My name is Felix Nyong and my dream from when I was a pupil of St Patrick's Primary School in Amamong, Okobo Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, was to be a writer.
Now imagine attending a secondary school - Methodist Secondary School, Ibiaku Ishiett, then in the old Cross River State - which had an air-conditioned library. I am talking about 1974 to 1979 and I think the state government had then taken it over from the Methodist Church which founded it. Our principal then was Asuquo William Inyang.
I fell in love with the books in that library. There was a day when the librarian just handed over the keys of the library to me - because I was always there. I spent my time in that library reading more books outside those prescribed in the curriculum. On the literature shelf, I read virtually all the books written by, among others, Cyprian Ekwensi, Vincent Ike, Theo Vincent and Chinua Achebe.
After secondary school, I had nothing to do, and I wanted to leave the village.
I had first visited Lagos in 1977 when I was in the third term of Form Four, on the invitation of my Uncle, my mum's older brother whom we all called Mr Morris. He had taken me to the newly built National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, to watch movies. It was a different life from the one in the village.
So, I decided to go to my uncle in Lagos. I showed up one night at his home in Itire.
He was a wonderful and decent man. Even as he had many children of his own, and had also lost his job with an Indian firm, he welcomed me heartily and took good care of me.
My intention was to go to university, after working for a bit and saving some money. My dad was in the industry so he could have funded my education. But I chose differentiy.
I worked at Flour Mills of Nigeria.
I later worked at the National Provident Fund (NPF).
I enrolled for GCE A-Level at Exams Success, then at Palm Grove. They gave me so many books which I found so interesting.
When it was time to fill the JAMB (Joint Admissions Matriculation Board) my childhood friend, Valentine, who sadly died in South Africa, told me to fill in theatre arts, even as I was interested in being a journalist.
That was how I ended up reading dramatic arts at University of Calabar.
When I got my admission, my colleagues at the Fund were so excited for me. With how I was always writing, mainly poetry, they knew that I was not going to last long in the civil service. Then something miraculous happened. One day, my boss, a deeply spiritual lady, Mrs I. O. Effiong, called me to her office, and said, 'Felix, you've got admission. I thank God for you. God has told me to sponsor you in the university. Any money you need I will provide ' I had saved some money, quite all right, but I was shocked at this woman's offer. She kept her promise. Any money I needed, she sent it through the post office to me. My dad often wondered how I never asked him for money throughout my university days.
To be candid, I did not like the course. By the way, Reuben Abati was my classmate. I wanted to change but there was no mass communication then; now they have it. I did not want to change to English either because I wanted a professional course. But God gave me an idea: I decided to take almost ninety per cent of my electives in the English department, which I fell in love with, to hone my writing skills.
I did my primary assignment during my one-year national youth service from July1985 at Aiyetoro-Iloro Comprehensive High School in what is now Ekiti State.
I had a wonderful time there. The people even wanted me to marry one of their daughters.
I was teaching, even on Sundays, after church service.
Students at Aiyetoro-Iloro Comprehensive told their counterparts in other schools about me, so I had a flock of students from four surrounding schools attending my classes in English and Literature-in-English. Even the principal and the teachers sometimes attended my lectures. I was determined that when I left the school I had helped in reversing their poor performance in their school certificate examination. I did. In my evaluation, the principal scored me a hundred percent each in all the categories. When I told him the folk at the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) would not believe him, he said, 'Mr Nyong, in all my eight years as a principal, I have never seen any young man like you.' He actually recommended me for an award but I did not win it. The king of the town, a retired policeman who had worked in Calabar, the parents and the students appreciated me wonderfully.
I left for Lagos after my service and had the worst experience I have ever had in my life: looking for a job. I had assumed that getting a job after graduating and serving would be easy. I did not know anything about getting a job except writing an application. I was thoroughly frustrated.
Unfortunately, that is the same problem our young people are facing today even now with all the resources and opportunities at their disposal.
I roamed around Lagos for about three years in search of a job, and the principal reason was ignorance or lack of knowledge.
I wanted to work in a newspaper organisation, advertising agency or with Government. I went back to NPF, then I realised that I made a mistake of not applying for study leave without pay. There was no vacancy.
I prayed and told God that if He did not get me a job, I would return to Cross River State, to join my father in fishing and I would not be a Christian again. Yes. I was so unhappy.
I organised what they call "lesson" which is teaching. My first client was one woman from Calabar, surprisingly, at Olufemi Street, Surulere. I taught her daughter and the girl was so happy. But do you know what this woman told me? 'Get out, I will not pay you.' The daughter wept. I became determined to return to Calabar. But my friend, Paul, discouraged me.
One day, I was walking along Itire-Mushin Road, off Lawanson Road. I saw a Christ Apostolic Church, they were having a programme. I was a member of The Apostolic Faith. So, I went in there. The security guard told me that they were having a three-day fasting programme. I asked to see the pastor. He came over and asked what my problem was. I said I needed a job. He told me to join them in the fasting and he would pray for me. I had never fasted in my life. Never. I had become a born-again Christian from my first year in the university.
He decided to pray for me there and then. He prayed in not-so-fluent English and switched to Yoruba. I was just saying 'Amen' repeatedly. The first day I fasted, my buttocks wen flat and my friend made a jest of me. Hahahaha. On the third day, the pastor called me out, and asked me to stretch my hands toward him and he prayed: 'Receice your job in Jesus name.' I believed.
