The Journal Nigeria

Tuesday, 25th June 2024
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Helen Prest-Ajayi

Helen Prest-Ajayi is a Nigerian lawyer, writer and former beauty queen. She is currently the CEO of Media Business Company, My Lifestyle Solutions.

Growing Up

I spent my formative years in England.  My parents were young. I recall my father was in the University and my mother was at secretarial college, so we did not have a conventional upbringing. Also growing up in the sixties with young parents and the influence of all kinds of interesting people led me to have a fairly broad worldview. In spite of this, I was never allowed to forget my roots.  My father never lost an opportunity to drum it into our heads that we should remember the children of whom we were. His grandmother was a Royal Princess, a daughter of the Olu of Warri. His father, Chief Arthur Prest, the Olorogun of Warri, was the first Minister of Communications in the First Republic. On my mother’s side, her great grandfather was King Odun Eze of Omoko in Alu Ikwerre. His son, Prince Samuel Horsefall, married her grandmother, Obata the daughter of Chief Dikio Obazi, who is a descendant of Goye Fubara, the elders of Kalabari. 

My childhood years were mainly filled with solitary pursuits. I was not a gregarious child, not because I was timid or shy, but simply because I did not want to be.  I always considered playing with toys or playing with friends a rude interruption of what I loved most – the written word. My best friends were books. I would read anything and everything and loved reading to such an extent that when it was time for lights out, I would snuggle under the bed covers and continue reading with torchlight. My idea of a great day out was to spend an afternoon at the library. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? But to me, the rows of evenly stacked books subdivided into various categories of interest were a passport to endless possibilities; history, adventure, romance…Why would I want to spend hours in idle chatter with friends when I could be off to Neverland with Peter Pan at the flip of a page, or spend hours on end with The Family From One End Street, never ceasing to be amazed by their cheerful optimism in the face of economic challenges (as we call it these days). The children were always wearing hand-me-downs and the family always struggled to make ends meet. Hand-me-downs were an alien concept to me, since I was an only girl and had no female cousins older than me to receive clothes from. 

However, the wearing of oversized clothes was something I could readily identify and I hated it! The children in those stories always wore clothes that were either too big or too small. They were always ‘making do’; hardly anything was ever bought new. I knew that The Family from One End Street were a bit rough and poor, practically living from hand-to-mouth, but it didn’t make me like them any less. On the contrary, I found their attempts to make ends meet endearing. Children today would probably describe them in the popular schoolyard term as losers! And promptly dismiss them. By the materialistic standards of today, the stories seemed quite implausible. How could children be happy with so little? Well, that was the era I grew up in. In those days, children had no real concept of money other than it was useful to have, to buy sweets or comics, and certainly no idea of the meaning of status. Nowadays, every five-year-old hankers after a mobile phone knowing too well that its possession will instantly confer him or her with a pedigree of ‘coolness’ among his or her peers. Children’s TV was on only from 4pm to 6pm with the highlight of the day being The Magic Roundabout and we only had 2 channels to choose from: BBC and ITV; no ‘bouquet’ of channels, no 24 hour cartoon network, no video games, no Internet and we were never bored! There also seemed to be plenty of free time to do other things when you got back from school, no ‘homework’ ‘till you drop syndrome’ as the children seem to have today. So one either read or played. I loved reading and spent my childhood doing just that!

I had a very formal upbringing with great emphasis being placed on the Protestant work ethic. My father held strong views about raising children. Firstly, he made no distinction between my brothers and me. I was forced to wear a low cut like a boy until I was about 18; he believed long hair for a girl was too distracting. An only girl in the midst of boys, I was raised very much as a boy and expected to achieve as much if not more. Even though I was expected to be an academic high achiever, I was also encouraged to be athletic; which, as it turned out, I was quite good at. Being of a slight build, tall and gangly, I was very swift and represented my school in 100 metres, 200 metres, relay, long jump and tennis. Looking at me it seems unlikely, but I have medals to prove it! And in addition, he also insisted I be ladylike.

