Chief Mrs Helen Awunah is an astute educationalist and administrator. A former Principal of Padodads Harmony Secondary School Makurdi, the Tiv traditional title holder is a woman of virtue and has raised a lot of children, who are trail blazers in the society. She recently marked her 68 birthday. In this interview with LUCY ACKANYON, the highly religious woman spoke about why marriages are failing and how best government can improve the standard of education.
At 68 years, how would you say life has treated you?
I must say I thank God Almighty for bringing me into this world and also giving a life that is very fulfilling. A lot of people say I have made a lot of impact on their life. I think that is the fulfillment. If you come into this life and impact on people, that is fulfilling.
Tell us something about your family background.
I was born into the family of Vaatia of Mbadede, Mbera in Vandeikya Local Government Area. My father happened to be one of those early educated ones and was enlightened so I was sent to school very early and by 17 years I completed my Secondary education. I immediately got married to my husband, Chief Padopads Awunah of blessed memory, from Gwer East LGA. So I am Gwer by Marriage.
How did you meet your husband?
I was holidaying in Makurdi. I like music, especially traditional and so during Christmas time, women groups used to organise music and get together and so I went to one of those. He too attended, and in 1971 we got married. My first daughter came in 1973. That time we didn’t know anything about family planning so we kept having babies. I had up to seven of them. Nowadays, you people say life is too difficult, but yes I agree with you. Those days many of us had up to 5, 6, 7 or 8 children.
Despite marrying at a very early age (17 years) and started raising children almost immediately, you successfully traversed through your academic dream. How did you achieve that?
My husband was a very progress man and he loved education. So initially, I wanted to go in and do public administration because the vogue then was to come out and be a big name in the ministry but he prevailed on me to go into teaching. By 1973 he had started Padopads Harmony Secondary School and two years later, he also established Ternamdoo Nursery and Primary School. So I felt the need to go and acquire that teacher’s knowledge so to go and help run the schools.
Schooling and raising children was not easy. At some point I had to take the whole family and live in Katsina-Ala where I was schooling doing my NCE because he too was elected into the federal House of Representatives, then in Lagos so we couldn’t cope so I had to take all of them to Katsina-Ala. I was able to cope very well.
Many people say long distance relationships are not good, but you and your husband had one. How did you manage it?
I thank God that at that time he was a grass root politician so he used to come home quite often. Sometime he would come and pass to Katsina-Ala to see us. And whenever I was on holidays, I went to see him to spend the holiday with the children.
At your age, you have seen much so what remarkable difference do you see between girls of nowadays and those of your generation?
Well, the difference really is that girls now have more freedom. And we didn’t have that much time like girls now have. They visited our parents more than us. We took our parents’ advice on who to marry. I must say today girls are more creative than us because we had many job opportunities at our disposal . Nowadays, the young people have no jobs so they are forced to become creative.
Many people feel today girls lack manners, her worth has dropped compared to your generation. What do you think?
Value is in the mind of the people and even today as that day, we were really restricted. Nowadays the girl has early education, is more outgoing, they shouldn’t expect her to come and be timid like who we were and of course, for the girl nowadays, there are so many challenges. In my time, the man took full responsibility of the house even if u were not working it didn’t matter but today, because of ego, hardship, men expect the woman too to contribute to running the family. Of course, if you lock the girl inside the house, she will not know how to contribute to the family and because they are more familiar now with their suitor, they tend to think that they have lost value. They are wayward but they still make good wives.
Compared to your generation, divorced cases seem to be higher, what do you think is contributing to this?
My own generation’s parents were involved right from the onset. So they were able to caution us when we were going wrong. Nowadays, the young people know one another far away from us. Until when they just come to announce Mummy I have brought a husband. Mummy I have found a wife. We do not even know the wife and then the next thing is marriage preparation, wedding preparation and many times they are in a hurry but while in courtship, they don’t know that the behavior of the man and the woman is not the same thing to the behavior of her true behaviour, he tends to hide weaknesses from her part so if u assume that after marriage, the same person you knew then with those characteristics, sometimes u are disappointed. That is why you find some girls saying no, this is not the same person I married. Because of that sometimes, marriages fall apart but even then, they can manage to listen to good counsel, accept to forgive and tolerate. If you marry your friend, certainly there must be disagreements, but you consider many things before you decide to leave the marriage.
You made it to the top as an educationist, did you expect it?
Well I had a smooth career. There was no discrimination as such but people felt that teaching, nursing were for women yet they didn’t want to give women leadership roles. Until recently, most principalship of schools was mostly a men’s affairs. But now, women are even better and are running those institutions. So as a woman, you can be anything you want.
How did you start your career?
After my NCE, I came to teach in Padopads Harmony Secondary School. After my first degree, I came back and continued. After my first degree, after two, I was made the principal. I was principal for 21 years before I decided to retire.
I was a teacher through and because the secondary school was a grand aided school which means government has a share in it, government pays the staff, when I became the staff of the college I became a government staff, I was been paid my salary and when the time came, when I retired, when I was up to 60 years. So I am a retiree.
What would you say in achievement or your experience of life as the most memorable?
I think the most memorable experience in my life was getting my first degree. I really looked up to that and eventually in 1988 I got my first degree. All my life I have always loved education. So I had my first degree, second decree and third. The third was a mistake though I shouldn’t have gone back to school. I would have stopped at that because I worked so hard but I went anyway and I thank God. Many people never thought of going for masters very few did because jobs were available so nobody cared for higher degrees.
Tell us about your primary education.
I had a different primary school life because my father was a native authority worker, but somehow, after this first republic, civil servants used to identify with politics and he was in the opposition so his job was terminated. So it became very difficult for us to pay the meager fees. I thank God that my father’s first child came to pick some of us and took care of our fees. So I was able to finish my primary school in St Williams Primary School Lafia and that year,1967, Government Secondary, Lafia was established and it was a kind of experimental college because that was the first term for educational government. We were able to finish. Then life was not so difficult. If you had nobody to pay your fees, nobody bothered you. The fees were quite meager. So I was able to go to school. My husband took care of my higher education. He really wanted people to be educated. He was very keen about people’s education. I graduated from the University of Jos in 1988. I decided to do a sandwich programme with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I graduated in1996 and enrolled at the Benue State University and obtained my third degree in 2013 in guidance and counselling.
Education is the bedrock of development of any individual and we need to take education of children very seriously. Government needs to go an extra mile. The budget for education usually is too meager from all indication and you will see that the government of Nigeria is not very keen about education because the UN specifies a budget of 26 per cent for education but here, you hardly see budget of education even getting up to ten. That is why you have funding crisis in universities and colleges and schools. When education is not properly funded, the learner does not get the best so somehow, we are producing half baked grade and people are complaining but that is where the problem is. There is policy summersault. Today is this policy. A few years after is that policy. Till today, Nigeria has not got a permanent and verified education policy so it is a problem but if they can do that, and also increase funding, the sector will give value to the society
Looking at you one would guess you are 10 years younger than your current age. What is the secret of your young looks?
There is no secret really. It is just take life easy. Don’t take everything like the world is coming to an end and then you put God first. Your prayers always call on God. Things are getting very difficult but if you take it as if life is coming to an end, that is where you will put stress, besides if you have one or two friends to confide in sometimes, if you share what is bordering you, you find that a problem shared is a problem half solved. I advise the young people today that even though life is difficult, they should take it one day at a time. And stop looking at the artificial life some Nigerians are living. Building multiple houses and buying multiple cars. It is all vanity. Take slowly what you can do. Don’t over burden yourself. Maybe that is the secret because many people keep telling me that I am looking younger.