Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna is a lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University. She is the first female professor in Mass communication in Nigeria, a former Commissioner for Budget and Economic Planning, Anambra State, in the former Governor Peter Obi’s administration. Besides serving in the university as an educationist, Professor Okunna has also served as an administrator in the public/political arena. In this discussion with ADA NWANAGUM, the Consultant to the United Nations Agencies expresses her passion for her job, her love for every woman who survives the Nigerian culture and her challenge as a role model to other women. Excerpts:
Being as old as I am and as long as my tenure has been, I can say l have had a long and very fulfilling career and life. I think I had been privileged family wise because my father, Mr Joshua Obinali Adimora from Uga town, was a very distinguished civil servant. He served in the local government administration and rose to the pinnacle of his career, becoming the first black District Officer (D.O.) in Aguata area, back in the fifties, during the colonial rule. He was very intelligent and became the white man’s interpreter which was quite privileged. I also remember our life as a family in Ekwulobia where I was born, at the Aguata County Council where my father was the head of the council (what is now known as the Local Government Chairman). As his children, we were privileged. I remember back then in the late fifties when my father was the only one who had a transistor radio where everyone within would come to listen to programmes and news
I am from Uga town in Aguata Local Government by birth and married to Dr. Eric Okunna Eze, from Ukpo town in Dunukofia Local Government. He is a medical practitioner who owns a private hospital in Enugu State called Ricstella Hospital and Maternity.
I began my primary school at St John’s Primary School, Ekwulobia (an Anglican Mission School), and at the end of 1959 my dad was transferred to Port-Harcourt municipal council where he became the Deputy Town Clerk (second to the highest authority, Town Clerk). I then went to finish my primary education at Township School, Port-Harcourt. After my primary education I attended Anglican Girls Grammar School, now known as Girls High School, Awkunano for my secondary education after which l proceeded to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for my first degree. I got married to my husband immediately after my Youth Service. Later, l was admitted to the University of Leicester in England, Center for Mass Communication Research, for my master’s degree. I had wanted to continue there but I couldn’t because I had to come back home to build the family. I obtained my PhD at the University of Lagos, Mass Communication Department. Before then (about 1998), I think all PhDs were studied abroad. The likes of Akinfela, Shobowale, Nneli, and others who had PhD in Mass communication studied and obtained the degrees abroad, mainly from the US. My set was the first PhD in Mass communication from any Nigerian university. Since then I haven’t looked back. It has been a very challenging but a rewarding career. I began teaching mass communication at the Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Enugu. From there I was transferred to Nnamdi Azikiwe University in 1994 and had remained till date. As l always say, it has been a challenging but rewarding career.
I married quite early and God blessed me quite early, like my parents. I have four wonderful children, two sons and four daughters and they all have good education. I have a medical doctor, two engineers, a pharmacist, a computer scientist and a public health administrator (a PhD in Public Health).
As we prepare to bow out, so to say, I have established what I call Professor Okunna’s Mentees’ Group. It is a mentoring group of young lecturers of about 10 universities across the nation where we are doing a big book like a teaching text for media and communication and many of these young people have written chapters as contributions.
Growing up was fun and disciplined because my parents were great disciplinarians especially my Mum. I am the second of six children in the family (4 girls, 3 boys) and my elder sister, Professor Akachi Adimora Ezigbo is also a professor of Literature and English and a writer too. My dad and I were particularly close. My mum w as very stringent because she taught my dad was being a bit soft. My father believed that I was a reincarnation of a very close relative (his aunty), so he had this soft spot for me and would always side with me in any quarrel, augment or scolding from my mum. My father believed in girl-child education which wasn’t the case in those days, so he trained all of us and for his faith in us as women, we rewarded him with very good results. At the risk of not sounding modest, I don’t remember ever emerging second in my class except once in my secondary school and the principal, now Mrs Joy Mmuo from Nimo, thoroughly scolded me in the presence of the entire school. Then during the WAEC, I had grade 1 distinction and had the best result in my set. So all together I think life has been good to me.
Fears or challenges
Honestly, I don’t remember having any fear while growing up. I was confident because my dad was always behind me all the way. My mother also, even though she was not highly educated because she was in Primary Four (4) when my dad met her. But, I rarely call her a full-time house wife because she had a bread industry that produced the best bread which everybody then at Ekwulobia must eat. She also had an institute where virtually every young person who married a wife around Aguata axis would bring her for training either in sewing or baking or housekeeping management. After marrying her, my father sent her to St Monica’s Ogbunike where they train the wives of priests and top government officials on housekeeping and house management. So, I won’t call her a house-wife but she worked from home and she was a mentor to other women. So, I had no fear at all because I worked hard not to disappoint my parents. I was very intelligent, I don’t have to pretend about it. So I was bringing home good results and I was well behaved both morally, spiritually, academically and otherwise. I didn’t have any fear of derailing or disappointing my parents’ expectations.
I would say both of them, but my dad takes the highest percentage. My mother was a model in hardwork, my dad was so committed to his job. He worked hard, leaving a good legacy while my mum managed the home front exceptionally well. She was always there, taking charge of things. But, because I was particularly close to my dad, everything I did as a child was to please my dad, and I think I did please him and that made me a very happy child.
