BRECAN, FOWOSO, BEMORE among other programmes of the First Lady of Ondo State, Mrs Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu are virtually becoming household names going by the impacts on the people and the various success stories recorded so far. Mrs Akeredolu who has also been nick-named Mama FOWOSO, Mama BRECAN, Mama DIGITAL and Mama Tennis in this interview speaks about how she has been able to succeed not only in these projects but also at the home front Excerpts:
Since you embarked on your various projects: FOWOSO, BEMORE and BRECAN, what has been your experience working on these projects and how much values have these projects been to the people of Ondo state?
When you evaluate the impacts of these programmes, I think it is better appreciated when such evaluation comes from the people. As a human being, you may think everything you are doing is okay but an outsider might have a different view about what you are doing and then draws your attention. So, it is always good for a second person to recognise this value.
BRECAN for example, looking at the various people who have benefitted from the fund, one can beat her chest and say yes, we are making impact in that regard. These are women who were diagnosed with breast cancer and the thought of where to get money was a serious issue and here we have BRECAN that is saying okay come, even if we cannot give you all the money, we can at least give you the money for the very critical part of the protocol of treatment which is going for surgery. That is very important because when you have breast cancer, the primary thing is to remove the diseased breast before any other treatment.
So, we make sure we provide money for the surgery after conducting various tests to determine the stage of the disease; we cover all these and also cover chemotherapy. So, most of the time, we would have given the individual eighty percent of the money, so we say okay why can’t we go to other people or places too to also support. One place to go is the church. Nigerians pray a lot, so churches can support. We have files of several people seeking help for their treatment. From that, if anyone says you are not doing anything, I know that breast cancer patients can testify that BRECAN has touched many lives. It is important to mention that the financial support was possible because we embarked on crowd-funding, a citizen’s driven fund raising where Ondo State residents were asked to donate just N200 to support breast cancer patients. It is adding up slowly but steady. Sadly our people, infact, Nigerians hardly give if they are not directly affected. Initially, when my husband came on board as Governor and it became public in Ondo State I was a survivor, breast cancer sufferers in large numbers came out from their hidings seeking financial support probably thinking as the first lady that the treasury of Ondo State was in my bedroom. As the requests mounted I knew that telling patients “no money” who I understood what they were going through was a moral burden. My choosing not to appear helpless to my co-travellers in the breast cancer journey birthed the crowd funding now championed by BRECAN Ondo State Chapter. So the money raised are meant for breast cancer patients resident in Ondo state. We are hopeful that this innovation can be replicated in other chapters.
We are also creating awareness because that is very important. I say all the time that awareness is the entry point to surviving breast cancer. Many do not understand that it is the hospital they are supposed to go if they observe anything any unususl changes in their breasts such as lump or nipple discharge, rather than going to the herbalists or prayer mountains. This pattern of health seeking behaviour borders on ignorance. Nigerians in 21st century are still deep with misconceptions about what causes breast cancer and how it can be treated. BRECAN has been at the forefront raising awareness about breast cancer for over 20 years, yet late presentation of rotten and fungating breasts remain unabated which is largely responsible for poor survival nationwide. I have issues with these churches and their pastors who have turned themselves to “breast cancer doctors”. We need need to have a hard talk but let me leave it for another day. We always emphasise that awareness is key because our people need to know the behaviour of cancer. Cancer is a disease that progresses with time! Meaning, it gets worse with the passage of time. The word ‘cancer’ is scary. But then, we always tell them that it does not necessarily kill but they should do certain things at the right time. People should know that breast cancer does not kill when you detect it early. When you find that lump, that painless lump, make sure you go to a doctor. Do not let people change your mind that you should go to one man or woman of God to start doing vigil or go to the mountain for marathon prayers, that is what we have been seeing here. A painless lump at times is cancer. If you ignore it or believe in a fake prophecy that an imaginary enemy is responsible, you are playing with fire because the cancer cells are multiplying with every delay in presentation to a doctor or hospital. We have also seen many survivors because they were convinced that breast cancer is NOT SPIRITUAL ATTACK and sought treatment at the hospital and removed the diseased breast without hesitation. It is better to stay alive with one breast or even breastless than refusing surgery and wasting time praying and applying anointing oil to lump to disappear whereas you are only allowing cancer cells to grow, fester and become severe. After going up and down, you will still end up in the hospital and it will be too late. That is why breast health awareness is very critical in the fight against breast cancer.
Then, on BEMORE, this is the season of BEMORE. The success story has been very huge just like BRECAN. I do not even know which is numero uno programme.
