When No One Is Looking

Photo by Gantas Vaičiulėnas from Pexels As long as I can remember, I have always cared about the issues that affect Africa, Africans and people of African dissent, with special focus on how these issues affect women and children. Even as a child in primary school, I can remember expressing anger at people who treated women and children poorly and standing up for the girls in my class. It would not be far-fetched to assume I was born this way, having what can be described as a gnawing need to lend my voice to women and children’s issues. I was probably around 10 years old when I learned about basic human rights and the government’s role in protecting them. Without meaning to, that became my Bible and code of conduct.   I started creating content from a very young age. I wrote stories and school plays that centered women and children in roles that were not usually associated with their sex or age. These stories became church dramas because for most of my teenage years, I found expression in the church. Granted, most of what I created then was quite gruff and had a diamond-in-the-rough kind of feel but a central theme shone through all my pieces: women and children were human in themselves and needed to be treated with the full respect accorded to them by their basic rights.   I remember a play I wrote that we performed in church. It started with the parents of the lead character – a young teen – finding out that she was pregnant. Rather than be judgmental, it promoted allowing yourself to be hurt if your child gets pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ but, loving (and supporting) the child regardless. It showed that children were themselves overwhelmed by the consequences of their actions and beating them or kicking them out of the house was not a fair way to handle the issue. This play connected so well with people that the way teen pregnancies were handled – a problem that was predominant in the community where the church was situated – became markedly different.   It was for this openness that I was chosen when I was about 14 years to be part of a peer-education capacity building session on complete sexuality education. This opened my mind’s eye to the Millennium Development Goals and a world bigger than the things my environment had constrained it to. I began to actively promote these goals because I was: unhappy that the world didn’t take the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger as seriously as it should; wondering what could be done to achieve universal primary education; sure I needed to actively promote the idea of gender equality and the need to empower women; broken at the rate of child and maternal mortality and wondering how I could help; hated all discriminatory acts to people living with HIV/AIDS in a world where it was okay to do so; didn’t want anyone to die from Malaria or any other disease that could easily be prevented with small lifestyle changes; and, hated that our environment was gradually becoming dirty and unsustainable as a result of poor sanitation due to reduced enforcement of communal environmental protection activities.   These issues became my issues.   They mattered to me.   And I wanted to do something about them.   As I grew from teenager to young adult, I began to refine the areas that I was interested in. While I wanted to work in the field to directly help women and children, I knew it was cost heavy and living on the poverty line myself at that time, I didn’t think there was much I could do to help these people. So, I chose a path that centered more on creating content that could cause a mind shift in the general public and change behaviors that put women in boxes marked, ‘second class citizens’. I continued to write stories and plays for church, making sure to include the women empowerment nuggets in the overall message of the Christian faith.   With the advent of social media, I found a bigger outlet for my work…especially as I was questioning faith and removing myself from the church. I began to share my views – my very gruff and many times, antagonistic views – on my social media platforms. A friend told me about blogs and the possibilities they held for massive, and maybe even global, reach. So, I learned about this new frontier of communication and started my blog: Shades of Us.   I continued to evolve as a person, finding more perspectives to human rights and seeking even more succinct ways to communicate my ideas around them. When I heard the word ‘feminist’ during Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedX Talk – We Should All Be Feminists – I knew this was the word that perfectly described exactly who I was and the issues that mattered to me.   So here I was: Ramatu Ada Ochekliye, creating content around the Sustainable Development Goals and hoping I could change the world with my words.   But, reality check. The world really doesn’t want to be changed. If the world has its way, it will continue to be patriarchal, misogynistic and abusive to women and children. It would continue to express hate against people whose sexuality is different from the accepted norm. It would continue to be intolerant of people’s rights to association, religion, belief and dignity.   This is why, my work – and the work of other feminists, human rights activists and advocates, and anyone who just believes in the basic rights of all human beings across the world – can be really tasking. Nobody tells you that it is easier to maintain the status quo, as oppressive as it is, than it is changing anything.   And because of this, many activists suffer the painful burnout that comes with wondering if their work even means anything. Oh! There are many reasons to keep

