Speaking above a Whisper by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Amandla Consulting, Ibadan 2013.
First Ladies in Nigeria are almost always nobodies until their husbands become landlords in state houses. And once in government as the unofficial second-in-command, they become the most fawned-over women. Some go so far as to be addressed as “Her Excellency”, complete with office and staff to match that unmerited title. Except for a few, rarely are they heard of or known for any outstanding accomplishment or worthy cause prior to becoming the first female citizen of their respective states. But Mrs. Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, wife of Ekiti State governor, is a First Lady with a difference.
Her life pre-government house in Ado Ekiti is the subject of a recent publication, Speaking above a Whisper, and written by none other than Bisi herself. The title was unconsciously provided by a “sister” in mourning. The bereaved told Bisi who had gone to comfort her that her deceased aunt was such a nice person she never spoke above a whisper. Bisi appropriated it for a yet-to-be-written book. Now published to mark her 50th birthday, Speaking above a Whisper is the author’s way of giving voice to the voiceless, particularly women in difficult situations. Besides, the title is just as fitting as a set of lovely pearls on a classical neck.
Books like hers are usually ghost-written for people in her position. She politely declined two offers to write her biography because, in her words, “I never could have allowed anyone to tell my story for me. I wanted to write my story.”
It is a story well told, starting from her birth in Liverpool, through nursery education in England to primary, secondary and university education in Nigeria, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. Life as a young adult in Lagos and Aba in Abia State where she served as a youth corps member are not glossed over. What readers will find most fascinating however is her work as a woman activist, which started in earnest in England but whose seeds were sown in Nigeria.
Bisi was young in Lagos and was privy to the constant abuses some of her female relations were subjected to. They were dehumanising, psychologically and physically. To young Bisi, it was pitiable. She was appalled and infuriated but it was an impotent rage. She also witnessed variants of it as a youth corps member in Aba where she taught in a girl’s school. Lecherous teachers serially took advantage of hapless female students angling for better grades. One of the teachers was pluckier than the rest. He formed a habit of deliberately jugging female teacher’s breast and palming their behinds. One day, he made passes at Bisi. She tried to parry him but ended up hitting him in the face. The teacher stopped his amorous advances altogether from that day.
Bisi was simply unstoppable once she started her activism. From her early career as a volunteer activist to female inmates of African origin in UK jails, she showed an uncommon commitment that you find in those with genuine concern for women. Her capacity to source funds or mobilise women for a particular cause was simply astonishing. She met with world leaders and prominent feminists in her campaign to empower women in Africa.
There was Mrs. Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Liberian president, Mrs. Graca Machel, wife of Dr. Nelson Mandela and Mrs. Joyce Banda of Malawi. (The accompanying photographs compliment the autobiography). There were other women activists, too, whom Bisi’s relationship with has lasted to this day: Hilda Tadria and Joana Forster, co-founders of African Women Development Fund; diva Miatta Fahnbulleh and Ms Joyce Mends-Cole. There was Dr. Patricia McFadden whom she calls a mentor but later fell out with over a project, African Feminist Congress, the latter scuttled.
But such was Bisi’s devotion to women issues that there was hardly any feminist organisation or non-governmental organisation concerning African women she did not actively participate in or was not involved in its founding. There was Akina Mama waAfrica (AMwA), African Women’s Development Fund AWDF), and African Women Leadership Institute (AWLI). There were also her mentors and colleagues, from foremost feminists like Abena Busia to Jerusha Arothe-Vaughan, Jane Goldsmith and Micheline Ravololonarisoa. There was also Olga Heaven of African Prisoners Scheme and Women in Prison, not to mention rewarding meetings with Ford Foundation and similar organisations around the world.
Bisi was born on June 11, 1963, a day her father, Engineer Emmanuel Akinola Adeleye, was to be interviewed for a job but opted to stay with his wife, Emily Olufunke, in hospital. Bisi’s naïve infancy and rebellious adolescence are laid bare for readers, as her eagerness to learn by constantly pestering her father with questions. She was one of two black students in nursery school in Liverpool, and so was the subject of frequent racist taunts by other white students.
The bullying continued at Abeokuta Girls Grammar School where Bisi began her secondary education at 10. University was a lot more fun where she was simultaneously a Kegite and member of an elite social club. She found more time to gyrate with fellow Kegites than the snobbish and class-conscious club. She was financial secretary to two or three chiefs of Kegites Club and adviser to several more. The impression you get is of somebody who is proud to have been a member of a fraternity others would hastily put down. For Bisi, it was “the place where I learnt all my leadership qualities,” qualities that would come handy when she began as a woman activist.
As she recounts, Bisi had been to more than 60 countries of the world in nearly all the continents in pursuit of women matter, how to better their lot, how to empower them and give them equal status as men. For instance, she actively participated in the groundbreaking Beijing Plus meeting for women in 1995. When the subject of her husband, Kayode Fayemi, becoming a governorship candidate for Alliance for Democracy in Ekiti State was bruited to her in 2005 shortly after his 40th birthday, Bisi objected initially. But she personally nominated a woman, the late Mrs. Funmilayo Adunni Olayinka, to be his running mate.
The former-banker-turned-politician had an enduring relationship with Bisi, whom she called Ochiorah, till she died after battling cancer in Europe and Nigeria. Bisi in turn called her the Moremi of Ekiti. In one of the most moving sections of the book, Bisi tells graphically the ordeal her friend and erstwhile deputy governor endured during her illness. It was shared suffering for both women, thus evoking what D.H. Lawrence calls “the unaccountable flows and ebbs of sympathy that exist between people.”
The author and her husband, fondly called JK by her, were two soul mates whose paths crossed in university, in the library. JK’s comportment and gap-toothed smile bowled her over and courtship followed. They later re-united and married in England. Both suffered deprivation at some point. For instance, they lacked proper accommodation for a newly-wed. Bisi worked two shifts to make ends meet. JK drove a cab and was mugged once. The muggers made off with his watch, wedding ring and a sum of 20 pounds – his earning for the day.
To compound it all, a child was long in coming, partly deliberately because of work. Friends and relations misunderstood their childlessness and began to worry needlessly on their behalf. By the time a son came, he arrived on Tuesday, October 29, 1994 a day voting rights was granted to all South Africans irrespective of race – little wonder Folajimi’s second name Amandla. Overjoyed to no end, Bisi has written that “all the years of waiting, of dashed hope and agonizing faded away when I gazed at his beautiful face.”
Another source of early apprehension for the author was the 2009 governorship election which JK contested. Robbed and denied and upheld by courts and tribunals, victory came finally in 2011 when Segun Oni, candidate of PDP, was removed for electoral fraud. For their roles in the election saga, Professor Maurice Iwu, chairman of INEC, gets rapped while his successor, Professor Attahiru Jega, comes off well.
Speaking above a Whisper is a first for a First Lady. It is commendable. But the shortcoming of writing one’s story is all too glaring. First, her account of events might be written to suit herself. After all, hers is the only voice we hear. A biographer would not only have interviewed her but subjected her recollections to veracity by confirming with others mentioned in the book. This is not so, so readers are left with accounts as told by the author.
There are avoidable errors, too, which any gimlet-eyed editor would certainly not have overlooked. There is no English word like “corper”. It is a Nigerian coinage. Chest-thumping in the prologue that “I have always had a very good memory, and have always had the power of recollection” sounds rather immodest. Innate or acquired qualities are better left for others to say.
Even so, Speaking above a Whisper sets the author apart from the common perception of First ladies around here: a previously unknown underachiever now made famous as a prominent appendage of a successful politician or military appointee.
Posted by SirVic for wetopup(News Laboratry)