You can’t happen without polish for the gem – Eugenia
With opening remarks by Mr. Adebisi Adekunle – VLISCO Regional Marketing Manager (North) on the 2013 VLISCO Woman of the Year in review, and Friendraiser Anniversary Comments by Founder – Inimfon Etuk, the stage was set for ‘An Evening with Eugenia’.
Eugenia Abu – VLISCO Woman of the Year 2013, is one of Nigeria’s frontline Broadcast Journalists winning several awards over the years for her work in the field including the Nigeria Merit Media Award for Best Newscaster of the year. One of the nation’s most recognisable faces, a prize winning writer, Author of two published books, In the Blink of an Eye, a collection of essays which won her the ANA/NDDC Flora Nwapa Prize in 2008 for Best Women’s Writing and the critically acclaimed Don’t look at me like that, a collection of poems, Eugenia maintains weekly columns in two national dailies, Tales From the Main Road, in Business day on Fridays and Five Favourite Books with Eugenia Abu in The Sunday Trust.
A Trainer, Motivational Speaker, Life coach and Media Strategist, Eugenia is a member of several National and International organisations giving her time and platform to various societal issues including Gender Disaggregation, Women and Communication, Girl-Child Education, Rape, Human Trafficking, Violence against Women and Prison Decongestion. A 1981 graduate of English from the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, with a Masters in Communication Policy Studies from the City University London in 1992, a Chevening Scholar, USIS Fellow and world traveller, Mrs Abu is considered one of Nigeria’s finest comperes, lending her voice, skills and experience to many national and international events in the last 20 years.
She is currently the Executive Director – Programmes, Nigeria Television Authority and has held several positions in the past including Deputy Director Training, Head of News NTA International and Head of Presentation with the Network service of the NTA. Eugenia believes that mentoring is the unexplored key to fast tracking Africa’s human development.
Below is the excerpt of the rich and inspiring time-out with her. Enjoy!
Wherever you are being considered for a speaking engagement at any fora, the typical response when your name comes up is ‘oh, she’s a professional woman’, exactly what does it take to be regarded as a ‘professional woman’?
Let me start by answering that from the back. A woman who does not know what she is doing just because she chooses not to because she is a woman, is not my friend. It is not an excuse to be a woman and get away with lot of things because you think being a woman means you don’t have to know, just be a woman, it is okay. The best women who hold the world together are the women selling vegetables in the market. They know what they are doing. These women wake up in the morning at 5, get their children ready for school, prepare breakfast and still manage to make it to the market at 7am to sell their vegetables. They are professional women. They sell vegetables. That’s what they do. Now, they are not going to sell bad vegetables, they are going to try to get choice vegetables, and they are going to learn from an older woman in the market. If you know the Lagos market, someone else has been selling vegetables years before them, they are going to go under tutelage and learn how to do it.
A professional woman is a woman who is open to learning, who accepts when she is wrong, who is knowledgeable in her field, who tries to get as much education and as much competency in her field to do her job well. There is nothing worse than a woman who is quarrelling about her position, who is fighting about not being given her due. So your first revenge as a professional woman is to know your job, to know what you’re doing, and to bring that perspective that most men don’t bring to their job, which is empathy. It is not right when somebody comes to you and says, ‘oh, my father is not feeling well’, and you say, ‘well, I lost my father 2years ago’. A professional woman does not say that. A professional woman seeks to find out how well you’re doing even in your own private life to make you more efficient. A professional woman is a woman who is trying to reach the skies by more education and more skills. A professional woman is a woman who cares about her family as much as she cares about her job.
With 6 kids including a set of twins, how are you able to juggle family and all the other things that you do?
Family support. My parents of blessed memory were very supportive. My mother particularly was there every time I had a child. She would help me take the pressure off so that when I resume work, I wouldn’t look too stressed out. Writing helps. When you’ve just had children, you can write to relieve yourself of the pressure. Having sisters who are awesome also helps. My very special sister, Perpetua (points to her), helped me carry some of those children. She would visit and take them out to gardens or wherever. I’ve been blessed with some of the loveliest sisters and brothers, and I think it is part of the reason why I can drop off my children with them and go away. Team Eugenia has helped; referring to my Personal Assistants at one time or the other. They know how crazy my schedule is. They are the ones I call at 1am or 2am to say I want a number they have to deliver. They are being mentored as well as working.
