Kamala Harris emergence as US VP elect will redefine views, perceptions about black women – Edun
Mrs. Iyiola Olatokunbo Edun is the administrator of a foremost citadel of learning in Lagos State, Grace Schools.
A seasoned administrator, she has been working at the school for 35 years. She rose through the ranks even though she is the daughter of the founder, Mrs. Grace Abisola Osinowo of blessed memory. At a time when private schools were not easy to establish, she battled all odds to take up the responsibility in 1984 and take Grace Schools to the next level.
Edun in this interview with Adelowo Adebumiti spoke extensively about the place of women in society, the challenges they faced, and what every parent must do to shore up the girl-child to withstand and triumph over oppression.
Recently Kamala Harris, emerged as the Vice President-Elect of the United States, do you think Nigeria is also doing enough in the area of inclusion to promote gender equality?
Okay, let me say something about the black woman. All over the world as a black woman, you are seen as uneducated, poor, even if you have the means. I will give an example. I travel business class. Whenever they announce that business class should stand up, and I stand up, even some of the airline staff will ask me, are you sure you are travelling business class and I will respond, do you have any problem with that? I entered a plane some time ago, I put down my bag then I asked the air hostess where the toilet was and immediately she just pointed to the back and I thought so this front toilet is just for the pilot? So I went to the back. A minute later, I wanted to go back to my seat and she was shocked that I was heading for the business class. Then she apologized, “I’m so sorry, I thought you are going economy.” It happens to me all over the world. I can remember also, one day in Amsterdam on route to Atlanta, there is this priority line and economy line and I went to the priority line. Suddenly one of the Airline Staff, a man pointed at me and shouted that I should go back and line up the passengers on the economy line.
I felt like “really”, this is strange, but I went back and queued in the economy line. When I got to him at the front, I told him, if you know that everybody is going to line up together, why were you saying one is a priority and the other economy? I was so upset, but that’s what I face all the time. It happens because you are black, you are a woman and they don’t expect that you even have the money to travel business class. Even when you enter the plane, sometimes people sitting in the business class will wonder, “they will soon send her back”, “maybe she made a mistake”. Then after all said, they would be shocked. So that’s an experience as an African, a black, and a woman. We are not rated highly. I am so happy for Kampala Harris because we black women are always looked down on a majority of the time.
Do you think this is attributive to some misplaced sense of superiority for some men and whites as well?
Yes being black puts you at a disadvantage. And being a woman is another disadvantage. It happened to me in Spain. We were sitting down, and they said the people on the priority line should stand up, and I did. There was this white lady who walked up to me, she probably thought she was trying to help by telling me that the announcement was meant for those in the priority category, so I should not stand up to queue. She assumed wrongly that I was going economy! I replied to her that “I know”!. So you are already at a disadvantage if you are black and a woman. So, I’m so happy for Kamala Harris.
Is it the same thing in Nigeria?
Going from Lagos, well, it is not a problem for me, but it is when you enter Europe or America that you encounter such a problem. I also have had a problem in Canada where the airline staff at the business class counter, pointed to me to go and check-in at the economy counter as I tried to make my way to check-in at the business class counter. They did not even bother to speak to me or see my travelling documents!
Does it also affect the way men in Africa look at women when they consider opportunities in government and politics?
Like I said, being a woman puts you at disadvantage, even in your own country. In Nigeria, you are already a second-class citizen and if you are a woman and financially independent and comfortable, nobody will think that you made the money by yourself, they believe you have a rich husband, that’s it or she must have slept with somebody to get to that level. So you are already at the disadvantage all over the world as black women.
What do you think can change this perception?
I’m very assertive. Whenever anyone asks me, “are you sure you are flying business class,” I always reply to them, “Do you have a problem with that?” Sometime in March, when I was traveling also at Atlanta airport, my son and I went to the airport and we were in the priority queue. Again, there was an airline staff who pointed at us, trying to inquire if we missed our way. I told him “yes we are on the priority queue, so what? So, for me, it’s a constant thing. Anytime I have this issue and a white woman is standing there, I’ll ask, why don’t you ask her why she’s in priority? Why is she there? Why are you pointing, is it because I’m black and African or because I wear Ankara?
