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.