By KEMI YESUFU
Whether sitting or standing, Hajiya Fatima Tukur strikes a regal pose that depicts her high level exposure. Hajiya Fatima, wife of Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, national chairman of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), spent a large part of her life in Europe after completing her education at the American College, London. For the lily-livered Mrs. Tukur, patrician bearing can be intimidating. But for those close to the woman who turned 50 on Wednesday, June 5, she is one person you can look up to for a kind word and a warm smile. It is no wonder that beyond rolling out the drums to mark her golden jubilee, Hajiya Tukur has dedicated her life to charity with the launch of the Crying Child Foundation.
The PDP chairman’s wife is unhappy over the suffering of orphans and vulnerable children. She is also not at ease with the degeneration of societal values. In this interview, she explains how her non-governmental organisation would deal with societal ills that have caused her a great deal of sadness. She also speaks about her husband, declaring that, “I married my husband because I love him, not to use his name to gain recognition or bring my ambitions to fruition.” Mrs. Tukur’s enduring connections to her roots is also something very clear to see. She is not only proud of being a Lagosian, having been raised in the country’s commercial capital; she is equally proud of her Gbaramatu kingdom hometown and talks about it with much devotion. Excerpts…
How does it feel turning 50?
It feels good attaining the age of 50. But I am sad with the way things have turned out in Nigeria. I was born in Lagos and 50 years after things have taken a bad turn. The same country I was born is where you read about people, even parents, selling their children like commodities. It’s a great feeling turning 50, but it also places a burden on my heart that I have to give back to society. And for me, there is no better way to give back than to ameliorate the suffering of orphans as well as widows.
What sparked off your interest in orphans and widows?
I am particularly worried about the manner in which orphans are treated by the society. It is not enough that we have homes where they are looked after; we need more people to support the managers of orphanages, especially government, so that the children can get a better deal. We hear about children being adopted from orphanages with little or no follow-ups. There is need to stop the trend because even in other African countries, people don’t just walk into an orphanage to pick up a child without proper documentation. I still remember how the Malawian government scrutinized American pop star, Madonna, when she adopted a child from that country. Nigeria should adopt the same approach.
You have visited orphanages as part of your Foundation’s work. What is your assessment?
From what I saw, I have no doubt that many orphanages need more support and this is why the Crying Child Foundation was established to help rally support. We are working towards providing assistance to orphanages across the country by selecting the ones we can work with in different states.
What is the target of the Crying Child Foundation in three years?
You know what we are working on cannot really be measured in the sense that we are dealing with human beings, children in this case. But in three years we hope to have made impact in the orphans’ lives. In three years we would have implemented our health and education programmes in such a way that would lessen the burden of the orphanages we work with.
You are not happy about the Nigeria of today. But you obviously are nostalgic about the way things were done when you were younger…
Sure, life was much better then. People lived in peace and harmony. Neighbours loved each other. I am from Delta State, my parents hailed from Gbaramatu kingdom, but I am proud of the fact that I was born and bred in Lagos. This is because Lagosians are great people. I speak Yoruba fluently. Yoruba Language was one of my favourite subjects in school and I understand the Yoruba culture. My siblings and I have Yoruba names. My best food is amala and ewedu. I also enjoy drinking gari with fried fish. Growing up in Lagos was fun and we never felt like we weren’t living in our own state. It explains why I don’t hesitate to tell people that Lagosians are the most kind and warmest people on earth.
How would you describe your childhood?
I was a happy child. My parents showered my siblings and I with love and care. I started school like most children my age. I loved going to school. At home I was also taught the right way to live. I was close to my paternal grandmother. She instilled in me certain values I cherish till date. It was my grandmother, who through her giving showed me how good it is to be generous.
In other words, you love giving?
Yes, I do. My father was a sailor, so he always brought back unique things like chocolate to our home. And once I can lay my hands on the gifts he brought home, I took them to my classmates. Sometimes, I join them in eating what I brought from home, but what made me happy was my friends being around me and sharing what my father gave me. I grew up with the same attitude. As an adult, I love entertaining house guests. I hardly ever get tired of cooking and entertaining guests when they visit or when we have other family functions. I would say that entertaining guests is something I look forward to.
Your love for entertaining guests must come in handy as wife of PDP national chairman, isn’t it?
Sure, it helps. I love entertaining guests since I am married to a politician. I doubt if anyone has complained of not being taken care of in my home. The most shocking thing you can tell my husband is that you haven’t eaten or served drink in my home during any family event. He would find such complaints strange because he hardly hears such a thing when I am in-charge of a family event.
You are a southerner married to a prominent northerner. Did this affect you mode of dressing?
I wear what suits me. My husband is a citizen of the world. He is civilized. He is not one to pick offence at his wife’s choice of attire. He doesn’t expect me to dress like a southerner or northerner because he is too detribalised. He doesn’t see black or white, neither does he look at an individual based on which state he comes from. For him, all human beings are the same due to the fact that we all have blood flowing through our veins. He often says that once you cut any human being with a knife, blood gushes out no matter the colour of his/her skin. So, we are all one people.
Who had the most influence on you as a child?
