FEATURES: BISI FAYEMI: My Joys, Regrets… At 50

October 13, 2013

Erelu Bisi-Adeleye Fayemi

Wife of Ekiti State governor, Mrs. Bisi-Adeleye Fayemi is a woman of diverse parts and passions. She’s a gender specialist, social change philanthropist, policy advocate, journalist, facilitator and an expert in organisational development. At 50, she sure has a lot to thank God for. And as part of activities to commemorate her golden birthday, Mrs. Fayemi has just rolled out two books – Speaking Above a Whisper, and Speaking to Myself.

In this interview with TOPE ADEBOBOYE at the Government House, Ado-Ekiti, the activist and feminist with a deep passion for women development whose works have taken her to more than 60 countries worldwide, speaks about her books, her joys and regrets at 50, her life as an activist, and how her husband, Dr. Kayode Fayemi has been making life better for Ekiti folks, among other issues.

You’ve just written two books that are going be presented to the public later in the week, Speaking Above A Whisper, and Speaking To Myself. With all your activities as a governor’s wife, how were you able to do this?

Well, Speaking Above A Whisper is my autobiography. That was the hard one, because it involves a lot of reflections, trying to go down the memory lane, putting important documents together, and so on. Time was, of course, a very important issue, and considering the things I have to do here in Ekiti State, it was very, very difficult to find the time and space that I needed. Ideally, if you want to write an autobiography or if you want to write a book, you are supposed to take a time out, go for a sabbatical. When my husband wrote his book, Out of The Shadow, he went on a sabbatical to Northwestern University in Chicago. I, unfortunately, did not have that opportunity. So, I had to find time here and there to be able to accomplish that.

Speaking To Myself is a collection of essays and speeches that span a period of 23 years. And the book is a reflection of the different identities that I have had over the years as a women’s rights activist, as a culture studies scholar, as a political activist and thinker, and as someone involved in the field of social change. I hope you would read copies of the books once they are presented and let me know what you think.

Over the years, you’ve been involved in political, social and development activism, and you’re an expert on gender issues. Your book, Speaking To Myself, is, I’m sure, a reflection on your life as an activist. Now the question is, did your growing up influence your activism in anyway? 

Yes, certain things have influenced me over the course of my life. One of the greatest influences on me as I was growing up was my father. I’ve spoken about him quite a lot and I do mention him quite a lot in the two publications. My father’s love for me, his dedication to my success and his belief in me did a lot to build my self-esteem and my self-confidence. And that is what I believe has seen me through life, through my choice of career, and my dedication to issues that are important to me; social justice, women’s rights and ensuring that Africa and particularly Nigeria finds its place in the world.

You’re bringing a Nobel Laureate to Ekiti to deliver your birthday lecture. How did you pull this off?

The 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, Leymah Gbowei who shared the prize with the Liberian President Sirleaf Johnson is an old friend of mine, a younger friend. We’ve worked together in the African Women Development Fund for so many years. She is an absolutely brilliant woman. Even though she was very young at the time, she was one of the women who led the protests against those who were trying to stall the peace talks that would have brought peace to Liberia. We have been friends for quite a while, and when she established the organisation – Women in Peace and Security Network as a platform to try and provide African women a forum to engage in peace and security issues, the Africa Women Development Fund was able to provide her with consistent financial and technical support. I’m happy she agreed to come and give my birthday lecture. When she won the Nobel Prize, some of us actually organised a reception for her in Lagos to honour her, because we were very proud of her because an African woman like herself had won the Nobel Prize. I just hope that many more African women will be honoured in that way.

You successfully pushed the Gender Violence Bill until it was passed into law by the Ekiti State House of Assembly. Now you’re also pushing the Gender Equality Bill. Did you plan all these before becoming First Lady, or were they influenced by what you met on ground here? Or did the passion develop after some engagement with the people here?

Well, I have worked in the African Women Development Fund for many years on issues around women political participation, economic empowerment and opportunities, and the necessity of creating an enabling environment for women to thrive throughout their life cycle. That has been my life work. So, whatever it is that I’m doing here in Ekiti is just a manifestation of all those things that I have been involved in over the years.  If I have been doing those things in other countries, fighting for women’s rights in Rwanda, Liberia, Uganda, South Africa and many other countries, the least I can do since I’ve been given the opportunity is to try and bring those things back to Ekiti State. Charity begins at home, and in Yoruba land, one of the profound sayings of our elders for their children is, ‘may we have a child who will bring good things back home to us.’ So, this is my own way of doing that. There is no community in Africa, or in the world for that matter, where you don’t need to put mechanisms in place to ensure that women live lives of dignity.

