Josephine Anenih: I Pity People Who Think That Life is All About What They Can Get

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A former Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Iyom Josephine Anenih, is characteristically personable; but then beneath that veneer is a streak of mental toughness that exemplifies the magnitude of her spartan disposition, the unremitting authority of an educationist cum lawyer; and the bravura deployment of wits and grits in the contact between law and politics. In a chat with Sufuyan Ojeifo in Abuja, she was in her elements, trying to redirect the trajectory and the focus of the narrative of her being, longing and belonging from what she considered to be pedestrian to the sublime

She exuded a gung-ho disposition as I was ushered into the living room of the modest home of one of her sons, Oseyili, obviously a chip off the old block, in the highbrow Maitama District of Abuja. Exchange of pleasantries was short and sharp like an angel’s visit.  She was ready for the chat, which I had requested about a week earlier through her very reliable son.  

Clad in her typical white buba (top) and iro (wrapper) with white headscarf, Iyom Joseph Anenih, a grandmother, who recently turned 70, adjusted herself in a corner of the sofa and fired the first salvo: “this kind of soft interview, for me, is not inspiring. I have been talking about my life, my upbringing and all those stuff over and again; and I do not see how that has added value to society.  We should engage with the serious issues.”

I tried to explain how the reading public is not static and, to that extent, while it is true that many persons might have read her interviews in the past about the sedate aspects of her life, there are many others who are yet to and, for them, it would be an opportunity and, perhaps, a pleasure to be let into her life and times, that were preponderated by her dignity before and during the ferment of her politics and participation in political party administration.

And when I thought I had won the first round of the deliberate, even if fecund engagement, and that the voyage of discovery would be smooth, she fired back in a swift riposte when I addressed her as chief: “I am not a chief.” I tried to redirect myself: “Mrs. would be it.” She replied: “I am not Mrs.” I tried some other descriptions; I could not strike the right chord, until she came to my rescue: “I am Iyom Josephine Anenih.” And with that temporary dissonance over, the interface began.       

The genesis of Iyom pedigree

When I asked, in curiosity, about the construction, conception and meaning of Iyom, I could see the excitement in her eyes. She replied: “Iyom is a title in Igbo land.  It is actually from Agukwu-Nri but, I find out that I was a trendsetter; when I started answering Iyom, everybody wanted to answer Iyom; even up to communities that did not use to have it are now doing it.  It originally started from Nri.  It is a social and elitist status.  The equivalent in men is called Ozo. We have the Igwe; we have the Ozo; we have the Nze and then the Iyom.  This Iyom is a community leader for women and in the days gone past, it was actually even a spiritual leader because those from Nri were the priests of Ibo land.  If there was any abomination or anything, it was from Nri that you would get a priest that would come cleanse the land.  So, Iyom would do the same thing especially for the market and women; and in that patriarchal society, where men and women don’t sit together, by the time you attain that level, you can actually sit in meetings, in council with the men.

“The Iyom elitist club is quite expensive to join; the fees, the cost of the ceremony that you have to do, can be quite exorbitant. So, I am not a chief. I used to be a chief in Okpella and in Amawbia. Iyom is not a chief.”

An unchanged worldview at 70  

Iyom Josephine Anenih is a respected woman leader both in the political and cultural settings nuanced by mundane considerations. And at 70, even her traducers would be at great pains to deny her due recognition and accolades for her accomplishments so far. Regardless of the vicissitudes of life and the obvious deficit of reciprocal gestures in social-political interactions, her worldview has not changed. Responding to a question in that direction, she fired a poser: “Am I expected to change my sight at 70? But I still see the world as I see it.  But maybe, you want to say that at 70, I should slow down and do more recollection about my life so far and what I think because the world is till the world and I see it the way you see it.”    

In a succinct explication of an ideal world that has been violated through the tension of inhuman goals and objectives, she said: “The world, right now, is so violent; an unsafe place to live in and I remember the days back, that we call the good old days when there was relative peace and there was humanity. People loved to see and interact with other human beings, make genuine and lasting friends.  But we do not see that these days. Most of the people you find now are detached. There is not that connection between and among human beings any more. You find that a lot of people who you meet along the road, acquaintances, may be professional associates, but there is no depth in the relationship. It is more like what can I get out of it, not for the sake of wanting to interact with fellow human beings.

“People are always watching and looking out for what they can get out of the relationship. And, it is sad. I pity people who think that life is all about what you can get; I find that personally what gives me more joy and satisfaction and the sense of fulfillment is when I consider what I can give. When I give, I get more joy than when I receive. But most people now would tell you that they are not on that lane. So, it is not a trend that started at my 70th birthday. It has been growing.” Consider her amplification: “So, the day I will stop giving will be the day I will be in the coffin.”

