How I was inspired to study pharmacy, by Igwilo
West Africa’s first female Professor of Pharmacy, Mrs. Cecilia Ihuoma Igwilo, was recently conferred with ‘Distinguished Professor’ award by the University Lagos during its 2016 Convocation Ceremonies. In this interview, she takes TOBI AWODIPE through the journey of her life and academic odyssey, providing nuggets for young aspiring pharmacists and youths who want to excel in life and their chosen careers.
Congratulations on the recent award conferred on you as ‘Distinguished Professor’ by the University of Lagos. How do you feel bagging such award?
I FEEL humbled and I give all the glory, honour and deep appreciation unto the Lord God Almighty. I also thank my husband, children, the church, my colleagues, students, Senate and the Council of the University of Lagos for this award and achievement.
Why did you decide to become a lecturer, considering the fact that you could have explored a career outside the academia?
My inspiration to even become a pharmacist all started when I was in Girls’ Secondary School, Owerri, Imo State. I was in Class 3 when the civil war broke out in 1967. As it was the case then, all the families had to move their loved ones to the village. My parents had eight children then, and I was the first-born. Back home in the village, there were no health facilities – no well built up roads, no lights, no pipe borne water. We went through a lot. But what stimulated my interest in pharmacy was that there were many sick people – victims of the civil war – who needed serious medical attention. Unfortunately, the health facilities were remotely located and overstretched, in some cases as far as 10 miles away. The health facility closest to my village was about five to eight miles away. Most times, one had to trek; the few lucky ones who had bicycles made the trip a lot easier for themselves. There was poverty and hardship everywhere.
Then I had a distant cousin, Uncle Ben, who was a pharmacist and lived three miles away from my village. He used to bring drugs back home. He used to dispense drugs to sick people that go to him, and in a very short time, they will recover. That really impressed me. I wondered about the nature of his profession that made him render such humanitarian services to a lot of people. We kept thanking God for him. I really admired him and made up my mind to pursue that profession after discovering that he was a pharmacist. So after the civil war, I went back to school. I started applying to various universities and got admitted into the University of Ife, Ile-Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) to study Pharmacy.
How was life for you during that transitory period, moving from Owerri to the Village?
We actually moved from Aba to my village. My secondary school was in Owerri, but my parents resided in Aba. We were all born in Aba. As a commercial city, then Aba had good roads, electricity, pipe borne water and vibrant markets. When we got to the village we had to return to farming. I was a teenager then. I started making and selling ogi (uncooked corn starch) at that age. We would get up about 2:00 am with some of the elderly women and trek for miles to about two or three towns away. We usually got to the market about 5-6:00am in the morning, and quickly buy the corn and carry it home on our heads. Of course, there were no functional grinding machines then, so I would soak my own corn for about two – three days, changing the water daily. I would then pound the corn using mortar and pestle, sieve the slurring using an appropriate cloth bag and then carry the processed ogi to the nearby market for sale. My parents were happy with the efforts I was making to support the family.
As a city girl coming to the village, were you not shy of doing all this?
Shy? Survival was the word. When you see malnourished people dying and there’s no food to eat… one had to get up and do something. I am the oldest of our parents’ eight children at that time. In fact, I was happy with the leadership role I played. Back in the city at Aba, whenever there was a war-plane approaching, I would grab and cuddle as many of my siblings as were close by and run for safety. I was like the manager of the home. However, in the village there were no war planes bombarding the places. That was a big relief. Again, there was nothing to be shy about.
You must have seen a lot then. So, how were you able to get over the Civil War trauma?
For me, the civil war was a training period. It was tough, but at the same time one went through it without even knowing that it was the grace of God. Being a war-time, there used to be stories of bandits who raid and loot people’s belongings destroying their means of living in some instances; they raped some young girls but we never experienced these atrocities in my locality. Arondizuogu was very close to the Okigwe war front and there were nights that one did not sleep because of the regular bomb shelling noise and vibrations. However, I was very enthusiastic and happy with my ogi business together with my elderly women mentors who were in the same business. I kept looking forward to making big sales at the Afor market days. Farming was another occupation that kept us busy. My paternal grandmother had a lot of farmlands. So, I learnt a lot about farming practices. Interestingly, I never nursed the fear of being run down by soldiers despite the constant and imminent dangers. I was also opportune to return to National High School, Arondizuogu for a short period for my secondary school education. This was a refreshing period during the civil war.
