Nigerian family finds local area welcoming as they seek new opportunities

By Jamie Morris

From left to right: Francis and Tobi Ogunnowo. Photo: Jamie Morris

From Lagos to Lindsay. From a city in Nigeria five times the size of Toronto to a town of some 21,000 souls. Quite a leap to jump an ocean and a continent, but Tobi and Francis Ogunnowo did so — and found welcoming arms.

Tobi and Francis, their then-seven-year-old daughter, Oreofe, and six-month-old son, Victor, arrived in Lindsay in May 2018. A week after coming to town, they started tackling the logistics of settling in.

Jamie Morris, writer-at-large.

While Francis arranged to open accounts for them at the TD bank, Tobi took a seat by the window and fed the baby spoonfuls of yogurt. Looking out she saw Income Tax Plus, and though casually dressed and yogurt-smeared, she headed over to enquire about volunteering.

After being warmly welcomed, she explained she was a newly-arrived immigrant from Nigeria, had an MBA and was a chartered professional accountant, and asked about volunteering. The woman she spoke to explained the business didn’t have any openings but began scratching out a list of places to try. Someone else chimed in, suggesting Ralston Evans, CPA.

A few minutes spent chatting, and Evans invited Tobi to submit a resumé. By the time Francis had to return to his banking job in Lagos two weeks later to complete a major project he had started there, Tobi had accepted a paid position in Ralston’s accountancy firm.

Tobi’s sister, a social worker, had come to Lindsay and had had good things to say. Tobi now had her own story . “If the people in a community are welcoming, you see the beauty” of that community.

Much of her work at Ralston Evans was for Pinnguaq, the innovative Lindsay not-for-profit tech organization that at the time was housed in the same building. A year ago, she became Pinnguaq’s manager of finance. (“We stole Tobi — with permission,” says Ryan Oliver of Pinnguaq.)

This February, Francis rejoined Tobi and their children. They say it is good to be together again and though job prospects for Francis — who has an MSc in finance and is a certified information systems auditor — have been hampered by COVID-19, he looks forward to an opportunity and to contributing to the community.

All this Tobi and Francis, Victor in his lap, share over cold drinks (at a distance, of course) on my back deck. But I also want to hear about their homeland. They came here for the greater opportunities Canada provided, but have an abiding attachment to Nigeria and pride in their Nigerian roots.

With so much of the world closed to us for travel, a meeting with Tobi and Francis provides welcome glimpses of a faraway land.  It is a chance to explore.

They speak of the Nigerian people with affection and pride. “We have three major tribes,” says Francis, “but then branches of each of those, each with their own language or dialect.”

“We are a hard-working, intelligent people and have a strong education system,” adds Tobi.

And Nigerian culture? Tobi describes lively gatherings full of music and colour and shows me a photo of herself in a wedding party: she and two other women in bright-red beaded robes, abundant jewelry and head ties known as geles.

Her favourite Nigerian dish? “Iyan (pounded yam) and efo riro, a spicy, nutritious soup made with ugwu or other leaves, palm oil and locust beans,” she answers. (Good luck finding those ingredients nearby, much less other staples such as egusi (melon seeds) or panla (dried stock ish).)

The Ogunnowos have been welcomed to Canada. Francis says once COVID-19 relaxes its grip, we should visit Nigeria and experience a Nigerian welcome. “You will be wowed,” he tells me, with “sunshine, beaches and fish straight from the ocean, tourist attractions such as Obudu Cattle Ranch and Olumo Rock.”

I can only imagine.

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