Saleh: Today’s woman has excelled in many areas
Mrs. Martina Jummai Saleh is the Director, International Statistical Development Department. She is the third female to have reached the directorate Cadre at the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in its 75 years history.
Fondly referred to as ‘Iron Lady’, Saleh, the only serving female Director in the Statistics House, tells JOSEPH CHIBUEZE about her early life, career path, while challenging young women to live fulfilling lives and shatter the glass ceilings.
Share with us your growing up?
I grew up in a little village called Jaban-Kogo in Kachia Local Council of Kaduna State; that was where I started my elementary education up to primary five. I later moved to Lagos to stay with my aunty, there, I completed my primary education at the Command Children School at the Army Cantonment, Ikeja. From there I got admission into Maryland Comprehensive Secondary School, Maryland. I later moved to Aunty Ayo Comprehensive Secondary School, Obalende where I finished my secondary school.
When I was choosing subjects in form four, I didn’t want to do the alternative subjects that were available. Then, it was either you do Additional Mathematics or Home Economics or Agriculture. I didn’t see anything different between the Home Economics we were doing in school and what I have been doing at home. I wanted something more challenging, so I chose Additional Mathematics. As it happened, I was the only girl in the class, the rest were boys.
When I moved to Aunty Ayo Comprehensive Secondary School, which was a girl’s school, the subject was not offered. I went to the principal and told her I wanted to do additional mathematics, because I had already started it. She looked at me and said, ‘girls are running away from mathematics and you want to do additional mathematics.’ She said, ‘right now, there is no teacher for that subject,’ but promised that she would talk to the teacher teaching us mathematics. The maths teacher said he wouldn’t mind and so, I was able to gather other girls, five of us, but three of us ended up doing it at school Certificate level. That was the subject that helped me in furthering studies.
How did you get involved in statistics?
I had always wanted to read Medicine, because my mother had children that were dying and we didn’t know the reason; she gave birth to 10 of us. However, I got married just after secondary school. My husband was an Air force officer, who just got posted to Egypt as an attaché. When we got to Egypt in 1983, I still insisted I wanted to read Medicine, but unfortunately for me, the University of Cairo where they offered medicine insisted you have to study language, because the medium of communication there was strictly Arabic. The American University in Cairo was offering courses in English,but they were purely on social sciences and the Arts; there was no medicine. So, we said let me just settle down, when we come home I will continue. I had my first two kids there.
When we came back in late 1986, my husband was of the opinion that since he was in the military, if I went into medicine, the home front would suffer, as children had already started coming. He then suggested I go for education, which will give me enough time to take care of the home. I kicked against it, but my aunty told me to accept it, that it was better for me to read education than not to go to school at all. At the end of the day, I got admission to read Mathematics education at the University of Lagos. The truth is that I am always more comfortable when I am calculating than when I am reading. Most cases, I read to fall asleep. When I am calculating, I am challenged to get to the answer. That motivated me to go for Maths education. Even at that level, there were few ladies that were in the department with us. The truth is that I have never been intimidated being in the midst of men.
At the end of my service year in 1993, I collected Civil Service form. At that time, we didn’t really know which federal government agency to choose. So, my husband and I went to our commissioner at the Federal Civil Service Commission, who at the time was in charge of both Kaduna and Plateau states, because the person in charge of Plateau was on secondment.
My husband wanted me to be posted to any of the Federal schools or school of command, which is for the Armed Forces, but the commissioner said the only school that had vacancy was Federal Government College, Ijaniki, but he (mu hisband) said Ijaniki is too far. The commissioner then said there is an agency that needed my services, because of my mathematics background, the Federal Office of Statistics. I said statistics? Do they apply statistics in real life? I asked him. Of course I know that statistics deal with figures, but I can’t imagine how they can be applied in real life.
So, the man told my husband, ‘let her go and kill her curiosity.’ My husband was not very comfortable with the idea, but as we left the office, he said it is like this education I am insisting on is not your calling. We went back and filled out the form and submitted it. A week later, I got a telegram that I have been given the offer; that was how I found myself in the federal office of statistics. I was documented on December 6, 1993. At that time, my take home pay was just about one thousand naira and some change.
So, how would you describe your experience?
Interesting. Naturally, I am a curious person and I love challenges, so where people are afraid to go, I want to see what makes them afraid; the person that has gone there, what makes the person different from me? If somebody has gone and come back, I think I can also go. So, it is that curiosity that has driven me to go into areas that somehow, people look at as not feminine.
Even in my work in the field, I always insisted things should be done according to the laid down rules. When I saw myself as head at the state level — I was head of Gombe State office and later head Northeast Region — then I was dealing with elderly people; they would say, ‘this small girl, when we started this work you were not born,’ but I insisted the right thing must be done. So, they gave me the nickname, ‘Iron lady’. During meetings, I am always vocal, because certain things must be explained. I always insist that whatever I am told, I understand so that I do things properly and if I make mistakes, I take responsibility for my mistake.
How would you describe your working relationship, especially being in the midst of men?
I grew up in a male dominated household, so finding myself working with men does not really give me any fear or feeling that I am disadvantaged. I take the challenge that we are all equal; what a man can do, I can equally do it. That feeling has equally assisted me in facing challenges. When I find myself in male dominated environment, I don’t see anything extraordinary, it’s part of life and I don’t look at men as opposite sex, but as partners.
There’s this talk about women being the weaker sex, I don’t really agree with that, except what you are talking about is our physical makeup, which God has blessed us with. Yes, we may not have the physical power, which the man has, but we are multitasking. A man is well defined when he is taking a task, but a woman can deviate from one task to the other all at the same time and she will still succeed. For me, the weakness is not in the willpower or the intellectual ability. No, here, I believe we are equally endowed.
Share with us some of your memorable experiences?
In the course of this work, I have had a number of experiences; some of the terrains we work in were not motorable. I remember there was a time I had to climb a camel to reach the Enumeration Area, because of the desertification nature of the place; even vehicles can’t pass through there. It has been an interesting experience; I have no regrets whatsoever, because it offered me the opportunity to meet people the way they are. You see the naked poverty in its real sense and you thank God for where he has placed you.
The painful part is that during political campaign, our politicians get to these places, see these people the way they are in their poverty state, but they do nothing to improve their lives, which make me some times to wonder if we really have a government.
What advice do you have for young women?
My advice is follow your heart desire, whatever you want to do, once you believe you want to do it, don’t think because somebody else has failed in doing it or think it is difficult, you now conclude that you too cannot do it. Follow your heart desire and put whatever it takes to be there.
Today’s woman has excelled in many areas and any woman can equally do it. Even in the medical world now, we are having more females, in technology, engineering, there are many of them and they are doing excellently. So, there is no barrier. Don’t think your sex is a barrier to your future ambition. Follow your vision, do what you want to do, education is the bedrock of everything.