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Eriye Onagoruwa: Women have mastered the art of putting up a smile to hide challenges

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Eriye Onagoruwa is a creative writer, author, lawyer and financial literacy expert. She is also a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (Nigeria branch). Her passion for women’s causes, especially financial literacy and investment, is the pedestal upon which she addresses some of the largest and most influential women clusters in Nigeria and across Africa. Her first novel, Dear Alaere, is a social commentary on Nigeria that captures a woman’s quest for the much-elusive work-life balance and societal acceptance in the commercial city of Lagos. In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, she spoke on the challenges of career women and the need to strike a balance between work and family.

You’ve been involved in different women related causes, what really drives you?
I am not sure I set out consciously to go the “extra mile” for women’s causes, but I must say that I am passionate about women because so much is expected from us as mothers, wives and career women; a lot of balls that we need to juggle and make a success of. So, it is imperative that we are our own greatest network and support system.

What drives me is an innate desire to make a difference. To be part of someone’s success story, even if it is in the life of just one person. Life is meaningful only when it is lived in the service of others, in the service of humanity.

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Tell us about your world writing. How do you make the ‘magic’ of fiction happen?
Unfettered imagination is one of the guides to the creation of my fictional world. I always say that Lagos and indeed Nigeria generally are a fertile ground for fictional writings; there’s always a story happening somewhere.

Recently, I saw a video of a young man who was filming two men fighting and someone ran up to him, snatched his phone and fled. His friends could be heard asking him in Yoruba: ‘You didn’t know this is Lagos? Sorry oooo.’ From that little incident alone, I began to think of Lagos and the life of a young boy who comes to the city in search of the Nigerian dream and is instead, faced head-on with the harsh reality that life in Lagos. The stories of people intrigue and excite me as well; there’s always something to ignite your creative juices. I am always listening and observing little incidents that happen around me.

Your first novel, Dear Alaere, what really motivated the subject matter?
Dear Alaere explores themes such as patriarchy, sexual harassment and work-life balance through the eyes of a professional lady in the ever-bustling city, Lagos. However, beyond all these, Dear Alaere is a social commentary on Nigeria, its failures and the inherent societal contradictions evident in Lagos. The office is used as a microcosm for Nigeria to highlight the dysfunction we deal with daily.

Regarding the motivation for Dear Alaere, I’ve always wanted to write about Lagos; it is a reflection of life in Nigeria and its prospects. All the themes that Dear Alaere explores are part and parcel of this fabric we refer to as Nigerian life and are relatable to everyone irrespective of gender.

In your book, you explore work-life balance, societal acceptance and other challenges Nigerian woman encounters. What do you aim to achieve?
I wanted to force conversations, especially as it relates to office settings about what women put up with. I have to say that prior to writing Dear Alaere, I had never read a book that talked about office politics or even day-to-day office encounters. It was important for me to use the office as a platform to showcase occurrences that happen to many women in the workplace. These same women have to also successfully manage the home front, which comes with its own challenges too.

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Your novel captures the reality of women in work places and at home, what do you intend to achieve with these realities?
I set out to explore concerns that readers, irrespective of their gender, race or sentiment, can almost touch because they have either experienced directly, or know people who have gone through a number of the experiences I treated in Dear Alaere. Issues such as sexism towards women at work, sexual harassment, infertility challenges are real. And I dare say boldly that every lady at one point or the other would have faced one or more of these challenges in their lives, but a lot of women have mastered the art of putting up a smile and make-up to hide the challenges they face at work and at home. Social media has not helped matters, as there is an innate desire to look all together without a care in the world. But the truth is, gender violence is real and should be seen not only from the context of physical violence but emotional and mental violence as well; the sort that speaks to your spirit in a damaging way.

For instance, infertility challenges, even where the woman is not at fault, are real. But we are taught in African societies that a man’s make-up does not allow for errors where childbearing is concerned. It is squarely a woman’s issue and should be seen strictly from that point. So, these issues are as real as they can get.

