By Shola Oshunkeye
Her beautiful face radiated joy and absolute satisfaction as she shuffled the pile of pictures on a stool beside the well-upholstered leather sofa she sat in a corner of the living room this sunny Saturday morning. Once a while, her personable face would light up as she paused to make one or two comments on the history of the photo in her hand. What better way to reminisce on life than at the threshold of one’s golden jubilee.
In a few days, Edith Chidinma Uwajumogu, the chief executive officer, CEO, of MONWILL Projects Limited, also the immediate past National Coordinator of Women For Change and Development Initiative, Dame Patience Jonathan’s non-profit organization, would clock 50. And nothing engaged the attention of this lady of impact than her desire to use the anniversary, not on wild parties, but to further her passion for basic freedoms for women and the girl-child.
Presently, nothing gives this woman of substance joy than her passion to employ the instrumentality of law to shatter the systemic obstacles that restrict Nigerian women from realizing their aspirations. Passion to see the girl-child in school, and not in forced marriages that ruin their childhood and utterly destroy their lives. Passion for the aged, most of who are ravaged and bent by the vicissitudes of life, and are vulnerable whenever things go awry in the country.
“It is only after we might have achieved victory in all of these that one can truly celebrate,” Imo State-born Uwajumogu told me in her Maitama District residence in Abuja recently. “It is only after we might have succeeded substantially in restoring our core values as Nigerians, and Africans, that we can truly celebrate.”
The first of her parents’ ten children, Uwajumogu’s accomplishments would influence countless generations of women. And men. An experienced entrepreneur, seasoned politician and philanthropist committed to the continued development of Nigeria, the women rights activist graduated in History from the University of Lagos in 1984. In 1990, she bagged a Master of Science degree in Political Science, topping it up, in 2001, with another degree in Law from the University Of Hertfordshire, St Albans, United Kingdom in 2001.
With those degrees in her kitty, she got to a flying start in life. Now, she sits atop several organisations either as CEO or board chair. Uwajumogu, who was honoured with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by the American College of Commerce and Technology, is the President of Development Initiative for African Women, DIFAW, a non-profit, non-partisan organization engaged in massive grassroots mobilization of women for gender equity in Nigeria. The organization has also done enormous work in ensuring that the country meets its 35 percent affirmative action policy for female representation in elective and appointive office.
During the encounter, Uwajumogu paid glowing tributes to her late parents, both of who laboured vigorously to make their 10 children men and women of substance and honour, not only in Nigeria but worldwide. Unfortunately, the parents didn’t live long to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Despite these huge losses, the lady still said: “I have a lot to thank God Almighty for.”
Here are excerpts from the interview:
In a few words, could you capture your life in the past 50 years?
Interesting. Very interesting. It’s been very exciting as well, and my heart is filled with gratitude to God for every day of the 50 years. I had earnestly looked forward to being 50. Suddenly, finally it is here. Although I have had my ups and downs, like any normal human being, I will say it’s been an interesting ride. I have had more of joy, more of ups than downs. I have lots to celebrate and I’m grateful to God keeping me alive and in health, and giving me healthy and very successful children.
How many children do you have?
I have five – two boys and three girls.
Why did you stop at five? Your mother had 10.
Well, I picked many things from her, but that one I couldn’t pick from her. It’s more expensive to train children today. Secondly, I don’t think I have the capacity to train ten children but thank God for all of us. My siblings are all alive, healthy and are doing great. Most of them are married and are happy and have children. Their kids call me grandma and I’m happy to play that role because it’s a privilege. Since my mum is dead, I’m like the mother of the house. So, it’s been 50 wonderful years, and I’m celebrating it with my family, friends, friends that are closer than sisters and brothers, professional friends, business friends, political friends and friends that I grew up with, my friends from my primary and secondary schools, and university. I am really excited.
Of course, you were not conscious when your life actually started, but as far as you can recall, what can you say about growing up? Your childhood…
Very interesting because I had parents who knew how to love and how to discipline. I had a father, Chief Benjamin Onyebuchi Uwajumogu, who was in charge and who loved his wife and his family tremendously.
