Saturday 27 July 2019

My keynote address to FEGO Class of 98

I was invited to give a keynote address to the Federal Government College Odogbolu, Class of 98 on the general topics of Alumni, Networking, Life and Purpose. After a few light jokes on how I was surreptitiously co-opted into this activity, I began my address.
This cohort of successful people are entering middle-age, in mid-career, raising families and would face challenges ahead, I suppose there was a view that I could share some of my life experiences to help them avoid mid-life crises and attend to healthy life choices.
It was an honour to meet the Class of 98 and I wish them Godspeed.
My lead-in
FEGO Class of 98, you graduated in the Silver Jubilee of the founding of your school, quite auspicious.
My history with Odogbolu is somewhat long and interesting. In January 1976, we were living in Kaduna when my parents had this crazy idea of sending me to a secondary school to be imbibed in Yoruba culture, close to where they were born, Ijesha-Ijebu.
Baptist Academy, Mayflower School, Odogbolu Grammar School, Remo Secondary School (RSS), I can’t remember the school I attended the common entrance examination for in Ibadan, but did I have a life of privilege? I flew in from Kaduna, there was someone to pick me up and take care of me for the duration of my visit.
I don’t know why I was not put forward to any of the unity schools even though I realise there were opportunities for those. I guess my primary school environment in Jos and Kaduna was a disadvantage to my getting integrated into Nigeria. The schools were international with a high percentage of Europeans, Chinese and Japanese, I wasn’t really growing into a Nigerian per se.
Odogbolu Grammar School and Remo Secondary School offered me admission, I took the latter because the former’s campus bordered on a graveyard, I had the strangest things happen to me at 10 and that was my decision.
Two years ago, my nephew was admitted at the Federal Government College Odogbolu (FEGO) at the age of 9, a year after, his brother with whom he shares the same birthday, but two years apart joined him. They are probably the youngest of their year group in the school; just as I was in primary school and then in secondary school.
I find it strange that I am giving an address to an alumni association because, whilst I made a few friends at RSS, my memories of the 5 years I spent there are not ones I cherish that much. We had to be street smart even as we were different because of our accents, we were bedwetters; then it was thought a weakness than something psychological, there was the occasional bully and the use of collective punishment was rife. Thankfully, the core of individuality, inquisitiveness and lack of fear for the person could not be beaten out of me.
Apart from on Facebook, I have no enduring friends from RSS Class of 81, I met up with old school mates from my primary school after 41 years in 2016, I still have friends from Lacostech, YabaTech where no one believed I was 16 when I was admitted and the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, where on my first day there I met up with a junior from secondary who was in his final year, whilst I was starting afresh.
Have your purpose
Considering the good fortune and opportunities I had from birth through secondary school, the 4 years after secondary school I was in two polytechnics and ended up with nothing, my third trial as something in travail and raw experience had widened my perspective to what I could achieve, I was no more haunted by my past or the fear for the future, I just determined that by 35, I would be able to stand with my peers unashamed of what I had done in my life. I began seeing good results already at 24.
Do something radical
In 2000, just after the Millennium bug issue, I was having problems getting a new job, I was attending interviews, getting good reviews but not getting any offers. A mentor advised me to chat to an occupational psychotherapist. He concluded I was suffering a mid-life crisis 10 years early. His advice, consider a career change, maybe go back to school, or even emigrate to another country.
I took the hint, started looking for opportunities in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, I got a job in the UK and, on a day, off, I flew out to the Netherlands for an interview, got that job and 13 years of life in Holland.
Have a plan, do things in the interim, but don’t lose your focus and don’t be distracted.
Embrace youthful aspirations
When I was about to buy an apartment in Amsterdam, the first thing I did was ask the estate agent to feel my hands, she said, they are soft. Indeed, I retorted, I don’t do DIY, I want a place I don’t need to do anything to and please complete the deal in 6 weeks. She did.
The couple I bought my home from was in their mid-70s, they had lived in Eindhoven for 25 years, they could easily have lived out the rest of their days there, but they bought an apartment in Amsterdam off the plan and came to live in Amsterdam for almost 4 years. During which time, she became the chairman of the homeowners association.
Then they considered, because of their age, they needed a place where they could have better care, they sold up in Amsterdam for a healthy profit and bought a riverside residential care apartment in Arnhem. I still always wish I can make decisions like that whatever age I am.
Then, I have an uncle, he was and still is the playful adult in my life, someone I can chat to about anything. I can be utterly irreverent, but always respectful. He was one of the foremost insurers in Nigeria, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Insurers and an examiner for the council.
In the space of a few years, he lost his car a couple of times to armed robbers, so he decided to move to the UK and is settled here. He called me one day and said he wanted to go back to school to study Petroleum Engineering. I asked if he was going for a master’s programme, he said he was applying for a bachelor’s degree.
Obviously, I thought he was too distinguished for that somewhat lowly pursuit, but he expressed such humility in his decision to pursue that endeavour.
He was already 60, he tells me, the course was one of the hardest he ever attended. He had failed many examinations in adolescent into adulthood that my father on returning from the UK, promised him £10 if he passed. That £10 debt is still a running debt in our conversations.
He stood out throughout the course, the older man, wise from a world of experience in C-suite jobs, students and faculty were always seeking his viewpoint on many things. At graduation, he had been gravely ill and was recuperating. The university arranged to pick him up from the hospital to attend his graduation. When his name was called along with citations, he got a standing ovation.
Such can never happen, if you are not ready to embrace your youth and youthful aspirations; do something new, assess yourself against your aspirations rather than against others, believe in yourself even if no other believes in you and never let your failures in life define you today or in your future.
