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Saturday, 20th April 2024
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Felicia Oyekanmi

Felicia Oyekanmi

Felicia Oyekanmi is an academic researcher, a Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Lagos.

Childhood was Fun and Scary

I grew up in the medium sized town of Ilesha. The main industry there was education. Social activity mainly revolved round the schools, the hospital or religious organizations. My family was a nuclear one, and there were only two of us as children, my elder brother and I, though we had maternal cousins living with us. We could be as many as ten or twelve children in the house and we had wonderful interactions with one another. I was closer to my mum, though she was a disciplinarian. She raised us to thoroughly do any work that was assigned to us. My dad was hardly ever around and when he was, he pampered us. Maybe it was his way of making up for the periods he was away.

My dad worked for the Western Region Government. He worked with the Ministry of Industry and was in charge of Cooperatives. I remember he used to be away from home a lot. He would go to inspect farms, meet with the farmers, especially cocoa farmers and would return during the weekend. When he retired, he joined the banking sector as an auditor. My mum was a nurse, who later set up her own maternity home. My childhood days were relatively comfortable. The community was close and quiet. The church, St. John’s Anglican Church, Iloro, Ilesha, was a major agent of socialization. I remember the Reverend’s reluctance to sign my GCE ‘O’ level forms. In his words, ‘You aren’t a member of the church choir’. Even when I explained to him that I was a boarding student and couldn’t be involved in such out of school activities, he wasn’t convinced and therefore didn’t sign it. It wasn’t as if I had a nice voice to join the choir, anyway!

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When I was in primary four, we had a teacher who enjoyed caning us whenever he was in his white knickers. When we saw him coming to our class in white, we knew we were in for it. He was Mr. Fadeyi, one of the best teachers in the school. To avert his having to beat us on his ‘white knicker day’, we made sure we all put on our best behaviour. I wish present day school children have such committed teachers. Birthdays in our house were special occasions. They were days we looked forward to. There were many enjoyable activities filled with fun, dancing and eating. There were many happy times during my childhood and growing up days. 

However, I also experienced a fair share of scary times. The one that comes readily to mind was when I was given a chase by a snake. I had climbed up a guava tree to pluck the fruit. I was unaware there was a snake nearby which had the same intention. I plucked the guava and jumped down but the snake came after me, intending to get the fruit. I ran like I never did and the snake was relentless in its effort till I jumped over a big gutter. This stopped its chase. I will never forget the fright I had that day. Once I saw I was safe at the other side of the gutter, I ate the guava with relish. I used to be very slim as an adolescent and at a stage, was taking ‘eggovin’ to put on more flesh, but to no avail. I played a lot with my elder brother and my cousins. Most times, I didn’t remember I was a girl. I enjoyed playing with the boys, and taking part in my school’s athletic events.

Felicia Oyekanmi

Home Became Boring

I started school early because when my brother went to school, I was left at home with no one to play with. So, my mum enrolled me in the school too. It was boring remaining at home; it is not like these days when there are nursery schools. The most we had at that time were evening lessons where one carried one’s own stool, a slate and a chalk to a teacher’s house. We had very efficient teachers who gave and marked assignments. Consistent bad performance was a cause for worry, and the teacher would ask to see one’s parents. Secondary school was at the government-owned Queens School, Ede. We had British, Irish and a few Nigerian teachers who were committed to their work. I did my ‘A’ levels at Comprehensive High School, Aiyetoro, now in Ogun State. It was a relatively new school and was run then in conjunction with an American agency.

Demography and the Nigerian Experience

In my third year at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, one of my lecturers who had schooled in the USA through regular contact with the Population Council, got to know of the Council’s desire to train people in Demography. Undergraduate students in my set were then nominated for postgraduate studies. That was how I got the fellowship to go for my Master’s degree at the Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where I also did some courses towards my Ph.D. I concluded my Ph.D programme at the University of Ife. Demography was a relatively new research area then but my interest has been sustained over the years because of the nature of the course. It makes one knowledgeable in all the social science courses. Demography is a combination of economics, sociology, political science, as well as health science. The widening gap between fertility and mortality is a major cause for the country’s population explosion. Mortality rate was reducing because of improved health factors. There is a slight fall in fertility rate. Unfortunately, the AIDS pandemic has increased mortality rates, not only in Nigeria, but in other African countries as well.

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The gain in longevity that people had assumed would take place is being threatened by the reality of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The nation’s population explosion is also threatened by lack of adequate infrastructure. In Lagos, for example, there is a clear imbalance between the population and the limited and dilapidated infrastructure. Congested roads, non-functioning drainage systems, epileptic supply of water and electricity, increasing crime rate, are all manifestations of this. Yet, Lagos is not as populated as New York. The advantage they have over us is their better system. Within three or four minutes of making a call, the police would have been on the scene of an accident, but that takes hours here because the police would probably be requesting for a formal statement. To avoid a crisis, more employment opportunities need to be generated to reduce the drift into the cities. If there are medium scale industries and improved agriculture in the rural areas and smaller towns, crime rates in cities might drop. The great inequality in income distribution is another issue that should be addressed.

