It was just like any other evening. Ala Quarters in Akure, Ondo State, Nigeria, was its usual quiet self and everyone was getting set to watch the 9pm network news on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) network, as was a daily ritual at number 80. When my dad gave me the letter, I looked for his accompanying reaction. Mr. J. O. Sesan was a strict teacher who read all the letters that came through P. O. Box 2618 and his face could always warn you about the content of your letter.
It was what I’d been expecting, my letter of admission to study Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the school whose t-shirt I owned at least 6 years before I knew what happened within its walls. Great Ife, the t-shirt screamed each time I looked at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t long before I pulled out my Higher Education Notebook and edited my notes; the notes I started preparing the moment Opeyemi Olugasa’s choice of engineering as a career made me change my mind from studying Medicine & Surgery, at the University of Ibadan, to becoming an engineering graduate from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.
Ope was my friend in primary school, though he was a year ahead of me at St. Peter’s Demonstration Primary School, Akure. He went on to become a prefect in Federal Government College, Idoani, and my respect for him soared. Rumours of extremely brilliant Senior Ope’s course of study in Great Ife was quick to spread, and few minutes with him – when he visited F. G. C. Idoani again – helped me decide that my love for gadgets gave me the liberty to move away from Medicine & Surgery, which was what I was expected to study. As it was said in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “you can’t waste your brain o, na Medicine you go study.“
When I returned to my notes, memories of the few times I’d blown up stuff at home came to mind and I smiled. I knew I was born to be an engineer, and I would solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Or so I thought. At about the same time, another letter arrived from University of Tokyo, Japan. It invited me to join the university and because my mind was made up on Great Ife (talk about the power of a t-shirt), all that caught my attention was their advanced degree in Mechano-Informatics and Artificial Intelligence. Senior Ope had mentioned it too. Okay, he was the reason I also wrote to the school. We need many Senior Opes in Nigeria today, whose career choice can serve as an example for other young people in the dark. Being a Senior Ope to someone else is a role I’m always excited about when I get the opportunity to do such.
I arrived Great Ife with my edited notes. The content was confusing (and I had no idea I would regret losing that book) but I had come up with an idea – from my love of Magnetism in Physics – that would help solve Nigeria’s power problem. I was convinced that by the time I spent 5 years studying engineering at Great Ife, I would be selling millions of units of the device through what I called Sesan Manufacturing Company (SMC). My device would use the principle of magnetism to generate electricity in large quantities. “Imagine a device that generated power without noise or the use of any ‘fuel’, and was risk-free,” I kept thinking and saying.
In my first year, a Laboratory Attendant (who obviously isn’t a true representation of all others) told me that my results from an experiment that sought to verify the value of the popular gravitational constant were unrealistic. He forgot to tell me that my readings went beyond 12 because the environment was not controlled but he never forgot to warn, “if you like, be doing I too know there. What does Halliday say? You better write what you see in the textbook and stop feeling like Einstein.” Stubborn ‘Gbenga went on to submit the original results, and my score reflected more of the warning than the effort I put in.
From my second year to the third year, I learnt more theories that explained why my magnetism discovery was literally impossible to achieve. What some of our lecturers forgot to tell us was that their notes were from the years they studied engineering themselves. Needless to say, I didn’t even remember the dream by the beginning of my fourth year. Sad, but thankfully, the story didn’t end there. I had the chance to complete an Industrial Attachment program with (now late) Dr. James O. Sotomi who had just returned from the UK and set up a software company even though his eyes were really on Neural Networks. In fact, his company was known as Neural Technologies Limited and we operated from one of the offices of (now defunct) RIMS Securities Limited in Lagos’ popular Kingsway Building.
Dr. Sotomi introduced me to web development and threw me into meetings where a 4th year engineering student had to speak in defense of Neural Technology Limited‘s web development proposal. In one of such meetings at the SNEPCO Towers in Marina, Lagos, I was pulled aside by someone who introduced himself as the chairman of the selection committee. “You guys can’t win this bid for some reasons I can’t explain, but you were great. You speak so well, how old are you,” he said. At Neural Technologies, I learnt how to write HTML code. I returned to Great Ife reignited, but the power project was off my mind. Completely.
Within weeks of returning to school, I organized a training program for fellow students. Each of the students Ogemdi Ike and I recruited (using flyers, a computer demo in front of Ife’s popular Moremi Hall, etc) paid two thousand naira to learn what I’d learnt weeks before. It wasn’t long before we jumped on converting Year Books to Year CDs, and we made some money. We spent nights writing HTML code, days training students and any time we had left dreaming of how to register Concept Group Limited. It wasn’t long before we had to write our final year thesis and I chose to write on eRegisteration: Software-Based Student Registration Procedure Using Html and Java Hosted on the University Intranet.
I was reminded that students were not allowed to create project topics and that we had to select from one of the topics displayed on the department’s notice board. I looked through the list and found nothing that fit my future plans, so I approached Prof. Kunle Kehinde, a very senior lecturer in the department whose word was law – even when it was against the popular thought. He accepted to supervise the project and encouraged me to make my first presentation off-campus, at the 2000 Expo of the Information Technology Association of Nigeria. The final product exists in two forms: online and in a CD case (see pictures at the end of the blog). Prof. K told me to keep a copy for myself, and I styled it up a bit with the knowledge gained from designing commercial Year CDs.
It became an available topic for other students to research and write on, and I’m glad to see the idea of reducing the physical burden of student registration in action these days. I followed the new technology dream until I discovered the use of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) but I wonder… I keep asking myself about how many other dreams got killed in campus laboratories across Nigeria while I was in Great Ife. I wonder how many dreams – power problem solvers, etc – get killed daily after students walk through the gates of our academic institutions. Please don’t tell them it’s not possible, equip them to do it.
Few days ago, I was invited by Junior Achievement of Nigeria to speak to 1,200 secondary students who had gathered at the Shell Hall of MUSON Centre in Lagos. The theme was Creating Tomorrow Today and as I listened to the students describe what they hoped to create tomorrow, I kept hoping that they won’t meet a Laboratory Attendant who would tell them to copy textbooks and belittle the curiousity of new knowledge and possibility of breakthrough experiments. This is by no means a judgement treatise on the collapse of education in Nigeria, but a call to young Nigerians to become Senior Ope or Dr. Sotomi because of the many factors that kill dreams around here.
While Nigeria hopefully continues the journey towards reinventing education, you remain the only hope of today’s dreamy young (wo)men. Let’s equip them and not allow anyone kill their dreams. This year, I return to Great Ife to work with a department on a bold new project that will walk with students all through their 5 years in school, equipping them to dream instead of killing their dream(s). There’s no reason why students can’t go to tertiary institutions to build businesses or expertise around the many problems begging to be solved in Nigeria. How about students graduate with business plans, not just CVs? Equip them. Don’t kill their dreams.