She became known as a ‘Quintessential Maritime Icon’ and when retired, after 22 years, her friends, associates and family gathered to give Hajia Lami Tumaka, a memorable send-forth. In this interview, she tells the story of her meritorious career in Corporate Nigeria, and how providence helped to fast-track her education.
First, give us a peek at your childhood. How was growing up?
Growing up was beautiful. I was born in Kaduna State, but had my primary education at St. George’s Primary School, Falomo, in Lagos and went to secondary schools in Minna, Niger State. In other words, I had a fulfilling childhood with so much love from my parents and siblings.
My tertiary education was also part of my growing up days as I graduated quite early. I attended Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria, where I studied English with a bias for Literature. Of course, I later went back to ABU where I earned an MBA. And at different times in the course of my career I went to the TV College Jos, Plateau State, where I earned a Certificate in Basic Film Production with Distinction. I was also at the prestigious Holborn College, London, for a Diploma in Public Relations.
In the course of your growing up, who did you take after?
I took after my father, who was a police officer. I recall my mother telling me that when I was born, my father was so excited and said a diamond was born into his life. We are six siblings. My elder brother is Justice Garba Tumaka, and my younger sisters are Amina, Habiba, Jummai and Hauwa. I lost my father quite early in life when I was in Form Two. He lived quite a short but very eventful life. Our bond was short but my memory of him is crystal clear. Upon his death, my mother who was a full time housewife and not too lettered, knew she needed to get on her feet to raise her children. She immediately engaged in trading. From the proceeds, she was able to give us sound education. I was 12 years when my father died, but today when we all look back we have cause to glorify God who strengthened a passionate and hardworking woman. My mother was really special in terms of bringing us up. A special bond exists between the Tumaka siblings, family and clan because she was an architect of peace. She instilled core values into us, the need to have each other’s back in good and bad times.
What fond memories do you have of your late father?
There were so many fond memories, because my father was an officer who created time for his young family. I recall when the movie ‘Sound of Music’ was trending, he took us to the theatre and we all sat together as one family to watch it. We had so much fun. He used to take us to the Officer’s Mess and family outings to the then giant shops such as Leventis, Chellarams, and Kingsway for shopping and to picnics for sight-seeing. I remember those shopping centres had escalators. As children, we were fascinated by them. We were a close knit family. When my dad passed on, life crumbled like a pack of cards. Everything we knew and enjoyed stopped in a twinkle of an eye, not that we were affluent but my father provided us with the basic comfort and more. My mother had to hold the bull by the horns and rose to the challenge for us not to miss out completely on the lifestyle we were used to. The milk of human kindness flowed from my late Uncle, Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi (Marafan Sokoto) and his wife, Hajia Rakiya Shinkafi and of course my other uncle in Minna, Alhaji Yusuf Paiko. They took us in and looked after us.
You are very cosmopolitan. Where is the glitz and glamour coming from?
I guess that must be from my background and I believe growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Lagos has a lot to do with it. I was a bright, smart and extremely naughty kid. That was why my father truncated my education here in Lagos. I understand he had jocularly said, “if we leave Lami in Lagos, we will lose her to Lagos.” I was not your typical northern child, because associating and mixing with other children here in Lagos differentiated me. So my dad made sure I went back to the North so as not to lose my foundation completely. I was bundled to Minna in Niger State for my secondary school education. While growing up, providence showed its hands by my mistakenly being interviewed for admission into a secondary school while I was meant to be in primary. On the day of the interview in Minna for me to continue my primary education, my father who accompanied me to the venue, wrongly queued for the Fatima Secondary School interview, rather than that of the primary school. They were both missionary schools, considered to be the best in those days. They were headed by Reverend Fathers and Sisters. After the oral interview, the Rev Sisters admitted me into Form One because they said I did very well. My father declined the admission insisting I was to be in the primary school. But the Rev Sisters were adamant saying, “your daughter did very well, let her proceed to the secondary school, if she is unable to cope, we would return her to the primary school.” That was how I started the co-ed secondary school until all the female students were transferred to Government Girls College, Minna, where I wrote the West African School Certificate Examination Council (WASCE) AT age 15. That explains why I graduated from the University at 19 and got married at 20 during my NYSC. For glitz and glamour, I’m naturally fashionable and work at being elegant.
I am a people person. I believe in treating people right, being kind, respectful and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Those attributes pay off most times but sometimes you get hurt being nice. I have developed good interpersonal skills and I take interpersonal relationships very seriously, as I believe in investing in people. That was why the industry rose to celebrate me. I am not the first to retire; neither would I be the last. I believe that the testimony of the stakeholders, the show of love, the presence of who is who in the Nigerian Maritime industry, at my retirement dinner, organised at their behest, is a testimony of the goodwill I have enjoyed in my sojourn in the industry. It is humbling and I do not intend take it for granted.
