By Agatha Emeadi
Kemi Oloidi has traversed the world as she invested in her marriage and built a home while accompanying her husband, a senior executive of US global conglomerate, Procter and Gamble, on his foreign postings. As the wife of a successful expatriate moving from country to country in Europe, Africa, etc, she had to become a tough cookie to be able to cope with the pressures that came with his job. But today she is filled with testimonies and beautiful memories. She shares part of her story in this interview, to mark her 60th birthday.
Your husband worked with Procter and Gamble as an expatriate. Could you share with us what it was like being an expatriate wife.
There is lot to share with the younger wives. My husband was employed in Nigeria to work with Procter and Gamble. After a few years, he was given an expatriate assignment outside the country. We were excited because it showed he was worthy for the job. We had a series of meetings and discussions. You need to understand how you would put yourself together in whichever country you are going to live. Therefore, you need to discuss extensively with your husband, bearing in mind your job, academic career and allowances as a woman. In my own case, I got allowances and increment from my husband as at when due because I could not work either because of government or company policies. We actually discussed at length because I realised that I would be leaving my job in Nigeria and would need financial empowerment. My husband asked me how much my salary was. I told him, and he said he would be paying me at the end of every month. He lived up to the promise as we moved around from country to country. Whenever his salary increased, mine also got a boost and that worked for us. It was not rosy being an expatriate wife but I was able to cope. This was unlike the case of my sister who told me that even if her husband paid her all the money in the world, she could not stay without working. But for me it was about being content and knowing yourself.
Again, in some countries one might not be able to work without proper immigration documentation and work permit because not all places will be able to absorb one; there is usually a quota to be paid to the government and a lot of companies would not want to incur much expenses on just one single employee. But in countries like England and America, one can find a job. That is why expatriate wives need to count the costs before making the move instead of allowing the euphoria to overshadow their judgement of the situation. In Nigeria, one will have a support system unlike in foreign countries where such is almost not seen. When you overcome that, you start thinking how can I improve yourself in this country? In my own case, I wondered how I could make friends when I didn’t speak to people around me; it was a problem for me.
Which was your first port of call and what was the cultural experience like?
Our first assignment was in Uzbekistan in 1998 which used to be part of the old Soviet Union. I was told there had been iblack students in the past, yet a lot of people saw me and screamed. I wondered how I would make friends if people were afraid of me already. A lady once approached me and said she had a weird question for me. She asked if we do wear clothes in Africa. Sarcastically, I said no and told her that I came to Uzbekistan naked and got my first dress from the airport. Honestly, she believed me and started pitying me. I invited her for tea in my house. She accepted and we agreed on a date. She came with her friend. As they arrived, I gave them my photo albums. As she leafed through the pages, she saw me in beautiful dresses, my family, my wedding dress and everything. Then she looked up and asked, ‘Is this you in your country.’ I said yes. “But you told me you don’t wear clothes,” she said. I responded that I didn’t, that it was that said it. Then she said Africa is beautiful and that I am beautiful too. From that day, she became my ambassador and told everybody about me. Suddenly everybody wanted to be my friend. People would wave at me and offer me fresh tomatoes which was like fruit for them because it was summer. They eat a lot of tomatoes like we eat apple and that was how I became a superstar in the small city because I found a way and broke the bias. I do not think it will be this bad in this era because of technology. For their initial belief and attitude, I broke down in Uzbekistan, the first country we stayed because of extremism. When I go out shopping, a lot of people want to know me, to see what I buy, eat, hear me talk. I stopped going out because of all attention I got. My husband began buying the groceries.
For lack of activities, I gained weight and developed heart palpitations that was bad and was leading to heart attack. Most of the time, my husband was not around and all these led to depression. Later, we left Uzbekistan for Kenya, an African country and I discovered that Kenyans eat like the Europeans. They have their maize and beans which they cooked together with no oil and no pepper. They served it at parties and enjoyed it. We were able to manage as a sizable Nigerian population in Kenya untill we left that country for somewhere else.
As you celebrate turning 60, what would say is the highest point for you?
I look at everything together as my highest point. When I turned 50, my husband and children organized a dinner in my honour. Instead of enjoying the night, I cried all through because I felt I had not achieved much and 50 had hit me. My family wondered what was wrong? I said, look at me, I have not achieved anything, l was just busy following my husband and have nothing to my name. I think I just wasted my life and now I am 50. My daughter snatched it from my mouth and said, ‘Mom, you cannot do this, no, you cannot. Look at us your children, your husband and life. She reeled out all the advantages and blessings that God had given to me as a wife, mother and all. I kept quiet and when I realized I had not wasted my life. Then I said, thank you Lord, my daughter is right. In all that, my husband didn’t say anything because he was shocked at the tears that flowed freely on my cheeks. Then later in the day he called me and said, ‘if you continue to think like this, it means you are ungrateful to God.’