Activist or non-conformist

While she agreed to be an activist, she did not acquiesce to her being categorised as a non-conformist: “It is not that I am non-conformist. I have said what it is: that I am nobody’s person. Nobody put me there. I worked my way through and I do not owe my existence in the party to anybody.  So, I was fighting my way through. I had to be a real fighter to survive.  I had no godfather or godmother or anybody protecting me.  So, I had nobody to offend. And, I was not afraid.  It also happens to men, not only women. When some people are sponsored by godfathers, they cannot be their own persons; they cannot express their own opinions because if you offended your godfather, you would not be allowed to re-contest or retain your position and people are more interested in holding on to their positions than in doing what they should do. And they have no opinion and they do not believe in anything other than pleasing their masters. So my master was my God; my master was the interest of the Nigerian women. The woman was my master; what to do to please the woman.”

Love for hereditary politics

Her take on this is quite revealing, which is perhaps, a good insight into the fact that no child of the great political tactician, Chief Tony Anenih, is in politics yet: “Well, they are all independent human beings and all of them are very intelligent and they know what they want from life; and, so, it is not for me to say that ‘you must be in politics or not.’ If they want to be in politics, they would have made my day.  I would be very happy. If they don’t want to be in politics, I would also be very happy because I know that whatever path they decide to take in life, it is a path that would bring out who they are or what they are. It is not only in politics that they can impact their society; it is not only through politics that they can leave a mark in the sands of time. There are so many things and so, for me, what I want for my children would be their happiness.  

“Whatever they are doing that gives them that sense of fulfillment and accomplishment; and, allows them to express themselves as full-bodied, intelligent human beings, I would go for it.  If any of them says he wants to be politics, I would be happy that I am leaving a trail behind and I know that a couple of my children are interested in politics and I am encouraging them but maybe their father is not encouraging them; maybe that is the reason they have not launched out because they are obedient children.”

Political mentorship of women

But as for how well she has fared in the political mentoring of women, she said, “I would score myself 100 per cent because I have not relented.  I am still doing it and I have always done it, encouraging women to come out and any woman who wants to come out, I share my experience, knowledge and everything with them. The thing is that Nigerian women have not discovered the potential in themselves.  That is why this country is not getting it right.  The only thing is that because of socialisation, the way we were brought up as women, a lot of them are wired to be seen and not to be heard. They should be demur and self-effacing. For them to come out is taking some time but I am happy that they are blossoming; they are coming out and if you see the ones that have come out, they are so confident, brave and articulate.  You see women from all walks of life, showing interest in politics because I tell them: “You see, you are the best politicians but you are doing it under cover.” I tell them to come out.”

Regrets, low and high points

According to her “I have a lot of low and high points. My low point was when after elections and I looked at the tally and I did not see a substantial increment in the number of women that have been elected and I knew that we had worked so hard for it but we could not make it; it was quite discouraging and it depressed me. And it still does. At those moments, I just sit and wonder whether it is worth it, whether it is not better for Nigerians to carry on, to let them do whatever they like; and, luckily, I do not stay too long in that valley.  I would come out again and ensure that we keep slugging it out; we keep going at it; it is not going to be an easy thing to change a culture, to reform the way things are done is not achieved in a generation.  It has never been.  You read history; there are some struggles that had taken two hundred years, over 100 years before they were actualised.  So, I encourage myself to go on, knowing that we will get there one day. It may not be in my time, but if we just continue chipping at it, one day it will give way.”

Secret of looking 50 at 70

Iyom Josephine Anenih has this to say: “Well, I give glory to God because He is the one that molded me. So, I don’t know how He did it. But I also think that what you are inside reflects outside.  If you are bitter, it will show outside. If you are frowning inside and squeezing your face, your face would be wrinkled but if you don’t, it would always look ironed and smooth.  When I see women frowning, I say to them to iron out their faces.  If you understand the basis of life, one would know that one is not in charge of life.  There is God that is in charge of your life. You give that to Him and you do not try to manipulate anything: just flow with what you see and with what you get.  You are content with whatever you have.  You do not want to own the entire world.  I am a Christian and I read the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible wherein the writer summarises life: there is a time for everything; there is a season for everything.  If you accumulate material things; it is all vanity because you are not going anywhere with it.  And so, if you understand that and you imbibe it, you find that it helps you to live your life.  You are content with what you have. All these unnecessary fights and having sleepless nights, you have one house and you are running around because you want to have 10 houses; you have a good car and you are looking for a second backup car in case that one goes to mechanic but you want to own all the cars in the world, cover them up with tarpaulin because you cannot drive them all; you want to step on people, to get ahead of people; you want to be everywhere; you want to have everything that everybody has. Then you will be getting old now because it is called “wear and tear”. But if you are content with what you have, knowing that you can only eat so much and you are always thinking of what to do for other people and not what they can do for you, putting smiles on other people’s faces; that extra money that you have, instead of hoarding it or using it to buy a car to park without using, you use it to help another person or even dash another person that car, the joy that you get will elongate your life. But so many people do not understand this. This penchant for material acquisition, that is, vulgar acquisition, is what causes a lot of problem for a lot of people.”