Wife of Kwara State Governor, Alhaji Abdufattah Ahmed, Mrs. Omolewa Ahmed, known in various circles as ‘Iya Aladura’ (The Praying Woman), through her pet project, the LEAH Foundation, has touched lives even beyond her state. In this interview with BIODUN OYELEYE, she talks about her dreams, encounter with cancer patients and sundry issues
In the beginning
The LEAH charity project has been my dream ever before we got into office as governor.
However, it was when we came into office that we got a platform to register properly and that was when we stated working on the plan to register with the corporate affairs commission; and our main vision is just to touch the lives of the people positively. We looked at the events around us and we came up with what I call the ‘She’ concept. What is this ‘She’ concept?
We talk about affecting the lives of women and children in the area of social welfare -those things that affect lives positively in the health sector – and we can give a better living to women and children in Kwara State, education wise. Since when we came into office, we have had several people walking up to us with all manner of cases.
All these interactions gave us idea of where to focus our attention because when we first came in, we had no idea of what would be the actual needs of the women in our focus.
We were just doing a general thing; ours was just about helping people, but as we were meeting new people, we were getting more experiences. Then we began to streamline and know the basic things.
No government plans for widows
Personally, I have soft spot for widows. Am so particular about them because I notice that the various governments do have a programme for all sectors of the society but I’ve not heard of specially planned programme for widows, I don’t know of now. The name LEAH came actually from reading of the scriptures. I got the inspiration when I was reading the scriptures.
Leah happens to be a woman that was despised and hated for no just reason, for just being her. I realised that widows find themselves in situations they didn’t pray for. I doubt if there is any woman who will pray to get married and lose her husband within a short period of say 10, 15 or 20 years of marriage. So before I came into office, I have had interactions and relationships with people as far back as when we were in Kano.
Presently our head of social welfare is a widow. We have come a long way together and she is a woman whose life challenges me so much. She has three children, she lost her husband when she was pregnant, carrying her third child. She single handedly raised these children to an enviable status.
Her story is quite encouraging and that is part of what motivated me to set up that desk so that she can, through her experience, talk to widows and deal with issues relating to widows like herself. So when you come to LEAH Foundation, it’s not just about what we are going to give you, but we also take them through counseling process, such that can give you hope that the future is still very bright. The death of one’s husband should not be the end of life.
One must continue till one’s destiny is attained. Many of our women, when they lose their husbands, tend to give up on life, but with counsel from someone who had passed through such stage in life, she can talk and give hope to such widows.
That was the platform on which we started the social welfare. Aside this, we also attend to women whom their husbands had left and some have husbands but situations make them unable to cater for the family. I strongly believe in hard work and what you can do with your hands. As the governor’s wife, my shop is still running. I still do business, I believe in a woman having something to do.
No woman should be idle
When someone comes to LEAH Foundation, irrespective of what you come for, the first question that I ask is, what do you do for a living? People come with health related issues and all manner of requests but for me, empowerment is key.
That is why as part of our programmes, we have empowered quite a good number of women. I can’t say that we have a hundred per cent success, of course, we have many that are yet to feel the impact of our outreach, but we have testimonies from people who tell and give us encouragement that we are doing things right. We have a recent beneficiary; she is a physically challenged on a wheel chair. Her husband left her and she has two children.
We gave her a deep freezer to do her business. She was taking care of her children despite the fact that her husband abandoned her. To the glory of God, one of her children just gained admission into the University of Ilorin and the Foundation gave him scholarship.
We so much believe in empowerment. There was also this woman who had three kids and all the three had cataracts, they could not see, and due to ignorance, they were going from one church to the other and practically was abandoned in one of the prayer houses, believing that God will heal them someday. The three kids were blind and her husband abandoned them.
The whole family rejected this woman, alleging that she must be possessed to have given birth to three children who all went blind. They were advised to go to Sobi Specialist Hospital and we were working in conjunction with the hospital because there was no way she could foot the bills. They were operated upon by specialists who performed surgery on them and by God’s grace today, the three kids had regained their sight.
