YINKA AND I ARE TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
From childhood, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin wanted to become nun in the Roman Catholic Church, after finishing secondary school. But her father would have none of that. So she went Kwara State Polytechnic for the Advanced levels.
After passing the exams, she admission to the university. Then one day, Odumakin a Marxist lecturer at the university introduced her to the works of known leftist intellectuals and like they say, the rest is history. In this interview, she looks back on how she became a fiery human rights activist, who is married to another dyed-in-the-wool activist, Yinka Odumakin. Excepts…
Well, first and foremost, I had wanted to be a nun because of the fact that my parents were staunch Catholics and we were taught by missionaries. Apart from that when I went to church, my brothers were mass servers and I was so much in love and wanted to be married to Jesus and that was it. That was how it was throughout my secondary school days.
After my secondary school, I was 14 and my brother told me he will be a reverend father after his first degree and because I am a lady, I should go after my secondary school. My dad was in UK and my mum told him. He said he would disown me, warning that that I should not use his name. I was too young to survive the shock; it was then that I decided to go for my A-levels at Kwara State Polytechnic and while I was there, I still had it at the back of my mind that I will be a nun.
So one day, I saw a poster announcing the meeting of a leftist movement and attended the meeting. We talked about agenda and I said that they did not include opening and closing prayers. Then somebody asked rhetorically: 'Who brought this one here?. We are talking about serious things and she is talking about prayers, please let's go on and discuss.' I was so irritated that I left.
After about two weeks, one of them came and said that I should become a reverend sister, and that prayer will be put on the agenda. So I went for the meeting again and the same person queried why I came for the meeting, saying: 'Who brought this one here again? She will start talking about opening prayers.' Because of this I said I wouldn't attend again. After my A-levels, I got admission to the University of Ilorin.
One day after we had test, a lecturer mentioned my matriculation number in class and said that the owner of the number should see him after the lectures. My friend and I were looking for him around the department, so my friend said 'reverend sister' and I said what is it? So we moved to where he was and said to him that he mentioned our matriculation numbers while in class.
He led us into his office and pulled out the test sheet and asked if it was my matriculation number and I said yes. He asked me why I was being called a reverend sister, that I was a very brilliant girl. I said to him that I want to be a nun, he said that I should look at his shelf if I had heard about Reverend. Martin Luther King, Mandela, Rosa Park, Karl Max. He said I was going to read about them and be a reverend sister for the struggle.
This was in 1985. From that time I started reading as if I was reading for my undergraduate examinations and after we would discuss. That 1985, the headship of Women in Nigeria, Kwara State branch was vacant, and then if you were contesting, you had to go in for a manifesto night. I was the second person to speak and I started quoting those activists. At the end of the day the others stepped down and since that 1985, the struggle has been on.
You mentioned that you finished secondary school at 14, how did you achieve that?
Well my aunt (mum's younger sister) was a primary teacher and my mum left three of us with her when she traveled to Zaria. I was a year and two months when she started taking me to school as she took the others as well. For her, taking second position was a crime against humanity because she didn't tolerate nonsense because people would say that it was the children of teachers that were failing in school; so she would flog when necessary.
Also when we came back from school, we were made to read till 12 we were then in primary school. Though she was a spinster, she had about 12 children living with her because they said she was a disciplinarian. Her relations felt she would be able to handle us very well; so at the initial age they would say 'go and stay with sister'. We also ate twice a day because she didn't want anyone to be tempted to wet the bed, hence we took our last meal by 4 pm; by 5 pm we would read and she supervised us individually. By the time I was in primary two, I left her and got into my school because I had double promotion and in primary five, I took Common Entrance examination and passed, and made it into the secondary school.
Apart from the lecturer who tried to dissuade you from becoming a nun, didn't meeting your husband dash that dream?
No, because I didn't meet my husband until I became very active in the struggle. I became active in the struggle in 1985 and met him about 10 years after - in late 1994. And it was because I was arrested for circulating a set of documents at Ilorin, was detained at the police command headquarters. I had typhoid fever and was being given drips.
When my dad came, he was asked to sign an undertaking that I would be of good behaviour but I just told my dad that I was an adult and he shouldn't sign anything for me. I even told him that I would pack out of his house once I left the hospital. The reason was that security personnel used to come and ransack our home. Then the chairman of Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Isa Bakare also came and I refused.
The police just pulled off the plaster and said they were taking me to Lagos. By the time we were moving, I saw my dad and several people, and that was how they transferred me to Panti. As soon as we got to Panti, Chief Gani Fawehinmi saw me and asked what I was doing there. I also saw someone with him that was staring at me. He said: 'Is this the Joe I have been reading about in Ilorin and I thought he is a man,' (because I used to sign my name as Joe-Okei when I issued press releases). So they just talked. After that I stayed there briefly and was moved to Alagbon. So my husband and I met in Alagbon in 1994.
