By Comfort Obi
Even though we are from the same state and zone, Imo, Owerri, I first met Ondo state First Lady, Betty Anyanwu- Akeredolu on the pages of newspapers before I met her physically this other day in Akure. Let me also disclose that we attended the same secondary school – Egbu Girls, in Owerri North LGA – but I didn’t quite take note. I was her junior, and you know, at the time, junior students held their senior students very much in awe. But our paths crossed on the pages of a newspaper soon after her husband, Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN, was elected a governor. I was going through a newspaper, I forget which now, when I came across an interview she granted.
You will forgive me, but I am not particularly a fan of Nigerian First Ladies. I feel many of them live what I call plastic lives. So unreal. I hardly pay attention to their various foundations, or projects. I may be wrong, but I think they have no passion for such things. But embark on them for personal gains. It is their iwn ATM. They fizzle out as soon as the First Ladies leave office. Nobody hears about the foundations and/or projects anymore. Again, I may be wrong. But for a few of them, I neither see, nor know the impact they made, and/or make on the society.
I admit that it is not general in character. A couple of them made, and are still making verifiable impact on the lives of people. Here, I acknowledge the former First Lady of Rivers State, Hon Justice Mary Peter-Odili, JSC. As a First Lady, she was solid. She had vision. Not only did she not abandon her career during her eight years of First Ladyship in Rivers State, her pet project – The Adolescent Programme, TAP – groomed thousands of teenagers to become accomplished in life. TAP gave them a gateway to their sources of livelihood. I can also confirm what the First Lady of Imo state, Nneoma Rochas Okorocha, has been doing with her widowhood foundation. Using it, Mrs. Okorocha has provided modern accommodation – two to three bedroom flats – for scores of widows who, before lived in batchers. And there are the current First Ladies of Kebbi and Niger States, both medical doctors, who are doing tremendous jobs with women and children, health-wise.
So, not being a fan of First Ladies, it was the headline of Mrs. Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s interview that attracted me to read it. “How I survived cancer for 20 years,” it was entitled. I was intrigued. Few women in her status would admit publicly they had cancer. So, I began to read the interview, and couldn’t put it down. She revealed, in the interview, what African women, especially, Nigerian women, rarely talk about. She revealed she went through a masectomy. She said several people, women in particular, advised her not to go through that procedure of cutting off her breast because of her husband. She spurned them. She told them her husband had played enough with her breast and, if that was the only thing that would keep her marriage, she preferred staying alive to the marriage. She needed to be alive and take care of her children. The dead takes care of nobody. She couldn’t stand the thought that she died because she didn’t want to cut off her breast. They said her husband may marry another woman if she cut off her breast. And her response was simple: “Let him marry two more if he desires. But, I will cut off this breast so as to be alive for my children.” In 1997 when this breast cancer came calling, the Ondo First Lady was a young woman, only 44 years old!
The masectomy was not tge only stunner in that interview. She delved into another an almost no-go area for women. “I am older than my husband with about three years,” she said. I was stunned. But she was not done yet.
Asked how she would cope in the Ondo State Government House, being of another tribe, she was quick to respond. “I am an Igbo woman, proud of my roots, married to the love of my life, an Ondo man. We have become one. But people should be ready to hear a lot of “Dalu” in the government house.” Only a sure-footed woman, with lots of self esteem would dare say such things. This Ondo First Lady is in a class of her own.
Fragile looking. Cool. Calm. Calculated. Elegant. Soft-spoken. Petit, almost, her appearance is very deceitful. For, embedded in that fragile frame is a lady I call “A woman of Steel.” She is lion-hearted. But she is also as passionate as she is strong-willed. She holds strong in her beliefs. And Mrs Anyanwu- Akeredolu is bold and fearless when pursuing anything that has to do with the girl-child education and the rights of women.
A native of Emeabiam in the Owerri West LGA, Imo state, she was born to parents who were teachers. She imbibed the spirit of hardwork and independence from her mother who quit teaching because of the meagre salary, to supplement her father’s income. She became a trader instead. In her community then, as in other Igbo communities, it was rare to educate the girl-child. They felt it was a useless venture. Put her in school, they thought, and it would be to the advantage of another family. She would soon get married, and every effort made towards her education would becomes a waste. Her parents loss. Her would-be matrimonial family’s gain, they reasoned.
The young Betty’s parents saw it differently. They put her in school. According to her, she was neither seen nor brought up as a girl-child. She was a child. As much a child as her brothers. No difference. After her primary school, she went to Egbu Girl’s Secondary School in the Owerri North LGA. And later, to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she studied Zoology. In doing that, Betty became the first female University graduate in her community. It was at Nsukka that she had her first shock, and perhaps, first fell in love with the Yoruba. While she was billed to become the first female graduate in her community, she was shocked to see that her Yoruba mates had mothers who were already lawyers, medical doctors and engineers. For her, it was a different world altogether. Would that be why she married a Yoruba? Or, just destiny? She parries the question, but quickly admits that when it comes to the rights and education of the girl-child, the Yoruba are far ahead of where she came from. And she wondered, aloud, if her marriage would have lasted for more than one year if she had married an Igbo.
From when she was very young, even though she did not experience such deprivations, Mrs. Anyanwu-Akeredolu was very much aware of the deprivations of the girl-child. Her mother was against female circumcision a done-deal then. And when her husband and his people came for her hand in marriage, her father told them: “I don’t want my daughter maltreated.” Pointing to her room, she told them: “Her room is still there for her.” And it was. And still is. To prove to her people that it is not a waste to train a girl, she is rooted in her community. Every Christmas, she goes to Emeabiam to spend it with her children. Her husband, a man very much at home with her in-laws, used to go with her, until recently. Duty calls. Tight schedule.
