I realised my privilege after landing back in the UK in 1998. I had made my trip, simply with a duffel bag, and turned up with my Nigerian passport, stamped with a right of abode. The immigration officer raised a quizzical eyebrow and queried why I had queued on the Foreign line, after all he pointed out, I showed up on his database as “Born in the UK”.
He looked askance at my duffel bag and waved me through, so I strolled to the Customs zone, Green sign- Nothing to declare, since I had no suitcases checked in. My thoughts whirled back to my last stay in the UK, to be precise – Montrose, Scotland in 1986!! I had graduated (1985) as a chemical engineer in the USA, and spent the summer in Westchester county, New York since my father was the Nigerian Consul General based in New York.
However, I was unable to get a job due to my student status and my parents then hit on the bright idea that I could be bundled off to the UK, for an engineering internship. A phone call to the right quarters, and I was accepted with GlaxoChem, so got on the plane straight to London HQ. And that’s where the fun came to an end, because the big chief at HQ gave me joining letter to start with their factory in Montrose, Scotland! This was a shock to my system since I had planned on spending time and board with my cousins in London, and hitting the clubs.
It was a culture shock moving to this provincial village situated on the Scottish coast. Firstly, I had to stay in a Bed & Breakfast since there was no suitable accomodation, for short stays, and I had no car to drive so was reliant on riding a bicycle to work! The mitigating factor was that scots are a friendly bunch, love their liquor, and if you close your eyes the accent sounds Nigerian. Suffice to say I gave my notice within three months, upset my sponsors, and got on the plane back to New York.
“Privilege is invisible to those who have it”Mark Martin
▶ The Highway
Once I got through the Customs zone at Heathrow, I had to find my way to East London, where friends had invited me to stay for a short while, after I had explained “Project Icarus”.
The Project name was a nod to the idiom “don’t fly too close to the sun”. This was my thought about my harebrained “exile” scheme to escape the “Nigerian patriarchy”. The duffel bag was my only possession after moving out of my Lagos flat, which I had left fully furnished with my car in the driveway and then dropped all keys with my folks before getting onboard the plane, with a One-way plane ticket.
Two years previously, I had quit my job as Manager, Corporate Banking in a Commercial Bank to setup a Consulting firm. I hitched up and got Office space (gratis) from a Legal chamber, with prime location in the City square. I then plugged into my network at Ikoyi club to find assignments but all this fell flat, since (I only found out later!) my communication and soft skills were woeful and prospective clients perceived me as arrogant- “My way or the highway”.
I had bought into the fallacy of being independent and self made, so refused to grovel to the “powers that be” and the establishment. I found out my reputation from the bank, of refusing bribes and kick backs, had gone around and I was seen as inflexible in business practice. I had to fall-back on sub-consultancy and contracts which gave me less than my projected income. Shorthand to say I failed.
After my engineering internship and return to New York, I had taken the plunge and arrived back in Nigeria with the intention of fulfilling my one year period with National Youth Service (NYSC) and then returning back to New York for graduate studies. Fast forward, to completing another internship with Gulf Oil, and failing the (final) interview at Shell Oil for Drilling engineer (permanent position) and I was stuck. My parents for reasons, to be revealed later, did not welcome me back to New York and I was stuck. However, the strings could be pulled and I embarked on a corporate career working with Multinational subsidiaries in Lagos, before I ended up at the Bank.
“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”John Donne (1624)
▶ Growing Up
The child is the father of the Man : We are all products of our background and the path to self-development is a different track for everyone. I would describe my initial upbringing as a cookie-cutter stuff.
Since my father joined the civil service at the country’s independence in 1960, I was brought up on the wave as ‘first transition’. It was the typical traditional strict African family upbringing;. Christian One wife Metropolitan template. I had my schools chosen for me, my social status laid out and jobs lined up at graduation. The conflict came from the flip of studying in Nigeria and spending most school vacations outside the country.
Looking back, my father was my hero but he was a highly principled (judgemental) Christian and blunt with his words to a fault. This certainly did not bode well for his career in the diplomatic service. And it certainly made an impact since I absorbed his traits subconsciously with the maxim being “ My way or the Highway”. Unfortunately, I was also obtuse and could never pick up the signals when I upset the social apple cart and caused upheaval.
One particular aspect was I was being perceived as being rude to elders since I always stuck to the fact, this went against the norm where “elders are always right”.. However, I was protected from the ‘sticks and stones’ due to privilege and only came unstuck after graduation from University, when my career path began.
A tale of Two cities.: Candidly this should be numerous cities! Somehow as the middle child and due to the veracities of the school calendar, I found myself living abroad and absorbing foreign cultures between primary through secondary and unto graduation. Privilege came from holidays in foreign countries, for instance country skiing, in the French Alps before I started Secondary school, and learning French culture in Geneva. My father’s foreign postings were invariably french speaking, mostly in Africa but included Switzerland and finally New York, where he ended up as Consul-General.
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”Joni Mitchell
That was how I found myself striding not only a multi-cultural background, but parents with different mindsets. My father had lost his Mum at an early age and had been raised by a paternal Uncle in the hinterlands (Any town outside Lagos!) and arrived in Lagos to work before University. He doted on us children since he wanted to have his own ‘complete family.