Maybe I should concentrate on BEMORE given that BRECAN has taken a life of its own and I am proud to say that BRECAN has presence in 8 states and hopefully more will come on board. Through dint of hard work and perseverance, BRECAN without sounding immodest, is recognisable brand nationally and internationally. Back to BEMORE, it has been so beautiful and amazing looking at these girls in a joyful mood because some will even tell you that they have not been to Akure in their life, it is unbelievable. All the participants from Ilaje, Isua Akoko and many other remote areas, when they came, they felt so excited and eager to learn. Elizade university and PSTI have provided us two separate and perfect locations for the Bootcamp since 2017, very neat and conducive environments for learning and spacious for all our outdoor activities. PSTI and Elizade University were made to host BEMORE Summer Boot camp. We are damn lucky!
Within two weeks, these rural girls are virtually transformed. The amazing result we are getting from BEMORE is amazing and infact beyond belief. We were jolted in 2017 with huge success recorded in the maiden edition. With two subsequent editions, BEMORE success is now a new normal and a run away success. Consequently, it gives me the hope that we are grooming a different generation of Nigerian women. This year’s programme is very exciting and really inspiring to do more. Some other states are participating which will bring about interaction, networking and friendship among girls from different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicity. In the camp, we have a kind of beautiful relationship going on among the girls. This is the third year of the Bootcamp and I am pleased that people in other states are already aware of BEMORE and we are also trying to reach out to more states to send their girls in subsequent editions. BEMORE SUMMER BOOT CAMP has come to stay. We want our daughters nationwide to experience this magic. It is not just a techy Bootcamp, it is a UNIVERSITY OF LIFE! This year, we have participants from Imo, Ekiti, Akwa-Ibom, Enugu, Osun and Kogi states. But in comparism, Ondo State remains the major force anyway.
In the last two years, how many people have benefitted?
We have 700 in Ondo state and 50 in Imo state, you know, I am proudly Imo. That’s my tap root. I must reach out to my people. They made me. Altogether, 750 girls have been trained in ICT and Solar technology between 2017 and 2018 but this year we have 250 participants. The beauty of the programme this year is that we have more states in addition to Ondo. Ekiti came with a dozen contingents, if you could recall their First Lady attended the closing ceremony last year and she was amazed.
You seems to have preferred the girl-child participating in BEMORE, is it because you have more faith in the girl-child?
Not necessarily that I have more faith, but rather because we need to empower the girl-child that had been neglected for centuries. There is an urgent build up the self esteem of the girl-child, mould her so that she could have the capacity to recongnise that she has potentials and that she should not be limited by any cultural or religious barriers set by the society. These barriers I would like to mention one of them that states that women belong to the home- in the kitchen doing house chores and “oza” room breeding children. That is the way the society has packaged the girl-child right from the time she came out from the womb. The society has dictated to her that this is how you should behave, talk, live, when men are talking you should not interfere , when you have visitors, only your husband must be there, you dare not “put mouth” because women are not expected to express themselves. As we speak, these are still happening in the present day Nigeria. But I can tell you that these my BEMORE girls, “tori don change patapata”. You cannot do that with them because they have come to the BEMORE world, a world with endless opportunities and possiblities. So we are opening doors for them to another world they were not used to. And they love it!
By the way, who says a woman cannot contribute to the socio-economic development of her society? Has anybody even bothered to figure out why we are not moving forward in Nigeria despite all the noise about development? If half of your population are illiterates, what can you do? You can’t do much to advance your society. Those of us who live in cities might be tempted to assume that the women literacy level has improved. Though progress has been made but not good enough, my opinion. Go to the villages, you will discover that most of our women are illiterates, forget about what you see in the cities. In a country where majority of the women are not literate, then such a country is a non-starter and it clearly reflects on our poor socio-economic indicators comparable to those of war torn countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Southern Sudan etc Though, in our culture a man is seen to be the head of the family but what we tend to realize is that we are still backward because the family structure is barely literate, that is the problem that people failed to recognise. These women want to take over, we need to improve the lot of our women in the society to even advance and that is one of the things we are trying to do in FOWOSO. One does not necessarily need to go to the university or bag PHD, but our women need to have that basic education and skills to register a profound impact on their lives. An educated woman will have few children, will know that she needs to go for anti-natal care; she does not need to go to those churches that have maternity homes to deliver babies because when they have a bridge or bleeding, it will be too late most time before carrying her to the hospital.