Keeping up Appearances

A memory came to my head a few days ago and stayed with me. It was sometime in early 2013. I was serving Nigeria as a corps member in Yola, Adamawa State, under the mandatory National Youth Service Corps program for fresh graduates. I had been deployed to the Government Girls Secondary School (GGSS) and a lodge was made available for corps members like me. There were just two girls (from my batch) who were assigned to the school. We joined two other girls who were a batch ahead of us, bringing our total to four.   Technically, there were two lodges; one for men and the other for women. Ours was a four bedroom flat that used to be the Principal’s quarters. As years went by and the building began to crumble because of lack of use, it was converted into an abode for female corps members. Since there were four of us at that point, each of us had our own room.   Now let us go to the memory.   That year, I had become deeply religious and immersed in learning more about the Christian God. I was carefully cutting out things from my life that I felt didn’t glorify Him. This meant that I was trying to do right, speak right and generally, live right. It was so bad that I even cut out songs that weren’t gospel music from my life. Anyone who knows me knows that it was one of the hardest things I had to do.   Anyway, I didn’t just want to do right. I wanted to be seen to do right. I didn’t join conversations that tore people down or promoted what I termed vulgar. I stopped partying and began my descent into near reclusion. I continued to have male friends but I made sure it was knownthat it was just platonic. In the past, I would have given people the illusion that I was involved with all my male friends. It gave me a thrill to see people wonder what I was about. But my new way of life meant that I didn’t want to be perceived as that person anymore.   It was at this point that I met another corps member. He was a young man who was, for lack of a better phrase, a ‘bad boy’. Let me call him Wale. You see, among ‘believers’ then, if you smoked cigarettes and weed like Wale did, you were termed a bad boy. To make matters worse, Wale only listened to rap music with explicit lyrics, and was constantly downing bottles of codeine-laced cough syrup. If I had met him before my ‘journey to spirituality’, he would have been my type of person. We would have hit it off and being just peachy. At that point however, I didn’t want to be friends. And worse than that, I didn’t want to be seen as his friend.   But he didn’t get the memo.   When I stopped visiting or communicating as often, he decided to take up the responsibility. He would call, text and visit. He would be talking about the music I was tryingto remove from my life and wondering when we could go out to a club for drinks. Sometimes, I would try to avoid him and at other times, I would just go with the flow.   It was during one of these visits that he told me he was having problems with his landlord and didn’t know what to do. I was worried because, as ‘gangsta’ as he showed he was, I knew he was from a privileged home and he didn’t have a lot of experience handling things by himself. I asked what he was going to do and he said he would figure it out.   One night about a week later, he arrived at my door unannounced. I asked if all was well and he said he had been kicked out of the house where he had been staying. He had hopped from place to place and was at a loss as to where to stay. I went into panic mode and began to knock on doors at the male lodge asking if they could put him up for a couple of days. The male quarters were already cramped and many said they couldn’t. One guy however, who (incidentally) was one of the nastiest persons I had met in a while, said he would take him in; even though I had been loath to ask.   The next day, I asked Wale what he was going to do about his situation. The fact that he didn’t serve in our school meant he couldn’t stay for long. Also, we were expecting new corps members. His problem had to be solved by his own place of primary assignment. It was while discussing this that I realized he had burned bridges at that place of assignment. A lot of it was hinged on his habits but the most part was because he was a bit of a loner and his people skills were almost nonexistent.   In about a week, the guy helping him out decided he was done. He had assumed (correctly) that my friend was from a rich family and thought it was his opportunity to fleece him. When Wale had given away almost all he could without going under, the horrible corps member kicked him out of the house. This happened at about 9pm.   Wale came to my door to let me know what was happening. I was worried. I knew no one else would take him in. And then it occurred to me that I had my room, which was big, had two mattresses and could be his abode for the night. However, as soon as the thought came to my head though, a part of me said no. Almost immediately, my brain went into overdrive. What would happen if he slept in my room? For one, I would

How Can We Help Poor(er) Women?