Recently, on the radio I heard Isabelle Allende who was asked, “How do you fall in love at 76?” She answered, “Like 26, only with a little more urgency.”
Identity is a construct
I have a keen sense of my identity, I am an Englishman of Nigerian heritage. How I came to that idea of who I am was when I lived in the Netherlands. I had to answer the question of where I am originally from.
I was born in England, I grew up in England and Nigeria, then lived in the Netherlands for almost 13 years. Why am I not Nigerian? I was like everyone else until my accent betrayed me. To so many, I was the child born abroad, I wasn’t entirely accepted in Nigeria.
My mother tongue is English, but my mother’s tongue is Yoruba – I am proud to say even as an Aje-butter, I speak Yoruba to a very good standard, my Hausa, however, needs some work, I was in the North only until 1977.
Identity is a construct of influences, many good, some bad and a few you need to discard of completely. Accept who you are, don’t let anyone question the legitimate version of you.
On an Uber ride last week, the driver was telling me about his extraordinarily brilliant nephew who had excellent results for A-levels but could not make it through Oxbridge interviews to gain admission. I knew what the problem was, much had gone into academic achievement but very little into identity and personality development, the poor chap was cowed by the environment.
Community is good, but you also need to interact with the wider society, have a sense of confidence; completely different from arrogance, a healthy self-esteem; completely different from being an impostor, the ability to express yourself clearly; completely different from being loud and vulgar.
When I returned to the UK from Nigeria in 1990, I already had a good sense of who I was, my blackness was always part of me, anyone who had an issue with it, it was their problem, not mine. I also had a good sense of history. So, when someone trying to offensively racist said to me, 100 years ago I would have shot you, I was immediately able to respond, 200 years ago, I would have eaten you.
Be a sleeping dog, but be ready to bite when kicked, probably take the leg off, if you must.
Let the best influences of culture, of beliefs, of location, of friendships, of communication, of reading, and of learning define who you are in personality, in expression, in empathy, in humanity and in the pursuit of happiness.
Your health is wealth
10 years ago, what appeared to be athletes’ foot had become painful and was beginning to weep. At the back of my mind, I thought it was serious but was willing it away. A residual element of my religious upbringing was interfering with my sense of reasoning. Things about faith, miracles and so on.
Then, I decided to visit my GP, she had one look at the sole of my foot and said, ‘this looks serious, I need to refer you.’ The first reference 2 days later led to another 4 days later because of the intervening weekend.
The professor came to examine me and said, you can’t go home, we have a bed for you upstairs. That is how my treatment for cancer started. I did not realise how serious it was until the 8th day in the hospital when the professor came around to tell me. “We can treat this, but it depends on how your body can take the treatment; if you can, you’ll be fine, else you probably have 5 weeks.” 5 weeks!
I was 18 days in hospital and then 5 months of gruelling chemotherapy, sometimes, I couldn’t keep my food down for days.
Because of cancer, I lost everything, status, wealth, my home of 10 and a half years, prospects, but I did not lose hope and definitely not the will to live.
Part of my life education had been the ability to let go of things, not let things have a hold on me and because of that, I have been able to go on to new things, do new things, think new things, achieve new things and prosper in life, despite old things of the past, because they pass and in the process, you are given a better story. In the process of letting go, I realised that an open hand is one that is ready to receive.
Consider your health, go for scheduled and regular check-ups, I have a better idea of my health situation than my medical notes can provide. I have been fortunate to be treated as an intelligent patient even though with hindsight I have been foolish.
One identity construct that has helped me get the best outcomes for my health and treatment was my telling two professors of medicine, “It is my body first before it is your guinea-pig.”
They listened and backed down on the intrusive course of discomfort they had planned to take.
These are some key points from my address.
·         Don’t be afraid of failure, be afraid of never trying.
o    I have failed at many things; the lessons have become part of my world of experience.
o    I say, do it, rather than regret not doing it at all.
·         An opportunity once lost can be regained after a temporary setback.
o    I have had many setbacks, but never entirely lost opportunities.
·         Accept your vulnerabilities, they are part of your humanity.
o    I needed therapy and when I went for therapy, it helped me and enriched the therapist too.
·         Embrace change and be prepared for it in every area of your life, because if you hate change, you’ll hate irrelevance even more.
o    I have not survived 31 years in IT being stagnant, I have had to continually adapt and improve. I have been a self-employed contractor since 1995.
·         Learn to rest, learn to play, find time for yourself and do new things.
o    And suddenly, I found this liking for classical music, travel calms me down. I love quirky things.
·         The greatest thing you can pass down is example; an example of contentment which isn’t the lack of ambition, an example of resilience that you never fold in adversity, an example of empathy - walking a long hard mile in the shoes of another before you dare assume you know better.
o    I would probably not inherit much from my parents, but these are things that have stood the test of time.
·         Everyone has a story, you can tell yours too.
o    In the ordinariness of our lives, when you begin to count your blessings, you realise how extraordinary your life has been.
In closing
In speaking to this alumni association gathering, it is 21 years since you left FEGO. I hope it is more than the fact that you attended school together that has brought you here. I hope there is a friendliness that goes beyond acquaintance, a love that is deeper than mere concern, an engagement that ensures that no one of you falls to the ground, a brotherliness/sisterliness that means each one of you has another to whom you can go to for advice, direction and even admonition.
Yes, you can gather to laugh and play, but there must be times when you would have spoken the truth so frankly and without equivocation, we all need some tough talk along with the support to see it through. We cannot afford to be ashamed amongst true friends.
FEGO Class of 1998 – I commend you, live well, live strong, live long and live happily.
Thank you.

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