‘At Christmas, We Shopped at Leventis, Bhojsons and Bata… Father’s Death Put Paid to All That’
Among many other new realities to which the family had to adapt when its sole bread winner died suddenly, Edwards Erapi had to shelve his initially tall ambitions. But by sheer providence, the clerk who had lost his dream grew to become a manager in NNPC. Erapi who turned 60 recently shares memories of his past with Funke Olaode
A rosy beginning cut short
I My parents hailed from Fugar in Auchi area of Edo State but I was born in Lagos Island Maternity Hospital on September 17, 1952. By the time I was born, my father was involved in transportation business and had a couple of lorries. He was also a business man. He was based in Iddo in Ebute Meta area on Lagos Mainland. My mother was a house wife. My father had two wives and my mother was the first wife who bore him five children and the second wife had three. So we are eight children in the family. It was a privileged beginning growing up in a polygamous setting where we had everything in abundance. We never lacked anything. Polygamy was not a big deal in my family because my father was a man of authority. Also, he loved his children dearly and the idea of favourism was completely ruled out. As a matter of fact, I am the first child and son and he didn’t favour me at all. Not that he hated me; he just believed that if anything goes wrong, it is going to affect my younger siblings. So he did not show any open affection towards me. But he died young at the age of 52 and that marked the beginning of struggling through life. It was very tough growing up without a father. I was in Primary Four when he died. As small as I was then, I knew the implication. I just looked up and said ‘God, I put all my hope on you’. Honestly, that little faith worked for me as I passed through stages of life. With his eternal absence and seven younger siblings behind, we took life as it came and forged on. Ebute Meta was a middle class setting then among Lagosians. Later, Surulere came into existence. It was very interesting growing up there. There were stores such as Leventis. There was also a lagoon in Makoko where we used to go and swim. Life was beautiful.
Coping with a new reality
After my father’s death, I went to live with an uncle in Ebute Meta who was not as rich as my father. He worked with the Nigerian Railway Corporation. Of course, he had his own immediate family to look after. No doubt, my father’s death was very devastating when I stated noticing certain changes. In fact, I could not concentrate on my studies. One of my teachers called my uncle and told him: ‘take care of this young man because he is a bundle of talent’. Adjusting to life in another man’s house was difficult. And I remember an incident that occurred shortly after my father’s death. My father was a very rich man and every Christmas, he would take us for shopping. We would go to Leventis, Bhojsons to buy clothes. We also visited Bata in Lagos where we bought shoes. Immediately he fell sick, we started seeing the difference and by the time he passed on, it dawned on me that I would never visit those stores again. With an uncle who was not quite comfortable, asking for clothes or shoes was like asking for too much. Christmas came that year, there were no decent clothes to wear and even to church. It was a big shock. So I had to adjust to a new life. I learnt a lot from this uncle of mine. He was a very disciplined man who minded his business. He doesn’t mix with people so I learnt that from him. We didn’t have much but we were content with the little we had. I remember one of our teachers in secondary school then used to sing it into our ears that ‘we suffer in order not to suffer’. He said we should read our books. It was a guide that helped me; that I should concentrate on my books – which I did.
No room for youthful exuberance
With the sudden change in my life, even if I had any youthful exuberance I had to keep it at bay. I was a quiet child and the circumstances in which I found myself subdued me further. Already, I was a burden and if I now brought trouble to the house will it not be too much on my benefactor? I remained a good boy till I finished my primary education and went to Auchi for my secondary education.
Going to school wasn’t automatic because of the laid down rules that the right hand should touch the left ear. I eventually began at St. Paul’s Catholic School, Ebute Meta, Lagos. I could not recall my first day in school; the only thing I remember was that my eyes turned red. When I got home my parents thought I was punished by a teacher, but it was natural because sand got into my eyes and since then it has been a problem. I spent six years in that school and left for St. John’s Grammar School, an American post primary education in Fugar, my home town. My stay in this school was short-lived because I left after two years. It was compulsory for everyone to pass mathematics which I passed very well. But for a reason best known to the school authorities, they said I must repeat. I said having passed the paper very well, it was humiliating for me to repeat that class, so I left for Edo Boys’ High School, Benin City. I was a good footballer and was popular being a Lagos boy and the rest were from rural villages. I left Edo Boy’s High School in 1967 and moved back to Lagos to start work as a clerk
The hand of providence
Having managed to finish my secondary education without any financial hindrances – though it was tough – my ambition was to look for a job. It never occurred to me that I would ever pass through the four walls of a university. I went to work at the then ministry of economic development located at Tafawa Balewa Square on Lagos Island as a clerk. It was immediately after the war. There was an advertisement for scholarship for Nigerians to be trained abroad. It was during the Murtala and Obasanjo administration. I just ignored it because I thought it was for big men’s children. A friend of mine, Boniface Aliu, came to my office one day and said he was going to collect a scholarship form. I even persuaded him not to go since he is not a child of a big man. But the man was optimistic and even dragged me along. Reluctantly, I went with him. He knew one of the employees and Boniface was given more than one form. Boniface said, ‘since you are here, you too take one and go and fill it’. I took it, got to my office and kept it inside my drawer. And later, I decided to fill it. Someone must have put akara (bean cake) on it because it was stained with oil. I filled it like that and submitted it anyway since I wasn’t interested. I filled oil and gas which was what everybody was filling. I thought it was a technical course and I felt if it eventually clicked, it would be better than a clerk’s job. It was later I discovered that it was petroleum or gas engineering. That decision was a turning point in my life as God used that singular step to direct my career path. I was working in the ministry of economic development and at the same time I registered for advanced level at Methodist High School in Lagos. Looking back, it was a divine providence. When the list came out, I got a scholarship to go to the United States to study petroleum engineering at University of Louisiana in 1976 and my friend, Boniface, was given medical laboratory.
