Akpata’s compass for seekers of greener pasture in the Middle East
Out of this figure, a total 23 years was spent in the oil-rich-rich Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
He left Nigeria during the recession of the 1980s, to take up, initially, a temporary job in the region, but ends up spending over two decades pioneering research and other academic activities in the two countries – 13 years in Saudi Arabia and 10 years in Kuwait.
He started his academic career at the University of Lagos where he was appointed professor of restorative dentistry in 1979.
He returned to Nigeria in 2011 and three years ago, he began the documentation, in form of a memoir, of his times and experience as a Nigerian expatriate in the Middle East.
The yield of that literary effort is titled Sand, Sun and Surprises, which is going to be formally presented today at the prestigious Metropolitan Club, Victoria Island, Lagos.
The book demystifies the culture of the Arab world. Essentially, it is regarded as a fascinating take, filled with moments of humour – like the one time when he thinks his car is stolen in Kuwait, and after searching for hours, finds it in the same spot he left it.
The memoir also captures how a region transformed from harsh desert conditions to gleaming cities made of glass and steel, elegant buildings, five-star hotels and restaurants; changes that seemed to have occurred in an instant.
More important, the book launch today is the major highpoint of the 50th wedding anniversary of Prof. Akpata and his heartthrob, Prof. (Mrs) Victoria Akpata.
In this interview with the Akpatas, more details about the book and their lives generally are provided. The insights will certainly serve as compass for whosoever dreams to seek greener pasture in the Middle East.
How did the journey of writing the book start?
After working in the Middle East for 23 years, I returned to my country, Nigeria in 2011.
In conversation with friends at home and abroad, a topic that invariably came up was about my experiences in the Middle East.
Some of them have found it astonishing that I was able to survive in Arab countries for that length of time, considering the quaint stories that they had heard about the region.
Others have been curious and wanted tips on life in the Middle East, in case they emigrate, or needed to advise others who had similar plans. Hence, I decided to write this memoir.
The first chapter describes the social impact of the collapse of the Nigerian economy following the fall in the world price of crude oil in the 1980s, similar to the effect on other oil dependent mono-economies such as Angola and Venezuela.
The bleak economic situation resulted in massive devaluation of the Naira, the local currency and, consequently, a steep decline in the purchasing power of Nigerians.
Salaries of public servants were not adjusted. Therefore, the middle class who had skills that were marketable outside Nigeria started to emigrate.
In fact, the desire of most young Nigerians was to seek the greener pastures outside the country. The events that subsequently led to my first trip to Saudi Arabia are also reported in this chapter.
In the next chapter, an account is given of my first trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the cultural shock that I experienced during my first few weeks in Riyadh.
The problems encountered by expatriates in finding suitable accommodation, obtaining the national identity card and driver’s license are described.
The book also contains information on the fascinating dress code for men and women in the region, as well as the surprisingly impressive physical development of the region.
A few of the landmark buildings such as Al-Faisaliyah center and Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as the Kuwait Tower are highlighted.
Some challenges faced by academics teaching in the Middle East are mentioned in the book.
Although the medium of instruction in the universities is Arabic, professional subjects such as Medicine, Engineering and Pharmacy were taught in English in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
As exposure to the English language by Arab schoolchildren was minimal, students in these professional disciplines had to grapple with lectures delivered in English, especially during the first few years of their university studies.
Strategies adopted by English-speaking expatriates to contend with this problem are highlighted in the book.
Professionals working in the Middle East were recruited from different parts of the world with different educational systems and philosophies.
It was therefore not surprising that they sometimes had different approaches as solution to problems within their various professions.
The differences in opinion occasionally resulted in petty squabbles in some establishments. Examples are described from the educational sector.
I was a university teacher at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for thirteen years and at Kuwait University for ten years.
I seized the opportunity of my residence in these countries to visit other parts of the Middle East.
The book describes my holiday to Egypt, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Oman. Each of the visits lasted only a few days, usually long weekends.
A chapter is devoted to various leisure activities that could make life pleasurable for expatriates in the Middle East. These included
indoor and outdoor sporting activities, eating out, parties, music and even concerts.
However, each expatriate had to make a deliberate effort to select or develop a hobby. An account is given of how I settled for golfing and piano playing as well as occasional attendance at concerts.
The book also addresses the question of religious worship in the Middle East.
Aspects of Islamic worship that impacted on the lives of non-Muslims are described, for example the five daily prayer times and the ‘Eid celebrations.
There was freedom of religious worship in countries such as Kuwait.
The ways to manage the restriction on non-Islamic religions in some other parts of the region are described. Brief reference is also made to the problem of the religious police in the region.
As it would be a herculean task to obtain permission from the numerous personalities in this book, their real names have been avoided in the narrations. However, captions of a few of the photographs include real names.
The epilogue contains a summary of information that a prospective expatriate to the Middle East may require, for quick reference.
It complements the detailed scenarios in the earlier chapters.
It also discusses the impact of emigration of experts from third world countries, often referred to as the ‘brain drain’.
