The Mask that Saved my Career

Introduction by: Terry Jerry A’Wase

Micheal Chijoke Ukwuma is a medical practitioner turned creative writer. Born in Enugu, eastern Nigeria, a place famous for dreams being molded into whatever parents predispose as a successful future, Chijoke’s love for creative writing and acting could not see the light of day as it was a ‘waste of time.’ So he studied medical sciences, but even after years of graduating as an anatomist and working with several successful international NGOs, he courageously quit his job in early 2022.

He also works through his YouTube channels, as well as his Peakie You podcast. He has received thousands of views and compelling comments without promotion. He knew then that he could hear others’ personal struggles and stories of change in this community of arts that has been bedeviled by religiosity, especially in Nigeria and more broadly in Africa.

He is actively working with media agencies, radio and online and finding his way around the movie industry in Nigeria to make a success of creative writing. He does this while advocating for narrative stories that can inspire the people, especially African youth, through empowerment and education.

Leaving the Past Behind

There it was. A feeling of chill and goosebumps got me instantly unsettled. It was not a bad feeling. No, it was the feeling of a mind awash with a thousand memories. The nights by the smoky lanterns in deserted school halls where I scribbled to my heart’s content. The fear of being discovered and jeered at by peers who would consider me ‘soft’.

That was an old diary I have held onto for 15 years. It sat in a pile of old books that had been stored away in the garage. It came from a time when I was a child with many dreams. Now I am all grown. My life is currently busy, and frivolities such as writing poetry and stories belong to a distant past with no relevance to my life and work. Without much thought to it, I quickly gathered all the books in the pile and set them ablaze. I was no longer that child who wrote stories. I am now a man who must make serious business decisions daily. As the fire ravaged the books from my past, I felt relief, yet I felt uncertain that I was finally done with a past I have pretended never happened.

In those days, manliness was every boy’s ultimate fantasy. For boys in my school, to appear manly was all you needed to gain acceptance. Though I did everything with my peers, I also loved to write poetry and stories. Not the kind of stories boys told, but those about love. I hated the life I had. It felt like a soft-boiled egg—runny inside and hard on the outside. That hard exterior is fully calcified now, which is pretty much all I was. All signs of a weak past must be washed away.

At his moment, the fire was the instrument of purification. With a once inglorious past blotted, I was ready to embrace the blossoming career of a business consultant. I stared into the charred pages as they turned black from a fiery pale. It wasn’t the fire that held my gaze; it was the ashes. They were a sign of a new beginning like a phoenix. At this point, burning my old books meant one thing. I can finally have more space in my garage to set up my YouTube studio. When I share my vast business experience, the world will surely listen or so I thought.

To get started, I had to install wallpaper over the garage wall. Not over the whole space, just enough for the video frame. It was more challenging than I thought it would be. You see, I have never installed wallpaper before now but my ‘wallpaper mentors’ on YouTube said anyone could do it. That seemed to be the general principle of making educational and motivational videos. If I can do it, so can you. That was going to be my message too. If this principle worked once, it could work again. I was living the principle, even if I applied it to the mundane task of installing wallpapers badly. The rest of my gear included a camera, a ring light, a tripod for my camera and a microphone. All the products were used and generic. The final setup was not perfect, but I was proud of it anyways.

I quickly shot my first few videos and set out to edit them excitedly. I feel that by now you can guess that I have no experience editing videos. I will learn by doing. Once my videos are posted, I will become the light that will lead many local businesses to success.

Facing the Music

Now that I have published my first video, I patiently wait for the notifications to pour in. The likes will come chiming in like glorious music to my ears. Then the comments from all over the world. I imagined that people would share my video so often that it would go viral. Yes, yes, yes! I was finally ready to be introduced to the world. I played these thoughts over and over again in my head and I felt true joy for the first time in a while. Three hours later and not a soul had watched it.