Within that week, I saw a friend of mine, Mike, along the road, and he told me, 'I went for an interview and I did not pass. I know that you would pass.' He gave me the contact. It was a printing press known as Bencod Press, situated between Orile Iganmu and Mile 2. It was the third leading press in Lagos then, after Academy Press and Jeromelaiho. I attended the interview and I was engaged as a proofreader. I also did some editing. I was earning four hundred or five hundred Naira. Though I enjoyed what I was doing my mind was in journalism. I even covered a performance by Majek Fashek at the University of Lagos for Vanguard among other reviews but I was not employed.
One day, I went to deliver a calendar job printed by Bencod to a client. Chido Nwakanma who was in my platoon during NYSC saw me and wondered what I was doing inside a pick-up van. He then told me to go to The Guardian's office and meet Ogbuagu Anikwe who was our Platoon Commander. We all did a bit of journalism at the NYSC camp. I went to see Anikwe who, after wondering where I had been when the spaces were being filled and the process concluded, took me to Eluem Emeka Izeze, then the editor of The Guardian on Sunday, who without lifting his eyes from what he was writing, told me to go and bring a news story and a feature. Long story short, I was hired. I was happy, because, for the first time since leaving the university I had the opportunity of doing what I really loved to. But it was ignorance that was what kept me out of employment. Which is why I have started mentorship for young people on what to do in terms of jobs.
I decided to leave the newspaper because I felt convinced that, even though journalism was so important in making government to be accountable, my (steathly) method of gathering information (on government officials) was not ethical.
What I discovered was that as a Christian, everywhere you go, there would be challenges.
Anyhow, I prayed for another job.
I went to cover an assignment in Borno State and when I returned I found a note on my desk. It was from the Mr Udeme Ufot, managing director of SO &U, an advertising agency, that I should see him urgently. I went to see him and he offered me a job as a copywriter, after refusing to be in Media Planning, I think. No tests, nothing. I had once been introduced to him, when he came to Bencod, by someone who termed us as "brothers" as both of us being from the then Cross River State (before Akwa Ibom State was carved out of it). We merely exchanged pleasantries. At The Guardian on Sunday, we ran profiles based on desk research. I did one on him. Apparently he read those profiles. I enjoyed our strategy sessions at SO & U, but after working for about two and a half years, I got fed up. No, it had nothing to do with ethics, this time. I just thought that I should be doing public relations (PR) because I handled media relations at SO & U and I interfaced with the PR practitioners on the clients' side and I got fascinated with what they did.
You see, those decisions were because of lack of counsel or mentoring.
Again, I took my case to God.
Someone told me to apply for a vacant position in the PR Department of the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON). It was Patrick Doyle who gave me a ride from Sheraton to ALSCON's office on Victoria Island where I went to drop the application on the closing date. I passed the interview and I was employed as the pioneer PR manager.
I spent my longest years as an employee here, working with people from twenty-four countries. I was later responsible for managing the serious crisis which ensued from its privatisation by the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE). I received and interacted with all the investors who bidded for the sale of the company, including Rusal, BFIG and Billington. By then, I was the only one left in PR. Mallam Garba Shehu, our GM in the department, had left.
At a point I got fed up also, and one morning, I was jogging and told God that I was tired and cannot continue. I told God when I wanted to leave and how. I wanted to resign actually but it was my wife who asked me if I had gone back to God who gave me the job. I believe He did it exactly how I asked Him.
My current pursuits are mentoring students in our tertiary institutions apart from selling books, and even their parents.
I think I went through the hardship in those three years before I got a job for that purpose. From that experience, I understand how a jobless graduate thinks and what I need to do to help. I do not yet have a formal structure but those who know come to our Wordworks Bookshop in Uyo after scheduling an appointment through a phone call to my number (+2348037402382). My essential message is that once a student gets into a university or a polytechnic or college of education, the search for a job should begin. I have had amazing testimonies. I also signed up to assist the Nigerian Christian Corpers' Fellowship. I have worked with them quietly for at least fifteen years now. I strategise on how to get a job, how to prepare for the job and how to start a small business.
I have also been helping to upgrade school libraries around here, because I found that many schools lacked good libraries, if at all. We not only help with providing academic books but also books that teach life skills. For instance, you would see in a library a book such as How to wire a house. So, if you are in Junior Secondary School with the hope of becoming an electrical engineer that kind of book should stir up your interest and you may even begin to look for someone who is an electrician to do an informal internship. These thirty-four trade subjects that the federal government introduced is good policy but it is too theoretical whereas the children need practical knowledge.
So, we interface with principals on not only getting their students to make proper use of the libraries but also to get them to learn what they intend to read in tertiary institutions practically. We engage with the parents too. For instance if you have a child who wants to become a doctor, introduce or her your friends' clinics for visitations when they are free.
My final message: please, parents, get your children to fall in love with reading storybooks science books and the like from when they are little. It is rewarding.
Many thanks to XL FM 106.9 Uyo for local support in Akwa Ibom State. Please visit https://xl1069.fm for an enriching radio experience.
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Taiwo Obe, FNGE
Commonwealth Professional Fellow
Founder/Director, The Journalism Clinic
+234 818 693 5900