What motivated you to write it and the choice of title?
When I came back, people kept asking how I managed to live in the Middle East for such a long time. I had answered the question so many times that I felt it was better to document it.
The working title of the book was A Taste of the Middle East. When I finished writing the book, I consulted one of my sons, Osahon and he suggested Sand, Sun and Surprises as the main title.
I thought this was apt as there are sand dunes in the Middle East deserts, it is very sunny and hot in summer and I encountered many surprises throughout my stay in the region.
To arrive at the rider, A Nigerian Expatriate in the Middle East was a battle between me and my publisher’s copy editor over terminology and semantics. At the end of the day, I am pleased with the title.
Who are the target audience?
This book will be beneficial to those persons from Western and third world countries who intend to travel to the Middle East to work as professionals, artisans and other cadres.
It will be useful to those who seek information on the life of foreigners living in the region.
The book will be an interesting reading material for those who had worked in the Middle East, and from time to time, reminisce about their experiences in the region.
For professor of your calibre, writing is more or less a hobby. Did you encounter any difficulty writing a specialized book such as this
As a professor, you are writing all the time, I have written almost a hundred articles in different journals. I have written two books –
one on medical ethics, and the other on operative dentistry.
The one in dentistry has two editions. So, I am used to writing but I was used to writing technical books.
‘Sand, Sun and Surprises’ is not a technical book. It was more challenging because scientific books go direct to facts.
I used to make fun of my colleagues, professors of history for using flowery language to say something that a scientist can just say in one or two sentences, but I found out that to write this kind of book, you do not have to be too technical or as precise as you are in technical books, especially as I wrote textbooks.
In textbooks, students will read every line, and every word is very important.
Since, I was venturing into a new field where I was writing for the public, it was a bit challenging.
What challenges did you face writing the book?
One of the challenges was getting illustrations because at the time I was in the Middle East, I didn’t think I was going to write this book; otherwise, I would have taken a lot of photographs.
Photography wasn’t really my hobby at that time. And if I wrote to the people who are still over there after I had left the Middle East, they were suspicious of what one was going to do with the pictures.
Even, my close friends were rather apprehensive and were not willing to send pictures. That was the greatest challenge.
However, my son connected me with people who provide these kinds of pictures and they were acknowledged in the book.
How long did it take you to write the book?
It took me about three years to write the book, and the three years was the time I wasn’t going to work.
So, I wake up, had my breakfast, went to the study and worked on the book for about three to four hours most days.
What prompted you to study Dentistry?
Prof Sam Akpata – When I was at Edo College, there was a tall, white man, a dentist who came to give us a talk on dentistry as a career.
It was quite fascinating, but what made me decide for dentistry was that at the time I finished my Higher School education at Ibadan, there were very few dentists in Nigeria, you could count them at your fingertips.
Even though I had admission to study medicine at the University of Ibadan and the University of Lagos, I knew that if I went into dentistry, there would be very little competition.
At the time I started working at the University of Lagos, I was virtually alone in my area of specialisation – there are specialisations in dentistry.
So, that made me get to the top very quickly, I was appointed professor at the age of 38.
Both of you are from Benin City, can we also assume that you met in Benin City?
Not at all (Prof Victoria Akpata)
We met at NIFOR. After my Higher School education, I went there to work for six months because we used to do Higher School examination in December and University started in September.
I first taught at Ishan Grammar School, Uromi; while teaching at Uromi, I attended an interview at NIFOR and I got the job.
When I was working there, Victoria used to come on holidays in NIFOR while she was at Queen’s School Ede – her father was a member of staff.
I saw her and said this is the girl, although, she didn’t know anything about my feeling.
When I went abroad to study, I wrote her letters regularly. This continued till I came back five years later, and we got married. Before that time our families- the Ogbewey and Akpata families were known to each other, they were friends.
Was it a case of love at first sight? When did you know that you were in love?
Prof Mrs Akpata – I was young, unsuspecting and a very good girl. He was much older than me.
This was somebody who was already working then, and I was in secondary school, a small girl and I had big brothers and big sisters, so, if he ever stopped by in the house, I was very happy.
I wasn’t suspecting anything like loving somebody at all. When he went abroad and wrote, I was happy to be communicating.
People had pen-pals those days. I was happy communicating with someone I knew, I didn’t have such thoughts at all.
He was very smart, he never wrote anything that frightened me neither did he frighten me when he saw me.
I had no cause to believe this man was looking at me somehow. It was later that he started writing suggestive things about kissing.
Prof Sam Akpata – She knew that I was studying dentistry and she wrote to me to ask; how do you prevent tooth decay? I said by not kissing another man.
Prof Mrs. Akpata – I was betrothed to him in the summer of 1968 in my father’s house.
In those days, you didn’t just follow a boy, they did all the traditional things, it was a long process. We did not have the church wedding until December.
You have been married for 50 years, how did it happen?
The key thing in our own case is openness. We discuss issues even with the children. When the children were with us, we had our meals together at least twice a day.
