From selling tobacco at bus parks to drinking oil & smoking gas at one of the world's biggest oil & gas giants!
Humans love catharsis – that situation which draws pity and fear from you. Pity, for the sad experience, and fear, because somewhere deep down you’re terrified that the same thing may happen to you or a loved one. Far above this love for catharsis, is a dislike for tragedy. Almost everyone loves a good story – the kind of story that leaves your heart bursting with happiness even though it might have started on a sad note. Such a story falls neatly in the ‘from grass to grace’ category. But even grasses may be a luxury in some desperate times when the earth around you boils and vegetations cannot thrive. It can be likened to the scorch of the sun, unrelenting in the sky and no matter where you turn to for shelter, the excruciating bites of the heat follow. Then, suddenly you’re transported onto a calm scenery, where a cool breeze caresses your skin and the wet, titillating scent of nature is inhaled with your every breath. Imagine for a moment, the exhilarating feeling! That was the exact feeling for Collins Ezeocha!
Collins Ezeocha grew up in the rustic setting of old Maroko, where shanties sat on each other’s shoulders and became a floating abyss when the waters overran the banks and flowed freely through the streets. The demolition of the Maroko area in 1990 led to the relocation of his family to Ajegunle. Collins speaks reminiscently of that period: “Our house was not far from the present location of Eti-Osa Local Govt. I have jokingly referred to my background as poor with a lot of ‘shukushuku’ (thorns).” He fondly remembers playing football and rolling tyres, wearing only his underpants with other kids on the streets and the delights of the banal such as drinking garri with fried pork. There was a sense of communal living – a type of togetherness absent in today’s ‘gated’ lifestyle especially among the elites. The Ezeochas were not wealthy, but they were happy.
Then, the vicissitudes of life kicked in and just like the highly famous demand curve in Economics, which is dependent on some near-irrefutable laws, there was indeed a downward-shaped slope. Worse still, the actual situation became more like a scatter-graph. Collins relates:
“My mother died on the 9th of January, 1995. It was a great loss that had a huge impact on my life. It slowed down my academic pursuit; it changed the course of my academic journey. My mother was a petty trader but her income by far surpassed that of my dad. She was determined to give us the best with her limited resources. I recall having at least two textbooks for each of my science subjects. But after her death, this all changed. I had to live with my uncle and my kid brother went to live with our cousin.”
During this trying time after his mother’s death, an incident remains etched in his memory. After a stern warning from his Biology teacher in high school who had threatened fire and brimstone if he missed a practical class, Collins had had to trek from Pako Aguda to Broad Street, Lagos! His uncle had forgotten to drop his transport fare. For a child who grew up under the sheltered wings of his mother, it was very difficult for Collins to beg or ask people for favours. So, he had braced himself and trekked that long distance. He recalls that emotional experience: “I got to school and started crying. My Vice Principal helped to rally around to get some money for me to return home.”
That strenuous trek was to set the pace for varying challenges he had to face headlong as the years trudged by slowly. After Collins finished his secondary school education, he couldn’t proceed for further studies immediately because first, he had to survive. He took to teaching (mainly home coaching) Physics, Chemistry and Maths. He went to the homes of the elites and the middle class – he noticed the quality of life they had; beautiful homes and lovely children provided with luxury & comfort. This observation sometimes left him depressed as he returned to his space of almost nothing but over time, it motivated him to strive harder to make the most of his situation. He was ready to try his hands on anything just to succeed and he recollects vividly: “Let me quickly add that I also stayed with a friend that was selling tobacco and I did sell tobacco (taba) at Maroko bus stop for almost a year.”
While it’s all too common to find young people in need being under immense pressure to crack up & simply find shortcuts out of any undesirable hole, Collins remained resolute & gritty. His humble and disciplined upbringing helped him remain focused, against all odds. Collins says:
“I didn't have to look for quick fixes or corrupt practices. As I said earlier, ‘mo ta taba ati ogogoro’ (I sold tobacco and gin) at Maroko Bus Stop. And there were times when my employer had to introduce me as a graduate to some of the families whose children I taught just to make them feel more comfortable with me. They would look at me with suspicion but after the teaching, they would be so impressed that I often got some additional goodwill compensation. Aside those cases, I can't remember getting involved in any corrupt shortcuts.”
For a period of two years, Collins worked hard to eke out a living. Then, there came a rare opportunity for him to advance with his biggest aspiration – to get an education. The vice principal of the secondary school he attended had introduced him to some old students for their assistance. However, these persons were only interested in assisting him if & only if he accepted to study medicine in the university. Given the duration of a medical course and his peculiar circumstances, it didn't quite cut the mustard for him; he would possibly not survive such a marathon without firm financial assurances. Instinctively, he knew he was cut out for just one specific area: Engineering. His main reason for this choice was his strong numerical ability and love for the “core” science subjects. He did not have any guidance or mentoring on this and took the decision solely based on his academic prowess in subjects such as physics & mathematics. Collins had heard that the Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH) was an institution which promoted practical & applied knowledge; and this provided further impetus & a firm assurance of self-empowerment even without the prospect of a paid job after his studies. In no time, his tertiary education adventure kicked off at YABATECH. “The entrance form fee was paid for by my immediate senior at Methodist Boys High School whom I ran into on Marina road. Mohammed Usman, if you get to read this, I say thank you.”
