Oluremi Obasanjo – A Feminist Icon? (From the Archives)

November 27, 2008 at 6:28pm

While stuck at the airport this morning waiting for my ride to Ado-Ekiti I bought a copy of Tell magazine. A headline caught my eye, ‘Oluremi Obasanjo tells all in her book Bitter Sweet’ I turned the pages to read Fidel Bam’s review. There are a lot of unflattering adjectives to describe his review ladies. He calls it a book of vengeance I call it a book of revelations. Oluremi Obasanjo has shown great courage in writing this memoir. I’m not nearly as brave; I’m planning to write a faction because I’m totally terrified of the fall out if I print ‘the truth’ about my experiences with my ‘husbands’. Please note I use the term husbands here not to mean that I have had multiple spouses but in recognition of the Igbo-Nigerian point of view that all a woman’s in-laws are her ‘husbands’ and requiring the same amount of submission and ass kissing.

Bam in his ‘review’ keeps going on and on about how family secret’s have been made public. The first thing I learnt as a neophyte women’s rights activist was the importance of bringing things out n the light of day. Secret places are where abuse happens. I disagree with him totally as to whether posterity will forgive her, some of us already have. She has done a great thing for women’s rights in Nigeria; whether by design or accident she has become an inspiration for physically, emotionally and psychologically battered women all over the country to speak out honestly about their experience. She has punctured the stigma and shame. She has changed the public discourse on domestic violence.

Bam’s review was insensitive, unfair and prejudiced. ‘No matter the extent of Obasanjo’s humiliating his wife, is that enough reason for Oluremi to out Herod Herod?’. I remember as a young wife and mother complaining to an older woman about my husband’s womanizing, I was already considering a separation. Her advice? ‘It’s no reason to separate, my husband used to bring women into our bedroom and I served them.’ And why was I advised to endure such humiliation? For the sake of the children. She knew that the children would become the pawns in a horrible battle. She knew the rules. I didn’t, I still had my undiluted American beliefs about rights, rule of law and liberty of person regardless of gender.

I admire Oluremi! She has shown fortitude in raising her kids well despite the overwhelming odds against her and in giving her man chance after chance after chance to reform, repent and change. Although Oluremi sometimes comes across as aggressive, coarse and self righteous, I can sympathize with her having been pushed to shrewish dementia myself by a self centered husband and pesky in laws, pushed to violently and crudely reject the powerlessness imposed by the violent dominance of an outdated ideology based on paranoia, suspicion, and male privilege. Perhaps the structures for peaceful resolution exist but what do you do when they are corruptly manipulated or even ignored? Or when you don’t have the resources to access them, they’re not free after all.

Why should women go through debilitating and humiliating experiences like this just because we have decided that we can no longer live with the man we married? We can and should do something to end these abuses. Access to children after a divorce or separation is one of the biggest issues. Why should a woman be denied access to her children or denied financial support to raise them simply because she has decided to no longer accept humiliation and abuse passively? How do we stop this from ever happening to another woman again? This is not an isolated case; it’s just the most high profile one by far. I have worked with abused women for more than 10 years and no matter the economic class the story is the same.

Just last week I met a woman I’ve known for years. She separated from her husband when her kids were toddlers, she was denied access and had to go through all sorts of subterfuge to see her kids. Her husband bribed the court officials for years to stall the case she brought against him. When we met she proudly told me how her son now in his early twenties fights to protect her rights and ensure her unrestricted access. Why should her access to her children have been denied all these years? Why was she denied interaction with her children all these years? Why should her children have been denied their mother’s influence all these years? Because she could no longer live with the man she married? Why did she have to wait all these years till her son could give her justice? Why should her son, or any child, who should be focused on creating a life and starting a family need to go to battle with their paternal family to stop a mother’s abuse?

While all families have varying degrees of dysfunction and some may seem to have more than others it seems too much of a coincidence that his narcissistic, high risk behavior and mood swings only emerged after the civil war. While it’s not popular to accept that Africans also experience psychological trauma and its long term behavioral consequences it sounds to me like he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This is not uncommon in soldiers, even Nigerian soldiers. I handled a divorce case a while back, the husband, an armed forces man, had just returned from an active mission and was exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD. The administration couldn’t offer him any help. He refused to admit he had a problem, his marriage collapsed under the strain. He reacted pretty much the way Obasanjo did, refusing to pay child support and becoming increasingly abusive.

Obasanjo may have had PTSD after the civil war and it may have been further aggravated by his experience in Abacha’s gulag but it is still obvious that he is a highly controlling alpha male. He seems to have won Oluremi’s heart through his sheer persistence and determination, it also seems obvious that he totally controlled her; he dictated her clothes, her education and her career. He fits the profile of wife abusers that we have identified over the decades, these are some of the traits and our high machismo society encourages them. Poor woman, it seems from her narrative that everyone just expected her to shut up and stop embarrassing her husband the big man war hero, commander in chief and Head of State, no different from what thousands of Nigerian women experience just because the man is ‘commander of chef’, ‘head of household’ and a local champion. Money and power just magnify the issues.

Some may accuse Oluremi of herself being a conniving, manipulative and scheming woman who was herself intoxicated by her husband’s power and rising profile but that would ignore very complex dynamics and be mere speculation. Oluremi’s devotion to her children is evident throughout her narrative, her own fulfilled, content and stable childhood seems the standard she sought for her children. I don’t get the impression she was as hurt by her husband’s treatment of her as she was by his treatment of their children. He wrested custody from her only to leave the children unprotected and uncared for in his house, one of the children even died despite the fact that he was second in command at the time. Her aspirations for her children were met with a rebuke that she wanted to spoil them. I empathize completely, that reflects my experience so totally, and all the while I was being accused of being a gold digger. Oluremi fought to the bitter end, I got fed up with the drama in my case, forcibly took my children and tried to do the best I could on my own.

Oluremi’s story does not necessarily impact my opinion of Obasanjo’s real and imagined achievements what it does is reveal a tormented and driven man, a career soldier with invisible psychic wounds he would never admit to and memories he would obviously prefer to forget. I was almost moved to compassion for the man, I certainly understand his leadership style better. He was not the first powerful leader to sacrifice his family for the dysfunctional and illusionary trappings of power. Powerful men through out history have chosen to indulge their vanity and act with impunity and entitlement. He was an autocrat in his home and an autocrat in government; he may have had good intentions and noble aspirations but democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law set new requirements and expectations. He fought for his equality as a black African and cannot understand the aspirations of his women for equality as human beings. Equality is not a male prerogative, just like power is no longer the prerogative of wealth. Recognizing your wife as your partner and treating her with dignity, respect and inclusion is really not a choice, it’s a requirement for a happy fulfilled and balanced life in the modern world. Could this be why so many want to keep the masses and women stuck in the stone ages, uneducated, unemployed or under employed, superstitious and naïve?