Serving in the Ivory Tower

As a female Nigerian academic, one is saddled with the responsibility of teaching, marking scripts, recording (which is supposed to be the work of administrators but in our own case, we have to record and even make photocopies for them.) and publishing articles in journals based on research work. The latter is becoming an uphill task because of lack of funds and lack of quality time to sit and write, due to the harsh working environment. The reality is, promotions are tied to publications; teaching only gives one a few points for academic experience. I have been teaching in the university system since 1974. My major achievement is the training one has given to so many students. With thirty-one years of service, I have turned out at least twenty-seven sets of graduates, not mentioning the postgraduates. I can confidently say I have tried my best. 

After retirement, I could consider working with a social service based NGO as a consultant, or open a day care centre where I can sit back and sing nursery rhymes to children under the age of two. I don’t have to draw up a curriculum or anything. I find teaching very interesting, right from the time I taught at the Africa Church Grammar School in Ilesha, where I was also the boarding house mistress. I love interacting with the youth, as it keeps one agile and mentally alert. Unfortunately, it’s not easy convincing younger ones to come into the academia because they don’t find it attractive. They would rather go into the banks than saddle themselves with the rigours of classroom work and an unfriendly working environment that dissuades one from writing and doing research. 

For example, I am to write the introduction to the book I’m editing at the moment and I’ve been on it for weeks, trying to squeeze out time to read the chapters, summarize and write. Apart from teaching, we encourage our students to acquire entrepreneurship skills instead of staying unemployed. Some have shown interest in going ahead with further studies, though they prefer to do it out of the country. I let them know that this has its own problems, as one might have to start from the scratch again. This is because many institutions abroad are unwilling to accept our degrees as an equivalent to their own due to prejudice. A number of people get there and realize the grass is not as green as they had imagined.

Felicia Oyekanmi

One of the problems to tackle in our educational system is the enhancement of the school curriculum. Most of the messages passed on to students seem to reinforce the tendency to remain underdeveloped. People must be made to think up new ideas, to be creative, and to be broadminded. This will reduce the temptation to fall into the ‘get rich quick’ syndrome. There is this criticism that the university doesn’t equip the average student with the practical aspects of his or her course. It is important that the philosophy behind each school system be understood. Universities, for example, are to teach managerial skills, while polytechnics are to train middle level manpower. 

It’s not as if the university training excludes the practical aspects completely. Our Sociology students, for example, go for field practicals. But basically, the training in the university is tailored towards intellectual work. People complain that the university doesn’t train computer students to manufacture computers. Well, we won’t assemble parts as some do, for we are conscious of copyright infringements. We can only teach them the theory of its application, hoping this would motivate them to carry out further research.

The condition of teaching as a service needs to be improved upon. I was shocked to realize, upon my return from a study leave, that I had not been paid for three months. When eventually I was paid, the arrears for my professional level was hardly anything to write home about. University teachers lack basic privileges and this affects their input. It has become so hard to attend international conferences because of lack of funds. This was not so before. At UNILAG one can utilize learned conferences fund only once in every three years. In some universities, this facility is non-existent. It is not a surprise that there are many frustrated individuals in the academic system. There is the problem of funding academic journals as well.

Thoughts on Marriage

I got married to someone I had dated for years. We met when I was in the secondary school, and more or less grew up together. Our society is, to a large extent, structured along marital lines. So, the pressure of getting married and raising a family is very strong. For instance, a young lady in her mid-twenties is expected to be about getting married or already married. If she’s not married yet, she succumbs to societal expectations and pressure by marrying whoever comes her way. The result might be disastrous. 

These days however, it’s easier to get out of that type of marriage either through separation or divorce. For a woman who is not economically independent, she would have to contend with being stuck in a marriage with series of emotional turmoil. The extended family can only give their advice. In my culture, a female divorcee who ventures to return to her father’s house is ostracized. She is often referred to as ‘Dalemosun’! This attitude is put up in order to dissuade women from considering divorce as an alternative. Maybe women are expected to be more patient and explore other means of making their marriage work. But no one seems to want to ask the man some pertinent questions. What if it is the man that is seeking for divorce? Society places a heavy burden on the woman. She is expected to be the wonder worker that would hold her marriage together and make it work by all means.

The Nigerian population policy states a minimum age of 18 years for one to get married but I would advise between the ages of 22 and 23, provided the partners are educated and can finance the union. Honesty is important for a successful marriage. Ironically, good people sometimes end up with the wrong partners. Anyone going into marriage must use his or her heart and head. Each partner must be ready to contribute to the overall success of the home. If a man must have his wife stay at home, he must be prepared to give her the minimum level of comfort or lifestyle she would have lived if she were to keep a job outside the home. These days that people die prematurely, what would happen to a widow who has no viable means of livelihood? How would she sustain herself and the children? 

A student of mine who got married to a spare parts dealer was told by her husband to discontinue her education. Her colleagues told me he would lock her up in the house every morning as he left for his work and would not open for her until he returned from his shop. The girl, without her husband’s knowledge, made arrangements with one of her classmates to get a spare key with which she opened the door as soon as he left. During this time of escape, she attended her lectures. I think such things are really unfair. I have always worked since I wrote my GCE ‘A’ levels. I would find it difficult to live a lifestyle devoid of a career.

