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FACE TO FACE

No Charm at Ukwu-Mango

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Face to face column with Patience Ejimofor.

Just recently, “Ukwu-Mango,” lost one of its best landmarks – the mango tree from which the popular eating spot was named.

Besides taking its name from the tree, the mango cooled the air and provided a natural air conditioning in the scorching sun. But the tree is no more because some “NEPA” operatives didn’t know they could trim the mango instead of cutting it down, even if it was blocking power lines. By the way, where’s the power?

Many Ukwu-Mango customers who once enjoyed their meals in the open are now forced to sit on the inside, since the demise of the tree, eating and sweating.  All that’s left are of the once-covering Mango are stumps, good only to be chopped up with an axe and used for firewood.

But it’s still business as usual for the two widows- Angela and Josephine Uwaoma, who own and run the restaurant.

“I went to the village the day they cut down the tree. Had I been there, I’d have begged them to cut down some branches rather than the whole tree,” a displeased Josephine, the older of the two women, told Face2Face, cleaning beans and looking exhausted.

The younger Angela concurred, managing to smile but also looking tired and seating. The Uwaoma’s are wives of the late Emmanuel-Uwaoma, a well-known furniture maker whose showroom now houses the two restaurants, each belonging to one of the wives and bearing the name Ukwu-Mango.

The two eateries exist side by side and are only separated by plastic curtains. They cook and sell similar foods – egusi, okro, vegetable, fried plantain, rice and stew as well as their signature “nkwobi” – which draws patrons – young and old, rich and poor.

Ukwu-Mango does its best to provide good food but struggles with hygiene as most places in a Nigeria, where government pays lip service to sanitation. Like most homes and business places, Ukwu-Mango has to buy water daily from someone else’s borehole to cook, clean, wash and flush their toilets. For an eating place that caters for dozens of people, the restaurant needs regular water supply and electricity which the country doesn’t have.

Notwithstanding, the owners are united in their plight and determination to do good business. Their tested culinary skills keep customers coming and filing for their food. In some instances, I understand, customers volunteer to wash the plates themselves so they can get quick food. The women love and respect each other, which has worked well for their business.

But like everything in life, they have detractors – people who are jealous of their progress and accuse them of doing business with “charms” – a common but never-proven accusation.  Face2Face visited Ukwu-Mango and found that the charms the women have are the mutual respect they have for each other, coupled with discipline, hard work and the fear of God.

None of the women was working prior to 1983, when their husband and bread-winner died. Josephine the second wife had eight children and the younger Angela, the third wife, three children.

Raising the family constituted a big challenge for the mothers, and through good counsel, Angela hit the road running, with a wheel barrow selling rice and stew while Josephine fried akara and sold from home.

“I was going around with a wheelbarrow selling food – after a while I started staying at home here then I came to the front of the house and started selling food. I was the one who first started to sell food and that was after our husband died,” said Angela. The younger Uwaoma explained that she had trained to become a patient medicine dealer but was forced to channel her resources into selling food, which was considered a more profitable business.

“My people said that it will not give me enough money to raise my three children so I started to cook. My brother and uncle gave me start-up money and helped me build a truck with which I carried the food around. By the grace of God, I started and gradually the business grew. I will cook the food and Jehovah will bring people to buy,” Angela concluded.

In the meantime, Josephine herself had gradually switched from frying akara to also selling food. She said God told her to make the change.

“I went to church one day and received a message that God said I will raise my children through selling food. I struggled with it for a while but later moved to the front of the house and started cooking and selling food. As you see me, I am so tired; I can hardly stand up or even walk around and serve my customers anymore as a result of so much work and exhaustion. But God has glorified his name,” Josephine added.

The two businesses have co-existed for over two decades and the widows, who attend the same church, have nothing but goodwill towards each other.

Josephine made it clear that Angela had never disrespected her. “If she is selling plantain or anything and hers finishes, she will come here and get some. I too will do the same thing,” she explained.

Both women have raised and educated their children and some of them have even graduated from the university.

“Through this business, my three children are now university graduates. Although I have not bought a car and do not have piece of a land, God has been good to me,” said Angela.

Josephine added:  “God has given me life and good health, we get sick we recover. My children–those who want to study have studied and those who do not are home. I have done my best. There isn’t much more any mother can do.”

