Teachers in Nigeria now reduced to beggars – Retired UNIPORT prof
A retired professor of Chemistry, Mrs Ayebaemi Spiff, tells DANIELS IGONI about her childhood and career at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where she taught for 35 years
What fond memories of your childhood can you recall?
I’m the sixth child of my father, Jonathan Kieri Ombu, of Okpoama in the Brass Local Government of Bayelsa State. My mother was from Akwa Ibom State. The good times of my childhood were when my father used to sit me at his breakfast table. He used to have his breakfast at about 11am, very ceremonially. I was particularly loved by him, though my mouth was very ‘sharp’. I remember a few occasions when he used to put me on the table or the chair to sit with him but he didn’t share his food with me. I remember those occasions. I recall that, occasionally, I went to ‘Ifeniya School’ (ifeniya is loosely translated as cassava flour) where breakfast was kpokpo garri with little dry fish or so. I can’t remember how it was packaged, but he used to pack it and give it to me as though I was a nursery pupil going to school. I was born during that era. I don’t think I started primary school in Okpoama, it’s not clear in my mind.
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How old were you and where did you start primary school?
I must have been between five and six years old. My father’s first daughter, Cecelia Domokuma (nee Ombu), was the first graduate of the teachers training college called Women Teachers’ College. She was posted to Olokoro in Umuahia (Abia State) and my father handed me and two other siblings over to her to go with to Olokoro. We were there for less than two years when she got married to Mr Alfred Seawell, who was working at the United Africa Company in Port Harcourt (Rivers State) and we had to move to Port Harcourt and I remember clearly that we lived at 6, Bathurst Street, and it’s still very vivid in my memory. We lived there and a few things happened.
I was no longer the apple of my brother-in-law’s eye and that of my sister. I was flogged every other day. In those days there was no fridge. When I got up in the morning, and the soup that was warmed the evening before went soured, the husband and wife said I put my hand in it at night. Meanwhile, the irony of it was that because we fetched water in the evenings (we used to fetch water from Hospital Road), I was the one that fetched water and my sister, Jima, did the tidying up in the kitchen yet I was always accused and flogged.
Was the issue addressed?
My mother, an astute businesswoman, had seen me being punished repeatedly because she usually came from home to buy her goods to go and sell. So, after one of those occasions she visited, she cried to her husband to let me return home. On one of her trips, I followed her back to Akassa because my father was a produce inspector at Akassa. All that I did not enjoy previously when I was in Port Harcourt, she pampered me and as a businesswoman whenever she went to Port Harcourt, she bought clothes, sandals, and other items. I became a classy daughter, I remember that I wore sandals to school and attended the white man’s school in Akassa where we learnt maypole dance and all that. It was the opposite of what I went through in Port Harcourt.
Was your father comfortable with how your mother pampered you?
My father complained that my mother was pampering me and she would spoil me, so he gave me to his younger brother, Stephen Ombu, who was in Cameroon and must have come for some Christmas visit or so. So I was taken to Victoria (Limbé) and became a thorough house girl who slept late and woke up early. But it was good for me because, in addition to going to school, I learnt housekeeping; I learnt how to bake bread and akara (bean cake). In the evening, I hawked bread under electric poles those days maybe till about 8pm and when I returned home, I made more bread for the following day. On Saturday, I sold akara at the shipyard.
Did your uncle have children?
My uncle had a daughter who was of the same age as me but I served her, washed her clothes on Saturday, and ironed them. I did that and later took exams. In those days, Cameroon was still part of Nigeria; and in 1957, I went to Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls Secondary School, Elelewon, Port Harcourt.
You are described in several quarters as the first female professor of Chemistry. Is that true?
I don’t know who did that research and classification, but it’s going viral that I’m the first female professor of chemistry in this part of the world. I don’t think I was the first woman with a doctorate in Chemistry or a professor of Chemistry. It’s not clear in my mind that I am. I’m sure there must be somebody, not because I’m just being humble but there should be some statistics to show that I’m.
How will you describe your career as a teacher?
I taught for 35 years. After my A Levels, I taught chemistry for nine months in Ovom, Aba. At the University of Ibadan, I just don’t remember what I used to do with my long vacations. There were clear long vacations but I don’t remember what I did, whether I taught or did something else. But I did chemistry, and I loved chemistry. I had my PhD at UI and when I finished, I taught there. I went to only two higher schools, Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls School and UI. I want to emphasise that. I don’t think I could have done anything else, I can’t figure it out. However, it was after I graduated from UI that Rivers State was created, so I started as a founding lecturer in the College of Science and Technology, Nkpolu, Port Harcourt, as it was then called. I was there up till when it was converted to Rivers State University of Science and Technology, and later I moved over to the University of Port Harcourt and started the Chemistry department there with the help of the vice chancellor. So, I’m a founding member of UNIPORT. I told myself that I’m always a foundation builder.
What are some of the challenges that you encountered in your career?
I want to say clearly that nobody put me down because I’m a woman. We were all equal in everything we did. So, all this feminism that people are talking about, I don’t understand. Maybe some girls had challenges but nobody looked down on me as a woman, nor did I receive less salary. We were always equals and I was fortunate. When I was studying for my first degree at UI, there were five girls in our class and to tell the boys that we were girls, we beat all of them academically. One of us graduated with a first-class degree, four of us had a second-class, then a few boys added themselves to the second-class upper category. Prof Fabian Osuji, for example, was one of my classmates.
