Ondo state First Lady, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, talks about how some Churches are sending women to their early graves, her pride in the Yoruba culture, the girl-child, womanhood and, being an Igbo daughter. Excerpts:
Your Excellency, tell us about yourself
I’m from Emeabiam in the Owerri West Local Government of Imo state. My parents were teachers, but my mother at a point in time, left teaching and faced trading. I grew up in the rural areas. In those days, teachers were looked upon as number one citizens in every village. Many parents would like their wards to live with such family. I grew up in a household with dependants from relatives who just dumped their children with my parents, asking them to train their children for them.
Teachers were respected in those days and they didn’t take such respect for granted, being that they occupied a very important position in the society, trying to get people educated and waiting for their rewards in heaven. They were paid pittance and I think that was one of the reasons my mother left teaching. May be she felt she couldn’t cope with all the responsibilities at that time. And I can tell you that she was even making more money through trading; soap making, frying akara; people will come lining up to buy. It was like a mini industry in those days. So, at a very young age, I kind of realized that the girl-child had not much going for her. By the time I went to secondary school, in my village, I think I was the second child in secondary school. That was in the 60’s. Then, after the war, I was already a teenager during the war, it was time to go back to school. I went to Egbu Girls’ Secondary.School. We all were trekking from my village to Egbu, myself and my younger sister. At a point other girls withdrew, just myself and my sister were left. The reason why it turned out that, I became the first female graduate from my town.When I went to the University of Nigeria,
Nsukka, I met those whose grandfather went to Oxford and Cambridge. I couldn’t understand, with my young mind, that I was the only girl coming from my village at the time. It was when I went to the university that I began to see the whole situation unraveled. I had to appreciate it, with the perception of our people, regarding the position of a woman in the society. When you grow up, you get married, make children and so on. There’s this wrong impression that when you train a female child, you are training her for the husband. You have wasted all your money for another family to inherit. It’s still there, but it’s gradually reducing. Until we begin to show that when you marry, your family has not lost out, it’s very, very important. And I can tell you that I have demonstrated it in no small way. You are saying that woman is nothing, but look at me, I have shown it in no small way that my family has not lost me. As the first female graduate in my community, it’s a lot of responsibility. People look upon you as their mother, and I take it seriously. I have been able to prove that after training a woman, you have not lost anything; your family is going to gain a lot by doing so.
I was raised to be a Child, Not a Girl
My father raised me as a child, he didn’t raise me as a girl-child, that’s the difference. I want to say I’m very bold, even though when you look at me, I look so fragile. My demeanor is deceitful. My father didn’t raise me as a girI, and I tell people that if you are a man, and I can’t talk to you, dem never born you. I’m very serious, and my husband knows that. When he came to the village to ask for my hand in marriage, my father told him, pointing to my room, that “if you maltreat her, her room is still there. She’s free to come back.” I’m not the type of woman a man will maltreat, and they will say remain there. My father never believed in that. They respected my choice.
The Yoruba, A Different Specie
But I have to say this of Yoruba people. I must confess, because when you see something good in a culture you embrace it, those that are not good you also say it. When it comes to giving a woman a chance, to grow and be herself, Yoruba men do it hundred per cent. And I say, if I had married an Igbo man, I don’t think that marriage would have lasted for a year. It’s so because, for instance, going to my village every December is not negotiable. I used to take my husband to my village every Christmas until after sometime he stopped; he will just say carry your children to your village. When a man loves his wife, what she likes and where she’s coming from, respects her views and opinions, God blesses the couple. To me, marriage is fifty/fifty. You are from different background, different personalities, you need to work it out, and that’s why there are broken marriages. We are still locked up in what marriages should be. You know, a man sitting there, the woman kneeling down to serve him.
But things are now changing because that man could have been your mate at the university. So, let’s begin to look at marriage in the context of the century that we are in now. Not in my mother’s time. We must see that it’s a relationship you keep working on, you keep building on it; you know when this love thing is happening, you don’t see anything, but by the time you come together you realize that it’s a lot of work to make a marriage work.Things are changing and we must change with time. You know, at times ,when a man is helping out at home, the mother in-law would come in and says, you are using my son as a slave; you know it happens. We, as mothers, need to go back to the drawing board to raise our sons differently, I keep telling mothers at different fora that we are the ones responsible for the harms done to marriages, because we have refused to let go of that archaic way of looking at marriages. When you marry a woman and you turn her to a slave, or you consider her a piece of furniture, and think that at your own whims and caprices you can discard, not any more, especially the educated ones. My experience when I was growing up fashioned the way I think and do things.