You have to learn to balance things in a very creative way. 6 children is quite a number and every single one is different and I enjoy them differently. We try to go to lunch in the middle of the week. Between 2 meetings, I take my children to lunch, it is crazy. One of these Personal Assistants will be running between one restaurant, me, and the children’s school, to ensure that everybody is where they are. So, you need help. I’m not superwoman, believe me. Everybody who has come to work with me has been excellent. Staff in NTA, Mayowa is here, Nwaka is here (points to them), they know that sometimes they are asked ‘can you just help pick up the children?’ while I try to finish a meeting. But please don’t get people you don’t know to pick your children up. It is very important to cultivate your children. If the time you have is in the morning when you’re going to work, to find out how their homework is, that’s the time to get that conversation going. If it’s on Saturday afternoon, cut down some of your social activities just to be there. Would you really go to that event which is not that important because you need to wear a gele and be there? Sometimes I have 6 in the week. I have to strategically choose which ones are important and drop the ones that will occupy my entire day for me not to spend any time with my children. I also try to go out with each one separately in the month, because when they are together, they don’t tell you what is going on with them. So I take them out one by one in order to hear what is going on with them. Then I take them out together in order to hear what is going on collectively. It is a juggling life, you just learn it. I think I’ve just been blessed with some of those skills to help me manage. Otherwise, I don’t know how I do it myself. I believe it is God.
What keeps you going?
I think basically, it is humanity and charity. The fact that we’re each other’s kith and kin is enough to wake up in to morning to. There are too many people in the hospital who are unable to be on their feet. If you are so blessed, then it is possible you have to be running in order to achieve all the things you possibly can in your lifetime. Because if you slow down a little bit, you may lose your mind, and you do need to slow down. Also, the friendships that I share, which is why I am very excited to be with the Friendraiser Community. I am very proud to be associated with you because the work that you do is what every single human being should be doing for another. Try and be there for the tears that come, try and be there for the shoulder. My life seems very rosy, but it is not as rosy as it sounds or looks. There have been betrayals, pains, losses. It is your friends and your family that see you through those moments. So what keeps me going is the friendships that I share, the people I know who’ve got my back. I don’t do vitamins, I actually use Vaseline. (general laughter), but I forgive easily. I sleep well with my eyes closed and actually snore. You do need to be like that, otherwise, you’d be carrying baggage around. Take a look at the man who is worse than you, the man who doesn’t have feet, and you’re worrying about your louboutins. Think about the guy who can’t see and yet his smile is the widest. Think about the guy who is going through cancer in the hospital. My mum died of cancer and I know how hard it was for all of us. Think about humanity for a little bit and stop for a moment to make just one person happy. Apart from my massages, I do pretty much nothing to look the way I do. I drink a lot of water and I laugh a lot, yes, I laugh a lot. That’s what keeps me going.
We saw you last night (20th March) on TV – Network News. Are you back, or is it just a fluke? Secondly, you write books, where do you get your inspiration from?
I’ve read the news in this country and been an anchor for 27years. I’d read the National Network News for 17years and I’d read the news in my region in Makurdi for 10years before I came to Network News. So, by 27years in the industry, I’d pretty much paid my dues and I thought it was time to try something else in addition to which I work in government institutions. I’d been posted out of News and where I was, I was quite happy with. Then I went away to school, came back to Training, and as you already heard, I’m a Trainer. All my life, I’ve been a Trainer. Bringing up children is Training. So when I was sent to Training, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think after 27years, I pretty much could show that I could manage it well, and I thought I should lay back and let those I have trained and the new upcoming people try. So I decided to sit back. I haven’t read the News in 3years.