When they were brought to me after our assistance to say thank you, everything they said reflected the environment where they were abandoned for long. You can imagine prayers said by a seven-year-old among them, so fervent. This brought tears to my eyes because I could realize that the only thing they could lay hands on was prayers. People around them believed that cataract was an affliction, due to ignorance, but thank God, Kwara State has one of the best eye clinics in Nigeria.
After the whole exercise, I asked the woman what she does for a living and she said, ‘nothing’, because of the problem she had nothing and was left with nothing, even the children had stopped going to school because they were blind. Incidentally, she is not from Kwara State. So, we went all the way to Ekiti State to set up a business for the woman. We empowered her, got her a shop, bought her wares and a deep freezer. We enrolled the kids in school.
Now, they are doing well, that is how LEAH operates. So no matter where you are coming from, if you come for educational needs, we ask you what do you do for a living? We have various programmes, we have infant support formula and so on.
Our programmes are interwoven; we care for people with multiple births who cannot take care of their kids and family because of low income. Instead of abandoning the family, we try to encourage them. By God’s grace, we have about a 173 of such families that we had taken in and are benefitting from the LEAH support programme. We have mothers of twins, triplets and quadruplets too.
Some are motherless babies, some, their fathers had died, some lost their mothers and no one to take care of them. So, when we have caregivers taking care of them, we empower the caregivers and follow up on these babies.
So when we have cases of those kids that lose their mum and we have somebody who is ready to take care of them, we ask the person what she does and empower such persons. We hold periodic meetings with our babies as part of our follow- up strategies for checking on the children to make sure that they are doing well. So basically, these are things we have been doing since inception.
No support for our reading campaign for kids, so, its dying
I have passion for children’s reading habit; I notice that even my own children are fond of laying with tablets, computers and telephones they no longer want to read. So we came up with a programme called LEAH Reading Camp.
We had a first edition which was a huge success but as successful as the programme was, we have not be able to go on with it. After the programme, we put together a team that went for a presentation in Abuja and they did well too, but we have not been able to continue because we couldn’t get sponsorship.
This was one of our best programmes because these children had represented the state, represented their schools and our first set is already graduating from secondary schools now.
There is even one of them that was discovered at the reading camp as having interest in acting and was introduced into the profession. We also have the ‘Adopt a Child’ programme under our educational desk. In the course of my moving round the local governments, I see lot of children roaming the streets when they ought to be in school.
When we started asking questions, we discovered that despite the fact that education is free, as provided by government, and giving them text books, as little as exercise books are, their parents can’t afford them.
They cannot afford school uniforms and other essentials. So we started the Adopt a Child Programme . We go round the schools across all the 16 local government areas and the whole state; we kit the children with school bags, sandals and uniforms. We discovered that most of these less privileged students are great students, very intelligent.
We had cases of teacher swriting special requests for some of these students when they see that these students have great potentials but, perhaps, because of stigmatization, shame and poverty, they stop coming to school because their parents cannot afford the essentials. So we have been running this programme. We have so much left to do but we lack sponsorship. I need people to partner with us.
Someone recently shared with me how she was at a community where there was no school but she had been able to put one there. She tried to do what she could through the SUBEB. Now at a point, she came to me and I will be kitting the children from next week, about 84 of them. I learnt that they go to school in their mother’s wrappers because they cannot afford school uniforms.
Remote communities in Kwara State
Recently, I was on a mission work with Emmanuel Baptist Church to Ketere, a remote village in Kwara State. The village is about two hours from Malete. They are there as if they are not existing. When we got there, they had no school.
So the church that I went with opted to give them a primary school. They have started a school there now. I must say this openly, when I approached SUBEB about the village, I discovered that they were already working on giving them a school, a primary school and the Ministry of Health was also working on giving them a primary health care institution.
The last time I went there, I had to adopt five of the children because they have school for just one year and were taken for common entrance trials and 10 of them passed excellently.