The women complain about the rising cost of living and the challenges of buying things from terribly unionized traders in the Owerri market. Another challenge is water and electricity but it’s a nation-wide problem.

“When we started selling food, we used to sell rice, beans, plantain and meat for 50 Naira. Today we sell rice at N150 and N200. We have to buy water every day from those who have borehole, we also buy firewood. Things have changed but God is good,” they said in unison.

The Uwaomas are not happy that their trade mark mango tree was cut down but they refuse to let it discourage them. Instead, they are defying the heat and pressing on, perfecting their meals.

Additionally, they are telling their detractors to shut up and boldly declaring – “we have no skeleton in our cupboard. All we have is Jesus.”

 

FACE TO FACE

Brightening up ALVAN with a Blessing

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Face to face column with Patience Ejimofor.

Getting the top job was a surprise to Dr (Mrs) Blessing Ijioma, despite a revelation she had earlier.

“It never crossed my wildest imagination that I’d ever be the provost. I am not from Imo State, and Alvan was still an Imo-State institution. I thought it was one of those revelations. But as years went bye, things started unfolding, with the Federal government taking over Alvan,” said the Abia-born, mother of five, beautifully attired in a traditional outfit and pouring over files.

It was a surprise to the Methodist preacher, a doctor of food science and technology because she was chasing purpose rather than position. But when the opportunity came for her to seek the exalted office of Provost, she boldly stepped forward.

Three years ago, the Assistant Provost became Provost and last November, she led the college to its 50 years anniversary, a milestone she’s proud of.

“I t makes me feel very happy. I think it’s also divine that by the time the first female provost is on seat Alvan also reaches 50 years. I feel fulfilled. I am really happy,” the soft-spoken woman said, barely looking up.

Dr (Mrs) Blessing Ijioma

Dr (Mrs) Blessing Ijioma

Dr Ijioma had just returned from a meeting and preparing for another. She had visitors waiting and an important courtesy call to attend.

The Provost didn’t look at all flustered and her office was nice and cool.  But the same can’t be said about the seat she’s occupying as the first female boss.

“It is hot but not so hot by the grace of God. If you’re anchored on God and you are self confident and know what you’re supposed to do, and do it, there’s no reason to want to prove yourself. In fact Jesus said, ‘if you don’t believe in me, believe the work that I do. It’s the work that testify of me’,”  wife of Sir Chukwuemeka Ijioma, added.

A former HOD and Dean, Dr (Mrs) Ijioma is mindful that she is setting a precedent at the college, as the first woman to hold the big job. She knows that her performance could open the door wider or shut it for future female aspirants. She’s therefore careful not to give detractors a chance to say – a ‘woman can’t do it!’

“As Dean, I didn’t encounter any opposition because there had been other female deans in other schools of the college, so there was nothing significant. Also, being a deputy provost didn’t quite raise an eye brow, people didn’t bother too much. But when I became the provost- it was unexpected that a female will emerge,” she explained, calmly.

“The first reaction was ‘could she perform? Can she do it? Can she meet with the challenges?’ But then, I settled down with my management team and we have been able to prove that a woman can do it by the Grace of God and the support of those around. So those who said, ‘a woman can’t do it’ are gradually changing their mind and attitude’.

Additionally, she adopted an all-inclusive management style, where she tries to draw everyone who has a contribution to make towards the growth development of ALVAN.

“I consult with my management team. My deputy is male, my registrar is female – incidentally the first female.  We consult and deliberate. I am not afraid of my team because I have nothing to hide. I try to operate an open door. I go beyond the management team to bring in all those who have something to offer, who have ideas and are willing to join,” she also said.

Those who insist that women can’t work together and don’t support each other may have a chat with the ALVAN boss.

“I have never had my women not supporting me. In fact, they are excited because it’s when the first female succeeds that others will have the desire and confidence that they can do it,” she added.

Support may not be 100 per cent, and never is, but Dr Ijioma has enough goodwill and experience to enable her to do her job well.  On the flip side, ALVAN is happy unlike Aso Rock, where President Jonathan has been told recently to ‘watch his back’.  Mrs Ijioma has received no such warning and has nothing to watch except the upheaval in the country’s education system. The Nsukka alumnus, a strong scripture union member in her day, admitted that all is not well in the nation’s classrooms, including her own. Many students have thrown in the towel, preferring to buy certificates instead of study for it, while some lecturers choose to sell books to students rather than teach them.