‘Patience,’ I whispered to myself. A notification did come, but it was five days later. It was not a like or comment or share. To my dismay, my first notification was a dislike. A freaking dislike. I shrugged it off knowing that I need to keep pushing. If I stay hungry enough, I will succeed. So I kept making videos and dumping them on the channel. Nothing could deter my resolve.

After a hundred videos and a total of 203 views on the channel, I had gotten very frustrated. My most watched video had 29 views. I played it 28 times. I did everything my mentors said to do and nothing was working. I lost my confidence and had a hard time making new videos. My business never got off the ground. I felt really stupid. It had been four months and there was nothing to show for my efforts. In my desperation, I started to make videos about everything I could think about.

There were videos about religion, hobbies, relationship advice and food too. At this point, anything trendy seemed like a good idea. Sometimes it worked. Once I got a hundred views on a video on skin care. I could never tell why so many people watched skincare videos and not business management videos. ‘Would people rather have good-looking skin than become rich?’ I could not wrap my head around it.

I hated making videos that did not empower people the right way. After all, petty stuff and videos that only had entertainment value were all a waste of time. The fact that I had 50 subscribers while these other jokers had millions of subscribers broke my heart. I decided that it was time to quit. I left my gear in a pile on the garage floor and walked away.

It has been six months since I posted my last video. My interests have moved elsewhere, though I still hated the fact that my channel failed. I wondered if there was something I did wrong. I hated YouTube and all my mentors. ‘They lied!’ The system hates me. I thought of all the other reasons why I was discriminated against. ‘I am Black.’ ‘I am African.’ ‘I am straight.’ ‘I am poor.’ They discriminate against me and tank my videos. I have seen many channels I considered less important and they have millions of views on crappy content. I had superior intelligence and as a matter of fact, they were too blind to see.

In my state of self-pity, a light rose on the horizon. I got a notification from my channel. One video was beginning to perform better than the others. It got a thousand views. This was a new experience for me. I had five comments, all organic. It wasn’t me, using aliases to comment on my videos. Out of 256 videos, it was the story I told out of desperation and boredom about a mask on my wall. It was just a regular mask, and it was just a regular story that everyone knew. However, for some strange reason, people found it intriguing. So I took one last piece of advice from my mentors. The same ones I no longer loved.

I made another mask video. It also got a thousand views. So maybe I had found it! The universe did not want me to make business development videos. They wanted stories of masks. So I made my peace with my mentors. They were right after all. They want me to do more of what works. This taught me the greatest lesson of my short-lived career. People want a new experience, especially if the quality is good.

I know that I made terrible videos and compared to the many prominent professionals making videos on similar topics, I had very little to offer. ‘Would I choose me over any of the big names?’ They weren’t shooting videos from dusty garages on used equipment. They weren’t broke wannabees. They were experienced, insightful and rich. But one thing those big people could not do better than me was make dull videos on masks. So masks would be my thing and that was settled. I found my niche.

Speaking Masks

I started again. I made new documentaries on masks. I sought out new stories and I found a community of mask lovers. It was a vast space and my journey began. A journey of storytelling, loads of studies and learning to love again. My hard crust was coming apart and my runny insides were gushing everywhere. I was not big or successful by any definition but at least I found a patch. One I could call mine. Telling the stories of masks came easily to me. I loved it.

I loved me all runny and crusty, all of me. ‘How could I have sought the love of others when I could not love myself?’

Again, I find myself in that dreamy state. It would seem that my love, stories and poetry did not perish in the flames. Like a phoenix, they have been reborn and I with them. I am set for the next big chapter of my life. One that reflects the essence of who I truly am. Unlike a phoenix, I stayed wilfully buried in the ashes because I wanted to be like my environment. But experience has taught me that I still have so much to learn and that until I accept who I truly am, I will not find success. And so, the real story of my emergence begins.

Michael Chijioke Ukwuma

I am a Nigerian human rights educator and researcher.  I host the SEVICS AFRICA and Michael Ukwuma YouTube Channels as well as the PeakieYou Podcast. I am an advocate for telling the African Story as a means to educate and empower the future generations of the Mother continent.