I have reaffirmed or learn a number of things from reading this gripping account of a life interrupted;

1. there is an urgent need to review the Matrimonial Causes Act, it is archaic and it is not gender sensitive at all. Not only does it make it difficult for a woman to seek divorce it makes it expensive to pursue. The customary law systems that the majorities of woman have access to in the north and in the south of Nigeria are heavily biased against women based as they are on archaic world views where women and children were merely chattels and expose women seeking divorce and their to extreme exploitation, trauma and humiliation.
2. the Nigerian armed forces need to review their transition support for veterans returning from war, especially the psychological support they provide. Wars are dehumanizing and brutalizing, veterans need assistance re-integrating into society after prolonged exposure to the violence and brutality of armed conflict.
3. Nigerian journalists still need to learn how to write sensitively about women and women’s issues. Fidel Bam, would you have advised your sister or your daughter not to share her experience because her husband is a big man or simply because he is a man? And if yes, to what goal? To protect the image of the man that is abusing her? Or because her plight is not really that high up on your list of priority issues to deal with?

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A Review of Oluremi Obasanjo’s Bitter Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo (From The Archives)

December 10, 2008 at 10:25am

OLUREMI OBASANJO: PORTRAIT OF A FEMINIST POSTER GIRL?

By Lesley Gene Agams

A privileged idyllic childhood, a precocious adolescence and a striving dogged socially conscious woman. That is the sense I get of Oluremi Obasanjo from her recently released book Bitter Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo. Although she often comes across as naïve, gullible and coarse there is no masking the raw ambition and sense of achievement lurking covertly like a cunning animal.

Bitter Sweet offers a rare insight into a young girl’s life in pre independence Nigeria. Her story of going off to Lagos with only a female cousin was a surprise, as was her sneaking away from an event in Ibadan to visit her beau’s house. Even more astonishing was her un-chaperoned trip to London to meet Obasanjo before they were even married. It’s rare to hear such honest accounts about young women of that era enjoying such freedom. To hear it told by the social matrons, back in 1950 all girls were on chaperoned lock down till their bride price was paid and rings on their fingers.

Oluremi’s story also offers important insight for the Nigerian women’s movement and victim’s activists all over the world. It provides a rare viewpoint into the psyches of a high profile domestic violence victim and her equally high profile abuser. The question ‘why do victims stay?’ is one of the most contentious in academic and legal literature on violence against women globally. There is no agreement as to the dynamics but there is a growing recognition that victims cannot always exercise agency and walk away. This is a rare portrait of a narcissist, his codependent and their traumatized and troubled offspring.

Here we have the unfiltered voice of a victim and an abuser known all over the world. This isn’t the transcript of a case study interview where the interviewer asks leading questions or a counselor offers culturally biased speculation about the motives behind an anonymous patient’s experience. We have a cultural and social context that provides incredibly rich information. A number of commentators have compared it to a Nollywood script but this is not fiction. Why did Oluremi stay? Why does she still call this man her husband and ‘the only man I have known’?

Her story is significant because of who she was married to, her experience with Obasanjo is the experience of millions of Nigerian women. Thanks to her book we may be able to bring attention to their stories and begin a rational discourse on violence against women and domestic violence, two issues that have failed to enrage the Nigerian public or engage the Nigerian media. Oluremi is just one of the lucky ones. Apollonia Ukpabio endured 25 years of escalating violence till her skull was cracked open with a machete. Miraculously she survived. Her husband is on trial for the attack. Why did she stay? She believed God and church wanted her to protect and defend her marriage no matter what. Others have died.

The challenges of being married to Nigerian elites are especially made obvious in her narrative. It’s the story that does not get told, the male entitlement, the female consent and often the mutual infidelity. It’s really difficult to complain when living a really privileged life in a really poor environment. I know many a Nigerian matron that felt Princess Diana should have put up and shut up. The ‘old school’ belief is that a woman should marry for economic security not love, and if it’s companionship you crave find it with the women and/or your children. The wisdom of the matrons for a woman thinking of leaving her husband is territorial– don’t be foolish, why leave your turf for some other woman to take over? Fight for your matrimonial haven and sanctuary. Oluremi had a lot to fight for.

For me one of the more disquieting revelations of this book is how powerful and rich men are manipulated to accept and expect exploitation through their sexual extravagance. According to Oluremi, Obasanjo’s aunt became one of his ‘pimps’ and weak minded male that he was “he abandoned his Lugard quarters for five days because he didn’t want a divorcee, who was even a mother of two. Later, he gave in and the woman had a child…” I know people like that, they will never go to see a powerful man without ‘an offering’, usually a young pretty girl. The most disgusting personal encounter I recall was a middle aged couple that brought their 15 year old daughter dressed like a hooker to see a certain big man they wanted a favor from. I was there. I’ve often wondered about the ‘powerful’ men that fall for that one.

All families are dysfunctional and some may seem more dysfunctional than others but it seems too much of a coincidence that Obasanjo’s narcissistic, high risk behavior and mood swings only emerged after the civil war. Could he have been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder? This is not uncommon in soldiers, even Nigerian soldiers. I handled a divorce case a while back, the husband, an armed forces man, had just returned from an active mission and was exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD. The administration couldn’t offer him any help. He refused to admit he had a problem, his wife did not know how to handle it, his marriage collapsed under the strain. He reacted pretty much the way Obasanjo did, contesting custody, refusing to pay child support and becoming increasingly abusive; contemporary Okonkwo figures, tormented, paranoid and insecure, things falling apart around them.

All that being said there is a lot that makes me uncomfortable about this book, it’s no master piece but its not meant to be. I found Oluremi’s total lack of self consciousness very disturbing, she seems to be saying of course I slapped that girl and of course I bit that woman and of course I made embarrassing scenes and even fought a truck full of soldiers, like it’s all normal. I found that eerie. The scene on page 66 where she attacks Mowo Sofowora, like a frenzied mother hen and then having fended off the interloper, clucks protectively around her chicks is totally dissonating and disturbing. All narrated like it’s totally normal, there is no moral debate as to the appropriateness of action. She is not the only female (or male) I know that considers her response to this sort of ‘provocation’ perfectly normal and unquestionably right. I find that frightening and sad.

Even more disturbing evidence of a venal, anachronistic world view was her calling Murtala’s ADC the day after she was informed of her child’s death and being morbidly counseled to see the incident as some sort of answer to her prayers to be back in Obasanjo’s house. Just access to this ‘big powerful man’ who happened to be the-father-of-her-children-who-he-had-custody of had become a goal. Her disappointment and resentment towards her sister in law who precipitated her hasty ouster five days later seemed to coldly over shadow her grief at losing a child. Her insecurity is overwhelming; she is willing to forgive Obasanjo the death of her child but not his sister. Her apparent devotion to him despite everything borders on an obsession. Is she a cold ruthless woman or the traumatized victim of a narcissist?

Then there was the bizarre description of their courtship, she presents herself as a passive and entitled recipient of Obasanjo’s courting. He wrote her letters, sent her books and gifts and eventually she said yes. Surely that’s not the whole story. What exactly did the shoeless son of a village drunk say to the spoilt railway master’s precocious daughter that convinced her that Obasanjo was worth waiting seven years for? It’s obvious he was a man on the fast track to power but Oluremi’s narrative while indicating that does not provide any insight into the motivation for any of his actions. Why did he want to study geology? Why did he change his mind for a military career? Is she absolving herself of all responsibility or did she really not know? Or is she just not telling? Loyal to the bitter end?

