Teresa Chukuma, Nigeria’s first female permanent deputy representative to the UNESCO in Paris, recently launched her autobiography ‘Footprints & Milestones’ detailing her life itinerary as a globalised teacher. In this interview, she shares some of her life experiences with STEPHEN ONYEKWELU. Excerpts:
You are 86 years old and retired; what does it feel like to be a pensioner in Nigeria?
Monthly pension sometimes is quite epileptic. From my personal experience I suffered untold hardship in 2010 when from July 2010 – Dec. 2011 I did not receive one kobo from month to month. I had attended the Verification Exercises so I did not understand why this happened to me.
After writing appeal letters, my pension was restored by January 2012. But as if to add insult to injury I was being paid NGN 11,500 per month for the next 18 months, having retired as a ‘Super Director’ at Federal Ministry of Education. I was so angry and so upset that several nights I cried myself to sleep wondering what offence I committed in serving my country as I did. So for three years I could not feed myself. My children had to give me money for food, medicines and even telephone card.
Okay, I retired as a ‘Super Director’. Should my pension not reflect that? Some of my colleagues who retired as Permanent Secretaries, I am told, are being paid between NGN 600,000 and NGN 800,000 per month. I am being paid a meagre sum of NGN 85,000 per month. What percentage is that? 10 percent precisely. Is that fair? Why can I not be paid 70percent, 60percent or even 50percent of what Perm. Secs get? Indeed, why should any retired Director get less than 50percent of Perm. Sec. package?
And as for retirees, I do not see why we should be allowed to suffer the way we are suffering now. We have no healthcare, for instance, and any pension earned goes into medical bills before talking about food, rent etcetera. With NGN 85,000 a month, by the time I pay my driver N45, 000, the house-help NGN 30,000, Security man NGN 20,000, maintain the generator and my car, I am already borrowing to eat, buy medication etcetera. Is anybody surprised that many present-day civil servants don’t want to end up like us? That is why they have decided to ‘make hay while the sun shines.’
Which childhood experiences would you say contributed the most to who you have become today?
I think first and foremost the family that I come from was a loving family, an understanding family. If you can think of what happens in Nigeria, when somebody has a boy and a girl, and they do not have enough money, to send the two of them to school, they will send the boy and leave the girl that after all, the girl will marry. They never really know which of the children would be more useful in the long run.
But I had a father who believed in me. He believed in the education of girls. When his own brothers were trying to convince him that he had a pretty daughter, let her go and marry, after all she has passed primary six. He asked, ‘which one, my daughter that comes first every term? No, I will let her go to school until the day she does not want to read again’.
So, he encouraged me and I went on and on, until I finished the secondary school and fortunately got a government scholarship from the Eastern Nigerian government. While some of my friends were sent to the University of Ibadan, which was the only university in Nigeria then, in the newspapers, when they published the names, I was sent to London.
‘Footprints and Milestones’ is the title of your autobiography that was launched October 3, what inspired this?
You know, when I finished school and came back to Nigeria to teach at Queen’s School, Enugu, it was like child’s play. From year to year, one thing to the other, from Queen’s School Enugu, I went to Federal Government Girls College, Warri, to teach, from there to Queen’s College, Yaba, Lagos back to Federal Government College, Ijanikin, Lagos, during the Biafran War, when I had to stand in for the Geography teachers who had left for Biafra. So, the ministry said I should go and teach geography in King’s College, Lagos.
After King’s College, I went back to the ministry to be in-charge of foreign scholarship, and then I was selected to go to Paris as Nigeria’s deputy permanent delegate in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
So, from year to year I found myself stepping from one assignment to another, and as my foot was carrying me from one place to the other and acquiring different experiences, that is how when I started writing this book, I just said to myself, well, all those footprints that I have left behind and that have made me reach milestones going through over 40 countries in the world, because of the type of job I was doing.
The footprint was so much that it carried me over so many milestones that I achieved, that is how the thought of ‘footprints and milestones’ came to me and I decided to use it as the title of my autobiography.