Philippines Opened My Eyes
My views to life right now concretized after I graduated, and got a civil service job. I was sent for training at the University of Philippines. And there, it’s a different world entirely. Though a third world, but the people have gone ahead of us. The lecturers in that institute, students were from all over the world – Africa, Japan, UK, America. It was a mixed grill of nationalities. And you know that will bring about different perspectives on different issues. the In that school, we were free with our lecturers unlike the experience at Nsukka. At Nsukka your lecturers, they were like gods.When you see them you run away. You can’t even have a conversation. When you want to see your lecturer, you are afraid, fidgeting, but that was not the case at the Philippines. We all had our meals in the same refectory, we sat around the same table, having discussions. And when your lecturer says something you don’t agree with, you say no, you want to put up your own arguments. That was the experience in the Philippines. I was exposed to world politics, under-development, hunger and so on.
The Book That Changed Me
And that was when I was exposed to a small book, ‘’Small is Beautiful’ written by Dr. Schumacher from Harvard University. It’s about developing countries swallowing technology hook, line and sinker without being prepared to use it. And after reading the book, my mind went straight to the Ajaokuta Steel Mill.
That book exposed me to many problems we are facing as a nation, we jump into things without being prepared. The Ajaokuta Steel Mill, for example, you don’t look at your human capacity, do you have it? How long will it take you to get people that will manage such a gigantic project? If you know you are not ready, you don’t go into it, you go into a smaller one then gradually, you scale up. That was the lesson I learnt from that book. And it has also guided me in the way I do things. I don’t go into things I have little knowledge of. Because along the way you might find out that it wouldn’t work. You hands off and your loses will be too little, not too much. I was so thrilled that I opened up a conversation with the professor. So, the Philippines also opened a new horizon for me as I began to be conscious of my environment, that I’m a black woman. When I left Nigeria, I didn’t quite know what would happen in the Philippines. But when I got there, I was beating those in my class academically, and I said, are you kidding me? There, you find yourselves in the same class with students from the western world and you are better them academically. But, when you come back here, you see how our people fidget when they see an Oyinbo. Oyinbo will bring a proposal, you won’t even look at it to know whether it is rubbish or not. Immediately it’s Oyinbo, you approve. When it comes to implementation nothing comes out of it.
That’s why when I participate in all these international conferences, and I come back home, I’m like, our people must be joking. You stay here, and allow these people to be taking you for a ride.
Many Nigerians over there are doing well, but when they come back, those that are in charge of decision -making are more pre-occupied with what they are going to gain,nobody looks at it critically. Like, how will my country benefit from this? They are all looking at the 10 per cent that will paid into their account abroad. It’s a mess. So I came back from the Philippine with so much political awareness, an entirely new person.
Madness Called Religion
And I also started talking about this madness practised here as religion. If you believe there’s a higher being, it should be between you and that higher being. This charade that we see in this country is abnormal. It’s about time we began to speak against it seriously. I saw the madness when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After my diagnosis, I saw people’s ignorance. If I had wallowed in such ignorance, that lump would have manifested into something that would have now become incurable. Because they were saying there’s somebody that will pray for you to make this lump disappear. That’s what we are suffering in this country. Somebody will give you olive oil and tell you this lump will disappear, and people will believe.
And that’s why I’m mad at the so-called men and women of God. They are sending our women to their early graves, in terrible numbers. They lie to them that only prayers and olive oil and white handkerchief will cure them, and they believe. They are killing our women. They tell them somebody directed an arrow at them. It’s callous.
You have come a long way as a strong woman in the midst of this stereotype about raising a girl-child. With your experience, what conversation should we be having with parents on how to raise a girl child?
At a very young age, and I give the credit to my parents, I realized that the girl child has limited opportunities. That realization was so ingrained in me that I began to think how to make things better, even though at that time I didn’t have the capacity. But when I now found myself in a position, although I didn’t start today. I started long before I became the First Lady. I have long been involved in one NGO or the Civil Society. It was actually the breast cancer advocacy that threw me into it. And in this space, you have the opportunity to know the size of the gully in every development. When it came to the issue of health, I realised that women are the most endangered.