I had been in detention for about 18 times and it wasn't as if he was the one that influenced me. I had already been in the struggle and had made up my mind about the struggle. The only thing is that I said I was not going to get married until there was democracy. When I came out of detention, we had a small group of three comrades with him inclusive, and we always discussed the state of the nation.
On one occasion as we were discussing he said, comrades, I want us to discuss the state of our union. I said which union and he said with you. I said no that we have more serious things. And he said he was serious and asked for five minutes of our time. He said that I should tell him why I was not ready to get married and that he would tell me why I must get married. So our fellow comrades said that they would hear me first.
I said that my first reason was that I didn't want any distraction. After the whole debate, he said that for him marrying somebody that has the same passion and beliefs like himself was a suitable reason. So the comrades decided that Yinka had won. That was in 1995 and in 1997 we got married. That was why Punch put it this way in the story it published about us: 'What Abacha had joined together, let no man put asunder.'
We tend to see most activists as very physically strong people. Did you and your husband get into the normal things like dating and romance?
There was nothing like taking out, we were always going from one rally or briefing to another, even right from day one into our marriage. Like after our wedding, we went to a hotel in Ilorin, not really for the honeymoon but we intended that the following morning we would leave for Lagos. But as soon as we got to the hotel, about 30 minutes later, the General Manager, called on the intercom and came up to us speaking in Yoruba and related that some people said he was lodging troublesome people in his hotel.
So he asked us to leave because he didn't want something bad to happen to us. After the man left, we checked out of the hotel and headed immediately for Lagos to Pa Adesanya's residence since we had earlier scheduled to meet in his office and then go to Owo. We left at about 3 pm and got into Lagos late, at about 8 pm and headed straight for Pa Adesanya's place; we had the meeting and then headed for Owo the next day. So there wasn't any romantic moment like in normal honeymoon but for me, my happiest and greatest moments were delivering a talk, going for rallies or when I would put kerosene in my pocket, fold my handkerchief and join a protest march. Probably, I would watch films about struggles.
I have never remembered any day we said, let's go out for dinner. Now that we are married, most of the time we discuss the state of the nation and at times, like when I traveled to the United States for Hilary-Obama debate, my husband had a different candidate from mine but when a candidate emerged, we had to accept the verdict. Those times we always had strong debates, so there is nothing like Valentine, birthdays, and wedding anniversaries that we observe.
For instance, when I had my first child on March 12, 1998, I remember that we were to have a press conference in Pa Adesanya's office that day. I started feeling uneasy at about six in the morning. When I called at the hospital the doctor said it was labour pain. I told the doctor that he should stop the labour because I had a press conference, but he ignored me. I never anticipated anything after the expected delivery date passed. The doctor took me into the labour room and by 5pm I had my first baby.
Was your husband with you?
He was there at the hospital because he was preparing the test and every other thing, he also had all his papers at one corner. He would come and see me and then return to the reception. At a point he told the doctor that he should let him know when it was almost time for me to put to bed and before the time, he came in and witnessed it. And he was told that I had a baby girl. After the baby was delivered, he left for Pa Adesanya's office in Apapa.
Fortunately for me, my mum was around because she had come in to be with my brother. So she came over and I told her to take care of the baby and I headed to Pa Adesanya's office. I got in there and everything went as usual as if nothing had happened and people didn't notice because I have a flat tummy, so it looked normal. Immediately after the press conference, I returned to hospital.
When my mum asked me why I stayed so long, I told her I went for a press conference. Later I asked the doctor to discharge me. We left the hospital and since then it has been just like that because one thing I learnt from my parents whle growing up was to be up and doing, like waking up as early as 5 am to do house chores before every one got up. That has helped me a lot till date.
Does your husband help with the house chores?
Help! Well, to him, at least we have some grown up cousins staying with us, so he believes that we have more than enough people helping out, but then there are some things I would personally want to do like cooking the soup for everyone. And when I know that I am not going to be around, I make sure that I do that and preserve it so that there will be enough soup that can last for everyone say about a week.
Also the thing is that I am not a food person. I eat once daily while my husband prefers fruits. So the question of assisting is not there - the only thing he can do is to pick the soup, microwave it, and make food for himself when I am not around.
When you had the baby and was weaning, did your husband help in changing the diapers, cuddling the baby and other little things when taking care of the baby?
Well, I will say that he tried; he did what he could. The only thing is that most of the time when I had my baby, I had to stay around because I did exclusive breastfeeding. So for three months it was difficult and stressful and I didn't really like it. But at times, my mum had to go with me to help look after the baby while I attended to other matters. But he always got up whenever the baby woke up, and he would carry the baby, but as for changing the diapers or bathing the baby, that was out of it.
