By Gbenga Osinaike
That Thursday morning of June 28, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin did not leave anyone in doubt about her passion and where her love is. Dressed in a pair of jeans trousers, her husky voice which breaks intermittently betrayed her long years in the wilderness of fighting for the downtrodden.
She was the guest speaker at the Charity and Development Initiative for Brighter Africa forum organized by Bolatito Ogbaigbo. At the event, Okei-Odumakin had the opportunity of unburdening herself and sharing her experience over the years in her effort to emancipate the poor and the marginalized in the society, a passion she has had to carry from her growing up years.
She confessed to the gathering that she had always taken risks. She had always loved to give her life for the cause of humanity. In fact her ambition was to be a Revered Sister, a vision her father frowned at. When that became impossible she got married to activism, a life decision that has seen her to and from the four walls of the prison several times.
That Thursday morning at the D Venue, an event centre on Victoria Island where the programme held, she left many people wondering the kind of lifestyle she had chosen for herself.
She began: “Apart from giving my life to Christ, I have given my life to the struggle. I believe a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. Little by little we can together salvage our land. Our lives begin and end the day we remain silent over the things that matter.”
She had been incarcerated in despicable conditions; sometimes not having her bath for as long as 13 months. She recounted how she developed ear problem after a soldier slapped her, how she was thrown into the boot of a car by soldiers and how she had to endure the horror of staying for four days with a dead body in the prison.
A 2013 US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award winner, Okei-Odumakin believes fighting for the rights and privileges of the ordinary Nigerian is a fight that must not be compromised. Apart from having to engage the military in time past, she has had to mobilize funds to help Nigerians in dire situations.
She championed the course of the popular artist Sadiq Daba who was down with a terminal disease. She has also had to take up cases of several women who suffered from intimidation and manipulation from the society and their husbands.
Claiming she wrote her will long ago in preparation for any time death would come, the human rights activists who is the president of Centre for Change recalled how she encountered the late Beko Ransome Kuti, his brother Fela and the legendary legal luminary, Chief Gani Fawehinmi explaining to the modest gathering how those people influenced her life.
She gave graphic details of how she has had to intervene in many cases of abuse against women noting that the evil in Nigeria is not only embarrassing but appalling. “We have intervened in cases where fathers sleep with their own daughters, where the owner of an orphanage was having carnal knowledge of the minors in his care, how a man used the knife on his wife for ridiculous offense like the wife not giving him enough meat to eat. The horror in the land is enormous,” she lamented.
She then used the opportunity to appeal to the gathering to take up the fight for the poor stating that life is best lived when a hand is stretched to help the needy. She said her organization has had to facilitate training for police officers and had been to about 13 states of Nigeria replicating the training so they could understand the dynamics of policing in Nigeria.
Earlier at the event several other speakers shared their experiences on how they have intervened in the challenges facing some Nigerians. Fola Balogun told the gathering that attending to the needs of the poor does not require so much money as people think pointing out that a little act of kindness goes a long way to make a difference.
“From time to time my friends and I have had to come together to assist orphans and widows that are challenged. What I have found out is that giving benefits the person who renders the act than the person who receives it. It is fulfilling. Live a life of giving. Start with being nice to your domestic servants. Look for somebody to help every day. Be the change you want to see in people.” She stressed.
Also contributing, Sarah Ashley-Dejo explained that simple acts like sharing knowledge and making people happy goes a long way in shaping destinies. “Make people special and don’t put them down. Make at least one person happy in a day. Raise the bar and meet people at the point of their needs as God gives you the grace.”
The executive director of Biire Child and Maternity, Dare Ajayi recounted how his agency has had to intervene in many hospitals in Nigeria bringing succor to those who needed their services. Ajayi who said he had to undertake a study in non-governmental issues at the masters level as against supposedly lucrative courses said he had always loved to get his hands dirty reaching out to those who are in distress.
He said, “The cheer experience of helping the poor and being used to alleviate their suffering is more fulfilling than having a mansion in Banana Island. It is purposeless to live in this world without making an impact. Currently we are supporting orphans and have helped in safe delivery of about 3000 births and still counting. We have had to help upgrade several primary health care centres.”
One of the speakers who struck a chord that Thursday morning was Atinuke Lawal, a cancer survivor. She told the gathering that she was proud to be a cancer survivor saying when she was diagnosed with the terminal ailment she did not believe. “I lived in denial of cancer for almost two years after I had been diagnosed of having it because before then I was not a sickly person. The last time I went to the hospital was 15 years before the discovery of cancer in my system. But it later dawned on me that it was real. I was forced to stay in Nigeria to take my treatment. I did not know where LUTH was until I began taking cancer treatment.”
While disclosing that she eventual got well she said, “It was my experience while harboring the terminal ailment that informed the Cancer foundation. I started to reach out to those who are having cancer and to give them hope and confidence that if I could survive they too will. We held the first Christmas party for cancer patients shortly after the foundation was inaugurated. I never thought I would start a foundation. But as the needs arise we stand up to them. We have had to help with drugs for cancer patients.”
The convener, Bolatito Ogbaigbo, a former banker said she was moved by the plight of the poor while working in the bank. She resigned her top position to begin to give attention to the needy and raise help for them. Gradually, she has helped many out of poverty. She believes a little help here and there goes a long way. “We may not be able to touch many lives as we have planned. But I am satisfied that we have touched some lives. We have been able to help a number of people out of poverty. We will continue to raise awareness for the needy to help the poor.”
She regretted that Nigeria is ranked as the country with the highest number of poor people in the world taking over from India who had earlier occupied that ignoble position. She expressed confidence that with the cooperation of wealthy Nigerians and a heart that thinks about the poor Nigeria will be a better place.