MBTN: “I will not let my move back experience set me back” – Taiwo Abolarin

Hi, I am Abolarin Taiwo Mayowa, a graduate of Biochemistry (BSc) from Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State and also a Public Health (MSc) degree holder from Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK. I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria therefore I am 100 percent Nigerian. I am a researcher and I’m passionate about the complete eradication of endemic diseases in Nigeria, therefore, I love to call myself a public health person as my interests have always been Public Health related.
As a researcher, I have had the opportunity of working as part of a team that conducted research which involved the assessment of uptake of antiretroviral therapy (ART) among HIV-infected TB patients in Nigeria. This was for the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and took place in July, 2015. Here is my move back story.
Thanks Taiwo. Let’s start from the beginning, what are some of your fondest memories from childhood?
Some of my fondest memories include growing up with my siblings here in Nigeria. Mine is a family of five; my parents, two girls... (my sister & I) and a boy who happens to be my twin brother. My childhood was quite interesting as we were raised in the midst of other kids from various backgrounds, therefore I had a lot of friends to play so many games with. Also, back then as a kid, I looked forward to travelling to our hometown in Osun State for the Christmas celebrations every year but soon outgrew this when I left for boarding school in Abeokuta. This was where I met a whole lot of other childhood friends from whom I learnt quite a few things; some of which have shaped me into who I am today.

Please walk us through your educational background? 

For my primary school, I attended Aunty Adunni Memorial Day Nursery and Primary School in Bariga, Lagos, then moved on to Abeokuta Girls’ Grammar School in Ogun state after which I gained admission into the prestigious Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago – Iwoye, Ogun State for my first degree. I then left for the UK to attend Oxford Brookes University in Oxford for my post graduate studies.

What inspired you to pursue a post graduate degree abroad?

It was basically my love for quality education. Truth be told, we all know that we cannot compare our educational system here in Nigeria with what’s obtainable in countries like the UK and USA. I must say, the difference is clear and I personally experienced the DIFFERENCE. The mode and style of teaching is totally different from what we are used to in Nigeria.

I chose the UK because I felt it was closer to home and I had family members living there who I could easily turn to for guidance. I just felt I had a connection there, I was totally in tune with studying in the UK.

Did you enjoy your time at Oxford Brookes University?

Wow….Lol, I would never trade my experience at Oxford Brookes University with anything in the whole wide world. It was a whole new experience for me having studied all my life in Nigeria. I met and made friends with a lot of wonderful people from diverse backgrounds. I also had great lecturers who were ever willing and ready to help students achieve academic excellence. Additionally, Oxford which serves as the host community to the school is an ancient city with a lot of tourist attractions; therefore I had lots of fun visiting exciting new places with ancient history.

Great! So, what were your expectations versus the reality of moving back to Nigeria?

Hmmm……permit me to write a very long epistle here because I had a lot of expectations when I was planning to move back to Nigeria. I had this big dream of coming back to Nigeria to contribute my bit to the healthcare system in Nigeria, especially in the area of combating endemic diseases (such as Ebola, Lassa Fever, HIV, TB, Malaria and other hemorrhagic diseases) ravaging most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For my dissertation, I worked on “strategies that can be put in place in order to treat Lassa fever in Sub-Saharan Africa” with a focus on Nigeria, and I mainly chose that topic because of my previous knowledge about its epidemic nature in Nigeria. Hence, on my return I had expected that I would be able to get the opportunity to help in alleviating and reducing the burden of the disease in Nigeria but the reality of things is that I am yet to get that chance. You may want to ask why? Well, I can remember vividly the first time I landed back in Nigeria, an acquaintance of mine paid me a visit and the first thing he greeted me with was an astounding WELCOME BACK TO REALITY…..he then inundated me with stories of different people he knew who came back to the country after their studies abroad and after months and years of job search had to leave back to the wherever they came from. He concluded his sermon with a big question….WHY DID YOU COME BACK? This question still begs for answers from a lot of returnees who are yet to find that desired job that they so much crave for in their own chosen field of specialization.

As per my reality of moving back home, let me give you a sneak peek into my personal experience in terms of getting a job in my own field of specialization (Public Health). But before I go on, let me quickly add here that this is not to discourage overseas graduates from coming back home to Nigeria, this is just a version my own personal experience and it does not mean that my story will be your story because just like they say “different strokes for different folks”.

Immediately after I got back into the country, I started sending out applications (I have lost count now), I got a few responses and wrote various aptitude tests. After months of waiting endlessly, I eventually got a placement with the help of a family friend; in a public health NGO to work as an Intern in their Lagos regional office because that was the only thing they could offer. My joy knew no bounds and I was happy I had gained entrance into my dream field and this position would at least give me the opportunity of learning, contributing and growing with the company. Despite the fact that the position came with no pay and it was boldly written on my acceptance letter that the internship would be at no cost to the institute, I was still happy and my consolation was in the fact that with time I would be made a permanent staff and then begin to earn a salary. At least to me six months of no pay was a sacrifice I was willing to make to get the chance to work in the public health field in Nigeria.