What were the high moments?
High moments are high moments. I don’t know what you mean by low and high moments. I had no challenges with male and female attitudes. Maybe my low moment was that at UNIPORT, everybody expected me to become a professor much earlier than I did. I became a professor in 2006. Having been a pioneer member of the institution, everybody expected that I would have become a professor earlier but my area of specialisation is hard; organic chemistry, natural product chemistry, is a difficult area in Nigeria. In fact, it looks like it has even been killed because there are no funds to do research on natural products. Everybody did analytical, and environmental chemistry and progressed fast but I loved organic chemistry. That was a challenge.
At what point while growing up did you realise that you would be a teacher?
I think I realised this after my A Level experience. I taught at Ovom Girls’ School, Aba, and that’s when I enjoyed teaching. The thing that confirmed my teaching was that when I finished my PhD, I came to Port Harcourt and I applied to Eleme Petrochemicals Company Limited as a chemist. That’s where I had a bit of male chauvinism; all the males were frightened that a female PhD holder in Chemistry was coming in. I didn’t apply to be in management but in the laboratory. My application terrorised everybody, and when I saw that, I left and took up teaching and I have enjoyed teaching, and imparting knowledge.
A few people tell me I don’t look 80 and I say it’s because all my life, I have influenced and associated with the youth, and that’s all I have been doing.
What, in your opinion, is responsible for this gap between research and national development in Nigeria?
I was at Columbia University and Pittsburgh University on the Fulbright scholarship and fellowship because I had it twice. When I went to Pittsburgh, my professor did not show himself as a professor, he interacted with us; he started by interacting with us, and that enhanced research. When I got to Columbia, I isolated a new medically active medicinal component of a plant that I took a sample of from Nigeria. It was active as a pain reliever, but when I came back, nobody was interested in sponsoring the research. Nobody. There was no continuity; more disheartening was a black-eye bean I went to Pittsburgh with to do research. How did I get it? I was in the lab one day at UNIPORT and an old man came and gave me the bean. He said, “My young daughter, this bean is difficult to cook. You have to boil it all night to eat it.” The bean is small with a black eye. I had a strong feeling that it had strong medical activity. That was about four months before I went to Pittsburgh University.
What happened thereafter?
When he gave it to me, I did a preliminary test of the bean at UNIPORT but I could not continue because I was not a licensed medical person. You see if we had gone ahead with that research, we would have got the medical people to be part of it. It takes a long process to get a sample (of research result) approved to be tested. It takes a long time, but in Nigeria, nobody was interested. It killed my desire to research and that’s one of the reasons why my professorial promotion was delayed because, for about three to four years, I became completely disillusioned carrying on with natural products chemistry. Nobody, even my VC, did not caution me against that false claim and that killed my enthusiasm for research for at least four years.
When precisely did you retire from service?
I retired on March 31, 2008, when I turned 65. My set was the last to retire at 65 before the Federal Government increased it to 70 years.
Would you have wished that you were not yet 65 when you retired?
No, not really, because I was still there and UNIPORT kept me back for five years on contract after retirement and at 70, I left.
How do you keep yourself active in retirement?
I have enjoyed retirement. I have no dull moments. I don’t know what to do but I have not had a dull moment. One part of me while in Port Harcourt was that I loved gardening, and my residence at UNIPORT was a forest. I had the joy of taking my flowers to beautify my church, Christ Church Interdenominational, Forces Avenue. I did that all the time I was in Port Harcourt.
Do you think the attitude of the government to teachers has improved?
The government and the Nigerian system of governance do not appreciate teachers at all. A teacher is the foundation of development. Without the teacher imparting knowledge, there won’t be politicians, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, and all that. We don’t appreciate teachers. In Europe, there are two or three countries, I think Finland and Poland or so, where teachers earn more than their leaders. In Nigeria, teachers have been so reduced to a beggarly position and we can’t develop. We can’t!
Is anybody considering the Academic Staff Union of Universities and teachers? I worked at UNIPORT for 35 years but I don’t have anything to my name, nothing. I don’t have a house, the car I use was bought for me by my children. The teacher is not appreciated in this country, therefore, teaching itself is now looked upon as a stop-gap job; that’s the attitude to the job. The generation of committed teachers has passed; maybe it ended with mine. We don’t appreciate teachers. A teacher is not valued by the Nigerian government, and teaching has become a transitory vocation, which is very sad.
How do you feel at 80?
I celebrated my 80th birthday on March 31, 2023, and I feel youthful and even younger. I have no aches in my knees.
If you had the opportunity, would you consider going back to the classroom at 80?
I still go to the classroom, thanks to the VC of Federal University, Otuoke (Bayelsa State), Prof Teddy Adias. He told me I would be with him until he finished his tenure. What I do now is not just go to the classroom, but interact with the students, and tell them to relax because a grandmother is here to teach them, before I pour in organic chemistry. But at this age, I enjoy departmental board meetings because that’s management.