How did you get into teaching?
I was admitted in OAU in 1973 to study Pharmacy. During this period I received both the Federal Government Scholarship for undergraduate studies and the University of Ife scholarship. Of course, I wasn’t receiving the two at the same time, but the University of Ife paid the difference between their money and that of the Federal scholarship. By the grace of God, I graduated in 1977 with a First Class Honours. So, I was retained in the Faculty as a Graduate Assistant. Members of my 1977 set were given this unique opportunity to come back immediately to the faculty do the Master’s and internship programmes simultaneously. Within record time I finished my Master’s. I was already in National Youth Service Corps year at that time, which I completed in 1979 receiving both the Kwara State Youth Service Award and the National (Chairman’s) award for the National Youth Services Corps. Then I was an Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty. My eyes opened to new realities and new opportunities in academia. I further obtained another Federal Government Scholarship for Postgraduate Studies in London.
Was there anytime you wished you had gone into the Hospital Pharmacy Practice, considering your inspiration?
Well, it is God that directed me to where I am now. At times, you don’t know where life is leading you to until the Spirit of God changes your course, even without one having the full knowledge of everything. It was when I got into the academia that I realized that it is where God has destined for me. Now, I am teaching, guiding and helping those that desire to practise Pharmacy, not just in the hospital alone, but also in the Industry, Community, Academia, Government (regulatory bodies and other agencies) etc.
As a lady that had experienced village life, how did you feel when you got to London? How was the whole experience for you? Were you distracted?
I was overwhelmed because that was the first time I was seeing very magnificent and fascinating edifices, road and rail networks. I started noticing the difference as our plane touched down. Well, I had a purpose for travelling to London. My regular time for my research work was 7:00am-2:00am with about one hour break, 1-2:00pm. I signed a bond with OAU before leaving, that I would come back after my programme. This was my driving force and I was not distracted.
From the little you have said, it seems you hardly made out time for fun during your programme in London?
Well my fiancé was in USA then so I usually made some time during summer to visit him. Also when an important government official visits London or during the Independence Day Celebration, the Nigerian House used to invite us to the reception. I also witnessed Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding. We walked from Chelsea College to St Paul’s Cathedral.
You said you signed a bond with OAU that you were coming back after your Ph.D programme?
Yes, I completed my PhD in London in 1983. My fiancé and myself agreed that we had to quickly plan for our wedding, which took place in USA in April 1984 and we returned to Nigeria in December 1984. I resumed duty at OAU in January 1985. However, my husband was based in Lagos and I sought for transfer to the University of Lagos, which came through in 1987.
How has the experience being, teaching in UNILAG?
Excellent! From 1987 till now it is 30 years. That is what I enjoy doing. I enjoy guiding students.
What has been your greatest fulfillment in UNILAG?
My appointment as a full professor.
Did becoming the first female professor of Pharmacy in Nigeria in 1994 put any pressure on you to probably do more?
The truth is that I did not even know at that time that I was the First female Professor of Pharmacy in Nigeria and West Africa. It was later brought to my attention since my appointment as a Professor was from 1st October 1, 1994. When I eventually knew, it was with great humility and determination to continue with hard work.
As head of educational committee of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy (NAPHARM) and the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) do you think that mentoring and volunteerism can help deepen pharmaceutical practice in Nigeria?
Yes. Counseling, mentoring and volunteering are meant to guide people in their living, work and study. Mentoring helps widen one’s knowledge base and improve oneself in practice. It also produces leaders.
They say a teacher’s reward is in heaven. Have you started reaping some of those rewards?
