A United States-based physician, Ejike Nwonkwor, tells OPEYEMI ADEFEMI about his experience growing up and his tough journey into the medical profession
Where are you from and what are you doing currently?
My name is Ejike Nwonkwor. I am from Enugu State. I studied Medicine at the University of Jos. I worked for some years in Nigeria with some organisations and some hospitals before I migrated to the United States. I am currently training as a psychiatrist in the United States of America.
What kind of family did you come from?
I was born and raised in Enugu. I was a kind of village person. I am the last of six siblings. Both my parents were Christians and I grew up as a Catholic. I schooled mostly in the village where I was born but at some point, while in secondary school, I had to change school, and that gave me the opportunity to leave the village where I was born for the first time.
My childhood was not the glamorous kind. My primary school education was interrupted because a certain military governor of Enugu State then introduced school fees in elementary schools. There was a fee of N50 to be paid for a year but my parents couldn’t raise the money. So, I stopped going to school and stayed home.
I had a very challenging, but at the same time, exciting childhood. I remember a particular time, there was voter registration going on and a polling unit was stationed in front of our house. I took it upon myself to sweep the place where the NEC (National Electoral Commission) staff would sit. I would bring out their chairs and tables every morning and set up the place before their arrival. When they completed the exercise, one of the officials decided to pay me. As a result, I got enough money to go back to school. But the following year, I was stopped from attending school (for failure to pay fees).
Shortly before my Common Entrance Examination, a certain group called City Brothers Club floated a scholarship scheme to sponsor three of the best candidates in the Common Entrance Examination. The scholarship would cover tuition fees from JSS1 to JSS3. They sold the forms in schools and on the last day of the sale, my mother managed to get N5 and purchased the form for me. I prepared for and took the very competitive exam.
After my brother’s death, I was already making plans to go and learn a trade in Kano because there was no money for school. One Sunday afternoon, people who went to church in our main parish came home and were congratulating me. They informed me that my name was announced at the church as the first beneficiary of the scholarship. I was filled with excitement. I got my first school uniform from a friend who had more than one, got books donated and mum bought me my first rubber sandals. Off to school I went.
The same organisation was impressed with my academic progress and my results in the final examination to transit to senior secondary school, which our people call Junior WAEC. So, the organisation decided to extend the scholarship through to SS3. Not just that, they also loaned me money to pay for my West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination. I had to repay that.
Your dad’s name did not feature in your narration. Where was he and what role did he play?
I lost my father when I was just a few months old. I barely knew him. I only learnt about him in the stories my mum told me and in photographs that I saw. When I grew up and I started meeting people, I learnt a couple of things more about him from people who knew him.
Sadly, I also lost my mum the very year that I finished secondary school. Looking back now, I can say it was all very tough for me. The truth is that as a child then, I did not fully appreciate or understand my disadvantages as an orphan. It’s just like when you are born into a circumstance and you don’t even have a standard to compare with. For instance, I grew up without a father; so, I didn’t even know how it felt to have a father. My mum was there for me until her death. After my secondary school when she died I felt like that is life too. I actually thought that that is life; that it was normal.
I remember when I changed my secondary school and went to a small city near my town. I would go to school and meet people taking about their father’s driver, their mother’s secretary at the office and so on. All that looked strange to me. I always felt like, ‘Oh, you have a father and he has a driver!’ I didn’t know what it felt like and to be honest, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch television growing up. I didn’t even know what a television looked like. We had this radio that we listened to whenever we could afford batteries. So, the cartoons and other things that kids watched were really strange to me back then.
It was once in a while when we visited someone’s house that I would see a TV. There is this saying that ignorance is bliss, so I didn’t crave any of those things. I didn’t crave them because I didn’t have them. I just lived in my own world. Because of my background and everything I passed through I knew for sure that I was hungry for success. I was very hungry. It wasn’t in terms of money or position but I was very curious and I wanted to explore. I wanted to touch the end of the world. So, for me, I felt like I was born into one extreme of life. I felt like that was an opportunity for me to move to the other extreme of life. That was the mindset I had.
Why did you change secondary school?
The reason I changed secondary school was because I was doing very well in my class. I always topped the class. I knew those days that I wasn’t reading or working so hard. One day I told my mum that it’s either I’m a genius or I am in the wrong school. I felt like I wasn’t challenged. I was barely 15 years old. I felt like I needed to know if I was that good or was it just because I was in the village and I was a village champion. It was a very tough decision because we didn’t even have enough to keep me in the village’s school not to talk of going to a nearby city to study. One of our relatives lived in the town; so, I had to go live with him and his family. I wrote the entrance exam for the school and I was admitted. I found what I was looking for. When I got there, I wasn’t topping the class. I met challenges, I met people who made me realise I had to sit up and work harder. Going there exposed me to university students, and from there, I began to form ideas of what I would study. While I was in the village, it was all about going to school, coming back, fetching firewood and so on. I will always be grateful for those moments. From then, I never looked back.
You mentioned that in a post, you left for medical school with just N10,000 and prayers from your priest. How did you pull through school?
The story of how I started to survive in medical school was that when I was in secondary school, even though I got some help from one organisation, I would buy salt in bags so I could sell and I was making enough money. Every weekend and during the holidays, I would buy iodised salts in bags and I would hawk it in the market. I made money to buy books and sometimes, something nice like school sandals or bag. I saw from secondary school that I could actually make money by doing some business. When I changed school and I wasn’t living in my community, I still needed to make money. There was this family that took me in and there were some undergraduates living around. We became friends and I was helping them with laundry and cleaning their apartments. That also became a source of making money. I always felt that when you render good service, there are remunerations. When I finished secondary school, things got complex because my mum died that year and I started taking UTME (Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination). I took UTME a few times because I wasn’t getting the course I wanted.
I finally got to study Medicine at the University of Jos. I didn’t know where to start. I had older siblings but they were not employed and were also in school struggling. The same year I got the admission, my cousin who was the Catholic priest I was living with died. When he was sick, there was this elderly bishop that would come to pray for him. I just felt led in my spirit to go talk to the bishop even though he wasn’t a rich person and was already retired. I didn’t even know what to do. The retired bishop prayed for me. He told me to serve and that I should be serious with my studies. He said I would never lack anything. It was like a prophecy. He went upstairs and he gave me N10,000 in an envelope. Registration for new students as of then was around N8,000. With some other money that I had, I packed my bags and took a night bus. That was my first trip out of my state. Fortunately, I had a cousin who was on national youth service there. The reason I said that the bishop’s prayer was a prophecy is because, of the truth, when I look back today, I can’t even imagine how I went through medical school and never got delayed because of funds. I never paid school fees late. I never lost a semester because I couldn’t pay my fees. Yes, I know I worked hard, but it wouldn’t have been possible if not for God’s grace.
I did a lot to sustain myself. I had some friends who were from Benue State and there were some sandals they always came with. I got help from a lot of people. Even people I didn’t know. One instance was when I went to church and I met someone who came to visit his partner. We greeted and in the evening he came to my hostel and he told me he knew a military man, and that we should go see him. While we were there, the man asked me many questions and began to develop interest in me. He would always call me. I remember one time he was out of the country and he called me and said I should go and meet his wife, as he had sent me some money. That was the kind of help I got. The money was about N40,000 and as of then it was a lot of money.
Whenever I got that kind of money, I would buy some sandals and took them to sell in Enugu State during the holidays. I would go to banks and other places. I would make some money to sustain myself. I also remember a year when (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo’s government offered students one year scholarship. I took the exam and I got the scholarship. It was really tough but I got a lot of help.
Was there any time you felt like giving up?
There were moments when I felt helpless and hopeless. As I said, I didn’t have a lot of self-pity or sitting down and analysing my situation. For me, the mindset was that I must keep moving. I had no time for brooding. There were days that as an adult, I broke down and cried. The situation where things would happen and one would call their parents to talk to them about it. There were moments like that. There were also moments when I was so scared about life and even the decisions I was taking. Giving up was never an option because when you look back to where you are coming from, you won’t want to go back there. For me, it has always been an improvement over my previous status. I learnt by default to be appreciative.
After recounting you story, how do you feel today?
I feel grateful to God. I attribute everything to God because I have had moments where things will happen in one’s life and you would be sure that this is the hands of God. Personally it was like that for me and these moments were too numerous. If I need something and there is a deadline for it, just at the deadline or a minute before it, money from nowhere or one I didn’t plan will just come to my rescue. I also feel indebted to help others. Sometimes, I feel like I’m condemned to help. There are people that are going through what I went through and they didn’t come out close to what I am. My story is a testimony to God’s kindness towards me through human beings. I met a lot of angels on the way. They are too numerous to count. I just feel like I am condemned to return this favour in whichever way or form that I can. It is not something I am considering it is a must for me. Beyond every other goal in my life it is the most important. I feel like the reason God helped me was so that I can give back. I am not confused about this and I won’t give up that purpose for anything.
Since you feel indebted, are there specific categories of people that will benefit from this?
No specific category at the moment, even though I am on the track of establishing a foundation. You know the way things work in this part of the world. Things are so organised. If one wants to do charity, it is better to register and do it the right way. At the same time, I’ve been doing random acts of kindness on my own. I have partners back home that help me out and I don’t have a specific category yet. When I streamline everything, I may be able to see. The favours I got were so random and different. There were days when my mum and I were in the village and we didn’t have food to eat. It was that bad. Random people in church would just give my mum money or even food. Whatever you have is capable of changing someone’s life even if it’s for a day or week or months.
Will the organisation be in the US or Nigeria?
Most of my help will be channelled to Nigeria mainly because I feel like more people need help back home. I can stay here and fund charity. A greater percentage of my focus will be back home.