But unfortunately, when I went back to that village, five of them had returned to their farming settlement and villages. So the five that I met around were adopted. They are presently at the Children Reception Centre to start formal schooling. We started training them so that they can get used to schooling in town. So by September, they will be enrolled in one of the government schools.
My encounter with cancer patients
Next is the Cancer project; this is an assignment God gave me as a passion. Initially, when the Lord gave me this assignment, I was scared and skeptical. I felt I couldn’t handle something like that, until I lost two persons very dear and very close to me.
One was my friend when I was in Kwara State Polytechnic. She was my very close friend; we were so close that when I didn’t want to go home for holidays with my parents in Ibadan, I stayed with her aunt. We were that close. I just got a call from her husband one day, ‘Omolewa, won ni ore e ni cancer’.
(Meaning: ‘They said your friend has cancer’.) I asked him, ‘They said or you confirm that she has cancer?’ A lump was discovered in her breast but as at the time it was discovered, it was too late. I was devastated. For you to know how close we were, I sent for her to be brought to Ilorin just to give her maximum care, but I lost her. Why? Because when it was discovered, it was too late.
The other person was my mother’s younger sister, my aunt. She had been living with us for as long as I can remember. She took care of me and when my mum moved to Ilorin, she was always shunting between Ilorin and Ibadan. When she discovered that she had cancer, I don’t know whether she didn’t want to disturb me, she kept it to herself.
It was someone who just made a passing comment about it that let me know. That same day, I said that they should go and bring her. This is a woman who would forgo her portion of meat just for me to have enough to eat. If there was only one piece of meat in her pot and I came in, she would say ‘Give it to Yetunde to eat’. She was very dear to me.
I did all I could but I still lost her to the same cancer. So it then dawned on me that if God is asking you to do something, all you need do is take a step. We were not asked to build a hospital but to begin creating awareness. It would be five years that we started the programme. So we started with awareness campaign for the breast and cervical cancer which is the commonest that kills women in our society. We started with advocacy in conjunction with the female wing of the Nigerian Medical Association, Kwara State chapter.
They actually approached me, came for a courtesy visit and told me about VIA screening on cervical cancer. They just wanted my face to do advocacy for them then it dawned on me that God is actually making the job He gave me easier for me. God is asking you to do a job, now they are making it easier for you to do.
So I told them I’m ready to go all out on the journey with them and that is how we started. At first, those people were just coming to me as a First lady’s pet project like people say, but they saw my intensity and commitment, because for me it was beyond a pet project but a divine leading and a call. The coming of NMA made what I thought was impossible became a lot easier and simple, so we started.
I’ll work on legislation for widows
In the Ministry of Women Affairs, there is a desk that deals with issues relating to widows. What I will personally try to see how we can go about it, is seeking a legislation to see to the welfare of widows. We have not been making noise about our assignment because we want to have good testimonies before we speak out and now that we need more hands on board to assist us, we are out here in the media to solicit assistance.
On the ‘adopt a child’ issue, we don’t take the children away from their parents, we only adopt their educational needs. We focus on their basics.
No law supports Office of First Lady’s but…
I must say that there is no constitutional provision or role for wives of governors but I must add, that when government realises that we are doing what benefits the people of the state, they have been of tremendous assistance to us in certain areas that they can defend under the constitution.
Women in leadership positions
The question is the few women who have had opportunities, how well have they utilized those opportunities? If I am asking you to follow me on a campaign, what will first encourage you is the value you have for what you see me doing now. So my advice is that those of us that have the opportunity now should use it in a way that people will see us and be encouraged to give us better opportunities in governance. It is by this that people will have confidence in us. That a woman is coming out to seek electoral position is not enough to make people want to vote for her.
If we are doing well, even the men will come out and say this woman deserves this position, let us vote for her. How many of us women have made good use of these opportunities given us to impact the lives of other? How many of us have used the opportunity to bring about positive change that the society needs?
How many women have used these opportunities to be a blessing to others? So the best way to encourage more women into leadership and elective positions is for those who are there now making the best use of these opportunities in a way that they would be seen as good representatives of the women folk and not blocking the chances of others by not doing well in office.