Christiana Pam, a lecturer at the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, tells DANIEL AYANTOYE how the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities pushed her into trading to cushion the economic impact of the industrial action
For how long have you been a lecturer?
I studied Mass Communication at the University of Jos, Plateau State where I had my first and second degrees. I am an assistant lecturer at the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. I have been lecturing for just a year now before the strike commenced in February and so far my experience has been a very great one. It’s the job I have always wanted to do. Like every other job, it’s when you enter into the sector that you realise some things you were not aware of before. Sometimes, it is not how we view things from the outside, that it really is inside. When I got the job, I noticed some of the things that I didn’t know when I was not lecturing but, generally, it has been a very great experience for me.
A social media post claimed you went into selling potatoes due to the ASUU strike. Tell us how it all started.
When the first strike was declared, I had the assumption that within four weeks, it would be called off and we would resume. I was very hopeful and relaxed, waiting for it to be called off but after ASUU’s negotiations with the Federal Government, which didn’t end well as the demands of ASUU were obviously not met, the strike was extended. That was when it dawned on me that I needed to take a step because, within the first phase of the strike, I was already drained financially as I am new to the system and had yet to have the opportunity to save more money before the strike. So I thought of going home to Plateau State. I was so financially down that I had to borrow some money to take myself to my parents.
My parents had always been farmers even before their retirement, so after their retirement, they continued farming. When I got back home, I joined them on the farm with the hope that after two weeks, the strike would be called off and I would be back to work but in what looked like a joke, I started with them by clearing the farm, planting and it got to harvesting time and I was still at home. So, I began to wonder what I could do to earn an income as I could not ask my retired parents for money because they should be the ones looking up to me. So, I decided to sell some of the potatoes we harvested from our farm and they would be appreciated in Akwa Ibom. I had to sell some of them in Jos to raise money to move the remaining ones to Akwa Ibom State and just try my hands and see how it would go. That was where I was spotted. I believe that you start with what you have. It is what you have that you can use to your advantage. I looked around and I asked myself what I had that I could use to sustain myself at this critical time and I discovered that what I had were potatoes.
Is this something you intend to continue to do?
For me, potatoes are quite seasonal. My prayer is that as the season dwindles, the strike will be called off. I just started it to sustain me while the strike is on. I hope the strike will be called off soon.
Did it at any point matter to you that you resorted to selling potatoes despite your academic qualifications and being a lecturer?
The truth is, yes, as a lecturer, there is a way my students look up to me, and I will also be honest to say that within the period we were at home, my students kept calling, asking to know how soon they would return to school and I kept telling them that I really didn’t know. I advise them to find any legitimate thing to engage themselves in out of school. There is also education out of school but the strike is something that some of us also experienced while we were undergraduates. I kept encouraging them to find something to do. I kept telling them shamelessly that I was on a farm with my parents, so when I started selling potatoes as a lecturer, I didn’t really feel anything. I just felt it was a condition I had found myself in.
How did your colleagues react when they found out?
When I told my colleagues when we were talking about the challenges caused by the strike, some even said they envied me because I had something to sell when they did not. So, for me, I am okay with having something to do. My students even patronise me. They felt encouraged that I stooped to such a level as a lecturer when some of them were busy feeling pompous at home.
Tell us more about the business. How lucrative is it?
The potato business is quite lucrative here(in Akwa Ibom). One of the things that makes it difficult is the transport network. Getting to Akwa Ibom from Jos is not as easy as other routes. So from Jos to Akwa Ibom, is not a direct route for vehicles. The vehicle that takes goods to Akwa Ibom moves once a week and you know potatoes are perishable, they are not farm produce that can stay for long and do not do well when exposed to heavy rain and sunlight. So, if it doesn’t get transported on time, its value would reduce. Yes, in terms of the sales margin, it’s reduced. Also, this season, potatoes didn’t really do well because there was a pandemic of the blite disease that affected it in Plateau State, and it also affected many farmers. The disease affects the size of the potatoes and here in this part of the country, the bigger the potatoes, the bigger the demand. I came to Akwa Ibom with something that was also affected, so it wasn’t so big. On a general note, after considering my expenses, I had about N3,000 from one bag as my gain on something I spent about N23,000 on. I am not too bothered because I just felt it was something that should just keep me going; it’s just for sustenance within this period. I am hoping that thing would turn around soon.
What are your thoughts about the lingering strike which led you into selling potatoes?
I feel bad because I am a lecturer and a member of ASUU. I wish we could understand that a lecturer in Nigeria is among the least paid in the whole world, even in Africa. A professor earns an average of 460,000 per month, and that was when the former system of payment was used. With the independent personnel payroll system, which ASUU is kicking against, I know of a lecturer who has not been paid for 10 months before this strike started because of the inconsistencies of the payment and that’s one thing. Then when you come into the university system, the structure needs attention. When a lecturer teaches a class of about 300 students without an amplifier, that lecturer feels tired and sick at the end of the lecture.
Also, when ASUU talks about revitilisation funds, to at least revitalise our system, it is fair that the Federal Government should look at it. We are not just fighting for our welfare alone. We are also fighting for the welfare of these institutions, and the earned allowances of some of the lectures. I came in a year ago but some will tell you they have not been paid their allowances for over five years. Those are the things ASUU has demanded since 2009. Let us go back to what was negotiated and see how we can make some adjustments but it seems we are not being heard or the understanding is not just there. ASUU’s demands are fair. I feel the educational sector is not just given priority and it is worrisome. Now, we are going to produce graduates who stayed at home for months during the COVID-19 lockdown, and when the lockdown ended, stayed at home for six months. What ASUU is saying is that there should be a lasting solution to the problems even if this (strike) is what it has to take.
Lecturers, their families and students are the most hit by the industrial action. What is your advice to your colleagues and others affected?
My advice to my colleagues, who I know are already finding ways to survive, is they should not relent. Those of them who have become innovative enough to find means of survival should just continue. And I hope those who have probably not found something to keep them going will get the creativity to find ways of survival even outside of the classroom. This is what the situation of the country has caused. Let’s keep on until we win. For all students, education does not only happen in the classroom. In this kind of situation, let them find themselves meaningfully engaged in other forms of education, including entrepreneurship. They should also see this (strike) as a fight for their lecturers only but as one that they should be involved in. The Federal Government, we want a system that works and the demands ASUU has made are fair and should be looked into. I believe every job comes with its challenges, and when such come, it is left for us all to brace up and face them, and at the end of it all, we will come out strong.