When I got a mail inviting me to receive an award in New York, I double checked to ensure it was actually addressed to me. Me?
And suddenly a song of thanksgiving and gratitude came to my mind,
As I hummed that song, tears found its way down my cheeks. I knew i was not created to be average, but i didn't know I would come this far.
I didn't know I would one day be honoured at a global event considering the fact that life never gave me a chance to amount to anything meaningful.
It took the grace of God and an unwavering determination to break free from the shackles of hardship and poverty that life caged me in.
I was born into a very poor family where three meals a day was regarded as a luxury. My five siblings and I were born into one room where we practically had to sleep on top of each other because of space.
I went to school in tattered uniform, bathroom slippers and had to use nylon bag as my school bag.
From an early age, I knew I was responsible for myself. My parents like most of the other families around our neighbourhood were low income people, my dad had just lost his job in a manufacturing company where he worked as technician. My mother was a petty trader who sold food items in a little shop down our street, but because the shop bore the entire burden of the family's upkeep, it paid the price in empty shelves and poor supplies. My five siblings and i had to do without so many basic necessities. It was a life of endless subtraction and "management" . You could say I became a manager very early in life.
We never had enough textbooks, clothes, food or shoes like some of our other friends had. Most times I always had to copy my school assignments from my friends who had text books, Life was pretty hard. At that time, one of my brothers was already a bus driver, another, a bus conductor ,while the last one became a barber. You can imagine that sort of home.
On my part, I was naturally a very friendly person, I always ran errands for neighbours in exchange for some used clothes, shoes and occasionally some little money, once I got back from school, I would quickly rush down to their houses to fetch water for them, wash their clothes and help them buy items from the nearby markets. In a single day I would visit about two to three homes, do their chores and still run back home to complete my school assignment.
Whenever I ran errands for those families that were much well off than ours, I would always admire their tastefully furnished houses and beautiful cars and I would say to myself “someday I and my family would live in this type of house”. Constantly going to their houses and running errands for them, usually fuelled my dreams and hope of a brighter future. When I got back home I always narrated my experiences to my mother, I would describe in colourful details the beautiful things I saw in those houses, the gadgets they had, their mannerisms, the kind of food they ate, and my mum would laugh at my descriptions, and then she’ll hug me close and call me “tape recorder”. Sweeping my eyes across our shabby room, I’ll quietly ask her “mother, but why are those other families so much richer and more comfortable than us? And she would look at me tenderly and answer” only God knows”. I would then ask her again,” mother, can we ever be like them? can we? Then her eyes would light up and she’ll reply in our local dialect, “who says we can’t? Ofcourse we can be better than them”.
Without her knowing it, that simple statement struck a chord in my heart and got me thinking, “who say’s we can’t? I began to take a critical look at our circle of friends, neighbour’s and relations, I wanted to know what made them so different from us, I did a brief mental research and found out that most of the wealthy people around us were highly educated people, right there and then, I made up my mind that since education seemed to be the “key”, that no matter how poor we were, I would give myself a university education. I said to myself that I would change my story, that I would grow up to become an important person, that I would build better houses for my parents, that I would make sure my mother never cried again. From that moment, I started dreaming big. I was a poor girl with rich dreams and I was determined not to get distracted. Whenever I spoke of those dreams to mother she would have a great time laughing, seeing her laugh made me so happy and I resolved within myself to make her laugh in truth and indeed.
When mother discovered that I was very serious about getting into the university, she began to cook food for sale in order to save up more money for me to write the examination and for my subsequent admission into the university. we would wake up at 4.30 am to prepare for the day’s cooking, before 6am we would have rounded off with the cooking of the food, I would then carry the food to her shop for sale to her customers and then go for my extra lessons. The cooking business coupled with her petty trading business was very stressful and tiring and began to take its toll on mother but she never complained. At the end of each day’s business she would ask me to run down to the pharmacy and get her pain relieving drugs. When I noticed how frequently she was taking pain killers, informed my siblings who persuaded her to visit a nearby hospital. She was diagnosed of high blood pressure and was placed on medication.
Despite pains and discomfort, mother always had a sweet smile on her face and would often tell us not to mind the doctor, that she wasn’t sick, I would reiterate to her my promises of a very big house buy her a very big house because I knew that would make her laugh.
