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TRIBUTE: ‘I Just Wanted To Hear Your Voice’

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Wednesday, April 6th, 2016
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Moremi Ajasoro. Afi ikoko ide pon omi lodo. Afi Kankan fadaka soge lawujo egbe. Moremi ti ewure ile mi o gbodo pa. Moremi obirin ogun.

That is the cognomen I made up for Mrs Funmi Olayinka, the Moremi of Ekiti. She loved it when I recited it to her, especially if it was over the phone. She would say ‘E ma ki mi lo, mo ndahun’, ‘Keep singing my praises, I  am attentive’.  I first met Mrs Funmi Olayinka in February 2007. My husband waded into the so-called murky waters of politics in 2005 as a Gubernatorial Candidate for the then AD, later Action Congress in Ekiti State. When he told me that he had been approached by some party elders and peers, persuading him to run for office, I was initially very reluctant even when he got some of the elders to speak with me. I however decided later that it was time people from our generation put themselves forward for service instead of expecting that there would always be someone else to fix our leadership crisis, which is not unique to Nigeria but is a problem for most African countries. I knew that whatever the outcome, the presence of someone like Dr Kayode Fayemi in the race for the Governorship of Ekiti State at that time would raise the bar and send a strong message that there were indeed visionary, capable and competent people around who had fresh ideas for the future of the State and the country as a whole.

As we embarked on our political journey, I was particularly interested in the role of women and how they were treated within the party hierarchy and community at large. The women were very active and politically astute, with amazing mobilization skills. However, none of the top electoral slots up for grabs was available to them. In December 2006, after an eighteen month campaign for the Primary ticket, Dr Kayode Fayemi emerged as the Gubernatorial Candidate for the Action Congress. When all the dust generated by this struggle settled, I observed that there were no opportunities available for women. All the candidates for the State House of Assembly and National assembly were male. I then advocated strongly that the running mate for Dr Kayode Fayemi (JK) should be a woman. The position had been zoned to Ado-Ekiti, so I insisted that the party should look for a woman from Ado. Two prominent Ado women were approached, but they were unable to take up the offer for personal reasons. When the search for a woman was beginning to look futile, a man was approached, but as God would have it, two days before we was to be presented by our party the Action Congress, he decamped to the People’s Democratic Party. The search for a Deputy Governorship candidate had to start all over again.

I was based in Accra, Ghana at the time as the Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund, an Africa wide grant making foundation for women. One day I came home from Accra, and our good friend and brother Senator Femi Ojudu, showed me a CV. It was that of Mrs Funmi Olayinka, who at the time, was Head of Corporate Affairs and General Services at ECOBANK. I was very excited that at last, we had found an appropriate candidate. I left Lagos for Abuja on a Sunday to represent AWDF at a conference organized by the African International Media Summit (AIMS) in collaboration with ECOWAS. That evening, in Ado-Ekiti, a major drama unfolded. Mrs Olayinka was taken to meet the party members and elders. There was stiff opposition from those who felt that the very ‘juicy’ position of Deputy Governorship candidate was being offered to an Ekiti ‘outsider’. I kept getting calls from people in Ado, especially the women. I told them to stand firm and that if we were truly members of the same party, we all need to rally round the woman and support her. Two days later, JK and Mrs Olayinka came to Abuja for her to complete the necessary paperwork at INEC. That evening I was at a dinner to round up the AIMS Summit when I got a message that JK and Mrs Olayinka were waiting for me outside the ballroom. I went out to meet them and that is when I saw Mrs Olayinka for the first time. We hugged and I said, ‘Welcome my sister, congratulations’, and she responded with her trade mark beautiful smile, ‘Thank you, I have heard so much about you’.

