By Kenneth Jukpor
Mrs. Mary Hamman is the President of Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) Nigeria. As her second tenure as President winds down this week, she sat with MMS Plus for this thrilling interview as she recounts her experiences, challenges, highpoints and chronicles the changing roles of women in the maritime industry. Enjoy it:
What are your achievements so far and how have you been able to manage the affairs of WISTA Nigeria?
It is not just my achievement because I worked with vibrant and dynamic team. There is nothing that I do without letting them know so that everybody can take the blame or the glory. At the time I became president in 2015, WISTA was going down and there were lot of issues on ground. I had to do a lot of repairs and try to build members’ confidence. It was also around this time that other women associations were coming up and women like to be here and there. It wasn’t easy when I took up the mantle as WISTA President. I had to do a lot of image building for the association.
At a point, it was like people didn’t know anything about WISTA. There were about five presidents before me, yet it always felt like I was saying something new when I was talking about the association. I had to start telling stories or narrating the history of the association to people at every opportunity. We had to pay courtesy visit to different institutions and some people have a weird perception of women. Some people think every women group is one where they converge to gossip and to fight. I had to let people know that WISTA is a professional body and it is a place for women in management positions in the maritime industry. So, the association is about women that have established themselves and if you establish yourself in the maritime industry we know that you have worked hard. You are also not somebody who will want to go to a place just to play or fight. Everyone in WISTA is business minded.
When I emerged President, I began to build members’ confidence and to build the confidence of the Chief Executives of maritime agencies to allow members of staff to participate actively. People like us are ready to sacrifice for WISTA and there are several people out there who need the support of their CEOs. As a civil servant, it is not easy to combine the job of WISTA and the official job. Since our activities are around the maritime sector and NIMASA supposed to do what we are doing, they have realized that we are doing part of their functions which is capacity building, reaching out to riverine women, creating awareness to students about what is happening in the maritime sector.
NIMASA already had the Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) in place and we believe that we can build on that one and give the other students opportunities similar to what NIMASA is doing. We were able to create awareness in that field because we have always looked out for students in Primary and Secondary schools and we try to give them the picture of what the maritime industry is all about to the young ones. I believe that we have gone far in that aspect. We have been able to reach so many tertiary students because we drop our contact details with them. We receive calls from students calling in to ask questions because during most of the programmes we don’t have enough time to tell them about the maritime industry. We refer them to valuable websites and tell them not to use their phones for Facebook and Instagram only. They can learn a lot on Google, especially the new trends in the maritime industry. We have also been able to build the confidence of women in maritime establishments so that we can all join hands to build capacity.
NIMASA has supported us so much and I have personally received a lot of support from my office despite the fact that I’m a civil servant. At times, WISTA activities take me away from the office but I have received lots of support in that area.
The project for riverine women started a long time ago, my predecessors like Funke Agbor, SAN, was the one who led us to buy the first vessel for Epe fisherwomen. After Epe, we went to Oron fisherwomen and bought for them as well and it stopped for a while. After her, there was the regime of Mrs. Ify Akerele and Barr. Jean Chiazor, but we did not do anything concerning those aspects.
During my regime, we were able to buy two more vessels. We worked on these projects and raised funds to buy the first vessel for Aguleri women. We didn’t get the support we anticipated from the Anambra State Government, else we would have sought audience with the students to enable us create awareness on career opportunities in the maritime industry.
In Enugu State, we bought a vessel for a group of women. We were also able to speak to the about 100 students. We addressed the whole State through the State television so on what WISTA is about and the opportunities that abound for their students.
That plan worked so well because the governor picked it up from where we left, went to their various communities and started doing sensitization that we began. He was one time the Chairman, Marine Transport at the House of Representatives, so he knows a lot about maritime and he built the jetty where we dropped the fishing boat we brought for them. It was a 16-seater vessel which could also serve as a fishing or passenger vessel because we have upto 18-seater.
We told them that they could carry goods across the waters or they can do their trading by moving their goods from one point to the other. They could also use it to go fishing but it depends on how they want to use it. We handed it over to the Governor’s wife and she handed over to the Chairman of the Local Government of the Ogurugu community, Uzo Uwanyi Local Government Area, Enugu State. We have reached out to many other women organizations and they have built a liking for WISTA and everyone wants to be a member of WISTA.