Whatever her motives for staying or for telling her story now Oluremi did not deserve the treatment she received from her husband. No man or woman deserves abuse and violence, and all women deserve the right to say to the man they married ‘I can’t live with you anymore’ and still be humanely treated with their children as Nigerian citizens protected by a constitution. We need to stop the abuse. We need to break the cycle of violence.

I have reaffirmed or learnt a number of things from reading this gripping account of lives interrupted;

1. There is an urgent need to review the Matrimonial Causes Act and extend its jurisdiction to women married under customary law; it is an archaic piece of legislation that offers little protection to women considering divorce or separation and their children. The customary law systems that the majorities of woman have access to in Nigeria are heavily biased against women and make seeking separation or divorce traumatic and humiliating.
2. We desperately need to introduce parenting skills to our education curricula. Children are often at greatest risk of long term harm and damage from their parent’s ignorance. Teaching children parenting skills is as important as teaching them to say no, zip up, life skills or whatever else we choose to call sex education. Teaching them religion is not enough.
3. The Nigerian armed forces need to increase their transition support for veterans returning from war, especially the psychological support they provide. Wars are dehumanizing and brutalizing, veterans and their family members need assistance re-integrating after prolonged exposure to the violence and brutality of armed conflict and barracks life.
4. Nigerian media need to learn how to write more sensitively about women and women’s issues. Most of media commentators including female commentators brushed aside her story and condemned her for telling it. Stark testimony to how such tragedies can play out to an inevitably sad outcome while hidden in plain view.

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Travel in Africa – From The Archives

NOTES FROM GHANA – June 10, 2008

Having had a day to decompress and a day to catch up on dull routine office matters I can sit back and reflect on the past few days. Ahhhh…what a life! What a rat race. Rushing from pillar to post as my old folks back home would say.

First of all I am moving to Ghana as soon as possible. They took the pill, and now it all seems possible in Ghana in a way it does not in Nigeria. There is a confidence in the air; the desperation of Naija, that hard hungry prowling menacing edge, is absent.

I never could define it before.

There are about 23 million people in Ghana, we last elected a fellow there in 1995, that was 13 years ago, by Ashoka’s formula there should be about 20-26 social entrepreneurs at different stages of their life cycles just waiting for me to find them.

When I got to Ashoka fellow L’s house on my first day the power was out in her neighborhood. She kept on apologizing and saying ‘This sort of thing does not happen here; they tell us if there is going to be an outage’. Turns out there was a breakdown. No body in the neigborhood had a generator. They quickly ran out of candles at the local stores.

There was no lock on my bedroom door, not even a door handle actually. Now that was freaky. I know I sometimes I forget to lock my door at night but to not even be able to close it! And the gates didn’t have padlocks and the door opened to the outside. Eventually I shrugged and went to bed, this is Ghana I guess. Since I’m writing this now I didn’t get attacked by robbers or pyschos.

On the drive to Lucia’s office in the morninng I couldn’t help but notice Guaranty Trust Bank ‘s billboards everywhere, they were the largest on the streets, offering 4 types of VISA credit cards. I bank with them in Naija. I’m still trying to activate my MASTERCARD debit card almost 6 months later.

They even offered a students credit card. I remember some customer service clones at my Naija branch takling down to a teenage student that came to open an account. They were totally unhelpful, I think they sent her away. I remember telling Maya about it.

I find it a bit disturbing to see 21st century Nigerian bank workers, they tend to look like a witches at a murder inc convention or vultures at a feast maybe. Their painted on faces and their conservative uniforms inspire pity not confidence. At least when I worked ever so briefly for a bank we still expressed some individuality of personality and style.

I had scheduled 4 two hour interviews; one called to reschedule for Saturday morning. The first 2 went great then my hostess took me home and over fed me. Yes that’s right she held a gun to my head and made me clean my plate. Thankfully I had an extra 2 hours before my next interview. I took a power nap in her very comfortable armchair.

Site visit on Saturday took me into the market, where ‘the people’ are. The crowds were overwhelming but valiantly I waded through the press of humanity to get to the drug store where I would be shown this great new idea in action. People kept on dumping into me or me into them, I slung my laptop bag in front of me and marveled that no where else in Africa have I felt so comfortable lugging around a laptop.

I didn’t read a local newspaper till the last day, I’m not sure why, Lucia had them delivered at breakfast every morning but on Sunday after a long brisk walk and a cold shower I took one to read. The Daily Mirror had frontline stories of female gospel singers and their marriage troubles.

I was astounded reading the stories, they were woman friendly! They did not condemn these women for not enduring abuse and unhappiness! They did not say or imply that these were selfish women undeserving of heaven and the fruits of wedded bliss that endureth. A father was actually quoted as saying he was happy his daughters marriage was over.

I brought the paper back as a souvenir even though I used it to wrap the ‘black pepper’ sauce that Lucia had made for me. (Delicious!) Framing it might be extreme; one of our candidates this year that is creating exclusive communication platfroms for women to discuss politics and current affairs from their prespective starting in Ghana.

I remember my total frustration when I lived in south east Nigeria and wrote for a local newspaper. I wanted to write articles to inspire and sensitize women. The publisher/editor wanted me to cover the worst and best dressed at social events. I had one regular reader that I know of (she told me she looked forward to my column). She was a professor at the local university.

Another candidate (this time a Nigerian) is using humor in popular lingo, slang and even pidgin English to inform the people about thier legal rights. A lot of them don’t know that …your landlord can’t kick you out on the street without due process or that you can’t be arrested or searched without a warrant or that they can’t sack you becuase you are HIV positive.

Perhaps these candidates can collaborate. Perhaps I can inspire and sensitize in a style accessible to the many. Perhaps we can all acknowldege in deed and word that the majority in the developing world do not hold college or university degrees without treating them like simpletons. Perhaps we can change the world. As a matter of fact, YES WE CAN!

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Accra, Ghana (Photographer: Unknown)

Requiem

My heart is a going pitter patter reading the letter again, reliving it all. No. My heart is racing like a jack hammer! Remembering. A sexual assault. By my manager. Samuel Musa. While working at Oxfam GB.

That was in August 2010. I wrote the letter below to Barbara Stocking in desperation more than a year later.

Just like I searched desperately for legal support in Nigeria and when I couldn’t find any I went to search the UK in 2012. I spoke to so many lawyers. Every last  one of them asked me whether I had worked in the UK.

“I was based in Abuja. The only time I came to the UK was for that country directors conference where the assault happened.”

And they all said –

“Sorry. You’re not eligible to appear before the UK employment tribunal.”

Eventually I found a UK lawyer that said she might have been able to help me  but….

…we were already just days away from the statute of limitations for sexual assault. There was no way she could prepare and file the paper work in time.

I let it go then. Focused on putting myself back together again. It wasn’t the first time that man woman palaver (as we euphemistically call it in Nigeria) had terminated my job.

So this is the letter I wrote to Barbara Stocking after they confirmed my termination, as I was facing the loss of my home – after losing my job, my dad, my cat, my dog, my self esteem, my confidence. 

I stumbled across it looking for something else all together and it all just came back. I’d pushed the whole incident to the far recesses of my mind.  (My therapist gonna have something to say about that.) At first I cringed thinking maybe I was whining in the letter but as I read it I started to feel kinda good. I wrote from my heart. I spoke my truth. That’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.

