The Director General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation, is the first of six children born to a former Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a one-time chairman, Body of Benchers, Chief George Uwechue who is also the Owelle of Ogwashi-Uku.
She talks about her childhood: “My childhood was eventful and I was surrounded by very loving and closely knit family. I grew up in many towns and cities in Nigeria and abroad. My mom is European and my father, African but the African influence got a better part of me. However, my appreciation of European culture gives me a happy mix of the best of both worlds.
“Most of my family members are lawyers and public servants. Growing up around different cultural influences gave me an appreciation of Nigeria’s diversity and the realities of a globalising world. My childhood has equipped me to thrive in any place I find myself. It has also given me an independent and caring spirit.”
A graduate of Law from University of Lagos, Mbanefo naturally chose the legal path since most of her siblings took to the law profession. “My dad and mum both studied Law at the London School of Economics and their influence swayed me towards law,” she states.
The conviction to go into law practice was not the only parental influence she received. “My parents also taught me the importance of hard work, love for each other, discipline, industry, service and respect for a common humanity and above all the fear of God. My dad being a senior advocate instilled these values in us quite early in life and this has contributed to my career in the corporate world,” she says.
A philanthropist and founder of the Sally Mbanefo Foundation, she has this to say about the plight of the poor: “The poor are first and foremost Nigerians with privileges and rights. You cannot fight poverty through charity alone. You need profits to fight poverty. The sustainable way out of poverty is to give people decent jobs. This is why we insist on social impact and benefits for every program or project we embark on at the NTDC. Poverty is an emergent outcome and needs to be understood holistically. We are marshalling resources around our three-point strategic imperatives of rebuilding the tourism corporation; growing the tourism value chain for jobs and revenues; and reinventing how tourism is operated in Nigeria. Our programs and projects are designed to deliver 500,000 jobs in 3 years. We are determined to fight the ills that beset women and children in our society.”
Among other talents, the half Italian-Swiss, half Nigerian is a very skilled painter who has loads of artistic works to her credit. “My most remarkable painting is a landscape piece that I did outdoors for 18 hours. Painting gives me a big picture view of life and opens me to creative problem solving while appreciating and empathising with the human angle in every situation of life,” she says.
Sally’s hobbies include sailing, learning languages, swimming, jogging, among others. “As a way of relaxation, I exercise daily and find time for quiet meditation with my creator. I wake up very early for mass and return to prepare for work and from work, back home to family. This is very much my daily routine,” she adds.
Opening up more about her job as the DG of NTDC, she says, “It’s an exciting job. It gives me opportunity to add glamour to tourism in Nigeria. I am appealing to corporate Nigerians to please do the same. Tourism has the capacity to add more jobs and grow Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product. There is a need to change mindsets and worldviews about domestic tourism among individuals and corporate Nigeria. We need Nigerians to key into the idea of patronising our holiday resorts. It is our patriotic duty to invest in the local economy. Tourism holds enormous potentials but we need to create local demand to grow the industry. We have over 500 tourism sites in this country and Nigerians need to visit these sites.”
On the wrong first impression that people always have about her, she says, “I am usually underestimated but then, it is to my advantage. Also, people think I am white but later find I am very Nigerian and can speak our local dialects.
“Juggling my duties as a wife and DG? That is easy. I would not advise women to abandon the home front just because they are in public office. I do domestic chores myself which is like workout for me. I enjoy cooking especially for loved ones.”
Asked what determines her style, Mbanefo who has learned to create her signature look says “I look at the weather and what the occasion demands. Other times it’s the ‘feel good’ factor and probably the meeting agenda.
“My accessories are my smile, my spiritual confidence, my eye contact and gait. I am very brief on jewellery. An obsession with jewellery can distract one from other important things like school fees for the under privileged. So I just wear earrings to indicate my womanhood.
“My favourite colours include a combination of cafe au lait, mocca, coffee brown and beige. For fabrics, my domestic tourism trips are opening my eyes to the varieties we have in Nigeria.
“My post at NTDC has also affected my style. Prior to now, my dressing consisted more of turtle necks, dark suites and high heeled shoes. Now I dress to project Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage. From my tours within Nigeria, I have acquired a lot of adire, batik and Ankara. As I travel around Nigeria, I will continue to expand my wardrobe to reflect our diversity. I have also remained stylish without seeing any need for high heels.”
But there is one thing she would never be caught wearing. “I would never be caught wearing a transparent dress.
“A look into my handbag would reveal my rosary and my divine mercy prayer pamphlet,” she says.
A widely travelled woman, Mbanefo says there are still places she would love to visit. “I look forward to exploring Nigeria more. I have done visits around the South-South and South-West and some North-Central cities. I am looking forward to visiting Taraba, Obudu Cattle Ranch, Bauchi and Gombe.”
And her role model? “I wish I lived in the era of Queen Amina of Zaria. But my admiration for Mandela’s and Mother Theresa’s exemplary lives continues to give me inspiration,” she concludes.
– Punch Newspaper