Yes, I have started reaping both from heaven and from here on earth. At the last convocation, a parent invited my husband and I to their child’s convocation reception at the Lagoon front of the University. When we got there I was overwhelmed with the love shown by my students and everyone. There were many students, whom I couldn’t recognise greeting us and expressing their appreciation for the impact made in their lives. I felt very delighted. The joy of a teacher is in the many lives one has touched and brought up in the profession. Also receiving the award and honour from the Federal Government as an Officer of the Order of Niger (OON) in 2005 showed me that government is also recording and noting some little efforts that people make.
Despite all you went through, you succeeded in making a first class?
I was enrolled in the Universal Primary Education in a school very close to my home. The push to excel started when I failed my second term examination in Class 1 in my Primary School. I was my father’s favourite, so once I heard the sound of the horn of my father’s Vauxhall pleasure car then, I would abandon my school bag and my slate and run home. After that first failure which was openly announced in the school and the mockery I received, I wept bitterly. The Lord helped me to determine to be focused and work hard. By the grace of God, I made distinction in my Primary Six final examination. I proceeded to secondary school where I also made another distinction in grade 1 in my West African School Certificate Examination and then made a First Class Honours degree at the final Bachelor of Pharmacy examination.
At what point did you give your life to Christ?
I gave my life to Christ in 1990.
Was there any life-changing event that warranted that or you just took that decision?
I had been listening to the gospel, right from my years in Ife. Some of my friends and colleagues belonged to the Evangelical Christian Union (ECU). I got convinced to join them after listening to them and observing their pious way of life, but I could not make the decision to completely give my life to Christ until 1990.
How did you meet your husband? Was it love at first sight?
My family and my husband’s family were friends. He also grew up in Aba. We are from the same town but different villages. My mother learnt sewing from my mother-in-law who had a sewing institute and many newly married women from our town apprenticed to her. Along the line, my husband was planning to leave for the U.S.A in 1976, but he did not inform me. This was during my vacation. Then as a student in OAU, I would go for vacation job in John Holt (West African Drugs), Aba, between June and July each year. A little valedictory party was organised for him by family members and friends. I refused to attend, as he did not inform me. However, when my mother returned from the party, she strongly persuaded me and demanded that I should at least, visit and greet Mama (my mother in-law). I reluctantly went with the intention of quickly greeting Mama, whose room was the first in the entrance passage, and immediately return home. However as soon as I got to their house, which was 10 minutes walk away from mine in Aba, he was the first person I saw. He just grabbed my hand and started informing everyone present, including his parents that, “this is my wife.” He said that he told the Lord that any lady that came to see him during the valedictory party period would be his wife since he did not extend any invitation to any of his lady friends. So, he showed me to everyone around.
How long did it take him to persuade you to agree to marry you? And when he eventually travelled out did he maintain communication, considering the fact that there was no GSM then?
That night, he escorted me to a place we call our “covenant ground” along Mosque road in Aba. He took the ring off his finger and slipped it into my finger and promised that he was coming back for me. Well, my husband is not naturally inclined to letter writing. I received his letter twice or three times in a year, after he travelled to U.S.A. Even sometimes Mama (his mum) would ask me if I had heard from him, as he was not writing them also.
Stories abound then of Nigerian men who abandoned their fiancée back home in Nigeria to marry white women during their studies. Did you nurse any such fear?
No. Before I travelled to London his parents came to conduct our traditional marriage in my place. So, that got us more committed to our union. Besides, when I went to the UK in 1980, I paid him a visit in the U.S.A where he was studying. Our court wedding was conducted in the U.S.A in 1981. After my studies in Chelsea College, University of London in 1983, we started planning for our church wedding, which came up in April 1984.
What legacy would you want to be remembered for?
Well, I have not achieved yet. I will keep pressing forward until I get to the mark. I mean, until I see the Lord Jesus. That, for me, is the most important thing for living.
How do you juggle motherhood with your career?
I owe this to the Almighty God and to my husband. After God, my husband comes next. Everyone around me can testify to this. For example, he spurred me on when I was demoralized due to equipment breakdown and discarding of my old set of data in Chelsea College, London. He has been my backbone and God has also blessed him with an illustrious career. I also had the grace from above to take care of the children in spite of our very busy schedules.