Mayen Adetiba is an engineer. She became an engineer at the time it was strictly a male discipline. In this chat, she traces the challenges of women professionals, her stint in acting and the journey to self-discovery. She also insists on local content to help develop indigenous professionals. She tells it all to The Interview
You became an engineer when it was not popular for Nigerian women to study such courses as they were mostly regarded as ‘reserved for men.’ What exactly inspired you?
It was not so popular at the time. From the age of nine, I had wanted to be an accountant, which would have been boring because I don’t like accountants. I’m joking, of course. My then principal had attended Virginia Union University and encouraged me to apply. By 1969/70, I was already processing the papers and got admission. I set out for America. I must rewind a little. Before going to America, I had been in the first real film to be shot in Nigeria – Kongi’s Harvest. It was fun. During the filming, I met an American who came with the crew and mentioned to her that I was planning to go to the USA and would she please write me an invitation letter? She wrote it and I got the visa. In October 1970, I set off and ended up staying in New York. I did not proceed to Virginia and that was one of the best decisions that I ever made.
This was very different to what you had planned, though you have no regrets. How then did you go into engineering?
Of course I was now in New York with no university admission and no student visa. It was just a few years after the (Nigerian) Civil War and there were a lot of restrictions on sending money; therefore, I had very little funds as my parents could not send money regularly. Through one of my father’s friends, I used to help out at the United Nations and got a few dollars here and there. I also worked in a factory. I was then able to start saving. I went to the Empire State Building where they had computers and learnt how to do key punching, a bit like programming. I felt it was time to get admission into university and went to New York University for a semester, then transferred to Columbia University hoping to study computer science. Computer science happened to be lumped under the engineering faculty. There was a Nigerian man, an electrical engineer teaching at the faculty. We were introduced and he advised me to study electrical engineering. I did that for two years. As was the custom in the university, a counsellor regularly reviews your course choices with you to help you find a best fit. My counsellor advised me that electrical engineering, being a very dynamic discipline, might not best work in a developing country as there would be a constant need to train and retrain. He felt civil engineering would be a better option. That was how I decided in my sophomore year to specialise in civil engineering with emphasis on structures.
Did you face any opposition from your parents when you decided that was what you wanted?
My father was a labour leader and very forward-thinking. My mother was a teacher. In fact, my father wrote the accord that set up the Nigerian LabourCongress as we know it now. The Apena Accord is named after the meeting they held at Apena Cemetery following the burial of their colleague. They were both very proud of me and very supportive. But my father died at 52, too early.
It must have been tough studying engineering as a black woman in America.
I was one of two female engineers in my first degreeprogramme and the only one while studying for a Master’s degree. It was challenging but tough. Columbia is highly competitive; if you’re timid, you cannot get by. I had friends but I am in no way gregarious. I imbibed my mother’s motto and tend to be more of a homebody. My children are quite similar in this regard.
Can you remember the first job you designed as an engineer?
Alex Ekwueme had a large outfit. My father got me a job there. They asked me to be on the drawing board and learn how to detail engineering designs. They gave me a small design. I read and read at night. It was a challenge learning to translate my classroom lessons to the physical thing. The experience is good. I always tell people that they should make sure to work for someone for about five years after graduating. This should not be downplayed, whatever your profession. Even if you’re not earning much, it will help. It is the time to ask questions, even stupid questions and to learn from mistakes and gain ideas.
Did you face any peculiar challenges as a female engineer?
There were many challenges along the way but it gets easier with experience. I remember a job during the time that I was at Chief Fajemirokun’s firm. We were working with American contractors and I was told to work with them as resident engineer. This is a senior position. As a young woman, the expatriates and others did not take me seriously. They regularly tried to undermine me. Meanwhile, I was reading voraciously because I knew I had to have a high standard. One day on the site, they were up to their normal mischief. I walked up, took some paper and wrote, ‘stop work’. With that directive from the resident engineer, nobody is allowed to touch anything. I regained my strength as foremost engineer. They came back willing to do things the proper way. I said, “Now you’re talking!” This gave me push and confidence. I will never forget it. The job came with loads of responsibility. I needed to be knowledgeable, very knowledgeable.
