ChiChi Aniagolu is a Sociologist with over 20 years of experience in Development, she is currently the Regional Director, West Africa of the Ford Foundation. She has held several senior development positions, she was the former Country Representative for and Ashoka: Innovators for the Public.
The Love of the Outdoors
I grew up in Umuahia. My dad was a high court judge in the town. Childhood was wonderful. It was filled with fun, activities and warmth. It was also safe. There was no fear for the outdoors. There was a forest beside our house, so I grew to love wildlife. I climbed the trees and ate wild fruits, with no fear of wild animals. I simply enjoyed being outdoors. My dad loved to play golf in the Agric School field. And while he played golf, we kids played with our kites. We didn’t have much financially, but I lacked nothing. Across the house was a place known as ‘The Ridge Club’. It periodically organized cinemas. Next to it was the Public Library. It was remarkable because Umuahia in the 1970s was a suburban town, far removed from the capital city it is today. The library organized reading sessions for kids and after school hours, we all excitedly trooped there to read about the latest African tales and history picked out by the lesson teacher. Then we played a lot at ‘Ojukwu’s Bunker’, which hadn’t been converted to a monument at that time. We went in there to play some wonderful games.
The environment we lived in was very picturesque. For instance, there were many rubber trees towering over one another on the way to Ojukwu’s bunker making the street into a boulevard. It was quite dark walking under the trees no matter the time of the day. As kids, our imagination used to run wild conjuring up stories of ghosts, witches and robbers as we walked through. There were the sounds of rubber falling off the trees with sunrays at noon coming through. I was disappointed when I returned to Umuahia some years later and found that the trees had been hewed down and the environment transformed from its natural state. There was no more of the serenity we enjoyed as children. I loved the outdoors: the space, the smell, the trees, the fun-filled activities. These always beckoned on me. I could stay out all day, if allowed. Most times, I was left behind whenever my mum was going on outings because I would come home late, rough and unkempt after climbing trees and playing in the woods.
Kicking Up a Fuss
I am the eighth of ten kids: five girls and five boys. There is a four year gap between me and my immediate younger brother; before he came along, it used to be really boring when everyone went to school and I had to stay at home. So I kicked up a fuss and insisted on starting school also, even though I was so young – just about three or four years old. To stop my fussing, my parents had no choice but to let me start school. I found learning quite challenging because I began nursery school quite young. I definitely was not top ten. I found it difficult reading the alphabets. It was also hard for me to count numbers. But my teacher, an Englishwoman, was very patient with me. I looked forward everyday to tea break when we took hot milk, chocolate and cookies. I was particularly fond of my teacher’s huge cat, though we raised dogs in the house. It was called ‘Bishop’. However, my friendship with Bishop ended when I went to play with it and it struck the light out of me.
Unknown to me, cats were usually sore immediately they deliver kittens. Till date, I can’t stand cats. I still love dogs. I loved visiting the school library. There were many storybooks to read. Despite not being the brightest of kids, I passed nursery and moved on to a primary school. The primary school I attended was Library Avenue School, which was right in front of our house. Primary school days were filled with fun. I’ll never forget the day one of our teachers kept us all in school, long after closing hours until we were able to pronounce the word ‘ask’. We had often said ‘axe’! I was, however, a rather sickly child and lost many months of academic work because of my frequent illness.
It was love that motivated my choice of course at the university. I’d always wanted a course that would give me more understanding of the human nature because I love people. I went in to study Philosophy at UNN, but unfortunately, Mathematics was a required subject, which I didn’t have. So, I went in for Sociology, which I had little or no idea of. I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I would do with the course after school, but studying Sociology and Anthropology is one of the best things that has happened to me because it widened my horizon. It gave me the weapon with which to fight patriarchy because it showed me that it was not universal nor was it cast in stone! For instance, I never heard of polyandry; polygamy was the norm. Neither did I know certain societies were organized into matriarchal lines. Patriarchy was all we knew. I was intrigued by the world the course opened me up to and I went beyond class notes. I went ahead for a Master’s and Ph.D at the University College, Cork, Ireland.
I was close to my immediate elder sister. Though we rubbed on each other quite often, we were best of friends. My parents must have at one point or another nurtured the desire for twins. They loved dressing Uche and I up in the same clothes, even though we do not look alike at all.
