An accomplished professional, Mayen Adetiba, talks about her venture into engineering
The dynamics have changed; and more women are trading their miniskirts and high heels for overalls and helmets.
Before it became commonplace to come in contact with female engineers, Mayen Adetiba chose to pursue her dream, and today, that decision has paid off.
Tall and elegant Adetiba is a former President of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Nigeria and thrice, she was the Vice-President of the Nigeria Society of Engineers. Any discerning mind will readily agree that she has paid her dues.
In a pleasant and engaging voice, Adetiba recounted her childhood. She says, “I remember that my father was fond of me. You couldn’t come to our house without my father announcing that he loved me so much. Even though we were six in all, I was given extra privileges. He used to call me ‘my beloved Modupe’ and I was a bit of a spoilt child. Today, I can understand the bond between us because I’m the spitting image of my dad. I remember I used to play soccer with my father and brothers, and I was into climbing trees. In all, I think I had a balanced childhood because my mum was a disciplinarian.”
Like most children born to loving parents, she credits her parents for impacting her early in life. In a tone laced with gratitude, she says, “My father impacted my childhood in terms of acquisition of new knowledge. He was brilliant. He was a commissioner on the Chief Simeon Adebo commission for salary review for the whole country. He also wrote the accord known as the ‘Apena Accord’ that set up the Nigeria Labour Congress. He wanted to become the first Secretary General of the union but he died at 52 from complications of gout before the election could hold.
“My mother always looked over my shoulders, no matter what I was doing, and till now, there are some things I can’t do because my mother put the fear of the Lord in me.”
Contrary to what many may think, Adetiba emphasised that engineering wasn’t a childhood dream. She recalls, “When I was nine, I thought I’d become an accountant. When I left secondary school, I dabbled into journalism. I was writing for the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria and I was also doing The Bar Beach Show with people like Art Alade. This was in addition to Village Headmaster, where I played Lakunle Ojo’s wife. I also acted in Wole Soyinka’s film, Kongi’s Harvest with people like Femi Johnson, the Ogunleye brothers, Mrs. Ibru and others.
“I got interested in journalism and I wanted to pursue it as a career. But when I was about going to the university, I went to Sisi Elsie Olusola for advice and she told me, ‘You can always be a journalist, but you can’t always be an accountant;’ I was given admission into the Virginia Union University to study Accountancy, and this was about three months after the end of the Civil War.
“Meanwhile, when we were shooting Kongi’s Harvest, there was a woman who came from the United States and I approached her to write me a letter of invitation. She eventually did and that’s how I got my visa. At that time, it was illegal to send money outside the country because the war had just ended and there was problem with foreign exchange. As a result, I had to stay back in New York and take up jobs to fend for myself.
“After a while, I enrolled at the New York State University, where I spent one semester before transferring to Columbia University. When I got there, I met a Nigerian called Engineer Ojo, who was on the faculty in the Electrical Electronics Department. He advised me to study Electrical Electronics; so, I started with that. However, after about two years, the counselor, who was assigned to me in school, advised me to switch to Civil Engineering because I was coming from the Third World. That was how I ended up studying Civil Engineering. I went ahead to obtain my Master’s degree from Cornell University, which was another Ivy League institution.”
In a firm voice, she maintains that she has never been discriminated against for her gender. She says, “I think I’ve been very lucky. I have always been busy since I set up my company over 30 years ago. I am a thoroughbred professional, and I take full responsibility for everything that comes out of my company. People feel I am too finicky, but I believe in getting things done in the best way possible. I have also had to work twice as hard as my male colleagues. I love my job and I don’t mind going the extra mile. I always want to be the best at whatever I do. I’m never in want of jobs and I will attribute it to the fact that when people see you as a perfectionist, they will naturally gravitate towards you. I also thank God because I could be good and not get jobs.”
Having practised as an engineer for over three decades, Adetiba recalls some of her career highlights with a measure of delight. She states, “I was part of the team that built the quarters for legislators then in Victoria Island, Lagos. Most of the contractors were Americans and Europeans, but I was made the resident engineer. It was a big challenge because I was a greenhorn at the time.
“FESTAC ’77 was another challenging job; it forced me to learn quickly. I also worked on a building for Alhaji A. U. Saro in Ikoyi. I also constructed the Shepherdhill Baptist Church, which I did for free. I think the building is the biggest Baptist church in Nigeria, if not in Africa. It was inaugurated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.”