As soon as i received my university admission letter, mother took ill again. This time, it was more severe. we were too poor to afford a better hospital, too poor to afford all the expensive drugs she needed. So we took her to the same hospital close to our house, and bought the little drugs we could, making up with fervent prayers. Most times, I would leave her bedside and go to the church where we worshipped, lying flat on the bare floor and crying my little heart out asking God for her healing.
And just a few days to resumption at the university, my beloved, tireless, happy mother, the centre of my dreams, succumbed to death.
Forty eight - that was her age. It was the most devastating period of my life. As the last child of the family, I was the closest to her, she fondly called me her mother.
Her death hit me like a tornado, I became very sick too and refused to eat for many days, so many questions ran through my mind, how could she have suffered so much and then die without waiting to reap the fruits of her labour. Why did she even have to die at that unripe age? Who would I go to for counselling and advice? Who was going to pay for my university education? If tears could bring back the dead, my mother would have risen up that day.
Her burial ceremony was a huge success- if success should be applied to things of pain and sorrow. Everyone turned out to pay their last respects to a rare gem. I cried hopelessly, implacable. My only hope of going to the university was dead and buried. The money we had saved up for my university education was used for her burial. I almost jumped into her grave but for the quick intervention of family members, my elder sister told me “if you love mother so much, then you’ve got to prove it by being strong and going on with those things you know will make her happy wherever she is”. That simple statement brought me back to my senses.
My great love for mother stopped me from burying my dreams with her, and right by her grave side I resolved to make mother proud of the woman I would become.
But it was as it immediately I made that declaration, all other possible avenue of getting funds to go to the university closed up. When we could not come up with the required amount for tuition, I forfeited that admission. I stayed at home mourning mother and my lost dreams.
When it became obvious that I was getting close to a nervous breakdown, my siblings encouraged me to sit for the examination again, promising to do their best to send me to university.
It wasn’t easy studying daily on a half empty stomach and without the recommended texts too, but I wasn’t ready to let my dreams die. I was determined to get into the university. Soon enough another admission letter came through for me and my siblings pooled together all they had and sent me off to the university. The money was barely enough to cover the tuition and I had to “squat” with friends who could afford to pay their own accommodation fees. Not that i cared. I was ready to manage any condition. Remember that I became a trained manager early in.life.
Because I was determined that nothing would stand in my way of receiving an education which I viewed as a ticket to a better life, I would go to the popular Tejuosho market at Yaba, I would buy fairly used shirts, I’ll then soak them in hot water, wash and iron them, then pack them in transparent white nylons and sell to law students and lecturers. The little profit I made from this little venture went a long way to assist in feeding me in school. I also bought and sold ladies underwear, cheap make up and perfumes. to the female students in the hostels.
I managed to get by without any incident and eventually graduated from the university. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, atlast, I had made it, I had broken the jinx. The future was bright, I was ready to take on the world.
With great optimism and enthusiasm i wrote my applications, sent out my curriculum vitae to various companies, and then sat back waiting for response. I waited for a long time, but no response came. So I sent another round of letters to the same companies and to other new companies but the story was the same, then I decided to physically call on all the offices one after the other, but shockingly I always got the same response, “we’ll get back to you”.
I had wrongly thought that the university certificate was an automatic visa for landing a job, I was not prepared for these hitches.
I traversed the labour market for years without landing a job, a friend of mine told me I needed a “godfather” to get a job, I told her I had no “godfather” except God the Father in heaven, that in His time He would make all things beautiful for me.
I still hadn’t gotten a job when I met and fell in love with an intelligent, handsome, but also very broke young man with big dreams and ambition. Those were good enough for me. I believed that with time his business would pick speed and that soon I would also get a job. We got married and moved into a tiny one room only house popularly known as “face me I face trouble” in a very dirty and over populated compound at the ijeshatedo area of Lagos state.