Childhood dreams and fantasies
I had once thought I was going to be a nurse and I even went into the training for nurses at UNTH, Enugu, after my school certificate. But when I got there I knew it was not my calling. It was while staying there that I took the entrance examination to the University of Nigeria (UNN) and as I began to teach I knew I wanted to create knowledge and to do research and the only place to do this will be at a higher institution and I always knew I was going to end up as a lecturer. Nursing was not my calling even though I loved it. I also knew that teaching will not just be at the primary or secondary school level but at a level where I am going to create knowledge and do research and I think it was just there, the desire to get to the top.
Greatest career or life-threatening challenge
Serving as a role model for young women is a challenge. You see, when I became the first female professor of mass communication in Nigeria, I was there for more than 10 years alone as the only female professor in Nigeria and that means all eyes were focused on me. People were looking at me, trying to see how I was going to behave, how I was going to perform. Being invited everywhere or anywhere, people looked up to you for emulation, encouragement, and mentoring. This was a challenge not because I was afraid but because l was the center of attention as the field was male dominated. My fear then was that the students we were training would be looking at their lecturers as a role models and if there were no female role models they would have a male-oriented outlook on journalism. It was a challenge, so we wrote many papers to encourage women to come into journalism education. Today, I think the women have taken over because I think in almost every department now they are having more women than men. I cannot think of any other challenge. My male colleagues were co-operative. They respected me and still respect me. There was no acrimony, no bad feelings, no rivalry and no strings. I really want to appreciate all my male colleagues especially those from my generation upwards and those likely below us whom I have worked with.
Greatest achievement so far
Hmmm… teaching for so long and watching young people strive higher under my mentorship. You see, a first year student comes into your class knowing practically nothing. Through your mentorship, your teaching, your knowledge, your own intelligence you mould them and see them blossoming in confidence, in knowledge and they graduate. I think that fulfillment is more to me. It is a tragedy the way parents and most private school owners push the child into the university nowadays. It has become a competition over whose child will become the youngest graduate, thereby exposing the child to the dangers of the university life at a very tender age of 15- 16 years or there about. Tell me, what does a child of 15+ know about life and its challenges? What does a girl child of that age know about being herself or having self esteem, confidence or carriage in a country that does not value women? As I keep telling my colleagues, the time has come for every lecturer to be both a parent and a teacher, because the children are so young and their parents push them into the university where they come and mess their lives up. Parents should sit-up. They should make sure they visit their children even in the university not only in the secondary school. Training a child is not only by providing their food or paying their school fees. So, my joy stems from having a mentoring group where I can academically mentor the young people and I am hoping that my own life will be some kind of model for them to emulate even though it has not been perfect, but I can beat my chest any day and say ‘comparably I have done well’.
Honestly, I cannot think of any because by nature I am not an impulsive person. Before I do things I think them through, plan them, so that I won’t say that there was anything I missed and I am not somebody one can push around like that. I can’t say that there is anything I was pushed to do. One reason why I have not had regrets or find my life too challenging is because I try to do the things I love doing and have capacity to do and with that, I see everything flowing without tension.
Role model/ source of inspiration
In academics, my sister, Professor Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, who has done well in her career as a lecturer in several universities in Nigeria and as a writer has inspired me a lot even though she is my sister. In the world generally, Late Professor Dora Akunyili is a role model to me. She was honest and in her was a woman who was fearless and courageous to make a difference in spite of all the risks in her career industry. For me she was a trail blazer. In industry, I like Stella Okoli, the CEO of Emzor Pharmaceuticals for going into that career as a woman and floating that kind of company. In politics, I admire Senator Uche Ekwunife very much.Here is a woman relatively young who has gone into a male-dominated career to compete and win. Honestly, I admire her courage.
I want to be remembered as a woman who was born into a culture that is difficult for women and walked her way through this culture through diligence and commitment and rose to the pinnacle of her career as mother, wife, woman, teacher and mentor.
Advice to younger generation
I think most women live their lives the way they think their lives will please men. Most women have been living their lives for men to be happy even when they (the men) are not their husbands. They structure their lives in a way that their thinking is always on if their man will like/love what they want to do as at that time. That is why many of them are living fake lives, lives that if they have a choice or courage to choose, they will never go for. I will love every young woman to dream big for herself, have very good objectives in life and work consistently hard towards that destination, have a vision that is laudable and achievable. Do not go and take up something you know you cannot achieve. Work diligently towards arriving at that destination where you will be fulfilled and have no regrets. If you are a woman playing multiple role/career, the best way for you is to be prepared and do the best you can at every minute, accept any help you can get domestically (parents, relative or house help) and move on. The world has changed so every girl should be wise. The intelligence we used to survive in my own time as a young girl may no longer work because the dangers are many. They have to be street-wise and courageous to say No and mean No to men who are selfish. But the only way you can say No to these gullible men is when you have your own sustenance, otherwise, you won’t have the power to say No.