At 62, Adetiba is still active on the job even though she admits she has slowed down a bit. “I’m not doing as much as I used to do, but I still do quite a bit. For about three years, I was the Chairperson of Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme on roads and bridges and I was everywhere. I was a consultant, not a contractor, but because I didn’t want the job to be messed up, I took it upon myself to fix some things that weren’t properly done. I had to get down on all fours and get to the foundation to vibrate the concrete myself,” she says.
Adetiba also shares her experience whilst holding leadership positions in several professional bodies in the engineering industry. The veteran engineer adds, “It felt good being the president of ACEN. It’s a bit unfortunate that the NSE has not thought it fit to allow a woman become its president. A few of us have come up wanting to be president of the body, albeit unsuccessfully, even though I was the first female to be appointed as an executive of the society. It’s saddening that voting in the NSE now goes along the line of ethnicity, which wasn’t the case before. In those days, people were voted for on merit, but now, people only vote for their tribesmen. Needless to say, I’m not happy about that because I’ve paid my dues.”
On how she has been able to balance her demanding career and home life without hitches, she says, “Women are good at multi-tasking, and I did that particularly when my kids were growing up. I always helped them with their homework. I think the most important thing was upbringing, and I never spared them whenever they went out of line. I believe that parents should bring up their kids properly today so they can have a peaceful tomorrow.”
Adetiba also has an advice for young career women. “When you pick up anything to do, do it very well; don’t be shoddy. Put in your best always and make sure your best is good enough. If you work hard, God will bless you except there is something very wrong,” she notes.
A cheerful giver, she affirms her love for giving. “I love giving. I’ve trained over 100 kids, and I don’t know 99.9 per cent of them. I pay school fees for indigent children in my mother’s and father’s villages and I’ve been doing it since I was in my thirties,” she recalls with passion.
“I think I took after my late parents in that regard because they also loved philanthrophy. I also assist people who want to start up business because all they need is just a little amount of money to start a business that will sustain them and their families.”
Even though she always looks good, Adetiba doesn’t think she’s stylish. She says, “I don’t believe I’m that stylish but I like to wear what’s comfortable. For a long period, I felt most comfortable in pants and tops. I used to wear trousers a lot, but I’ve mellowed down a bit. When it comes to dresses, I don’t like wearing long ones because my mother frowned on it. She always told me to wear dresses that would look smart on me. When I wear short dresses, it’s not because of fashion, but because it’s what I’m used to. I don’t follow any particular style or trend; I just wear what looks smart and good on me.”
All work and no play makes Jane a cranky girl, so Adetiba does find time to relax. “Because I work very hard, I tire out easily. Travelling is my hobby and I can tell you I’ve seen 80 per cent of the world. Whenever my husband is celebrating his birthday, I’d just buy two first-class tickets and we’d travel to an exotic location, and that’s usually my gift to him,” says Adetiba.
With an unmistakable glow of happiness and contentment on her face, the engineer tells of how she met her husband, Dele Adetiba. The former broadcaster recalls, “I met him while I was a freelancer with FRCN. He was a sports commentator at the time. The funny thing is that I did not pay him any attention when he first chased me. Because of his good looks, I felt he’d be ‘trouble’. Besides, I had a boyfriend who was my age-mate and a student of Igbobi College.
“One day, Igbobi College was playing St. Finbarrs at the stadium, and I was supposed to go with my boyfriend, but I also had a recording at Radio Nigeria, which didn’t finish on time. Because I was late, my boyfriend left without me. Meanwhile, I had worn bell-bottom trousers and a nice top. When I got to the stadium, I couldn’t locate my boyfriend. Then Mr. Adetiba came to say hello. After the match, he asked to see me home, so we got into his friend’s car. I then found out that he was such a nice person. We became so much in love with each other, and I think we were very much compatible.”
She adds that he has no misgivings about her engineering profession, Adetiba states, “At a point when I was studying in the United States, I was missing him so badly and I wanted to return home after my first degree. But he encouraged me to stay back and get my master’s degree because after my first degree, I got two scholarships from the Federal Government and the then Cross River State Government to study to PhD level.
“I couldn’t bear to be away from him any longer; so, I returned home after obtaining my master’s degree. Besides, I associated PhD with teaching and I didn’t want to be in academia.”
Many may not know that talented film-maker and video director, Kemi Adetiba, is Mayen’s first offspring. The matriach says even though she would have loved for Kemi or any of her male siblings – Dele (Jnr) and Remi – to toe her path in the engineering profession, she’s happy they’re all practising what they love to do.
First Published in The Punch