Bolanle Olukanni:‘I realised I’m in a place of opportunity and privilege.
In this interview with GuardianWoman, Bolanle takes us away from her world of glamour into her world of passion for widows and single mothers through her foundation. Some of the widows also explained their plight.
Bolanle Olukanni is a TV presenter, fashion favourite and producer. She is a host on pan-African talk show Moments, hit music reality show Project Fame and one of Nigeria’s favourite red carpet shows On the Carpet with Bolinto.Bolanle landed her first TV gig as a co-host on “Moments with Mo” after being chosen out of over 400 other hopefuls to host alongside talk show host and CEO of EbonyLife TV, Mo Abudu. Moments with Mo has now evolved into “Moments” and airs on EbonyLife TV across 44 different African countries and on TalkTalk television in UK. During the course of hosting Moments, Bolanle has had the opportunity to interview a variety of inspiring and influential celebrities and politicians such as President Muhammdu Buhari, Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Grammy award winning singer Brandy, Minister of Power and Works Babatunde Raji Fashola, to name a few. In 2014, Bolanle joined hit reality music show Project Fame West Africa as a host alongside Joseph Benjamin. She also hosted a four-part interview series “With Mikel” which featured acclaimed Nigerian footballer and former Chelsea player John Mikel Obi. The show gave an exclusive glimpse into John Mikel Obi’s life in England.
Taking a new role in 2015, as an Executive Producer, Bolanle co-founded Sage & Walls, a multimedia production company and began producing and hosting “On the Carpet with Bolinto”, a red carpet entertainment show covering A-list events in Africa. The show has partnered with major international brands such as Coca-Cola, Uber and Heineken. In 2016, Bolanle was awarded the On-Air Personality of the Year (visual) from one of Africa’s most prestigious awards – The Future Awards. She has been cited as one of the most promising TV presenters. Fondly called Bolinto, Bolanle has established herself as a fashion favourite known for her love of Ankara fabric and hit red carpet looks.
Raised in Nigeria, Israel and Kenya, Bolanle has seen a fair bit of the world but finds there is no place like home, here in Nigeria. She graduated from
Loyola University Chicago, in Chicago, America with Honours in a double degree, of BA Communications and BA International Studies. After graduating from Loyola University Chicago, Bolanle returned to Nigeria to do her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), where she spent her service year working for a non-profit organization in Ekiti, Nigeria. During her NYSC service year, Bolanle and a fellow corps member started ‘Girls For The Future’, a gender-based empowerment workshop for secondary school students aimed at teaching the girl child their rights and providing mentorship for the students. Bolanle is currently on the Board of Directors of The Self-Worth organization- an NGO that provides empowerment classes and supplies assistance to widows and single mothers in Nigeria. In her spare time she enjoys reading a
good novel, writing poetry and watching The “Walking Dead.”
Let’s get personal with you. Tell us about family, growing up and so on.
I have a really close family. My dad worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so we I lived in multiple countries while growing up. I did part of my primary school in Israel and part of my secondary school in Kenya. I attended these schools and was really drawn to learning about people from different backgrounds and different cultures.
Why and how did you get into the broadcast world?
I first fell in love with media when I was living in Kenya. I remember being so enamoured by the radio presenters and drawn to the vocation. I thought it really amazing the possibilities and impact an OAP could have on listeners. I realised that media could be a tool for positive change and impact.
Have you always loved to be on TV?
Not initially. It has been an evolving process and I have had to learn how to become really comfortable being myself, but it has become home now. Being a presenter is such an amazing experience, having the opportunity to be myself but also to share what I am passionate about.
How do you feel as a young woman interviewing the president and other international celebrities?
The first time I had a major interview was with Brandy. It was so nerve-racking. But once you start the interview, the adrenaline kicks in and it’s great then. As long as I have prepared prior to, I usually feel very comfortable once the interview starts.
Aside being a queen of the tube, you’ve always been involved in NGO activities too. What’s the motivation?
This is a passion project for me. I remember having a light bulb moment last year December and I really began to ask myself what I am doing to impact others. I came to a realisation that I don’t need to wait any longer to help the people around. I can start immediately. Even if it was just one person, I realised I am in a place of opportunity and privilege and it’s so vital that I use that to serve and help others.
Were there any personal experiences in life that propelled you?
