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For Alima Atta: The Woman Who Made Room For Others to Thrive | Tribute by Onomarie Uriri

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“You write pretty well. But why do you want to do PR?”

“I really don’t know anything about PR, but I read Temi Ogunsanya’s column in This Day every Sunday, and I think it’s something I can do.”

“Okay. Give me one good reason why I should employ you?”

“I don’t have any reason. If you think I can do the job, employ me. If you think I can’t do it, don’t employ me.”

This was me, during an interview for a potential job in April 2007. I had just finished writing an article that would prove whether or not I had the pre-requisite writing skills to work in a PR agency. Prior to that, I’d never done any formal job interview. My stint as a Marketing Executive at Clear Essence Cosmetics wasn’t preluded by anything formal, and I hadn’t yet learned that being as tactless honest as I was at the job interview was a no-no. Even though I was feeling slightly queasy, and a lot nervous, I was the picture of absolute confidence; big smile in place, in my grey satin blouse and grey, tweed pencil skirt, which I’d purchased second-hand, a few days earlier at Yaba market.

I left that interview feeling very cool with myself. It never occurred to me that not knowing anything about a job you want, is the first step towards NOT getting it. No one ever told me that answering interview questions in such a flippant albeit honest manner was a sure-fire way to miss out on getting employed. What did I know? I was still wet behind the ears, having just graduated from university about six months before.

It wasn’t until I got home, and spoke to my mum, that I realized the folly of my behaviour. Feeling dampened beyond belief, I was certain I had lost the job opportunity; that is until I received a call a few days later.

“Hello I’d like to speak to Francesca.”

“This is Francesca, who is speaking please?”

“This is Alima Atta from Sesema PR.”

Stunned silence… And then I began to literally shake with a mixture of nervousness and excitement.

The rest of that conversation remains a blur in my head till this day. But I got the job. I do recall Alima saying she had interviewed several other more experienced people but felt I was the best fit for the job.

Best fit for the job? Really?

That was Alima Atta for you – instinctive, creative and deeply unconventional. She never judged with the parameters others would use. She charted her own course. I hadn’t done PR before, I hadn’t even done NYSC at that point, and still she gave me my first real job. I had a monthly salary, I had health insurance, heck, I even had to remit monthly tax contributions. How’s that for a “proper” job? She opened the doors for me to step into a world that has truly become a perfect fit for me. Everything I am today professionally, everything I’ve learned in PR, every skill that I have improved on, has its beginnings with Alima. And I don’t say that lightly.

Of course it wasn’t always easy, learning to be a properly skilled PR person. It was difficult, with a lot of hard work, and occasional tears thrown in. Anyone who has worked with Alima will tell you that she was a perfectionist; she drove others as hard as she drove herself. I remember writing my first press release for KIND, I laugh now remembering how horrible it was. Alima made me write 9 or 10 drafts before she accepted that it was good to go. But as hard a task master as she was, Alima was also immensely kind and compassionate.

On one occasion, I remember working late, trying desperately hard to put together a budget for a client event. I was struggling, and the whole excel sheet looked like the scribbling of a kindergarten child. It was awful. I’m not sure whether or not she knew I was having a hard time; but Alima showed up, right beside my desk, pulled up a chair, and literally showed me what to do – that included how to use an Excel spread sheet. She didn’t yell, didn’t give me that scornful look that most employers have mastered, she just did it and moved on.

I’ll never forget that incident. Nor will I forget my various first times with her. My first pitch, my first event, my first product launch, the first proposal that I wrote, the list is endless. Alima supported me immensely – and sometimes, she did that by throwing me in the deep end, but she always stood around to make sure I didn’t drown.  She had a very no-nonsense approach that was sometimes overwhelming.

“I am not here to Molly-cuddle anyone!” she would often say to my colleagues and I. But even that, was done in good faith, because she often said that she was building a business that would outlive her. Did she see something others didn’t?

Over the years, Alima was a real and constant source of inspiration, and support, even until very recently when my father passed in January. She was always a phone call, or an email away. It’s been about 10 days since Alima passed, after a very brave battle with cancer, and I find it hard and somewhat surreal to accept that she’s passed. But I am happy that she’s in a better place, away from the pain. Indeed, she has left behind a legacy that cannot be erased, ignored or replaced. She was an inspiring boss and mentor, a fantastic human being, and a phenomenal woman.