Where is he?
He is dead. He died in 1985 at 53. That is some 28 years ago. At a time, I thought he was old. But now that I’m 50, I realise that he was just a baby when he died.
Was he a businessman?
Yes, he was a businessman and a politician.
You are in politics. Your younger brother, Hon. Ben Uwajumogu (Speaker of Imo State House of Assembly), is also in politics. Politics seems to run in the family.
Yes, it does. As far as I can remember, we have always been involved in politics-from the NPP (Nigerian Peoples Party), the SDP (Social Democratic Party), the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party), to, at some point, no party (laughs). My mum was involved too. My father got her involved. She was the one getting the girls, all the women, involved.
As I said, I was raised by parents who knew how to love and discipline. I had a father who was busy but had time. He loved my mum so much that at a point we thought he was being partial. He would travel overseas, come back with two suitcases, and he would give one to my mum, and we, the kids, would share whatever was the content in the other one. And we would be like, ‘why are you giving one person the whole suitcase?’ And he would be like ‘look, she is my wife. I am successful because I have a good wife at home!’ He complimented my mum at almost every point. He showed her compassion. I saw love in their eyes and I felt that every young girl should go to school, come out, and marry.
And your mum?
We had a disciplinarian in my mum. The fear of my mother was the beginning of wisdom. For example, if I misbehaved, and you threatened to report me to any of my parents, I would quickly choose my father. I was very close to my father. He named all his businesses after me, being the first child, and first daughter.
But why would you run to him?
Because he was very fond of me, so, the discipline won’t be severe.
So, he spared the rod?
He wasn’t even balancing it. But my mum was very tough. She was so tough that at some point, we thought she was just wicked; and that she didn’t love us. But growing up, we discovered she was the one who actually trained us. She instilled the discipline we have today. She made us what we are today. She brought us up to be able to face challenges and not compromise our standard.
As if she knew your father would die young…
As if she knew… She had absolute control of the house. But that’s where you appreciate the things that she did and say that our father was actually spoiling us. She used to say that my father probably did not have children in his former world, that’s why he never wanted to hurt his children. Yeah, there was so much outpouring of love. He was always willing to shower you with material things especially during our summer holidays abroad. He would take us to Zurich, Paris, London, US, name it!
How old were you when you lost your father?
I was just 21. I was just getting into the University of Lagos. His death was devastating. He was a very strong dad. He was a politician and he was also a director of the Golden Guinea Breweries and he had his own personal business. He was into haulage and real estate; and he was quite wealthy. When the head of a family, who was so strong and big, leaves, there is always a void. Death became real after my father’s death in 1985. I just couldn’t believe that a man as strong as my dad could be so helpless on that day. I couldn’t believe it.
In fact, that was when I started becoming afraid of flying. I became afraid of so many things because if such a strong man could die, then anybody could. I never stopped asking ‘why?’
What really happened? He had stroke?
He was sick
For a long time?
Not long. He was also diabetic. He just died gradually. I wouldn’t know what happened. But I learnt a lot watching my mother take charge. Here was a woman who was so protected by her husband who now had the enormous responsibility of taking care of 10 children, three boys and seven girls, thrown at her. But she began to manage what he left behind and began to keep all the ten children together. To the glory of God, none of us went astray.
How did the death affect you too?
It also threw enormous responsibility at me. I grew up quickly. I became an adult quickly, such that, today I think 10 or 15 years older than I am. I had to take up a lot of responsibilities early, though not in financial terms because, by the grace of God, my father was well off and he left quite a bit for us to live on. And my mother managed the resources very well.
Sadly, your mum died too…
Yes, she died of breast cancer in 2006. She died when we had all turned out very well and were positioned to spoil her with care. That’s why I weep each time I remember the timing of her death. We launched the foundation, Egobekee Cancer Foundation, on the day she was being buried. I am the executive secretary. Egobekee was my mother’s name.
