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Olori Bisi Olateru–Olagbegi (1953-2015) – The end of era and the beginning of a legacy.

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Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Olori Bisi Olateru–Olagbegi

Our sister Olori Bisi Olateru – Olagbegi; Lawyer, activist, women’s rights campaigner, mother, mentor, friend, entrepreneur and Executive Director Women Consortium Nigeria (WOCON) has left us.

I know that as we get on in years, we get to that point where it is either we are holding memorials for others or it is being held in our honour. But then we are only human and wish that it be in the distant future.  Why, because it is also the time we celebrate the marriage of our children, the birth of grandchildren, honours bestowed, 50th, 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays and new beginnings past the prime of life. Why then should it be death? Aunty Bisi was only 63 after all. But so the Almighty willeth.

There are people who you do not remember how you met, who or what brought you together. What really matters is that you met, you worked together and you learnt a thing or two from each other. Aunty Bisi was such a person.

There are few sisters in the women’s movement who could unsync my agenda. Those who know me well will vouch that I am a stickler for organisation and schedule as planned. Flexibility is built in as a last resort.  I could plan a journey one year ahead and anyone who wanted to be a part of that would have to fall in line. Aunty Bisi was one of those who refused to fall in line..  She would use to the maximum her prerogative as an egbon (older person) to order me her aburo (younger person) as required.

Amiinaah, where are you on xxx date?  I need you to moderate a session for me at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York

Aaah aunty Bisi but I plan to be in New York two days after that time

Ahh noo change your ticket this is the only date I have. Jo aburo ma binu..(please don’t be upset my younger sister)

Or she is leading a session in Abuja or Lagos but as usual is also in high demand elsewhere; Amina jo you have to anchor this session on my behalf I need to be elsewhere, and I would.

She was kind, firm, tough, irresistible. A cultural ambassador for Africa. She disarmed you with the effective use of the word ‘please’. The last time I hugged Olori Bisi was 26 Nov 2014 at the launch of my book A New Kind of Dance at the Women’s Development Centre in Abuja.

I am so glad I got to say to her what I felt about her while she was still alive. I had the chance in 2013 to write a foreword to her collection of essays titled Path to Women’s Development on the occasion of her 60th birthday. An event, which Ayo Atsenua, sister, friend, Professor of Law whom I adore a lot, facilitated. I adapt here a section of the foreword.

How do you build a profile in a sector such that its herstory becomes incomplete without a mention of you and your work. The answers to that would be a study in the life of Bisi Olateru–Olagbegi and the Nigerian Women’s Movement. Consistent courage and ingenuity to reinvent oneself and to keep doors of opportunity open for others may be what it takes. The Olori Bisi I know has a certain constant ideal and a pragmatic eye to finding and using resources to deliver and sustain goals over the years. Her consciousness to raise other lives, connect them with opportunity; and see them live to give testimony, forms the backbone of her life.

Nigeria no doubt has a myriad of challenges as this collection traces. Take for instance the dastardly act of trafficking in persons. It has more than anything else in recent times objectified and made vulnerable girls and boys, women and men. It is a business deadly in a sophistication and ability to mutate. It is beating the law and systems of checks and balances across continents. The socio- economic pre conditions of abject poverty and moral decadence, which make it thrive are equally enormous problems.

What strikes one though, in the collection of essays for which the foreword was written is not the magnitude of the problem that needs fixing as important as that is. What is striking is the story of one woman’s contribution to a tapestry woven of innovation, patience, hope and solidarity over many years. The essays give a rich fabric of struggles, stories and sisterhood. In weaving this cloth the colours of Olori Bisi’s threads are strong, warm, courageous and enduring.  They share a lesson; that we each must do our own part, engaging the system, offering solutions; asking questions and demanding answers, rather than sit back and complain.

In Africa and beyond hers is a profile well known and well regarded. Her Africaness cannot be missed.  I have met Olori Bisi in New York and elsewhere and she is always impeccably dressed in African attire – her adaptability to the world is much evident in that ‘pianos and drums’ ensemble of a jacket made of Aso- Oke (hand woven fabric). That cosmopolitan style is visible in the eclectic nature of the issues in her book; national and international, affecting women and men, government and nongovernment players. A diverse scope, yet all speaking to one harmonious goal – the urgent need to protect women’s human rights.

An incredible teacher and symbol of survival herself, (she presented that collection of her work at a point when we hoped she had put cancer behind her). Olori Bisi has earned the right to talk authoritatively about the lives of girls and women. She has organised, protected, advised and nurtured many women and their organisations for over thirty of her sixty and more glorious years.

We are taught that women must tell their own stories so that the telling is accurate and conveys the lessons we desire to be learnt from a life that has taken a heart, a head and a hand to build.

There is no better way to do this than documenting the story of that journey, while the walking is tall.

Then the Almighty willeth the end of the journey. May God rest Aunty Bisi’s soul. Grant her peace, grant us the grace to continue her work. Bestow on her family patience, gratitude and fortitude for, Olori Bisi lived. She lived a good life. It is indeed the end of an era, the beginning of a legacy. ‎


Amina Salihu, PhD, is a Gender and Development scholar and practitioner, a women’s rights activist and community organizer.



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