However, we were sent a new Director-General who is a professional broadcaster himself and had worked with NTA for many years before he went to Chevron. And every day, he’d say to me “I don’t understand why you’re not reading the news”, and I’d hung my boots and thought, this man won’t bring me out of retirement. But after some time, it became a matter of “I’m going to read it myself if you don’t read it”. And if my DG is going to read the news, it would be impossible for me not to read it. So, yesterday (20th March) I made a comeback to read the news.
The book, what’s the inspiration? Writers will tell you that they either see something or they hear something in the middle of the night. Sentences can come to you if you’re a writer and you just hear it. Commonwealth Prize winner for Literature who won it for Nigeria – Tricia Nwaobani is in the house (points to her), Adaobi is in the house. She wrote the phenomenal book – I Do Not Come To You By Chance. She won the Commonwealth Prize in 2010. I’m very proud of her. She will tell you that writers can see things. Sometimes you’re lying down and the sentences are floating past you, but that’s a bit surreal. You do really need to work at it. Sometimes the ideas for my column come to me just by seeing someone jumping the lights in traffic and I’m thinking ‘that guy is going to kill somebody’. My Personal Assistant knows sometimes I can come out of a meeting, and if it’s a very boring one, I’d say “I’ve got an article for you”, 750 words, because the meeting is probably repeating what I heard 2years ago, last month or even last week. So sitting there, I can float out of the room. I’m a big dreamer. I will think about the guy who was selling oranges by the road, lost all his oranges and nearly get knocked down, and I do a column out of that. So my inspiration comes from everywhere. Nigeria is full of inspiration, on the streets, everywhere.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how did you deal with it to make sure it didn’t bother you?
Nigeria is a very patri-lineal society. The men pretty much have it and you need to learn to balance how to deal with the men in Nigeria. They’re very nice, but they’re also very interesting. If you’re doing your job, I always say that the best way is to do it well. There’s a bit of what you describe as discrimination. I was in the Netherlands recently, and I was told that amongst the European countries, in the Netherlands, women get paid less than the men. I thought that was interesting because we thought all European women get paid the same thing as the men. So my challenge often has been a man who is trying in a very subtle way to indicate that perhaps, you do not know what you are doing. It is very subtle. It can be more aggressive than that in most Nigerian communities. They kind of tell you to shut up and sit down. In the official space which is very western, it is more subtle. So, you’re doing your job as best you can. The ‘boys’ club’ are thinking you’re a bit too overwhelming, because you seem to know a little bit of what you’re doing, and clearly, I’m not stumbling along. I’m probably a bit more outspoken in the manner in which I say “I don’t think we should do it this way”. Sometimes, the men are a bit quieter about “I don’t think we should do it this way”. They’re wondering, why is she talking about that, and even the man who is not going to do it that way is saying “oh, yes sir, we can try”, but it is totally impossible what he is saying he can try to do. And I’m saying “no, no, we can’t do it”; and he is saying “we can do it, sir”. When the boss leaves, he is saying “you know you shouldn’t have said that. I know we can’t do it, but we can at least let him know we can try, and then he walks away”. For me, it is a huge challenge because what you see is what you get. I don’t know how to do “we can do it” when we know we can’t do it. We can just say “we can’t do it, I’m sorry, this cannot be done”. Sometimes, it rubs people off the wrong way because even though you try to be a diplomat, and I try, but there are certain things that are just not possible to do and it is always best to be factual about it because it affects your efficiency overall if you say you can do it and then you don’t deliver. So, that tends to get to me.
Finding people to mind the children is next. 6 children is a lot of work and sometimes I’ve seen myself sometimes just sitting down in a car and just crying because I’ve 2 meetings, I’ve one son who hasn’t been picked up, my boss doesn’t think I should go anywhere, I can’t leave him in the school till 5pm, I’m calling my friends and they’re all busy, and I’m thinking, where am I going to take this child, or should I just quit work? I watched what was said in the Friendraiser video and you can relate with it because it is real.