A lot of people have asked me this, whether anything tragic has happened to me or if I have anyone close to me who are widows- I don’t. I am just interested in helping people whose voices are not heard.
Tell us about your present NGO, its aims and objectives. Why did you name it God’s Wives?
God’s Wives Foundation is aimed at providing grants to NGOs that work with widows and single mothers. The grants are used to start Skills Acquisition Centres to empower the women. I named it God’s Wives because that they are. God says he will be the husband to the husbandless. Even when we have forgotten them he remembers the widows.
How have you been able to assist these women found their feet?
The women have learnt the skills from the empowerment centre. The centre trains them in makeup courses, tailoring and catering. All the women that have completed the courses are then given an SME starter kit to start generating income from their newly acquired trades. The tailors get sewing machines, the caterers get baking materials and a local oven and the makeup artists were given fully-kitted makeup boxes from Zaron cosmetics. The centre was self-funded by me, but for the SME starter kits, we got a donation. Anyone who wants to find out more can check www.Godswives.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
From your interactions with them, are the experiences of widows different from that of the single mothers?
I think the experience of a widow and single mother is very different. A single mother is raising a child alone due to a variety of reasons- abandonment, broken relationship, out of choice whereas a widow is in her circumstance due to death of a spouse. Widows are dealing with grief, frustration, neglect and also the immense pressure of being the sole caregiver for their households.
How can government assist?
There needs to be more social services. The government needs to be a government for the people that serves their needs.
Do you agree that government should enact laws to protect the rights of widows?
Most definitely! When a woman loses her husband she is in a very vulnerable position and it’s important that she has legal rights that give her full access to her husband’s estate but also prevent family members from seizing that estate. Another step would be to ensure that anyone who tries to take advantage of a widow would be prosecuted.
What’s your philosophy of life?
Life is about loving others. It is important you do to others as you really want for yourself.
Any female role models?
I have lots of role models- my mom is my spiritual role model, Leymah Gbowee is someone that I admire. I also really admire Mo Abudu , she is very resilient and has been able to bring fresh and new content to the movie industry.
Would you trade anything else for the glamour of TV?
Wow! TV is not as glamorous as it seems. It’s hard work and long hours sometimes. I am enjoying my time as a presenter right now and I appreciate the platform I have. Being on Ebonylife TV, hosting Project Fame and also hosting my own Red Carpet show has been a great experience and I will continue enjoy it.
THE WIDOWS SPEAK
What happened to you?
Three years ago my husband got into a motor accident, he was unable to survive because of the injuries he sustained.
What challenges have you faced since then?
It’s been a really challenging experience losing my husband. I had a shop that I was selling goods but after my husband died the landlady sent us packing because, according to her, I had spoilt the foundation of the house. She didn’t want me there anymore because I am a widow. Once I lost my source of income I had to start selling stock fish at Oyinbo Market. In general, people treat us as though we are second-class citizens.
When did you lose your husband?
I lost my husband when I was 29 due to liver problems. I had four children and was unable to remarry because of cultural expectations. If I remarried, I would not be able to take my kids with me into my new marriage. I have been accused of killing my husband by my neighbours.
How do you make ends meet?
I currently sweep the compound of where I used to live and now live in a face-me-I face-you apartment with my four children. To make ends meet I sell food at Oyinbo Market, but I have also taken tailoring courses at the Self – Worth Organization so that I can start making clothes for people.
Chinyere Anokwuru – Executive Director of the Self-Worth Organization, an NGO
What inspired you to start to Self-worth?
I came from a very a poor background as well and was really struggling despite going to University. I lost a child due to poverty,
But I eventually started a business and started doing better and I was compelled to look around my community and see how I could help. From there I started talking and encouraging the women and found that most of them were widows. We began meeting on a weekly basis.
Why did you want to open a skills centre and where did you get the funds
I wanted to open a skills acquisition centre because I wanted to do something more than just giving them rice and oil. It was important that we show them empowerment. I did not have the funds, I met Bolanle, told her about my vision and she was able to help set up the centre.
What challenges do you face running an NGO?
We have high overhead costs for the centre and we have to pay all of our teachers that train the students. We also have a lot of widows and single moms that want to learn but we don’t have enough space to accommodate them all because of space.
What do you hope for the future?
I hope more people become involved and interested in helping the widows; they have a very hard life and go through challenges. We want to open more centres across Lagos and Nigeria.
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