By JOSEPHINE IGBINOVIA
SHE’S resided with her family in Chicago, USA, since 1996 when she left Nigeria, yet Toyin Ayeni has practically been representing her motherland, working hard towards giving Nigeria a facelift.
‘Self-appointed ambassador’, I choose to call her! A motivational speaker, Mrs.Toyin Ayeni is the author of the book, ‘I am a Nigerian, Not a Terrorist’, a piece enjoying cult-following in the United States and beyond. Vista Woman had an online chat with this lady who has been a two-time guest-panelist at the United Nations sessions on the Commission on the Status of Women, CSW. Enjoy!
Most Nigerians in diaspora wish they could erase the thought of being Nigerians, but you particularly seem proud of your country…
It is strange that you ask me this question from Nigeria because just a few months ago while giving a presentation to a group of High school student ambassadors at Ogden International School in Chicago, I was asked a similar question. This teenage boy’s question was, “America has a lot to be proud about, what can you say you are proud of about Nigeria?” My simple answer was: “Its rich culture”.
As much as I am not proud of where Nigeria is right now, I am definitely proud to be a Nigerian. Growing up in Nigeria makes a huge difference. Regardless of the negative reputation the country has sometimes, my very core beliefs and values are rooted in Nigeria. We have things that are priceless- rich culture and values to be proud of and passed on to the next generation. Rome was not built in a day, so, I believe we have hope that Nigeria will grow and get better for the next generation with strategic changes. We can’t afford to give up.
Kindly share with us those activities you’ve been engaged in, in your bid to promote Nigeria?
Being a part of the Diaspora in the United States has its advantages and opportunities- the biggest advantage being exposure to other ways of life. In a land full of foreigners, people are curious about other foreigners; hence the opportunities. As mentioned, as with the case of my presentation at Ogden, I do some public speaking. I get invited to speak but I also volunteer to speak especially to encourage the youth.
Some of my speaking engagements include being the keynote speaker at the Horace Greely Elementary school’s International Week where I spoke to the entire school in sessions about Nigeria. I was also invited as the keynote speaker at the 51st Nigeria Independence Day celebrations in Springfield, Illinois. Other speaking engagements about Nigeria were at the Chicago African Festival of Arts to a diverse audience, Mather’s More than a Café to senior citizens and at various elementary and high school functions around the United States.
What inspired the writing of your book ‘I am a Nigerian, Not a Terrorist’, and when was the book conceived and published?
I call it my “God idea” considering the fact that I didn’t set out to be an author. It was truly God-inspired and it was written to mark Nigeria’s golden jubilee. I’m always asked a lot of questions about Nigeria by colleagues at work and acquaintances at business and social gatherings. My three children who were all born and raised in the United States also had a lot of questions about Nigeria.
So, in my bid to not only promote a more positive image about Nigeria to the general masses but to be the one to give a more accurate and balanced story to my children than what they hear from Western world media, I wrote the book “I am a Nigerian, Not a Terrorist”. The book was conceived in 2009 but I didn’t start writing seriously till 2010. It was published nine months later in 2010. It is a very light read and certainly not intended to be a history book. I deliberately wrote it that way so anyone could pick it up and read within a short period. Based on feedback however, students have used excerpts from the book f
or their class assignments.
As a widely-travelled Nigerian, a motivational speaker and an advocate for good governance, what’s your advice to Nigeria?
For change to happen, our actions have to be deliberate. Happenstance will not work. We can’t expect others to develop Nigeria for us and we can’t procrastinate and leave it to the next person or next generation. I believe that the opportunities to make progress are all around us. We have enough bright minds in Nigeria to plan and strategise for change and now is the time to act.
I strongly believe that the private sector of Nigeria will be a contributing factor to Nigeria’s growth and development and successful Nigerians based in the Diaspora have to be a part of it. I actually have some pointers with specified areas of development in my book. Nigeria’s development might need to be a bottom up approach by Nigerians for Nigeria, regardless of where they are, as long as growth and progress is steady and measurable.
What inspired your decision to share Nigeria with non-Nigerians and introduce them to its vast culture?
I believe ignorance is not bliss. I also believe that people treat one another with a little bit more respect when they know them. Everyone has a story and I think knowing is what leads to an understanding and more acceptance of our diversity. I share Nigeria for the same reason I wrote the book- I get asked a lot of questions about Nigeria, by colleagues, acquaintances, my children and their friends.
When I look at my children’s social studies or humanities history text books, I discover there is really nothing deep enough to tell them about the most populous African country. The fact that we’re the 8th most populous country in the world means that we are important because ‘people’ matter. I believe that Nigeria’s diversity, its complexities and richness need to be shared to avoid the one-sided story syndrome that a lot of supposed “third world” countries are victims of.
Nigeria clocks 53 in three months and the hope of many for a brighter future for it, is dimming by the day; what about yours?
My spirit is definitely rising. Hope is everything. There is so much potential in a land with as much natural and human resources as we have. Against all odds, I am optimistic and excited to say that I plan to “put my money where my mouth is.” With so much talk about developing Nigeria, I am working on a project whose primary goal is to empower Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
Afro Projects HQ- APHQ is a US based online crowd funding and project management company with a satellite office in Lagos, Nigeria. The mission is to reduce unemployment and poverty ultimately leading to a reduction in crime. Afro Projects HQ’s goal is to create an upward shift for Africans, going from the “American dream” to an African dream and in our case, a “Nigerian dream.” I am looking forward to launching APHQ this year in Nigeria.
May we know about your background ?
I’m an Egba girl with parents from Ogun State, but born and raised in Ibadan, Oyo State, and married to an Ondo man. I attended Maryhill Convent School, Ibadan, went on to Federal Government Girls College, Sagamu and then proceeded to the University of Ibadan where I graduated with a B.Sc in Microbiology. I moved to the United States after my NYSC and went on to do a Masters degree in Information Systems Management. That took me into the world of Information Technology, particularly in financial institutions including Northern Trust, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase; with work experience varying from Treasury Services to Commercial Card Quality Assurance and Project Management .