Friday, November 25, 2016

Growing Up Poor In Nigeria...

Growing up poor in Nigeria means living helplessly in a deep depth of despair. Or rise to the challenge of eliminating poverty by going after any legal job that pops up on your radar.
As a young person growing up in one of the most populous cities in Africa, I chose the latter and would like to share four key lessons I learned in the process.
My first attempt at escaping poverty dates back to 2003. As a teenager, I got an ad-hoc job to work for the government. It was not a norm for young people to work in the part of the world where I grew up because we often depended on our parents for everything until we transitioned into adulthood. But they could only give what they could afford. I was impatient, so I opted to get a job.
To get the ad-hoc position itself required going through an unusual process: You either needed a referral at the local government office to help push your application into the right hands or pray hard that your application got randomly selected from the thousands received.
I did both. That is, I used a referral but also prayed hard as if the connection did not matter.
The job description was simple: to serve as one of the registration officers for the national identity card project. Our role was to collect data to enable Nigerians to receive hard-printed national cards – the first of its kind.
From that work experience, I learned four lessons on:
  1. People-management skills
  2. The dynamics of how society works
  3. The gift of resilience and
  4. How personal goals are stalled by high-level corruption
Although this took place about fourteen years ago, I still remember some of the events as if they happened yesterday.
After the recruitment exercise and training, we were all posted to different stations across the state in groups of three.
We were given a box full of registration papers, ink, a computerized machine and an extra battery.
Our station was located within a public secondary school. Depending on the time of day and weather, we either set up under one of the trees in the compound or used the veranda behind a classroom.
The school administrators cheerfully provided a desk and chair to support the exercise.
  1. In my journey to escape poverty, the first lesson I learned was that people management in real life is a hard nut to crack.
Some of the people who came out for the registration exercise had a bloated sense of entitlement. Some of the rich ones - who stood out in the crowd as a result of their expensive-looking outfit or their good command of English - expected to be attended to first instead of joining the queue like other Nigerians.
Well, a few times we gave preferential treatment to familiar faces. But the loud protests from the crowd soon corrected our misplaced priorities.
So the three of us decided to stick to one rule: to register people by first-come-first-serve only. The process became very efficient. The public sang our praises to the hearing of our supervisor.
  1. In the journey to escape poverty, I also learned the dynamics of how society works.
People do not trust the government or any system connected to them.
There were days we would “open for business, ” and midway through the registration process, the batteries of our machine would run out without warning.
But the people would hear none of it. Some openly expressed their dissatisfaction and wondered aloud if we deliberately shut down to avoid attending to the hundreds of people waiting in line.
The hot weather - as high as 100 degrees – created a tense atmosphere for everyone. Under such scorching weather, the queue suddenly became slower than usual. And we - the registration officers – appeared too clumsy for their liking.
On one of such days, one petite woman stood out in the crowd.
She nagged about almost everything under the sun. If I remember correctly, she went on to blame the government and us for the broken system in Nigeria. I can’t remember what exactly my response to her must have been. But it did not go down well. A hot slap landed on my right cheek. Pah! I saw stars. Then a deafening silence.
I got up, shut my registration book and told the waiting crowd that I was done for the day. A few hands from the crowd tried to prevent me from abandoning my post. But, I was too blinded by hurt, pride, and anger, to listen to their plea.
I tried to suppress the tears, but a drop or two escaped and rolled down my cheeks like broken beads.
  1. That incidence gave way to my third lesson: the gift of resilience.
“In public service, you have to serve the people through good and bad,” some of the elders in the crowd consoled me. Their words were like a soothing balm to a burn.
A few hours later, we resumed again as a team. But this time, I scanned the crowd more carefully and tried to tame my razor-sharp tongue.
Luckily, nothing more dramatic happened after that hot slap.
  1. The fourth lesson was on how high-level corruption delays personal dreams.
Remember, this all started as part of a personal journey to escape poverty. Well, after completing the exercise, we had to spend extra days to protest our unpaid wages. Rumors had it that a high-level official embezzled the public funds meant for our salary.
Serving the public was no small feat but getting out of poverty is even harder.
But those four lessons I learned still help me till date. And I even learned something extra, which is always to have an extra-powered battery for the raining day.