The maritime journalists also supported us and projected us well to the extent that everyone is talking about WISTA. Looking at the class of people coming out to be President of WISTA, I am surprised. Everybody wants to become the President of WISTA and this is because of the little things that we have been doing that have been quite impressive to outsiders. Few years ago, we had to look for who would become the president. I as a person rose to the rank in WISTA. I started as the Chairperson, Membership Committee before becoming WISTA Treasurer. Later, I became the Secretary and proceeded to be Vice President before I became the President. I knew almost everybody because when I was in the membership committee, I registered almost everyone. So it was easier for me to reach out to those people and bring them back. Many people came back and new people also came in under my leadership.
How has the financial administration of the association fared under your leadership?
The inflow is overwhelming because I have never paid international dues for members more than 30 in the past. However, this year our financial members that we paid their dues internationally were up to 79 members which was commended by WISTA International. More people have joined now that we are talking about handing over. They have seen in our last business luncheon, the class and pedigree of the association. From November till now, we have registered more than 30 new members.
For the Abuja chapter, there are more than 20 that I met recently. I was in Abuja to see the Permanent Secretary and the Minister of Transportation. Some were not paying before even though they were members so I was asking them to pay up the backlog. We are currently negotiating on the price because sometimes the backlog becomes too much. If you want to encourage them to join, you can’t scare them off again by asking them to pay for 5 or 6 years.
Since I came in, some people became inactive and were not paying their dues but now they have started paying. Some will ask you to give them the bill of the number of years owed so that they can pay and become active WISTA members. So it’s a contribution where we know that we pay our international dues from the registration fee or membership dues that they pay. We don’t have an account of our own where we get money from. It is all funding from individuals and establishments that give us support. So far, so good, it has been jolly that I’m about going out.
Where there moments were you so frustrated and considered resigning?
We have forgotten about the stress because it is about ending. I have become happier that I have finished. There hasn’t been any quarrel in my tenure and nobody threatened to resign. It’s me that told some people that they would be removed if they were not performing. Everybody has been supportive so it has always been teamwork with everybody ready to work.
Some people might not be able to do much because of their place of work but with telephone, emails, they are still working in the background. It’s not that we have meetings all the time. We have a Whatsapp group where we discuss and then we meet once in a while.
For our Business luncheon that was recently concluded, we met only twice. Some of us where not around, I was in the US and the Chairperson for the Business luncheon was not around. She was also in the US at a point in time but we were still communicating. Our business luncheon came out well despite the fact that it coincided with other events. We also received a lot of representatives that came in place of their bosses.
How would you rate the influx of women in shipping and other maritime career opportunities?
From what I am seeing, more women are coming despite the fact that the harassment is still there. We are getting more ladies coming up. It’s because of the sea time that some of them are scared. They want to do it but how long would they continue to wait for a vessel. So you see them working offshore since they can’t go onboard.
We have seen the recent partnership between the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and WISTA. What does this mean for women in maritime?
All the Presidents from the WISTA nationals make up the WISTA International Council and as board members we represent WISTA at the IMO functions. So, whatever we decide at our Annual General Meetings (AGMs), we have meetings with the President and if there are issues, we bring them up at IMO.
The WISTA national bodies are also very significant at the different countries and WISTA Nigeria is actively involved. When we went to Abuja, we met the Director, Maritime Security where he was told that WISTA would now be involved in the technical committees for IMO. If we are going for anything that has to do with IMO, WISTA members must be in that committee. So we are going to be making inputs from our country’s point of view. All the 46 different countries that we have in WISTA will be able to put up their issues across to IMO.
For example, if we have any issue here in Nigeria we can tell them. It’s an MOU that we are going to benefit tremendously because we will be there when the issues would be discussed and we will be able to explain better. If they are discussing issues that concern you and you are not there, they might not understand your point but you will be able to make clarifications if you are there. Women will benefit tremendously now that we are on the IMO Council.
The 2020 United Nations theme for women says “I am generation equality: Realizing Women’s Rights. You talked about the challenges that young female cadets face due to discrimination. I know WISTA has done some level of sensitization with a view to provide equal opportunities for cadets. What does this theme mean for us?