 

 

 

April 28, 2012

Dear Barbara,

It’s over a year now since I left your employ. I don’t know if you even noticed. Oxfam GB is such a big place. I don’t imagine you could possibly keep up with all your employees and I wasn’t there long enough. It wasn’t till my orientation at Oxford office in August 2010, almost 10 months after I started working for you that I actually started to understand the organization and my role. One important lesson I take away from my experience at Oxfam GB is to orient employees quickly, capably and to install controls to make sure the system works.

But that’s not why I write you. I’m writing to you because I believe the woman I met in August 2010 is a just, fair and above all compassionate person. There was nothing fair, just or compassionate about the way I was summarily dismissed from Oxfam GB in November 2010 or the way I was treated during my subsequent appeal. I tried so hard to reach Penny Lawrence. I remember her telling us during the orientation that she was always available to help and advice us with our problems and issues. She never spoke to me.

The 2 week visit in August 2010, my first to the UK was also where my trouble started. My line manager Mr. Samuel Musa, deputy regional director for West Africa at the time sexually assaulted me in his hotel room. Worried that my job, my working relationships and Oxfam GBs reputation could be in jeopardy, I didn’t listen to advice of friends to report the incident to the police. Instead I went to Martin Knops to treat my own pain and trauma and on his advice reported the incident to Catherine Layton then in the Human Resource department. I told her I was reporting ‘just in case’ Samuel tried to victimize me I wanted someone to know..

I realize now I should have made that report for a number of reasons. After all it wasn’t sexual harassment I was reporting. I was reporting a crime; sexual assault is after all a criminal offence. Of course all of us worked for Oxfam. Neither Catherine nor Martin suggested I report to the police. Catherine actually advised I speak to Samuel. Which I did. Eventually. It was almost a month later before I was able to talk to him on the phone about it. I told Catherine about the call. Because I had asked for assurance during the call and he didn’t give any I followed up with an email. He ignored it.

It had taken a whole lot of effort on my part to talk to him about it in the first place. I wasn’t comfortable raising the issue with him again. I did discuss with Catherine how we could address institutional sexual harassment. I’ve seen and experienced a lot of behavior in Oxfam GB’s Africa offices that would easily qualify for sexual harassment in the west and UK. I wasn’t the only victim. I felt that as Oxfam GB’s gender lead in West Africa I could have a wider institutional impact on the matter instead of making it all about me. I also didn’t want to be the lone female shouting ‘rape’. I had a lot of confused feelings.

Of course I was deeply traumatized by the experience. It was difficult working with Samuel after that. I had flash backs every time I saw an email from him, or had to speak with him on the phone and when I saw him late September in Dakar. I tried to be brave and strong but I was really uncomfortable and jumpy. Still with Catherine’s question about whether he knew his attention was unwanted ringing in my head I reiterated to him again I did not want his attention and asked for assurance he would never try to ‘make a pass at me’ again. But he didn’t make a pass at me the first time, it wasn’t a seduction or a wooing or ongoing sexual harassment at work; it was a traumatic and unexpected physical attack.

I ignored my pain and stepped up my efforts at work with some idea that if I just did my best my job would be safe. With 20/20 hind sight I see my mistake. There is no way I could have spoken to him about the incident in the terms that I did that he could do other than try to get rid of me as soon as possible. Anything else would have been literally working under the threat of an imminent report from me. Still I hoped, this was Oxfam GB after all, an international humanitarian agency with rules, surely I was safe.

On November 23, 2010, a Wednesday, Samuel Musa arrived Abuja from Dakar and handed me a letter summarily terminating my contract without reason. He gave me 2 days notice to vacate the office premises and immediately repossessed all Oxfam GB equipment including laptop and handsets making it difficult for me to reach anybody within the organization. My employment contract governed by Nigerian Law says that summary dismissal is in accordance with internal guidelines. Under these guidelines I am entitled to a weeks’ notice that I am being considered for summary dismissal. Under Nigerian law I am entitled to two weeks’ notice.

The law wasn’t upmost on my mind when I received the letter of termination. I was distraught that I was about to lose my job at the hands of the man who had sexually assaulted me less than 3 months before. I was in no emotional state for the appeal and under too much emotional distress by then to focus on that. The entire process became a sexual harassment investigation rather than an appeal of my wrongful termination. At the end of the emotionally devastating process where I had to re-live my assault again I was informed there was no corroboration to my allegations of sexual assault and my dismissal was in accordance with Nigerian law. That’s all.

Kathleen McGarva who handled my sexual assault complaint and my appeal (I wonder if that was proper?) decided that the email I wrote to Samuel and my correspondence with Catherine Layton and Martin Knops were not sufficient corroboration of my story and chose to accept Samuel’s version of the story which had even less corroboration than mine. He admitted I was in his room but unsurprisingly denied the course of events or that we went up together. He further claimed he ignored my email because he didn’t know what I was talking about. After denying my appeal Katherine said Oxfam GB would talk to him to find out how he could have handled the situation better. That sounded a lot like I was the lying trouble maker.

In April 2011 I finally wrote Katherine asking about the outcome of that exercise with Samuel. Was he punished? Was he queried? Was he reprimanded? I received her response on April 6, 2011 a Wednesday and was considering my reaction to send the following Monday when I was informed on Saturday April 9, 2011 my father died. I never did get a chance to react to Katherine’s last email after that news.

Katherine’s April email suggested that Oxfam GB were not interested in getting rid of a sexual predator in their employ much less how his actions had affected me or what I was going through personally. Oxfam GB seemed more interested in protecting themselves and I was the villain not the victim but it happened to me so I know what happened. In August 2011 I came to the UK and filed a criminal incident report with the Thames Valley Police accusing Samuel Musa of criminal sexual assault. They believed me but needed corroborating evidence to successfully prosecute. They also said if I had reported earlier there could have requested the hotels CCTV footage for corroboration. Still there is an incident report and number that it may serve as evidence should anyone else report Samuel for a similar thing.

I’m sure I wasn’t his first sexual assault and maybe not his last. Maybe he has been sexually exploiting women he managed? It is interesting that the Africa leadership teams have so few women. It was curious that Samuel resigned abruptly shortly after the police investigators visited the Oxfam GB offices. It may have been a coincidence. Did somebody else report him? What could HR have done differently? The fact that there was even a hint of criminal sexual assault in which the preponderance of evidence, thin though it was nevertheless was on my side should have raised enough doubt to make him justify his reasons for summary dismissal.

After my experience with Oxfam GB I really didn’t want to work for any other organization. This is not the first time I have had to make a career move or lose a job because of man woman trouble as we call it euphemistically in Nigeria. I had thought that I would be safe working with an international organization that had rules about such things. I have been sadly disappointed, in the time since my dismissal I have met and spoken to almost a dozen women with similar experiences. Male managers at INGOs are getting away with sexual abuse in the workplace, women are wrongfully losing jobs, some get stuck in court for years and exhaust their savings, others just don’t want to talk about it in public, still others are too busy trying to make ends meet to fight a foreign Goliath.