The room was very dark and small and directly infront of a big smelly gutter. We had to share the toilet, bathroom and kitchen with eleven other families. Most times when it rained heavily, the rain water mixed with the gutter water would flood the entire compound and seep into our room and we would have to scoop out the dirty insect infected water with buckets, ofcourse sleeping on the bed was out of the question because the mattress would have been completely soaked with water already especially If we were not at home when the rain started. We would then sleep on the chair or stand by the wall till morning. without any means of income, paying for the one room was a big challenge, the landlady kept threatening to throw us out and most times, we would wait till the whole compound had gone to bed very late at night before we would sneak in, and very early in the morning before the landlady wakes up we would be out of the house in order to avoid the embarrassment over the unpaid rents.
We kept on living on dreams and hope, while hunger and poverty kept dishing us dirty blows. I thought to myself, “had the cycle of poverty become generational”? Was history repeating itself all over again? I became afraid of what the future held for us because it looked so bleak, help was not forthcoming, everyone we turned to for assistance had their own unique problems and challenges too.
My big dreams vanished before my very eyes and there was nothing I could do about it, there was no sign of hope, most nights we went to sleep on empty stomachs, pap and garri ijebu were the cheapest food we could afford, because it required little or no cooking, we had to conserve kerosene.
Most times when the problems seemed to be very over whelming, I would be tempted to give in to my emotions and just cry out my problems, but I knew crying wasn’t going to solve my problems, I knew I had to remain strong and optimistic.
I remembered how I managed to survive way back in school in almost similar circumstances through petty trading, but the difference was that I didn’t have a dime to start up any business, I approached one or two micro finance banks around my neighbourhood for a little loan to start up a small business but they all wanted some form of collateral and initial deposit which I didn’t have. I went back home dejected and disappointed ,I sat on the bare floor of our dark room thinking and strategizing on the way forward, but all the business ideas I came up with all required capital to either buy the goods or to pay for a shop. I was at cross-roads, no one was willing to loan me money to start up a business because I was not “credit-worthy”.
Frustrated, tears became my constant companion, I started seeing myself as a failure. I could not afford basic necessities like toiletries, the landlord was on our neck, we were owing light bills in the compound too and the other tenants had cut off the power supply to our room to serve as punishment for not paying, and food was not also regular. I decided to cut my hair very low because I could not afford hair extensions or relaxers to retouch my hair. I was on the verge of a nervous break down, a complete emotional and psychological wreck, our condition was pitiable. Life became unbearable, everywhere we turned to was a dead end.
My young marriage was being threatened by poverty, happiness and joy seemed to have vanished from our lives, we were only concerned about surviving the rat race. Help was not within reach but hope was alive in me, despite the difficulties staring us in the face,i resolved not to give up, I was going to make my marriage work, I promised myself that I”ll remain strong. I decided that “enough was enough” I knew I had to confront those problems head on before it swallowed me. I decided to embark on a mission to take control of my future, I had had enough. I dusted out my rich dreams and started making plans on how to actualize it with or without capital.
I looked around our tiny one room only apartment, and the only property we had was my phone, a plastic table and a chair, I moved these “precious items” to the major road that led to our street and there I started life as a road side telephone call operator and recharge card vendor. At the beginning, it was a very humiliating experience, people who knew I had gone to the university and graduated would pass by and stare unbelievingly at me but i cared less..
With my new found business, Life became a bit more bearable until I was robbed off those two phones and a pack of recharge cards by some hoodlums who attacked me and made away with the purse containing all my recharge cards and my sales for that day. It was the worst time of my life, it was as if I had lost millions of Naira because they took all I had, all I had labored and sweated for.
I remembered the risks I took doing business on that dangerous road, severally I had miraculously escaped being hit by bus drivers who lost control of their cars due to brake failure, only God saved me from being crushed to death. I remembered the scorching sun and the heavy down pour and how I persevered through it all only to lose it all to a bunch of weed smoking hoodlums. We went back to “square one”, my husband was also struggling to set up his business but he was also experiencing a series of failures, our future looked bleak it was as if we were jinxed and doomed to live and die in poverty.
It was in this situation of hopelessness that I got pregnant with our first child, despite our challenges we became excited and very happy, we started playing around with the names we would call the baby. We were so happy and anxious to see our bundle of joy, but our joy was short-lived when it dawned on us that we did not have any money to enroll for ante-natal at the hospital, we also could not afford most of the tests, scans and drugs that were prescribed by the doctor.