Going to America
I set out to conquer the world in 1976 when I left the country. My mother was a poor woman but I had hope. I remember my mother was able to raise N100 as sustenance allowance until I got to the Nigerian House in New York where the federal government cheque was waiting for me. When I got to the United States I was blown away by their level of development. I didn’t lose my cool though because I had it at the back of my mind to come back home with something. I spent four years in that university and came back in 1980. I did the one year national youth service at the University of Ibadan’s department of petroleum engineering. After my youth service, I got a job with Halliburton. But I didn’t enjoy it. When NPPC job came I just walked away from Halliburton because there was this national pride of working for one’s country. I was drawn to NNPC because of its medical. NNPC medical was better than any other establishment in Nigeria. I joined NNPC in 1981 as a Grade II petroleum engineer. I was in drilling, reservoirs and evaluation of what other oil companies are bringing. I rose gradually and became manager, the highest position one can get to in the organization. It was a wonderful experience being part of the NNPC family. NNPC was very good to work in those days because people who were our bosses then knew the importance of training for young engineers and geologists. People like Adams, Jimoh etc were all good technocrats. They were sending us abroad for training. If there were challenges, it was the fact that we didn’t have any role model or somebody who had done something before. We all started from the scratch. That was the challenge and we enjoyed it because of the training. I remember in those days if you were to go offshore, you had your heart in your mouth. We didn’t know we were taking a risk because we were young. They would fly us with one propeller engine chopper, with everything looking like a glass. Luckily for us, we never recorded any major accident. But today, training at NNPC is now perceived as largesse. People just pick somebody they like, not somebody who knows the job or somebody who is going to use the training to uplift the organization. That was not the way trainings were done those days.
I have had several best moments in my life, but Sunday, October 14 remained memorable. It was the day I went to church to give thanks to God. My low moment was when I lost my father and later my mother. Both of them died too early. As young as I was, I lost all hope. There was nobody, but God was and is still with me. I said with this man’s demise may be I would go and become a mechanic or a carpenter. But my primary school teacher saw my future, talked to my uncle who I was staying with to pay more attention to me. I can’t ask for more. I am a fulfilled man. I got to the peak of my career and left NNPC as a manager.
Choosing a wife… and defying mum
I started being conscious of myself, getting attracted to the opposite sex in secondary school. I met my wife while she was in Form I in secondary school and I was about finishing. I just saw this young beautiful girl walking in front of my house. Though I paid attention to her, my effort to woo her intensified when I discovered that one of my friends who is a rascal was interested in her. I said it would not happen because this is an innocent and decent girl. In order to protect her, I decided to talk to her and that was how a relationship kicked off. I actually nurtured the relationship from our youth days. I left for the United States and she went to the University of Ife. When I came back we hit it off again and got married on August 18, 1983. We chose that date because it was close to our birthday. I was born on September 17 and my wife was born on October 13. We have been married for over 29 years and it has been wonderful. I thank God that I chose my wife who has played a vital role in my life and always ensured that I excelled in whatever I do. Marriage has its ups and downs but in our case it has been a roller coaster. My wife, Yemisi Erapi (nee Ologundudu) is from Akoko in Ondo State. The only challenge we had at the initial state was a minor opposition from my mother. My mother who had been talking about her glowingly suddenly changed immediately she knew I was going to marry her. I told my mother ‘but you have been commending her decency, attitude and all that’. I said it was too late because there was no going back. At the end of the day, she agreed and it was the best decision of my life. The marriage is blessed with three children – two girls and a boy.
Rededicating life to God
Providence played a lot of role in my life and I will ever be grateful. While growing up my intention was to study medicine. I later changed my mind that it was a course that would keep you perpetually in classroom. I also considered pharmacy which was shorter and straightforward. I said with pharmacy, one can open a chemist store. I don’t believe in doing too much of everything and leaving many things undone because it will come back to haunt you. Get married at the right time, have children and raise them in your prime. Don’t wait until it is too late. Today, I thank God for my children. I have three children and two of them are graduates. My last born is currently pursing a degree in petroleum engineering. So, it has been a wonderful experience passing through life succeeding. Looking at my different stages in life, I have enjoyed God’s favour in all my endeavours. There is only one thing left: I am not as close to God as I want. I have already taken a step to be closer and this time, there is no going back. That is why I have rededicated my life to serve him throughout my days.