TINUOLA ODUGBEMI: LIFTING HEADS THAT ARE BOWED
Pastor (Mrs.) Tinuola Odugbemi is the founder and first executive director of Head High International, an NGO that focuses on widows and their pains, orphans, and people living with HIV and AIDS.
Pastor Odugbemi may pass as one with quiet mien but make no mistake; she is very cerebral. A multiple postgraduate degree holder, she says the idea of this new vocation was divinely given after she had read two books in the Bible that were named after women-Ruth and Esther.
So far, her organisation has effectively transformed the lives of widows who otherwise would have been mired in hopelessness. However, a lot still needs to be achieved if corporate bodies as well as well-meaning Nigerians could help with the necessary funding. In this interview, Odugbemi, a journalist, also speaks on effective leadership and how the society can be made heaven on earth by people returning to old-time values, among other interesting lessons of life.
You were in journalism, doing well, then you quit. What informed your decision to quit?
I don't think I have quit journalism; it would not be right to say I have left the profession. It could be your first love but if you proceed to something else, it will always be part of you. So, once a journalist, you will continue to be a journalist, as once a soldier is always a soldier. In the same way, what I'm doing is something that emerged from journalism.
So, can you give insight into the compelling reason for the project?
For me, it was the need to look after my family; that was the major reason I left active journalism. At a point, I felt I needed more time to attend to my children at the ages they were. Now, my husband was transferred out of Lagos, our children were quite young then; for example, I had one that was just about one year old, another one was seven, while the other one who is the eldest of the three I have was 10. I travelled abroad for the British Chevening Scholarship administered by the British Council and I left my baby that was under one year old.
Even though I gained much from the programme-the scholarship got, I met a lot of people, made friends and bagged a master degree- I missed my family so much. While I was there in the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, my husband was transferred from Lagos; so he took along the eldest child, my baby that was under one year was with my mum in Surulere, while the second child was left with one of my aunties in Ikeja.
After the master degree, my lecturers wanted me to proceed for PhD; I even applied and I was given admission but the thing that came to my mind, having taken a second look at the situation of my family, was disturbing; the family was scattered. For instance, one (member) was outside Nigeria, another one on transfer outside Lagos and children distributed here and there; I just decided I must come back home and keep my family together.
However, I still kept my job. But I didn't achieve much because after about two years, I still went for another programme in Staten Island, New York. I was pregnant and I had my baby there. It was there I told myself that when I get back home I would go into something else. So, while I was there I was able to talk to some group of women about my job and they asked me what area of my job had I enjoyed most.
And I mentioned taking up the battles of women. Then, I wrote for women largely. I was getting invitations to cover women programmes and I kept getting involved in a certain group of people. So I should say the seed of what I ventured into was sown at the event in New York. I got back to Nigeria in December 1998 and in 1999 I was made a pastor in the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG. And in the zone where I was, I was the only woman chosen for ordination as a pastor.
And I went to seek the face of the Lord.
While on my annual leave, I decided I was going to study two books in the Bible just to know what to do about women. It was in the course of studying the book of Ruth and Esther that the Lord began to speak to me about widows. I noticed that three major characters in the books-the three women-were widows, namely Naomi, Ruth and Orpah. God began to show me different things about each of them.
For example, He showed (me) that Naomi represents the older and childless widows who need support, and she found support in Ruth, and also told me that these widows need to get together. Ruth, on her own, represents the group of widows who are hardworking and by so doing, they would want to serve the Lord without distractions. About Orpah, the Lord told me that she represents the group of widows who are young and vulnerable if they were not properly guided. So, it all boils down to somebody taking up the responsibility of putting these different groups together and nurture them, guide them so that together they would be in groups where they can encourage one another. That was how what I do now started.
How did you take off?
Really, I didn't think of getting out of journalism. So what I started then was a television programme, an independent production and a weekly programme called 'Head High' (lifting heads that are bowed high) on NTA Channel 10. It was a name that God gave me for the programme. Initially, I wanted to start it as a newsmagazine because I had always been a print person even though I had worked in an advertising agency, NTA initially, before crossing to Concord newspapers where I put in 13 years from 1986 to 1999.
As I said, I wanted to start a newsmagazine and as I was discussing with somebody about the project and the person said, 'Don't you think that the stories of these widows would better be told on television, that people would be moved when they see and hear them speak on air?' When he made that comment, I had goose pimples all over my body because the day God gave me the revelation about widows and the programme, the name I actually saw was on a TV box but I thought that was going to be my logo; and I got an artist to design it for me.
So I took the comment of that man as a confirmation of what God really wanted me to do. But I expressed concern over funding; I was looking for money to start a newsmagazine and suddenly it became a TV project that costs a lot. But the man encouraged me that I shouldn't worry; if indeed it's God's idea, He would provide for it. The same person later accompanied me to some TV stations and surprisingly not only did they welcome the idea, they gave generous discounts for airtime costs.
What has been your experience?
