She was not born great but by dint of hard work, determination and unwillingness to settle for less, she is achieving great things. She is breaking grounds that ordinarily, she wouldn’t have been able to. Miss Chioma Esther Uwandu is an MSc holder in English Literature and Founder of Impact Her Initiative, an NGO, focused on empowering women and girls. In this interview with Peter Uzoho, Uwandu talks about the organisation, her rough childhood experience and education, her catering vocation, among others
You hold a Master’s degree in English Literature, tell us about your educational journey?
Yes, I hold a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Lagos. I had my Bachelor of Art in English Literature from Lagos State University. I started school at an early age. By age five, I was already in primary one, even before my hand could touch my ears from my head. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth- I had a rough childhood. My parents had seven children in a one-room apartment. I was the third child and second daughter, and our last were a set of twins. There was definitely no way our parents could afford private schools for the large number of children they had. So I and my siblings attended public schools, sometimes without school bags and textbooks. We put our writing materials in nylon bags and sometimes wore slippers to school, but were not deterred. Our parents, especially our mother would advise us to sit in front and listen to what the teachers were teaching that we would learn even better than children with textbooks or those in private schools. Remembering those days brings tears to my eyes. We struggled until there was a gradual change in our family’s income through my mother’s struggle in various businesses. We moved from the public school to a less-expensive private school where I completed my primary education. From then, I attended State Grammar School, a government secondary school in Surulere, though, things were still not rosy. After secondary school, I had to work for over a year before I started university. I worked as a sales representative in Cash and Carry Nigeria Limited in 2008, and gained admission into Lagos State University (LASU) in October the same year. I graduated from LASU in 2012, went for NYSC in Ekiti State in March 2013 and finished service in February 2013. I went into catering after then, worked in some organisations, before beginning my Master’s programme in January 2016. The journey so far had been rigorous but I had been determined, plus I have dedicated parents who would do anything to see that all their children are educated. Today, my family boasts of a Master’s degree holder, a daughter in journalism who is about rounding up her Master’s programme, a graduate in Economic-Statistics who is also an MTN scholar for three straight years, and two undergraduates. This could only happen where there is a strong determination, even in the face of limitations.
Did you originally wish to study English Literature in school?
I had always wanted to study English Literature. I grew up loving stories- my mother would sit her seven children and told us those local/village stories. We had our moonlight tales in Lagos. I started to read novels at an early age, and in JSS1 I had written a story my English teacher said stood out among others. In Senior Secondary School, at a point we didn’t have a Literature teacher, I and few friends organised Literature tutorials for our mates. There was no way I’d thought of a different line of course other than Literature. So, English Literature had always been my choice from the onset.
You are also a caterer and a good one indeed, tell us how you ventured into the catering vocation?
Yes, I’m a certified caterer. I have a great Cook in the person of my mother. From an early age, I learnt how to cook. I’d said earlier my mother put her hands into many things when we were growing up, ranging from selling perishable goods to seasonal foods, even to selling cooked food- what we call in our local area ‘mama put”. There’s no food my mother would not cook, there’s no pastry she couldn’t make, except cakes. So I grew up loving foods and how to prepare them. After my first degree, before I went for service, I went to a catering class to brush up on my skills and be certified. And after NYSC, I went into catering full time, coming from Okoko to the Island to distribute chinchin to my clients. From my undergraduate days and even during my NYSC, I was called “Chioma Chinchin”, and many of my friends still call me by that name. My catering outfit is Chioma Delicious Foods, with the motto: ‘A Taste will convince you’.
You are the Founder of Impact Her Initiative; can we know more about the organisation?
Impact Her Initiative (IHI) is a Non-Governmental, Not-for-Profit organisation geared towards the psychological reorientation of girls and women in our society. It was borne out of a conscious desire to make a change in my society, first as an individual (human), and also as a woman. It seeks among other things to deconstruct every notion that sets a girl or woman on the fringes as a second class individual, or inferior. The organisation came into existence in July 2016.
Who are the partners and sponsors of the organisation?
Impact Her Initiative would not be able to achieve all it sets out to achieve without the support of people, organisations and bodies who believe in us. Whole Woman Network is one of our chief sponsors (WWN). WWN is an organisation that seeks to educate girls who will in turn educate others. I was privileged to be part of WWN’s Educate s a Girl (EAG) programme in December 2015, and it was an eye opener for me to stand up and make a change. Glass Door Concepts is also one of our sponsors (GDC). GDC supports art and education through its humanitarian arm. IHI was supported with books from GDC during our Maiden Girl’s Summit in April, 2017. Comic Republic also supported us. Comic Republic is a leading comic enterprise that has a section of its work dedicated to the celebration of Nigeria’s heroines like Moremi of Ife, Amina of Zaria, Avonome of Benin, to mention a few. Our partners believe in our vision and have been supporting us morally, financially, and material wise.
A good number of organisations are out there championing the cause of women and girls. What makes IHI unique in this regard?
Impact Her Initiative is an organisation with a difference. Yes, other NGOs are championing the cause of women and girls, but we’re doing more. We’re changing the way women and girls think, thus, we’re an NGO geared towards the psychological reorientation of girls and women in our society. We want to deconstruct, reconstruct and proffer solutions to women’s problems and not necessarily agitating or fighting. We want women to be empowered. After the conscious education and reorientation, we want these women to learn life skills. That’s why we’re including skills acquisition programmes as part of our drive to help women become better individuals.
Recently, your organisation held its maiden Girl’s Summit; can we know more about that?