Societal and extended family attacks on women with delay in child bearing seem to be a major item in your work?
It was a theme I developed to spin a little twist and develop a less talked about angle, which is that the man can actually be the one with an issue that contributes majorly to delay in childbearing. In our society, a man is never to blame where a woman is unable to have children on time. Some women are also taught that even where the man has an issue, they are to inherit the challenge and tell the whole world they are to blame. So, in Dear Alaere, the message is clear, ‘Help rather than attack women who are having difficulties with having children.’ Move from womb watching to play a more empathetic role. Understand also that it may have little or nothing to do with the woman, and the fact that it is really not a death sentence.

How do you think sexual harassment can be eradicated in our society?
We can start by raising awareness about right and wrong. The eradication we so desire must begin from homes, with the reorientation of our children about respect for others and precisely for the opposite gender. Parents must set the right examples. At the workplace, awareness with regards to the consequences of such an action must be amplified as well.

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Why did you focus more on Lagos?
Lagos as the most populous city in Africa serves as a sounding board to evaluate Nigeria from different perspectives. Lagos is a city of contrasts; on one hand, it is depicted in a lot of movies as a city with well-lit streetlights, skyscrapers, lovely cuisine outlets and shopping centers. On the other hand, it is seen as a city with Area Boys, the homeless, children of school age hawking on the streets, dilapidated buildings, chaotic traffic, night workers and terrible roads. The rich and the poor co-mingle and for the most part, use the same obsolete infrastructure.

It is an interesting city and yes, it can be very tedious, not just for working class women, but men as well. Everyone in Lagos has a story to tell about traffic in Lagos; some others have a thing or two to say about insecurity. Lagos is a barometer to gauge the socio-economic development of our country. You do not need too many statistics, seminars or pontifications. Spend some time in Lagos and you would be able to tell if Nigeria is working or not.

Having treated challenges of African women in your work, would you say that it is impossible for a career woman to have it all in life?
A starting point will be to ask, what does having it all entail? When we talk about having it all, do we see things from the perspective of being a successful career lady and having a fulfilled and/or successful family life? Is there more to having it all in life? As a career lady, I believe you can make a success out of your career as well as your family and personal life. But it may not happen at the same time; there may be instances where your career would take a front burner role and vice versa. It is important at whatever stage of your life to understand two things. The first is that this journey called life is not a marathon but a destination. Secondly, you cannot do it alone. A good support system will act as an indispensable guide to ensuring you achieve work-life balance.

I once worked in an organisation that saw us moving from Lagos to Abuja; my first child was two then. I shuttled between Abuja and Lagos for ten years every Friday and Monday and sometimes, even weekdays in-between. It didn’t change even when Abuja airport was closed for six weeks. My husband, my nanny and my daughter were in Lagos. My husband’s support is second to none.

I had my second daughter in between my shuttling years, and I took her to Abuja and then continued shuttling every other week with another nanny. When she was about 11 months, I brought her to Lagos and continued shuttling every weekend to be with them. I did it without fail every week, took advantage of the few hours we had to spend on Friday and over the weekend before going back to work. I hardly went anywhere on weekends and I was fine with it. I missed some of their important events, but their dad was always on hand in school for them.

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Thank God for technology; we would FaceTime every day and pray with them before they left for school. When they got back from school, I knew about their day even before their dad in Lagos. My mum and my nanny are God sent. When I had to travel out, my mum would be there with them to help me look after the house and keep an eye on them. My annual leave, we spent together bonding and taking time to listen to them and talk to them about anything and everything. That was a chapter in my professional life. I am in Lagos with my family now and can say I am also in another season, another chapter of my life both as a career lady, a wife and a mother.

So, it is key to always remember that life is not a marathon but a destination and you cannot do it alone.

You’re a creative writer, author, lawyer and financial literacy expert, how do you put all that together and still pull through?
I do what needs to be done and I tell myself that work does not kill. I enjoy being a writer; I am passionate about financial literacy and love my job. Each one occupies its own place and it is your responsibility to understand and compartmentalise them accordingly.

After Dear Alaere, what next should your readers expect?
I aim to write stories that readers can relate to, connect with and feel an intrinsic part of my fictional world.

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In this article:
Eriye Onagoruwa
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