Ogbuenyi Evelyn Okwudili is a beneficiary of INTELS Nigeria Limited’s Women Empowerment Programme Synergy Scheme (WEPSS). In this interview with AMAKA ANAGOR-EWUZIE, 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 the best graduating trainee at the just concluded INTELS’ WEPSS training. Can you give an insight into your journey up to this point?
My name is Ogbuenyi Evelyn Okwudili. I grew up in Abuloma and have lived all my life in Rivers State. 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 whiles 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, a school for the physically challenged at Trans-Amadi area of Port Harcourt. My higher school education was at Holy Rosary. Abuloma is a peaceful riverine community and 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 to me that 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. In 2010, I had the opportunity to work at the West African Container Terminal (WACT) because I was computer literate. It was a contract job that spanned for three or four months. A neighbor 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 could not 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 was not interested but I discussed it with my mum because my father was not around at the time. Just like me, my mother was not aware such programme exists but she was 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.
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 by cutting off some jobs to 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 center at the designated spot by 7.05am.
Like I said earlier, no one in my family knew about WEPSS or that it was being sponsored by INTELS. 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 did not 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 on WEPSS project when you consider the awards and gifts they give to the best performing trainees. You can also observe it from the manner the WEPSS center is run, what they pay their workers; it is exceptional. I get to hear a lot of persons outside the WEPSS center 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 center 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 center?
The experience was really mind blowing. I really did not know tailoring was this interesting. Initially, 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 such that I did not want to continue anymore.
We start each day 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 cannot 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 center, I observed that they maintain a high level of discipline and some of my colleagues were noisy. So, I had to be careful. It wasn’t until my third month that I started 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 got into the fabric exercise. That was when our trainers started giving us little pieces of fabrics to put together. At that time, 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.
At WEPSS, we were also 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 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.
Were you surprised when you emerged the best performing trainee?
Yes. The process was competitive and tough. 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 grateful to INTELS and my trainers for this opportunity.
I learned so many things at WEPSS that other tailors do not know. For instance, many tailors do not 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 cannot 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 would not have given it a second thought. It is such little details that make a lot of difference.
My mother was 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 would not know what I know. I plan to advance the learning and improve on some of the things I got here. I want to learn more in terms of the practical for cutting and then start out on my own on a small scale.