interviewBy Azuka Ogujiuba
Friends were aghast when Dr. Evelyn Omawumi Atsiangbe-Urhobo quit a secure job with the federal civil service to become a local coordinator for an international programme conceived to fund the education of students from Southern African countries at the height of the liberation struggle. It was an instinct imbibed as a child when she experienced the generosity of an aunt, Atsiangbe-Urhobo, who turns 60 on November 19, tells Funke Olaode
Growing up in Warri
I was born in Warri, Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State on November 19, 1952. I wasn't really aware of my parents' occupation while I was born. But I was told that my mum was a young girl and had just left primary school when he met my father who was a boxer. Though both of them were young, they fell in love with each other and later got married. But the marriage was short-lived because both of them were inexperienced. They only had two children - me and my younger sister - when the marriage ended. My mother eventually moved to Lagos and I was left behind in Warri. Despite that situation, I was showered with love by my mother's relations especially my mother's immediate older sister, Mama Nadi, whom I ended living with. I had beautiful memory of growing up with this woman in Warri. She ensured that I never lacked anything. She was a calm woman and this had a lot of influence on me. We didn't have money growing up and she had to work very hard to put food on the table. She gave me absolute love. I was never wrong. If you told my auntie that I had done something wrong, she took sides with me even before she heard me out. That upbringing spurred my humanitarian gesture - a disire to assist people in whatever capacity I find myself.
There was electricity in Warri growing up but not in my house. We had a street light in my own quarter, Okere, where I grew up. I remember all of us (children) used to converge at night to play. Also, there was pipe-borne water and everybody would gather at the tap to fetch water.
Memories of an eclipse
There was an eclipse in 1957 which I can not really recall vividly now. But there was a particular epidemic that gave us the apollo (red eye) when a bomb was being tested in the Sahara in the 50s. There was no eye drop people came up with different concoctions to help relieve the pain of apollo in the eye. We thank God that our eye didn't damage. I can not really describe the kind of child I was. Like I said earlier, I lived with a compassionate woman which rubbed on me positively. I make friends easily and because I was involved in sport activities, I was exposed to a lot of people. Nevertheless, I still have a private side that I don't allow people to come into. And that is the protective side of me when I sit down and reflect about me and life generally. And that's when I become an introvert. Of course, I played a lot of pranks. As a sports person we were always in the camp with fellow athletes. We engaged in a few mischief. But it was not to hurt one another; it was just to have fun.
Scaling admission hurdles
I began my early education in 1959 at age seven at Government School Warri, Delta State. The school used to be called Township School by the Colonial government before it was converted to Government School shortly after independence. The general norm then was that before you could be admitted, your right hand must touch your left ear. That nearly denied me early education because I was rather small for my age. The school management felt I was too small to be admitted. What actually saved me was my cousin who was taller but of the same age. My aunty stood her ground that if the taller cousin was being registered I must be admitted as well. That was how I got into that school from 1959 to 1964. In 1965, I proceeded to the famous Hussey College, Warri. Hussey College was famous having tutored all the great men and woman who have made giant strides in their endeavours. In those days, Government College, Ibadan, King's College, Lagos, Government College, Ughelli, were the reigning schools. But the great visionaries led by Chief O.N. Rewane put together Hussey College and fashioned it along the line of the British public school. It was a privilege to be in that school because in terms of the structures and training: sporting, siesta, reading, teaching and feeding, it was second to none. So everybody wanted to go to Hussey College. But it was expensive. And that is why I would always appreciate my late mother's effort in putting me through that great school.
