Strength in a Shoe
With confidence and high expectations, Ngozi Onyinye begins her journey from Nigeria to Canada to join her husband and continue her professional career in human resources and administration. Wearing loafers she inherited from her mother-in-law, Ngozi encounters career disappointment, unexpected barriers due to her Nigerian English accent, and contemplates going back to Nigeria. Can volunteering and a pair of high-heeled shoes change Ngozi’s approach to Canada?
On April 15, 1984, a car screeched to a halt at the Moscow hospital for diplomats and the wife of the then Nigerian Trade Representative to Russia was wheeled into the delivery room to give birth to her 6th child. That child was me. My father completed his ten years of ambassadorial duties the following year. Without seeking my opinion, I was put on Nigeria Airways with my excited family to see my home country, Nigeria, for the very first time.
I attended daycare to college in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. Throughout, I wore the required rubber or leather sandals, with little white socks. When I graduated, I thankfully switched to pumps for my job in corporate Human Resources and Administration.
I got married in 2015. Initially, my husband was living in Calgary, and I was waiting for my Permanent Residency Visa. My mother-in-law bought me different kinds of shoes whenever she visited my husband in Canada. I looked forward to travelling with her, as my parents had passed away, and I found solace in her. But as I prepared to join my husband in Canada, she passed on too. I worked at an international oilfield services company, and when my colleagues organized a surprise departure party for me, my tears flowed. I wept even more as I hugged my siblings goodbye at the airport in Nigeria. I wore a pair of loafers given to me from my mother-in-law’s collection after her death, and I felt her love on my feet as I journeyed to Canada.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Calgary International airport …” and the rest of the words fizzled away as the thumping of my heartbeat became louder than the announcement. The moment I stepped out of the airport and the cold and fierce breeze of March 2017 blew across my face, I contemplated making a U-turn to catch the next available flight back to my home country. But instead, I marched forward in my loafers. I thought, “Oh Canada, what do you have in store for me?”
In Calgary, I noticed a communication barrier even though I had spoken English my whole life. In Nigeria, I worked with many ex-pats who understood my accent. In Calgary, I often got responses such as, “Excuse me?”, “Can you say that again?” In a job interview, I had to repeat my responses so many times, my confidence evaporated. I then took the Canadian Language Benchmark test for English and ironically received the highest score possible. Despite the difficulties, I decided that I would not be in a hurry to change my beautiful accent but let it change naturally, if at all, as it is part of my unique Nigerian identity.
I went for job interviews in my loafers, but even though I had ten years of professional experience…, I was told I had no “Canadian experience.” Once again, I considered returning to where my skills were celebrated and my accent understood. But I chose, instead, to start volunteering with immigrant women. Many felt like me that they were not achieving their expected goals. I then resolved to be strong, not just for myself but for these new friends.
I traded my mother-in-law’s loafers for a new pair of suede pumps with high heels similar to those I wore while doing work presentations in Nigeria. I squared my shoulders and began to walk tall again.
Then I rephrased my thoughts from “Oh Canada, what do you have in store for me?” to “Oh Ngozi, what do you have in store for Canada?”
NGOZI ONYINYE holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Nigeria. She received awards for academic achievements and outreach through faith-related publications as an Editor-in-chief and Editorial Adviser. She has earned certifications as an International Professional and Senior Professional in HR. She is currently a volunteer for human resources and an international HR organization where she sets professional exam questions. Her passion for inspiring women and youth has led her to publish a book based on her real-life experiences.