We went on the campaign trail, and even though neither of us had been on a campaign before, we acclimatized quickly. Mrs Olayinka’s initial detractors who thought that this polished, beautiful, elegant Lagos ‘babe’ would never be able to cope with the rough and tumble of grassroots politics and campaigning were astounded. She was a natural. When I was advocating for a female Deputy Governor candidate, one of the questions I was asked was, ‘If we find one, will women vote for her?’. I said, ‘Leave that to me’. When the campaign started, I sat with the then Action Congress State Women Leader, Mrs Ronke Okusanya, and we designed ‘Women’s Rallies’, so that we could mobilise women across the state not only to vote for Dr Kayode Fayemi, but to support a competent female candidate. Everywhere we went, she was a huge hit, and the women in the state started saying that even if they were not inclined initially to vote for our party, they would vote for us because of Mrs Olayinka the Deputy Governor or me, the Candidate’s wife. On March 8th 2007, International Women’s Day, we launched the famous ‘Pact with Ekiti Women’, which was a highlight of Dr  Kayode Fayemi’s campaign.

The April 14th 2007 elections came and then our three and a half  year battle to seek justice began. After the 2007 elections, I went back to Accra. We spoke every day, and she would begin or end our conversations with ‘I just wanted to hear your voice’.  In April 2008, she accompanied me to Imezi-Owa in Ezeagwu Local Government, Enugu, when I was given the chieftaincy title of Ochiorah (People’s leader) in recognition of AWDF’s support for widows in that community. Since that time she always called me Ochiorah, and even when other people refer to me as ‘Erelu’ she would say ‘She will always be my Ochiorah’.

I travelled extensively for work, and I did not roam my number because it would have been too expensive for the organisation, so I had separate lines for countries I visited regularly. She had every single number for me and had them saved as ‘Ochiorah US’, ‘Ochiorah South Africa’, ‘Ochiorah London’, ‘Ochiorah Kenya’, etc. Even if I did not call her right away when I landed in a foreign country, she would send a text on one of the many lines she had for me to check if I had arrived. For those who are wondering where she got the nickname ‘Moremi’ from, it was Chief Jide Awe, the ACN Party Chairman, who started introducing her as ‘The Moremi’ of Ekiti during the rerun campaign in 2009. Since that time, Ekiti people, especially the women, latched on to the name.

On August 28th 2008, we got a ruling from the elections petition tribunal. We were together at Isan-Ekiti, watching the tribunal proceedings live. At a point we moved closer to each other and held hands. When the verdict was given, and we lost, we hugged each other and then I turned to hug JK. Then we walked out hand in hand to face our distraught party members. None of us showed any emotion, we were the ones consoling others. It became a pattern – February 2009 at the appeal court when a rerun was ordered, May 5th 2009 when the fiercely fought re-run election was awarded to PDP , and May 5th 2010 when  we lost at the tribunal again. We never, ever, cried in public.  Behind closed doors, we would cling to each other and cry and comfort each other. Then we would wipe our tears and start planning the next move. One of her favourite questions was ‘What is the way forward’?  The only time we allowed our emotions to show was October 15th 2010  when Dr Kayode Fayemi was declared the winner of the 2007 elections. When the election was declared in our favour, I hugged and kissed JK. I then turned to Moremi. We hugged and then fell crying to the floor, rolling from left to right.

We had so many things in common. We were both Geminis, my birthday is June 11th hers was June 20th. We were both Anglicans. We loved purple. We loved snails. We were both extroverts. We loved fashion. We had the same shoe size. We loved to dance. We both slept late, and reserved our long conversations for late at night till that had to change when she was too ill to stay up so late. We both loved organizing and coordinating things, paying attention to detail. We also had quaint opposites – she loved her fried plantain soft, I liked mine hard, I drank Nescafe Gold Blend regular, she drank Gold Blend decaffeinated, she wore low heels, I like high heels.