IHI held its maiden Girl’s Summit in UNILAG on Friday, 7th of April, 2017. The Girl’s Summit was tagged ‘Female Empowerment and Sustainable Development’. We brought together seasoned and distinguished speakers from various fields to come and speak to girls, women, including men, on the need for independence, self-reliance, industry, and empowerment. Among our speakers were Chinyere Obi-Obasi, a lawyer, writer, motivational speaker, comedienne and blogger. She spoke on ‘Maximising Your Potentials as a Woman’. We also had Queen Nkem, the winner of Ideal Nigeria 2016; she spoke on ‘Female Empowerment: A Sure Way to Sustainable Development’. We had Kate Ekanem, a Girl-child activist/advocate, a U.S. Carrington Fellow and Founder of Kate Tales Foundation. She also spoke on ‘The Rights of the Girl-child’. And we had a Doctorate candidate of history and international analyst, Mr. Abimbola Oyarinu, who gave a sizzling lecture titled ‘Women: Through my Lens’. He discussed how he sees women from his perspective as a man, and emphasised that women should stop fighting for equality but demand for equity. One of our speakers, Jide Martin, could not make it to the event due to circumstances beyond his control. Martin is the CEO of Comic Republic.
Was the audience motivated at the end of the summit?
Yes, the audience was really motivated. The audience was made up of secondary school girls, university female undergraduates, women, and even men. At the end of the summit, questions raised by the audience and suggestions proffered by the resource persons showed the event got through to them. They were indeed empowered.
What are the challenges facing Impact Her Initiative as a new organisation?
IHI is a new NGO coming on board where there are several NGOs already. We have many challenges at the moment, some of which include funding for projects, land to build Resource/Vocational Centre,support from key stakeholders. We believe these challenges are surmountable. We can achieve more with great support from men and women of goodwill, private and public sectors, other NGOs and even the government.
Where do you wish to see IHI 10 years from now?
I hope to see IHI in 10 years time as a formidable structure where women and girls go for succour. IHI will become a beacon of hope to women in the nearest future. We would become a world class hub for women’s development.
From your experience as a woman, what are the challenges faced by women in their quest to rise to the top?
Growing up as a young girl in a rural community, I saw the challenges women face being mothers and care-givers. One major challenge against women is our gender. Because you’re woman, you’re not expected to do certain things, to achieve certain things, and to hold certain positions. Every other problem women face today in our society is a result of the fact that they are females by gender, and religiously, culturally, economically, and socially, there are codes women are not expected to break. Thus, in our society if a woman rises beyond certain levels, men and even the society frown at it. It takes a lot of strength, determination and dedication for women to rise to the top.
Where do you wish to see women in the nearest future?
In the future, I want to see women in places hitherto they were not allowed to enter. I want to see women holding viable positions; I want to see women taking responsibilities, risks and challenges. I want to see women empowered in every aspect of life.
What is your definition of a perfect woman?
A perfect woman is an all-rounder. A woman who’s intellectually and morally sound in the African ideals of womanhood- a lover of other women, a care-giver and succour to people in distress, and lover of God.
From a woman’s perspective, how would you describe feminism?
Feminism in its simplicity is the advocating of equal rights and opportunities for women. For me, feminism shouldn’t only be about fighting for equality, but seeks for cooperation, understanding and appreciation, first, as a human, and then, a woman. Feminism as a concept or movement has several strands or branches otherwise known as multiple voices. I tell people that I’m an African feminist. African feminism is not aggressive; it is not fighting for supremacy or control. It advocates respect for African woman for her unique roles, and preaches complementarity between the African woman and man. The African woman needs the support of her man to achieve more.
What is your take on women who shy away from cooking in their homes in the name of being career women?
For me, women who shy away from cooking but pursue careers are not entirely serious. I do know some women when growing up had maids who took, care of foods in the household,but the truth is when they finally settle down in marriages,that aspect of taking care of a man and children stares them in the face. What do you do when you find yourself in that situation? I advise women as much as we pursue careers, let us also learn to cook, if not for anything, for ourselves and our family. We don’t want our men to be frequenting restaurants and fast food outlets simply because their wives can’t cook. The African adage that says “the way to a man’s heart is through his belly” means well. It’s only a man satisfied in both his belly and “the other room” that will support his woman. In a nutshell, pursuing a career should not be a reason to negate your womanly duties. Of course, the kitchen was first given to women, and,an African woman is incomplete if she cannot cook.
Who is your role model?
My mother is my role model. She is a strong woman who dares to achieve the seemingly impossible. My mother, Pastor Mrs. Florence Uwandu, is one woman too many. She’s never agreed for less. Having seven children in a harsh local environment like Orile did not deter her from pursuing her dreams. She got herself involved in any kind of trade you can think of, just to cater for us. And she didn’t also give up on her dream to be well educated. Today, she’s a graduate from Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, and has even started processing her admission into Lagos State University for another degree. Close to age 60, my mother refuses to give up. She now has a nursery and primary school, and more recently, a college. This is a woman who no one thought could do much because she had more than half a dozen of children with little or no means to cater for them.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a strong woman. I see myself as a formidable force to reckon with in the near future, in my chosen career. Though single, I see myself as a wonderful wife, mother, and friend. I am simply beautiful and amazing.
What kind of man would you love to settle down with as husband?
I want a man who would believe in my vision and dreams and supports me- a man who would love me for who I am, and would never see me as a threat in my pursuit for greatness. I want a man who would see beyond care for me and encourage me to achieve the impossible for both us, who would be proud of the woman in his life. I want a man who’s a lover of life, adventurer himself and God-fearing.