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LOUD WHISPERS: A Pleasant Saturday Afternoon

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Sunday, June 30th, 2024
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 On Saturday June 22nd, I was Guest Writer of the month at the Association of Nigerian Authors, Abuja chapter (ANA Abuja). I thank the Chairman of ANA Abuja, Architect Chukwudi Eze for the kind invitation. The theme was ‘The Writer as an advocate of social and political change’. I gave a keynote address which highlighted my passion for writing and how I use it as a tool for engagement, action and change. I then read from my latest book, ‘Demand and Supply’. There was an interview session moderated by Ms. Esther Adelana, PRO of ANA, Abuja. This was followed by a panel of distinguished scholars and writers. The panel was Chaired by Professor Tanure Ojaide, and it featured Professor Emeka Aniagolu and Barrister Bukky Shonibare. We had an exciting conversation that looked at the role of writers in society, the opportunities for policy advocacy, importance of mentoring and the ongoing struggle to sustain a culture of reading and writing. There was a poetry contest for students, certificates for literary excellence, and the presentation of a book written by twelve-year-old twins. The book reading was attended by top government officials, national and state Assembly members, serving and former State First Ladies and colleagues from civil society.  I am grateful to all family and friends too many to mention who took time out to attend. It was a truly pleasant afternoon. This is an excerpt from the interview session with Ms Adelana.

You are a woman of so many accomplishments. What is your inspiration, and why do you do what you do?

I am inspired by the possibilities for change. I am motivated by the need to use whatever platform I find myself on to push for change. I do what I do because it is important to amplify women’s voices and create opportunities for them to be the best version of themselves possible.

The world recognizes you as one of Africa’s most vocal feminist activists. The Nigerian environment has a lot of misconceptions about feminists. What’s the most challenging experience you’ve faced as a gender rights activist, and how did you overcome it?

There are misconceptions about feminists all over the world, not just here in Nigeria. Feminism challenges patriarchal power and privilege, so it is bound to meet with resistance. Feminism is however not a war against men. Misandry (hating men) is not a feminist agenda, but challenging the oppression of women is. I think being a political spouse was my most challenging experience. First Ladies are meant to be seen and not heard, tolerated and treated with suspicion. I just focused on what I needed to do, with my husband’s support. He kept telling me, ‘You can’t stop being who you are’. There was a time a journalist criticized me for going on a local government tour, saying it was not my place to do so. His language was quite condescending and patronising, and he even had the audacity to compare me with another First Lady who was considered to be the perfect example of someone who knew how to keep her mouth shut. My husband advised me to write a response, since I had a right of reply, and I did. It sparked a very interesting debate online!

You seem to have been vindicated, because it is obvious that your leadership and advocacy programs changed the political landscape, especially for women in Ekiti State.  Many people believe you should run for office yourself. What do you think?

Yes, people keep asking me if I will run for office and my response to that is No. That does not interest me, it used to, but not anymore. What I am interested in, is leadership development. Over the years, I have acquired experience in coaching, political strategising, campaign management, branding, communications and community mobilisation. Those are the things that are of interest to me – preparing future leaders and supporting current ones.

Your collection of essays, ‘Where is your Wrapper?’ is a very popular book of yours. Can you tell us the story behind that book? You also set up ‘The Wrapper Network’, what is the network currently doing?

Where is your wrapper? is one of the essays in ‘Where is Your Wrapper?’, Loud Whispers Volume 2.  It was a story about women’s solidarity, and the responsibility we all have as human beings and citizens, to take care of one another. It seemed to have resonated deeply with many women and men. Due to the amount of feedback I received, and requests from women for a platform for further engagement, I started The Wrapper Network in 2021 as a program of Above Whispers Media Foundation. It is an online platform for information and mentoring, and also provides financial support for young women business owners who do not qualify for a bank loan yet. We also support young female writers to attend the Ebedi International Writers Residency, and we have sponsored 4 cohorts so far since 2023. All the proceeds from the sales of my publications go to the AWMF.

Your poems, The Day the Devil came to Drink Water and Please help us beg them are interesting titles about politics, in your anthology of short stories and poems, ‘A Tray of Locust Beans’. How can we as writers advocate for political change in Nigeria?

One of our responsibilities as writers is to tell our truth. We also bear witness, we listen, we teach and we learn. It does not make us experts or persons with solutions to every problem, but it makes us aware of the need to articulate what we think and propose ways forward. Not every problem can be fixed, but it can be analysed and understood so that different generations can come up with their own strategies. Speaking up and speaking out is important for our joint reflection and learning. One day we will be asked by our children or grandchildren, what did you use your voice or pen for?

Religion and Ethnicism are major factors in Nigerian Politics. In your books, there are stories of manipulative activities of religious and traditional leaders, who preach one thing and practice something else. What is your take on the role of religious and traditional leaders in Nigerian politics, and how can we reduce some of their negative influence?

Our religious and traditional leaders are important, because they are gate keepers, opinion moulders and thought leaders in their communities or congregations. Many of them are politically savvy and know how to maneuver for influence and power. For those of us who are interested in challenging and changing social norms, we have no choice but to engage with them.  Like every site of social engagement, we have the progressive thinkers who are open to new ways of doing things, and we have the ultra conservatives.   In my writing, I have used my own experience of interacting with religious leaders from various backgrounds and agendas as a basis for drawing attention to the potential dangers of over-investing in spaces that are supposed to be for redemption and salvation but turn out to be sites of oppression and danger. I appreciate the value of our traditional institutions and the capacity they have to support social change, but only if the leaders concerned are willing and able. There are many genuine men and women of God who do amazing things for and with their followers. Sadly, we have too many charlatans who prey on vulnerable people and strip them of their dignity. We should recognise this for what it is and hold them accountable.

Your short story, ‘A Tray of Locust Beans (which you named the anthology of short stories and poems after) is a very relatable narrative in Nigerian Society. It tells the story of a teenager, who was sexually abused by those who were meant to be her protectors. She had to resort to taking money from her predators, so that she can at least feed her old grandmother. Then there are the current internet sensations, where you have young women basically advertising for sexual partners in return for money or gifts. What do you have to say to young women who have given up on the fight against sexualization of women, and gender-based violence, and have resorted to commercializing their bodies as a way of surviving?

Transactional sex is a huge problem, and we all have a role to play to minimise this menace. Commercialisation of young women and oversexualizing them, does not happen in a vacuum. This is why we need to invest in the empowerment of girls, raising them with self-esteem and confidence, and removing all barriers to their education. We all need to understand how patriarchal norms and values shape the lives of girls who grow into women. If we raise our sons to go into the world to become leaders and providers, and our girls to be dependent sex vixens, offering their bodies and wombs for sale to the highest bidder, we will continue to see a thriving culture of sexual exploitation. We need to eliminate gender stereotypes and encourage relationships and communities where there is respect for both men and women and opportunities for all of them to thrive. We also need to see a culture of zero tolerance for all forms of gender-based violence.

Most writers are afraid of using their works to critique the government or advocate for political and social change, what is your advice for them?

Say what you want to say. Write what you want to write, as long as it is the truth and not just your opinion. It is wise to be nuanced so you do not find yourself facing treason charges or making accusations you do not have the evidence to substantiate. There is no reason to conflate the need for accountability and good governance with character assassination, lies and normalising abuse and disrespect. Leaders are human beings with names, feelings, and families. Making up stories or recycling unverified hearsay does not make you a good advocate, it makes you a person without integrity, worse than what you are criticizing.  We can disagree with leaders without dehumanizing them.

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