Also, when you’re dealing with children as they grow, you heard my cousin (points to her), they ask you the most incredible questions, and as a mum, you have to think about the most creative ways to answer them. My daughter came up to me 3am one day and said, “Mummy, what is rape?” and she was only 6years old. Now that can be hard, and for me, those can be the challenges. I love to read and sometimes the electricity drives me completely insane, but I love Nigeria and I wouldn’t exchange it for anywhere else.
With everything that’s been said about you, you seem to pretty much have it all together despite your internal struggles, please share with us, how can the average woman take control of her destiny in a contemporary world?
That’s a difficult question. I don’t know how many people have read the book LEAN IN by the Chief Operations Officer of Facebook. It is a gorgeous book. It is a book that says women tend to lean out. When they say, “I’m going to go on leave, can you take over?” we are the ones who say “ah! I’m not going to cope o!” As a start, there is nothing you cannot cope with, nothing. A job that looks like 6 times above your head, if they give it to you, you’re a woman, you multi-task; you cook, you clean, you look after children. When a man says “I have a headache, I have a migraine”, he just has a mild headache. When a man says “I have an ulcer”, he just has a mild stomach ache. A woman who will have a headache, the one that will kill her, she’s cooking; but the man with a mild headache needs to lie down, needs to have someone look after him, needs to be babied. So, first of all, you’ve got the power. It’s in you. You don’t know it until you push it. You don’t know what you can do until you try.
A lot of the times, what we do is give up before we’ve started, and it is very easy to see other people and become discouraged. Before I wrote my first book, I thought it was not possible to write a book. I mean, all these people who write books, they have to be magicians. I don’t know anything about book-writing. I write it, the pieces of paper are under my bed, but I don’t know how to convert it into a book. It is a different way in the west how you get your book published from here. But you’ve got to start from somewhere. Like Ini said, start from somewhere sounds vague, you don’t really know where to start from. You might fail when you start. Let me advise, don’t consider that strange. You might want to start a dress-making company and your first 2 customers are your cousins. Next they get posted to Lagos and you’re left without customers anymore. You have machines, 4 tailors that have taken your money, nobody is making the clothes with you and you say to everybody, “ok, come and make for 50%”, nobody still comes. Consider first of all that, that failure is your learning curve. Never start anything without getting knowledge of it. For me, that’s what it is. If your tailors all go away, you can sew. Learn to sew first if you want to start a tailoring shop, it helps. Start small.
I’ll tell you how I sold a lot of my books. I’d say to Titi, “come along with 2 friends”, then I’ll give Titi 10 books and tell her one is free, and 9 of it she has to find someone to buy. I probably add a candle along with it or something that will motivate her to sell the 9. If you want to be an Entrepreneur, you need to find creative ways to do it. Everyone is sewing in Nigeria, so what are you doing that is different? Then once you start sewing, why don’t you offer bathroom slippers to all your first customers. They are changing and struggling with their high-heeled shoes, so giving them bathroom slippers helps. And you invite them one afternoon to cupcakes and tea. Everybody likes cupcakes and tea. So you need to start creatively. It is not about what you sold the first year. It is about your contact, your network, the people you meet, the people you know. I have always said, connect the dots. I’m very bad with phones, I forget them or lose them everywhere and people take them but I’ve learned to connect the dots. So if I lose my phone, I’m going to start by calling Mayowa and asking her to give me the numbers of the 10 people me and her share. I’ve connected Mayowa to all the other dots. I’m going to call my sister and find out which of my friends she has their numbers. I’m still connecting the dots and getting my numbers back. So, really, when they say, start small, it doesn’t mean anything. You need somebody to hold your hand. Find that person you can trust to hold your hand. Learn all you can before you jump, because sometimes you can jump into a lake and you can’t come up for air.
When you talked about cupcake afternoon, buy bathroom slippers, those things cost money. Most people would say ah, instead, let me go and buy the thing I want to sell. Is that not the money I am looking for that I am ‘wasting’? So, how is that ‘waste’ budgeted for, planned for, such that it is a part of the whole entrepreneurial process?