My father, Chief Mikail Prest, was a stickler for all forms of etiquette, especially good manners. He paid particular attention to table manners, posture and grooming. Woe betides any child who walked with hunched shoulders or shuffled their feet in his presence! Such behaviour instantly incurred a hot slap on our backs. We used to call it the thunderbolt. You dared not slouch at the dining table or eat and let your fork scrape your teeth in the process. Or heaven forbid, eat and lick your spoon afterwards! He was also concerned about how we related to other people, placing emphasis on politeness and graciousness at all times. My mother, on the other hand, was concerned with more practical matters. She placed more emphasis on us being able to understand our environment and culture. It was she who insisted that I study Law rather than Art, even though I had already gained admission into Art School. She said that our country didn’t understand Artists and I wouldn’t gain the respect that I deserved. Moreover, she believed that with a Law degree in hand, I could eventually do whatever I wished. I have to say she was right and I am eternally grateful to her.

I attended primary and secondary schools in England, attending Bell Lane Primary School, St Joseph’s Convent, Hendon, and Hendon Grammar School. I did my ‘A’ Levels at the International School, Ibadan (ISI). Thereafter, I went on to study Law at the University of Ife. From there I proceeded to the Law School, following which I went abroad to do a Master’s in Law at King’s College, London (KCL).

A Very Boyish Figure

I suppose nothing dramatic ever really happens to good children and I was a very good child and, as a result my childhood was rather bland. I never gave my parents cause for concern like my brothers. They were given endless opportunities as a result of their unruly behaviour, expensive private schools, exotic holidays, all done to ensure that they wouldn’t turn into bad eggs. I, on the other hand, because I was good and somewhat clever and never gave any trouble at all, was sent to the local grammar school. It always reminds me of the story of the prodigal son. I know what it symbolizes and can understand and identify with it, but the child in me still feels it’s a little bit unfair. As a result, when I’m dealing with my own children I always try to make sure that I don’t reward bad behaviour. We address it but try to make sure that the children who behaved well are also compensated above and beyond the ones that gave us agro! Yes, I was boringly good and as a child I was a people pleaser, always trying to meet everybody’s needs and expectations. I recall doing my homework because I didn’t want to offend anybody. 

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The thought of failing an exam at school was inconceivable. My parents never supervised my homework. I just did it. I was self-motivated and wanted to succeed because it seemed the right thing to do. In spite of this humdrum existence, I do recall one unforgettable memory that was startling for what it would foretell. At the age of ten, I watched the Miss World Pageant on TV and I blithely announced to my brother that one day I was going to take part in the Miss World Pageant. You can imagine the stunned disbelief that was quickly followed by loud guffaws of laughter. I could understand where they were coming from; here was a girl who was quiet, an introvert by nature, with very short hair and not particularly endowed. In fact, I had a very boyish figure; very slim, very narrow, with long legs and arms, saucer plate eyes and very big teeth. I was the most unlikely candidate ever. But I was crowned Miss Nigeria in 1979 and thereafter went on to attend the Miss World Pageant.

A Very Personal Journey

Marriage is such a personal journey that the challenges a couple faces is peculiar to the circumstances they find themselves in. No two marriages are alike, but one thing I do know is that couples must understand themselves and be comfortable with who they are.  Many people go into marriage feeling the other person can make them what they’re not or who they should be. They feel someone else can give them the love they require to make them whole.  And when they realize it is not possible, they become deeply disappointed.  Marrying someone you love or taking your time before you tie the nuptial knot doesn’t guarantee a successful marriage either.  Rather, it’s understanding who you are and being happy in that understanding. This enables you to be strong in yourself. It’s important you become a whole person before going into partnership with somebody else.  You must be sure you have the things the other person wants in his partner and you’re not expecting the other person to fulfill all your unfulfilled dreams or do everything for you.

