This week’s subject of Navigating Nigeria is Matilda*, a 24-year old author who spoke to Citizen on her failed japa attempts, switching passions and churches, and the harsh reality of getting a job in Nigeria even with a first class degree.
Growing up, what did you want to be?
I’ve always felt from a young age I was meant to study medicine. When I was in primary school, my father brought home a calendar that had cartoon characters with different professions. There was a lawyer, engineer, accountant and doctor. I didn’t like the first three characters, only the doctor. And that was it.
Just like that
Yeah. Going forward from that point though, I had to really convince myself I wanted to become a doctor till it became an obsession. In secondary school, I was adamant I would study medicine or nothing. Anyway, JAMB happened and you know how that usually is. I had to find another way to study medicine so I chose to go through the direct entry format by doing a diploma at the University of Lagos (UNILAG).
That’s a familiar story
Midway through my diploma, I was tempted to change to physiotherapy. It wasn’t too much of a departure from medicine and it had a lower cutoff mark. But I eventually decided to stick with medicine because I was too lazy to go through the stress of changing courses.
Diploma was such a trying time for me. I stayed in a bad hostel with six other people who weren’t supposed to be there. My roommates had squatters and it was so congested. This made me uncomfortable because I cherish my privacy. And then there was terrible power supply, it was so bad.
To make matters worse, some road workers broke a connecting pipe that delivered water to the hostel. So we had gutter water flowing through the pipes. Everywhere stank. I had to go fetch water from two streets away which was a struggle. All of that contributed to emotional stress for me. In the end, I finished with 13 points out of 16 in my diploma. It was a good result, but not enough to get me into medicine.
I was lowkey happy. I was sad small o, but not that sad. At that point, I didn’t want to spend seven years in school anymore. It was just a lot of work I didn’t think I was willing to go through. I’m not about that life.
When I tried to change my course of study to cell biology, UNILAG gave me botany instead. And I was like, “Fine, I’ll do it like that.”
I figured that without doing a medicine-related course, it would be harder to get a good job in this country. So, my sole focus was finishing with a first class. I worked really hard and did side jobs tutoring people. But even that sef, na wa because people don’t pay tutors that well. I was also a mentor to some students. There was this programme in school that allowed us to teach students for a semester which I participated in. In the end, I finished with a first class.
I enjoyed botany even though Nigeria doesn’t give a hoot about it. The reality is a good job for a botanist is hard to come by here. There’s an expectation that everything will be smooth once you get a first class. I thought I’d apply to different schools overseas and further my education. But that didn’t happen because UNILAG kept messing with my transcript.
I don’t know how they kept fumbling it. In 2019, I got admitted into the University of Westminster but it didn’t come with a scholarship so I had to leave it. I applied to the University of Alabama but I didn’t get sufficient funding so I had to let that one go too. I applied and got a scholarship to the University of Illinois, but UNILAG didn’t send my transcript on time so I missed that opportunity.
In 2020, I applied to four Swedish universities that offered scholarships. I personally went to the transcript office this time to follow things all the way. I explained the urgency of the situation and paid all the fees that were required. Still, they never delivered it. I think they sent it to the wrong institutions or so.
Sigh. What options did you explore?
There’s this thing called World Education Services (WES) where you can send your transcript when you want to apply to foreign universities. But to do that, your school has to send the transcript directly to WES.
There are backdoor payments to expedite the process, but even that didn’t work out for me. I didn’t have any legal steps I could take because this problem affects almost everyone. I went to the department of student records to get it fixed but it wasn’t, even till today. You could submit an unofficial transcript at the beginning but you’d still need the official one to process your admission.
Wahala. How did that make you feel?
I was mentally exhausted and really fixated on leaving the country because I believed everything about my life would be fine when I did. I have this nerve illness I’ve been battling that subjects me to episodes of extreme pain. It makes it very difficult to eat, drink or even touch my face.
I was hoping I’d be able to treat myself better if I left Nigeria. Instead, I was left frustrated when that didn’t happen. I also come from a deeply religious background, one of the firebrand churches I won’t name. I started having this mentality that this was the work of village people. It seems like a joke now but it was a serious issue then. I was getting panic attacks and anxiety because of the pressure from my church that felt my whole situation was a spiritual problem.
How are things for you now?
I had to tell my mum I wanted to switch churches but she was against it. It was when I broke down in tears and told her I really had to leave that she understood the gravity of the situation.
The new church made me see things from a new perspective. My pastor made me understand everything happening was just “life, lifing”. From then on, I started having more peace. I got a better job and my mindset changed. I was no longer pressed to japa — it’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen. Before, when I’d see stories of people who have japaed, I’d be a bit sad. But now, I’m just happy for them. And I finally feel like I’m moving forward with my own life too.
What lessons do you take away from your experience?
Basically, you shouldn’t just do things for the sole purpose of pleasing your parents. I chose medicine partly due to pressure as a first child and because of the prestige that comes with being a doctor. My parents sacrificed a lot to send me to school so it felt like a great way to repay them. It was also a primary motivation for wanting to travel out, to make money and provide for them.
When I really think about it, if I had pursued botany to the fullest I’d have been a researcher or lecturer and I really don’t want to get stuck in a lab for the rest of my life. I’d be bored.
That’s a valid fear
But I have peace now as a writer. I tell stories that matter and do things that give me a sense of achievement. When I see my stories out there, I feel proud that I’ve done this. I’ve always admired writers from afar, like, “How are you able to express all these beautiful things from your head?” I do that now and it makes me feel accomplished.
*Name changed to protect their identity