‘A lot of women allow society shape who we are’
Kemi Oloidi is the author of Up and About – Memoir of an Expatriate Spouse, which tells her experiences traversing the world with her husband. Married to an expatriate, Oloidi who recently turned 60, in this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, shares her journey in over two decades living across countries, with tips for younger women who find themselves in the expatriate life.
Can you take us to your educational background?
I had my secondary school education at Saint Timothy College, Onike Yaba, that was after attending Federal Government School, which didn’t work for me, as I could not stay in a boarding school.
After my secondary education, I worked with the Federal Audit Department for about three years. And then, I decided to go back to school where I had my National Certificate in Education (NCE) IN 1988, before I got married.
Share with us some experiences living the expatriate life?
Our first assignment was in Uzbekistan, a socialist country; it’s a controlled economy. I heard that there used to be black students in the past, but to be honest, a lot of people see me and scream. So, it was difficult making friends.
One day, someone approached me and said she had a weird question to ask, she inquired if we wear clothes in my country, and I just told her no, that I came to their country naked and I got my first dress at their airport. And she believed me and even pitied.
Then I offered to invite her for tea, when she came, I brought out my photo album and didn’t tell her anything. As she flipped the pages, she saw me in my beautiful dresses, pictures of my family, my wedding dress and she looked up and asked if this was me in my country and I said yes. And she went, ‘Africa is beautiful.’ And guess what, she became my ambassador and told everybody she knew about me.
Suddenly, everybody wanted to be my friend; they will wave at me; they will offer to give me tomatoes. Tomato is like fruit for them. And it was summer they eat a lot of tomatoes, like you will eat apple, which is how I became a superstar in the small city. So, you need to find a way to break whatever bias that is in there. I don’t think it will be that bad in this era of technology, unlike my days. But then, you need to prepare yourself, because you will still find a pocket of them that will say, ‘don’t touch me, don’t sit next to me,’ and all the rest.
How were you able to deal with culture shock and the other eventualities that come with being in a different environment?
That killed me and some times, I will breakdown. We spent three and half years in the first country we lived in, Uzbekistan. At some point, I wasn’t going out anymore; people want to see what I am buying, hear me talk. So, I told my husband I didn’t want to go shopping anymore; he took over with the aid of our driver and housemaid at the time.
By the time we moved to Kenya, I thought, this was also an African country like ours, but then I realised that East Africa and West Africa are poles apart. I discovered that other than plantains and Ewedu, the Kenyans eat like the Europeans. They have their maize and beans that they cook together; no oil, no pepper, nothing. They just cook maize, beans and they enjoy it; they serve it at parties. We don’t dress alike either, but we were able to manage as a sizable Nigerian population in Kenya and we made it worth the while for each other.
What has been your highest point as you turn 60?
I remember when I turned 50, I tell you, I cried the whole time, because I looked at myself. My children and my husband organised a dinner for me, and I sat on the table and I just started crying. My husband and kids were shocked, and I look at myself and say I haven’t achieved anything other than following their dad. I have nothing to my name; I think I just wasted my life and now I’m 50.
And my daughter said, ‘mum, how can you say this? Look at us. Look at my brother. You have raised us. Are you not proud of us? Look at your husband, you have supported him; he’s successful in his career. How can you say you have not gained anything? How can you say you have wasted your life? Please don’t do this to yourself. You have achieved everything.’ My husband couldn’t say anything; he was shocked.
Then, later in the day, he called me and said, ‘if you continue to think like this, then you won’t know how to be grateful. What is it that we don’t have? We are healthy above all. What do you want? You want to be the CEO in a company? And to be honest, I was carrying that idea before he voiced it out that day. I have been thinking, why am I jobless? And then I realised that as humans, we seem to focus on what we don’t have.
So, for my 60th, my husband said I must have a party, even though I am not a party person.
The Lord has been good to me in all areas. Wherever way I want to look at it, the Lord has been good to me. I have a stable family and nobody is nursing any ill health, I am grateful to God.
So, how long did it take to put your thoughts into a book?
I started thinking about it in 2012 when my daughter told me I should consider putting my thoughts in a book. In 2017, I decided to sit down and write. Because at that time, we already knew when we were retiring. So, I just picked the countries one after the other and penned down them down.
You have been married for over 30 years, in an age where marriages are failing, what has kept yours?
To be honest, the first thing is God. The Bible says the people that know their God will carry out great exploits. Then, you try and find your own, know your limits. So, first of all, you have to be confident in yourself to have a stable home. A lot of us allow our society shape who we are. Be yourself; don’t allow anybody to push you, don’t listen to what people say that much. Know what is working for you. People will tease my husband saying he doesn’t womanise or drink.
He is a good man, he is listening, but he does drive me crazy, because he is a very strict person. For me, I will say prayer is what made my marriage or what makes it still standing, because we talked of divorce, I will not lie. There are times I said, ‘listen, I don’t think this is working for me,’ especially in the early stages – the first five years. I’m still praying for my family. I’m not that fantastic myself, but I know that prayer works. I pray a lot.
What key advise will you give to a young expatriate wife who finds herself in the same position you were over twenty years ago?
There are a couple of advice for a young expatriate wife; if it’s before you leave as an expatriate wife, I will say count your costs, do your cost analysis. Find out if you will be able to get a job where you are going. If you are not sure you will get a job, discuss with your husband, what the allowances will be, because in my own case, I just got promoted with an increment when we had to move. So I told him, ‘Oga, I’m going to leave my job, how do I live, I can’t be asking for matches money all the time.’ And he said, ‘how much is your salary,’ I told him, and he said, ‘I’ll pay you that at the end of the month.’ Then, he was paying me my salary.
So, you need to be honest with your income; a woman without financial power is not good. And when I think I need an increment, I let him know and he does. My sister told me even if her husband decides to pay her all the money in the world, she cannot stay without working, hence you need contentment to trade my path. That is why I said, do your cost analysis and know if you can be a stay-at-home mum, because in some countries, you are not allowed to work without a proper documentation as it will require cost implications for the company, which should be paid to the government. You will also consider what kind of schools your children will be attending and what is the company’s contribution to it, including car, housing. Don’t let the euphoria of going abroad overshadow the reality.
In Nigeria, you have your support system, your friends, family and all the rest. Abroad, nobody send you, you will be alone until you are able to settle and make friends, but initial stage is usually hard. After you have passed that stage, you start thinking, how you can improve yourself.
A woman should have a life even after being married, what is your advice to young women in this regard?
Find your niche. We need fun in life; you have to find what makes you happy. I have friends whose husbands were nothing to write home about. So, I always tell them, ‘in life, you have to be happy. Find something that makes you happy and do it, we can’t be serious all the time.’ Continue to pray if you’re still together, pray works.
If you’re a single mother, still pray; pray for your children, pray for yourself, pray for ex. I’ve seen people who are divorced for years and they still come together; the marriage is fantastic. If you are single and not married, you are looking to marry a good man, keep praying, I’m sure your time will come.
I was the last person to be married amongst my folks of friends. Commit your ways unto the Lord and He will order your steps. Trust Him with all your hearts. Do what makes you happy but don’t leave God out of the equation. There’s more to life than husband and wife.