Excelling in sports
Like I said, everybody wanted to be in that school. I passed the entrance exam. But the school fee was over 20 pounds. How many average families could afford that at that time? But my mother who was in Lagos assured me. She worked day and night just to ensure that I went to that school. There were times that the fees would be a bit delayed, but because I was involved in sports, the school management would give me time. By dint of hard work and providence, the school management gave me a scholarship. And that was how I was able to complete my secondary education. So I had eventful years at Hussey College. With modesty, apart from my brilliant academic performance, the principal also made it possible for us to actualize ourselves in sports. I remember when I was in form four; he made me a prefect in a school that had higher school. To have been made a prefect at that time actually structured my life. I was a happy-go, mischievous but sporty lady. I remember my house mistress said to me: 'Urhobo, you are going to be the first prefect that would get punished. So if you know yourself, behave'. I was challenged and I promised to be a good girl henceforth. Subsequent years, I became the Head Girl. Like I said, the school nurtured our sporting talents. For instance, immediately the school authorities discovered that I could run, they put everything at our disposal.
I never ran with bare foot but 'Spike Shoes' which was unusual for secondary school children in those days. It was a luxury that was restricted only to the national camp. Other schools didn't have it but we had the privilege of using these shoes at Hussey College. Of course, some holidays, the school management refused us to go home as we must stay back for training. They also gave us proper diet that would build our capacities. The rector then, O.N. Rewane, gave us all the encouragement. By the time I was in form four, I was the best female junior athlete in Nigeria. By 1969, I was invited to the national camp where I represented Nigeria in the Nigeria/Ghana Games. In 1970, when I was in the Lower Six I represented Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was my first time out of the country and I was blown away. You can imagine a little girl from Okere Warri now going on national assignment abroad!
Leaving Warri for Lagos
I left Hussey College as Head Girl in 1971 to University of Lagos. Because of my sporting activities they wanted me to go to University of Ife, but I chose Unilag where it was 'happening'. In Unilag, I still engaged in sports activities for a while. I was involved in Nigerian University Games (NUGA) and West Africa University Game in Ghana. I studied sociology at Unilag and graduated in 1975. The interest to pitch my tent with sociology was borne out of my passion for humanity. For me, I never wanted to be a medical doctor, engineer or lawyer. I just wanted to contribute to humanity through social services and community. And that is why I studied sociology at the University of Lagos and went into the civil service. Along the line, I did advanced administrative courses. Later, I earned a master's degree in governance from the University of Leeds, England. The PhD was a honouris causa from Evangel Christian University, Monroe, Louisiana, USA, in 2004.
Starting a career
After my sojourn at the University of Lagos in 1975, I was posted to Ibadan, Oyo State for the National Youth Service and taught at Lagelu Grammar School. I left Ibadan in 1976 and began a career in the federal civil service. It was automatic for us to get jobs in those days because in our last year forms were brought for us to fill. And some of us that studied sociology, it was natural for us to join the federal ministry of social development which had just been established then. So I began my career in the civil service in 1976. Interestingly, the first thing I did in this ministry was to apply for a loan to buy a car. And within six months, it was approved and I bought my first car, a Subaru. But after a one year stint with the ministry I quit.
The African National Congress of South Africa came to Nigeria to enrol refugee students after the Soweto crisis. The Federal Government under the then Military Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo promised to give them places in Nigerian schools. I was not there when they came, but one of my colleagues in the ministry, a Yoruba lady called either Ronke or Banke mentioned my name that she knew I would fit perfectly into this job. Again, the salary was tempting I was being paid N3, 414 annually as federal civil servant and they offered me N7, 600 for a year contract. I went to the office and told them about my fortune. My colleagues almost dissuaded me because they felt a federal job is more secure than a year's contract job. I said I would do the job so well that they would keep me for many more years. I resigned my job to join this international organization.
Road to charity
That was how I got employed by the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), an international non-governmental organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland, as a Coordinator/Student Counsellor in charge of their mission office in Nigeria in 1977. In this job, I successfully coordinated a programme of educational assistance to 400 Namibian, Zimbabwean and South African refugee students who where sponsored by the organisation and brought to Nigeria to study from 1977-1982 during the liberation struggle in South Africa.