Was that her desire?
Actually, she started it off while at the hospital, receiving treatment. She was treated in England and here in Abuja. While on admission, she met a young girl who also had breast cancer but was not getting treatment and was not being discharged. Despite her own pains, my mother wanted to know why. So, she approached the girl. The girl told her that she owed the hospital and she didn’t have money to continue her treatment. So, she was held because she couldn’t pay her bills. When I came to the hospital, the next day, my mother said to me: ‘when you are coming tomorrow, please bring some money for me.’ I wanted to know what she was going to do with so much money she asked for.
How much did she ask for?
At the time, she wanted N100, 000, and I was wondering what she would do with that amount of money in the hospital. When I came back, she told me she wanted to pay the girl’s bill so she can continue her treatment while the family is looking for how to pay for the other bills. We were bringing food for my mother but she was also collecting hospital food (her rations) and giving it to the girl. We are still in touch with the girl today. To God be the glory, the girl survived. She is very well. The good part of this story is that the girl is from Bayelsa State, and our amiable president, President Goodluck Jonathan, was the governor of Bayelsa State at the time. The family wrote to him and he graciously paid her bills, and she was discharged.
That got us thinking that if we raise the level of awareness, maybe many more Nigerians can come in to help other people access treatment. The awareness will make you to want to know what can be done. It could make you to want to help a patient; it could help you to want to make facilities available, etc. If you are in government, it could also push you to make policies that can help. It could also help the policy makers see the need to make cancer screening free and available; it could also help policy makers to facilitate free treatment where possible, especially to indigent patients; or reduce the cost of treatment; or make drugs, especially drugs that will alleviate pain, available.
Again, my mum said to me, and I will quote her directly, “If I survive, I want to talk about cancer. If I don’t survive, then, the burden is more. Then, you will need to do something about it. Tell people that this is a dreadful disease; tell people that this disease can be contained if detected early. Tell people that we do not need to loose lives especially the younger ones.”
That’s why we are so passionate about talking and doing something about the disease in our little corner. Cancer is not only for the older people. We have childhood cancers. You can have cancer at any particular time because it does not look at age or social status. So, there was that urgency to start talking about it. So, when she eventually passed, it became very urgent for us, the family, the children, to let people know the sufferings of the so many months that she endured.
I talk about cancer as an enemy because it comes in to steal and to destroy. But if you are aware that it is an enemy, then, you will be ready. It’s either you prevent it, or you treat it, or you control it, or you manage it, and whatever comes after that. There was also the need to tell people that cancer is preventable. There was also the need to tell people that cancer is treatable, there was also the need to tell people that early detection of cancer can save their lives. It’s not a death sentence. If the wrong diagnosis is made, then, that is a problem. And so many people have experienced that. For instance, I lost a friend a year before my mum passed. He was being diagnosed of stomach ulcer but he, in fact, had cancer. He went to the US and they found out that it was cancer. And it was late to help him. He died.
You find out that there is so much involved which you need to know and we will argue to the cancer awareness advocates that it is not an issue limited to the medical community alone. We need advocates to go to the field and share their experiences-that is for those affected directly or some that were patients’ relatives like me. To tell people what you had to go through, to tell people the need to screen, to let people know where the centres are where they can get help. To let people know that a diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence, that there is need to get a second opinion if you are not diagnosed well. You might not even know if you are diagnosed well. I have also met somebody, in the course of this work, that was told she had cancer. Fortunately, she could afford to get a second opinion, and she did, and it turned out she didn’t have cancer.
Did they tell her it was breast cancer?
They told her it was breast cancer. They found a lump, which they checked and thought it was cancerous. She went for a second opinion in another hospital and she didn’t have cancer. Those confusing reports made her to go to a third hospital that confirmed the second report-that she didn’t have cancer. Now, imagine what would have happened if she couldn’t afford a second opinion. She could have started treatment on a disease she did not have and it could bring complications. I have met women that were told they didn’t have cancer but they had cancer. One had ovarian cancer and she was being managed by a physician who didn’t quite understand what was going on but did not refer her to an expert. By the time she saw an expert, it was too late. While you talk about misdiagnosis, you also need to check who saw her first. Did she go to an oncologist, an expert trained to treat cancer? Or, did she go to just her general practitioner who probably didn’t have the facilities to test right?
