When I came out of secondary (high) school in 2000, I was 15.
That meant that, though I had excellent grades, I couldn’t get into university in Nigeria, where the age to qualify for admission was 16.
Advice began to stream in to my mother: swear an affidavit increasing his age, find someone to bribe, or just give in. Nigeria, they said, was a country of corruption, where if you didn’t know someone high up, or didn’t have money to spend, you couldn’t get what you needed.
But my mother did something incredibly brave: she ignored all of them.
She wasn’t going to swear a false affidavit, she said, because she didn’t want me stuck for the rest of my life with a lie. She wouldn’t pay a bribe, she said, because it was a sin. She would trust God, she concluded, to make this happen.
She then did two things: She booked a prayer session in church with me. And then at the same time, she picked me up and took me to the University of Lagos, where, she said we would knock on the door of anyone we could find until we found someone who could help us based on the merit of my case.
We spent days going from office to office, professor to professor. I distinctly remember one insulted her for her audacity.
When that failed, we went to the office of the Vice-Chancellor, Oye Ibidapo-Obe, where we met his secretary – a kind, gentle, patient woman who encouraged and advised us: the vice-chancellors, it turned out, had a percentage discretionary allowance for certain gifted students (the advisors were soon back to my mum, after she discovered this. He would never do it for a ‘nobody’, they said, after all the VCs only used this allowance to enrich themselves. Again, she ignored them.)
It took weeks and several visits, but she eventually helped us secure a 5-minute meet at Professor Ibidapo-Obe’s office. The man listened carefully to us, made us write down our details with his secretary, and asked us to follow up.
It took another couple of weeks as I remember it, and many times we were convinced it would not work out. But we kept on going and we kept faith.
A few weeks after, it was done.
He had given us a discretionary admission, and he had done without asking for anything: no gift, no thanks, not even to ask to see me again. In fact, when I met him years after and thanked him again, he couldn’t even remember who I was.
This was in Nigeria. In 2000. We had just come out of almost 2 decades of military dictatorship. Institutions had broken down, corruption was a way of life, and no one I knew really believed that Nigeria worked or could work for them.
But here, in the middle of all this, my mother had a conviction in her heart that there was still good in the world, that there were always potentialities and possibilities, that God and the universe were rooting for her and me, and that we could not really know what was possible unless we tried.
Where others chose to be cynical and afraid, she chose to open her heart and believe.
It’s incredible, when I think of it. She was just a school teacher living in a small 3 bedroom flat with her civil servant husband and her only child. But she took a leap of faith.
I remembered this anchor story of my life the other day as I was speaking to a group of people at The Upgrade conference in Lagos.
I have always believed in possibilities. I have always believed in trying even if the odds are tough. I have always refused to be cynical – to believe the world is rigged against me, that people are never here to help you, that most people are corrupt and unfair, that doors are closed, and that my opportunities are limited.
And I remember that this mind shift happened just around the time I left high school and entered the ‘real world’, at about the same time that most people make the opposite turn, and become cynical about life.
I had never sat down to reflect on what happened to me. How I learned optimisim. How I learnt that the world is ultimately rooting for me.
It was a gift from my mother. A gift of perspective that many people have not been as lucky to get in their lives.
A gift of faith, and trust, and a sense of the universe’s endless possibilities.
I cannot say thank you to her enough.
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