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“Travel and tell no one, live a true love story and tell no one, live happily and tell no one, people ruin beautiful things.”
― Khalil Gibran.
It appeared like a fairy tale but exactly 18 years ago today (July 18th, 2002), I was officially recognised by the Commonwealth Secretariat (ComSec) in London as a distinguished young journalist from Africa.
I was invited and sponsored to London without paying one naira, not because I came from rich family background or nominated by a powerful Nigerian politician but due to the “contents” of my brain.
From zero to hero. From grass to grace. From nobody to somebody.
The celebrated Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, once said,
“I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
ComSec specifically advertised for a young journalist from Commonwealth countries with degrees in Journalism, English language, or Mass Communications to apply for the Media Internship Programme.
One strange spirit instantly whispered to my right ear, ”Just apply, you’ll be selected. This is your breakthrough in life.”
I took a risk and applied with my Bsc Geography certificate and I emerged the overall WINNER out of 65 applicants from 54 Commonwealth countries. The rest is now history.
ComSec requested for just 3 samples of applicant’s published articles/stories in newspapers or magazines. I sent about 10 samples to impress the organisation to overlook my “Geography” and focus on my journalism and creative writing skills. It worked for me like magic!
To even send my application parcel via courier service to beat the deadline was not an easy task. No money in my pocket!
During this “struggling” era as a young Nigerian journalist in Lagos, a lonely church rat was probably richer than me. My neck was so long like a zoo giraffe. God punish poverty left, right and centre.
I eventually sent my application to London at the Lagos airport post office through EMS/NIPOST since I was financially distressed to send it through DHL.
I attempted to have a “camouflage” girlfriend in Surulere Lagos during this “struggling” era. She also attended the University of Ilorin, but like a younger “mini-campus” sister to me.
This “Omoge” used “body language” to drive me away from her house. I instantly realised that “money is power” in any relationship.
Which Naija lady go open her “main campus” for a “struggling” man?
A month after I sent my application to ComSec London, I received an email that I have been shortlisted to participate in the final stage interview via a telephone conversation and I must provide a reliable telephone number as urgent as possible.
It was a “status symbol” to buy a mobile phone (GSM) during this era in Nigeria. I even tagged GSM as “General State of Madness” in my “Inside Molue” weekly column published with The Monitor newspapers. I used my salaries for 2 months to quickly buy a mobile phone(Ericsson) and MTN sim card and nothing for me to buy the basic needs of life.
During the interview, I was asked to describe my passion for journalism. I started from my high school days in Abeokuta(Baba Shomoye and other stories!) up to my Unilorin days where I was unlawfully expelled(and later pardoned!) for campus journalism and activism against Abacha military dictatorship.
One of the ComSec officials asked the question I dreaded so much.
“You obtained your first degree in Geography from the University of Ilorin in 1997 and this position is strictly advertised for graduates of Journalism, English language, and Mass Communications. Are you really qualified for this offer?”
As I was planning to reply to this “Ibaje Eniyan” question, the phone line suddenly cut from London(or Lagos!). I was instantly called back within 2 minutes. I tactically ignored the “qualification” question and nobody reminded me to respond. End of story!
As Fela Kuti talk am, “Overtake don overtake overtake Heeya…Overtake don overtake overtake.”
Another ComSec official asked another question concerning my role while working with Daily Times of Nigeria(DTN) as a freelance journalist, earning less than $10 per week!
I worked on “Lagos Weekend” desk as a freelance reporter, just to gain newsroom experience. I was paid N250 per story and to earn a token N1000, I must publish 4 stories per week. It was a nasty experience!
At the end of the interview, ComSec officials did not cut off the line from London end and I overheard all of them laughing. One of them said,
“This Nigerian journalist is the right candidate. He spoke very well and all his published articles and stories are brilliant and out of this world.”
I informed my late mother as I finished the interview and told her, “O wa de ibi ti oloogun ti gbe n sa bayi ooo. I must be selected by fire, by force. This is a breakthrough for everybody in the family.”
My sweet mother of the blessed memory told me not to fear anything because ComSec must surely select ONLY ME out of all the applicants.
The good news arrived but ComSec officials were unable to get to me through my “fake” mobile phone. I only used the mobile for 2 weeks and damaged, no money to even repair it. They even sent me an email but it went to junk mail. One particular evening of June 12th, 2002, I went to my usual CyberCafe at Allen Avenue Ikeja to check my email and one “spirit” told me to check the junk mail(for the first time in my life!).
The first mail I saw in the junks was with the headline, “Congratulations, You’re the Winner of the Commonwealth Media Internship Award 2002.”
Winner for where? Abi na dream, film trick or reality? Aye mojuba oooo. I was asked to either accept or reject the London offer(Why I go reject the offer? Dem swear for me from village?I dey craze for head?Se ori mi daaru ni?) and also provide a reliable address to send visa-processing documents because ComSec already passed my details to British High Commission in Lagos.
To cut the long story short, I got my first British visa/Work Permit and also my flight ticket(Virgin Atlantic) free of charge. I was directed by ComSec to go to the Virgin Atlantic office inside the Lagos Sheraton Hotel to pick my free e-ticket.
I broke the “breakthrough” news to my parents to come to Lagos from Abeokuta and accompany me to the airport. Some friends also witnessed the airport “show.”
I informed my employer (The Monitor Newspapers) and it was a shocking surprise for some “bad belle” editors who tried to discourage me from journalism. While in London, I started writing my “London Diary” column every Saturday.
Did I positively touch the lives of family members, friends, and people around me since my first day in a foreign land? The answer is YES.
Did I sacrifice many things to reduce the hardship and pains of people around me since my first day abroad? The answer is YES.
Am I really a responsible role model for the younger generations? The answer is YES.
On July 18th, 2002, I stepped forward my right foot to enter a commercial aircraft for the first time in my life. Mission Accomplished!
I used to visit Lagos airport in the 1990s, just to look at the sky, dreaming of flying to a foreign country one day.
Omowura Ayinla’s music quickly occupied my mouth, “A bi London ti e wi ti ya, to ba ti ya, ko si ifoya fun awon elegbe ee…”
My name was displayed at the arrival hall of London Heathrow Airport by ComSec officials. I was lodged in a posh hotel in the Bayswater area of London as a Commonwealth African Scholar.
Aye mi oo, Oyinbo country sweet ooooo. Me and dem no dey for the same category oooo as Abami Eda talk am. Respect my brain now while still alive!
Thank you, Commonwealth Secretariat. I am eternally grateful till my last day on earth, even in my grave, I cannot forget your assistance.Ese modupe ooo.
***Dare Lasisi, Commonwealth Journalist writes from the UK University of the year, University of Strathclyde, Faculty of Science, Department of Computer & Information Sciences, Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom.