How civil war made me 1st female Nigerian professor of pharmacy

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The popular maxim that teachers’ rewards are in heaven is not applicable to Professor Cecilia Ihuoma Igwilo, who has dedicated her entire life to educating the younger generation. And for this dedication, Igwilo was conferred with an award of a ‘Distinguished Professor’ by the University of Lagos at the 2016 convocation ceremonies. “I have started reaping both from heaven and from here on earth.

At the last convocation, a parent invited me and my husband to their child’s convocation reception at the Lagoon front of the University. When we got there, I was overwhelmed with the love shown by my students and everyone. Many students that I couldn’t recognise greeted us and expressed their appreciation for the impact made in their lives. I felt very delighted. The joy of a teacher is in the many lives he or she has touched and brought up in the profession.

Also receiving the award and honour from the Federal Government as an Officer of the Order of Niger in 2005 showed me that government is also recording and noting some little efforts that people make,” she told The Point.

It was when I got into the academia that I realised that it is where God has destined for me. Now, I am teaching, guiding and helping those that desire to practise pharmacy, not just in the hospital alone, but also in the industry, community and academia. I feel fulfilled

From obtaining a first class degree at the now Obafemi Awolowo University, she had risen to become Nigeria’s first female professor of Pharmacy. But all she is today was not a walk in the park.

When the civil war broke in 1966, she was in class 3, at Girls’ Secondary School, Owerri, Imo State. Due to the severity of the situation, she recalls that everyone had to move their loved ones to the village.

Her parents, with nine children then, did the same. Igwilo was the first child. On getting to the village, however, things went bad. She explains that there were no health facilities, no roads, no electricity and good water.

Though she and her family went through a lot, the tough situation opened up the defining moment of her life. She said, “What stimulated my interest in pharmacy was that there were many sick people – victims of the civil war – who needed serious medical attention.

Unfortunately, the health facilities were remotely located and overstretched. The health facility, closest to my village was about five to eight miles away. Most times, one had to trek; the few lucky ones who had bicycles made the trip a lot easier for themselves.

Then, if you had a bicycle it was like an aeroplane. There was poverty and hardship everywhere. “Then I had a distant cousin, Uncle Ben, who was a pharmacist and lived three miles away from my village.

He used to dispense drugs to sick people that go to him, and in a very short time, they would recover. That really impressed me. I wondered about the nature of his profession that made him render such humanitarian services to a lot of people, because there was poverty everywhere.

We kept thanking God for him. I really admired him and made up my mind to pursue that profession, after I found out that he was a pharmacist.” It is safe to say her uncle, Uncle Ben, inspired her to pursue a career in pharmacy; thus after the civil war, she went back to school.

According to her, she started applying to various universities and got admitted into the then University of Ife, Ile-Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, to study pharmacy. That was her humble beginning.

It will also interest you that the celebrated professor sold ‘ogi’ as a young girl in the village. She stated that they usually woke up at 2a.m, with some of the elderly women and trek to the next two or three towns.

“We usually got to the market at 5-6am in the morning, and quickly buy the corn and carry it home on our heads. Of course, there were no grinding machines then, so I would soak my own corn for about two to three days, changing the water daily.

I would then pound the corn using mortar and pestle, sieve the slurring, using an appropriate cloth bag and then carry the processed ‘ogi’ to the nearby market for sale. My parents were happy with the efforts I was making to support the family,” she narrated to The Point.

For her, the period of the civil war was a training period. It was tough, but she insists that they went through it without even knowing that it was the grace of God that helped them survive it.

Unlike some unlucky people, they did not meet bandits, who were notorious for raping women and destroying lives. Though she disclosed that there were nights they could not sleep because of the regular bomb shelling noise and vibrations, she never nursed the fear of being run down by soldiers.

During her days in the university, she received both the Federal Government scholarship for undergraduate studies and the University of Ife scholarship. After graduating in 1977 with a First Class Honours, she was retained as a graduate assistant.

She shared, “Members of my 1977 set were given this unique opportunity to come back immediately to the faculty to do their Master’s and internship programmes simultaneously.

I completed my National Youth Service Corps in 1979, receiving both the Kwara State National Youth Service Award and the national (Chairman’s) award for the National Youth Services Corps. Then I was an Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty.

My eye opened to new realities and new opportunities in the academia. I further obtained another Federal Government Scholarship for Postgraduate Studies in London.” Though she ventured into pharmacy to treat sick people, she believed God directed her to where she is now.

“At times, you don’t know where life is leading you to until the Spirit of God changes your course, even without one having the full knowledge of everything. It was when I got into the academia that I realised that it is where God has destined for me.

Now, I am teaching, guiding and helping those that desire to practice pharmacy, not just in the hospital alone, but also in the industry, community and academia. I feel fulfilled,” she confidently enthused. When the opportunity to travel to London for her Ph.D came, she signed a bond with O A U that she would return.

She completed her Ph.D in 1983, got married in USA in April 1984 and returned to Nigeria in December 1984 with her husband. She resumed duty at OAU in January, 1985, but because her husband was based in Lagos, she applied for transfer to the University of Lagos, which came through in 1987. And for her, from 1987 till now, it has been 30 years of fulfilment in the profession and guiding students.

“The truth is that I did not even know at a time that I was the first female professor of pharmacy in Nigeria and West Africa. It was later brought to my attention, since my appointment as a professor was from 1st October 1994. When I eventually knew, it was with great humility and determination to continue with hard work,” She told The Point.

Prof. Igwilo said that her husband was like a comic movie, although her family and her husband’s family had been friends from the onset, she never saw it coming the day the man proposed to him She said, “We are from the same town, but different villages. My mother learnt sewing from my mother-in-law, who had a sewing institute.

Along the line, my husband was planning to leave for the U.S.A in 1976, but he did not inform me. This was during my vacation. Then as a student in OAU, I would go for vacation job in John Holts (West African Drugs), Aba, between June and July yearly.“A little valedictory party was organised for him by family members and friends. I refused to attend as he did not inform me.

However, when my mother returned from the party, she strongly persuaded me and demanded that I should at least, visit and greet Mama. I reluctantly went with the intention of greeting Mama, whose room was the first in the entrance passage, and immediately return home.

However, as soon as I got to their house, he was the first person I saw. He just grabbed my hand and started informing everyone present, including his parents, that I was his wife.

He said that he told the Lord that any lady that came to see him during the valedictory party would be his wife, since he did not extend any invitation to any of his female friends.”

That night, she disclosed that the man escorted her to a place they called their ‘covenant ground’ in Aba, where he took the ring off his finger and slipped it into her finger, promising that he would be back for her. And before she travelled to London, his parents came to conduct the traditional marriage. “That got us more committed to our union.

Besides, when I went to the UK in 1980, I paid him a visit in the U.S.A., where he was studying. Our court wedding was conducted in the U.S.A in 1981. After my studies in Chelsea College, University of London in 1983, we started planning for our church wedding, which came up in April 1984,” she narrated.

For her, juggling motherhood with her career was made possible, only with the help of God and her husband, as after God, she says her husband comes next. “For example, he spurred me on when I was demoralised due to equipment break down and discarding of my old set of data in Chelsea College, London.

He has been my backbone and God has also blessed him with an illustrious career. I also had the grace from above to take care of the children in spite of our very busy schedules,” she said.