How has all this – your activism, your activities, your ability to mobilise and so on – impacted on your husband’s political career?

I will like to believe that it has added value to my husband’s political career. My husband and I are not just a married couple. We are political comrades, we are best friends, we are soul mates, and we both share a vision of a greater Nigeria, and definitely, of a greater Ekiti. And so, all these things that I do are not only in support of my husband’s own dream and vision for Ekiti State and for Nigeria, I believe that by supporting him and I’m also making a claim to what it is I have to contribute to the development of our state and our country. It is all well and good enough for all of us to complain about the mess that our country is in, about the dysfunction of our leadership, about the rot that has set in at all levels. If some of us do not choose to put ourselves forward for leadership with a very clear vision and the alternative that can enable our people live better lives, then what are we going to tell our children further down the line when we are asked, what did you do? So, what I’ve been doing is that I’ve been in support of my husband, to add value to his administration. But I’ll also like to say that I did those things because I deeply believe in them. It’s not just about promoting Kayode Fayemi being governor of Ekiti State, I passionately believe in those things myself, because, I think the only way to turn our fortunes around as a country is to set an example for progressive leadership.

You just concluded a tour of markets in the 16 local governments during which buses and other materials were presented. What was the motive for doing that?

Well, every year, I go round the state to interact with women. In 2011, I did a Senatorial zone of the state, visiting Ekiti North, South and Central and interacting with the women. In 2012, I did a tour of all the 16 local governments. When I did those tours, the market women approached me and asked me when I would do something for them. And from my experience of supporting market women basically, I know that you cannot lump the needs of market women with those of everyone else. They are very key to our informal economy. They are very powerful stakeholders. A lot of decisions are made in the markets. And these women are used to seeing politicians coming to them when you need their votes, promising them heaven and earth. And when you get their support and get elected into office, they never see you again. They are the ones that keep coming to look for you and they never get to hear from you till the next election. So I wanted to ensure that market women benefit from the ongoing work that I’m doing to empower women in Ekiti State. I have the Ekiti Development Foundation which supports women on issues of economic empowerment. So I decided to design a market outreach programme and I sought a partnership with the Ministry of Women Affairs and all the caretaker chairmen in all the state local governments. And we all pooled our resources together and decided to respond to the needs of the market women. So we were able to provide them with grants for them to do their micro credit union in the different markets, we gave them a bus per local government, and the state government is going to build ultra-modern markets throughout the state to ensure that those markets have the facilities that are lacking in the traditional markets, like water, toilets, lock-up shops and so on. The market outreach tour was hugely successful, and we are very happy about that. And it’s something that we hope we’ll be able to continue.

Some might say such a tour is an attempt to woo market women to support your husband for a second term

I have been interacting with market women in Ekiti State before we got into office. I had been interacting with them ever before I did the market outreach tour. I just felt that this was the best time to make good on the promises that had been made to them and not wait till the election campaigns start, because that would have been absolutely terrible. How do you think I would have looked after having gone to the markets…? Don’t forget that when we were campaigning for office in 2007, the late Mrs Olayinka (the late deputy governor) and myself, visited markets across Ekiti State. We did the same thing during the rerun in 2009. And I had promised that we would do things for market women and we’ll be making good on those promises. So, don’t you think I would have looked extremely foolish if I had waited till next year when the campaign starts for me to start going round markets? How do you think I would have looked to the market women then? So, this way, they feel they have been taken seriously as critical stakeholders in governance. When the time for election comes, they would do what their conscience dictates. But what has happened now is about ensuring that they are seen as critical stakeholders in the affairs of the state way beyond just inviting them to public functions to sing and dance.

Looking back 50 years, do you have things you would have loved to do differently? Any regrets so far?

You know it’s always easy for adults to think that you are wiser after the fact. As human beings, we all do things that we feel we would have done better or done differently. But everything happens for a reason – all the good decisions we make, even the poor decisions that we make. So, looking back, I’ll like to think that I’m happy with all the things that have happened, and I’m happy with the decisions that I have made. But there are some things that I wish had not happened the way they had happened, but those are things that I absolutely have no control over. I think the most important thing is to focus on the blessings that I’ve received, and they are many. And all that makes up for the things that I feel I would have done differently or the things that I think could have worked in other ways.

At 50, are you where you had envisaged you were going to be?   