Wonderful! The TV programme started on July 14, 2001, but I left paid employment in 1999. Between 1999 and 2001 I engaged in editorial training and consultancy for schools. By the time the programme clocked one year, we decided to meet physically with the widows. It was an event we tagged Lagos Summit of Widows in September 2002, held at Isolo Community Hall. It was an event that attracted widows with varying challenges- deprivation, lack of money, loneliness to mention a few. So, we had to group them according to their needs and got relevant resource persons to speak to them, encourage and mentor them.
From your experience, would you say that widows are fairly treated in our society?
They are certainly not well treated, especially by their deceased husbands' family members. In fact, I can tell you that widows are suffering in silence. From time to time, I see hapless widows break down in tears. Some say money is not their problem, but loneliness. Some, after their husbands are gone, family members rush in to take possession of all that is left behind, leaving nothing to take care of the deceased's children.
It's sad! We are not doing enough to assist these people. For example, the response we got from so many companies we approached for funds or even to place adverts for the TV programme was that they were not ready to give money but that they could give their products in exchange for our airtime. Some would say, 'Give your widows these products, we don't have money. If we put our advert on your programme, people with similar programmes would besiege us and your widows are not patronising us. Isn't such response sad? And I would tell them, 'We can't sell your products to raise money; how then do we sustain the programme if we don't get funding?' It is a problem!
Projects like this require a lot of money; how do you source for fund?
That is a big challenge. The society appears not to be responsive to the plight of widows and they hardly vote money for the cause of these people. So we depend on God.
What about government and international support?
No support internationally. However, we have had support from the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs as well as Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs.
Have you considered approaching wealthy and well-meaning individuals?
God didn't tell me to go cap in hand begging for the cause of these people (widows). My disposition is that, if it is God's vision, He certainly would provide for it. So, principally, it's been friends, my husband, relatives and few other kind-hearted individuals that have been helping out. We are not in short of foodstuffs and other material things, especially during festive periods like Christmas, but money to do other crucial things is not easy to come by. And that is the reason we rested the TV programme for now; we were not getting funding, unfortunately.
As you are aware, there are divergent views on the appropriateness of widows re- marrying; what is your take on that?
My take on that issue is biblical, because I'm a Christian and I'm a pastor and everything I do and say is guided by the word of God. The word of God says widows who are young and they cannot contain themselves, they are free to re-marry. The only thing we do for them when we counsel them is to tell them: be careful where you go; do not snatch another person's husband; ensure you marry properly; don't break another woman's home or heart and make sure that the choice you are making is God's. But can I tell you something?
One or two widows who failed to take to our advice suffered crashed marriages because they were divorced by their husbands. Largely, a lot of them listen to us and many of them are very hesitant when it comes to the issue of re-marrying; they don't want to jump into it. They try to factor the feelings of their children into their decision. Would my children accept this new man? Those that re-marry do so because they probably see the man as a support for raising their children. But I always tell them God is the number one husband of the widow, if you believe that He can provide for you, He certainly will never fail you.
From all you have seen, do you think that men adequately prepare their wives against eventualities?
Good question! My answer is no. From experience, men don't adequately prepare themselves and their wives against the unexpected. And that is what we are starting now to tackle. We want to start educating spouses in this area. Not so many people want to talk about death but it is something that must ultimately come. We have got in touch with Rotary and Lions clubs. By the time we firm up arrangement, we would begin to talk to their members.
We would start from there and later go to other organisations, associations and churches. Death can come at any point in time. I have seen very young widows and I have also seen old widows. So, that tells us that death can come at any time. A lot of men have strong trust in their relatives; it is good. But unfortunately, experience has shown that it doesn't work out well, especially in this part of the globe, because relatives hardly implement what their loved ones expect them to do after they are gone. It is very sad but that is the reality. We tell people, 'We are not asking you not to trust your relatives, but why not trust your nuclear family, comprising basically your wife and children?' Some would say, 'My wife may leave me someday.' But I tell you only few women would leave their children to suffer.
So you are saying men should write their wills to favour their nuclear family?
Yes! But it is just not about wills, because we have seen many cases where you wrote wills and the wills were not respected; and the widows are reluctant to drag their in-laws to court because of traditional and tribal considerations. So what we advise people is buying things in their joint names with their wives; property like houses, lands, vehicles, and shares, in fact everything should be purchased in their joint names. This is more effective than writing will.
As someone who has had a successful career in journalism, what was your source of strength?
Let me start by letting you know that I have always loved journalism as a profession. So the passion for it accounts for whatever success I have had in it.
Was it your initial career aspiration?
No. Initially I wanted to be a doctor and you may wish to know that I passed all my sciences very well. But in my final year somebody came to give us (students) career talk in our school-Methodist Girls' High School, Lagos. And the man spoke so much, and so very well about journalism; made reference to people like Julie Coker, Bimbo Oluyide even though these people were not really journalists; they were more like media women. His presentation was so fascinating and I fell in love with journalism. And I said to myself I must be a journalist.