I cannot imagine my daughter patronising traditional birth attendant (Agbebi) that is what illiteracy brings. We need to empower our women. Any woman that is empowered whether through skill or education will contribute her quota to the development of the society. That is what FOWOSO is trying to do in terms of skill acquisition for grassroots women. When she has a steady income, she will not be selective of her children that will go to school, all of them will go to school and even that are how you open up a family that is how a family becomes educated. Now you cannot expect an illiterate woman that her husband has four to five wives breeding children all over the place to do same.
Since you commenced these programmes, what major challenges and support have you received?
The major challenge I have experienced to be honest with you was that some people resisted change, but if I were somebody who is not in the development sector, I would have given up, because they told me you do not do it this way, but I cannot do it the same way the previous administrations have done it or how other First Ladies have done it.
It was a little difficult to penetrate and convince them that let’s try it this way, we can have a better result, we have to try something else because I have come here with a different package.
Because I am also in the civil society’s space, I understand these things, I understand the dynamics, I understand that when you want to do something different and people resist change, what you do is to keep on trying to win people over. Like when we started BEMORE, heavens let loosed but I knew that was the mentality of people who were yet to be exposed to appreciate what is going on elsewhere. But like I said, I have travelled widely and I have had close encounters with people that really matter in this world. I know that when you talk about development of humanity, you may take or need to look at bigger pictures. For instance, early this year, a group of US based medical professionals, consisting of doctors, nurses came all the way from San-Diego led by cousin to support my husband’s administration in the area of health in their own way. They paid their way and offered professional services free of charge. It is not as if they are very rich like Bill Gate and Mark Zuckerberg, they are regular people. Imagine staffs of a Nigerian university paying for their tickets to a foreign land to do such a medical mission with their salaries. That’s not possible! Therefore, we are a different kind of human beings with no culture of selfless service to humanity. The leader who is my cousin had earlier asked me what could his team could do to support the programmes of my husband, I said you know me now, l am in health. Proton, he assembled a team for medical mission for Ondo state. I am highly indebted for his thoughtfulness in this regard. Apart from the medical supplies, they even had lectures and workshops sessions at the Akure Specialist Hospital and UNIMED hospital, Ondo to upgrade the knowledge of our medical personnel in these health institutions. The interaction was very cordial.
I told you that I am also promoting young people in Tennis ,so I am also “Mama Tennis.” In addition to the medical supplies, the Sharing Hope USA volunteers came with bags of shoes, rackets and so on, so when I received that kind of support from people that do not know me from Adam, all the resistance to my programmes among the people of Ondo State paled to insignificance. I just ignored it. The good news is Sharing Hope USA team is coming back. They are coming in February 2020 and even bigger. They are now coming with Oncologists in breast and cervical cancer. They now have a bigger team coming in February because when they came the first time we were very hospitable to them. In a way, we are also polishing the battered image of Nigeria, a terrible image outside the world.
A lot of women said fund has been a major limitation to their aspirations to contest political offices? Is this true?
It is very true and it is because of the kind of political landscape that we have in this country and even in Africa which is male-dominated and indeed suffocating. In general, the society underrates women, you oppress us, you beat us, you abuse us verbally. Women are generally regardless worthless so how could such a society support them for higher aspirations such as occupation of political office. Of course not!To worsen the matter, majority of women face feminized poverty. They do not have an income. Even when they marry rich men, whatever they is not truly theirs. The husband buys the car for her, builds house for her etc. When they quarrel , the husband will remove the tyres or even collect the key because she is totally dependent on him.
But I think things are changing nowadays because I know that the generation of my daughters will resist such illtreatment from a husband. They will not agree because to them should be of equal partnership. The resistance to change from the archaic approach to marriage by the millenials in Nigeria is largely responsible for a lot of marriages hitting the rocks. I keep saying that it is the responsibility of mothers and grandmothers to really begin to change their approach to raising their sons. Let them be raised to be compassionate and have respect for womanhood, let Nigerian men be raised to know that it is ok to have emotions. You know if a man is crying, they will say are you are not a man? Why are you crying? Those are the embarrassing objections that the society forces men to bottle up emotions and cause them to become monsters. You know masculine is understood to be all about being tough all the time. If you are married and anybody sees you helping your wife in the kitchen, there will be problem, they will say she has turned him to a houseboy. Women are the ones saying it to their daughters or sisters-in-law.
