It was the year 1979, in a small somewhat bucolic city, Makurdi when a young woman, with dreams of becoming a lawyer, got wind of a new radio station setting up in town. They needed anchors and broadcasters and there was sort of an open call for try-outs.
This young woman, waiting to start university and had never really given any thought to being on the radio before, sauntered into the office of the station, tried out for the role and got hired. Little did she know that she had taken the first steps down a long, long road that will make her one of the most recognisable faces in the country.
It all started that day in 1979, in that small, local station, in a small growing town with a svelte, growing woman. That was how Eugenia Abu’s career in broadcast began, all those years ago in the city hedged by the Benue River.
These last few weeks, while the country has been preoccupied with politics—the ‘brotherly’ exchanges from the east and that gaffe in Jos—Mrs Abu celebrated the attainment of the landmark age of 60.
I have recollections of being at her 50th, but somehow completely forgot it because it would seem that Mrs Abu has been an ever-constant on Nigerian televisions, over the years morphing into and becoming the standard of newscasting in the country, alongside other stellar broadcasters like Chris Anyawu, Cyril Stober and Hauwa Baba Ahmed and others, that it may surprise many that she is only just turning 60.
Last week, when we had that conversation about her plans to mark the landmark, it struck me that she has been operating at an exceptional level forever.
From that early beginning on radio, she made the crossover to television in 1982 and got on screen years later, her luminous career stretching through the golden years of Nigerian television—the 80s and 90 and well into the 2000s. She retired from the NTA a few years ago, after 35 years in service, as the Executive Director, Programmes.
Her qualities though have meant there will be no hiding place for her as she has been lured back to grace the screens of Trust TV occasionally.
In those early days, long before we cared about the news and mostly wanted the 9 pm news to be over so that the movie of the night would begin, I remember marvelling at the woman whose screen presence soared above the grainy speckles on TV and whose voice rose above the static noise to command attention.
TV watching in those days offered few choices. The Network news at 9 was a nightly ritual, something to endure for the promised reward of some entertainment afterwards. The poor picture quality was a daily torture but the newscasters of those days, with Mrs Abu in the vanguard, through the sheer quality of their work and the mastery of broadcast, made it endurable and even aspirational for a good number of Nigerians.
Mrs Abu has grown beyond that spectre on the screen, to a materteral presence beaming with kindness, generosity and ambition, eager to mentor, and respecting and celebrating my every achievement.
Our relationship over the years has evolved. First, from that presence on the screen, I got to know another dimension of hers when she published her first book, In the Blink of an Eye in 2007. It is a collection of essays about her travels, her encounters with famous personalities, like Mr Mandela and co, and particular experiences that helped shape her. It was the first glimpse I had of the persona behind the face on the Network News at 9.
A few short years later, when she joined Daily Trust as a columnist to serve up a weekly list of her Five Favourite Books, her column fell under my purview as the Arts Editor of the paper at the time. Every week, she or one of her assistants would send in her column, I would do my due diligence and if there were changes or questions, we would exchange emails or phone calls to iron it out. My early encounter with her then showed me another dimension of her, as a brilliant and humble woman who despite her accomplishments had no airs and was humble enough to listen to and appreciate a young editor.
Not long after that working relationship started, I was shortlisted for the Caine prize for African Writing in 2013 and Mrs Abu went to town and organised an elaborate banquet to celebrate two Nigerians on that shortlist. A lavish feast was laid out at Blucabana, important guests were invited and we were feted. It was a touching and generous gesture. Mrs Abu dragged me around tables to introduce me to everyone as her editor. Modest me. All I think I did was just proofread her column and made minor adjustments. In the nature of a true star, her generous and kind heart amplified the role I played.
Over the years, having got to know her and her family as she has grown to know mine, even taking my first son as her ‘maigida,’ providing keen competition to the quiet and kindly Mr Abu, (although I still await the groom price) we would exchange calls and visits and celebrate each other’s successes, discuss writing and books and encourage each other. She did more often than me.
What has impressed me with her over the years is her work ethic. Mrs Abu never rests on her laurels. She is constantly pushing herself to grow, to do new things, explore her passion and lift others.
Long into her distinguished broadcast career, she took a break to go study creative writing in the UK, to hone the passion she has always had since she was seven, to become a writer.
Every year for the past 15 years, she would organise a summer creative writing programme for children and every time she invited me to speak to these children, no matter what commitments I had, I always made out time.
Since retiring from the NTA as director, she has expanded her range and established the Eugenia Abu Media Centre at the Maitama Amusement Park where she offers training for public speaking, customer service, life coaching, leadership, etiquette and broadcast.
But as passionate as ever about books and writing, she offers up the space to host book reading events and makes books available for book lovers. It is a great hangout space.
Through her books, of which there are numerous—and there will be numerous more, I can tell you because I know she has a lot in the works, her columns now rested in the Daily Trust and the one on Business Day, she has provided huge weekly boosts to her devoted readers. Her books, her essays, poetry and short stories have fascinated readers endlessly.
The biggest lessons I have learned from this fascinating woman have been in humility and hard work. Of staying grounded despite what one has accomplished. The second and perhaps most important is the need to constantly re-invent yourself to stay relevant.
Mrs Abu might be 60 today and despite everything she has achieved and all the degrees she has accumulated has returned to school for a PhD at Bayero. When she told me this, I gaped and asked myself, isn’t retirement supposed to be a time of rest? If she is still pushing on, learning more, giving more, not only to her wonderful family but to the world and everyone she comes across, then what excuse do mere mortals of lesser accomplishment have to rest on their laurels?
Nigeria is lucky to have a personality like this and I know I am lucky to have a friend, mentor and sometimes collaborator like her. May all her days be blessed and filled with joy. May life give her as much as she has given to her country and its people.