We taught each other a great deal and drew from each other’s strengths. I left Nigeria in 1988 for England and moved from there to Ghana in 2001.  All the years we were campaigning and fighting for our mandate, I was commuting between Ghana and Nigeria. I finally relocated in December 2010. As a result, I did not have close friends in the country, save for a few classmates/childhood friends I had not been in touch with for a while. Moremi was the only very close friend I had. I have always liked to dress up when the occasion required it, but working in the field of international development around the world, there is hardly any time to dress up or think about high fashion. People in other African countries are not as fastidious about fashion as we are in Nigeria. Early on in our political work, I never bothered about dressing up, and JK was very sensitive about us appearing to be ostentatious or privileged, because we were all labeled as ‘ foreigners’.  I was therefore very careful about not appearing too glamorous – JK even made me take off my Gucci sunglasses on my first trip with him to Ado-Ekiti in 2005.

Moremi changed all that. She was always impeccably turned out. Moremi used to joke that we have to dress up and look like we don’t have a care in the world so that a) when we get into office we will not be accused of using state funds for our wardrobes and b) our political opponents will not sense our distress at being beaten so many times in the political battlefield. She knew where to get everything we needed in Lagos – fabric, shoes, jewelry. She taught me how to tie my wrappers so that I would not have to worry about them coming loose at any point during the day. She also tied my Geles for me. On inauguration day, I was not pleased with how my Gele looked after a while because of all the shoving and hugging, so we sneaked into one of the rooms at Osuntokun Lodge and she re-tied it for me.

I in turn got her to ditch her lace fabrics for Ankara, which she hardly ever wore in the corporate sector – she wore only suits for work and laces for parties.  I taught her the ‘deduct from source’ trick of taking a yard of fabric off Ankara so that we could use it for head ties instead of getting into endless arguments with our dressmakers.  I also got her to take an interest in women’s rights and social justice activism. AWDF organized a seminar on Women and Political participation in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2008, and I made sure that she was one of the key resource persons. The activists and politicians across Africa who were there loved her and pledged to work hard at enticing more women from the corporate sector to get involved in the work of creating political space for women. My feminist activism rubbed off on her and she became an ardent advocate of women’s rights too.

In January 2009, I was in Nigeria to spend time with JK for a few days. Moremi told me that she had been feeling a hardness in her left breast since the end of 2008. She called a friend of hers, Mrs Ebun Anozie who runs a breast cancer project called COPE. Ebun advised her to go for a mammogram at a diagnostic center in Lagos. When she went, they did the mammogram and a biopsy. When the results came, she was told that there was no problem, but she should come back if she noticed anything bothersome. She said that she knew I would be alarmed if she told me and would want to rush back from Ghana. So she had decided to wait till I came home to tell me. I was of course alarmed, but since she had been given the all clear, I calmed down.

In August 2009, we had a by-election in the Ekiti North Senatorial District. Senator Ayo Arise’s election was annulled by the appeal court and a rerun was ordered between him and Mr Olu Adetumbi of AC (now Senator Adetumbi). I took leave from work to go to Ekiti for the campaign and election. When I arrived, Moremi told me that she needed to go back and have the breast checked again because she was still feeling some hardness. She went back to the diagnostic facility to have another biopsy, and as soon as it was done that morning, she joined us on the campaign trail. We were at Ifaki town when she arrived. She was wearing a loose boubou (both of us hate shapeless boubous, we prefer fitted Kaftans) and only I knew why. When she sat next to me, I asked her how it went and she said it went ok and she would get the results in a few days. I squeezed her hand and whispered to her that it would be alright.

When I left Nigeria after the by-election, I returned to Accra and then left for a meeting in Johannesburg. As usual, Moremi and I were in touch. One evening, around 6pm Johannesburg time, I got a text from her asking me to call her that night, no matter how late. I thought she wanted to share updates on Ekiti politics so I responded that I was on my way to dinner with colleagues and would call her when I got back to my hotel. I called her later that night, and the first question she asked me was ‘where will you be next week’? I told her that I would be away on yet another trip. Then she told me that she had to leave for London right away. Just as I was about to ask why, it clicked. She had got the results of the biopsy. She told me that the diagnosis was Stage 3 breast cancer. Then she started to cry saying ‘ I wish you were here’. When we finished our conversation I sat there all night staring at nothing. The following day at the airport, I bumped into people at least twice because I was zoned out.