How can we build up the girl child to face these reductionists’ challenge and overcome them?
They should be more assertive. They should not feel that they are second class citizens. I don’t feel like a second class citizen abroad, with the elite, or with the government. I think they should be able to speak up to defend their space in society. Nobody will do it for them.
Do the schools still have a role to play in this regard?
Yes, I remember at the university, one of the lecturers used to refer to me as “that black girl”, he talked about how I used to walk tall and talk boldly. This is because of my carriage and confidence in all that I do. Sometimes, the family you come from has a high impact on how you see yourself.
My mum didn’t make me feel as if I am second class to my brothers. I think she had more confidence in me because for over 30 years before her death, I was co-signatory to her business accounts. . So, I got confidence from early childhood and also my father’s family they have very powerful women and they held their own in society.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My Grandmother Moriamo Ibidere Oshinowo was a big-time textile merchant. She had 3 daughters. . They used to go from one market to the other those days, I remember I used to hear her story. I never met her because she died many years before I was born. You know this Yoruba belief in re-incarnation… They believed that I was their mother, who came back and they never call me by name. Anytime they saw me, they used my grandmother’s Oriki (panegyrics) to call me. They said, I’m like her, she was tall and all that. I never met her. But before she died, she divided her trade into three. The middle daughter Sinatu Oshinowo, of the famous Oshinowo Transport Service, married Abudu Benson, who also ran the Benson Transport buses. Part of my Master’s thesis was based on Sinotu Oshinowo. This because my master thesis was on the Yoruba market women and the impact of colonialism on them. So I had to look at traditional pre-colonial society and why it was women who are the traders in the colonial society. And why was it that women sell certain things that men could not sell?
You can never see a man in the market sell pepper, neither can you see a woman sell beef, the men would catch the fish, but it’s a woman that will sell it. In Yoruba markets, all the people who sold the same thing always sat together. You will see oil stalls, pepper stalls, or garri stalls. So, that was what my master’s thesis was focused on, and also how colonialism has affected women. As a result of colonialism, Yoruba men went into trading which was the exclusive preserve of women in pre-colonial society.
In pre-colonial times, the Yoruba men were predominantly farmers, hunters, Iron smiths, etc, but in traditional society, the men were farmers, hunters most times in a field, but it was always a woman that sold such things.
Your upbringing to an extent reflected in your confidence as a woman, what role do you think schools can play in building up the girl-child?
We have introduced etiquette lessons here at Grace Schools for more than 20 years now. It’s not in the curriculum, but we introduced it. I always tell the girls that there are so many things you can’t cover up with lipstick and powder, like bad behaviour, all other vices. You can’t cover that up with lipstick and powder.
Many big names finished from Grace school such as the Ekiti State first lady, Bisi Fayemi, Bollywood star, Funke Akindele, and head of DSTV, Dewunmi Ogunsanya. How do you feel when you see these people doing exploits?
I feel very happy seeing these people as alumni. When I started, I didn’t begin at the top, rather, I started as a nursery assistant. I taught Year 2, Year 3, and Year 6. These were called Primary classes at that time. Some of the children I taught, their children are here now. So whenever we have a PTA meeting and I see some of them, I feel so happy. So I’m very happy about seeing their children here.
How has COVID-19 affected the education sector, particularly the payment of school fees?
COVID-19 affected everybody, now people have some level of clarity because many realised They attached importance to useless things. During the pandemic, I notice that most of the time you can’t even tell when it is evening or day, because there’s nowhere to go. You sit in front of the television, watching CNN and you hear reports about 900 people in Spain, Italy, etc dying daily as a result of Coronavirus.
So life is vanity. Most of the people even women, who couldn’t do without going to the hairdressers, can’t go to the salon or do their nails. A lot of businesses suffered losses, but the only profits that most businesses have made or we made is to stay alive during the crisis. The biggest profit is that you are alive. We thank God we didn’t have it as bad as it happened in Europe and other places. Although they were not expecting that, they were expecting thousands dying on the streets, but we thank God we didn’t have such things. Then, we had to go on lockdown in March and the last fees that came in were in January and we had to pay the staff. Even when we were going in March, not all the students had paid their fees, because we were just about to start the exams. So, it was tough.
