Growing up in Nigeria, Abijah Nwakanma never had to look far for inspiration.
Nwakanma, 17, recently won Brescia University College’s Take the Lead public-speaking contest. The Grade 12 student at Etobicoke’s North Albion Collegiate Institute (NACI) was one of 31 students from 26 schools across southwestern Ontario competing.
She will attend the Western affiliate this fall on a full first-year scholarship.
Brescia hosts the annual contest designed to give young women in Grades 11 and 12 the opportunity to prepare and present a five-minute speech about women who empower others through leadership. This year, participants spoke on past or present women who have inspired leadership on a large or small scale – from family member to celebrity.
For Nwakanma, the choice of inspirational women was simple.
“One such empowering, one such dignifying, one such amazing woman is my mother,” Nwakanma said in her speech. “She is my inspiration. … Life without her will be an unfathomable imagination.”
Her contest win, Nwakanma will tell you, was the culmination of a journey her mother started growing up in Nigeria.
In her mother’s home, women did not attend school. Despite this, Nwakanma’s mother, Esther, applied to university in Nigeria where she studied economics and public child health – all while raising three children with her husband, Frederick.
Despite the challenging economy in Nigeria, Ester ensured Nwakanma and her two younger brothers went to the best schools.
That resolve resonated with a young Nwakanma.
“Even though it was very difficult for my mother going to school, taking care of her home and children, making sure her sisters did not require any financial assistance with regards to school, and taking care of her ill mother, there has always been this smile on my mother’s face whenever we see her,” Nwakanma continued.
“Looking at my mother now, and remembering all the pain and suffering that poor woman had gone through to make sure her sisters have a self-reliable life, looking at my mother now and remembering all the pain she had endured to make sure that my siblings and I have a well-equipped life, a life free of dependence on anyone, is a story that cannot be comprehended.”
Over the past school year, NACI guidance counselor Sylvia Smitas has grown to know Nwakanma. She is not surprised by the modest teen’s tremendous accomplishment.
“She’s only been in Canada for two years and done incredibly well,” Smitas said. “She is smart and determined, just like her mother, who struggled to get an education and overcame challenges in life. It is wonderful that the award go to someone who is so deserving.”
Nwakanma said recently “words cannot express” how honoured she is for winning. Because she never had the opportunity for public speaking in Nigeria, she entered only “for the experience.”
Deflecting the praise, Nwakanma is quick to get the conversation back to her mother.
“I am in Canada and attending one of the best schools in Etobicoke because my mom went through pains to bring me here for which I am grateful,” she said. “My mother is beautiful, not just on the outside, but inside.
“And do you know what, that beauty flows deep within her and overshadows the outward.”
Other award winners included Alex Holgate, second place, Havergal College in Toronto; and Kylie Griffin, third place, Strathroy District Collegiate Institute.