What I had always prayed for was to be in a place where I could say I have achieved things I’m proud of, that I can fend for myself, no matter what happened to me, that I have a name that I can be proud of, and that people would respond to, and that I have been able to impact on the lives of others. That had always been important to me. And, of course, that I would have good health to be able to live a good life, and so on. Those things have always been important to me more than, at the age of 50, I hope I have a house, I hope I have a car, I hope I have x amount of things. That hasn’t been an issue for me because material things can be replaced. I have always believed that anything money can buy can be replaced. But nothing can replace good health. Nothing can replace peace of mind. So, I had hoped that at the time I’m 50, I will have peace of mind, that I would be happy, that I would be healthy and that I would be in a position to give back to the community. And I give thanks to God that I am in that position.

In another decade, by the time you would hit diamond, where do you hope to be?

Healthy. For me, that is the key to everything. When I look around me and I see what is happening to friends and loved ones, and seeing the likes of things that have happened recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life is good health. Without health, every other thing is nothing.

How would you describe your marriage to Governor Fayemi?

My marriage has been absolutely wonderful. My husband is a very, very good man, a deep, person, a very private person, absolutely brilliant, and as far as I am concerned, he has everything that every woman would pray for. And I don’t think it would have been possible for me to have been married to any other man. And having said that, my husband wouldn’t have possibly married any other woman.

Your husband is an intellectual, and you are one too. He’s also a politician. How much of a politician are you now?

Any woman who is married to a politician and says, I’m not a politician is deceiving herself. Even if you are not politically active, the fact that you are in the home deciding who gets to see your husband, deciding who to cook for, who to offer a meal to as opposed to who to offer a drink to, who to offer a coke to as opposed to offer wine to, that is politics. So, anyone who is married to a politician and likes to say she is not a politician is just deceiving herself.

Having said that, I know that I’m very politically active, because I’m interested in political processes, I’m interested in democracy, I’m interested in democratic norms and values, and I’m interested in pushing an agenda. And the agenda I’m interested in pushing is the participation of women and ensuring that women earn their rightful place and are not just the one fueling the party machinery all the time with their singing and their dancing and their clapping, that they have recognition for their contribution at the end of the day.

And I’m also very interested in change. I’m interested in seeing that the way in which our society is run changes for the better. And if being actively involved in politics is what is going to make that possible, so be it. Over the years, the word politician has taken on a very negative connotation. That is such a shame. It’s something that needs to change. But I believe that with more people coming into politics with a clearer agenda for change, and with really good values around accountability, transparency and all that, we will be able to clean up the political space and make it a space that people have more confidence in than what is happening now.

Any plans for political office? Maybe the Senate, for instance? 

I will answer your question by saying I’m interested in supporting my husband and in ensuring that his vision for Ekiti State is actualised.

You’re a very active and busy woman, do you still have time to do things in the home? Things like cooking, washing and so on?

You know, I read a lot of interviews that women give, professional and very successful women and they get asked the same question. And I’m amazed at the length to which women go to demonstrate that they are very good wives, that they are still home compliant, they are still domesticated, they still shop, they still cook. I’m 50; I’m not a 20-year-old bride. There are things I don’t have to worry about anymore. And this has nothing to do with being a governor’s wife. I have been married for 24 years now. Over the years, I’ve cooked and cleaned and ironed and shopped and done all that. You get to a point in your life as a married woman when you can take a break, and it’s all right if you are married to the right kind of husband. So, that’s one of the freedoms of being 50. I’m done.

You see, I learnt a lot of things from my late mother-in-law, Mama Dorcas Aina Fayemi. There was a time when my late father-in-law turned 80. That was in 2002 or thereabouts, and we went to Isan-Ekiti for the birthday celebrations. It was a big event. Then the Sunday after, the whole compound was in a mess. And we had to leave Isan-Ekiti for Lagos to catch a flight back to the UK. And I was very worried that we didn’t have enough time to clean up the house before leaving. And my mother-in-law said, don’t worry yourself about that. That’s not your job. There are people who will help clean up. What you need to do is provide them with what they need to do the clean-up and you go your way. When she died, I fried akara, but then I had done my job in terms of providing the resources that they needed to fry akara. I showed up to provide solidarity and support to the women who were doing it, and I really enjoyed it.

You and the late deputy governor, Mrs Funmi Olayinka were always together right from the campaigns in 2007 till she breathed her last. What are your fondest memories of her?

