Mrs. Maria Onyilo is a female lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication of the Benue State University, Makurdi. She discusses the journalism profession and the challenges female journalists face in this interview with ENE OSANG.
Teaching is believed to be women’s profession. Did you aspire to be a teacher?
It was not something that I thought of in the first place. It was not like a childhood dream. But while I was waiting to get a job, I had already started teaching in a secondary school; Methodist High School, Makurdi. So, I got a kind of orientation and it is interesting when you work with little children, students when they are not matured yet.
You sit down, somebody comes with a problem and you help out. There is a kind of excitement that comes when students of that level are participating in class. When I started enjoying teaching I told my husband that this one that I am so glued to these students, I see this thing as something I would want to venture into. So, when the opportunity came that I could apply for this job, I said fine and good.
You are a dedicated lecturer, what keeps you going?
I must say it has been well working in a school environment. The background knowledge I got while teaching in a secondary school before getting a lecturing job really, really helped me.
And I also bring something to the teaching profession, I bring the motherhood aspect to it because the students that I teach today, I see them as my siblings, I see them as my friends, I see them as even colleagues and I see them as my children.
So, the moment you bring these things to bare and you listen to them and they also listen to you, your job becomes much, much easier. I mean that is how I have enjoyed this profession for this long.
I am a very determined woman, focused and ambitious. Like I earlier said, teaching was not my dream but when I got into it and saw how I was able to assist younger people, especially in doing right, I began to love the job and never taught of leaving it again. I love to make impact and I was impacting lives and that made me proud.
I came into this department and was the only female lecturer in the department for about three years before other women came in. I worked very hard to ensure that I didn’t disappoint women; I don’t give excuses, I am committed to my job and family and other activities I found myself, it’s just about planning and being organised and God has blessed me with that.
What are the major differences in teaching in the secondary school and the higher institution?
Although the environment differs, with the little experience of teaching in the secondary school I had, I think it was easier for me to go into university environment.
However, the university environment is not friendly as the secondary school environment; because one: the secondary school environment is friendly because you have rules, you have regulations guiding the students. But in the university environment you discover that most of the students are either close to 16 or above 16 and even 18 and the constitution says that as soon as you get there, you have become independent. So, you discover that all those things that maintain discipline in secondary school, such as corporal punishment, are not there. So, as soon as you even walk into the class, a comment from just one student puts you off and I face that challenge a lot.
Sometimes, the time they come to class is an issue. Somebody could just hop into the class in the middle of what you are trying to explain and you, loss your trend of thought. There is also the side distractions.
As a female lecturer in the department, how do you male colleagues relate to you?
The relationship I have enjoyed within these years and within the confines of the university environment has been so wonderful, so cordial.
You know it depends on how you place yourself that you earn respect. To be respected, you must at least place yourself where you will be accorded that respect.
When I came into this department, as the first female lecturer in the department, my colleagues started calling me the First Lady of the department. Of course, it was almost after three years that I got other female colleagues. But it was not easy being in the midst of men or what I will call the ‘den of men’.
However, I came in with a mindset that one day, Mrs. Onyilo will be heard, she will be respected and she will even attain the strides as men.
It has been wonderful because I am this person that enjoys learning. In every little environment that I find myself, I enjoy learning. I enjoy improving myself on daily basis. And so, when I came here I had to study the environment. Those that were in my sequence, I got very close to them to know what it takes to be a lecturer, not just going to class. Even when you go to the class, there is a way you carry yourself, if not you will be swayed by all the challenges in the classroom.
But lo and behold, late Dr. Nwawone, was there to assist me, my former Head of Department was there, my colleagues and I followed vividly.
I want to also remember the late Dr. Samson Sambe. He was a supporting pillar because I remember the first piece we wrote in advertising. We wrote it together and he was a source of encouragement. He said if others are doing it, Mrs. Onyinlo you can do it and I said if I must do it, I must do it with somebody that has got the experience and he was there; he offered the experience and no regrets at all.
How would you assess women journalists in Nigeria?
In journalism, when you look at the West, you discover that women are more in number. Someone would say maybe because of equality or equal rights.
Yet another person would say promotion rights, some would say the packaging. And those women you find in journalism, you find them in daring places including war zones. You find them where there is heavy gun fire and they are reporting what is going on there.
So, I would want to say maybe, it’s the environment. The other day I was reading in the papers and somebody said it is not about the law or equality; it is also about looking at the population of women. We are many, women in the whole wide world. I think the number, when you want to compare them with the men folk you discover that we are many and someone will say maybe because of the percentage, somebody will want to hear more from the women.
Someone also say that maybe because they put another angle to the report; those are the arguments that are put forward. But I would want to say that there are so many things. In as much as women want to go into journalism, we should ask ourselves: I am a woman, how many of us will take up daily opportunities? How many of us will want to go to the daring places? How many of us will our husbands allow us to do that job?
We should be asking ourselves certain questions. How many of us will our families release? When you compare the Western world and ours, it is like selfless service there. Journalism to me is like selfless service; you are rendering it because you enjoy it. And then in the face of that heat, a woman is not even bothered if she dies.