Sun re o Alima. You fought the good fight. Viva!

Francesca is the Head of Communications for West Africa at Uber. A Public Relations and Communications expert with 11+ years’ experience spanning corporate relations, corporate reputation management, event architecture, media management and content development, Francesca has worked on a broad range of projects and accounts, providing strategic communication and media engagement strategy for a variety of Fortune 500 companies, social impact organizations, and start-ups. She is also the Founder of Leading Ladies Africa; a women empowerment non-profit that celebrates the lives of African women, and promotes leadership, diversity and gender inclusion. Follow her @zanyfran on Twitter and Instagram Running in Heels is a (safe) place where we can have honest, heartfelt, “no-frills” conversations about being career women (and men) in the workplace.

10 Comments

  1. Tosin

    June 17, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Hmmm. Wonderful and educative piece. It seems she left behind many positive stories.

  2. Anon

    June 17, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Rest in peace, Alima.

  3. Funkyw

    June 17, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    I wish I met such a great personality. May she ascend to Luminous Heights.

  4. Doreen

    June 17, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    I also remember my first interview with Alima.

    It was 2006, and I had finally decided to do my NYSC, after running away from it for almost 3 years.

    Having been away from the country for 10 years, I knew ‘diddly-squat’ about the Nigerian PR industry! But I knew I wanted to continue working in communications. And so , I scanned all the newspapers and googled everyone whose name I cam across. I cant remember if it was an interview or a column in ThisDay, but I sent her and many others my CV, requesting to serve with them, Alima responded, and invited me for an interview. She was intrigued by the fact that I could speak French – something she also did, and also liked that despite the fact that she had responded to my email saying that she wasn’t hiring, I still sent in a hard copy of my documents!

    My working relationship with Alima wasn’t always rosy, as you Onomarie will testify, but I remember my parents saying to me each time I went home complaining about something Alima had, or had not done – “One day, you too will run your own company, and then you will understand what she is going through now. Copy those things she is doing which you admire, and improve on those which you do not like”.
    Wise words indeed! I now run my own company, and believe me, I now understand some of what she was going through!

    Alima treated her staff like family, and like in every family, there were moments of joy and also moments of contention. It took her awhile to recover whenever someone left the company, but that is understandable when you consider the emotional and material investments an entrepreneur makes in their employees.

    I did not keep in touch as much as I would have liked to, especially after I heard she was ill ( I didn’t know it was cancer until I was told she had passed away), we tend to get consumed by our own concerns and rarely spare enough time to think about what others might be going through, until its too late, and I do wish I had called or emailed in the last year or two.

    But I do remember her fondly, and wish her well on her way back home. May her path be bright always, and may her family and friends be granted the fortitude to go through this experience. Amen

  5. Aleesha

    June 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Such a wonderful testimony! May God grant her eternal rest, and comfort those she has left behind.

  6. Abiola

    June 18, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Very true, Frances. Alima was everything you mentioned and a philanthropist. We will all miss her.

  7. Miss Anonymous

    June 18, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    I met her once. Oh my goodness! She died?!
    Wow! May her soul rest in peace.

  8. Emma

    June 19, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    deep. i cried.
    May she rest in peace.
    My colleagues talk about her so fondly

  9. Patrick Oguejiofor

    June 19, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Alima atta was indeed wonderful. May her creative soul rest in peace. I had the opportunity of reading the biography of her late father who was until his death in 1972 the Secretary to the Federal Government. He also died of cancer. What a pity. It does appear this cancer is hereditary. I believe her legacy will outlive her.

  10. Damilola Sobajo

    June 20, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Ms. Atta is indeed a great person to work with, many of her staff mistook her perfectionist attitude to work as ruthless. I was her staff till she passed on and I have no regrets whatsoever working with her, its sad I was on maternity leave when it happened., I became a better person and more experienced in the field because she pushed all her staff to be better. She will be greatly missed and her legacy will live on. RIP great woman

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