It is an investment. We don’t see it as an investment. We count it as a cost but it is an investment. A lot of the big companies in the world invested a lot in Public Relations with a percentage of what they make. And you do need Public Relations but you also need to hold your family. We are a very strong community people. If I wanted to start a business for instance, Ini, I will call you up and ask you if you can make a token. And you know, you shouldn’t be thinking of asking for too much from your uncles. You should be thinking of N2,000. If you have 40 people, at N2,000. each, that is N80,000. Of that N80,000., you’ve got N40,000. for PR. It didn’t come from your pocket, it’s not going to hurt that much. Never ask them for N50,000. Ask them for N2,000. If you have up to a 100 people, you’re hitting N200,000. That’s the way to work it. Think small, and then begin to build it, deal with the community you have. Bring them into the fold of what you do and let them understand your pain, your highs, your lows. Make your first dress for your aunty, and she will pay you with all kinds of things including bringing you lunch at where you are learning tailoring; including giving you her car and her driver for free for the afternoon. These things if you cost them, they cost money, but they come from family and it doesn’t look like all that much. We women can be very careless. We don’t tend to cost them. We give them out, we don’t cost them. You need to cost them against what you’re doing so you can learn what pays as you go along.
What do you think of the broadcasting community today and do you think the same method is still working today or it needs to change?
Being a broadcaster doesn’t necessarily mean you should be confrontational. I don’t do gangster journalism and I think no one should. But I also don’t do ‘siddon look’ journalism, so it’s a balance of both. I think it is great that the young people have shown us the way, that we can be fresh and still be old-fashioned; you also can be brilliant and still be old-fashioned. However, young people also need to learn that the old-fashioned part of it is a key to surviving, because young people are always in a hurry and sometimes you hurry into the opposite direction. Young people need to slow down a little bit and listen. We are learning from you but young people also need to learn from us because we’ve been there before.
Having said that, am I satisfied? No. I learned broadcasting the old traditional way. What I find today is, a lot of On-Air Presenters across board happen too quickly without learning the trade. I’ve met a lot of young people, I train and mentor them, and I’ve heard them say, “we’re not waiting for you, we’re going to take it”. I like that. “We’re going to snatch it from you people who don’t want to let go”, they say. I feel the same way sometimes when I see someone at 76 not letting go. But one of the things that young people need to learn is that you need to polish the gem. You can’t happen without polish for the gem. And half the time, they are in a hurry to arrive there to buy the hummer and earn N27m. You do not even know how the person who is driving the hummer got it. You may not be able to do what he does to get it. There are moral values that rule the world, and there are certain things you can’t do. Even if you’re going to be rich, people won’t respect you.
Broadcasters need to research. I can’t stand it when somebody says “may I know you?” on television. “May I know you?” is not a question. It just shows that you’ve not done your job. “Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?” is a silly question because before the gentleman arrives, you should’ve known who he is. So broadcasting can be better if young and old listen to each other. The symbiosis will make it better. Don’t join broadcasting because you want to tie the gele. It is hard work.
How much power do you think a broadcast journalist can exert behind the scenes to push the right things to the forefront?
Being behind the scene is a good thing because then, you can step back away from yourself when you are on-screen, and see some of the things you can put a correction to. I’ll tell you my process for putting a new newscaster on television who’s come to me and said, “I’ve been posted”. First, nobody is posted a newscaster. We all do other things. News-casting is just something else you do. It is what has made me popular as it were, but that’s not what I joined the NTA for. I’m a writer. I joined as an editor, a guest editor. In the newsroom, which is very democratic, people tend to leave the work to one person who appears enthusiastic, and in my time, I was that enthusiastic person. But you know what it did? It got me to learn everything, from how to write to how to edit; how to produce, to how to read, do press review; how to cut and staple; everything. So, now it is really difficult in television to find what I cannot do, except perhaps engineering. But you also have to learn the nuances of the job because broadcasting and journalism is very laisser-faire. It makes it very easy for us to forget the lines of hierarchy and you will have problems with that if you do not recognise the lines which are very blurry. The newscasters are people we call by name but some of them are senior to us, so you need to learn a bit of that deference in the corporate world in order to help keep you going. I don’t mean boot-lick, but you do need to know who your seniors are and the rankings. I’ve personally learnt to tie my hands behind my back on a task that is not mine. It is a challenge because something is going wrong and I’m watching it but I’m not in charge. And I’m thinking, oh, no, this person who’s in charge has no clue. It is very easy for me to say “don’t you think we can do it this way?”. People don’t like it very much. So I’ve learnt to ease and breathe and wait for disaster to happen, sometimes in order for me to prove that, “you know what…I was thinking, if we put it a little to the left…”, by which time, you have allowed the person have his say. So you need to learn some diplomacy. It is very hard but if you’ve got to get the job going because no one else will do it, then that’s what you need to do. Being bossy is what everyone calls a woman who knows what time it is.
