’s load, Caritas, the catholic charity took four of us siblings to Ireland and shared us among benevolent Irish families. We went into foster care.
Gate keepers. People who have your back. Parents. Siblings. Philanthropists. People who take in refugees. They supplied the initial energy for take-off of the rocket. They stood in the gap.
After the war we retraced our steps to Nigeria, one country now. No more Biafra. Father lost his job. How raise nine children? Sacrifices. Sold assets; land, family jewellery. At this time, I was in college, a catholic boarding facility for girls, we would be fifty at the beginning of the school year, by the end, less than twenty would remain, the rest having been withdrawn to marry. The thinking was: why invest in a female that will marry and move away? Remember male children were valued. Barefaced misogyny was the order of the day. Suitors came knocking for us, for my sisters and me. Seeing her friends’ daughters married off, my mother buckled. I overheard her asking my father: are you going to marry your daughters?
But my pa persevered, educated all seven daughters. Up to university level, some to postgraduate level. This provided fuel to propel us forward. So, the father of the girl child is also a gatekeeper: keeps distractions at bay.
I obtained a BA in French from the university of Benin, and an MSc in international relations from the university of Lagos. After my university education and compulsory national service, I was recruited into the Nigerian foreign service. From the bottom rung I rose gradually, to be appointed ambassador.
after gatekeepers, education is the next propeller. Three prongs:
* stay as long as possible in an educational institution; up to PhD. Get the specific knowledge there.
* after employment, acquire cognate knowledge in your ministry/department/agency;
* commitment to life-long learning; via books, magazines, podcasts, etc.
Go the extra mile to stand out from the crowd. Pray. No excuses. Volunteer. I worked with the permanent secretary in Abuja. One day she was to take the red eye to London for a conference and had to clear her desk. At 11 pm, we saw her PA arrive the office with her travelling luggage. We worked through the night. At 6 in the morning, she left for the airport while we scrambled home for a shuteye. Be ready for that. Pope St. John Paul “prendete in mano la vostra vita e fatene un capolavoro”. Take your life in hand and make of it a masterpiece.
In 2010 I was deputy high commissioner at the Nigeria high commission, Ottawa when a new head in Abuja recalled five staff from around the world to work on a special project. I packed my stuff and left. The others waited to finish their term at post before returning. When the time came for appointing ambassadors, my boss remembered the sacrifice.
Hard work provides velocity too. Be ready to go the extra mile.
You need a mentor, a guardian angel, a fairy godmother to send you to the ball, a voice in the boardroom or senior staff committee. To put your name forward for courses, training programs, conferences, opportunities. For visibility to excel, to get you noticed, to prove your mettle.
In the context of IWD, women, play the gender card. The UN has established a quota of 33% to be set aside for females in appointments, and decision-making positions etc. Be ready educationally and professionally.
In 2013, eight vacancies for ambassadors. List was sent to then president Goodluck Jonathan. Our first lady was vocal about women’s issues, rights, appointments, saying we are not just good for clapping and singing at campaign rallies but qualified for positions in government. The ministry, in sending lists to the presidency knew to do gender balancing or the president would not approve. So, in the submission, they looked at seniority for the menfolk who are everywhere. To balance it, the criterium was stellar performance. That is when my mentor remembered my sacrifices over the years. The extra miles. So that year, out of only 8 ambassadors appointed, I featured. Call it serendipity. Call it kismet.
Heads of state, first ladies, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, menfolk are also gatekeepers in the women’s struggle / cause that can let women in.
Be a mentor to those behind. It is a relay race we are running, not the 100 metres dash to finish first and climb the podium. Cover some distance, mentor subordinates, pass the baton.
We are all gatekeepers. Let disadvantaged / underserved demographics in. Let women, BIPOC in. Be a gatekeeper in the social struggle, not a sleeping watchman.
As ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, I arrived Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, at ten in the morning, on 10 January 2014. That same day, I was ushered in to see the foreign minister. Before close of work, I had presented my letters of credence to president Ouattara. It was a first. Average time for an envoy to present his credentials is 3-6 months.
My work as ambassador was facilitated by the fact that I was educationally sound. I took promotion exams when due, studied for them, passed. In my years in the foreign ministry, I went around the departments so I knew my onions having risen through the ranks. As ambassador, I received my head of state three times, received the vice president two times, ministers et al, prepared reports and represented my country well. My post was French-speaking. I could operate, approach people, make friends who facilitated my work. Nigeria is a big player in the world, especially in west Africa so I rode on that crest as well.
In conclusion, family, education, hard work and mentors provided the escape velocity that enabled me rise to the stratosphere of my career from very humble beginnings as a child refugee.
I thank you for your attention.
25 February, 2022