One is bound to hear all sorts of homilies on marriage. One of them is that, as a woman you’re expected to be submissive.  I agree with that but then you want to be sure on the extent of that submission because if one party has to die for the relationship to exist, then it doesn’t make sense.  Where a woman has no dream of her own, she can afford to follow her husband in all his pursuits. But a situation where she has to do away with her dreams completely in order for his to exist could make her miserable for the rest of her life. Of course, it is possible to suppress one’s desires for the sake of the marriage, the children, the house, and the social position. However, of those who do, many do not survive. Those who have a strong constitution do, however. Others are severely affected, sometimes leading to an inability to function. When you see them, they are like the walking dead, devoid of life and happiness. I am extremely fortunate in that I have been able to find my life partner in my husband, Dr Tosin Ajayi, someone whom I am compatible with on fundamental issues, though he doesn’t really subscribe to some of my more whimsical tendencies. But as I always tell my friends, when you see a man with a woman who looks as if you cannot imagine them together, you had better believe that it’s that thing which it looks like he cannot possibly like that he loves the most! Otherwise, they would not be together for very long. Men do not usually tolerate for very long what they don’t like; it’s not in their nature to endure.

We are Bonded

In my opinion, the greatest challenge one faces in raising the children is the anxiety over how they will turn out. Motherhood is like a big exam with results awaiting you in the not-too-distant-future. Children are like signposts as you go through life.  If they succeed, it’s a credit to you; it shows you have done your job well. It’s a beautiful experience, to say the least, especially when you have lovely children who don’t give you too much trouble.  It can really be difficult and give a lot of stress if the children are not well behaved. I have three daughters, the eldest is 16, the middle child is 14, and the youngest is 7 years old. My children keep me company, though they complain that when my husband is at home he takes up all my time. Nevertheless, we have a close relationship. I spend most of my spare time with my daughters chatting, singing, dancing, going shopping, and talking about their problems, their goals and ambitions…. Growing up, I didn’t have too many friends so I made my husband and children my friends. We are bonded.

Enjoying the Journey

‘If you never do anything – nothing bad and nothing good will ever happen to you’. I recognized this fact at the age of 15 and it has been one of my guiding principles. Another is that you should ‘never be afraid to make mistakes’, because mistakes enable you to know for sure what you are not good at, or what you don’t know. Mistakes help you to grow and the earlier you make the mistakes and learn from them the faster you will be propelled towards the things you do know and are good at. Mistakes are scary, but the important thing to know is that every mistake has a life lesson buried inside it. Rather than lamenting the error, spend a little time trying to figure out what the mistake is trying to teach you. ‘Make your decision and be prepared to live with the consequences’… Lay blame where blame lies – that is with yourself; learn the lessons and move on. ‘Life is a process of continuous education, you should never be to old to learn something new’. When you’re learning, you’re growing; when you stop, like unutilized muscles which start to atrophy, you start to degenerate.

‘Books are food for the soul’. Books expand the mind and enable you to gain valuable insights from other people’s experiences. Even fictional novels have lessons to offer as they are usually loosely based on life experiences, if not those of the author, sometimes somebody the author knows or has observed. Some of these experiences learnt vicariously can help you map out your life or at the very least help you to avoid costly mistakes. 

‘Only narrow minded people don’t watch television’. Television is a great educational tool when used in the right way. Through television, I have travelled the world, explored the deepest oceans, rocketed to the outer strata of the solar system, brushed up on subjects I didn’t pay attention to at school, learnt how to cook, and by watching Channel O and MTV, understood better the kind of influences teenagers are subjected to today, enabling me to better prepare to assist my teenage daughters. Television is a tool for learning. It is simply not possible to absorb the amount of information necessary to function effectively in today’s world if you don’t plug in. Television is a window to the world. Watching it lets you know what’s happening, keeps you abreast of current trends and keeps you mentally in the zone, even if you are living in some unprogressive backwater. At least, you will be aware what you can be or can aspire to be.

‘It takes about 20 years to become really successful at anything’. Usually when we see successful people we generally only see the ‘icing on the cake’, a cake that has usually taken a long time in the baking. To be successful at something, you have to do it continuously for some time. I challenge you to take a deeper look into the life of any really successful person you admire; you may be surprised to find just how long it took.

