During the yuletide season, hundreds of widows and orphans converged on Yaba to attend a party organised by a nonprofit group. Solomon Elusoji, who was there, writes that the party was only a footnote

Every year, the Rose of Sharon Foundation, a nonprofit organisation devoted to the welfare of widows and orphans, organises a Christmas party for its beneficiaries in Lagos. Usually held on an open field inside the premises of the Yaba College of Technology, the widows and orphans come out in identical, colourful ankara prints. They present cultural performances, dance, make merriment with food and drinks, and are treated to a bouquet of academic and professional scholarships sponsored by the foundation’s founder, Mrs. Folorunso Alakija, one of the richest women on earth.

Last year’s edition of the Christmas party, which was headlined by the First Lady of Lagos, Mrs. Bolanle Ambode and Alakija, was no different. Defying a tepid sun, the duo, seated under a canopy watched performances after performances – poetry recitations, cultural dances – before proceeding towards an exhibition stand where Rose of Sharon widows displayed the works of their hands. There were also Christmas hampers for sale.

Mrs. Ambode, who charged Nigerians to use the festive season to reach out and show love by giving and sharing with others, encouraged the widows and orphans to put their trust in God, noting that when all hope seems lost and help too far away, He will suddenly appear and meet their needs as their Husband and Father. The First Lady of Lagos, who is the Grand Matron of the foundation, also commended the foundation for its relentless efforts to improve the conditions of the widows, their children and orphans in all ramifications.

Also speaking at the party, Alakija, said the foundation will continue to advocate for the rights of widows and orphans in the country. She called on all stakeholders to join them in the fight. Alakija, who highlighted some of the foundation’s achievements during the period, said that 2017 was a fruitful year. According to her, the foundation’s empowerment programme has benefitted widows from all the geopolitical zones of the country. Over 1,000 widows, together with their children, emerged as beneficiaries and recipients of loans and scholarships.

“Wipe away your tears, roll up your sleeves, pray, believe and look for what you can do. Start doing something,” she encouraged the group.

To improve the health of the widows, founder, Cancer Awareness Nigeria, a nonprofit organisation, Mrs. Tolulope Falowo, gave away 100 vouchers to those over 40 years of age. The vouchers enabled them to undergo free cancer screening. Also, the CEO of Makemee Elegant, Mrs. Kehinde Okoroafor, offered to train 50 widows in producing wigs and weave-on.

To promote academic excellence among the children of the widows, the foundation also gave cash prizes to primary, secondary and tertiary students who distinguished themselves. The student with the best result in the Bachelor’s degree category was, however, awarded a scholarship for further study with a cash prize of N50, 000.

On its website, the Rose of Sharon Foundation (RoSF), describes its purpose as “an NGO focused on alleviating the plight of widows and orphans.” The Foundation says it designs and “execute programmes that give financial independence and educational opportunities to widows, their children and orphans.”

A journey that started with three widows on May 23, 2008, the foundation has now morphed into a network of almost a thousand widows. Since inception, RoSF has empowered 970 widows – 11 of whom are in university, awarded scholarships to 1,366 widow’s children and 72 orphans, according to data extracted from its website. The loans to widows are interest free and the scholarships have no conditions attached. It has also provided accommodation for residential/business purposes for 82 widows. Moreover, it has provided some free healthcare checkups and free legal services to our widows with the support of other agencies.

One of the widows the foundation has empowered is Mrs. Josephine Bhate, who spoke to this reporter in 2015. Mrs. Bhate lost her husband in 2006, and was left to cater for four children. She got to know about the Rose of Sharon Foundation through a church member, and since then, as she tells us, they have been incredibly helpful.

“God has been helping me,” she said. “God has been using this foundation for us. At times, they train us on how to do something for a living. Last time, we were taught how to make beads, decorations, and make-up. So, in future we can make use of it. At times, they will bring people to teach us about hygiene. They are really trying for the widows.”

Another widow who has benefited from the foundation’s benevolence is Mrs. Chinwendu Augustine, who spoke to THISDAY earlier this year. In 2006, Chinwendu Augustine lost her husband in an accident along Oshodi Expressway. The news shook her terribly. “I did not even know I would be alive today,” Augustine said, 11 years after the unfortunate incident that left her an unemployed widow with three kids to support. “It was tough and a very heavy burden; I was left all alone.”

But, in 2012, Augustine heard about RoSF. Quickly, she signed up. “The Foundation has really changed my life,” she said. “They wiped off my tears; they gave me interest free loans and sent my children to school.” Augustine’s only daughter just recently passed out from the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, studying Business Management and Agriculture, through a RoSF scholarship. “In fact, anytime I call upon them, they are always there for me,” Augustine added. “I thank God that He used this Foundation to take care of me.”

According to Forbes, as at December 2016, Mrs. Folorunso Alakija was worth $1.43billion. A onetime fashion designer and style connoisseur, Alakija struck gold when she obtained an oil exploration license from the Nigerian government in the early 1990s. Now the vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company, she credits her success to the divine, hard work and persistence. These three factors, too, have informed her philanthropy.

RoSF is affiliated to Rose of Sharon Glorious Ministry International, a Christian Ministry also started by Alakija, “to provide spiritual strengthening through the God we serve, give comfort and encouragement where the opportunity presents itself for the widows, their children, orphans and the neglected in our society,” a statement from the foundation’s website said.

Beyond the spiritual, she also believes that people who are ready to work hard and persevere will eventually prevail. This is why RoSF emphasises skills empowerment programmes over the mechanical idea of doling out ephemeral packages. Last December, RoSF, donated a skills acquisition centre and bookshop to the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos.

Alakija, in a press release obtained by THISDAY, said the centre and bookshop, both located in a bungalow, are to support the college to train more youths, widows and less-privileged to become self reliant. “Education is one thing that is important within our structure as a foundation for widows and orphans to be educated,” she said.