So, for my 60, birthday celebration, I just want to continue to thank the Lord for my life because I have had close shaves with death, not once, not twice, but my God said it was not yet time to join Him. I was once involved in a motor accident where everybody in the vehicle died and I was the only survivor. I also had a fall in the bathroom in one of the foreign countries. Blood gushed from my nose, yet God spared my life. Today, I am most grateful to God who has given me the opportunity to live and my family, especially my husband.
What prompted your writing a book and how long did it take you to achieve it?
To be honest, I have never thought of writing a book. But each time I shared my story, my brother encouraged me to put it down in writing. He would say, “You have to write a book.” After a while, I started putting some things down. In 2012, my daughter who studied Journalism and Communication said to me, ‘Mom, I think you should write the book and the question was how should I start? But when I finally made up my mind, I started by picking the countries we lived in and started noting the experiences. Again, my husband was also close to retirement after working so hard. We were in Belgium for seven years, moved to Romania and covered other countries of the world.
What has kept your marriage going strong for over 30 years?
The first thing is God. The Bible says, “the people that know their God will do valiantly and carry out great exploits.” First, you have to know who your God is. Again, my husband is from a very strict, disciplined Christian home. Though that is not the reason for who he is because a lot of pastor’s kids are crazy. So first, one needs to know his God, know her limits and respect his or her discipline. I remember when my husband made up his mind to quit alcohol. It was because he discovered that it was not good for him again and he stopped. We had guests and I served drinks and noticed he was not drinking. I thought it was for that day but he said he had decided to stop taking alcohol because it was not good for him again.
And in my own case, there are certain things I decided not to do as well because I know that those things could lead to other things. So first of all, I made up my mind to have a stable home. A lot of us allow our society, friends, career and whatever that is going on around us to shape who we are. Though some recognize it late and begin to fight back, but the foremost thing is to know who you are and be yourself. Then, do not allow anybody to push you around. Always know what works for you. My husband is a good man with a listening spirit but very strict. One needs to be strong to cope with him. We agreed that our marriage would work and it has worked with a lot of prayers and personal discipline. Again, I will say that the power of prayer remains the pillar that is still keeping the marriage standing. At a point at the early stage of the relationship, we thought about divorce. That was in our first five years. I said no, this is not working and started saving money to get my own apartment and take my children because I would not leave my children for him. I didn’t tell him but I was planning to do that. But, you know, like I said, prayer which we neglect does a lot. God led me and then my in-laws stayed with me. When it was tough, his entire family prayed for me and his mother usually said to me, “Kemi, there is nobody in his family who is married to two wives. Nobody; therefore, leave him alone because he is young and handsome with a good job. Hyenas were flying here and there but his mum would say don’t worry, it shall come to an end. His sister would tell me I’m praying for you. She would come to me and say let us fast and pray and we will pray together. Some of his nieces and nephews who were living with us would say, ‘please don’t fight with our uncle, let’s just be praying.’ So, we became a praying family and in no time, I began to see that prayer works. My husband on his own left some crazy friends and things that caused our fights. Some friends I call crazy because all of them would go out and come back very late and if they heard that we disagreed, they would ask him, is your wife controlling you or what? And he would prove that his wife was not controlling him, but when the family stayed together in prayers as the bible taught, all that settled by itself. And I continued when I saw results. The power of prayers did it because I am not fantastic myself. Prayers keep the home together, especially the man.
What is your advice to young couples?
Find your niche because we all need fun in life. Find that thing that makes you happy. I have friends whose husbands are nothing to write home about. To any woman who is struggling, find your niche and continue to pray because it works. To me, prayer is the binding piece that strengthens everything impossibility. Do not marry out of pity or force yourself on someone; Commit your ways unto the Lord and trust him with all your heart, he will order your steps. Just find what makes you happy and continue to do it because it is very important. Do what makes you happy but don’t leave God out of the equation. Don’t leave God, hang on to him. He’s a good father. He knows what is good for us and He will do it at his time. Again, keeping the right friends is an added advantage because there is more to life than marriage.
Where exactly are you from?
My father is a full-fledged Lagosian, from Oke-popo and later changed to Akoni but I do not know the streets. My mother is from Abeokuta but also grew up in Lagos.