How do you deal with woman-to-woman issues in the workplace? What would you tell young women out there who want to grow but are faced with a hostile work environment?
First, how do you deal with envy? It is going to be with you forever, there’s nothing you can do about it apart from ‘wear your swag’. By nature, I love a nice dress and if you put me in a hole, I’m still going to try and dress well and it doesn’t matter to me if my neighbour sitting beside me is not dressing well. It is a bit of an emotional thing and some of the clothes don’t cost a bum. Some of the clothes I wear on television, like when I first started, are perhaps maybe N800. Just get a good tailor. The fabric tells the story time and again. It is colourful on television. Wear your swag. Don’t say they are just going to envy me if I wear this shoe to work. I’ve been known to wear my most ‘divalicious’ shoes to work and I’m going to strut my stuff because I’ve earned it. When you work hard, envy just falls off your shoulder like water off a duck’s back. You work hard, you’ve earned it, you walk the walk and it doesn’t matter whose ox is gored, trust me. It is going to get you a lot of flak, but just don’t wear the diamond earrings your boss is wearing, if she is female (general laughter). Try to understand that bit. Don’t wear it to work, or say to her “I’ve got the exact same, you’re kidding me”. You don’t want to do that, no. it’s not good. It’s not because you can’t wear it, but because you’re also taking note of your environment as well.
Envy between women, women talk about this a lot. Men don’t talk about it at all, but they have it as well. What they do is, they go to drink a beer, and they forget it faster than it started. They have it, and when theirs start, it is worse than ours. They can kill each other for it. What you need to know, and I’ve told myself because I used to be a people-pleaser, trying to please everybody including the one that hates me the most; I’ve learnt that I don’t need more than 4 people that have got my back. You don’t need 200 friends and 150 of them are killing you slowly. You just need the 2 that have got your back. And between those 2, if you’ve got one that is betraying you, you need to drop them and keep moving with just the one. And if that one betrays you, you need to move with your family. You’re done with them, you go to work, you do the job, that’s it. Helps you keep the peace, pretty much. You’re learning that you don’t have to be friends with everybody. If you can’t take something, you don’t have to do it. You just say “sorry, I’m not going to be able to do it”. Women tend to do and do and do for others, and are unable to say “I,m sorry, I can’t go to Wuse Market right now with you. I’ve got a car, I can’t loan you the car. I’m not going there, if you want to take a cab, that’s fine”. What women do is, they say to you “take a cab, I’ll pay”, because they’re sorry they can’t take you. Don’t be sorry, love yourself. It is time to look after yourself, and stop sweating so much over somebody else. Be kind, but love yourself. Read all you can. Learn the office. Know your job like the back of your hand. I always say to people, it is difficult to catch you like that if you know your job. Know your job. Read about other women who have done management. Go to management school, learn what it is about. Go to leadership school. Wear your thinking cap, keep moving, you’ll be alright.
It will be pointless to attempt to add anything else. Thank you very much for sharing with us so graciously.
You’re welcome and thank you for having me.
There was Anniversary Cake-cutting with March Birthday Celebrants
March Thank you goes to VLISCO for partnering with us to host the Anniversary Edition