Erstwhile banana hawker who ended up bagging a PhD and working as a lecturer, Nonye Onyima, shares her experience in this interview with Newsmen. Excerpt:
Looking at you, most people may not believe that you once hawked bananas to make ends meet. How did it happen?
The death of my mother led me into hawking bananas. I was 15 years old at the time. For a girl of that age, it was a risky and dangerous way to earn a living. You are at risk of being raped by road-side mechanics, fellow male hawkers and your costumers. On one occasion, I saw some ladies coming out of a mechanic workshop weeping, with their pants and dresses stained with blood. Also, the banana hawker is often exposed to harsh weather conditions. The most dangerous is the risk of being crushed to death by speeding vehicles.
I had to stop schooling and started hawking to help my Dad provide for the family. Even at that, we were not able to meet up with feeding demands and rent. The first thing I sold was the food called ‘mama-put’. I hawked cooked rice and stew. Most times, there was nothing to eat, sometimes, we cooked unripe pawpaw and ate it with palm oil. It was at this juncture I decided to take the bull by the horn. I sold iced water (not ‘pure water’) and raised some money with which I later started selling fried groundnuts. Later, I went to learn how to make polythene bags and ice-cream.
At what point did you decide to return to school?
One day, I decided to cross from one lane of a busy road to sell my bananas. Suddenly I saw myself being kicked into the nearby bush by an impatient female driver. I heard people shouting ‘motor don kill person’ and a crowd started running towards me. I had bruises on my body and my arm was broken, twisted anti-clockwise and swollen like a balloon. My bananas and about N5,000, being the sum of money that I realised from selling bananas and groundnuts on that day, had vanished. They were stolen.
The ‘hit and run’ driver had zoomed off, but she was given a hot chase by some military men. When they eventually caught up with her, they forced her to take me in her car to a hospital. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of not asking one of them to accompany me. The lady drove to a swamp and asked me to come down.
I begged her in Igbo not to throw me in the swamp but to keep me by the road side. When the brother-in-law (who was in the same car with us) heard me speak Igbo, he asked where I came from and I told him that I was a native of Imo State. Then he insisted that the woman must take me to the hospital. When we got to the entrance of the hospital, she refused to drive in. The brother-in-law ran to the nurses and doctors and told them she wanted to run away. That was how the nurses ran, caught up with her and pounced on her. The security personnel drove the car into the hospital, but she refused to pay a dime until the police was invited.
Later, my Dad said he trekked from Oyigbo to Port Harcourt in search of my corpse. A few days after that incident, one of my uncles living in the United States came home and heard what happened to me. He returned to the US and persuaded his siblings to send my siblings and me to school. My younger brothers and sisters went back to secondary school at their instance.
To the Glory of God, I got admission at the age of 23 to study Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ibadan. I had gone for a three-day ‘dry fasting and prayers’ with other ladies in my church and so while others were praying for marriage, I was praying for admission.
So how did the teaching in a tertiary institution come about?
After my university education, courtesy of my beloved uncles in the United States, I single-handedly sponsored myself through my master degree programme. I went through a lot of pain to achieve this. In spite of all the challenges, I remained resolute and undeterred because I wanted to be a lecturer. After my Master degree programme, I bought the PhD form immediately. In five years after, I see myself as a post-doctoral researcher in an international research centre working on developmental issues bordering on health care for marginalised populations, analysing the complex problems of government’s inability to provide quality and affordable health care for all.
Which was your most memorable moment as a student?
The day I got an email informing me that I have $11,000 to complete PhD Dissertation.
What happened afterwards?
I obtained a Master’s degree in Medical Anthropology from the University of Ibadan and then joined the services of the Imo State Civil Service Commission, worked as an ethnographer for the Ministry of Information and Strategy in 2011 until Governor Rochas Okorocha revoked the recruitment. Anyway, I saved some money and set out again for my PhD programme, which I recently completed. I defended my PhD on December 21, 2016.
What message do you have for Nigerian youths?
They should note that life is in stages. There is always a starting point, a mid-point and a finishing point. They should ensure that they finish well because the glory is the finishing. Stand up from where life has put you and do something that can elevate you from being a third-class citizen. Develop a positive mindset and always be optimistic. Finally, do not let your background put your back on the ground.