What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up.
“Man Like” is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
The subject for today’s’ “Man Like” is John Oke. He’s the CEO of Wallets Africa, a digital financial platform for payments. He talks about how men struggle to be providers, how losing his dad shaped him, and what an ideal future looks like to him.
When did you get your first “I’m a man now” moment?
I think it was when my dad died. Regardless of whether you’re poor or rich, most people call their dad if anything happens — if you get into trouble you call your dad. If people are looking for you, you also call your dad. Then my dad died and I was like ehen, if they’re looking for me now, I have to call myself.
My dad wasn’t really active with money so my mum was the go to for money issues. However, if I needed extra money I could always ask my dad. There was also the realisation that I couldn’t do that anymore.
My dad’s death gave me a huge sense of responsibility because I was like “I have to take care of my mum and I can’t afford to finish school without getting a job.
How old were you?
I was 17 turning 18 the month after his death.
The real challenge was that in school I had ideas I wanted to explore. Instead of getting a bank job like my family expected, I wanted to execute ideas. But immediately things changed, I told myself: “chairman you need to get a job.” There was a shift from having dreams to the reality of looking for money because I had to support other people.
Interesting. How much of your salary went to family?
Because of her job, my mum could support herself but I still tried to throw stipends to her because she didn’t really like her job and it was extremely stressful. I’d send out of my salary home, I’d take some for myself and still have some left to save.
Lmao. My relationship with money ehn…I like to make money so I can invest in things that make me more money. Anytime you see me collect “ big money” just know that the money is probably going into buying a computer part or upgrading something that improves my quality of life so that I can make more money.
I’m curious about the first job you ever did?
I was a junior developer for a bank while I was still in university. However, I did a job that showed me that I could still afford to dream and make money.
Tell me about it.
One of my friends’ dad was a Vice Chancellor who we always spoke to about making money. One day, he called us and sent us to his school to see what problems we could fix using software. So we made a digital library management system and that was the first time I made “money” in my life. I was like “wow, I can make money.” That was the first job that welcomed me back to being able to pursue ideas again.
I’m curious if you had time for love, heartbreak and all of that?
Lmao. For the longest time in Uni, I knew how to ignore love because I used to tell myself to focus so that nobody would deceive me. But cupid got me later in life.
That year was bad because I almost died — the babe distracted me from coding. But to be honest, that was a very impactful relationship because it opened me up to a lot of perspectives. See, love is sweet oh. If someone loves you, ah. They’ll go out to buy something for themselves and come back with something for you too. And you’ll just be there smiling. It’s just sad that particular relationship didn’t work out.
Ahan. What happened?
I think we made a pact to talk to each other first thing every morning. It was nice and all for the longest time but at some point we wanted freedom. We were at a point where we were trying to figure out how much of each other we could take. We decided that we were young, we both had ambitions, and we were comfortable on our own.
Wahala for who no get ambition.
I’m curious: what gives you joy?
For me, it’s helping people. It makes me happy when I see that people can access an opportunity because of something I created. Or when I see that a group of people would have gotten lost if something I did wasn’t clear. I feel like this world is hard so if you make someone’s day better, your net effect on the world’s happiness at that time is huge.
Interesting. What has given you joy in recent times?
I think it was #EndSars protests and there were issues with my customers accounts. The initial instruction came that some accounts should be blocked and I was like what’s the offense and I have KYC.
People call it taking a stand and that’s what I did. Everyone was like everything is fine, etc, and the next day I saw that our company’s account was blocked. There’s always a price to pay and I was fine with it because I suffer from police harassment on a daily basis. I was okay with speaking up for something I believe in vs. saving face.
Do you think it was easy to take a stand because you have some form of privilege?
I don’t think so because I have a lot to lose. In fact, I think I was motivated to take a stand because despite all the investment my company had made in Nigeria, my colleagues and I were still being harassed by the police.
What would you say is the hardest part of being a man in Nigeria?
I’d say that the biggest thing is appearance — You want to come off strong, to be seen as a provider. So you don’t send love messages to women or show vulnerability. But you also have to look at it that even though the definition of provider changed from manual labour in farms to warriors to civil servants, they all have one common theme: provision of economic advantage. And it’s because of this wiring that Nigerian men carry the burden of projecting an image of someone who can provide. Although, I feel you can be a provider and all other things separately.
Hmm…Has anything ever threatened your conviction?
I feel like I didn’t have proper economic issues until I became a businessman because it was easier to get money at my 9-5. At least compared to running a business. However, there was this one time in my business life where I was challenged with debts and I had to ask myself: “how will I provide?”
How did it feel?
Everyone loves you when you’re popping. You have money, friends, but lowkey people somehow know when you’re broke.
That’s when you’ll know who’s with you and who’s not. That’s when you’ll realise that family folks who call for stuff are actually confident people and it’s just the fact that you have money that made them not as confident. You notice changes and you’re just like mad oh.
I was going to ask: what’s your relationship like with your mum?
Our relationship is one of understanding. Growing up, my mum was the first person who used to clear me when I stepped out of line. She’d always tell me to be good not only in books but also in character. Another thing she instilled in me was that we were broke, not poor and we were just going through a rough patch. My mum is the kind of person that people come to ask for favours and stuff because of how solid she is. She’s like the ultimate plug.
Can she get me a Canadian Visa?
Before I go, I’d like to know your biggest fear.
Settling in life worries me. I’m always asking myself if I’m settling in any area and constantly wondering how to reverse it. Settling for me feels like I’m telling myself that I can’t do something.
I see. Do you ever worry about money?
No, I don’t. I mean, I grew up broke and I still turned out okay. I’m not worried about money.
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