Last year the theme was “Balancing the gender gap in maritime participation” and that was our team for the business luncheon. It’s like the government is listening to what we are saying. Most of the time they are assuring us that as long as we have capable hands, nobody is going to say because we are women, we won’t be allowed to do it. We as women are encouraging ourselves to improve on our skills. Nobody will ask you to come and occupy a position because you are a woman. You have to qualify for it. You have to improve on your skills. If you have it, you will get it. If you don’t have what it takes, don’t expect that because you are a woman, they will consider you. What we are saying is that we have qualified women. Why are we not picking them up to do the job? We are not saying we should be given spaces because we are women. We are building on this year’s theme based on the assurances that we got from last year’s theme. I believe that no woman will want to be caught sleeping because the road has been cleared and we are no longer shy that we can’t ask. We can ask now, we can even go to IMO and tell them. What is on ground now is also for our backing.
Over the years, we have had several things that have affected WISTA and women which is the low number of females occupying significant positions in the maritime sector. How would you rate the opportunities available for women in leadership positions in the maritime sector?
It’s not bad but they can still do more because when you turn around, you will see women heading most of the establishments. We have a woman as the NPA boss, we have people like Margaret Orakwusi, Vicky Haastrup, and the youngest one which is Greg Ogbeifun’s daughter. We have people like that who their fathers have faith in them that they can do it. If you check, you will see that women are in good positions because they can be trusted. Shipping is about trust. Anyone that wants his business to grow would go out for women because they will keep it afloat.
One of the recent happenings is the issue of Corona Virus and at the seaport, we are hearing of restrictions on some vessels carrying items from China to other places. As the President of WISTA, how best can we address such issues?
Our agents entering the ports should be at alert because if you are going to the United States, you will be checked thoroughly before you enter. So we should guard our boarders because we can’t take anything for granted. It can be used as an agent sent to Nigeria to finish up the black people. Somebody might not sponsor the person but he might feel that he should go and destroy the area. The best thing is for those at the boarders to be at alert. If there is any case, it should be quarantined. In other countries, they are shutting down so many cities. Anywhere the diseased is noticed, the place should be shut down. That’s the only way it can be controlled. However, if you allow people to grease palms or ignore, then we are in trouble.
Your tenure is coming to an end very soon. What direction would you give for the next leadership?
The leadership has to be firm always be on their toes because women may lose interest easily if the leaders don’t perform optimally. All they want to see is results. If you are not active, they would go off because they are women in management positions and they have job to do. The women in this association are not here to play, so you have to engage them. Let them know about the benefits of the group and the place of networking.
We all have our businesses and we want results. That’s why we are fixing the Annual General Meeting at a time most people will be free not when it will coincide with our jobs. Since they are business minded, you have to arrange meetings in a way that will be okay for them. You can’t just call them up at anytime without considering their schedules. They want to know what they are benefitting by been in the association. If you are not strong and you are not making things happen, they will lose interest easily. They will tell you that they don’t have time for it and they have more interesting things to do. Whoever is coming in should note that it is not a jolly jolly ride to be the president of WISTA. You have to be strong. You have to know how to meet the right people via networking. Whenever you have the privilege of meeting highly placed people that time shouldn’t be used to play, just go straight to the point. If you are beating round the bush, they would not have time for you.
Mentoring is of key interests of WISTA. Do you have any statistics as to the number of women that have been mentored by WISTA under your administration?
I don’t have the statistics but I know most of the schools we visited, we gave them our contact details. They get back to us and ask questions. Possibly in the next two or three years, they could come out and give their testimonies. The students of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) had visited and they choose us to be their mentors. They also want to be at every event of ours so that they would follow up.
We are about to create a platform where information can be sent to the website and it can be accessed anywhere in the world. We have our website which is www.wista.com and www.wistanigeria.com.We put up a lot of information on our website and most of those that want us to mentor them are accessing those areas. We also have our Instagram and Facebook pages where we send out information about our activities and events. These things are encouraging the young ones. We always tell them about the big women who have made a mark in the sector. They should aspire to be like these WISTA amazons. There are members of WISTA that are also Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). We have ship-owners, top-notch administrators, port operators, business tycoons, among others. You can do whatever you want to do and that won’t stop you from been a member of WISTA. We have been showcasing these women and at times it looks like we are just parading beautiful women but that’s not the case. We are trying to tell the young ones that they can be like these women and even become better. Our mentees from OAU are so engrossed in what we are doing and they want to be part of us. I receive a whatsapp message from them everyday saying they are glad they met us. Most of the students are our mentees.