‘For every season there is a reason’ (my loose translation of Ecclesiastes 3:1. This one took me some time to learn, but I thank God I learnt it in the nick of time. Because I was phenomenally impatient, I would never concentrate on the issue at hand but was forever impatient to get on to the next thing. I was one of those people who, when on holiday, instead of loosing myself in the experience, would be impatiently anxious for the holiday to be over so I could go home and regale all my friends about the things they missed! I was in my late thirties before I realized that there are certain processes that you cannot just circumvent or skip over – you must pass through them and if you do not, they just come back to haunt you further down the road. Childhood is one of them. As a child, I was impatient to become a teenager and as a teenager, I was impatient to become a fully-fledged adult. In my early twenties, I was impatient to see what life held at 30 or 40.  At school, I wished I were already in the work world and at work, I realized that there were some skills I wish I had acquired if I had paid more attention at school, and on and on. 

The result of all this impatience is that you never get to properly learn the life skills that each stage presents you with. School provides you with a rudimentary preparation for life. At school, you learn the basic requirements. How to read, count, measure; Geography gives you an idea of the vastness of the world you live in; History gives you a sense of who you are and where you’re coming from; simple Biology is necessary to prepare you for responsible procreation and your health needs; socialization skills, organizational skills, time management skills and respect for authority are all necessary requirements for successful living. Good socialization skills help you to find a partner and to respond appropriately. These are the skills you would have learnt in your late teens and early twenties. The same goes for child rearing. If you pay attention and stay in the moment you will be able to pass your life skills to your children to enable them to better cope with the vagaries of life. There is also a better chance of you avoiding the syndrome of stay-at-home kids-who can’t seem to get their-act-together in the future. 

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Sometimes, what we fail to remember is that there is a whole life after rearing children in which we as parents can get back on track to what we want to do with our lives. Of course, that does not happen if we leave getting married too late, having children too late and then when we have them, not paying attention so they become a perennial problem and an albatross around our neck! And as Joyce Meyer the renowned preacher correctly observes, ‘God is using this time to prepare you for your future’… ‘You have to pass through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land’ Paying attention at your first and every subsequent job thereafter is a vital process you must pass through to achieve your ultimate goal. There is no such thing as a dead-end-job. Each skill learnt no matter how trivial adds to your reservoir of knowledge and will find its use at some point in your life journey. You will agree with me that a Managing Director may truly understand the workings of each department because he may have had to spend some time there on his way to the top. He is thus in a better position to know how things may be improved. ‘Do your best and leave the rest… Trust God for favour …enjoy the journey’.

Famous for Being Famous

At the time that the contest was being promoted, I had just learnt how to drive. As usual with everything I did at that time of my life, I was in a big hurry. I really felt I should know how to drive and I really felt that I should have a car. Of course, I was told the car was out of the question; I was too young. Then I had seen the posters of the Miss Nigeria promotion which indicated that the winner of the pageant stood a chance of winning a car. I had totally forgotten my earlier premonition. I decided to take part and with the assistance of my friend, Arese Ukpoma (now Mrs. Arese Carrington), the wife of the former US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Walter Carrington. Having won the Pageant, I was soon at odds with the organizers who seemed to think that becoming Miss Nigeria and winning a car should be the primary objective and the goal. My concept of the pageant was that the Queen in her capacity as Miss Nigeria would bring attention to charitable causes, and serve as a goodwill ambassador for Nigeria, which would involve travelling and meeting people. I wasn’t prepared to sit and do nothing. I thought I should use the opportunity to do something unique. Things came to a head when I threatened to resign and return the car if they did not meet the responsibilities of the tenets of the pageant. They were shocked and asked why was I giving them so much grief. They wondered why I was not satisfied after I had won a car and was receiving a salary. All the other girls who had been Miss Nigeria before me never complained, I was told. I told them that winning material things is not the issue, although it is nice. But the point of a pageant is to make a mark, be a spokesperson for young women, affect people’s lives, and give people hope that they too can achieve. 