This was originally presented as a speech during a Toastmasters International Mighty Motivators Club meeting. Jennifer Lourie was my first listening audience and provided constructive feedback. The copy has been modified for readability.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why The Dog Came After Me

One Saturday morning, I was standing in front of our house, a 13-tenant bungalow, when I saw her- the girl who always hurled insults at me whenever I passed by her neighborhood. She lives three streets from where I live. The location was easily accessible by everyone coming in or going out of our neighborhood. That is why our paths always crossed.

There was nothing exceptional about our neighborhood. Most of the streets were dirty and untilled. When it rained, floods danced their way into the gutters that were already vomiting water.

Iju Ishaga, the neighborhood where I first learned how to speak pidgin-English, is not considered a central part of Lagos. But it is a community that has evolved into a haven for both poor and rich. There was no apparent segregation by economic status. All the children played together as one, except for when there was a personality clash. 

I never really understood why. But the girl enjoyed taunting me. Every day on my way from school or while running errands, I always prayed not to run into her. Sometimes my prayer was answered. Other times, I fall right into her. She called me names, coloring each with words such as stupid, crazy or ugly. I could never respond because she was always in the company of her siblings.

But today she was in my territory. Unarmed. Unaccompanied. I could do what I liked with her. It was payback.

“Shebi na me you dey abuse every time?” I asked in pidgin English.
She starred blankly at me as she walked past. I followed briskly.
“Eh hen, I don catch you today,” I said authoritatively, in an attempt to intimidate her.

She just kept walking. I thought of what to do. I couldn’t allow the opportunity slide, unutilized. I certainly didn’t want to fight. The girl was taller than me. She also looked way older as well. What if she ends up beating me in my territory? I thought to myself. That would be a shameful story to narrate to others, I thought to myself.

While I was still thinking up ideas, I saw Whisky. A perfect weapon. Whisky was the neighbor’s dog. It doesn’t know me, but it always responded by barking whenever I called its name, always from a safe distance.

“God don catch you,” I called out as we both approached whisky’s house- seven blocks [houses] away from where I live. The dog looked bored. He stood like a guard at the entrance of the building.

“Whisky,” I called out.

He responded with two barks. Perfect.

The girl looked at me frightened. She stopped on her track. She was where I needed her to be. In my territory. Unarmed. Unaccompanied. Frightened.

I smiled as I called out to Whisky again. I pointed at the girl as I did so.
The dog walked toward us, away from the gate and kept barking.

“Whisky, Whisky,” I called out again, “Go and bite her,” I commanded.
Something went wrong.

Whisky’s bark became vicious. Before I could call out its name again, the dog charged at me, and I took to my heels.

But my short legs couldn’t outrun the angry dog. I tripped over a stone and found myself on the dirty street. Whisky launched at me. Its bite pierced through my trouser. I let out a scream.

Neighbours from different houses soon gathered around us. The sight of a helpless six years old girl and an angry dog must have torn at their hearts. One of them called for the dog’s owner. No one asked what happened. They all looked at me with kindness in their eyes and asked me where I lived. The girl whom I planned to prey on was also there, sandwiched between the adults in the crowd.

She looked at me, pitifully.

That day, I learned an important life-lesson- if you point one finger to haul evil at someone, you have four fingers directing it back at you.
I could not look directly at her, out of shame. I ran home without responding to the inquisitive crowd.

Oh! I didn't wonder for too long why the dog came after me. I figured it out.

(c) 2014 Jennifer Ehidiamen

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Moreni knew no other night would pass until they completed their mission. She could see the determination in the eyes of the little old woman everyone called Iya wa, which means our mother. The two stout men that served as Iya wa's bodyguard walked protectively behind the girls as they traveled through the dark forest, all engrossed in their troubled thoughts.

"They know this is wrong," Moreni thought quietly to herself, as hot tears rolled down her chubby cheeks.

"This is not about right or wrong," Iya wa's baritone voice echoed in her head. The full moon was a custom the people of Abule village firmly honored. A time when teenage virgins were usually selected from every home to be circumcised to indicate their readiness to be married to any man who could afford the bride price.

The Earth is cold tonight. No warmth came from the fire that blazed at the center of the compound. The motherly moon positioned its round figure over Iya wa's hut. The drummers and singers took their seat at the entrance of the hut, ready to sing and dance to Iya wa's favorite rhythm as Abule village awaits the pruned flowers to return home in pride, oblivious to the pain inflicted on these girls and the scars they are left to nurse into adulthood. How generations suffer from lack of knowledge.