Has anything changed?
We should celebrate ourselves. We have come a long way. In the 60s, how many women were driving cars? I came back from America in the 70s and I used to wear trousers. At that time, this did not go down well. Why did we set up the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN)? I was the first secretary and Mrs. Maduka, the first president. When any female engineer went to search for work, they would be told that their place was in the kitchen. APWEN is like a pressure group. About ten of us came together to form the association, to make sure that female engineers got employed. I am glad that, today, APWEN is in quite a number of states. I look at women today and I feel good. It is a balancing act; you have to balance several roles. We have come a long way. Some top banks today have female chairs. It is a sign of what is coming.
You are a former president of Association of Consulting Engineers of Nigeria. What would you say is one major challenge engineers in Nigeria face?
Nigerian engineers are not valued. We must know that everyone is learning. If we do not expose them to learning and day-to-day work, we cannot progress. We are not saying that we should employ those engineers that are not qualified, but that qualified ones should be given a chance. I want us to ensure that we have local content in everything, and that is across board - even to use indigenous coaches for the national football side. You have to take what you have and make it better. I remember a company I was working at then, that the expatriates were earning three or four times more than us local engineers. We were being made to play second fiddle. Abroad, we are second and then now in our own country. The rebellion in me came out; I am the daughter of a labour leader. It didn’t sit well with me and I was impatient. I don’t believe Nigerian engineers are not good enough. Did the Americans not lose astronauts in a space shuttle disaster? Did the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl not break down? They need the exposure and training. No foreigner can love our country more than us.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing fight against corruption in the country?
Every day I wake up, I want to drop dead. What is happening? The amount of corruption is mind-boggling. I find it disgusting. Let me be frank; corruption is from the bottom to top. We need to get to the bottom. It’s not just at the top. We must create awareness and sensitise people to the right and better way of doing things. You might not be rich, but you will have peace of mind and self-respect. Parents are not doing enough; they are not setting the right example. Then, we heard our parents say that a good name is better than gold. That is no longer the case. We need to wind back and make our children behave better rather than have everything dominated by naira and kobo.
But wouldn’t you say your generation had it easier in terms of good jobs and opportunities?
What was I earning? Let me tell you –
N700. Now young men and women are earning hundreds of thousands. Nothing should make you want to make the acquisition of wealth more important than experience.
You had a stint with journalism before settling for engineering. What is that you wanted with journalism?
I was dabbling with journalism and was also doing modelling. I had a figure eight back then. I was doing Bar Beach show with Art Alade. I was doing radio drama and doing things with Radio Nigeria. I was on television, acting on Village Headmaster. It was fun and I was trying to decide what to do. Sisi Elsie Olusola who played the headmaster’s wife was someone I looked up to. I was close to her and asked her opinion on whether to stay with journalism or go and study accounting. She said to me: you can always be a journalist but you cannot always be an accountant. That is how I made up my mind to read accountancy and you know the rest of that story.
What kinds of books inspire you?
I was a quiz captain in secondary school. My interest these days is more on foreign affairs. If there is something happening in Bangladesh or Myanmar, I can tell you. I am a voracious reader; I keep my bedroom light on, with the television, too. I like to read magazines and newspapers that give knowledge on various topics. I don’t read romantic novels. I don’t go to the movies as I am likely to fall asleep. I like anything that can tickle my intelligence and I want to be seen as intelligent.
You are over 60 now; any chance of you slowing down?
I like being active. The last minister of works appointed me as SURE-P chairman for roads and bridges. It was really hectic but I believe I led by example. I have ideas for projects to do for the less privileged. When I sit down and not do much, it is not good for my health. I also travel a lot.
I do many other things. Of course, by virtue of my experience, I naturally mentor a lot of people. What gives me pleasure is training people. I have paid for more than 100 people to be trained. If you are good material, you don’t need to be related to me. They will have the chance to go to school. I like cooking for the estate over Christmas. I have been doing this since I was in my thirties. I also do it in my parents’ villages. I derive a lot of joy from helping my community in this way.
I also cook for those detained in police cells over the Christmas period. Then we distribute foodstuff to thousands of beggars from Ikeja to Kano Street in EbuteMetta.