When they saw that I was serious, the tone of the whole pageant changed. I have to doff my hat to Ambassador Dele Cole who was the Managing Director of Daily Times at the time for understanding my arguments. After that, beauty pageants were never the same in Nigeria. My reign was a tremendous success. I drew attention and thereby raised money for many organizations. In my capacity as goodwill ambassador at large, I met many interesting personalities, the most memorable being Mohammed Alli who at the time was still in prime health and as witty and charming as anyone could ever be. The most memorable aspect of my entire reign and what touched me most was the genuine tremendous outpouring of love shown by the Nigerian people. Everywhere I went, once I was recognized as The Miss Nigeria, people were all smiles and bent over backwards to be of assistance – even till today. It is one of the reasons I am deeply hurt when people bring the pageant into disrepute. When they do so, they shatter the dream for everybody. In my opinion, it is beautiful for young girls to be allowed to dream, if only for a moment. Miss Nigeria was the only celebrity celebrated for just being. It is like what is now popularly known as famous for being famous. It’s easy for people to be critical about pageants, but you have to remember that in 1979 the Miss Nigeria Pageant was the only reality show that allowed people to enter a world of fantasy.

A Matter of Time

The way and manner in which politics is run in a country reflects the level of sophistication of its people. We are collectively responsible for the political climate of this country and the politicians who purport to serve us. They are there because we condone their presence as a people. The political process in this country is stagnant. The same old compradors who interfaced with the colonial masters have succeeded in taking over the treasury (purportedly in trust for the people) for themselves and have held this country by the jugular since Independence. Nothing has really changed since Independence. The discomfort we are experiencing now is as a result of the explosion in the population with more people to feed in an economy with no growth. The only good news is that we have the assurance that in the fullness of time things must change, because the only constant thing is change.  We are also further assured that we can only move up, because we are already almost at rock bottom. We also know that the knock-on effect of globalization is that government becomes smaller in the wake of the rise in ascendancy of business. As government shrinks and the perks of office become less lucrative, people will realize that going into politics is not a soft option. Besides, their counterparts in business will be seen to be doing things that shape the community since most businesses today have left the primary stage of selling raw materials and are birthed as a result of the needs of the people. It is only a matter of time, the business community will soon take over from the politicians as we have it in America; business will determine policies and the politicians as we have them now will fade into irrelevance.

The Metamorphoses

Though I studied law and practiced it for about 15 years, I always wanted to explore the creative, artistic side of my nature. While in the Law School, I set up ‘Metamorphosis’ a fashion boutique, much to my father’s displeasure. My brother and I ran it. Soon after, we expanded and took a building on Awolowo Road and converted it into a mini shopping mall, the first of its kind around. My interest in fashion design soon waned as I soon realized it was not something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I felt that too much unproductive time was tied to workings of the business so that one could not spend sufficient energy designing. Also, my designs were perhaps a little bit ahead of their time; at that time, people favoured highly decorative and heavily embroidered clothes. My next love which I thought I might parlay into a creative business was a fast food company. I called it Bukka Express. It was the first fast food company delivering pre-packed African food to offices. All people had to do was simply order the food by phone and it would be delivered by courier. 

Though I loved food and the creative process, the challenges of the workforce and the lack of infrastructure made the whole process unsatisfying. We were making a lot of money, but I felt that the gains were not worth the energy expended. At the end of the day, I found it mentally unfulfilling. I’m happy to say that all these forays occurred about twenty years ago. Though they did not turn out what I thought they would be, I now know for sure that I don’t want to do any of those things. Thus, I will not live my life pining for a pipe dream that as it turned out I’m most unsuited to do.

Now, the law is something that I enjoyed practising and will always enjoy. I find nothing more fulfilling than being able to research and get to the depths of an issue. I love advocacy and going to court to present my cases. Unfortunately, with the slow wheels of justice and the tardiness of the courts, the court process made the whole matter unappealing. I decided to stop practising when it dawned on me that the matter I was handling on behalf of NNPC had taken 11 years to conclude. It suddenly dawned on me that practice in Nigeria was not about advocacy and justice, but about business.

