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The Bisi Troika: A tribute to Mrs Olabisi Olateru- Olagbegi (1952-2015)

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Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
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Olori Bisi Olateru

I first met Mrs Olabisi Olateru-Olagbegi (who I will hereafter refer to as Auntie Bisi) in the early 1990s. When I first met her, I was working for Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), an international development organisation for African women based in London, with programs across Africa. From 1992-1995, there were several key UN Conferences which included the UN conference on the Environment (Rio1992), the UN conference on Human Rights (Vienna 1993), the UN Population Conference (Cairo 1994) and the UN World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995).

In preparation for each of these meetings, a global network of women’s rights activists, rooted in grassroots realities and demands, mobilized to ensure that their aspirations were reflected in the outcomes of these meetings. Representing the Africa region, there were key organizations such as Women in Law and Development Africa (WILDAF), FEMNET, Abantu for Development, AMwA, some country chapters of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) and several others.

There were also some individuals, who, by virtue of their role in their organizations, were present at almost all the preparatory and substantive regional and international meetings such as Chief Bisi Ogunleye, Founder, Country Women’s Association of Nigeria (COWAN) and member of the Women in Environment and Development board, Mrs Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi, one of the regional leaders of WILDAF and myself. Due to the fact that the three of us were called ‘Bisi’ our sisters in the international women’s movement sometimes confused us with each other. When asked if I was ‘Bisi from COWAN’ I would say, no, that is ‘Chief Bisi’. When asked if I knew Bisi from WILDAF I would say yes, that is ‘WILDAF Bisi’. When they asked the other two about me they would say ‘oh yes, Akina Mama Bisi’ or ‘London Bisi’.  I would often joke with Auntie Bisi and other friends about large (Chief Bisi), medium (Auntie Bisi) and small (me) Bisi. This was in reference to not only our respective physical size but age as well.

The period that I first came into contact with Auntie Bisi was characterized by an intense level of engagement at all levels with members of networks, donor partners locally and internationally, governments and peer movements around the world. The impression I formed of Auntie Bisi in those years was that of a woman who had a lot of passion, a brilliant mind, focused vision, integrity and limitless energy. My impression of her never changed till she sadly left us on December 17th 2015. Auntie Bisi was a role model, teacher, mentor and friend to so many, either up close or from a distance. She was always impeccably turned out in lovely Aso Oke or Adire, local fabrics which she proudly promoted everywhere she went in the world. Even though we did not see each other very often after a while, we stayed closely connected in the same circles of sisters striving for a better world. I can never forget  her joyful dancing at my 50th birthday in Ado-Ekiti in 2013. I was so touched that she came all the way from Lagos. That was the same year she turned 60, and even though I was not able to make the birthday program, I was so thrilled when I got a copy of her book ‘Path to Women’s Development’.

Auntie Bisi gave her time, energy, and significant intellectual resources to promoting a campaign against Trafficking in Persons. Long before, and well after certain well publicized national campaigns on the same issue, full of mostly talk and minimal political will, Auntie Bisi made the case for a more meaningful engagement and an understanding of actions required. Like the late Chief Bisi Ogunleye, Auntie Bisi belonged to the genre of Nigerian women activists who served women’s interests with every fibre of their being. They did not need endorsement of governments or their money. They did not need to be courted by politicians. They did not need to hustle for every available donor dollar to run dubious projects of no value. And they brought a clear ideological clarity to their work, an understanding of how patriarchy undermines women’s lives, and the need to acquire the tools to address this effectively. In an era when women’s rights activism has been assaulted with befuddled thinking and practice, we still had women such as Auntie Bisi to look up to for clarity of thought and purpose. At a time when we have become indifferent to the ways in which the politics of class, status and power has further eroded whatever gains women have made, we can draw inspiration from the life of a relatively privileged middle class professional woman who used every opportunity to build bridges and leverage support for a cause that would ultimately benefit everyone, not just a privileged few.

Goodbye Auntie Bisi. Thank you for being such a wonderful big sister and friend. Thank you for the dreams you shared with us. Your vision and passion will live on through the multitude of lives you have touched. Hopefully we will have another generation of young women activists who will be capable of service to the movement with the same dedication, discipline and integrity. Please give my love to Chief Bisi. I miss you both so much.

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