A year passed by and while in a mechanical workshop with more than 100 students gathered around a Lathe machine and with him barely able to see the practical instructions being shown, Collins decided to leave the workshop for the library. On the pages of a book, he learnt what was being taught in the practical class and in the examination, he scored 86 (the highest mark) without any practical or operational knowledge. Collins realised it was time to do something bizarre – “My worst fears stared me in the face. The practical knowledge I had sought was not what I was getting. I took a decision to leave engineering and embark on another course in the university. I bought a GCE form and registered for a few social-science subjects. I also bought a JAMB form to apply to study accounting at the prestigious University of Lagos. It was a tough decision and I didn't discuss it with anyone. I didn't know as of that time that engineering in Nigeria was driven mainly by the industry you eventually got employed into.”
Collins like a diligent farmer did not abandon his tilled crops close to the harvest. He chose to complete his National Diploma in Engineering while he also prepared for his new exploration into the social-science world. Collins recounts proudly: “I left YABATECH as the best engineering student at ND level and months later, got admitted into the University of Lagos on merit to study accounting. Again, the fear of not being able to defend my certificate (practical wise) came into my mind. However, I was determined to give it my best efforts.”
As an Akokite (a UNILAG student), the struggle was unrelenting. Everything on campus was expensive as the general belief, especially among commodity vendors, was that only rich folks attended UNILAG. This was before private universities took that award away. Would you blame them? Everything on campus supported & cemented that belief; there were rich students, the Yahoo boys & the aristo-babes in Moremi & Fagunwa. So, many folks were either from rich homes or were doing something, albeit illegit, to maintain a lifestyle garnished with luxury. So, surviving on campus while aiming to top a class filled with some of the most intelligent students out there (many of them with already well-established social-science foundation) with no much financial assistance from anybody was quite daunting.
To survive, Collins continued with teaching but this time around, within the university environment in Akoka. “I was taking Distance Learning Institute (DLI) students, LASU part-time students and private students. I was also on a number of scholarships that no doubt were life-savers.” When he was asked about the strategies he used in maintaining excellence in his studies, this was his inspiring response: “Start with the end in mind. The drive for me was to make a First Class ab initio. The strategy was simple – STUDY, STUDY and STUDY. I tried in most cases to be ahead of the class – I solved lots of questions and went the extra mile. Prioritise your time. Yes, catch some fun but let your primary objective be to leave the school with the best you can.” Indeed, Ejiks (as he was fondly called by his classmates & admirers) became a hot property on campus in no time as his reputation as one of the academic giants in UNILAG soared tremendously. The name of the engineer-turned-accountant phenomenon rang a bell in Newest Hall, Marierie, King Jaja, MTH, Amina, Faculty of Business Admin, even all the way to the Faculty of Engineering where the top dogs there were too glad that he had swiftly made that switch while entering UNILAG (one less competitor!). At the end of the very first semester of his first year, he was already on First-Class. This, he maintained till the very end; blasting a few records along the way.
Ejiks is, indeed, one of a kind. This was someone who did sciences all through his days in high school. He went to YABATECH & beat everyone to pick up the top award in Engineering. He woke up, had a whim & decided to "cross-carpet" to the other side. After a year or two, he was not only ahead of the pack in his new field, he was teaching people who had done those same subjects all their lives. He had a singular belief which he held onto: he believed if he attained success in his academics, he would be on a path to success in life. “Absolutely, it makes life’s journey easy especially if you are not leaving straight to run your company. Getting good grades gives you an invite to most job tests. It makes it easier for someone to want to refer you. It is an immediate assessment of your capability without trying you out. It bridges the gap between an elite and a rural guy. In my case, God granted me favour by blessing the work of my hand. Do your bit and let God do the rest.”
Now, to the pressing question on most minds – how did that boy who once sold tobacco at bus parks end up in an IOC (international oil company)? Collins Ezeocha’s response: “Na God! I applied to the IOC via Naijahotjobs during my NYSC in Minna. I was lucky to be among the few that were eventually employed after the rigorous employment process.” According to Collins, his strategy for sustaining excellence and uniqueness in his workplace is simple: “Try to be the best at what you do. Go the extra mile, have a self-propelling drive/passion for excellence. Let your work speak for you and then leave the rest to God.”
It is noteworthy that after all the rigours this young man has passed through, he has retained a boisterous spirit, one which radiates through his lively responses. If Collins Ezeocha had a chance to rewrite his life’s history, what are the things he would change and those he would prefer remained the same? “Maybe I should start with hoping I was born into an elite or middle class home (hahahaha). On a more serious note, I think my life actually revolved this way because of my background. I would prefer the discipline, godly instructions from my parents, strong value system, drive for excellence and self-starter traits remained the same.”
For the struggling youths and entry-level staff entering the corporate world in Nigeria, he had this advice: “Be focused. Let the end guide your behaviour, inculcate a penchant for excellence, create an enviable brand for yourself. Ask yourself what you would want to be remembered for. Lastly, don’t lose hope. My God who did it for me, will do much more for you.”
Collins Ezeocha is happily married to his beautiful wife, Diana, whom he met at UNILAG and they are blessed with two beautiful daughters & a lovely son.
Developed Exclusively for LeVitateNaija by: Ife Watson & Isaac Audu-Usman