Let there be a paradigm shift. As you see men as our cover, it does not mean that a woman should be helpless. Like I said, by the time we begin to recognise the fact that women have a role to play in socio-economic development of the society, you will, therefore, give them space to be themselves and maximise whatever potentials they have. If it is their careers, they should pursue it without hinderance. In recent times, there is increasingly self awareness among women that they are capable of excellence in any chosen career. So when the society starts to dictate what a woman can and cannot do, women are calling out that time has changed. The violence against women has put strains on marriages to the extent that young women are running away from marriage. It is not out of place these days for women to decide not marry but make babies and raise as a single parent with no apologies. So let the society give our women that space to be themselves which will enable to make their own money and support their families. When it comes to politics, if she wants to venture into it, at least she will have her own money, even though you still need people that will support you, but at least you will have something of your own to start the journey. In our political arrangement, they will say give forms to women for free, I have always kicked against such tokensim, I said you people are joking. Why should that be the case, if you are contesting for a political office, be prepared to play the game as your male counterparts. If they are paying one million, pay the same amount to command respect and you will be seen as a serious contender. I found free forms to female politicians running for office demeaning to womanhood. Like I said, you have this political gang up against women, even your brother will not say you are his sister, there must be something about the menfolk, you will be shocked at how they treat female politicians with hostility and outright cruelty. When I write my memoir about my experience in politics, it will be an eye opener. In politics, it is like we have two different tribes of men and women and you will be shocked at how men oppose almost everything that is female related. It about time women in Nigeria strategised to put more women in the state houses of assembly and national assembly. The poor representation thus far is a reflection of paltry number of women in these assemblies. Something is got to give. And the time is NOW!
What has been your experience since you became a First Lady?
I think it is a mixed grill. It is challenging, it has always been. You know you are dealing with human beings, when you think that you are doing the right thing, people will criticise, you know arm chair critics abound everywhere. When you say come, let us have a debate, they do not have much to say, some think oh, she think that she is all that. We didn’t vote for you, we voted for your husband and he is the governor. What they failed to realise is that I graduated in 1977 when the standard of Nigerian universities was comparable to well known universities in the world. Let me be clear that I went to the university when you must have five credits at a sitting, including English language and Mathematics. I keep on emphasizing that when my mates did not gain admission, they began to travel to America. That was the standard of education in the 70s, so anybody that went to the university during that time, you can call that person ‘smart’. When we sat for the entrance, we still came back to write the final selection. Papers were not set separately men and women. We all sat for the same papers. Same thing happened during classes and examinations, it was for everybody but after graduation and get into the real world, you then realise that the world has been structured to subjugate women and everybody seems to be okay with the unfair arrangement. With the passage of time, women began to kick and the kicking continues until we get a balanced and better world. That is why some of us who are self professed feminists can understand the power dynamics between men and women. This understanding was made possible because we are educated and present superior arguments and boldly so. Like I said that we were equal with our male mates because we were smart. So having graduated at that time, I still went to Philippines for my Masters and for somebody to now think that I do not have an opinion, I think that person must be joking and that is why they think that women must be swept under the carpet. During my own generation, I do not know about others but at that time, it was highly competitive for you to be in the university in the 70s. University of Nigeria Nsukka was of an international standard then. I can’t say what it is presently due to the decay in our educational sector.
There were certain things you were doing before you became the First Lady which you would not be able to do any longer, what are those things?
With my education and status, you do not expect me to be a First Lady that is inside the bedroom, that is what I want to correct. People have said that even this First Lady has opinion, people are shocked that the First Lady is on social media, I was there before I became the First Lady. Remember I founded BRECAN in 1997, that’s over 20 years and actively involved in breast cancer advocay. I had facebook account, I had twitter account and LinkedIn, even though, I am no more doing LinkedIn. Why should I not continue? I made it clear that if you come to my page to insult me, I will fire back. I am not limited by the niceties of the office. Office of the first lady cannot change me, rather, I will change the office, leverage on it to make voice heard on causes for the good of Ondo State. Now they have come to terms with my ever presence on the social, when they attack me, they do it in measured form and maturely. Initially, they thought they could do otherwise, but they now realised that you cannot mess up with this First Lady, you cannot. We need to put people in their lanes, let them maintain their lanes, respect others, you cannot just come to the social media to insult people. For instance the other time, I took my FOWOSO women to Ore to visit the state industrial hub which everybody should be excited about, there was an uproar on Ondo State social media space. The confusion or debate was whether I had the right to go there. Was it a visit or an inspection. Since she was neither the governor nor the commissioner, what the heck was she doing there? Seemeseetrouble! It was funny o how politics could jaundice the eyes of the opposition. I have forgiven them for they know not what they are doing. Today, I am very close to one of the arm chair critics. These opposing views that lack constructive orientation have really strengthened me and even propeled me to do more. I caught my teeth in activism with BRECAN which has been in existence 20 years before I became the First Lady of Ondo. E don tay!