We have seen young women who, during pregnancy, breast cancer will be detected. The problem now is: who do you save? The child or the mother? It’s such a complicated disease because if she should embark on the treatment it might hurt the foetus; and if you ignore it, there could be problem. Sometimes, they make the decision: we wait till she gives birth or we start the treatment.
Having known all these, having heard from so many people, having witnessed some and experienced the hardship and the emotional torture, I call cancer an emotional disease. I say that because cancer attacks everyone in the family. If one member of the family has cancer, it affects every one in the family because the emotional state of that patient dictates the tune. When my mother was alive, any day she smiled, we smiled. Her laughter gave us the reason to laugh. If she didn’t smile, the house was something else. We mourned her while she was alive; and we laughed with her whenever she laughed. So, by the time she passed on, we had stopped crying. We had expended all the energy and all the strength. (She weeps).
Yet, you are not talking about the financial cost of treating cancer. So, when she passed, we chose the day of her funeral to bring life to others; to talk about the Egobekee Cancer Foundation, to tell people about the disease. It’s not all bad news. And again to help other mothers and people that are determined to fight the disease that we also have met survivors. When we’ve held workshops where we brought survivors to tell their stories.
We have seen people that the cancer went on remission and never came back. We have seen people that have been treated for over twenty years and they are still healthy. We have also seen people that are managing cancer, they have cancer but everyday they are going to work and they are living life as normal because they are taking the right drugs, they are eating right.
Looking at all that is involved, your diet is also important. The right diagnosis is important, the management is important, the care team-both at home and at the hospital-is very important. The counseling that the patient and the relatives will need is very important. Your attitude as the patient will help you fight the disease. The attitude of the people who are looking after you will help you fight the disease.
Looking at all that, we thought let’s bring all that together and let’s look at people with like minds, maybe people that have also lost people to cancer or that have survived cancer, to come together. So, we set up this foundation and invited our friends, and they answered us. We have people who lost their parents to cancer as trustees of the foundation. The chairman of the board is a cancer survivor. We have people that lost their mothers to cancer, I lost mine. About three of us lost our mothers to cancer. One to pancreatic cancer, one to ovarian cancer and me to breast cancer. Then, we have people that lost their friends.
We have a team of people with their stories and who are determined to make a difference and they are all pulling together. That occupied us for a long time and we are still doing it. Through that, we began to identify associations that we will work with, that we will reach out to. So, presently, I am also the vice president of AOTIC (African Organisation for Research Training in Cancer).
Are you a medical person?
No, I’m not. No connection at all but I am connected to it by experience. You cannot be affected by cancer and you remain the same. You can’t. You want to know so much about the disease. I have been given platforms to talk about this disease; I have been on NTA’s One on One programme, twice, to talk about this disease. We hold workshops; we do an annual cancer awareness dinner where we bring together all those that have helped us throughout the year. We do it on the 4th of February, every year, a day celebrated as World Cancer Day to extend our appreciation, and also ask for their support morally, financially and in any way.
You can become a volunteer for us. You can go and keep a cancer patient. We work with people who also look after cancer patients. We work with oncology nurses, nurses that are trained to take care of cancer patients. So, you cannot be affected by cancer and not want to know about it, about its prevention, its treatment. We also attend international conferences. I think almost three years ago, we did Live Strong Day for the survivors. Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, he is a survivor and so, he is pushing it. American Cancer Society is there, we have the UICC, and they are all promoting it.
I know you must have gone through serious emotional stress when your mother was down with cancer. What kind of expenditure you had to make, keeping someone struck with that disease? And I am not talking about money now.
