Maryann Dieke-Kalu talks to us about being a personal assistant in the nation’s capital city and the ambitious project she has undertaken to stem the scourge of Urinary Schistosomiasis among children in her home town, Abriba, Easten Nigeria.
Maryann, 26, grew up in Aba, Eastern Nigeria and attended the prestigious Federal Government Girls’ College, Abuloma, Port-Harcourt.
She proceeded to Abia State University, Uturu where she obtained a B.Sc in Animal and Environmental Biology in 2006. While serving on the National Youth Service Corps(NYSC) scheme, Maryann worked with Spring Bank Plc (now Enterprise Bank Limited) as a marketer in Cross Rivers State.
The search for a job took her to Abuja where she spent close to one year applying for several roles at different organisations. A chance encounter with economic and business development consultant, and trade policy expert Dr Ken Ife saw her take up the role of his Personal Assistant.
While waiting to get a permanent job, Maryann occupied herself by going to help out with marketing for a property firm. The company had a photocopier that they used for commercial business and Dr. Ife came in to utilize their services.
On that day, Maryann helped him out and while they spoke Dr. Ife mentioned that he was having trouble finding someone who could type a very large document without him having to proof-read it.
Maryann decided to take on the challenge and Dr. Ife was impressed by the results. He immediately offered her a chance to work with him on a permanent basis. She’d spent three sleepless nights working on the document but all the hard work paid off. Within a week, her contract with him had been signed and she began work in July 2010.
Maryann urges job seekers to “always have an open mind in your search. Be prepared at all times because you can never tell who you might run into”.
We asked Maryann why she accepted the job of personal assistant and she said that after watching Hollywood flick The Devil wears Prada, she’d often mused about what it would be like to manage someone.
When the opportunity came to work with Dr Ife, she jumped on the chance to tap into his vast wealth of knowledge. “His track record is impressive and I consider it a privilege to understudy him. As a matter of fact, I refer to him as a walking library”, she said.
Dr. Ife works as a consultant for international agencies such as UNIDO, UNECA, AfDB, FAO, ITC, World Bank, DfID, EU, UNECA, and ECOWAS. He also sits on the advisory board for several organisations and is a visiting professor at UGSM-Monarch Business School Switzerland and senior visiting fellow of the University of East London Business School.
We were keen to find out how Maryann was able to adapt to managing such a high-profile individual. “Everything I know today, I learned on the job. I moved from a pure science background into something totally new and different but my determination and persistence saw me through and in no time, I adjusted fully. I had no experience in managing an individual but after I was offered the Job, I knew I had to prove myself”, said Maryann.
Maryann has since gone on to become a graduate member of the Nigerian Institute of Management. Her typical day involves reviewing her boss’ appointments and making any adjustments that may be required. Sorting out emails and filing documents are also on her to-do list. On some days she has to write papers, prepare reports or do some research for television interviews.
On fitting into the fast-paced environment of economic and development consultancy, Maryann notes that her first exposure on the job was with the African Business Roundtable(ABR). ABR’s mission is to help create an enabling environment conducive to good governance, responsible private investment and sustainable economic growth and development in African countries. To do this, the ABR sponsors conferences, workshops, seminars, research, and other educational activities.
Maryann recalls that she felt so out of place because she knew next to nothing about economic policies. She did tell us that “A voracious appetite for knowledge and months of sleepless nights has changed all that.” So far, Maryann has worked on projects for several donor agencies including World Bank, UNECA, ECOWAS, GIZ, etc.
An aspect of the job that Maryann really enjoys is planning and organizing conferences and workshops. As for challenges, “every job comes with it”, said Maryann but taking ownership and responsibility is the way forward for Maryann. “These days, when a problem arises in my workplace, my boss just says to me, “Fix it”.”
We asked Maryann what skills to expect from a good PA and she said that a good PA must have excellent time management and problem solving skills. The ability to juggle different tasks while beating deadlines and thinking fast and proffering solutions to immediate problems are prerequisites.
Maryann’s B.Sc thesis addressed the prevalence of Urinary Schistosomiasis in school aged children in Eastern Nigeria. She chose this topic after two of her young cousins became infected after spending the Christmas holidays in their village; Abriba in Ohafia Local Government Area of Abia State. Her research revealed that the village stream was the source of the infection.
Initial estimates of the cost of treating the water bodies came up to well over Fifty million naira. While Maryann awaits intervention from the government and well meaning individuals and organisations, she currently holds health talks to educate the inhabitants of the village on the dangers of the disease as well as possible precautions.
She currently funds the project personally, with some help from friends and family. She is also in the process of registering it as a non-governmental organisation in Nigeria.
When Maryann is not working, she can be found at the library or in church. She uses her free time to catch up on sleep and reading material. She’s currently pursuing an MBA at the National Open University of Nigeria.