ADVICE MY FATHER GAVE ME — PROF. YEMI BELLO, DEPUTY VC, LASU
She is amiable, elegant, tall and sophisticated. With smiles beaming on her face, Prof. Yemi Olatunji Bello, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, reveals to Saturday Sun , how she sees herself. According to her, she does see herself as a woman when she is in the midst of her male counterparts. She frowns at women that feel inferior to men and believes that women are not an inferior sex.
She charged women to rise up to their challenges and do whatever they could to be at par with the men. In this interview, she also talked about her growing up, how she rose to become a Deputy Vice Chancellor and other issues.
Tell us about your family background
My father is Chief Eniola Obidakpo who died over 65 years ago. He was living in Lagos where he met my mother who is a Lagosian. They had seven children and I am the sixth of the seven. I was born on April 23, 1964 here in Lagos and I schooled in Lagos. I attended Anglican Girls' Primary School and Girls Grammar School in Surulere. After that, I went to Methodist Girls High School, Yaba for my A levels. In 1992, I went to University of Ibadan for my BSC in Physiology and graduated in 1995. I served in the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, at the Department of Physiology during my NYSC after which I was retained there.
That was how my career in academics started. I met my husband, Tunji Bello, in University of Ibadan sometime 1992 in my year one when he was campaigning for the post of a Vice President of the student union. He came to my room, although, I had heard so much about him, to solicit for our support. From there we went out campaigning for him. He is a Lagosian and his father was the first set of politicians with Awolowo. In fact, Awolowo used to have their caucus meeting in their house at Lagos Island. We got married in 1989. Since then, it has been a wonderful union.
What was your growing up like?
I didn't have so much exposure really. I was born in Lagos Island but grew up in Surulere. It was very quiet and beautiful. We didn't have much challenge. We had friends from neighbours and so on. Growing up was just like a normal thing compared to what we have now. Then you have so much of peer pressure and social vices in the society that you are scared. You don't want your children to associate with neighbour's children. But then every parent on the street was our parent. They were watchful. There wasn't much that we could do. You couldn't hide from them because they were ready to report you to your parents if you misbehave. But not these days that people mind their business.
What were your challenges before you got to this level in life?
It is not a bed of roses. To get to this height is through hard work. You have to really need to publish in academia and this entails doing a lot of research. Not only that, during your research you have to be supported and supervised as a young lecturer. I also had my mentors, Prof Shoga Sofala of the Department of Physiology, College of Medicine and former acting Vice Chancellor of Olabisi Olabanjo University. He was the Deputy Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos when Prof. Obidakpo was the Vice Chancellor. Then I also had Prof. Tolu Odukpemi as my role model. He was a friend of Prof. Sofola. He is not in my department but that was how I got to know him. He became the Provost of the College of Medicine and we could look up to him for mentoring. When you have mentors and role models who could teach you on how to become a leader, it would be the beginning of great things.
Then Prof. Odegbemi made an impact in my life because if I was beginning to lose focus, he would bring me back on track. That was how I was made to do more work. Anytime he sees me, he would ask me about my papers and manuscript. He would ask me so many questions and he mandated that I should give him an updated version of my CV every quarter. That means if I am going to submit anything to him, there must be something new on it. That really encouraged me to work very hard. I also had somebody that gave me an opportunity to lead and to do other things like being an Editor of Lagos State University society bulletin. All those exposed me to leadership qualities and I was quite young then. We also had problem of equipment as some of our colleagues, in their own area of research were not able to do much because theirs depended mostly on equipment. I was into endoprenology and reproduction.
We could write some little papers without so much sophisticated equipment. But by and large, one was very young and we had a lot of people before me. So, there was this thing about queue. You needed to really wait for your turn. I thought that it wasn't right in academia. If the person before you does not move, you couldn't move. That was one of the things I felt was a challenge to me. But then, that is the society in which we are. It was the culture in the university so one had to follow in line. It discouraged so many people from doing much because if the people before you were not moving, you too would not.