I’m a lawyer by training. I opened a small law firm instead of getting another job in the international development field. My 1 year experience at Oxfam GB was exhausting both emotionally and physically. I figure that being my own boss will reduce my vulnerability to sexual assault in the workplace. My practice focuses exclusively on women’s right and expanding legal protection from violence through litigation and legal precedent. I’m building a social enterprise to sustain the practice and my reputation as a writer. Kathleen was right; Oxfam GB didn’t break any Nigerian laws. I was the one that sent that legal opinion on Nigerian labor law to Samuel in October 2010.

Still I found the internal procedure for summary termination on Oxfam GB site confusing. My contract says internal procedure will apply in dismissal yet the site refers back to ‘local laws’. Meanwhile, my contract already says Nigerian law applies. Without knowing the in house rules for summary dismissal that clause of the contract is misleading. When I read it while negotiating my employment terms I reasonably thought it meant rules other than Nigerian law applied. I thought I was protected from unfair or wrongful dismissal and sexual victimization a common enough fear in Nigeria under our poorly applied and interpreted laws. Apparently I was wrong.

Why am I writing to you now?

An executive coach and consultant I worked with advised me to write to you personally and let you and Oxfam GB know exactly what is going on with me before proceeding with any further action. He is optimistic that Oxfam GB will do the right thing. I am hopeful that you Barbara will. I feel I was bullied by a big bad corporation, except Oxfam GB is supposed to be a ‘humanitarian’ organization, one of the ‘good guys’. How could they preach global love and charity and leave me out in the cold like this? Are Oxfam’s values just corporate jargon? I still wonder how I can possibly engage in a legal battle with a corporate behemoth like Oxfam GB that has more money and more lawyers than I can ever hope to. I’m intimidated from even trying but feel the injustice keenly.

I’m sitting in the eye of a hurricane right now. I have suffered terribly because of the assault and even more during and after the loss of my job. I’ve lost almost everything because of Samuel Musa and Oxfam GBs actions; my job, my health insurance, my father, who was my dependant and couldn’t continue diabetes treatment after I lost my health insurance and now I am about to lose my home. My small law practice is young and growing but even that is under threat.

If Catherine Layton, or Martin Knops or any other Oxfam GB employee had advised me to report to the police as soon as I described a sexual assault there may have been CCTV footage showing us arriving and me leaving his room and maybe corroboration of my ‘allegations’. There may have been witnesses available for trained questioning by the police. Dozens of Oxfam GB people were in the lobby that night when we left. Samuel Musa himself would have been available for the police to interrogate. If Samuel Musa had not been allowed to dismiss me without reason after sexually assaulting me I may still have my father, my house, my cat and my life.

I am writing this to you now because I was grievously injured by your employees and former employee’s actions and summarily and wrongfully dismissed without reason from my position as CD Nigeria programs and I feel that Oxfam GB my employers did not do enough to protect me or prevent the injury and subsequent suffering. It has taken me this long and many hours of consultation with lawyers and counselors to get here. While I’m still suffering the fall out of that injury, emotional, physical and financial, I finally have the mental and legal clarity to seek the rdress I believe that I deserve.

I hope this letter speaks to the humane part of you and not just the corporate goddess. I only seek justice, for myself and for my silent, disempowered or disenchanted African sisters. We are also a humanitarian cause. We’re also humankind. Barbara please show me that we are safe working for foreign agencies, even the BINGO’s and that the same rules that protect our female colleagues in head office will protect us in our work spaces scattered in the dark spots for gender rights on the continent too. Do not unilaterally listen to our kinsmen who fill your senior leadership positions in Africa and tell you African women will lie against them about rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment in the workplace because that is the excuse our men give for not tightening rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment laws.

I was a good employee; innovative, result oriented, driven, participatory, nurturing and above all ethical. I was one of few in the region that understood the implementation of the SMS. I was planning a fast track career development in the sector. I was systematically rooting out graft and corruption in the Nigerian program. I was also under systematic attack by the forces of graft and corruption. I wasn’t only working for you, I was also working for my country, for your donors and especially those little old English ladies that have a standing order with their bank to deduct GBP20 every month from their pension check and send to Oxfam GB, even if they are no longer your biggest contributors. I don’t deserve this. It feels so terribly wrong to be dismissed so nonchalantly and left so broken and devastated.

I appeal to you Barbara as the Chief Executive of Oxfam GB with whom all decisions finally rest for some sort of justice, relief, closure, damages and permission to move on. I hope you consider my appeal with wisdom and compassion.

I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime I remain;

Yours sincerely,

LesleyAgams

Lesley Gene Agams Esq.

 

 

 

This was her reply

 

 

 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 10:32 AM

Dear Lesley

Thank you for your letter of 28th April 2012 concerning your period of employment with Oxfam GB.

I was aware of the circumstances surrounding your departure from Oxfam and am deeply saddened to hear how you now feel, and that you attribute this to the way that Oxfam handled your complaint. As you are aware, Oxfam is very concerned about gender inequality and committed to putting poor women’s rights at the heart of what we do. With this in mind I can assure you that Oxfam did take your complaint seriously and followed internal procedures carefully to fully investigate the points that you raised. Unfortunately , like the police, we found that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate your allegation of events that had taken place, some 3 months earlier. The allegation of sexual assault is an issue which we take very seriously and although we could not find evidence to confirm that the assault did take place, the matter was followed up and appropriate action was taken in line with our procedures. I appreciate that you were disappointed by these findings.

I understand that you did speak to both Catherine Layton (HR Adviser) and Martin Knops (Oxfam’s Counsellor) about events that took place whilst you were in the UK. At the time you did not categorise them as a criminal offence of sexual assault but as an ‘incident in a hotel room where you refused to have sex with your manager’ and indeed had asked to speak to them both ‘in confidence’. This confidentiality was maintained by them both as you had requested. Had you allowed Catherine to take this forward on your behalf as one of the options she suggested to you at the time, or indeed expressed it in the more serious language that you are now using, then the situation may have been different. This was the decision that you made at the time and I feel that it is not appropriate of you now to blame them for respecting your request for confidentiality.

With regard to your termination of employment from Oxfam, I am aware that you raised an appeal against this in line with our procedures. The appeal was heard by Kathleen McGarva, the Deputy International Director, and she was satisfied that the termination of your contract complied with the law in Nigeria which is the law that governed your contract of employment and that the termination was not due to sexual victimisation from a senior manager of staff. Kathleen is an experienced senior manager in Oxfam, based in Oxford who had no prior knowledge or involvement of this matter. I am satisfied that she considered your case very carefully in a fair and transparent manner when reaching her conclusion.

I am satisfied that that Oxfam has acted fairly in fully investigating your complaints and allegations and your request for damages is not appropriate.

Thank you for writing to me about bringing this to my attention.  I do wish you the very best for your future.

Best regards

Barbara

Barbara Stocking 

Chief Executive, Oxfam GB  

 

 

Maybe she was right, maybe it was all my fault. Except I’m pretty damn sure I DID describe it as a sexual assault, EXACTLY  as it happened, in very vivid detail too, to both Martin and Catherine.  Whatever could have given them the idea that is was an ‘incident in a hotel room where you refused to have sex with your manager’? (How sleazy does that even sound? Ugh!) Now they would have me second guessing myself!