A Page from Tom Paulson I was heading home on November 6, 2018, when my sister called me to get her some juice. It was about 8:50pm and I was really tired. I told her I wouldn’t do it but when I got to my junction, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to get her the juice.  It was as I was walking to the provisions store that I saw a woman sitting on the side of the road, with her legs spread out and her hand scratching her head. She was dressed in mis-matched Ankara clothes and she had a look of utter defeat about her. At first glanced, she looked like she had some mental problems; the kind that could not be corrected. And because of how she sat, I didn’t immediately see the children by her side. When I got closer, I saw that she had one child pressed to her body. And behind her on the staircase of the shop closest to the one I was going to, were two other children sleeping on the bare floor. They were covered in dust from rolling on the ground. It was heartbreaking to see that the children couldn’t have been older than 5. I slowed down to really look at her…and then I walked past. I concluded that she may have lost her mind and I didn’t want to be chased down for not minding my business. So, I went to the shop and got my juice.  When I got out of the shop, I looked in the direction she sat and saw that she was still there. At this point, I knew that I couldn’t leave her – with those kids sleeping on the road – without doing anything. It was also at that point that I saw that there were two other children with her, bringing the total number to five. Those children, and the utter helplessness of their situation, convinced me to take the risk and walk up to her.  ‘Madam, wetin happen?’ I asked in pidgin English.  She looked at me and turned away. And looked at me again, as if deciding whether to talk or not.  ‘I need help.’ She responded quietly. ‘Where is your house?’ I asked.  She pointed in the direction I had come from. I asked again, prodding her to say more.  ‘Phase 1 side.’  Those were the only words she said. And hearing that, I made my first mistake.  ‘Ha ahn! Why you allow your children sleep for road like this? E no good now. See as them lie down for bare ground like this. E no good at all. Oya…stand up.’ I remember exactly what I said because I feel so ashamed of it afterwards.  She looked at me as I spoke to her and I could tell that she was equally ashamed to be in that situation. She started to gather her things as I opened my purse and took out money.  N500.  By this time, a crowd had begun to gather, and I didn’t want to be seen giving her money. So, I quickly thrust the money in her hand and said, ‘Oya…get up and go home.’ And I walked away from the crowd that was sending blessings my way as they gathered around her.  I saw some other people giving her money and one man even flagged a Keke for her and her children. The woman was on her feet at this point and that was when I saw she was pregnant; probably in her third trimester.  I realized I had fucked up.  I mulled over everything that happened and when I finally got home and relayed the story to my sister, she confirmed what I had been feeling. I should have done more.  I had prejudged the woman ‘crazy’ before even reaching her. If I hadn’t, I would have seen that she was just a really frustrated woman who was going through a lot. I wouldn’t have waited to get into the shop before making my mind up to talk to her. And when I finally did, I let the crowd rattle me because I am not comfortable with helping people in the eye of the public. But what is worse is that, everything I had learned in the last two years about solving problems flew out of my head when faced with one.  Rather than just give her money, I should have asked a few more questions after she said she needed help. What was wrong? Why was she on the road? What kind of help did she need? Did she have a job? A business? Anything? What skills did she have? Were those all her children? Did she have a home to go to? Did she have a partner? What did he do? Where was he at that moment? Was she running away from him? I know that there are even more questions that I could have asked. The answers to these questions would have better informed how I helped her rather than just giving her a little money. Knowing about the underlying issues that drove her to the road at night with five children and one on the way could have presented me the opportunity to offer her a job or begin to look for someone who could.  But I gave her N500 and left. N500 which was my juice money. N500 which could solve some of her problems for that night and drive her back to the road again the next day.  I am ashamed of myself and how I reacted. I wish I could go back in time and undo my reaction. I wish I had been more perceptive and patient when dealing with her. I wish I had ignored the crowd and treated her as someone with full agency, rather than some I could tell what to do. I wished I hadn’t been more focused on aesthetics rather than her humanity. Because right there is the crux of the matter! I was more concerned about how the situation looked that I did not

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