Wider Horizons

In February 1978, Moji Taiwo left the year-round tropical weather of her home in Lagos, Nigeria, and landed at the snow-encrusted Calgary International Airport. After an exhausting 14-hour flight, she ventured into the arrivals area of the airport. While watching strangers be reunited with their loved ones, she discovered she was stranded.

As the airport slowly emptied out, it became obvious her brother was not coming to meet her. Wandering the airport alone in a two piece skirt suit and open-toed shoes, her first Canadian challenge was to find a way to her new home by herself in the cold.

It isn’t Taiwo’s style to wait around to be saved. Instead, Taiwo, a 1981 graduate of Lethbridge College’s Communication Arts – Broadcast Journalism program, took charge and conquered her first challenge as a newcomer to a cold, unfamiliar country. After several hours, she found a taxi that took her to her new address. When she arrived and saw that she was locked out because her brother wasn’t home, she was still unfazed. She simply went to the next-door neighbour to ask for help. Her new neighbour paid the cab fare, welcomed her inside and gave her a winter coat.

Moji Taiwo's new book is a memoir that chronicles her journey as an immigrant in Canada.

Taiwo’s dreams of going to school in Canada had gotten off to a rocky start. But as she proved again and again in her life, Taiwo isn’t easily defeated. Determination and grit are the cornerstones to her success, which she outlines in her new book, I Give because I’m Blessed – I’m Blessed because I Give: A Chronicle of an Immigrant’s Journey.

Being an immigrant is a disruptive experience, and additional challenges make finding your place more daunting, like speaking English, which Taiwo initially took for granted. While she spoke fluently, Taiwo’s English dialect had British/Nigerian nuances, and she found it difficult to be understood. So, while figuring out Calgary’s transit system in the winter so she could find a job, she also focused on adapting the way she spoke. And after one year of working in domestic labour, she was ready to apply for post-secondary education.

Taiwo will never be caught calling these early days difficult, though. “We say challenges – not difficulties,” she says. “You’re being forced to regroup and focus. When you stare at a rock long enough, you begin to see a precious gem.”

On Friday afternoons in the mid 1970s, the school’s corridors in Abeokuta would buzz with hundreds of kids ready to let loose for the weekend. But at Taiwo’s school, the end of the week meant it was time to mow the lawn, by hand, under the intense, tropical sun. Armed with cutlasses (a long blade similar to a machete), each student lined up to slash away at the boarding school’s acres of grass. The weekend only started when the grass cutting was finished. In Taiwo’s last year of high school, as a senior prefect, she no longer had to cut the grass. But she hung back anyway to help the younger students so they could escape the heat more quickly.

In Taiwo’s family, education was prized above all else. Taiwo’s mother saw it as a way out of the traditional West-African life of marrying young and relentless housework.

“My mother married in the days where Nigerian girls were identified by who you married,” Taiwo says. “She married young and was not educated, and the family who she married didn’t value education, especially for girls.” Her mother broke with convention and left her first husband, but not before having three children – all girls. None of them achieved anything beyond a Grade 6 education.

“Leaving that union was unheard of, and then she met my father,” Taiwo says. Her parents went on to have five more children – two of them, including Taiwo, were girls. “My mother was still reeling from the fact that her three eldest daughters (from her previous marriage) didn’t have an education, so she especially focused on the two of us. By that time, she wasn’t really a traditional mother anymore,” Taiwo laughs.

Taiwo realized early on that her educational aspirations wouldn’t be satisfied in Nigeria. While there are universities in her home country, she thought her dreams of becoming a broadcast journalist were better served abroad. She learned that Canada offered scholarships for international students and applied. With money she had saved working a year after high school in Nigeria, she made a quick announcement to her parents that she was leaving, and found herself in Calgary in the middle of winter.

To Gani Kareem, Taiwo’s friend from the Nigerian Canadian Association of Calgary (NCAC), this decision was an act of bravery. “Being a young, black woman coming to Canada from a foreign land, where you don’t know people, it’s very impressive,” Kareem says. “Moji has helped so many people. She understands where they are coming from.” It’s easy for new immigrants to give up on their dreams, as Taiwo recounts in her book - especially when faced with circumstances beyond personal control.

“We say challenges – not difficulties. You’re being forced to regroup and focus. When you stare at a rock long enough, you begin to see a precious gem.” - Moji Taiwo

In 1979, after upgrading her English at the Western Canada High School in Calgary, Taiwo applied to SAIT’s journalism program, but was rejected.