I was not able to pull out of the trip I had planned, but I was assured when her other close friend, Mrs Foluke Dosumu was able to accompany her to London for the masectomy. I went to London shortly after, and we arranged to meet at the Edgware Road station, which was not far from the apartment where I was staying. We fell into each other’s arms and started crying. In spite of her ordeal, she looked as beautiful and elegant as ever. I stayed with her in London for a while, and was with her when she got her first round of chemotherapy. After the first session in London, she took the rest of the chemotherapy treatments in Lagos, under the supervision of two excellent Oncologists. I had the schedule for her treatments, and on the morning of each session, I would send a long, inspiring text, or call and reel out the Moremi praises she loved so much. The chemo treatments left her very weak and drained but she was able to rest at home since there was a lull in our political activities at that point, this was October 2009 – March 2010.

After the chemo treatments, in March 2010,  it was time to go back to London for six weeks of radiotherapy. The radiotherapy treatments have to be taken every day. Moremi usually stayed with her cousins in Essex, a long train ride from the hospital in central London. We decided that it would be best to look for a place to stay in central London for the period of her treatments. My friend, Dr Funmi Olonisakin who lives in London, found an ideal place in South Kensington. I arranged to spend time with her to settle in to the apartment. We joked about the absence of things a ‘Naija’ woman needs to make herself at home so we went round buying pots, pans, a blender, etc. We went to the African market at Brixton and bought familiar food such as yams, Garri, ground rice, etc. In the mornings, we would go to the hospital, and afterwards, we would wander around London window shopping or sightseeing. There was a day I wanted to cheer her up by taking her to watch a new movie ‘Precious’ about a teenager who was raped and abused by her step father and had a very abusive mother. The film was so depressing, we both left in tears, and then when I apologized to her for making her cry, we both burst out laughing. All we needed to cheer us up was each other. When I accompanied her for a fitting for a prosthetic bra, we giggled so much that the nurse who was assisting her commented on our special bond and said this would aid her recovery. Moremi was very happy after the fitting and it meant so much to me to see her spirits up.

In June 2010 Moremi turned 50. She did not want to celebrate because she felt that with all our political travails and her health challenges, it was not worth rolling out the drums. I pointed out to her that she did indeed have those challenges, but we also have cause to give thanks to God. So I managed to persuade her to have a modest birthday celebration, which was also a house warming for her new house in Ikoyi. She had always expressed a desire to visit Dubai, so I arranged with JK for us to give her a birthday gift of a trip to Dubai in September 2010. This was fixed for when she had to go back to London for her six month review. The two of us arranged to meet in Dubai, and the first question I asked her was how the review had gone. She said all was fine but she had to go back in another six months. As a result of this great news, we spent three glorious days on holiday. For the first time in over a year, it was as if a huge cloud had been lifted.

In March 2011, she went back to London for her review, but this time the news was not good. The cancer was in her bones, specifically her spine. The doctors at that particular hospital in London were not keen on prescribing any more treatments, they felt it would not work. She told me that she would seek a second opinion. The Oncologists in Nigeria were willing to try more treatments, though there were no guarantees, so they worked together with her UK Oncologist, and administered the treatments in Lagos. Moremi then began the grueling routine of taking treatments in Lagos and heading off to Ekiti on a four hour journey. These new treatments had disturbing side effects. They turned her hands very dark and blotched, and we would joke that if anyone asked what was the matter, she should say that she ran out of ‘skin toning’ creams because she was stuck in Ekiti! If we were at a function which required cutting of cakes, I would place my hand over hers on the knife so that people around would not stare at her hand.

I tried unsuccessfully to get her to take a break from work. Watching her take treatments in Lagos every three weeks and head back to Ekiti immediately after, broke my heart. She continued to work as if nothing was amiss. She endured long State functions, meetings, funerals, weddings, birthdays and the like, sometimes in excruciating pain and discomfort.  JK too tried to talk her into taking time off but she would say ‘that is what my sister said too, but don’t worry, I will be ok’.