In several places, there is tension about the second wave of COVID-19, should Nigerians be concerned?
Yes, it is happening in Europe. I hope it does not happen here. Our people are becoming complacent. A lot of people have stopped wearing their facial masks on the streets!
To what extent do you think the pandemic has helped Nigeria to embrace digital alternative?
Actually, before the lockdown in March, we have a very good system here. We were already used to the online system, so it didn’t come to us as a shock. We could cope because all the things were already in place. But the only thing was that, because we had to do the online school, the teachers couldn’t come here, so we had to pay for data and sometimes, data is about N600,000 or N700,000 per month because they are in their various houses. So, that’s how we were able to cope. And the parents didn’t understand it at the beginning. They couldn’t hear what they were saying during classes.
But that wasn’t our fault, it was the network problem. In the end, many people now realised what teachers go through teaching children, because some had to supervise their children, so they won’t end up visiting other websites. Also, it made the students more academically independent. Some of the children started doing interviews. Can you imagine they have their own YouTube channels? It was really impressive, it made them more independent.
Grace school has a strong alumni base, how supportive are they?
Well, not as much as I would have loved, but we are moving. When we celebrated the 50th-anniversary, Dewunmi Ogunsanya, the head of Multichoice, was here and he supported the school. We have an ample lot of them who support once in a while.
What should Nigerians be expecting from Grace School in the coming years?
I think we are more technically savvy now.
Grace School sometimes ago partnered with an institution in Canada?
Yes, with a Canadian school. We should have started in September, but we were slowed down by the COVID-19 effect. By God’s grace, the announcement for admission will start by May 2021.
Can you take us through the process?
Ok, it’s a diploma programme. You’ll do the first year here and then go to Canada to conclude the rest. We have built the school premise from the scratch. You know, there is another acre of land, just at the back of the premises.
When you look back on your journey so far, is there anything you’d wish you did differently?
Initially, I didn’t want to be here. Well, I have always wanted to be a professor, because I like to read. I have always wanted to be like Prof. Bolanle Awe, a professor of history. I used part of her works for my Master’s thesis. I suppose now, it’s not too bad, in the sense that I’m able to influence more people, children and more young adults that I wouldn’t have if I was a professor.
Let talk about your love for Ankara?
When I was doing my A-levels, I used to wear Ankara. One day I went into a shop somewhere in Victoria Island and I ask how is much this? And one of the girls didn’t even answer me, but the other one answered. Then the other one that answered, later on, came towards me and said, guess what? That when I initially walked into their shop, the other girl that did not acknowledge my presence had said, “This one in Ankara, what can she afford? So, even here when you wear Ankara they look down on you and the person who doubted what I can buy, couldn’t even afford anything in that shop.
But white people prefer Ankara?
What I notice in Paris is that all the women love wearing Ankara. It was in France that I first saw women on the street selling corns as they do in Africa, in some parts of Paris they will wrap it a newspaper. A lot of African women in Paris wear Ankara. And you would even think this is Africa. So most of the women, almost all of the women are wearing Ankara. Even in Cotonou, you will see the men wearing Ankara on jeans and they are okay.
In General what inspires you when you see children?
I love kids. You can judge a person from the way they treat the weakest people in society, especially, children, women and the old people. Because they are the most disadvantaged.
Grace school as an educational institution, do you have any sustaining programme?
Yes, we do a lot of charity work that we don’t amplify.
What is your philosophy of life?
I think you should be nice to everybody. Don’t look down on anybody, treat everybody with respect. Something I have noticed about Nigerians if you go to a party, they will say some people are special and should be served as regulars. Never in my party, if you arrived on time or late, eat what’s available. I don’t reserve things for special categories of people, I don’t like that. Everybody is equal before God, so that’s how I deal with people. Treat everybody with respect.
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