Her first job after her graduation and National Youth Service was at the Federal Ministry of Fisheries. But she was exposed to the real world when she went for a course in Philippines. It was there that she learnt about segregation and racism. It was a different world for her. She found out students could relate to their lecturers, freely, and eat with them on same table, argue on issues with them and, have easy access to them. These were unlike what obtained at Nsukka. There, at the time, Lecturers were like thin gods.
She also found out that, yes, blacks could perform better, academically, than Oyinbo, given the same environment and opportunities. And, she came back from Philippines a changed woman – more sure footed, lots of self-esteem, an all-round woman. Her experience helped her to be the woman she is today, especially on two fronts.
When at the age of 44 she was diagonised of breast cancer, she was, naturally, initially traumatised. But she fought back because she wanted to live for her husband, children and family. Because of her education, exposure and enlightenment, she rejected the usual primitive belief that the disease was a curse from an enemy, or an arrow, or an attack targeted at her by women who wanted to take her place in her matrimonial home. So, she rejected the pressure of going to spiritualists, prophets, native doctors, any prayer house. Before she became a victim of cancer, she had read it up. That helped. So, she focused on a hospital – University College Ibadan. There, she met many women suffering from the same ailment, but who wouldn’t discuss it thereafter, at times, out of fear that nobody would marry their daughters. But more annoying to her is the role some Churches are playing.
She is angry with those Churches and Clerics, by whichever name, who deceive women, giving them the impression that cancer is curable with the use of olive oil, white handkerchiefs or praying while laying a hand on the breast of the victim. She says they are sending many women to their early graves and urges the government to do something about such deceits. “This can’t be happening in the 21st century. Go to the hospital as soon as it is detected. Get treatment and follow-up with prayers. Nobody is after you. Cancer is not programmed. It is not an attack,” she admonishes.
Her cancer experience led her to establish a Cancer Foundation – BRECAN – long before she became the First Lady of Ondo State. With BRECAN, she has saved the lives of many women. Becoming the First Lady offered her a larger platform than she had. Now, she is partnering with many national and international organisations and institutions to fight cancer. She is sad that most times, there is no workable cancer equipment in Nigeria, even for Radiotherapy. But very soon, a workable cancer centre will be established in Ondo. She is excited about this and says: “Even if that is the only thing we’ll accomplish, it is enough for me. We need to enlighten our people. Some educated ones are not even enlightened. They believe all kinds of things about cancer.”
And, she has accomplished quite a lot within the short period of her First Ladyship in Ondo state. She founded the Forum of Wives of Ondo State Officials, FOWOSO, a platform she has used to empower women and the girl-child and, yes, boys. Every year, since she founded FOWOSO, she, along with her team, heads to every LGA in the state for talks, enlightenment programmes, and more importantly, empowerment programmes. The women are empowered with sewing machines, grinding machines, farm implements and much more. They are taught how to make washing and bathing soaps, disinfectants, body cream, hair weaving, and wigs. Many young women are taught the art of make-up and the tying of Gele. They have become self-employed. They are also taught how to take care of their children. At every LGA, health officials, including Doctors and Nurses, are present to de-worm children, give them Vitamin A, check people’s blood pressure, and give medication. They also check on, and look after pregnant women there. And there are follow-ups – all for free.
More important, using FOWOSO, she has taught both women and men to be aware of their bodies, especially, to check their breasts. And, she has simplified it by introducing a dance step, SAKEM. While one dances to the infectious rhythm of SAKEM, one checks one’s breast. It is a sight to behold watching both the young and the old, men and women, dancing to SAKEM and, checking their breasts in the process.
But by far, her most important achievement is in the area of ICT/Solar. She, in 2017, established the BEMORE Empowerment Foundation.
From all nooks and crannies of Ondo state, the First Lady brings scores of teenagers together, keeps them in a camp, feeds them, clothes them, and they learn the use of computer and other aspects of technology. At the end, each of them goes home with one Laptop and a certificate. Till date, 700 of them have benefited. And to show her community, Emeabiam, Owerri West, Imo state, that it is not a waste to put the girl-child through school; that when she marries, she does not forget her roots, Mrs. Anyanwu-Akeredolu has also trained 50 of them and given them 50 Laptops. Meaning: 750 teenagers – boys and girls – have been empowered with one Laptop each. That automatically changes their lives. And, they are excited.
Anyanwu-Akeredolu sees her role and those of other women as that of the “softer side of government.” She is right. She is deeply appreciative of her husband for giving her the space to contribute her quota. She appreciates Ondo women and their husbands, and the youths, and especially, the girl child who see her as a role model. She tells the girls: “If I can do it, you can.” And, Ondo women couldn’t be happier than they are. In appreciation, they fondly have pet names for her. Arabinrin. Mama Aketi. Mama Digital World wide. World Class First Lady. And more.
The pet names don’t make her swollen-headed. They don’t make her grow wings. She already has them. She takes accolades in her stride. She just smiles. She is focused on the demystification of Cancer. She is focused on its defeat. She empahsises that it starts from being aware of one’s body. It starts from early detection. She is focused on the girl-child education. She is focused on the aggressive empowerment of women. She is focused on making Ondo youths digital youths. She is focused on her contribution to her husband’s regime as the softer side of government.
And, Ondo Women couldn’t ask for more. They proudly say so themselves.
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