Even if she is hurt by the bullet, of course, she will be remembered and she will be given a heroic burial. Outside that, she will be remembered and her name may even go into the Guinness Book of Records; that is what they cherish.
What do we cherish in our society here? We should be asking ourselves. Do we cherish fame? Do we cherish excellence? There are so many things that we cherish. But here, it is sad because even when you look at the abuses, you look at how they clamp down on media houses, how your rights are being trampled upon, the way you are handled even when you are on your official engagements, they beat you up, they destroy your camera and the rest, then I ask: how many women can stand that heat?
If the men are battered and locked up, and they are the heads of the families, how many women can stand being battered even if they enjoy the job? Come to think of it, this work that you do are you insured?
So, let me ask you (sitting before me here) are you insured? Is there something that when you leave tomorrow your people will fall back and say yes, this is what you lived for and so let my daughter take up from there or my wife? There is no insurance. So, you become like a martyr; you want to die like a martyr? And then how are you remembered? We know of journalists that have lost their lives in the course of their duties.
What are the major challenges women face in different professions?
The first problem women face is that we stereotype ourselves. I will like to say it is difficult for us to embrace and appreciate ourselves and that is sad. I do not know where this thing came from. Maybe it is jealousy, maybe it is threats I do not want to call it anything but we women are own problems. And if we are our own problem, how far can we go if we don’t encourage each other, if we do not encourage one another? We can’t go far.
Religion is also there to pull us back. When you go to the religious houses, how many per cent of women do you see there? We are the praying pillars; we are the people looking for this and that. When you go to the church and take statistics, we are the ones doing it.
Again, if you are a woman, go to the North, you are supposed to be inside. If you are even a woman as a Catholic, you have boundaries so you are being pulled back.
Talk about culture, which too is not friendly. Our cultural practices are not friendly. Even till now, there are homes that when you have a visitor even in enlightened homes, you don’t sit with your visitor, you don’t shake hands. In the Western world you can embrace, you can even peck but here you do it and it is a problem. The man will say: ‘you are getting too close to this person, I don’t like it.’
And in journalism if you want to get the facts, if you want to get the truth, you will have to dig and dig deep. And how do you dig deep? You will dig by looking for those facts; they don’t come to you. There are ties that you walk and get news but when you want to provide the basic interpretation or you are doing an investigation, you will have to dig very deep. It is unfortunate that even with the freedom of information, you get to an office today as a woman you cannot get it and they will frustrate you.
How can women surmount these challenges?
The important question we must ask ourselves is how many of us are ready to face the frustration that comes with the profession? You can see what is keeping us back and impeding this struggle. When you bring it to this class, women that I see today, a lot of them do not want to be martyrs, they want to enjoy the profession; they want to be seen.
When we wear our head gear, we want to look good, we want to do this, we want to go into fashion and style, we want to report the soft angle; it is the soft point and that is where we want.
Even when I ask my students; I was screening the students, that was about three years ago and somebody walked up to me, one very beautiful young girl. I said how old, she said 17 and I said that is impressive, it is just a good age for you to come into the university. So, why are you into this? She said because I want to be a news caster. To her, casting news is the ultimate; I am telling you. Why do you want to be seen? She said because I want people to see me on television; that is the basic.
And so, if you have this mindset that you want to be seen, nothing again crosses your mind and so you work towards it. Like I said, this journalism is a daring thing and you must have that mind to venture into the daring places; the dark side of life that is what I call it.
One of my lecturers told us that it is not the normal thing that constitutes the news; it is the anomalies, the oddities that constitute it. And so, I will say that the dark side of life constitutes the news. How many of us women want to go the dark side? Even as some people are going on, others want to trail along the line.
What is your take on claims that female journalists are not growing because the men of not giving them the opportunity to grow?
Yes, I want to also put the blame on the men too. How many women have the men encouraged on the job; even when you encourage them, how many of them do you put in positions where they can compete with the men?
Because even when they are in associations, when they are vying for elective position in these associations, the women become treasurers. They are not even vice presidents; they are not the secretaries, and certainly not presidents. So, tell me, the problem also revolves.
And then the environment is not friendly. Somebody, like a Permanent Secretary, would just pick his phone and call you and say: “be in Government House now at midnight.” This is the season and time. You are in bed with your husband and somebody is calling and asks: Where are you going this time of the night? Forget about this job. How lucrative is the job? Everything about this thing is money now. How lucrative is the job in the face of threats, in the face of harassment, in the face of all these evil things?
What advice will you give to female journalists?
To tackle this challenge from the roots, women who intend to go into journalism should know that the profession is a serious career and not just say: Let me become a news caster, and you stop at that point. We must know that a good journalist, whether male or female, goes out and scouts for news; go around and pick up the news and then we come to the television set and people see us and we keep body and soul together.
Women like taking time and I want to say journalism practice is for women that are smart, women that are intelligent, women that are ready to fight against all odds.
Even their looks and attire, when you see them you know that these people are serious. They are not women that tie up and down and say they are running. They are women that will be in their canvass; in their jeans and the shirts and are ready to work.