It’s hard to think of fondest memories, because every moment I shared with her was something to be treasured and valued. I think one of the most memorable was when she turned 50, and because she was ill at the time and she had just undergone surgery, she didn’t really want to celebrate. That was in June 2010. But I pushed. I said no, my sister, you have a lot to celebrate. You are alive, and well, and God has blessed you in many ways. So, you are going to celebrate. So, we had a church service, a thanksgiving service at her church, the Church of Ascension in Opebi, and the reception in Ikoyi. And at some point during the reception, she walked up to me and hugged me and said, thank you. Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. And that really got to me because she was very happy. And, of course, the day we won at the Appeal Court on October 15, 2010. We were at Sunview Hotel together in Akure when the news came, and we fell into each other’s arms, rolling on the floor crying. And up to that time, we had never cried in public. We would cry together in private but never in public because we wouldn’t want to discourage our supporters. But that day we both cried in public. And it was a moment I would never forget. There were many fond memories of her.

When she was no longer seen in public as before, and since many didn’t even know she was ill, there were insinuations in some quarters that you had muscled her out. Were you aware of such rumours at the time, and if yes, what were your feelings then?    

Of course, I felt terrible. I felt very bad and very disappointed. But what hurt me the more was the fact that people don’t really believe that two women can possibly be friends in the real sense of the word. And maybe I should put this down to my naivety. I was very naive at the time probably because I had been away from Nigeria for so long. I had friends all over the world, my best friends were not Nigerians because I had lived away for so long. And I had been through a lot with friends in other places. I have lost friends through illnesses, through bereavements, through all kinds of life’s challenges. So, I could not understand where all that bile and vile was coming from. And it’s so sad. It’s a sad commentary on our state of affairs that it can be assumed that two women cannot be friends. And that is the way patriarchy is structured. Men can be friends throughout their lives, from childhood to when they pass on. But people don’t think it is possible for two women to find companionship together, to share dreams together, to be there for each other, to love each other. That is what I find painful in all that. This is a woman who was a big sister to me, she meant everything to me. She was the only close friend I had in Nigeria up till the time she died because I had not lived here for such a long time. Then to have to nurse her through her illness and watch her fade away before my very eyes and have people run a commentary like that is one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. All I can say to that is, may God forgive them.

Many people say you have a unique sense of fashion. What defines your style?

What I’ve always believed is that as Africans, we should always be proud of who and what we are. Growing up in the UK, coming back to school here and going back to live in the UK and then working around the world taught me a lot about how we as Africans need to value who and what we are and what we have and try not to be something other than what we are. There are a lot of things that we have that we should be proud of. Our language, our culture, our cuisine, the way we dress, the way we treat elders, the way we train our children and so on. There are things we can do away with like some harmful traditional practices and so on. But there’s a lot to be proud of as Africans. So one of the things I try to do is try and be as authentic as possible. That is the reason for example why I have my hair in locks now. This is my hair 100 per cent. Every single strand is my hair. It is not Brazilian, it is not India, it is not Chinese. I don’t understand why our women of today spend hundreds of thousands of naira buying the hair of other women to put on their heads. I know it’s a matter of personal choice, but I would like to notice more women, especially young women make choices that make us genuinely African. As far as fashion is concerned, I wear things that make me comfortable. I love our own fabric. I believe they are colourful, and I think these are things we should be proud of to showcase to other people. I always laugh when I read interviews of women who say they prefer all these famous foreign designers. But as brilliant as they are, there is nothing these foreign designers make that cannot be made by our local designers in Nigeria. Let us celebrate the things that are authentic. It’s more sustainable, it’s something that we can be proud of and also pass on to our children as opposed to pretending that we are Americans.

You love craft, pottery and the like, and you have been trying to resuscitate the dying traditional industries in Ekiti. How far have you gone in achieving this?

Well, we have been trying to create the interest of our young women in our traditional industries. We were very concerned to know that the weaving industry in Ogotun, for example, had no young people interested in the craft. They are all elderly women. The youngest of the women in Ogotun that we interacted with was in her 60s. So what we are trying to do is get more women involved in this craft. The Igede Women Skills Acquisition Centre which we are going to be re-launching, when we came into office, the place was so derelict, with goats swarming all over the place. The place has been totally overhauled and revived, and we’ve added on some new things. So hopefully, a place like the Igede Women Skills Acquisition Centre is a place where we can try and bring in more young women to learn the skills. As far as pottery is concerned, we are trying to upgrade the skills that people have in that area and help find market for them as well. We have a big issue with youth unemployment in the state which Dr. Kayode Fayemi’s administration is trying to address, and we think that getting them engaged in the arts and craft industry will be a way of trying to address the issue of keeping young people off the streets and give them the necessary skills.

It is often said that women fight to keep their husbands, especially the successful ones. Have you ever fought such battles?

Me? No woman can take my husband from me. Any woman who flashes her eyelashes at my husband would just go blind trying, because he will not even notice you. So, the woman will keep flashing her eyelashes until she goes blind and he will still not notice her.