Motherhood is Challenging

Most mothers assume that bonding with the child is instantaneous. This is not true. Bonding with one’s child is a gradual process. Having my first child was traumatic because I didn’t expect to have much pain. My mother, a nurse, made the experience easier as she would tell me what to expect at any particular phase of childbirth. After the delivery, the baby would cry relentlessly and I wouldn’t know what to do. It is helpful to have a grown up with the new mother. She would assist the mother and child and calm the young mother’s fears. Feelings of fulfillment in motherhood are not automatic. It comes as one adjusts to the new lifestyle. A woman who has troublesome teenagers wouldn’t feel that motherhood is fulfilling, but in the long run when the children settle down, she might have a more positive view of motherhood.

Physiologically, every woman has the capacity to have a child, so to that extent one could say every woman is a mother. But whether or not a woman brings this physiological capability to actualization is a matter of choice. Generally, most women look forward to being mothers. A few women worry about what pregnancy and childbirth could do to their shape or lifestyle. In demography, we distinguish between fecundity and fertility. Fecundity is that physiological capability to have a child, that is, the woman having all the necessary reproductive parts. Fertility, on the other hand, is her actually becoming pregnant and producing life births.

While raising our kids, we must be careful not to use them to re-live what we would have wanted to be. This would put a lot of pressure on the child. I went through that with my mum. She wanted me to become a medical doctor. Till she died, she used to complain of how I ended up being a Doctor of Philosophy instead of a Doctor of Medicine. I almost acquiesced to her demand, but I did not take Physics in the secondary school that I attended. She wanted me to attend extra classes so I could write Physics in my ‘A’ level, but I wasn’t interested. We must not put unnecessary pressure on our children. 

Ambition is legitimate but it must not be at the expense of someone else. I have six children and all of them have told me they would not have as many children as I have. I try not to have favourites among them, though circumstances that surround the birth of a child at times might likely influence that decision. Generally, it’s the last born that is considered favourite because of the tendency to see him/her as ‘weak’. But for me, what this means is that whoever was the ‘last born’ at any point was my favourite. When I had two, the younger would be the last-born, when they became three, it was the third child, and so on.

My children tell me I talk too much because when I tell them something, I often have to repeat it time and again. But they see this as burdensome. It is profitable to take care of other people’s children as well. I have many stepchildren that I have trained. At the point of one’s need, it may not be one’s own biological child that would be there for one. I’ve had to counsel two women to try the option of an adoption. Even though they were willing, their husbands did not agree. Superstition still abounds when it comes to adoption.

Old People’s Homes

Taking parents to old people’s home isn’t a common feature of the African society. Yet, in the developed countries, some children suddenly collect their parents insurance policies and ‘knock’ them off. It’s a feature of the urban areas where people are becoming more individualistic. Anyone who is not productive is seen as a hindrance and so the need to confine such a person. It’s not impossible that many of those in old people’s homes are aged folks who wandered off, maybe due to impairment in their memory, and couldn’t find their way home. So they were rescued and put in the old people’s home. It certainly isn’t a Nigerian culture.

Self-Actualization is the Word

I don’t feel insecure because of gender discrimination. It rather serves as an incentive to move on and get results. I do not see it as a reason to give up. Even in the family set up, there are subtle statements that reveal that the Nigerian society is not fully set to consider the woman a partner. For example, one of my uncles told me recently that even though I have made some wise decisions, a woman still isn’t made the ‘Arole’ (the regent), which in the Yoruba culture means the one who temporarily assumes the throne before the prince or a new Oba takes over. 

Sometimes we think it’s the uneducated women that get cheated; but even the educated ones aren’t spared too. Our legal system should address certain gender issues; there are too many assumptions that put the woman at a disadvantaged position. In South Africa and East Africa, women hold better positions as ministers and advisers. Their voices are heard. They participate in the freedom fights and even when men became the heads of state, governors and public officers, women still held reasonable political positions. 

Still, women need to seek more ways to overcome these limitations and not use the title ‘woman’ as an excuse to be lazy. I don’t believe in favouring any sex. If a man is good, let’s put him there and if it is the woman, why not? I also don’t tolerate mediocrity in anyone because she is a woman. Maybe this explains the reason why some think women are their worst enemies. When a woman has been able to overcome the limitations set against her self-actualization, she finds it hard to condone such acts of resignation in other women; whereas, the man may probably be sympathetic.

I love reading novels, especially those that would help me to relax. I love watching films too, especially Nigerian movies. I love building houses, making renovations, and painting. In the past, I loved driving long distance, which I hardly do nowadays. I don’t cook that much because the heat in the kitchen easily tires me, otherwise I love cooking. I don’t have a favourite meal; I eat anything that comes my way (except eggs) when I’m hungry. I stopped dieting when I did it for a week and didn’t see the result. I know that if I don’t eat up to 100% of my stomach capacity, I would lose weight. I do a lot of dancing, which is a form of exercise. One sweats and stretches the muscles.

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