Moreni helplessly watched on as the first girl was led into the hut. Her innocent look and breastless chest revealed her vulnerability to the full moon. Suddenly, a cry of pain rang through the night. Moreni felt her heart race in fear. Just one more girl and it would be her turn. The little courage she had left was dashed when the first group of girls came out walking with their two legs wide apart.

"Oh mother!" a girl screamed from the hut.

Although the door was shut, everyone could hear Iya wa commanding the girl to lie still. The singers began to hum mournfully, and Iya wa came out, her white wrapper soaked with the red blood of the innocent. She stared into the night and announced without remorse "she bled to death" before leading Moreni inside.

The only source of light in the room came from a small lantern. The floor was untilled, and a blood-stained mat was spread at the center of the hut. A small bowl of water and Iya wa's handbag were the only items in sight. Iya wa gestured towards the mat, as Moreni made to lie down, she was shocked to see a lifeless body on the floor. She took one look at Iya wa's cold face and ran out of the hut.

"Come back here!" Iya called out to her.

She heard heavy footsteps behind her, perhaps Iya wa's bodyguards in pursuit? She had to keep running.

"Moreni, the full moon is for your good, It is the pride of every woman in Abule village," her mother's untrue lines pierced into her heart. No one mentioned death, or the blood or the rusted knife Iya wa used for her operation.

She couldn't tell how far she must have ran. The full moon remained still in the sky. Moreni knew she couldn't hide from it!

"Freedom, here I come," she screamed in excitement.

Someone pulled at her shoulder. She turned to find Iya wa's bodyguard behind her. Dogs barked in the distance, and a forlorn silence fell on Abule village. Everyone knew the fate of any girl who tried to defile the full moon.

(c) Jennifer Ehidiamen


In the heart of all men lies a burden of words of their feelings tied together in a knot, waiting to be let loose. I am fifteen years old, but I feel fifty, my bones crack in protest each time I move my bulging stomach, my pillow cry out to be relieved of my weight upon it. I sit in idleness every day, counting the minutes as it crawls into hours. I come from a “humble” home; my father is a poor man who makes a living from washing other people’s clothes. The meager some he makes from it is used for feeding his wife and six children. I am the second child, the only girl in my family. I hungered to see my family’s poor state reformed. It was this desire for a better life that made me wander away from home, into the hand of a boy whom fate has forced into a man.

Truthfully, I thought Hassan had what it takes to make my future bright in a split second, at least that was what he used to tell me each time I met him after school. He boasted about his father’s wealth; this led me to give myself freely to him without thinking twice about the consequences. I knew there was no turning back the day the doctor confirmed that I was three months pregnant. I only packed my bags and fled from school, into the home of my lover and friend. Hassan welcomed me with open arms thinking it was for the usual Night of bliss, but after I let the cat out of the bag, he lovingly stared into my eyes and begged me to abort the child. “Bisi, you are too young to be a mother, and at twenty I don’t think I am ready to take up the responsibility of a father,” Hassan said sadly.

“But I thought you love me, and you promised to give up anything to be with me.” I cried until I had no strength left for tears. I was perplexed. Did my parents look for me? Only my mother did, my father had no room for unconditional love.

Today marks the eleventh month since I left home, to me, it seems like a decade. As usual, my Mother is babysitting my daughters, Hassanatu and Halimatu.

“A twin brings healthy wealth to all who loves them,” she keeps telling my broken heart. Hassan is out working, and I am supposed to be resting. Rest? I know I will never find it. The devil with his long tail has used me in destroying the future of a young boy who has now been disowned by his father for rubbing his name in the mud of irresponsibility diluted with immorality. I have devastated my world, which until now was secured and bright in its little light. “A wasted investment” is what my elder brother calls me. I have brought two children into this world when I can barely take care of myself, and now another is on the way. What was it my Mother said? “Oh! My baby is manufacturing babies!” What a sad reality.

I tell myself every morning that it will get better, the fears and tears will be gone tomorrow, but I know these are lies I tell to help cover up my wound of shame. Now I understand why my father always say that life can only be fair when we play our role well in it. I have run in error, a race I pray no girl ever run again. I do not know how to begin. This is the story.

(c) Jennifer Ehidiamen