And that was a problem most of us faced. Eventually, we overcame it and here we are. I was an Associate Professor in University of Lagos before I was appointed Professor of Physiology in Lagos State University sometime in 2007. It was a choice between staying in the University of Lagos to get my Professorship or going to Lagos State University.
But at the same time, I had been a member of the Council of the Lagos State University. My husband was in government of Lagos State and there was this pressure that they wanted us to come over to Lagos State University to put in our efforts. They wanted Lagosians to move over. The pressure was much and I had to come over and since then, I have not regretted it one bit. I came in 2007 and as a young Professor. But then, it is your contribution at Senate, Faculty and other meetings that is very important. Everybody wanted to know who I was.
When the post of the Deputy Vice Chancellor was vacant, I was honoured by the Vice Chancellor to be nominated along with another person. So, we had to go through the election and once I want something, I would go all out to get it because one has to be a visionary leader. You must have a goal and when God is already helping you, you must help yourself. That was how I set up to campaign, going from one office to the other, to all my colleagues and all the campuses. I also went to campuses outside Lagos and I think that was how I won the hearts of those outside the campus. They have never had people come there to solicit for their votes. They felt that if I could come to their campus, especially far away Ekpe, then I meant business. So, I got their support and my colleagues in the Senate elected me into the office.
In a world that is dominated by men, how have you been able to cope?
When I am in the office, I don't see myself as a woman. That is how I have always seen myself. I have never added Dr. Mrs. or Prof. Mrs. to my name. It is just Prof. Yemi Olatunji Bello. Even when I was campaigning and I sent out my papers to them, they didn't really know it was a lady. I like playing that pranks on them and it has been like that for years. Even when I was at College of Medicine, Idi -Araba, when I organized workshops and people saw my name, they wouldt know whether it was a woman or man until we had started. It helps you know that you are at par with them and it gives me a sense of satisfaction that nobody is lowering any standard for me. That means that if I am able to get to the same level with them, then I must be regarded as being of equal status with them. I am not an inferior person. A woman should not see herself as an inferior sex.
What do you think that makes women feel inferior to men?
It is the society. Even as a girl-child, your parents would tell you that you have to be domesticated while the boy watches television and lift his legs over your sweeping and so on. In those days, they believed that even the girl-child should not go to school because they believed that a woman's education ends in kitchen. Up till now, I go to the kitchen. I cook my husband's food. But that does not mean that I shouldn't study. I think that the society needs to be re-oriented. You have to make peole know that what the boy-child can do has been proved with time now that even the girl can do much better.
How would you describe life on LASU campus?
LASU is a volatile campus. We are just working now to get the students on our side. When the students believe in the management leadership, and they know that they have access to you, it won't be volatile again. Atleast, before anything, they would come and complain to you and you can talk to and advise them. Then we have a special breed of staff union. Although we know that sometimes, you have to struggle to get some things. They struggle and protest but what happened last year opened my eyes. I discovered that the problem went beyond union struggle and I thought that was out of the way. We shouldn't be on the campus and have fetish materials all over the place. Why would you go to that extent? You can protest. Nobody is saying that you should not protest, but then, when life does not mean anything to you anymore and you put fear into people, it is not right.
Everybody would be working under fear. If any union leader knocks on your door, you are shivering. It shouldn't be. We are working with all the leadership of the unions in the university now. We bring them in when we know what the problems are. We let them know the ones we can solve immediately, the ones that would have to wait and the ones that we can't solve. It is a mutual agreement. It is give-and-take. So, that is the problem we have in LASU campus. God is already in control. We are taking charge.
What could be the problem with educational system in Nigeria?
The main problem with educational system in Nigeria is lack of will to carry out the decisions or policies that were made. Again, corruption is also part of it. Most of all is underfunding. The government should give a chunk of the budget to education, right from pre-primary to post-secondary. We should also incorporate entrepreneurship into education so that we balance the manpower needs of the country. Government should focus more on science and technology. I can assure you that as a scientist, government is not doing so much on that. It is true they give grants to support research but how many scientists get access to these grants? What you have in the laboratories are obsolete equipment and expired re-agents. The ones that are of priority are not available. Our government could focus more on funding. When the ETF fund is directed to procuring scientific equipment for the universities, things will get better.