How would you describe Nigeria’s education system today, compared to the past and its future potential?
Actually, I would say I am saddened. I just happen to be one of the pioneers because I came back from my studies in 1959 and we were rushing home to come and take over from the expatriates who were leaving as we were going to have our independence in 1960 and build up our country.
So, we were full of ideas. We were so proud that Nigeria was going to be independent and that was how and why we worked as hard as we did.
As for education, those of us who went into teaching, we tried our best and I must tell that the children we taught, it did not matter where they went in this world, they did their best. They were shinning everywhere and in some cases they were asked which country they came from that enabled them do the things they were able to do.
I remember my own daughter who went to the United States of America, to do electrical engineering and you know in America the curriculum is very wide. She had to offer so many different subjects, including tennis, music and French. She was able to cope with all of them and they were surprised and wondered whether she really studied in Africa. They did not understand she had distinction (A1) in French back home. She was good in mathematics and music.
Even today, I can tell you that people are thinking that Nigeria’s education system has gone, I do not know how to describe it but that it is no longer what it used to be, Nigerian children are still doing very well abroad. It is left to us to gather what is left and try to build up. What has happened is that government has not been supporting education. Government has neglected teachers.
October 5 every year is World Teachers Day, and this year the emphasis in the United Nations is going to be how to encourage and recruit teachers, because they find that there is so much shortage of teachers that children are suffering that is worldwide not to talk of Nigeria. Then in Nigeria even when they get the teachers, they are not well paid, in some states they do not pay them at all from month to month and would usually say that teachers have conscience and can do without their salaries for a few months, let us pay other people.
Now, there are families where you have husband and wife teaching, if you do not pay them how do they sustain their families. So, encouragement of teachers is very important. You have to encourage them, pay them their salaries, if that is done then the teachers will do their best to do their work.
Some of the teachers, because they are not being paid begin to look for other jobs to do. Or even, the same children they teach in school they will organise extramural lessons for them. Instead of spending their energy teaching the children in school, they save their energy for home tutoring and that is how the education system gets bad.
There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian education system, nothing wrong. Our system is very good. The 6 3 3 4 is very good. I was in UNESCO representing Nigeria when the 6 3 3 4 was launched and UNESCO clapped for Nigeria and welcomed it. So, there is nothing wrong with Nigeria’s education system.
However, it is us, who are operating the system that are not operating it the way we are supposed to operate the system. Even when they bought new equipment, for the technical side of schools, some were stored for months until some of them caught fire and were burnt. This is money wasted. So, there is nothing really wrong with the Nigerian education system. What are wrong are us, the government and the people, if we can appreciate the teachers we have, knowing that without them we cannot have doctors, engineers, lawyers, then there will be nothing really to criticise about the system itself.
How do you think we can best bridge the town-gown divide?
I think the best bet is negotiation. The universities and the industries have to negotiate. In other countries, whilst the students are in the university, they do in-service training in the different industries depending on their course of study. There is some uniformity and alignment of the industry with academia. This is how they train themselves so that when the graduate, they can ease into the various industries without problem. But here when you have that division, the industries do not allow the students to come to practise whatever they are doing and the universities won’t know what to do with students and the students will spend their holidays, just wasting time instead of doing very useful things, like grooming and training themselves and getting on-hand training.
Most of the students in the technical field just end up to be people, who are bookworms, much theory and little practice. Government really should have some plan and meet with the industries so that the industries can plan for the students to be part of them. After all they are the ones who will benefit when the students have graduated. I do not see why they should not embrace the students and get them to train whilst they are still in the university so that they can have practical experience. It has to be negotiation among the universities, government and industries.
What key lessons would you say you learnt from years of service at the UNESCO?
I learnt a lot. For instance, the way teachers are treated in other parts of the world because I travelled to many different places to see what happens in schools and all that and I discovered that in some countries of UNESCO family, they governments at the end of the academic year, when the students graduate, the top students, the very top ones, who do well are taken into teaching. In Nigeria, it is the dregs that end up in teaching. This is one thing I learnt. The best students are believed to give their best.