I thought I was really over it. Just a couple weeks ago I was telling my friend that I had finally recovered from it all except the jack hammering of my heart says maybe not.

How do I feel about it now? I still feel angry. And powerless.

“Honour you anger” Martin Knops said to me all those years ago.

 

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What Lessons Can We Learn From Anna Nicole Smith’s Life?

Last week was ten years since Anna died. I guess if you’re still news worthy ten years after your death you are a cultural icon. There were stories all over the internet about her daughter and how she is doing now. Larry Birkhead the baby daddy and caregiver made a few tasteful appearances and interviews. Nothing overtly exploitative even though we all know he must have been paid. He kept on saying that Dannielynn was not inheriting any millions and that it wasn’t Anna’s estate supporting them. He said it often enough for me to doubt him. When asked how he made a living Larry said he earned money through photography and ‘flipping houses.’

Anna did not die without assets and her assets have been quietly going up for sale over the past few years. Her LA house was sold, as were some of her personal effects and memorabilia. Dannielynn remains her only heir. Her second husband Howard Marshall gave her quite a few gifts including jewellery and art work. Just before she died she was reportedly paid $1 Million for footage of her birth and an exclusive interview with Howard K Stern her lawyer and best friend.

I’m not sure if I care, I’m only commenting because Larry made so much effort to deny he is profiteering from her estate. I guess like Anna he is intent on proving that he is not a gold digger. Does that phrase even apply to men?

Anyway I was intrigued and dug into the story a bit more than I did when it was breaking. I first became aware of Anna as the new Guess? jeans girl back in 1993. She was beautiful and she was being hyped  as the new plus size super model wanna-be. As a young woman obsessed with her weight and resentful of the super thin models that bombarded me every time I opened Vogue and Cosmopolitan, Anna was a refreshing image. It was refreshing when media hyped larger models Cindy, Linda Evangelista and Naomi. Come to think about it this hyping of plus size models is becoming kinda of tired. They have been touting bigger models since the 1990’s and still present them as a new trend. So how long before its accepted as main stream?

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I was only vaguely aware of her return to the spotlight as the Trimspa spokesperson. It was a story about a woman losing weight after all, like all women that obsess about their weight those kind of stories tend to catch our attention. It wasn’t until she got pregnant and ran off to the Bahamas that I really started to pay attention and followed the story till she died.  But not so much that I can remember where I was when her death was announced on 8 February 2007.

As the drama played out and videos started emerging of her obviously medicated and frequently  incoherent my knee jerk reaction was that Howard K. Stern was an evil Svengali manipulating her. And when she finally died, 5 short months after the death of her son and the birth of her daughter, it became just another tragic footnote in celebrity history.

“Don’t make me trade one baby for another” she reportedly said.

A lot has been written about Anna Nicole. In my quest for a new angle I watched a documentary by Lisa Ling on ‘Sugaring.’ Sugaring is where younger women hook up with older men with the understanding that the men take care of the women financially. Dr. Phil asked them “Are you hookers?”

“No more than a woman that chooses to be a full time homemaker financially dependent on her husband” one of the women replies.

Lisa Ling keeps suggesting that the women are cheating at life by trying to ‘skip some steps’ or taking a short cut. She looks at them bemused throughout the documentary.

“I pay for myself, I always go Dutch” she says. I cringe for a second. I don’t. Especially not if I’m invited out.

Growing up in Nigeria it was accepted that men invite a woman out  and pay. Mostly because women didn’t just go out on their own anyway, unless they were ‘working girls’ and charged at the end of the night. It wasn’t till the 90’s that a new breed of financially independent middle class women started going out with the ‘girls’  and each girl paid for herself.

It would seem a bit cliche to rant about an invisible patriarchy that limits a woman’s opportunities for self actualisation. Or to point out the obvious differences in mind set and access to available opportunities for poor vs. rich and educated vs. uneducated and rural vs. urban women.

In my digging around I come across ‘White Trash Nation’  a 1994 New Yorker cover story by J. Friend. “Welcome to the age of white trash” he wrote. Anna’s picture accompanied the cover headline. The article is uncanny in its prescience. Reading it I realise that Trump is the new White Trash Hero. And deja vu, in a 20/20 show they dredge up an early quote from Anna admiring Trump and suggesting he become president and make her his First Lady. Knowing Trump Anna wouldn’t have been his style. He likes ‘classier’ women – European women.

The parallels between her and Melania can’t be ignored.

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Both from small town lower class families, both turned to ‘modelling’ to get out, both took off their clothes for money and both married rich older men that they met through their work. The comparison ends there. Melania is European and Anna is ‘white trash’ a racial slur used to describe poor white Americans that were ‘poor as slaves’ and lacked ‘social grace.’ In Europe ‘white trash’ or the most economically disadvantaged whites are the gypsies or the Roma as they are called now. Demonised, excluded, discriminated, rejected.

Anna met Marshall her second husband and ‘never danced again’. ‘My husband threw money at me’ she infamously said. ‘Its very expensive being me.’ And she didn’t curb her hard partying jet setting lifestyle after she married him. Melania on the other hand played hard to get, was discreet, financially prudent and convinced Donald that she was immune to poaching. In an interview with Larry King shortly after their wedding in 2007 Donald very proudly announced that Melania is like the  fortress in Song of Solomon. Powerful men like that kind of thing, its probably one reason Donald would never have considered marrying Anna. She was too available.

Anna was actually the more successful of the two in their chosen career. She made the cover of Playboy, was Playmate of the Year and landed a multimillion dollar ad campaign and even appeared in a couple of movies before her hard partying ways crashed her career almost as soon as it took off. She also seemed to think she could have her cake and eat it; marry Marshall and claim half his estate without actually cohabiting with him.

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Watching Melania I can’t help think she played her cards well. She never contradicts Donald, doesn’t nag, massages his ego and infantalises him. ‘My boys’ she calls him and her son Barron. Its like watching Carla coo at Nicholas. It’s weird to watch. Beautiful women confidently and brazenly patronising powerful men. It’s like watching public sex, too intimate and uncomfortable.  A display of power, a challenge to all those morality stories about the evils of leveraging your feminine charms in relationships with powerful men and the world. And a validation of all those other stories about ‘bottom power.’

I think a lot of violence against women might be fuelled by suppressed male rage against this reported male powerlessness and vulnerability to female sexuality. Even Anna’s second husband Howard Marshall is quoted as saying that a man in love does stupid things. Adam, Samson and Julius Caesar might agree. And while Anna may not have seen any better options for upward mobility she doesn’t strike me like a victim as some people would like to portray her. No more than Melania is a victim. These are women that made choices and exercised agency.  We all have to face the choices we make.

When I left my first husband and became a single mom in the city of Lagos in the late 1980’s I was about Anna’s age. But I was also a graduate. I came to Lagos to study for the Nigerian Bar exam and never went back to the village I spent the past ten years in. I never overcame my personal values against transactional sex of any kind.  This often brought me into conflict with female members of my clan who considered male patronage (of the financial kind) just one more perk of being a pretty woman and what a waste of pretty and yellow if you didn’t cash in on it.

“I won’t look this way forever” one of the young women tells Lisa Ling. The young women all express sentiments I heard often growing up in the village.