There were sometimes that ETF fund was mandated only for structures and buildings which is good. If we have buildings, we need offices, centres, office blocks, but then, when you build all these things, do they provide funds for equipping it? Does it make sense to build laboratories without equipping them? Before, scientists used to be at par with our international colleagues when we go to international conferences, but these days, it is not so. The papers we write here are no longer at par with them because of this unavailability of equipment and support needed to send academic staff members to update their knowledge in the research abroad. At the end of the day, you feel like an inferior Professor when you are in the international community.
So, our government should focus more on how to improve on the standard of the lecturers available now and the researchers by facilitating more international research grants for them. On the other aspect, we are talking about corruption in the society among students. Even lecturers tend to harass students in various ways because of meagre salary. You have sexual and economic harassment. You find a lecturer telling the students to contribute certain amount of money to support his trip for an international conference or else the student would fail. Or he must provide your ticket because you know his father can afford it, if not he would fail. These are part of the corruption I am talking about in the society. Some of us are not committed to work. Then, you have embezzlement and misappropriation of funds. The little ones the government even released is being misappropriated. That is the Nigerian factor. God will help us.
Was there any advice your mother gave you while growing up?
My mother was full of advice and I did not hide anything from her. I was so close to her. She is that kind of mother that you can talk to. Maybe I am somehow special in a way because I don't know how to keep secret. I stayed close to her and I would cuddle her all the time. I would always tell her my moves, friends and so on and she guided me. After discussing with my mother, she would tell my father all that we discussed. She never kept my secret.The main advice from my father was that I should ask for whatever I needed instead of allowing men outside to deceive me. He would tell me to concentrate on my studies rather than fall into the hands of the 'Aristotles' or the 'sugar daddies'. Though there were a lot of them that were coming but I called them bluff because I couldn't get anything from them. Whatever they wanted to offer, I would get something better from my dad.
How do you combine your job with home front?
Homefront is there. There is no problem. Some things come with the office so they gave me a driver and cook to make things easier for me. But at the same time, I have a husband who would not eat another person's meal. So, even my cook cannot cook for my husband. I still prepare his meals, though these days, I have to prepare it and store in the freezer. The cook can only warm and give to him. Homefront is okay with the children. I thank God for the beautiful children He has given us. They are very obedient. My husband is very understanding. So far, we thank God for His blessings.
How did your husband propose to you?
Was there any proposal? We courted for years. I met him in 1982 and we got married in 1989. We were already friends. It was like a natural thing. It is not like this Cinderella thing where a man would ask you if you would marry him.
What attracted him to you?
I had heard so much about him. I had a friend who had been telling me about him. She even told me that she would want me to meet him because she had already told him something about me too. So, when he came in with his friends, I saw that he is a handsome, tall and fair-skinned man. So, it clicked immediately.
What is your advice to youths and women?
Women should not regard themselves as a weaker sex. They should get busy so that they don't have time to brood over the absence of their husbands in the late hours. When they are busy, it would help them to sleep off and have peace of mind. By the time they wake up in the morning, they would be fresh.They should also respect the man for who he is. A woman should not pry. What you don't know would not hurt you. And if you have friends who gossip, don't listen to them. They are probably envying you. So, the best thing is, know your man, trust and believe in him. Even if you saw him and he still says it is not like that, believe him. With that, he would respect and would not hurt you. For the young girls, as I always tell my students, they must have a goal and vision of what they want to be.
They should always be focused on their goal or vision. There should be no distractions. They should work hard and believe that whatever they can do for themselves is what is theirs. There are some girls who believe that it is the man that would take care of everything when they get married. When they have that set mind, they would be disappointed. When you know that you have to work hard and fend for yourself, if you get married, you would be able to contribute in your home.