Ogbuenyi Evelyn Okwudili is a beneficiary of INTELS Nigeria Limited’s Women Empowerment Programme Synergy Scheme (WEPSS). In this interview, she speaks on her struggles to acquire a vocational skill when her academic aspirations were cut short and how INTELS’ empowerment programme came to her rescue.
You emerged as the best graduating trainee at INTELS Women Empowerment Programme Scheme Synergy (WEPSS) training. Can you give an insight into your journey up to this point?
I have lived all my life in Rivers State and grew up with my family in Abuloma. I am the second child of the family but the first of my mum; my father lost his first wife. My background is humble; my father works as a personal driver at a private establishment, while my mother is a cook. She formerly worked in that capacity at a secondary school, now she cooks on a contract basis for anyone who engages her services. I have an elder sister; she runs a restaurant in Calabar. My primary education was at Compassion Home Primary school; it is a school for the physically challenged at Trans-Amadi area, Port Harcourt. My higher school education was at Holy Rosary. Abuloma is a peaceful riverine community; the major occupation there is fishing and farming. I recall our former landlady used to say that her late husband was a fisherman. She gave my mother a piece of land in her compound to grow crops to supplement our family needs. After I completed my secondary education, it was clear my parents did not have the means to sponsor me any further, so I had to find something to occupy myself with. First, I got some computer training after which I worked in several cyber cafes. Then I also had the opportunity to work at the West African Container Terminal because of I was computer literate. This was sometime in 2010. It was a contract job that spanned three or four months. A neighbour told me that the company needed a few hands to input data into their system, so I went for it. I considered being an interior decorator but couldn’t afford the money for the training. I ended up accompanying my mother and assisting her anytime she had a contract to cook. That was what I occupied myself with until a friend suggested in February 2018 that I apply for the WEPSS training. Prior to that, I didn’t know anything about WEPSS.
Was it an opportunity you jumped at?
Initially, I wasn’t really interested but I discussed it with my mum; my father was not around at the time. He had travelled with his boss. Just like me, my mother was not aware such a programme existed but she was very much interested in it. She really wanted me to be a seamstress. My mother viewed it as a profession that allowed you to benefit from your skill and showcase your talent. She was of the opinion that my family would not need to seek the services of a seamstress to sew their clothes, that kind of thing. But signing up for the programme meant that I would need help with my children. My mother made a lot of sacrifices in that regard. She had to cut back on some of her jobs and be at my home to care for my children. This was really important for me because I had to meet the bus assigned to take trainees to the centre at the designated spot by 7.05am. So I would wake up as early as 4.30am, bathe my children, dress them and then rush to prepare myself to meet the bus.
Like I said earlier, no one in my family knew about WEPSS or that it was being sponsored by INTELS Nigeria Limited. In fact, I did not know about INTELS until when my family relocated from Abuloma to Elelenwo. One of my brother’s friends worked at INTELS. We noticed that the company had a staff bus that picked up their employees at a junction close to my house. Even at that, I still didn’t know much about the company until my application to WEPSS was accepted and we were all taken to the head office. INTELS is really doing a great job; the company is spending so much money when you consider the awards and gifts they give to the best performing trainees. You can also observe it from the manner the WEPSS centre is run, what they pay their workers; it is exceptional. I get to hear a lot of persons outside the WEPSS centre say that every trainee should be given a sewing machine to empower them. That it is pointless giving women a skill without the tool. I marvel at such comments; INTELS is doing a lot already. Running the WEPSS centre involves enormous financial commitment. That for me is enough; they are really making great effort in terms of empowering communities.
How would you describe your experience at the WEPSS centre?
The experience was really mind blowing. I really didn’t think tailoring was this interesting. Initially when we started, it was a little bit boring because I was new to it. But as time went on, it was not only interesting but became intense. There was a time I felt like giving up. This was when we had to go through some exercises with papers. It was really challenging. Our trainers would draw lines on papers and ask us to sew on those same lines. It was really tough; I didn’t want to continue anymore. Each day we would start with tape reading and after that the paper exercise would follow. Reading the measuring tape is something I am sure many tailors in our society can’t do. I have never, while having my measurements taken by a tailor, observed them reading the tape the way I was taught at WEPSS. It took us almost a month to understand the lines on the measuring tape. Then I also had some difficulty blending with the other trainees. I am a reserved person and always careful not to keep the type of company that would get me into trouble. The moment I got into the WEPSS centre, I observed that they maintain a high level of discipline and some of my colleagues were noisy. So I had to be careful. Although I exchanged pleasantries with them, it wasn’t until my third month that I started really mingling with the other trainees. Sometimes on my way home, I would hitch a ride with the friend who introduced me to WEPSS and discuss my challenges with him. He would advise me to persevere to the end.
Eventually, the training became interesting after we finished the paper exercise and then got into the fabric exercise. That is when our trainers would give us little pieces of fabrics to put together. When we are given the pieces, we would imagine what the trainers were driving at. But after being instructed by the trainers, the fabric eventually comes out beautiful. That was when I started picking interest. There were some other values our trainers tried to instill in us at WEPSS. We were taught the value of life and the importance of hygiene. We also learned not to discriminate between people and to shun gossip. I feel sad that the programme has ended because I miss the experience and miss my trainers. I would have recommended my younger sisters for this training but one of them is currently preparing for her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and the other is in school. They are both pressed for time, so they can’t apply.
Were you surprised when you emerged the best performing trainee?
I was. The process was competitive and tough. Even though I did well during the assessment but one can never tell how these things will play out in the end because five of us were vying for that spot. On the whole, I have achieved my goal; I came for the training with the aim of getting the skill. I am grateful for the prize I was given; a starter pack that includes an industrial sewing machine, a steam iron, chair, a pair of scissors, seam ripper, chalk and a measuring tape. I am excited and grateful to INTELS and my trainers for this opportunity. I learned so many things at WEPSS that other tailors don’t know about. For instance, many tailors don’t know the importance of a great finishing. But at WEPSS, a lot of emphasis is placed on the finishing of the clothes you sew. If the finishing is not neat, then your clothes can’t turn out well. There was a jumpsuit I had a tailor make for me; that was what I had intended to wear to my graduation ceremony, but because the finishing was poor, I had to wear something else. If not for my exposure to WEPSS, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought; I would have worn the jumpsuit like that. It is the little details like that that make a lot of difference. My mother was really excited for me that I won a sewing machine and not just an ordinary sewing machine but an industrial one. She has been urging me not to waste time but to go somewhere where I can learn cutting. What we were taught at WEPSS was basic tailoring; even at that, what we have been given is enough. The average tailor outside wouldn’t know what I know. They can’t do tape reading and are not aware of the history of tailoring. I plan to advance the learning and improve on some of the things I didn’t get here. I want to learn more in terms of the practical for cutting and then start out on my own on a small scale.