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Rising from Poverty: Life Lessons from My Father

It’s 8:30 in the evening. I’m sitting in front of my dad asking him questions about growing up in Nigeria as young boy. A few days earlier, he had jokingly made a comment about being a child street hawker. In to which I had asked of him, “Can you tell me more about that?” So, this evening is our story telling date, where he shares his personal history of rising from poverty; one that has impacted my life without me even knowing it.

When I asked him about his early years, my father responded, “We were the poorest of the poor.” As a six year old, his older brothers began to school him in what they did as a family to make ends meet. They’d rise up early in the morning and arrange their mother’s inventory of edible goods in trays. Then they’d stack the trays on their heads to sell to people on the streets. In the morning, they sold a breakfast of bread and eggs for those in the workers’ district. In the evening, their goods became heavy dinners of fufu, a Nigerian staple, for those settling in after work.

When it came time for my father and his four siblings to go to school, they split the task of street hawking among themselves to fund their education. An older brother in school meant that the younger spent his “playtime” hawking to earn money for the tuition. Secondary education (middle school and up) wasn’t free. When the younger started school, the more mature older brother managed his time schooling and earning money for his sibling’s education. On and on the pattern went until my dad got into college. By this time, other options to earn money had opened up. But the pattern of partnership to pay off everyone’s tuition remained the same.

“I didn’t even think I would make it to middle school [because of where my family was],” my father said. “When people would talk about school around me, I used to walk away. But education was one thing my parents didn’t play with. They denied themselves so we could go to school.” When started father school, however, he discovered an edge he had over his peers – his intellect. He cultivated it and began to use it to his advantage. And so in his life, he grew from street hawker to Accountant, and he soon became Operations Manager of a leading bank. Eventually, he became the bank’s Head of Technology with responsibility in multiple nations.

I asked my father if his street hawking experiences had any impact on his mindset as he grew in his career. He confirmed this wholeheartedly. “I learned the value of hard work. It let me see that if you put your mind to something, you can truly achieve it.” This was a standard my father set for my brother and I as we were growing up. Focus was the name of the game. My father summarized yet another way his experience influenced his mindset with this statement: “I don’t believe you get free money anywhere.” This is another a lesson he taught me when I was a teenager working in a retail store.

I had been working for a few months and realized that my paycheck was simply funding gas to get to and from the store. It just wasn’t enough. I reasoned that I could complain about it to my dad and he’d give me a check here and there to ease the burden. Apparently, I thought his bank account was mine too. But instead he said to me, “No. You either find a way to work more hours, or you negotiate a higher pay with your boss.” Till this day, those words have never left me. They instilled in me a strong sense of ownership of my path in life. I ended up getting a second job that summer.

Of all the lessons my father learned from hawking, the most valuable of all was integrity. Each day of work ended with reporting sales to his mother. She would then take the money in hand and apportion it for the family’s needs. He had the leeway to misrepresent how much he earned; opportunity to put a little something aside for himself. But with his mother, he learned not to. “[She] taught me that you don’t use fraud to get ahead ahead in life.” And for my father, that was a lesson that stuck. As he said, “When you work in a bank’s operations, there’s so much exposure. I can’t even tell you how much money in electronic transfers passed through my hands on a daily basis. I never once thought to take advantage of it.”

Given his story, I asked my father what advice he has to give to a younger generation that can often struggle with motivation. To this he responded, “A lot of people don’t know what poverty is like. I work the way I do because poverty is something I don’t want to go back to. I don’t even want my children to smell it. If you’ve known poverty and are given a chance to get out of it [whether through education, work, or something else of integrity] you’ll jump at it.” I guess the moral of the story here is, if you don’t put in work, poverty is waiting. Let’s not give it a reason to.

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