While there, office politics was predominant, whereby most of the staff members were hostile and not willing to impart any knowledge onto us. They mainly acted as though we came to steal their jobs from them. We were made to write minutes at the monthly review meetings while the admin staff whose duty it was to write minutes were gallivanted up and down. We were also given odd assignments and unrealistic timelines for submissions. All this was done in a bid to frustrate us (interns) to the point of leaving. After enduring all this for six months, we were eventually made to leave even without a certificate to show for the internship.

In fact, it was as if they couldn’t wait for the six month term to end as exactly six months after I started working with them, the regional Manager called us (interns) into his office to ask if we knew any politician or even any director within the organization that could help facilitate our conversion to permanent staff status but we didn’t know anyone. There were job adverts on the company’s website which we applied for but were told categorically not to bother attending the interviews in their head office in Abuja as top politicians and their directors had already submitted the names of their candidates and even most of the staff also had their candidates. I went anyway (after all there is no harm in trying) and attended the interview in Abuja on two different occasions, put in my best, and I’m still waiting to hear from them (since November, 2015. Lol!).

I forgot to mention that the same regional manager said to us when we resumed the internship, “you guys went to study abroad and came here and you think these guys will teach you anything”. I also remember during one of our numerous trips to health facilities outside Lagos, one of the drivers also asked “WHY DID YOU COME BACK”? Interestingly, I always knew that in Nigeria one has to have some form of connection before one can practically get anything done, yet I couldn’t just believe it that I would hear it straight out of a regional manager’s mouth, and without mincing words. This made me realize that except the God factor comes to play, in Nigeria you may only go as far as your connections take you. Your qualifications and grades don’t matter anymore, even if you studied abroad…….and to me it is a shame.

WOW! That was quite an experience. So what do you currently do for a living?

At the moment I’m an entrepreneur focused on trading in women’s fashion accessories (clothes, bags, and shoes) mostly sourced from the UK. I’m also looking into other business opportunities like working in collaboration with a UK company (official graduation photographer for some top schools in the UK e.g. University of Oxford and University of Cambridge respectively) that’s committed to adding color to graduation/matriculation ceremonies here in Nigeria. This idea was conceived as a result of the experience I got while working in Oxford, UK.

Nice! Ok, let’s take a step back. With all you experienced, do you think there are still opportunities in the public health sector in Nigeria?

I believe the sky is big enough for all birds to fly without colliding, therefore I would like to say that there are lots of opportunities in the public health sector in Nigeria. Truth is, there are too many qualified people out there and the competition for public health jobs is very tough. Another major thing I noticed is that the public health sector is dominated by doctors and nurses, and this makes it pretty difficult for other medical and non-medical professionals to penetrate except those who are closely connected to the “oga’s at the top” or by the divine grace of God.

Even if you finally find yourself in there, you might get relegated to the back. I strongly feel this should not be the case, as public health is meant to be open to people from other professional backgrounds according to UK standards but in Nigeria, it may interest you to know that the sector is being monopolized by doctors and nurses.

Interesting! So, what would you like to see change about our country, Nigeria?

This is a very good question. As a true Nigerian, I would like our educational system to undergo a complete overhaul; this is not too much to ask from our government as we can never overemphasize the power of education. When you compare our educational system with that of the UK for example, I can categorically state that we are lagging behind. Over there, structures are in place to make the learning environment conducive for students and so many facilities are in place to aid teaching. Another thing I would like to see change is also the availability of good and fast internet in places such as government schools, banking halls and shopping malls. Internet should be made cheap and accessible to all. I would love to see good roads, road users being orderly and obeying traffic lights, the provision of stable electricity and ample job opportunities, as the unemployment rate in Nigeria is crazy. More so, I would love to see a Nigeria that puts merit above connections when employing professionals; these and many other things that need to be improved upon if the country wants to progress and motivate Nigerians in the diaspora to return home. Improved healthcare systems and prompt and adequate management of outbreaks of diseases. The list is endless.

What do you do for fun and where would you recommend for relaxation?

Lol… on a normal day the things I do to catch fun are watching movies either at home or at the cinemas, travelling, listening to music and going to the gym occasionally. For me, the place I would recommend for relaxation is simply the beach, but it is unfortunate that most of the ones we have in Nigeria are not properly managed.

What is your favorite Nigerian dish?

My favorite Nigerian food is “well prepared” pounded yam, served with egusi soup and garnished with lots of assorted meat and fish.

On a final note, any advice for prospective returnees?

For people who are passionate about working in the health sector, my advice is to keep trying just like me. I am not letting my experience set me back and will keep trying because I know I have a lot to offer. I didn’t go all the way to study Public Health for nothing. Some may ask, why not stand on your own and do something different like consult for people? The answer is, we all need a little bit of experience before we can stand on our own. Rome was not built in a day and if you need to sacrifice your time and money for now to gain some work experience, please do so because as they say, no pain no gain.

I think that prospective returnee’s should be ready to start a business if their initial plan to secure a job (within a specified timeline) doesn’t pull through or at least something that will keep them occupied till their dream job comes along. I say this because being idle can be quite frustrating. You need to have a plan, in fact plan A & B so that you don’t end up being disappointed if things don’t fall in place as quickly as envisaged.

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