Women, Endangered Species
I will use the breast cancer issue as a case study. You find out that even when a woman has the desire to go to hospital to do mammogram, she may not have the money. She’s incapacitated. There are two diseases killing Nigerian women. They are ignorance and poverty. And I began to look at how to combat them, how to, at least, reduce them to the barest minimum. So it has to be education, creating a forum where you can talk to women and young girls. I have tried in the past with women, but women, you know, we have issues. And I’m also trying to address those issues with this platform I found myself. As an ordinary citizen, I didn’t make much progress. Because, you need a platform. So, even if they don’t respect you, they will respect the position, and this position of a First Lady is an amazing platform. And the good thing is that people were already hearing my voice before I became the First Lady. It’s an advantage. Like I said I tried with women, our cultural milieu in which we grow up is so unfair to women. You need to be educated and enlightened to realize this. There, in the village, the women don’t know much. The women will even be the ones to speak against what you are doing. Look at the issue of inheritance, widowhood, all those rituals they do, the women are the champions, but for me to have this platform to begin to educate them, yes. Like I said, I didn’t make much progress. But, I’m like my mother, years back, when I was born, my mother, though she’s old now, about 87 years, she will say nobody must circumcise a female child. My mother was at the forefront against female circumcision even in my own village. These women are still constrained by their environment, so if you have this platform, you can talk more, and, most probably, people will listen.
This is The 21st Century, We Need to Change
When my husband’s people came for my hand in marriage, my people were angry with my father. They made a long list of items that mg husband’s people must provide. Not my father, he said no. I’m not selling my daughter. Taking such position like my father took could make an impact. For instance, when a family says we don’t want to sell our daughter, inch by inch, you begin to change the mindset of the people. But if you really want to change so many things, you need a higher pedestal. This is where this office has filled-in. Having said that, we cannot continue like this. I decided to look at our daughters, the younger ones, this isl where our emphasis is right now, the younger generation, and I can tell you we are making great impact, starting with Ondo state.
My ICT Solar Vision
Last year, I started the BEMORE Empowerment Foundation where we train girls in solar and ICT, because this is digital age, and they need to key into the digital era of the 21st century. They should not feel inferior before their counterparts in other parts of the world.
Is that the one you trained about 400 girls?
Yes. Last year, we trained 300 of them. This year, we had 400, making it 700 altogether. Now, we have extended it to where I come from, Emeabiam, Owerri West LGA. You know, I told you, I’m very tied to my root, so, we did 60 girls, we now have 760 girls altogether. And each girl went home with a laptop. If we continue at this pace, now, about 760 homes, their daughters just walked in with a laptop, they didn’t know me from Adam, and they don’t have to know me. So today, 760 families are feeling the impact of this administration. We don’t normally do petty, petty stuffs, we believe in life-changing skills. The first 300 girls came from very humble homes. Many of them had never been to Akure before, I kitted all of them. Two T-shirts for the day to day training, and at graduation each got a T-shirt, a pair of trousers and canvass. Majority of them never visited a doctor, all their lives, and I looked at it and said what are we doing in this country? They neither know their blood group nor genotype. Last year, we got excess. That now made us to get partnership. Knowing your genotype and the genotype of your partner, we taught them how important it is because they will soon get married. Many of them didn’t take fruits before this programme. My matron told me that when they are served fruit they push it aside. During their graduation, one of them said, we have not been eating fruit before, now that we are eating it, it’s good for us. It’s an eye opener, how we are unserious in this country.
Let’ talk about these children hawking in the streets. Whenever you drive along Ondo roads, do you see those children hawking on the streets and do you ask question?
They are there. But we are trying to raise the conversation about the issue of the girl-child and here they also have that culture of street trading. There are cultures that are ingrained in the society, you know they have a name for it-Omo-Odo- It has to be a gradual process because these things cannot be wiped out overnight. Like some of those girls that came from Ilaje side, you realize that they are not exposed to anything, because when some parents can no longer support them in school, they go out and start hawking or doing all these menial jobs that you are talking about. But when they are exposed to the other side of the world, especially those children that we trained, they can never go back. We have the M&E(Monitoring and Evaluation) department for all these programmes that we do, we check on them from time to time. Ninety per cent of those girls can never go back. During this year’s programme we brought some of them as ambassadors. We are still in touch with them. Somebody was joking recently that those students are prepared to vote for AKETI”s second tenure, because their orientation has changed completely.