Your husband is reserved, he’s not much on the social scene. You are more there than him. How hard has it been dragging him out since, as a politician, he also needs to keep up appearances?

My husband goes out now. Maybe in the beginning, yes. It’s not easy to turn the fortunes of a state around within a very short period of time. And when you have other things competing for your attention, attending a funeral or a birthday is not going to be high on your priority list. But he does attend events. Yes, I’m perceived to be more sociable, but that is simply because I’ve spent most of my life working with women, interacting with women across socio-economic groups, and so on. I am very comfortable engaging with people. That is why people think my husband is quiet and reserved and I’m the one out there. I quite frankly don’t like partying. I attend functions if I have to as a show of solidarity and support as an African woman because those are core African values, core Yoruba values that I cherish, the whole notion of being able to rely on networks, on friends and associates and acquaintances, I value that. So I value it when it comes my way, and I value the opportunity to pass it on to other people when they need me. So that I do, but I’m not a party freak, I’m not a party animal. I don’t like going from one function to the other in the latest lace. I do it when I have to do it, but it’s not something that I can say is a part of me. I prefer to spend any free time I have reading and watching television.

It’s amazing that you look this young at 50. What are the secrets?

There are a number of reasons. One lesson I’ve learnt, and it’s something that was taught me by an older friend, a woman, is, don’t sweat the small stuff. And I talk about it in my book, Speaking Above A Whisper. I don’t let things bother me or weigh me down. When I have challenges, I pray over them, I think through them, I seek advice, I seek opinion. And if I can deal with it, I deal with it, and if it’s something that is irresolvable, I move on. I don’t allow negativity to weigh me down. I don’t surround myself with people who give me negative energy, people who are always coming to you to complain or gossip or coming to you to give you information that is totally irrelevant. I surround myself with positive energy, and with people who are God-fearing. And then I try to look after myself. I try to eat the right things and take care of my body. I exercise regularly, I don’t take my exercises lightly. And also, like every woman my age, I try to maintain a certain weight. Sometimes I go way up, and I try to bring it back down again. But I try to look after myself as much as I can. I go for regular medical check-ups to make sure I’m in shape. And whatever access I have to information, I try to pass on to someone else as well. And when I’m able to do something for someone, it makes me happy.

Is dancing part of such exercises? 

Yes, I do dance aerobics. So my exercise routine comprises going to the gym and then doing dance aerobics. In fact, when I was in Accra, I did African dance aerobics. And it’s very rigorous. Dancing burns more calories. In fact, the two quickest ways to burn calories is to run and dance.

You’re an activist, an intellectual, and your husband is also an activist and an intellectual. Both of you are bookish, writing, reading, going to the library, doing research, engaging in debates and all that. How do both of you enjoy that lifestyle? Some would say it’s quite boring.

That just shows you that we have a lot in common. And doesn’t that sound exciting to you, the fact that we both love to read and write? It’s very exciting. We stay up till the early hours of the morning sometimes talking and debating and arguing. My husband likes to keep the television on. And even at times when I want to drop off to sleep, and he still has the TV on, I will be forced to sit up and watch TV with him and then we would comment on what they are saying, and we start a discussion and it goes on and on. It’s very exciting.

I learnt you were a member of the Kegites Club in Ife, and that you even became a senior fellow. So how did you marry that with your studies and you still did quite well? 

Point of correction: I was not a senior fellow; I am a life senior fellow. But being in the Kegites Club and doing well in one’s studies were not incompatible. There were a lot of people who were in Kegites with me that are doing very well in the society today. A lot of them are senior academics, are very responsible people. And unlike what people think about the Kegites Club, when we were there, it was not a place for drunkards, or laggards or cultists. It was a place where we had responsible people who were interested in friendship, in companionship and in promoting positive cultural values.

Some say life begins at 50. Now that you’re beginning another life, what are your hopes for the future?

Well, my hopes for the future are that our country would do better. That all the mistakes that have been made would be rectified. I pray that God’s mercy would never depart from us. I’ve been to countries in war time and countries that had just gone through a period of intense conflict. And you don’t wish war on your enemy. My sincere wish is that our country would never experience violence or conflict. I pray that progressive leaders such as my husband would be able to continue to do the best that they can, and I pray that my children would be proud of whatever it is we have been able to do, and that whatever we have been able to do in the political sphere would be able to inspire other people to come into politics, so that it’s no longer associated with thugs and corrupt people and those that have nothing positive to offer, but with those who genuinely love the people and want the best for Nigerians.

This article was first published in The Sun Newspaper

Last modified: October 13, 2013

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