“It makes us feel very bad when we think of how we burnt the midnight oil, and then to see what is happening now. Students are not even ready to work hard again and society has not done them well. Merit, honesty, hard work have been thrown overboard because people can get certificates without going to school. Those who sell in the market can go to miracle centres and get their certificates,“ she said, sadly.

“Before the war, facilities were not wonderful but the teachers were dedicated and students were ready to work … I can only do my best by insisting that the lecturers do their work – that they no longer come into the classrooms, introduce their book, give one or two lectures and disappear to wait for examination. We also make sure the students attend lectures and do their exams and if there’s exam malpractice, they are punished,” she added, promising expulsion to any student caught cheating.

Dr Ijioma is gradually changing the landscape of the college with the construction of new classroom and administration blocks. The provost is also trying to strengthen the college academically, clean up teaching and learning as well as motivate students to earn their certificates. Imo’s number one teacher training college still trains the trainer, runs its traditional NCE programmes and offers degrees from the University of Nigeria.

“You can see what is happening – we are trying to increase the number of classrooms, labs and equipment that both students and lecturers can use. This will make learning easier and many students are trying to learn. The Nigerian youth is not totally bad. The problem is society. There’s a proverb which says, brighten the corner where you are, that’s what we’re trying to do,” she concluded – a true blessing in disguise.

 

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FACE TO FACE

Beating racism with biology – Ghanaian Teacher floors racist

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Face to face column with Patience Ejimofor.

In the 50s and 60s, many black people living in the West UK and US met with serious, bold-faced racism. Nowadays, colour prejudice is no longer as strong or “in-your-face” as before although it’s not entirely dead, as a Ghanaian teacher found out.

Most times, the persons at the receiving end of racism or racial attack are powerless and unable to fight back. Those who can, especially if it’s a case of verbal attack or name calling, usually return the abusive language, name or, better still, invent their own equally derogatory term.  For example, a white man calls you a “monkey” and you call him a “pig” and the story ends there – no winner no loser!

John Ampofo

John Ampofo

But Ghanaian-born John Ampofo had a different mindset and understanding of racism. Therefore, he responded to racism on a London underground train in an unusual way.  Face2Face chatted with Ampofo at a restaurant in east London. Here is his story.

It was a cold Winter morning and Ampofo was going home from work. Black and White was the last thing on his mind as he got on the Jubilee Line with dozens of other commuters and night workers, most of them struggling with sleep. A professional biology teacher, Ampofo had migrated to the UK as most Africans in search of a better life, and had just closed from his daunting night job as a security guard and heading home.

Shivering with cold even in a sweater, Jacket and coat, Ampofo located an empty seat at the far end of the train and, hurriedly, went for it. Just as he was about to sit, a white man next to him, jumped up from his own seat and muttered angrily, “you monkey!” and literally fled.

Surprised but not embarrassed, the tired Ampofo, a tall personable science tutor, looked the racist squarely in the face and replied:  “For the first time, you’re seeing a monkey speaking laconic English and one without a prehensile tail.”

Unknown to Ampofo, another white man, a potential employer, was watching keenly.  His intelligent remark caught him and he exclaimed, “oh, you’re learned!”  The impressed observer requested for Ampofo’s telephone number and followed it up with a call and later, a job-offer.

“That was how I got my first teaching appointment,” Ampofo, who has been in the UK for over 15 years, told Face2 Face.

That experience ended Ampofo’s ordeal as a security guard and brought him back into the classroom as a science teacher. He taught in the college for several years and later founded his own school. He shared his experiences as a teacher in a foreign land, and compared it with his challenges back home.

“The school system here is very good compared to home but the point is they give students so much room and freedom. You end up as a teacher doing classroom management. In fact, I spent a good 80 per cent of my time in doing classroom management – getting students to settle down and listen in class.  They’re on their I Pads, I Phones and BBs – pinging, blinging and blogging. It takes time to get them to settle down,” he explained, shaking his head.