Not that you were weak in the sciences?
Not at all! I made Grade 1 with distinction in many subjects and I was a science student. I had distinction in Mathematics, Chemistry, while Physics and Biology were credits. When I told my father I was dropping medicine for journalism, he broke down; in fact, it was most tragic for him because in those days the parents of medical doctors and things like that were adored. So I opted for journalism and I had always written so well.
If you go to Methodist Girls' High School, when the school marked 100 years in 1979, I led some of my colleagues to produce a school magazine. I compiled all the articles submitted and I edited them. The point I'm trying to make is that writing has always been part of me. And since I came into the media, God has taken me round all the aspects of the media. I worked in a PR/ advertising agency, I worked in TV, I worked in radio; I edited the Unilag News; I was the assistant news editor. It was from an advertising agency that I crossed to Concord, because I had always wanted to write. I had a good time in Concord. But I eventually ended up in Weekend Concord where Mike Awoyinfa was my editor. I was the Group Life and Style editor.
Would you say you are fulfilled in your chosen career?
Oh sure! I'm fulfilled. I was once the Lagos State chapter chairperson of the Nigeria Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ) from 1992 to 1996, a period of four years. And I got the British Chevening Scholarship or Fellowship as they call it while I was in journalism. Need I add that journalism took me to 17 countries of the world in 13 years, including United Kingdom and America? I went to Switzerland twice; I went to Bulgaria twice; I covered the Beijing Women Conference in 1995 in China, I went to Denmark, I covered the World Summit on Social
Development and so many other places.
By virtue of the project and other positions you occupy, how would you define leadership?
A leader is someone who is able to get some other people up and going with him or her. Any leader who does not have followers is just on a solo walk. But the moment you are able to get some followers, mentor them and they are able to stand on their own, then you are an effective leader. There are many leaders but the effective leaders are more important.
Why do people fail in leadership?
Perhaps, those who failed never knew that they were meant to lead. Maybe they just saw leadership as a position; leadership is not a position but an action, a process. You see, when you start looking at leadership, it is not something from top to bottom; rather it is from bottom to top. You must be able to raise people up and help them to continue after you. In leadership, continuity must not break; you must be able to replicate yourself, develop and mentor people who can effectively take after you because, according to Ken Blanchard, 'the test of your leadership is not what happens when you are there, but what happens when you're NOT there.'
Some people believe that women are better leaders; what is your take on that?
Leadership is not a gender thing. But the truth is whenever a woman is in charge of something, she would never like to fail. She would be a lot more thorough, meticulous; she would like to pay attention to details. There is something about women that God has put in them; it is womb and womb is the residence of milk and honey of kindness. That is motherhood. And so the woman finds that she has something flowing from her to the people she is leading and, of course, there are exceptions.
Are you saying if given the opportunity today a woman can out-perform her male counterpart in leadership?
It depends on the kind of woman we are asking for. If we can have a quality female leader in the saddle, I'm sure we can get a better result.
Do you see a woman ruling this country?
Oh yes. I see Nigeria being ruled by a woman. Very soon some states would have women as governors and they would do well. And it would become a question of: If we can do it at the state level, nothing would make us not to perform at the national level.
Can you remember some of the pranks you played as a child?
Well, like helping to cover for your brothers.
So, you didn't indulge in disco, partying and all things young boys and girls do?
Why not? Of course when I was in the university, I did all that. As an undergraduate, if you don't socialize, what would you be doing in the university? So I did until I got born-again.
How did you meet your husband?
I met him right in my house. He came as a friend to a friend of my brother's. After my two elder sisters had left home, I was the only girl in our home with five boys. So the day he visited, my brother ordered me to get them food to eat and I did. Perhaps, the man didn't like the way my brother spoke to me so after they had finished eating, as I was clearing the plates, he decided to help me carry some to the kitchen and there he started chatting me up.
Incidentally, I told him I was about going into the university to study Mass Communication and he screamed that he was studying Mass Communication in Unilag as well. And he offered to help me with some books I might need. We became friends; one thing led to the other and we finally ended up as husband and wife.
What kind of person would you say your husband is?
Oh! My husband is a very nice person, kind, caring and supportive; in fact he is the best any wife could have. I have learnt a lot from him in some virtues; he hardly gets angry; he is very patient.
Can you mention your role models?
In Christian ministry, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, General Overseer of RCCG; Pastor and Mrs. Oretayo Adetola, Special Assistant to the RCCG's G.O on Women Affairs. At professional level, Dr. (Mrs.) Doyin Abiola; she was the managing director of the Concord group.
When would you describe as the happiest moment of your life?
The day I carried my first baby.
Let's savour the best advice you ever got?
He said that opportunity is like an open door to a room. Some people would walk through that room and go out without noticing anything. But those who maximise opportunity would go through the same room and notice all the things that could help them in that room.
Then the second thing he taught me; he said that I should never be shy or afraid to ask for help. He said the worst answer you can get is no. But always consider the possibility of yes.
Who gave you the advice?