I didn’t eat well and mostly drank pap, tea or garri ijebu during the period of my pregnancy because that was the cheapest food we could afford. I also did not sleep well because it was during the rainy season and most times our room was always flooded and I would have to sit all night. I was very weak and frail and constantly prayed to God for strength. My delivery date drew closer and I had not bought any of the baby items I needed to take to the hospital, finally with the little we got together, i managed to pick up a few necessities and I went into the delivery room to have my baby.
Our expectations were deflated by a sad reality: My baby girl was stillborn! Yes, she came out dead.
My whole world came crashing down, my heart was broken. I was devastated and incosolable. I could not believe what was happening to me, after nine full months of carrying the baby? I felt like dying too. This was certainly too much for one person to bear, I lamented, I groaned, I wailed and I cried. I had failed to get a job, I had failed lost out in the road side business, I had also failed to become a mother as well, it was a very painful and trying time for me, I was sick and tired of all the misery and agony. Questions coursed through my mind, what offence had I committed? Who had I offended? It was as if God had turned his back on me. My sorrow was very great.
Truth be told, deep within me I knew it was poverty that snatched my baby from me and robbed me of the joy of motherhood. I could not afford N1,500 for a scan that could have defected the complications and position my baby was in. It was poverty but this time it struck too hard.
This same poverty had afflicted my family as a teenager and kept us on the barely average level and eventually snuffed life out of my mother, the same poverty had made me an object of ridicule as a road side telephone call operator despite being a university graduate, poverty again kept me hungry and wretched and finally humiliated me by killing my child, it was as if poverty had stubbornly decided to take up permanent residency in my life and home.
I became afraid of what would happen next, I was afraid of losing anything or anyone to poverty again. I was scared of going hungry again.
My eyes became bloodshot from constant crying and anger welled up in me and right there on my hospital bed, I made up my mind to deal squarely with this situation. I asked to be discharged from the hospital and I went back home a defeated, broken and bitter woman.
On a certain day, I looked into the mirror and a stranger stared back at me, I had aged overnight, at 28 years I looked like a seventy year old woman, my eyes were sunken, I was bent, dry, haggard and frail. My looks shook me to reality, what happened to me? Where did the once lively, bubbly, cheerful “me” disappear to? Who was this stranger in the mirror? My husband didn’t fare better. At 32, his beards had turned completely white and he had also lost a lot of weight.
I groaned daily to God in prayers asking for help, direction and succor. I made a vow to God that I would help as many people as possible particularly women to fight this menace called poverty and also help them pursue and fulfil their dreams if he delivered me out of my “wilderness”.
One night my mother’s words came back very clearly to me. “Who say’s we can’t? ofcouse we can: Then I began to think deeply, I had acquired the necessary education, but that had not solved my problem. Suddenly my eyes of understanding opened, and light shone into my confusion. The university had equipped me intellectually and socially to sharpen my skills and to deal with issues relating to the course I studied, but whatever I did with the knowledge and information I received at the university was entirely up to me. The problem was that I had erroneously thought that securing a job with my university qualification was the only way to survive. I failed to look at other service oriented businesses that didn’t require capital or assets or even a university degree but which required deep passion, skill, talent and a burning desire to excel. It dawned on me that no school can teach anyone ideas or creativity these things are what we develop on our own through divine inspiration and constructive thinking.
Armed with new zeal, I revisited my rich dreams again, this time I wrote them out in a diary, and I began to devise means on how to get around it, knowing I had no money or fixed asset. I resolved again to pick up the pieces of my life, to recover my identity.
From that moment, I stopped the pity party and encouraged myself. I told myself that I was greater than my circumstances and struggles, that I would overcome those trying times and the world would hear of me.
"What do you have in your hands" That was what God asked Moses.
