Betty: A woman of steel
Even though we are from the same state and zone, Imo, Owerri, I first met Ondo state First Lady, Betty Anyanwu- Akeredolu on the pages of newspapers before I met her physically this other day in Akure. Let me also disclose that we attended the same secondary school – Egbu Girls, in Owerri North LGA – but I didn’t quite take note. I was her junior, and you know, at the time, junior students held their senior students very much in awe. But our paths crossed on the pages of a newspaper soon after her husband, Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN, was elected a governor. I was going through a newspaper, I forget which now, when I came across an interview she granted.
You will forgive me, but I am not particularly a fan of Nigerian First Ladies. I feel many of them live what I call plastic lives. So unreal. I hardly pay attention to their various foundations, or projects. I may be wrong, but I think they have no passion for such things. But embark on them for personal gains. It is their own ATM. They fizzle out as soon as the First Ladies leave office. Nobody hears about the foundations and/or projects anymore. Again, I may be wrong. But for a few of them, I neither see, nor know the impact they made, and/or make on the society.
I admit that it is not general in character. A couple of them made, and are still making verifiable impact on the lives of people. Here, I acknowledge the former First Lady of Rivers State, Hon Justice Mary Peter-Odili, JSC. As a First Lady, she was solid. She had vision. Not only did she not abandon her career during her eight years of First Ladyship in Rivers State, her pet project – The Adolescent Programme, TAP – groomed thousands of teenagers to become accomplished in life. TAP gave them a gateway to their sources of livelihood.
I can also confirm what the First Lady of Imo state, Nneoma Rochas Okorocha, has been doing with her widowhood foundation. Using it, Mrs. Okorocha has provided modern accommodation – two to three bedroom flats – for scores of widows who, before lived in batchers. And there are the current First Ladies of Kebbi and Niger States, both medical doctors, who are doing tremendous jobs with women and children, health-wise.
So, not being a fan of First Ladies, it was the headline of Mrs. Anyanwu-Akeredolu’s interview that attracted me to read it. “How I survived cancer for 20 years,” it was entitled. I was intrigued. Few women in her status would admit publicly they had cancer. So, I began to read the interview, and couldn’t put it down. She revealed, in the interview, what African women, especially, Nigerian women, rarely talk about. She revealed she went through a masectomy. She said several people, women in particular, advised her not to go through that procedure of cutting off her breast because of her husband. She spurned them. She told them her husband had played enough with her breast and, if that was the only thing that would keep her marriage, she preferred staying alive to the marriage. She needed to be alive and take care of her children. The dead takes care of nobody. She couldn’t stand the thought that she died because she didn’t want to cut off her breast. They said her husband may marry another woman if she cut off her breast. And her response was simple: “Let him marry two more if he desires. But, I will cut off this breast so as to be alive for my children.” In 1997 when this breast cancer came calling, the Ondo First Lady was a young woman, only 44 years old!
The masectomy was not the only stunner in that interview. She delved into another an almost no-go area for women. “I am older than my husband with about three years,” she said. I was stunned. But she was not done yet.
Asked how she would cope in the Ondo State Government House, being of another tribe, she was quick to respond. “I am an Igbo woman, proud of my roots, married to the love of my life, an Ondo man. We have become one. But people should be ready to hear a lot of “Dalu” in the government house.” Only a sure-footed woman, with lots of self esteem would dare say such things. This Ondo First Lady is in a class of her own.
Fragile looking. Cool. Calm. Calculated. Elegant. Soft-spoken. Petit, almost, her appearance is very deceitful. For, embedded in that fragile frame is a lady I call “A woman of Steel.” She is lion-hearted. But she is also as passionate as she is strong-willed. She holds strong in her beliefs. And Mrs Anyanwu- Akeredolu is bold and fearless when pursuing anything that has to do with the girl-child education and the rights of women.
A native of Emeabiam in the Owerri West LGA, Imo state, she was born to parents who were teachers. She imbibed the spirit of hardwork and independence from her mother who quit teaching because of the meagre salary, to supplement her father’s income. She became a trader instead. In her community then, as in other Igbo communities, it was rare to educate the girl-child. They felt it was a useless venture. Put her in school, they thought, and it would be to the advantage of another family. She would soon get married, and every effort made towards her education would becomes a waste. Her parents loss. Her would-be matrimonial family’s gain, they reasoned.Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, Ondo State First Lady.
The young Betty’s parents saw it differently. They put her in school. According to her, she was neither seen nor brought up as a girl-child. She was a child. As much a child as her brothers. No difference. After her primary school, she went to Egbu Girl’s Secondary School in the Owerri North LGA. And later, to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she studied Zoology. In doing that, Betty became the first female University graduate in her community. It was at Nsukka that she had her first shock, and perhaps, first fell in love with the Yoruba.
While she was billed to become the first female graduate in her community, she was shocked to see that her Yoruba mates had mothers who were already lawyers, medical doctors and engineers. For her, it was a different world altogether. Would that be why she married a Yoruba? Or, just destiny? She parries the question, but quickly admits that when it comes to the rights and education of the girl-child, the Yoruba are far ahead of where she came from. And she wondered, aloud, if her marriage would have lasted for more than one year if she had married an Igbo.
From when she was very young, even though she did not experience such deprivations, Mrs. Anyanwu-Akeredolu was very much aware of the deprivations of the girl-child. Her mother was against female circumcision a done-deal then. And when her husband and his people came for her hand in marriage, her father told them: “I don’t want my daughter maltreated.” Pointing to her room, she told them: “Her room is still there for her.” And it was. And still is. To prove to her people that it is not a waste to train a girl, she is rooted in her community. Every Christmas, she goes to Emeabiam to spend it with her children. Her husband, a man very much at home with her in-laws, used to go with her, until recently. Duty calls. Tight schedule.
To be continued tomorrow
Obi is Editor-in-chief/CEO, Source Magazine