More Loyal and Focused

In a millennium where competency on the job is the key, you will find that gender discrimination becomes less of an issue, because results are the key determinant factor in the business environment. To quote Bill Gates, with every thing moving at the ‘speed of thought’ business is more accountable to the result factor. The old boy network is slowly dying. In Nigeria, most employers would rather hire a competent woman as against a man of the same level any day. Firstly, there is the belief that they are more trustworthy, loyal and focused. Moreover, they are not programmed to try and take over the company. Unfortunately, that is where the equality ends. In government where the criteria is not about results, women still get the short end of the stick; but it is changing. President Olusegun Obasanjo has filled the key post of Minister of Finance with a woman and the key monitoring agency is also headed by a woman (note these are areas where transparency and trustworthiness are vital). In other areas, women still bear the burden of an ailing economy with not much being done to alleviate the burden. Consider the tax laws for example; a woman with children cannot enjoy tax deductions and some women are single parents. 

Nothing has been done to lighten the burden of childcare; no extra concessions on affordable housing have been given specifically to women. In fact, women as a group are not given any specific incentives to enable them cope with the dual burden of work and child care other than six weeks maternity leave, which as every woman knows is barely enough to catch your breath before you start on the treadmill of work again. It is a known fact that women bear the brunt of divorce; the courts stand idly by while errant husbands flout alimony provisions and child custody awards.  If one really wants to talk about gender issues in Nigeria, I can only say that I believe we have not even started addressing the issues. Yes, there may be adequate laws in the statute books but the application of those laws and the political will to effect them are the issue in question.

Prior to setting up this business, I was looking for the type of business models that would be able to occupy me mentally as well as give me an opportunity to exercise my creative skills. I certainly didn’t want something that would make me deal with too many employees. So I decided I had the personality suitable for a business that utilized the tools of information technology.  We have a website called a website dedicated to empowering people by providing helpful information that will enable them to respond effectively to their lifestyle needs. There is also an on-line chat where you can talk about your problems in anonymity and get solutions from other people who don’t know you personally, but have equally gone through what you’re going through and have found a way out of their predicament. Your problems   can be confided to anonymous friends on our websites, who would readily encourage and empathize with you. There is no point going through the trauma of having biting problems, recurring questions, doubts and challenges when you can find solutions in a community of like-minded people that offers. The site provides Nigerian-orientated solutions to all aspects of daily life challenges for men and women.  I strongly believe in empowerment because I believe it is how much you know that determines how far you will go. Not who you know or the family you’re from or your beauty. The site also has a membership area exclusive to members which  offers articles on all aspects of Lifestyle, a lifestyle directory with over 10,000 listings, an events calendar and message boards. also partners with various lifestyle businesses and services to offer generous discounts to members who receive the discounts on presentation of their membership card. Our membership card also serves as a valucard that may be loaded on request in your office or home.  As a solution provider, I look at what people need and see how their lifestyles are enhanced to make everyday living easier.

Facing the Future

Nigeria is not ready for on-line shopping because the payment systems are not in place. This is one of the challenges I faced when I started this business. I wanted people to be able to access information, products and services and pay for them easily. One of the basic problems of Nigerians is lack of time because of the bad traffic situation, which is quite stressful. So, the idea was to solve these problems on-line. We wanted to provide a situation whereby the average transactions would be cheaper for you if you did them on-line than if you have to wade through traffic to go there.  We, however, were able to devise other payment methods which stimulated interest. I also didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get people to understand the concept. A lot of people didn’t have readily available Internet connection and going to cyber cafés was not convenient. Also, the speed for browsing could be so slow it made browsing tedious. I’m happy to say things have changed tremendously, though it is an uphill task, I’m happy I’ve stuck with it. I enjoy what I’m doing and I love talking to people through the written word and helping people try and find solutions to their life needs because I believe that ultimately, we can lead a healthier and more joyful life if we all practise effective communication.

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