In this assignment, I travelled extensively both within Nigeria and to the Southern African countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland to visit refugee camps and arrange refugee students' movement to Nigeria. I did so well and after one year, my contract was renewed and my salary was doubled to N14, 000. I later left the IUEF when the organization ran into troubled waters and was scrapped. The federal government put down some funds to help in taking care of these refugees and I rejoined the public service in 1983, when I was employed by the Southern Africa Relief Fund (SARF) under the presidency. As the Executive Secretary (1983-1994), I also successfully coordinated the Nigerian government sponsored programme for 500 South African and Namibian refugee students brought to Nigeria to study during the liberation struggle in southern Africa, and also coordinated the provision of relief assistance to several refugee camps in Southern Africa till the end of their liberation struggle in 1994 when South Africa gained independence.
I also worked at various times with National Committee Against Apartheid (NACAP) (1994-1995), National Health Insurance Scheme (1996-2000) and National Planning Commission of The Presidency (2001-2002).
Moving to NDDC
I assumed duties as the Delta State Coordinator of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in 2003, where I coordinated all the activities of the Commission in the State which included the provision of vital Infrastructure projects, Health and Economic Empowerment programs for the people in Delta state. My job while in the Niger Delta Development Commission as the Coordinator presented a serious challenge for me because I resumed duty in January 2003 at the height of the inter-tribal conflict in Warri and its environs. But I deployed all my past experiences to manage the balancing act required to ensure equity and fairness to the five main ethnic groups whose various interest I had to deal with and protect in the course of discharging my responsibility as the state coordinator. And what I consider my greatest achievement is my ability to balance the inter-tribal conflicts that existed in that place from 2003 till my retirement (it takes effect on November 19) when I would be 60. I thank God for helping me thus far. I am retiring from civil service but my life has not ended. I am still running a bank, I have a foundation, I am trying to float another business, and I am still looking at politics.
Coping as a single mother
My best moments were the births of my children especially when I had my first daughter, Shirley. I never thought it was possible for me to have a child because I was so engrossed in my job and no man came my way. I had a good relationship and this pregnancy came. And I said even if there was no marriage I was going to have the child. Ironically, the young man was single as well, but I really didn't think I had to be married to have the child. And again, my son came in three years later in another good relationship. Honestly, having my children is fulfilling. I will also advise that people should have children in a formal marital situation. My low moments were bringing up my children as a single mother. It is not the best thing to have children outside wedlock. It is not good for children especially the male child. The male child needs the father figure to bond and my son had to cope with that for a very long time before he could mentally come to terms with it. When you have a male child outside marriage, try to get a father figure he could bond with as a mentor. So, I am not supporting single parenthood. Having a child sometimes is to satisfy your own personal need.
What about the needs of that child?
I remember my son used to say in primary school that 'Mum they say we should write about family and I had to lie that a family comprises of a father and mother in the house'. And in secondary school anytime I went to pick him at school, his friends would say his auntie has come. Then he would say 'she is not my auntie but my mother'. Then they would ask why I wasn't answering the same name as him. These are emotional and psychological traumas. I could have answered his father's name but my pride wouldn't let me do that. So it is not ideal to be a single mother and whatever effort we can do to salvage it as women we should. Nevertheless, I have played my role well over my children. My daughter, Miss Shirley Toju Enebong, studied architecture from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and has a master's degree from University of Cardiff in the UK. She is currently a film producer. My son, Benny 'Tega Odeka, is currently pursuing a degree in business management and marketing at Middlesex University, Dubai Campus.
Fulfilled career life
I'm be ending my career as a deputy director in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) having reached the mandatory 60 years retirement age. I have had a fulfilling life and wouldn't have wished it another way except if I had gotten married. May be it would have been different. It wasn't deliberate and it is not something that one has control over. I just believe my life is God's will and it has been made manifest. I thank God for my beautiful kids who are doing fine. Like I said, marriage is the only one area that I thought I missed. But I am not giving up yet as anything can still happen even at 60.