The interview committee didn’t think she would be a successful broadcast journalist because of her accent. “In those days, this was almost 40 years ago, it was OK to reject somebody because of who they are,” says Taiwo. “The environment in Canada and in Alberta, for that matter, was not readily open to people that looked like me or sounded like me.” But she had also applied to Lethbridge College’s Communication Arts – Broadcast Journalism program, and was thrilled when she was accepted. Newly married, she and her husband, Derin, packed up and moved to Lethbridge to start their new life.

“(The college) was my incubator. Giving me admission actually started everything off,” says Taiwo. “I know who I am, I know who I want to be, I know what I want to contribute, and that pushes me to forge ahead. If you can’t go through (a challenge), you go around it,” she says. Taiwo boasts a permanent smile, and reaps in the best of people because, as she says, “You get back what you put out.”

As an immigrant, Taiwo is regularly burdened by the multiple faces of racism. Even recently, Christi Harter, Taiwo’s next-door neighbour, says Taiwo told her about how passengers on a bus during the Calgary Stampede changed seats once she sat down. And while Taiwo and her husband were younger and living and studying in Lethbridge, they found themselves freezing in the middle of winter because their landlord had been pressured by a neighbour to shut off the heat so they would move.

The college provided a much-needed respite from that treatment, and made her feel welcome and comfortable by treating her like any other student. “We were not only being given education that we paid for – we were also taught how to get along and to look out for each other,” she says. “We had a cohesive, really close-knit group and the instructors, they were phenomenal, especially Mr. Ian Mandin. He took all of us in, like we were his own kids. He especially gave me courage because he didn’t treat me any differently.”

After graduation, Taiwo initially worked at a Lethbridge radio station but says she quickly realized she wasn’t welcome there. So she found another job and applied to the University of Lethbridge to study sociology, and from there embarked on a career in corrections.

What she learned at the college helped form her subsequent career in juvenile delinquency and rehabilitation, where she had a successful career dedicated to serving troubled youth. Working for the Government of Alberta – Justice and Solicitor General from 1984 to 2015 allowed for many opportunities to expand into leadership roles. It also led to several awards, like the Corrections Exemplary Service medal award in 2008 and the Corrections Exemplary Service bar award in 2015, among others.

Taiwo achieved this success despite facing some who tried to hold her back. Harter, Taiwo’s neighbour, has taken up these issues as teachable moments on white privilege.

“Moji’s story is significant to understand how much overt racism there is for people who are not Caucasian.” - Christi Harter

“Moji’s story is significant to understand how much overt racism there is for people who are not Caucasian,” says Harter, who adds that Taiwo’s life story is an example of what’s possible if you work hard and connect with people from a place of compassion and understanding. Harter also plans to share parts of Moji’s story in the courses she teaches in the education department at the University of Calgary. “Moji says in her book how immigrants don’t often assimilate themselves as much as they could in a new country, and she’s gone above and beyond to make other foreigners more comfortable in Canada,” says Harter.

Those who know Taiwo attest that she makes you feel motivated about helping others. “Her invitation to her family (her three children and three grandchildren) and the community is very exciting,” says Harter, an immigrant herself from the United States. Some of Taiwo’s community involvement includes projects like co-founding the Nigerian Canadian Association of Calgary in 1993, serving as a board member on the Lethbridge College Correctional Studies Advisory Committee from 2012 to 2015, and working many years as a volunteer at her children’s school, and also supporting immigrants, women and the homeless.

“She never says no to render service to the community,” says Kareem, Taiwo’s friend from the NCAC. He found that Taiwo’s participation alone helps gather more people to help out for charitable causes. “It’s her attitude of, ‘I can do it,’ and it helps you want to do it as well. If she can, why can’t I? She’s highly influential,” says Kareem. Taiwo has helped countless new immigrants acclimatize to Canada, and as Kareem says, she has pointed people in the right direction to get their new lives started.

For those who aren’t sure of their direction, Taiwo’s journey can be a source of guidance. Her advice? Start with the basics and go from there. “Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” she says. “Even if you are unsure right now, take those foundational courses; they will enlighten you. And you will begin to see where your passion and interest falls.”

Taiwo says her life’s work attests to what can happen when you follow your dreams and work hard to see yourself through. And – with plans to create a foundation or two in the next five years to help women and youth as well as ideas for another book – it’s clear she is far from finished.

Wider Horizons
Story by Mel Lefebvre | Photos by Hero Images
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