“Why waste your time on a poor, abusive and inexperienced boy who will not appreciate you or treat you well, when you can be with an older richer man who will take care of you and spoil you?”

In Lagos I declined offers to be a cocktail hostess, the fourth wife to a 70 year old polygamous millionaire with a penchant for ‘half castes’, some bad-o’s mistress and the Venus De Milo campaign girl. Venus De Milo was the biggest skin lightening  brand in Nigeria at the time and the Venus De Milo girl was bigger than Miss. Nigeria. I declined the campaign offer because the fee wasn’t big enough, not because I had anything against modelling.

“What do I care about the fee?  I’d do it for the exposure” one of the strippers Anna worked with in Houston said about after Anna’s Playboy and Guess campaign appearances. The fee I was offered for the Venus de Milo campaign felt inadequate for the massive exposure it would have brought. I wasn’t looking for a husband or a sugar daddy, I wanted to be a successful lawyer. I wanted to be appreciated and respected for my mind. I was excoriated by friends and family.

I tried to talk to my oldest aunt about love once. She was unable to grasp the very western concept. Women married for security, not love. Another aunt regularly and vocally upbraided me for ‘giving it up for free.’

“Since you’re giving it up at least get paid for it’ she always said. ‘Free’ sex was the height of irresponsible. And inconsiderate. “After fucking all those men you expect me to give you money?” she asked her daughter. And once her daughter became sexually active she never gave her another kobo. Her daughter made her proud eventually. I’ll never forget the last time I saw my aunt. She took delight in recounting for me all the things her daughter, who eventually became the not so young fourth or fifth wife of a rich polygamous Nigerian man, had bought for her.

“Two freezers, two refrigerators, a generator, a pick up, a washing machine.”

My aunt owned a beer parlour.

The marriage didn’t last.

“At least she got a lot out of it before it collapsed. What did you get out of your own marriage? Foolish girl.”

It wasn’t that a man was a woman’s only opportunity to a better life. Rather it was the waste of a good opportunity by a beautiful woman. You could fry chicken and flip burgers for minimum wage all your life or you could land yourself a rich boyfriend, sugar daddy or husband and live easy. What’s love got to do with it?  Or appearances?

While Anna’s and Melania’s rags to riches stories are cliche they might not draw the same criticism in Nigeria they do in the west. In Nigeria they might be seen as symbols of feminine success. It’s Anna’s hard partying ogbanje lifestyle that forms a cautionary moral lesson for women in Nigeria and Africa. Melania on the other hand is, for a certain type of woman, the epitome of how to do it right. Get the man, and keep your head down.

Ask Bianca Onu Ojukwu, Halima Diende Fernandez, Shola Okoya, and Frances Iwuanynwu or even Emir Sanusi’s new teenage wife.

😉

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My Type Of Feminism. It Has To Be Fun. 

Michelle is the star of the Obama’s last weeks in office. The media focus has been on her.The accolades have been perfuse. I’m not sure how I feel about her image tough.

“(S)he had to flatten herself to better fit the mould of first lady.” Chimamanda Adichie says.

“Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to grovelling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.”

Michelle is my Stereotyoe of the Cool Mom. She’s cool like that but she’ll NEVER get drunk and dance on  the table at your 21st birthday party (thank god!). Or do anything to shock your friends like walking around the house in her lingerie or bringing out a bong when your friends come over. She cast herself as the Black Mother – solid as a rock. Even with the world on her shoulders. She’s got a strong back. And she has fun doing it.

She is so different from the stereotypical White Mother. And the White Feminist. Whose feminism is a performance. Black women never had to perform feminism.

‘Ain’t I a woman?’ Sojouner Truth asked.

Michelle is everything I fantasise a Black Madonna to be. I can’t help think of the Mammy in ‘Gone With the Wind’. A vegetable garden in the White House? How much more Black Mother can you get? Thats the sort of thing your Aunty Ngozi or your Aba grandmother did when they visited you in America (Much to your mortification. Gardens are for ornamental flowers. Duh.) But it’s poignant to see a vegetable garden in the White House built by slaves. The legacy that black Americans have to live with is heavy indeed.

Will Obama be the 44th President of the United States of America or will he be the 1st Black President of the United States of America? In 100 or 200 years time what will that mean? How will we keep score? Who will keep score? Why must we keep score? Because if we don’t we will be excluded again? Is that like saying that breaking the glass ceiling really doesn’t break anything at all because you have to come back next year to break it again? Why do we still have to fight for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th – black, female, or gay CEO/president/princeling?

Is there a point at which we’re good and have achieved the equality we seek? Then what? Consolidate? Hold on to gains and ground? Sounds exhausting. And never ending. If we were hoping to reach a tipping point of enlightenment by now Buhari’s and Trump’s emergence as leaders proves that there are still way too many ignorant mischief makers in the world.

Suddenly this whole fight within feminism seems tedious. Why are we differentiating feminisms? I love Chimamanda but as soon as I read the headline of her other story – My Feminism Is Different From Beyonce’s – I skipped the article. And didn’t come back to it till it had caused a shit storm online.

‘Feminism is the belief in the equality of men and women.” – Chimamanda Adichie.

It doesn’t matter if we preach this equality in the 20% of the moment we are not talking about men. It doesn’t matter if we do it while showing our crotch to a room full of paying gawkers or wearing elegant  block colours and addressing the UN. Nobodies feminism is the same. Even our personal feminism can and should change and evolve during your lifetime.

I’m also ambivalent about this new ‘feminism lite’ category that apparently puts men so centrally in women’s lives. My own brand of feminism used to be ‘feminism lite’. When I was 15 in between reading of James Hadley Chase all I could think and talk about were boys. (And the sort of bad boys I was reading about in James Hadley Chase. They just had to have that attitude.) And when I wasn’t thinking about boys I was thinking about sex.  (It’s what teenagers do, including your own.)

So I educated myself about sex. I read ‘Every Woman’ by Derek Llewellyn-Jones. Some progressive student sneaked it into my Catholic  boarding school. It made the rounds, it was so dog eared. I read it twice. And then bought my own copy. Boys and sex were about growing up and we were all in a hurry to grow up. The principal, Mrs Okonkwo, heard about this subversive book and gave fire and brimstone lectures during morning assembly on its dangers, the dangers of sex and especially the dangers of mkpokopi (homosexuality).

In my 20’s I got my sex education and feminism from Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan. You could describe it as feminism lite but it helped me negotiate the demands of my emerging personality.  I knew I had to work, no question about it. And not just anyhow work. Ambitious change-the-world kinda of work. I wouldn’t even think to be with a man that thought otherwise but even the most progressive men I met wanted to be ‘cared for’ – it was their definition of ‘love’. And whats wrong with that? I wanted to feel ‘cared for’ too. Who doesn’t? Its our most primal need and goes back to infancy.

In my 20’s and into my early 30’s I also spent a whole lot of time resisting all attempts to brand me a feminist. I was increasingly being called a feminist, usually by men that felt disturbed by something I had said or done. I didn’t know that much about feminists except the stereotype that they were butch, didn’t wear bras (Abomination!) and from some of the pictures I saw didn’t wash very often. So I always denied being any such thing. I had been a tom boy but now I wore bras, I had manicures and pedicures, I wore make up, I wore sexy clothes. I objectified women including myself. I was having fun discovering myself, exploring my femininity.