My father’s mother stands out. As kids growing up in Lagos, we could only communicate in English and Yoruba. My grandmother took it upon herself to get us acquainted with the Ijaw culture. She made sure we spent our holidays with her in the village. You have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to get to my village because there is no land route. Because of this, all the children in my community were taught how to swim. As a kid, the young men in my family would throw me into the water and I just had to make it to the surface. I used to grind pepper the village way, which was far different from what we had back home in Ikoyi (Lagos). When I first started grinding pepper on the stone for my grandmother, I didn’t find it easy because it hurt a lot. She would apply palm oil on my hands when I complained, but with time I got used to it. I equally learnt to cook all the Ijaw delicacies and other Nigerian meals, working with my grandma in the kitchen. I am happy that I spent a lot of time with my grandmother because today, I am a great cook because she always asked me to assist her in the kitchen. Secondly, my time in Gbaramatu made me a great swimmer. Not only that, I once worked as a swimming instructor for children. When I finished schooling in England, I lived in Holland where I taught school children how to swim. When it was time to return to Nigeria, staffs of my school openly lamented my exit because I was the kids’ favourite swimming instructor.
You speak passionately about swimming. You must be sad over the back space occupied by the sport in Nigeria. How do you think Nigeria can improve its standing in the world of swimming?
The Federal Ministry of Sports is doing the best it can to discover and develop talents in swimming, the same with sports ministries in some states. But a lot still needs to be done when it comes to swimming. Fortunately, discovering talented swimmers isn’t rocket science. All we have to do is go to places like Bonny Island in Rivers State, Gbaramatu in Delta State and they will have a handful of kids who not only can swim but can also dive. Like I mentioned earlier, I was taught how to swim by older cousins and at that young age I was more like a professional. As a child, I used to dive into the ocean to pick oysters for my grandmother to cook. I remember we were taught to pick about 10 oysters at a time. Once, I picked 15 and people in the boat had to dive in to bring me out because I had taken too much time. My grandmother warned me not to pick as much as 15 oysters at a time, but that didn’t stop me from picking them for her when she needed them. In fact, the next day, I was among those who went diving for oysters. I can tell you that things are still the same and there are many gifted swimmers in the riverine areas of our country. We just need to go to these places to catch them young, train them and we would soon be competing for medals on the world stage.
What has life taught you at 50?
Well, I have learnt to be patient. No matter what your goals are, you need to patiently pursue them. I also put God first in all I do. Before I commence anything, I pray to Allah first.
How did your family react when your husband came asking for your hand in marriage?
My husband is a Lagosian in the sense that he lived in Lagos for a long time. I come from a highly civilized background in which my family was more concerned about the character of a prospective in-law rather than what state he comes from. My life is reflective of the kind of family I come from. I am someone who gets along with people regardless of where they come from. So, to answer your question, my husband was warmly welcomed by my family.
Do you have any regrets?
I have never looked back in regret. I believe we should always thank God, no matter what happens.
Have your childhood dreams come true?
I would say yes. I have been fortunate. I guess the fact that I am not overly ambitious helped me a great deal. I take each day as it comes. I don’t look down on people and I tell my friends to give me good advice. I don’t condone sycophancy; my friends know they are free to caution me when I make mistakes. Again, I pray a lot and there is hardly anything I have asked God that He hasn’t given me. I also learnt to thank Allah each day because when you thank Him, he is bound to do more for you.
You said you like friends that tell you the truth. What’s your definition of friendship?
For you to have a good friendship, you have to be humble, kind and forgiving. You cannot treat friends shabbily and expect them to keep up with you. I have both old and new friends. I have someone like Joke Sogunro whom I have been friends with for a long time. Then, I also have someone like Yeye Bola Dare whom I have known for upward of three years. I hardly stay in hotels because there is no part of the country where I don’t have a friend ready to accommodate me. Like I said earlier, I prefer sincere people as friends, not those who say the things you want to hear.
Do you see yourself going into politics?
Not at all; I married my husband because I love him, not to use his name to gain recognition or bring my ambitions to fruition. More importantly, I have never been interested in politics. I am not interested in contesting elections at all. I just want to continue living my life like I have always been doing and that is being a loving partner to my husband.
But there must be politicians who ask you for help as wife of the national chairman of the ruling party. Is this true?
When they come, I ask them to meet with my husband because I don’t know anything about politics. I haven’t been involved and I never want to be involved.
What are your future aspirations?
You know I told you that I put all I do in the hands of Allah. I am not saying it is not good planning ahead, but life is full of uncertainties and this is why I would rather place my future in God’s hands.
What is your fashion must-have?
I can’t say this or that thing is my fashion must-have. I say this because there is nothing in my wardrobe I cannot give out. If something is a must-have, then, you won’t give it out. But in my case, there is no fashion item that is sacred. If a friend truly needs it or I can see that she really likes what she is asking for, I will hand it over.
So, you aren’t a slave to fashion?
People around me would testify that I not a salve to fashion. Yes, I love bags, shoes and jewellery like any other woman, but I have never been greedy about material things. Another thing is that I don’t follow the trend. I go for unique things. Like when it comes to handbags, while people go for brands like Hermes, Gucci, you could find me with a bag from Alexander Mcqueen or Choppard. And when friends see me with these kinds of bags, they take a second look. Yet, I can give these bags out without regretting I did.