“It is a multi-cultural society where you have Indians, Chinese and others, and everybody is talking at the same time.  It means that in the classroom, the Indians are talking, the Chinese are talking, and everybody is talking and doing their own thing. You live in a diverse environment and the school system is diverse. You need to understand everybody’s culture. What you consider a taboo in Africa may be an accepted way of life elsewhere so you have to understand that. As a black African teacher, you need to learn the culture of the average person in order to adapt,” said Ampofo, who has now left teaching.

In Ghana, Nigeria, and most of Africa, for example, the use of the left hand is derogatory. A student may not raise the left hand to answer a question. But put that to an Indian or Chinese student in Ampofo’s multi-cultural school and the teacher would have to answer a barrage of questions to explain the ‘why?’ and ‘why not’.  Racial discrimination is also not strange in such classrooms, although the school system has laws against it.

“One day an Indian student referred to me as, ‘you black African,’ Ampofo recalled, “I didn’t want to do anything because he was my student but he later came back to apologise.  We have a procedure in the school system – if you are treated unfairly or abused by teacher or student, you should report to your head of department. But sometimes you don’t want to go through all that – But you have to have a big heart to stomach all that nonsense,” he added.

Notwithstanding, the school system is properly run and managed by experts and teachers earn their keep.

“There is a quality department that monitors your scheme of work, your delivery and can come for inspection unannounced. So, you have to be prepared. You don’t come to class and rattle and go home,” Ampofo said.

Every child matters, no matter the background. The teacher must teach both the smart and the slow, even if they are put in different classrooms for easier teaching and learning.

“Some of the children are serious and some are notorious. Classes are set in one, two and three. The lower ones, that is, the three are the ones who cause a lot of trouble but everybody has to be taught and teachers must prepare their lesson plans to suit the different intellectual levels.

“For example, I cannot ask those in the lower class to evaluate anything. “No,” they cannot ‘evaluate’ anything, ‘compare’ or ‘contrast,’ all they can do is ‘define’. You have to go at a slow pace but that doesn’t mean the children are mentally challenged. The work is not ended when you leave the classroom, it follows you home,” he further explained.

Teachers can be recruited overseas but additional training is required to qualify them to teach locally.

Ampofo who admitted leaving the school system in Ghana because of a self –esteem issue emphasized that teachers in the west are trained and encouraged to apply knowledge not just to possess it.

“I will say I have learnt a lot and seen different ways of doing things from the ways they’re done in Africa. At home, when you go for a training programme, you come back with your certificate and begin to show off.  Here if you go for a training programme, you’re expected to come back to apply the knowledge. People are taught to always be in the mood to apply knowledge and that’s what you try to do,” Ampofo maintained.

The biology teacher, a husband, father and pastor said he has achieved 90 per cent of his objectives in the UK and is ready to return to Ghana. The question is, will he find an enabling environment to apply  the knowledge he has acquired?

 

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FACE TO FACE

Dreams of a New Nigeria – Father Agbagwa

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Face to face column with Patience Ejimofor.

It is one thing to want to do something for your country and another to find an enabling environment to do it, especially if that country is Nigeria.

Where good things are easily corrupted or allowed to rot from neglect, carelessness and disorder, only the very patient and chronically optimistic will continue to try.  Father Godswill Agbagwa is one of them.

He’s among the people who believe that a new Nigeria is still possible – a Nigeria where good leadership, hard work and merit will be the norm.  A visionary, organizer and compassionate youth priest, the Amaimo-born cleric has a dream that one day, a new breed of honest and dedicated leaders will emerge in Nigeria. But he knows it won’t happen in a hurry. Yet such a dream is like madness to some Nigerians who have been forced by circumstances to give up hope. To such people, trying to clean up the country is like attempting to climb a mountain on high hill shoes- a waste of time and energy! Notwithstanding, Father Godswill and his team are willing to try.

The United States resident has assembled some like-minded people to help him in that herculean task and they have commenced a mentorship programme, embracing about 30 first year university students from across the country. One of those partnering with Father Godswill in his ambitious project is Father Vincent Arisukwu, a compassionate young, dynamic priest and seasoned journalist, among other reputable and well-meaning people.

Face2Face spoke to Father Godswill at the “Emerging Nigerian Leaders Conference” organized in November for the participants, at the Star Arrivals Hotel, in New Owerri, Imo-State. Calm and optimistic, Father Godswill explained his vision and chances of success with the youth.