Then I began to search myself to know what else i was very good at, what i could do effortlessly, I looked critically at my areas of strength and came up with two things I enjoyed doing. I knew I loved to write and also love to talk, the latter seemed easier and I began to read up books on becoming a motivational speaker, halfway into my private studies, I asked myself again “who was going to listen to a poor woman speak’’? What was I going to tell them? I was a failure, a pauper, we still didn’t have enough food to eat, we did not have good clothes to wear and we still lived in the slum, there was nothing encouraging or inspiring about my situation. I was also suffering from acute inferiority complex and low self-esteem. So I fell back on my plan B, I decided to write a book. i wrote about overcoming storms in marriage, I wrote that book based on my experience and i titled the book “Magnificent Marriage”
I wrote with a deep ache in my heart, I wrote on the bare floor, I wrote all day and at night I would continue writing with candle light because we did not pay our light bills and the power supply to our room had been cut off, I wrote with tears in my eyes and with fervent prayers on my lips, most times my tears would make holes in the manuscripts, I told God to announce me through that book and to launch me out through that book.
Soon enough the manuscript was ready to go in for printing, for the first time in our lives, an Aunt who was touched by our plight agreed to loan us the money to print the book. The book launch was a huge success, God touched several people to attend the event, including a prominent public figure whom we randomly sent the invite to, we never believed he could attend, he supported the book with a staggering amount. It was amazing. Everyone else gave generously.
It was too good to be true, we got a miracle, a breakthrough. God did it, He heared our prayers and he turned around our captivity. The proceeds from the book launch was enough for us to invest into other viable businesses.
Our joy knew no bounds, the doors of favour had opened up and my husband’s business began to do exceedingly well, he became an international business man. The yoke had been broken. God came through for us. The generational cycle of poverty that had been haunting us had been defeated. Our looks improved, my posture straightened out, the sunken cheeks were filled up. We could now afford those things that hitherto seemed impossible. Life was good and happiness had returned into our
Most nights when i returned home from my speaking engagements or business, i would remember the vow i made to God about supporting and empowering other women who were passing through difficulties. I remembered my years of sorrow, hunger, pains, neglect and lack- and I knew there were millions of other women out there who were in similar situations.
If, despite being a graduate, I still went through all of those troubles, how about those other women with little or no education? How about the widows who singlehandedly struggle to fend for their families? I could imagine their vulnerability, the harassment from kinsmen, their loneliness and the victimisation. I visualized their hurts, shame and needs. Not forgetting where I was coming from and, putting myself in their shoes, i made up my mind to get involved in their lives. That deep burden gave birth to SELFWORTH ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN DEVELOPMENT, a Non Governmental Organization, a platform through which I have been fulfilling my vow to God.
For me, it was a way of life. I was totally sold out to the vision. My resources went towards making it a reality as I emptied myself to this cause.
Before we knew it, news of our exploits and activities around our community travelled wide and landed me so many awards and recognition, top of them all was my being recognised with an appointment by the governor of a state.
It was a landmark honour , a mile stone.
A former road side telephone call operator from the gutters had become a Senior Special Assistant to a state governor. Only God could perform such miracles. Yes, God made it happen.
Against all odds, I made it.
Today, the organisation has a centre dedicated to training vulnerable women in different vocational skills. We have directly impacted and empowered over one thousand women in Nigeria.
So I ask you again who says your story can't change? Who says you cant fly? Who says you cant step up your game?
The bible says “YOU CAN” do all things through Christ which strengthens you (philippians 4v13).
If God says you can, why do you still think you cant?
There is nothing you can’t achieve, there is no position you can’t aspire to or attain as long as you never lose sight of your dreams.
You only need to have clear dreams which you should keep in front of you at all times. Honestly, there is unlimited greatness in you waiting to explode. There are countless opportunities before you; you only need to discover them.
Dont limit yourself or your imaginations, let it run high and wide, like I always say you don’t pay to dream, its absolutely free.
Therefore, march out triumphantly from the cage that circumstances has bound you in. Explore your options. Get your fire back and believe in yourself again.
Don’t look at how far you are from achieving your dreams. Remember storms dont last forever.
Hardships were created to bring out the champion in you and make you wiser.
I am yet to witness a night time that didn't give way to daylight.
God delights in picking up nonentities and making them celebrities.
Just concentrate on taking those tiny steps towards your dreams, what matters is that you are moving in the direction of your dreams, believe me you will definitely get there.
Written by Chinyere AnokwuruChange starts with a story.