Then one day soon after the advent of the internet into Nigeria I decided to google feminism. I was 35. Wow. What an eye opener. Fortuitously I lived in Owerri at  the time and had access to two outstanding Igbo-Nigerian feminists – Rose and Catherine Acholonu.  Not only did I discover that indeed, I was a feminist, I discovered that feminism existed in Nigeria and in Africa long before I made that discovery.

Apparently I been a feminist since I was a child. The memo I got said “ Anything boys can do girls can do better.” I believed in male female equality with all the simplicity of a child. Even as a 5 year old I climbed trees, swam the deepest part of the river, did wheelies, jumped off cliffs, rode down impossibly steep hills and generally risked life, limb and sanity to prove that “Yes I Can”.

I took that attitude with me into adulthood. And met real social resistance to what I could or could not do. As a child I just did it, no one stopped me.  As a woman I was suddenly blocked in every direction. What I now heard was – “You’re a women, you can’t, and I won’t let you. Because I can stop you.” Like hell you can stop me. I used to fight a lot. ) You can see the type of problems this could present in a traditional relationship or marriage.

In my 40’s I lived feminism. I was a feminist. I performed feminism. I had a high flying job in international development he bastion of gender equality and evangelised across the globe. I wrote thoughtful posts about feminism and African feminism. I supported more women. Made more women friends. Even my style evolved. I started reading Esquire for fashion tips. Explored a more androgynous aesthetic.

Now in my 50’s I’m still evolving and so is my feminism. I’m back to that childhood attitude. We’re equal. Full stop. I’ll just sit over here and get on with it. And now I’m big enough you can’t stop me anymore. And yes, it still has to be fun, just like the rest of my life.

Sorta like I learnt I was a social entrepreneur from Ashoka. I’m just there being my awesome self and someone gives me a label and a roomful of theories and academic papers to study. Well it was all very empowering since I got to explore and test the boundaries of what that means. So it definitely broadened my horizons. Thank you. Now I’ll just go back to being myself.

I think thats why so many people got mad with Chimamanda. Women love talking about men. And sex. And heart break. Men ARE central to women’s lives. The same way men say we are central to  their lives. They are the reason we wake up in the morning put on our makeup, our heels and hustle. And build empires. And dynasties. And kingdoms. Some of us anyway. And maybe we used to. When we were younger. Maybe our biology has something to do with it too. Think about it, for 30 – 35 years the female body is primed for pregnancy EVERY MONTH. She is literally a walking talking hard on.

I do not believe we are or should be slaves to our biology. Our humanity is our capacity to override mere biological urge  (or you would still be a monkey, I promise.) But people must be allowed to make an informed choice, all choices have consequences. You can’t tell people what to do. You can’t make choices for them. What gives anyone the privilege? There are no hierarchies. Hierarchies and privilege are part the problem, not the solution.

So, yes. Chimamanda can say that her feminism is different from Beyounce’s, so is her lifestyle and probably her core values. People are different. All our individual feminism are different. But I’d rather she didn’t use the 20% yardstick. Or her feminism for that matter.

I’m a mother of men and a leader of men. And women. I say to girls and young women the same thing I say to boys and young men – don’t spend ALL your time and energy on girls/boys and sex, focus on career and life and the right girl/boy will come along. And if you decide to spend all your time talking about sex or marriage remember 1. you’re an adult and adults are self sufficient and can take care of themselves 2. the ability to take care of yourself is the highest form of good 3. co-dependency can be financial as well as emotional and 4. you can do anything you want but there is a price to pay.

Just be good at whatever you do. Be an Amber Rose, a Chimamanda Adichie, a Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, A Tiwa Savage, a Beyonce, An Okonjo Iwela. Just be your god damn self. Your authentic self. Just be your best YOU. Because that takes courage. It takes a ‘Yes I Can.’ And that makes it a feminist act.

Be A person. Not a woman. A spouse. Not a wife. A parent. Not a mother.

And that brings me back to Michelle Obama. That stereotypical Black Madonna. She reminds me of my Russian grand mother. She’s even handling the transition better than Barry. I detect a certain ruefulness in him, a disillusionment. And a nostalgia. She shows an appropriate measure of nostalgia and gratitude (very important for the niggers to be grateful) but relief the Road Show is about to end and maybe now she can go back to some semblance of a normal life. Barry looks like he’ll miss the attention but more importantly that he will miss the power to make things happen. I wonder what he will be next?

Michelle will continue being Michelle, Mother in Chief. Black women (like Russian women) don’t have the privilege of a nervous breakdown. We just get on with it.

She Thought Her Pussy Would Take Her To Heaven.

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The Sprout by Wangechi Mutu

 

She thought her pussy would take her to heaven. That’s what she had been taught and that was what she believed but her pussy is a wasteland. Carrion birds peck away at it. Things grow in it. Nasty things. Dead things.

The beauty industry failed her. Ebony, Vogue, Essence, Cosmo are all full of advice and tips on taking care of the face, the neck, the skin, the hair. But no one told her how to take care of her pussy. No one told her it will shrivel up and die. The experts said “Ignore it till it starts to smell bad” and she looked away.

Her hands are the roots holding her to the barren earth, immobile. The world is upside down! The tree of life is inverted. The tree of knowledge of good and evil. What is good has become evil. What is evil has become good. There is no harvest. There is famine across the earth as Demeter weeps and Ani withholds her bounty.

Who is this impostor? What is this subversion? Hands work, feet walk. Her hands hold her hostage.

At least her feet still sprout new leaves. Her feet remain eager to reach heaven. And fly away with the butterflies. While her head rots. While her pussy reaches for heaven. Not her head. Never her head. Because if she thinks about it her head will explode. Her head rots and her eyes rot and vermin climb out of her mouth. The shit she says. The shit that comes out of her mouth. The shit that comes out of her rotten brain.

Reaching. Reaching for heaven with her pussy.

This is how a girl becomes a woman. Her brain rots. Assaulted with shit in fashion magazines, movies, religion, at home till her brain rots.

When a girl starts to bleed she goes skipping to Mbede, the boot camp in the middle of the forest where girls go when they start to bleed. Dancing on the way to womanhood. It is a deep secret and a shallow promise.

“Move like this, move like that. It will make him happy.”

“Be like this, be like that. It will make him stay.”

“Speak like this, speak like that. He will love you.”

“Eat! Eat it! Finish it! Men like big tits and ass.”

“Look like this, look like that. He will never look away.”

Then she finds out that it hurts. She does not know how to complain. She does not know how to say ‘No.’ A king’s ransom in pearls has been paid for her pussy. A king’s ransom in pearls has been paid for her sight.

Her life force soaks into the earth. Manure for another generation. It is a worthy sacrifice. A noble cause. Children are the future. She lies between the three mountains erected to guard her chastity, her virtue and the family honour. Nothing grows there anymore.

Her feet must grow new leaves before she can leave. Before she can break away. But she cannot. Gangrene eats her flesh, it is dying tissue on a living host. This is the cause of her death. This is what kills her.