Then, the others can go into administration and other areas and the teachers are well paid, very well paid because they appreciate the work of teachers. But in Nigeria the system is skewed against teaching.
For instance, you need five credits to enter the university to do any degree course. But if you want to go into polytechnic your need four credits and three credits for colleges of education. Why can’t everybody be asked to have five credits, so that you know everyone is at par? So, from beginning you are already downgrading those who are who are going to be teachers. This is one of the things I learnt at the UNESCO, respect for teachers.
Music is one of your big loves and hobbies; do you have favourite musicians or songs?
It is funny because I do not really have favourite musicians. What I know is any popular music that has good rhythm, I love. I was brought up by reverend sisters, Holy Child reverend sisters and they believe that music helps children’s brain. So, they taught me to sing, play and do a lot of concert. I grew up to really love music and then I was a member of the school choir from when I was about ten until I left school around the age of almost eighteen.
So, I encouraged all my children because of that love I have for music to do music. So, some of them play the piano and other musical instruments, so they love music as well.
I wanted to play the piano but my father did not encourage me because he said that I take part in concerts, I sing a lot and dance so if I am encouraged to learn to play the piano, I will lose concentration.
They reverend sisters wanted me to learn to play the piano. When we dramatised the fairy tale of ‘Snow white and the seven dwarfs’ I played the role of snow white and that encouraged me to do a lot of singing and acting and my father thought if this child gets into playing the piano, there will be trouble. You know how parents used to think of musicians.
He told the reverend sisters to teach me how to type instead because typing was more useful and this made me to learn to type very early in life. It became very useful to me because when I was in the University of St Andrews, Scotland, when other students were taking their typing jobs outside I bought a typewriter and was doing my typing by myself. But to talk about the music I like. Even if I like the music these young musicians play, I still prefer all those music played by Rex Lawson, Sunny Ade and that song ‘Guitar Boy’, that is, the Benin man. I love all that music so much and I play them.
At the same time, I love classical music. For instance, weekends, I just play classical music, especially in the evening and relax with it.
You have done a lot of advocacy on girl-child education and women advancement, what has this changed?
I think it has had a lot of impact. At least, the children who have passed through me that I taught learnt quite a lot and many of them are doing very well. When we started, I talked about how parents will encourage the boys and say the girls will marry. But we realised that some girls are even more serious than the boys and they are very serious with their studies and whatever they are doing. All the encouragement and advocacy are paying off.
They are becoming very responsible wives, mothers and what have you. So, girl child education is very important because when a girl comes into a home as a wife, she is not only taking care of herself, but she is taking care of the children and her husband because the husband is almost like a baby too. So it pays to educate women. We educate so that they can educate the nation. As they educate the children, they children go out with all the good things their mother has taught them and so forth.
What is your view on curriculum review and how often should this happen?
Curriculum review should happen within a minimum of two years, because if you wait for five years, so many things happen in the world and you may miss things here and there. So, I suggest, a minimum of two years, the curriculum should be reviewed. So that it is updated. This should happen at every level of education.
In fact, the West African Examination Council (WAEC), I think, does that because if you take the exam this year and you want to take it again in another three years, you find that the curriculum would have been amended. They would have reviewed and updated it. So, my recommendation is every two years they should look at the curriculum, depending on what is happening at the time.
If you had opportunity to take back the hand of time, what would you have loved to do, that you did not do in the past?
Yes, a few things. For instance, I told you I had wanted to learn to play the piano and I have always still wanted to learn to play the piano. So, if I had to go back, many years, I will still learn to play the piano.
The other thing is French. I love the French language and even though I lived in Paris and did my work there, the work at UNESCO was so hectic that I did not have enough time to learn French. I can follow conversations but cannot speak it. All my children speak French, but I who took them there do not speak it. So I will love to speak French.