How were you able to blend the challenges of being an activist, First Lady, mother and wife?
I am a grandmother too, (laughs). It can only happen to somebody who is restless; I have been restless all my life. My husband will tell you that. That has been my life, like I said, I am expected to even get slim but I am adding more flesh. I said I could not believe this addition of weight. What happened was that some of these programmes I champion have achieved outcomes that were resoundingly successful. I would naturally feel very happy. So the stress doesn’t show.
Do you still do house chores, cook, go to the market, do you shop?
How can I? (laughs). You want to kill me, not now. You know that the responsibilities are huge but I know that if Aketi and I go back home, he is not a man that will be lying on the bed, we do things together, but here I must be honest with you, which kind market (laughs) there is no room for that, there are lots of responsibilities.
How will you rate the achievements of Mr Governor?
Me, not me, it is the people of Ondo State that will rate him but I can say that he knew what he wanted to do before he even attempted to run for the post , because we are a couple that communicate with each other effectively, and that is one of the things that is responsible for the success of our marriage. I am not saying that we are perfect, marriage is not always a bed of roses but the ability to talk to each other and express our opinions. Looking at the way the country has been drifting, it got to a stage that we said why are we in the comfort of our room complaining about Nigeria, what can we do and that was it. So he knew what he wanted to do and like he keeps saying that God has blessed him, what more could he ask for than to serve his people and I know that he is also somebody who, when he wants to do something, he will accomplish it no matter what. He is a man of his words, if he tells you he will do this, he will do it, and if he tells you he will not do it, forget it, don’t even bother to pressurise him. People have always said that he is not a politician. That’s true because he will not lie. It is left for the people to access him, not me as his wife but I know that he also has this philosophy that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. He is spreading out his developmental programmes. There will always be A before Z so people should exercise patience. He will do whatever he can to make sure that everybody has the feeling of the government. The only demand from him is your support and when you feel something that’s not okay, say it in a constructive manner not in a damaging form or making an apple become a banana because when people peddle rumours and say this is a banana whereas it is an apple, in no time people will believe that it is a banana not an apple. That is what is obtained in the political landscape not only in Ondo State but everywhere nationwide. But I know that once you have good intention, you may not please everyone because there are people that are professional oppositionists. They will never see anything good in you, but when you have the majority appreciating the little you are doing, what else, so it is the Ondo state people that will rate him not me.
Advice to the people generally?
My advice is for the people to support him. There is no doubt about it, Aketi means well for the state and he is a man that is contented, he is not materialistic, he is a very simple person. So, everybody should exercise patience, everybody will get something out of this government. We must start from somewhere, just like the example of ABC I used earlier, so those that might be Q,R,S, it will still get to their turns but when you start agitating unnecessarily, I think it is not healthy for the system. He was also a student activist and likewise myself, I have been an activist all my life. We all know that sometimes, you need to agitate or lobby. When I wanted Ondo state to consider setting up a cancer centre due the barrier posed by distsnce in getting quality cancer care at UCH Ibadan, we carried our advocacy to the House of Assembly to let them see the reasons and advantages of having such a centre in the state. It is also part of activism, but done in a civilised and constructive manner which is an act trying to convince people to do something for the common good. Another example of activism that I am very proud involved some of our patients that we supported for their treatment. They are retired civil servants but they have not been paid their gratuities and these are people experiencing life threatening diseases. We in BRECAN thought that an advocacy to the government through the HOS could yield speedy consideration on compassionate ground. So during last year’s World Cancer Day, we marched to the State ex-Head of Service, Mr. Akinkuotu to lobby him on behalf our members. He disclosed he had never seen that kind of visit before in his life. I said “we are here, you have to commit yourself to the theme of World Cancer Day, and say I will, I am”. He repeated after us because that was the theme of last year’s World Cancer Day and behold, it worked. The women files were fast-tracked. That was the least we could do for these women. They need money to do extra treatments because when you have cancer, even your diet changes, it is not every food you can eat and that cost money and we will continue to appreciate him for doing that for us. That is activism in a civilized manner. If we had carried placards and said ‘We no go gree o’ and burn tyres, it won’t make much sense and won’t yield good result. But there are other issues that are compelling to burn tyres like rape, that one ‘We no go gree’ we can carry placards and burn tyres. We condemn rape in its entirety.