“In 2008, I had a dream that if we want to reawaken the Nigerian social conscience, revive the spirit of entrepreneurship and nurture morally responsible leaders of social change, Nigeria will become one of the greatest countries in the world. Having been born in this country, having had my education in this country- primary, secondary and tertiary, I know we have a lot of potentials. Having travelled across the globe, I have noticed that there’s no secret to success except through hard work, responsibility and vision.

“So I started worrying and thinking about how things have gone wrong in our country, then I realized there’s got to be a missing link – that at some point we lost our social conscience, entrepreneurship and sense of morality and it’s because of this lack that things have gone really very bad in this country,” he said, sadly.

Father Godswill is convinced that no quick-fixes will work.  Real and lasting change can only come if “we go back to the roots”, retrain minds and inculcate new morals.

“The dream kept on coming over and over until I could no longer ignore it. So I started to think seriously about how to realize the vision. In 2010, I started sharing the dream, feeling the pulse of people so I won’t be in a fool’s paradise. Everyone said, ‘father this is it, it’s a good idea but who will bell cat?”

Father Godswill doesn’t claim to have all the answers but he is willing to try. Having assembled a team and done all the paper work, he registered a Non-Governmental organization (NGO) called Centre for Social Awareness, Advocacy and Ethics, in Abuja and ran with his dream. The next major step was choosing the pioneers of the programme –  a big challenge in a country where merit is only a word.

“Since the bottom line is how to reawaken the social conscience of the people, shun corruption and institute morals and ethics, the initial challenge was how to select the participants for the programme. We decided on an essay competition. We asked the students to write what they will do if they become the Nigerian president. We gave the essays to different people to evaluate and from there we were able to come up with the first 30 people who are participating in this conference today,” he explained, adding that the programme had been strictly sponsored by the board members – all Nigerians!

“The selection process was very tough and completely by merit. I don’t have any brother or sister among them. All was interviewed one- on-one and we spoke to their parents and guardians. Even their heads of departments (HODs) were contacted to ascertain their identity. We checked and rechecked information to ensure the candidates are who they say they are. It’s been a thorough process and we are completely satisfied that these 30 deserve to be here,” he added.

Some of the participants spoken to said they got to the programme on their own, confirming that the selection process was free of the usual bribes and “godfatherism.” Some had travelled five to six hours by road to be at the venue. But all had their transport, accommodation and feeding fully paid for by the organizers.

The three-day event was no holiday for the students, though.  Instead, it was a time to think, learn and interact with themselves, sponsors and superiors in different fields of endeavour, including university vice chancellors, directors of banks, leaders of private and public enterprises and various intellectuals from across the globe.

The seminar began with a documentary film on Nigeria, the real Nigeria you may say, an eye-opener for the youngsters who also got tips on leadership, education, training opportunities, financial responsibility /entrepreneurship, ethics, Human Dignity, Law and order, from overseas and local speakers, specially drawn for the mentorship programme.

Although there was no monetary reward to the pioneers or any promise of such in the future, participants were still upbeat and enthusiastic about the initiative. Those interviewed scored the programme highly and committed themselves to its goals and aspirations.

“I have learnt so much from the programme and I’m anxiously going back to the university to share with my friends. For a start, I will let everyone know that the new Nigeria we are talking about begins with ‘you’ – each and every one of us. I sincerely thank the organizers for making it possible for me to attend,” said one of the female members, summing it up for her group.

Participants are expected to stick with the programme for at least three years and, more so, to put their best foot forward all through.  Father Godswill did not mince words when he explained what lay ahead of the students – hard work!

“Participants are students and will go back to school. We will continue to work with them, every step of the way. Mentors will be communicating with them online, via the Internet. We have a website where members of this group and those who are interested can get resources. Members have been drawn strategically from all countries of the world so they will be able to provide resources that young people need,” he said.

“Every month, our team of mentors will come up with a book to be read by the group and discussed. We have gathered all their details and contact information. Our searchlights are all over them – no helping to rig elections, no joining of cults or secret societies at school. If any of them is moving out of the goal of this Organization, we will kick him or her out of the programme”.

That’s enough warning for any youngster who wants to be to an agent of change in Nigeria.

 

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