How did you meet your husband?
Providence and destiny really played out in my marriage. During my final year in the university a school mate of mine, asked me to accompany him to his brother’s house in Kaduna, from where we would go shopping. There I met this tall, handsome officer, a Major in the Nigerian Army, who liked me. He asked his driver to take us shopping, after which we went back to the campus same day. The following day, I was called out to receive a guest, who turned out to be that officer. Straight to the point he said, “I like you and would like to marry you,” I screamed, marriage? The rest is history. We got married. I had my first child and lost him, then my daughter Haleema, who is married with three children, making me a happy Nana. As it is traditional with the military, we were posted round the country and he rose to the rank of a Major General in the Nigerian Army, actually he was the GOC, 3rd Armoured Division, Jos, his last posting. He took ill and passed on. I never remarried.
You were in the Maritime Industry for 22 years and retired meritoriously from NIMASA as a Director, how was it?
I was engaged as a Chief Research Officer at Nigeria Maritime Authority (NMA), which later became known as the Nigeria Maritime and Safety Administration (NIMASA). I worked in different departments and units and rose through the ranks to become a director. As obtained in most industries, it was a baggage of the good and the bad which is the norm at most corporate organizations. But one’s ability to absorb the shock that came with the corporate politics made me a stronger person. My ability to withstand and weather the storms was the hallmark of a successful personality. Most importantly Allah’s rahama, God’s grace, stood me in good stead. At the end of the day, it’s not how brilliant, smart, passionate, focused and knowledgeable one is, but the mercy of Allah that permeated my life. I started my career at Army Day Secondary School, in Jaji. I had earlier taught Communications Skills at CABS Kaduna Polytechnic, Kaduna State, during the national service (NYSC) year. I worked at NTA Minna where I was exposed to the Media. In fact I started PR when I worked with Peugeot Automobile Nigeria Limited, Kaduna as the Manager (Public Relations) and from there I joined the National Maritime Authority (NMA) before it became NIMASA. I am a Public Relations person to the core, image maker and a people’s person. My communication and interpersonal skills are some of the attributes that put me in positive light and made me a journalist. This perhaps explains why for the first time, they came together on February 14 for my send forth, as I bowed out of service.
Did you experience chauvinism as you rose and became a director, or were you seen in the light of the common norm of a woman who has risen through the back door?
Backdoor, not at all! I did not experience chauvinism. The men were enlightened and they encouraged us. NIMASA used to be a male dominated agency, but more women came into the top management positions. At some point there were more female directors and deputy directors in the agency. The men knew and we also realized that one got to the position, not because we were females, but because we also had what it took to be in leadership position. The women were very educated, enlightened and no man looked down on us. We contributed significantly to the growth of the agency and the Industry.
It would not have been all rosy in 22 years, what were the challenges?
It could be quite daunting and challenging. My last bus stop was working with the Dr. Dakuku Peterside, the then chief executive. I cannot talk about my life in NIMASA without mentioning the CEOs that I worked with. They challenged me and gave me the opportunity to excel in office. I worked with about nine CEOs in the course of my 22-year career. And the challenges with each one of them was unique to say the least. I learnt a lot from all of them and I can say without equivocation that I am who I am today because of them. But Dr. Dakuku Peterside was the icing on the cake as the last CEO that I worked with. He gave me ample opportunity to excel. He believed in me, challenged me, gave me free hand to fly and by God’s grace, there were more success stories. He is an administrator who knows the intricacies of office politics. He was able to deftly manage some of the issues that would otherwise have snowballed into crises.
Most women from Northern Nigeria do not talk boldly the way you do; there is still a stiff barrier between them and education. How did you get over this hurdle?
I cannot say I am unaware of the effect of religion, culture and tradition on women in Northern Nigeria. Yes the majority of us are not as opportune as the men and not as equally treated. But there are concerted efforts to change the narrative. The education of the girl child, gender parity and equal opportunities are various ways to give women a sense of belonging and self-worth. Women are being targeted now for exposure and education and they are responding. Mentorship is another very important way of achieving this for the girl child. The paradigms are shifting from the time when parents› priorities were their daughter’s marriage instead of education. I get messages that say, Hajia, I am inspired by you, I want to be like you. I must also commend the First Lady, Dr. Mrs Aisha Buhari, my sister, First Lady of Kebbi State, Dr (Mrs) Zainab Shinkafi Bagudu and other First Ladies who have taken the challenge to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and early girl child marriages within the region.