We are having the first anniversary of FOWOSO in December, you will marvel, because they are also going to have their own exhibition time. Last year, I was just thinking that I must do something. These are the things that are burning in me, and I said I have to start small. The first batch, 105 girls and the transformation was amazing. I could not believe it. We were doing it like a jigsaw when we started. It’s not as if we know what was going to happen, but I said, if it doesn’t work, we will go back to the drawing board and re-strategize.
What Inter-tribal Marriage Has Taught Me
Inter-tribal marriage is a good thing if there’s love because, you start out with love and you now begin to work on it. That feeling is never the same. But that attraction will be there. It requires a lot of work. Any man that want inter-tribal or any marriage at all to work, like I keep saying, and you are a modern or career woman, the greatest mistake is when your husband is not giving you any space. Because even those that are in it are complaining already, they are not happy. All this younger generation, they keep calling me, asking what they are going to do. I said, I won’t tell you what to do, except that you need to sit down and work on it. If it doesn’t work, get out. Don’t die in a marriage. It’s a beautiful thing, yes, but you have to work it out. Your husband too has to.
Unlocking The Potentials of Women.
You know, this summit, we are going to have, the theme is “Unlocking Hidden Potentials in Women, A Task for All” This is because our husbands, sometimes,, they are the hindrance. 50 per cent of women make up Nigerian population, I don’t know how many are productive.
You are a woman stay in the house, in the kitchen.
Many of us are illiterate, how are we going to contribute to national development. We can’t compare Nigeria and Dubai, but when I was in the university, I never heard of Dubai. I graduated in 1977, there was no place called Dubai. It’s my set that Nigeria had hoped would turn this country around. At that time, there were empowerment training to take care of these sectors, a lot of us went on federal government scholarship abroad. But before our very eyes, this country just went down. It’s our set actually, because we know when Nigeria was up there, and we thought Nigeria should be moving higher and tighter. I used to say that in our time, university admission was based on five credits at a sitting, not this combined NECO /WAEC results. You made it in one sitting. The younger generation didn’t experience Nigeria the way we did. That’s why it hurts really. How can this happen to us. But it’s not too late. I think there is some re-awakening here and there. People are saying we can’t continue this way.
How successful has BRECAN Foundation Been?
BRECAM has really come a long way. When I was diagnosed of cancer 21 years ago, nobody was talking about breast cancer. It was because people were so scared. People thought breast cancer was a foreign disease. I thought so too, even when we were at the university, we never thought it was real, until it comes to you and you now realize that we are all vulnerable. But like I said, I came back from Philippines a new person entirely. If I see a problem or situation I want to know why. Otherwise I won’t be sitting here with you people. People were saying go here, go there, all kinds of innuendoes, that would have taken me away from going to the University College Hospital, Ibadan, but I didn’t listen. I just rushed to the hospital and it was confirmed. I did my surgery, I did everything here. I didn’t go abroad. That’s why, sometimes, I said, how wicked are we to ourselves. You have human resources, but you don’t create an enabling environment for them to work with. I did everything here. People would have expected me to go to UK or US, but I didn’t. I know some times I can be very stubborn, you understand because I want to prove something. Even after my surgery, the normal treatment protocol is that you have chemotherapy, but because I was part of the management team of my disease, I found out that at the stage of my disease you didn’t need chemo. Mine was stage one, that’s why to be uneducated is a disease. Educated and enlightened, yes, there are also educated women, they will tell them to go to Prayer Mountain and they will go.
In my own case, people were saying some people wanted to take my place as my husband’s wife. You know, all kinds of rubbish, I did not listen, I did all my treatment. When I got to the hospital, that’s when I realized the magnitude of this scourge. People were not talking, women were hiding their problems. Enter UCH, if you are lucky, you survive, if you are not, you die. Nobody will even know. And I said God forbid. When I did my surgery, they said, you were brave, and I said yes, join me. Let’s talk about this thing. Now we know that this breast cancer is in stages. If you treat it early, you will survive. So, what stops you from talking? That’s why I put together the Foundation. And I had expected some of us at the UCH at that time to join me. But nobody, they said no, my husband will not agree. I have daughters, I want them to marry. That’s ridiculous. I also have two daughters, and I didn’t think doing this will reduce their chances of getting married. Some of my friends followed me after telling them what happened. If I had decided to keep quiet, nobody would have known. But I confided in my friends, and refused to keep quiet.