However, my Mum grew up in Lagos and had an early bright start at formal education as the daughter of a school headmaster. But she was a traditionalist and tried (overly) hard to compensate for Dad’s lenient hand by being very strict with us. My pet peeve was her insistence that we (children) had to complete education to University in Nigeria.
However, I got the comeuppance on her by appealing to my Dad, after I had graduated B.Sc(Hons) Chemistry – University of Lagos, to send me to the USA so I could be an Engineer. Since this was prestigious for him, he happily aid out of his foreign allowance for my three year study, which certainly affected my Mum’s shopping trips abroad!!
The rule was to stay in One job for 20 + years and climb to the top of the ladder, to resign as CEO. However, during my corporate career, I moved to different companies and changed industry sectors. The long-term effect was that I never rose to the top. Although ambitious, driven and highly qualified I lacked a mentor/coach in the early stages of my character development and my communication skills were poor.
I was a prisoner to Logic and often got stumped when discussions got emotional, it certainly did not help that I (unconsciously) always gave away my thoughts with my facial expressions (eye-roll!) when people did not make sense. It was only after my coaching sessions (belatedly) that I understood the benefits of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
“The big problems we face today could very well be solved by letting go of logic”Rory Sutherland
Childhood trauma is invisible in African childhood. Despite my privileged background I can still recollect the horror visited on my peers who were left handed and had sticks rain down on them to convert to being right-handed.
Hence my vivid recollection sitting in the back of my engineering class (about 40 students), in the US, to realise about half the class were left-handed! Unfortunately in my case, though I had often realised I was aberrant, I did not exhibit the ‘physical symptoms’ for the establishment to get on my case before my travel to study in the US. The University I attended was in Oregon State, a predominantly white agricultural state, where most African students attended on Government postgraduate scholarships.
I was one of the few black students at undergraduate level and the only one in Engineering. My initial stay was with a nice middle class ( father – Doctor) white American family who took me in stride, while I definitely made very good efforts to assimilate as well with my classmates. There were challenges due to my learning style but one ideal that stuck out for me, and still inspires me, was the use of the honor code in class. This gave rise to my true learning path because we (students) submitted test and exam papers using pencil which we received back (with marks) and which I used as feedback to improve on my academic performance.
However, it all unravelled. After my US graduation and the end of my Internship in Scotland, I had returned to New York to look for a permanent US job, but with no success. So I hatched on the plan to return to Nigeria and take my National Youth Service, which I had previously skipped when I graduated from University of Lagos. The grand scheme of things was to return to the US for postgraduate studies (MBA) which would put me in a better position. Well, I got on the plane with my prize treasure, a Compaq ‘Laptop’, which was the size of a ‘Singer Sewing machine’ (this was 1986) and landed in Lagos, where I then stayed with relatives.
“ Yes, we are indeed formed by traumas that happen to us. But then you must take charge, you must take over, you are responsible.”Camille Paglia
The return was a Disaster. Everything seemed backward to me, the city appeared to me like a survivor of a war zone, with decrepit roads and tumbled buildings. I had lost my roots and bearings because I had been living in a bubble (abroad) and diplomatic life-style.
There was no counselling or anyone to confide in and some of my behaviour was deemed as aberrant. I Was moved lock-step into the psychiatric ward of the Teaching Hospital and put on medication. My saving grace was the psychiatric was top-notch and UK qualified. He listened and I gave him an understanding of my background and situation. Apparently relatives had informed that my case was suspected of acting suspiciously due to being on ‘drugs’!! .
“He Who Marches Out Of Step Hears Another Drum”Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Although he insisted I stay on the course of treatment and medication, he was able to recommend my release to daily life. This experience sobered me up, and I decided to toe the orthodox line of behaviour in the future. I count myself lucky because I had a classmate (we were mates from secondary through to University in Lagos) who had a similar experience, lost the plot through mistreatment and died tragically in his thirties.
Things fell apart. Once I was released, there was no going back and my parents fudged on my return to the US. However, My Dad,(away in the US all this time though my Mum had flown home,) shipped me a brand new Golf Sedan car (factory spec). This caused quite a stir in the elite circles because mine was one of maybe three in all of Lagos at the time. Some of my peers privately complained to me that when they tried shopping for the car, the price was equivalent to an entry level BMW sedan, so they could not imagine spending so much on a Volkswagen. Yo bro, the car was fab, front wheel drive, great revs, air-conditioned and four speaker top range music system. To die (or not) for.
I completed my National Service working as an intern, drilling engineer, with an Gulf Oil company and had offshore spells in Escravos, but the training was pretty ad-hoc and I had to tag along with my Supervisors most of the time. 1987 was a period of profound Oil price shock with prices at about US$17 per barrel so there was a hiring moratorium at the Company. .Afterwards I took a pretty stiff screening exam at Shell Oil Company and got through to the final interview only to fall at the final hurdle. Apparently Shell had a pretty strict regime of training for their own interns and a few questions from them were about drilling on the Oil rig, which I failed abysmally due to my lack of exposure at Gulf Oil.
‘“Everyone knows where they belong. Except for me.”Divergent (The Movie)