 One of the things we used to talk about in the years of our political struggles was the fact that we should never give people an opportunity to come between us. We knew that the political terrain we were navigating was full of booby traps and creepy crawlies. When she became Deputy Governor and I became the Wife of the Governor, there were those who were happy to see us together and there were those bent on mischief. Some people started saying that the Deputy Governor was not visible in State affairs and it was the Wife of the Governor who was always all over the place. A virulent whispering campaign started that I had edged out the Deputy Governor from her functions. I hope those people realize now that my brave and courageous sister was fighting for her life. May God almighty forgive them.

In March 2012, she went to Canada for a review and it was the same story – the cancer had spread and the only thing that could be done was for her to continue her treatments. By this time, the cancer had attacked her liver.  In April 2012, Professor Funmi Olopade, the Chicago based  world renowned Oncologist, who is from Ekiti State, came home.  She came to see me at Government House, and I told her that there was a friend of mine who was battling cancer, and I wondered if she would be able to meet with her before leaving the country. Professor Olopade said yes, of course. Moremi was very careful about discussing her medical challenges; very few people knew what she was actually going through, though many noticed that all was not well when the side effects of the treatments began to manifest. I broached the matter with Moremi and she was very receptive to the idea, so that is how Professor Funmi Olopade stepped in to help manage her treatment.

Professor Olopade brought in another Oncologist in London, who reviewed the medical history and prescribed additional treatments. I accompanied Moremi to meet with him in London, August 2012. He sounded optimistic that there were a number of things that could be tried and that things were far from over. However, when we went back to London on February 1st 2013, it was very bad news. The cancer had spread from her liver to her lungs. I knew she was in very bad shape. She had lost a lot of weight, she was coughing and because of the liver malfunction, she was jaundiced. For the first time since 2009, it dawned on me that I was about to lose my beloved sister. Moremi was however optimistic that this was not over. She said I should not worry and we should put our trust in God. I did not want to take her hope away from her, so I hid my fears and tears from her and continued to pray and be there for her.

In her last days she was very weak and frail. I went on a trip February 26th , and saw her just before I left. She called me on March 1st while I was still out of the country and she ended the conversation with her usual ‘I just wanted to hear your voice’.   When I saw her again on my return ten days later, I knew the end was near. I spent long hours at her bedside, with her husband Uncle Lanre, and other family members and friends taking turns to visit. I held her hand, stroked her hair and sang to her. There is a song our party women in Ekiti sing, which both of us love, and I used to sing it to her ‘Funmilayo duro demi ni be yen, iwo ni mo we le duro de mi mailo, iwo ni mo wa lo’, ‘Funmilayo, wait for me there, I am here for you, I have come looking for you’. The song would calm her down and she would smile.

I am thankful to God for the gift of a mother, wife, sister and daughter who lived a short life, but packed it full of huge accomplishments. A lot has been said about her professional success, her political feats, her role as a devoted wife and mother, her great beauty, elegance, grace, strong faith, warmth and compassion. She meant much more to me than that, more than I can ever find the words to express. Funmilayo Adunni Olayinka was my twin-sister, comrade, accomplice, companion and confidante. We worked, played, laughed, cried, travelled, danced, prayed and ate together.  I give thanks to God for the blessing of having her in my life. I am thankful that I had moments of sheer joy and happiness with her, and that we were able to comfort each other in times of distress. I am glad that I was able to be there in those moments when it was obvious that she was leaving us, but was still able to stretch out her arms to me and Foluke Dosumu, to hug us,  and say ‘My friends, I love you. We will meet again’. I love you too Moremi. I know you will always be with me. From now on, your children will be my children, your husband will be my brother, your parents will be my parents, your sisters will be my sisters.   Rest in peace my beloved twin-sister. Your great legacy of love and service will live on. I wish I could hear your voice too, one more time.

Moremi Ajasoro. Afi ikoko ide ponmi lodo. Afi kankan fadaka soge lawujo egbe. Moremi ti ewure ile mi o gbodo pa. Moremi obirin ogun. Sun re o.


Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

April 2013

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