Maristella Okpala was the 2018 winner of Miss Earth Nigeria. The former Beauty Queen, who has a promising career as an air hostess with Emirate Airline, recently re-launched her pet project which is to champion campaigns that would educate children and youth about proper waste management for a greener environment. In this interview, she speaks about the project, handing over as a queen and other careers that interest her aside flying around the world.
You recently re-launched your pet project; tell us why you chose to educate children about the environment.
I continued the pet project and decided to make it more educative and added a little charity to it because our environment is degrading. The inspiration came from learning a lot about recycling benefits during my reign as Miss Earth and seeing how other countries practice good waste management and recycling. The urge to see my country with flourish with cleaner environment, by practicing and recycling plastics pushed me to continue this project.
First I believe we should understand that the major problem of not being aware of what these wrong choices do to our environment. The ignorance is playing a huge role in environmental degradation, which is why I am targeting children the #wastetowealth for a cleaner Nigeria.
In the programmes we hold across Nigeria, we engage them into practicing proper waste management and getting them to know that recycling pays.
What is the title of the project?
It is called “Pick That Plastic and Stay In School”. The goal of “Pick That Plastic and Stay In School” project is to support school children, and sensitize them on proper waste management and recycling. We recently held a program and we successfully donated school bags, exercise books, recycle bins and paid the school fees of 20 kids. I was privileged to pay the ante-natal of one of the parents. I taught the kids good environmental habits and set quiz after the training. The winners received cash rewards.
I’m grateful for this rare opportunity to be able to give back and I thank everyone who supported in making this project possible. I hope to do more by God’s grace and urge the general public to give in their little way to make the society a better place.
How do you choose or select the children you pay their school tuition?
There is a certain amount of plastics that I and my team mapped out for the children to pick for the recycle bins. Once they are able to get the quantity, they qualify to be selected. It is a way of encouraging them and their parents who cannot really afford school fees to pick a certain amount of plastics and get a scholarship from doing so.
You said scholarship; does it mean that you pay their school fees for a long time?
For now, I can only afford to pay for one school session or two for some of the children because I do not have sponsors. Most of the materials we use for the campaign are self-sponsored and we hope to get support going forward.
How was the journey as Miss Earth winner 2018?
It was a life changing experience for me and I had the privilege of representing Nigeria at Miss Earth 2018 in Philippines. I was opportune to meet other girls from different countries. I also learnt a lot about their cultures. It made me a better person in general because experience they say cannot be bought.
What was the most interesting experience you had when you were still the reigning queen?
I will say it is basically the crown on my head. I say that because every other thing is the same. Once a queen, always a queen.
What do you miss after handing over the crown to the next winner?
As a human being, you will miss something but I do not want to talk about that.
Tell us about your job as an air hostess, how interesting is it?
Well, the job is just like I always imagined it to be. You get to meet a lot of people, learn a lot of things like getting to see other countries and their cultures. I get to travel around the world. For me it’s adventurous and fun. It can be a bit tiring sometimes but it’s totally worth it and the fun part over shadows the little loophole that comes from it.
Have you always liked flying that high in the sky?
It has been my dream job for a while now. And I am thrilled that I am living it.
The first time you started the air hostess job with Emirate Airlines, were you afraid of being that height all the time?
No I’m not afraid of flying actually. But I think I am afraid of height a little bit but it doesn’t affect my work because the aircraft is designed in a way that makes you feel comfortable and not feel you are so high up there. The tiring part of the job is due to crossing different time zones within a week. So it affects the circadian rhythm. It affects your sleep time table and that way it makes you weak.
What other careers interests you aside the current job you are doing as a cabin crew?
Well I’m actually a licensed dentist. I am a graduate of Federal School of Dental Technology and Therapy, Enugu State. So maybe I would get to practice and own my own clinic, thereby creating more job opportunities and educate people on how to practice good oral hygiene.
You are quite pretty, have you thought about being on the big screen like acting in movies?
Not at all.
Before signing up for Miss Earth in 2018, were you a fully registered model?
Yes I was. I already did a lot of commercials and advert. Presently, I have some ambassadorship deals. I am a Rikaoto By Me fashion brand ambassador.
What was your first experience with pageants like?
It was tough. That was in 2009 in my school. I was in first year at the time, so I contested for Miss Dental as they called it then. It was tough because it was my first time and I had no one to advise me or put me through, I had to just summon up courage and do it. There was also this trend that if you are in first year, you are not expected to put in for Miss Dental; it was the unspoken rule that it was for those in second or third year. I decided that I would try and I would be the exception to the rule. I believed that first years shouldn’t be left out of such activities. So I took a bold step and did it. Yes, I was nervous, but at the end of the day, everything worked out well for me. The next Miss Dental after me was also a first year student, so I broke a record.
What challenges have you faced trying to put the project together?
The process of trying to enlighten the children and adults to understand the need for proper waste management and the benefits that comes from recycling is not that easy. Also it was difficult to get people to support the project within a short period of time because of the festive season. But I am not giving up.
You once said that in Nigeria that nothing goes for nothing; is it that hard convincing people to pick plastics to help the environment?
Yes it’s actually hard to convince people to recycle. The major problem is not being aware of the consequences of how we throw waste. They don’t see the need to pick the plastic and a lot of us blame the leaders for environmental choices we make. We can start as an individual to bring about that change we want to see. So that is why I am trying to give back to the society by encouraging them to pick the plastics and enlightening them on the reasons why recycling is good for Nigeria. Though I am targeting children, I know that the information about the advantages will spread to the adults through them. Also, Nigeria is a consuming country. We consume a lot which is why recycling can go a long way in reducing plastic pollution.
What makes you passionate about the earth and the environment?
I just sincerely see the earth as our home. Apart from where we grew up or reside, or our parent’s houses, there would be no us without the earth, and that is the truth. The earth can survive without us, but we cannot survive without the earth because this is where we live and that is how I see things. That is why I preach that people should think about the earth always.