You recently spoke about the unavailability of functional breast cancer treatment centers in the country, what is BRECAN doing to change this? Are you planning to establish one in Ondo state?
If that’s the only achievement of my husband’s administration, we will establish a cancer centre. We have started, and like I said, this platform is an amazing platform. You know First Ladies don’t have a budget, but you can attract people, and once they see sincerity of purpose in what you are doing, people will come to you, even partnering with you. The vitamins we distributed was provided by an international body because they think my office can help them. The place we went yesterday, that’s why I had to personally give vitamins A to the children and pregnant women.
Like I said, it’s unfortunate that our people are suffering from cancer. It’s very expensive to treat. Secondly, we don’t have facilities; there are some who don’t even have the money. Radiotherapy is one the cancer treatment protocol. Most cancer patients must have Radiotherapy. But unfortunately, we don’t have functional centers. There are some here and there, in teaching hospitals about six or seven, but they have all broken down. Right now, I don’t think any is functioning. Now, I think that if cancer is taking a great toll on our people, government should be able to provide support in this area. Right now, the federal government is the one shouldering the responsibility, and apparently it’s breaking their back. Government is not good at managing anything, but if you have centres here and there taking care of people, the problem will reduce. So, as a way out, we are already on it anyway. A cancer advisory committee has been set up and I’m the chair. There are people whose area is oncology, chemotherapy, public health. We’ve kick-started it. We met last month and will be meeting in February next year, 2019.
You know I was able to get connected to the global oncology committee, I have a very strong connection there, and they believe in me. They are looking for somebody that has this sincerity of purpose. As the supervisor, if I don’t have it who would? I have the support of the International Atomic Energy in Paris. They were even here sometime ago. The University of Washington, Seattle, they are interested, I was there last month. I was in Harvard. Everybody is interested.
How that centre will be managed, I have been drumming it to the ears of everybody, tripartite arrangement. The government yes, no matter how useless a government, people will know they are part of it, but management-wise, they are just hopeless. The private sector and NGO will manage it. NGO will serve as the watch-dog, so that we make sure that they don’t mess up the whole place. Much as we are saying that the government influence will be limited, it’s not a profit oriented venture. It’s patient-centred and sustainability will be the key watchword. The treatment centre will be managed in such a way that ordinary Nigerians experiencing cancer can get treatment. At the same time the centre will be managed in a sustainable manner. There’s a template we are working on. Seattle cancer centre which I mentioned, they have a beautiful template if we can adopt it. In this case, you cannot turn away anybody that has cancer, you must not, it would be like a rule guiding the centre when it’s eventually built. Those that can afford it, will sustain it. There are people carrying money looking for treatment everywhere. So, if we can have one functioning, it’s still better than going to Ghana, India and South Africa. Those are the three places Nigerians are going. And even in Ghana where we have some elements of efficiency, they are even saying that Nigerians are coming to spoil their own.
You have survived breast cancer, how would you advise women suffering from same disease, I mean survival tactics?
I was aware about cancer but I did not know it will come to me. Being educated and enlightened, helped, because you can be educated and not enlightened. That’s what I’m telling women in Ondo state, self awareness, being aware of what is going around you is very important.
Women should not be known only for cooking in the kitchen and making babies, because that’s what many Nigerian women’s life is all about. Apart from that, nothing. If you are driving around this area, you see children hawking. If you are concerned, you will ask, why are these children not in school. Most Nigerian women don’t even feel that way, especially the comfortable ones. Those that I refer to as “I better pass my neighbour,” They don’t care. But that self-awareness will open their eyes, change their attitude. That’s what we are doing in these outreaches, telling them to go into the neighborhood and fish out women that have issues. They’ve never done that before. Their own is that I’m the wife of the local government chairman, that’s all, but now we make them realize that there are people down there on the mat, you can do something to help them. Like I said, awareness is key. You know I wasn’t really checking my breast, but that morning I was checking my breast after taking my bath and I felt that lump. I can’t even describe how I felt, I had all these ideas in my head; my children still young, who will look after my children, the man may marry another wife, who will now maltreat my children. I did not understand it, may be the strongest word is that I was traumatized; I don’t think there’s any other word stronger than that. Within one week I was like a dry fish.
But I was determined to survive. The thought of my children, my husband and my family kept me on, and gave me the will to beat cancer. I was determined to survive.
I encourage other women to do the same. It’s tough. But they can.