Mary Ero knew that dropping everything and leaving the country to hone her social change vision was a risky and unusual career move—but she made the leap anyway.
“I thought I wanted a scroll that carried a certificate, but I came back with a glint in my eye and a song in my heart.”
A year ago, I gave away most of my property, ferried the rest to my parents in another city, packed my bags, and headed to India for an eight-month course on social change.
This wasn’t my first time pursuing education—I have a university degree and other professional qualifications. But this time, I was 39 years old and I was leaving my life and my daughter for an unknown place, halfway across the world. This was definitely new to me.
At the time, my life felt like a puzzle with crucial parts missing. I was excellent at previous jobs as a TV producer, event talent manager, and marketing communications professional. I had a Rolodex of quite a few of the ‘who’s who’ in the TV industry in Nigeria. I had gathered a modest following online chronicling my life anonymously as a person living with HIV. Yet, in every material way success was determined, I was unsuccessful. I owned mostly liabilities, had no money in the bank, was out of work and down on my luck. I knew that my life’s purpose bordered around the things I was doing, but I was not sure how.
The social change institute Kanthari chose me for admission because of my work with HIV and my vision for change, but I questioned if I really belonged there. In my mind, all that I needed was some professional, corporate training that would take me up the ladder, in a high flying job. Did I need almost a year away in an obscure social work program? How would I explain the consequent one year gap in my resume?
I kept thinking of reasons not to go. India was never a place I had indicated any interest in visiting. I knew absolutely no one there. I would be separated from my daughter, for whom I was emotionally and financially responsible. I had passed that dreamy phase in my life when everything is so exciting and had stepped into a phase of philosophical stoicism. Finally, embarking on this journey required that I personally fund the transportation. That was quite a lot of money to spend for someone who was often in between employment. Yet I took the step anyway.
Before I left, a family member told me “India can change your life.” Since he had never been there himself, I dismissed his words. I didn’t anticipate the changes I would start noticing in myself during this training.
When we arrived at the training campus in Trivandrum, Kerala, we went on a tour of the city. I was so taken by the colors of the garments, the language, the food, the architecture, the beauty all around me. It reminded me how I felt when I was younger, when I used to wake up in the morning curious and excited. I felt the world was so big and there was so much to experience. The vicissitudes of life had since knocked the wind out of that sail, but in a new environment and with the prospect of new challenges, I began to feel the excitement again.
There were only 20 of us in the training, all living together in a dormitory. The experiential curriculum involved full participation from everyone. No one was hidden or overshadowed. It was an environment that allowed me to rediscover talents like writing, performing, singing, and public speaking, which had been buried under years of disappointment. I even unearthed abilities like photography and financial management that I didn’t know I had.
Living with people from different races, cultures, and backgrounds taught me to be conscious of the timing and delivery of my opinions. I learned that cultural nuances and personal differences colored what and how we heard.
When conflicts arose, or when I began to get discouraged, I would remind myself of why I was there and what I had invested in getting there. This would be one of the very rare times I did not quit at something even when I wanted to.
Most importantly, training to run a social venture was a lesson in simplicity. It was a totally different ball game from the rat race for material acquisition that the corporate world is notorious for. This simplicity gave me a new-found love of nature. I visited lakes, beaches, and natural attractions. I ate healthy, unprocessed food from a garden. And in turn, I was imbued with a curious (to me) love for myself.
Suddenly it dawned on me that whether or not I had material acquisitions, academic qualifications, or upward mobility in my career, I was enough as I was. It was more important for me to latch on to the human need I was meant to fill, and believe in where it would take me.
This belief has carried me through to the work I do today. I started a social venture that trains young women living with HIV in areas of TV Production that are usually dominated by men. We are sparking and sustaining open conversations about HIV/ AIDS, sex, and reproductive rights. We aim to change the way Nigeria sees HIV by breaking down the cultural and societal paradigms that allow this disease to thrive.
Before this experience, I believed I needed a professional or academic qualification to move forward, but instead I returned with purpose. I thought I wanted a scroll that carried a certificate, but I came back with a glint in my eye and a song in my heart. My path is clear to me now—something I could never say before.
My advice for anyone seeking education or professional development is this: While you go into your pursuit with an open mind, also go into it with an open heart. Learning can come in many forms if you are ready to receive.
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