We sat at table together during breakfast and dinner and while at table, we discussed.
If there is any issue between the two of us, we allow each other to talk. We have never gone to a third party to settle any issue.
We feel that there is no matter we cannot settle between us, and of course if we don’t agree, (laughter) she will do what I said but seldom have we had any occasion that we did not agree. We make compromises and then move on.
For the benefit of the younger generation, what is the most important thing for a couple to know?
(Prof. Mrs Akpata cut in)The important thing is to understand that marriage is a team thing.
You are not related, you are coming from different homes, if there are ways you did things in your own home when you get to the man’s house, you must recognise that he is the head of the family.
Like I said earlier, I am a team player, you don’t just do everything for yourself in a team, you must consider the entire team. Otherwise, your team won’t win.
In marriage, you must realise that you are not alone, so everything can’t be according to your own wish.
If you are sensible, you will know that your husband and the people around him are important.
You don’t just say, he is my husband, so father, mother, brothers, sisters, friends, go to blazes.
No, it doesn’t work that way. If you want to be happy, you must look at the environment holistically and behave properly.
If you are new in a place, you study the new environment and try and fit in.
In our culture and most cultures in the world, it is the responsibility of the wife to make her husband and people around him like her.
You must put yourself in a position to be liked. You try and study the man, you research him.
There is no equality in this business, the family must be based on love and respect.
How do you balance the needs of being a mom, a wife and a Professor (employee)?
I think again that it boils down to a woman recognising who she is in the home.
It is about planning. You know your responsibilities and you plan. For example, I didn’t go shopping every day, I did bulk shopping.
My freezer was always full. You must learn time management.
For Prof E.S. Akpata (Husband), What is the best advice you can give to husbands and fathers?
They should learn to discuss issues. Have open house, everybody can air his or her views.
As mentioned earlier, the fact that we all were at table together for at least twice a day helped a great deal. So, we had a forum where we discussed issues that arose.
Conflicts and Resolutions
Are there issues or topics you don’t discuss because you know you will never agree?
Prof Mrs. Akpata: We discuss all issues and we respect each other’s views. If you don’t do that there could be rumours
If you had it all to doover again, what would you like to change most?
Prof Mrs. Akpata: He should play piano less. He plays it every day. Piano is his first love and I am number 2.
Prof Sam Akpata: Maybe she should go to church less. She is an ardent catholic.
Talk a little bit about yourselves. What is your background? What people would be surprised to learn about you?
Prof Sam Akpata:
I come from Benin, my father was the Ayobahan of Benin Kingdom. I attended my uncle’s school, Akpata Memorial School as well as Benin Native Authority School, the former Government School, Benin City.
My secondary school education was at Edo College Benin City where I obtained my West African School Certificate, and then Government College, Ibadan for my Cambridge Higher School Certificate.
I then proceeded to the University of Leeds, England where I obtained my dental degrees.
I also studied at the Eastman Dental Institute in London before sitting for the Fellowship in Dental Surgery in Glasgow, Scotland.
I am a professor of dentistry. I worked at the University of Lagos for 21 years before moving over to King Saud University in Saudi Arabia where I worked for 13 years and then to Kuwait University for 10 years, all as professor of restorative dentistry.
When I came back, I also worked at the Lagos State University for about 3 years.
My hobbies are piano playing and golfing. I am a member of the Golf Session of Ikoyi Club, Lagos and when I was in the Middle East, I used to play desert golf. You will know more about desert golf from my new book.
You also asked what people will be surprised to know about me. When people see me, they often ask, “Are you back?” as if I have been somewhere forever. They forget that I worked in Nigeria for about the same number of years as I worked abroad.
Prof Mrs. Victoria Akpata: I come from the Ogbewey family of Benin City. I started school in Benin at the Convent Girls school.
My father worked in the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research, NIFOR after retirement, so I had to transfer to NIFOR to complete my primary school education.
It was a very good experience because the environment was superb, not imaginable by the present generation.
I went to Queen’s School Ede, another fantastic school at that time. I was really blessed to have that opportunity. I was very active in sports.
When I left Queen’s School Ede, I attended University of Lagos, that was where I got all my degrees including my Ph.D.
Something people will be surprised to know about me is that I was a very active sports person in the 1960s. I was school sports prefect and netball captain.
When I worked as a teacher in Benin City, I was a good netball coach. I held the Western Region discuss trophy for 5 continuous years even in the University.
I was involved in field events, I didn’t like the track events although our coach insisted that I could run.
“The book is mainly about my experiences living and working in the Middle East for 23 years. The first chapter is about my professional life in Nigeria at the University of Lagos. This was included to put in perspective what I did in the Middle East. I also reflected on the economic situation in Nigeria in the late 1980s and how it affected university education in the country.
So, living and working in the Middle East is the main focus of the book. There are still many medical doctors, these days that are going to the Middle East to work. The book will enable them to know what to expect when they get there. The Middle East is an international labour market that attracts people from different parts of the world.”
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