And there wasn't much to do because our mothers always came around. At a point I had to ask him if he felt that we were disturbing him so that we could probably move into another room because our mothers were coming into the room where himself, myself and the baby were sleeping but he felt it was part of the joy.
Why do you go by the name Joe?
During my primary and secondary school education I was known as Josephine. Really I have a husky voice and I grew up in the midst of boys and was regarded as tom-boy. I play hockey, do martial arts and anything that a man has to do. So when I got into aluta I just felt I should shorten my name, so I chose Joe and also my dad used to call me Joe.
What has motherhood taught you?
It has taught me to be caring, to be patient and to be the one that will carry the burden for everyone. For instance at home, most of the time when I am around, I am always the last person to go to bed. I try to ensure that I tidy up things when they have all gone to sleep. Before, there was a time in a stretch of three weeks that I only had an hour sleep because of the things that I needed to do and after that I moved into the recent rally. During the rally, I was almost going down but Pastor Bakare shook me and then I remembered I hadn't slept enough.
Doesn't this struggle tell on your health?
Well, just once in a while I feel somehow but the thing about me is that during the period I mentioned I knew I had not slept and eaten for several days and I wasn't fasting; it was just that I didn't remember food. The last time I fasted was when I was in detention and that was because they refused to give me toothbrush. When I don't brush, that is the worst punishment you have given to me. And because of that I had to contend with serious ulcer when I came out, but I thank God that I came out of it.
What is your favorite dish and how do you prepare it?
My favorite dish is egusi and red garri. I prepare it at least four times in a week; it is just my favorite. I first grind the egusi separately, then the crayfish; I also grind dry iru (the flat and black type), I grind and add red and brown crayfish. Then I mix the egusi with water and leave it to rise just like you prepare akara. I put oil on fire; after about three minutes, I put the egusi into the palm oil to fry a bit.
Next I put a pot on fire and add water that will be enough for the egusi am preparing and when the water is boiling, I add to it stockfish, dried fish and another type of stockfish that is not dry. I also add magg but not so much, a pinch of salt and leave to boil. Later, I add the already fried egusi to be dissolved into the stock and not need to add oil again. Then I also add chicken woro, ete, pepper, bitter leaf that is not too bitter and allow to boil for another five minutes then it is ready.
To make the garri is easy, my husband doesn't take garri but prefers pounded yam which has been simplified to what we know as Poundo Yam and amala as well. So when I am taking mine he is taking his as well.
What makes your husband unique and different from any other man?
Well, it is the fact that I found someone I believe in so much. I so much believe in him because he is principled, a tireless fighter, committed to the cause and when he says something, he will do it.
You know this struggle is male dominated and so I have met a lot of men. When we are meeting, you might have about 40 men but you will find only myself as the female person involved. I have had cause to meet with a lot of men but the unique thing about him are these things I have explained: when he says he will do a thing, he will do it and he is also a very brilliant person.
When we debate on issues related to the struggle, I see that he has that intellect and that he has a strong use of words and those are the aluta terms. And also his own thinking makes him stand out, like if he is not here and somebody says 'Yinka, what do you think about this?' At times, we have granted interviews separately and when both interviews were brought together, you will find out that my comment about that view will also be in line with his.
What are the little things you do to make your marriage work?
Well, first and foremost, it is making sure that things are in order at home. There are instances where I have had to travel for about three months but when I'm around I make sure that things are in order.
We run a timetable in the house, and there is food available to be prepared; so everyone knows when it is his/her turn to do other chores, clean and make the house very neat; it must be orderly. Even those cousins that live with us also have their rules - you don't keep bringing friends. And considering that we are more than 18, the person can be unruly and no matter what they do, one should respect one's husband.
All of us are into the struggle together, but then there are little things that you do at home such as serving him food personally, taking care of his clothing and laundry, all these little things - like when he is stressed up, you ask what the problem is. If you understand the person, you will know when he is happy and when he is stressed up, you can ask him what happened and then he can then tell you that these are the things bothering him. In other words, one should show that love, passion and concern.
One should ensure that there is perfect communication between them because the way you make your bed is how you will lie on it. One should not say, I am a woman and I own the house and so I can do whatever I like, bring in whatever friend I have, come in at whatever time I like. The truth is that you should keep man informed about your movements - like sending him a text to say this is where I am going or where I will be.
GSM has made it very easy now: couples should exchange text messages, send emails to keep in touch because you may not see each other in the next 24 hours but when somebody asks you where is this person, you will be able to say for sure. Consider the day a bomb exploded in Delta State - I knew that he had gone there for the Niger Delta peace; so the moment it was mentioned I knew he was there because he had earlier sent a text message. So you should know you have a partner you are accountable to and you don't say, I am an adult and just go anywhere you like.