A whole lot and that is why I call it emotional disease because it takes over. Nothing else is important when you are taking care of a cancer patient. Your life stops. The caregiver suffers as much as the patient, and in my own case, my mother was with me most of the time. The financial cost is a different one because it does not matter how rich you are, treating cancer will deplete your finances. You need, on the average, between N250, 000 to N500, 000, depending on the type of drugs because the drugs at some point are very expensive.
Yes, per month, sometimes six weeks. We were spending an average of 8,000 to 10,000 pounds sterling every week.
And you went through all that for how many years?
Three years. And that is why we tell people you can contribute in one way or the other. You can bring money, you can visit, you can volunteer, and you can buy drugs. Just support a cancer patient, just do something. Let me take you back to something that happened before my mother’s sickness and death. I used to see NGOs as people who had nothing serious to do. I used to think, if you are not busy, then, you could set up something. It wasn’t until we started this AOTIC (African Organisation for Research Training in Cancer) that we found out that we owe all the people that have come before us a big apology, and then, to say ‘well done’. They do a lot of work. Be it NGO for political awareness, health, economic empowerment, whatever, they do a lot of work. They get to where the system will not get. They get to where policy makers will not get. They see what they (policy makers) couldn’t see. There might be some bad eggs, but majority are doing a whole lot and we owe them a big ‘thank you’.
We found out that we will needed the army of advocates to talk about cancer, to get to the villages, to get to areas where ordinarily nobody will go. Then, to create the awareness that cancer is treatable because in some villages you get there, and the people say why waste good money when you can leave that for the children? We met a woman in a particular village and she was applying palm oil on the boil. When we go for the screening, we go with a medical doctor, an oncologist, a nurse, and people with the medical knowledge. We talk about it. We speak for the doctors where they cannot get, we tell people to come and help the doctors and, fortunately, our ministers of health that have come so far are paying attention to cancer management and now there is a cancer desk at the Federal Ministry of Health.
So, it’s getting better. But the expenditure is in everything. It’s in your time, emotions, money and in not having any other thing; remember, I said earlier that the mood of the patient plays a role.
You are so passionate about the way you talk about cancer. Is there anything that drives you, apart from what you saw from your mother? Like I know there is this hereditary angle to cancer: if somebody has it in your family, there is the possibility that it could recur along the linage. Does that fear also drive you to do what you are doing?
Well, because of what I know now, I am not living in fear. I used to dread cancer. I used to dread the word ‘cancer’. I used to be so afraid of cancer. Even though nobody had cancer around me at the time, I used to be so scared. I didn’t like the word ‘cancer’, and I don’t know why. Then, few years down the line, a friend of mine was brought and she was on her way to the United States, and I asked ‘for what?’ And they said ‘cancer’. In one year, I lost two friends-one to breast cancer and the other one to bladder cancer. And these were two women I was close to.
For that to happen near somebody that was very afraid of cancer, that heightened the fear. I started feeling everything on my body as if I had cancer. If I had a little headache, it was cancer. If I had running stomach, it was cancer. Then, we were in Lagos. I had to go to this scan centre in Victoria Island, and I did mammogram. I did everything. I was looking for everything and anything. Then, the doctor called me and said ‘it is all in your mind. You have no cancer’. And I forgot that for so many years.
So, you can then imagine my state of mind when my mum called me. I will never forget that day. She said to me, ‘come, I felt something in my right breast. Can you come and look at it?’
Before then, I had started reading up on cancer awareness and the symptoms and signs and what to look for. I had started checking my breasts, doing breast self- examination. So, I knew what to check. I ran home and checked my mum and felt this thing. Then, I didn’t feel right about it. So, instantly, I took her to a hospital that checked and said we should investigate further.
We brought her here to Abuja and they checked her. The doctor recommended that they brought out the lump to check it. And they did. And I did say something to the histologist, the guy at the lab, I told him to do me the honour of giving me the result, not my mum. And I think he understood that. So, when it was ready, I was called to come and take it up.