My parents were strict, but not restrictive. They didn’t fix our lives into particular roles for girls and boys. We were given equal opportunities. I can’t recall my mother telling me not to do something because I am a girl. My dad, Justice Anthony Aniagolu loved conversational arguments. One needed to be able to convince him before one could get away with anything. He was also a good listener.
We were all very strong-willed children. Very argumentative! Everyone wanted to air his or her opinion. People would come to visit us and think there was a big fight going on only to realize that we were arguing over politics or something else. We didn’t just take instructions lamely; we wanted to know the reason(s) before we decided to do anything. My mum, Mrs. Maria Aniagolu, was not as strict as my dad, who could give any one a thorough tongue lash for several minutes. She understood people better and used other corrective methods rather than punitive measures to discipline a child. Her punishment was never more than ‘stand up and face the wall.’ She amply rewarded good behaviour. She let us know how valuable we were. I reflected a lot on the consequences of any action I wanted to take so as not to disappoint my mother. I may not have been the best kid while growing up, but I never dared to venture into any despicable act. At every point in time, I had a deep conviction of right and wrong. My father, as a judge, called a spade a spade and I’ve tried living by his principles. We grew up with the fear of God.
My mum was trained as a teacher, but my father insisted that she remained a ‘housewife’. I have to say that I do not like the expression ‘housewife’ because I consider being a housewife much more work than working in an office. It’s a lot easier working in an office than raising ten kids. I wasn’t of much help when it came to house chores; we had housemaids who complemented my mother’s efforts at home. I was drawn to the housemaids and I enjoyed being around them. Our parents treated them with fairness.
We knew everyone who lived on Okpara Avenue, the street we lived in Umuahia. The kids played and related well with one another. Though a small rural town, it shaped the positive worldview I have of Nigeria today. The Nigeria I knew back then was good to me, providing the amenities I needed to grow up with. For example, the public libraries were functional. In those libraries, I read African stories that let me know I had roots to be proud of, such that even in the midst of oppression, I could boast of where I came from. It’s a pity people clamour for history to be scrapped in the tertiary institutions. Those reading facilities bequeathed to me a legacy, the freedom to live and roam as we did as children without being molested. We left Umuahia when I was seven after my dad was appointed Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria and moved to Enugu where we lived for about two years. After that, we moved to Lagos when my dad was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court.
Rich in Values
I remember that the first mail I ever got in my life was a five-pound money order from my godfather. I was about six years old. Then Nigeria used pounds as its currency. The most exciting part was that it was in my name and not my parents’ or older siblings’. I felt like the richest person in the world. Then as a kid, when the representative of the Pope came to Umuahia, I was chosen to present the bouquet of flowers to him. I was touched by this.
I attended Federal Government College, Ilorin, Kwara State. My secondary school friend and classmate, Beatrice Icha, influenced my life in ways too numerous to mention. I haven’t seen her though in the past twenty years. She was my first encounter with someone who was born-again. She came from a Catholic background like myself but had converted to the Scripture Union. Her life was remarkable. In a situation where students told a lie to avoid being beaten or made to suffer one punishment or the other, Beatrice would openly declare the truth. She could say, for instance, that she arrived late to class because she overslept and the whole class would jeer at her. She didn’t mind to be punished. When we asked her why she acted the way she did, she replied that one might get away with the teacher by lying, but not with God. Such statements struck me, as young as I was, and I kept asking myself: ‘if Beatrice could do it, why couldn’t I?’ She said other things like if one tells a lie to or about someone, it makes the person lied to or about more powerful than the liar, and none should be higher than one except God. She gave me a deeper insight into the meaning of integrity.
Another person that has influenced upon my life is my elder sister, Loretta. She is a role model. She is one of the most intelligent persons I’ve ever come across. She runs a finance investment company. She once contested for the governorship of Enugu State. I remember an incident that occurred when I was in the secondary school. She worked with a bank then. I had approached her to lend me some money, which she did. I took it for granted she wasn’t going to ask me to repay it. You can imagine my astonishment when a week later, she demanded the payment of the loan. I told her that I was a student and couldn’t possibly ever repay her. But she insisted, saying I asked for a loan and not a ‘dash’, and asking for a loan meant one intended to pay back. She harassed me so much that I had to go and beg my mum for the money to settle my debt. But I never forgot that incident because it taught me the lesson she wanted me to learn; never to say what I didn’t mean.
Since then, I never make promises I don’t intend to keep. I choose my words carefully and it actually upsets me to see people being insincere to others. For instance, I once visited a colleague in a bank and while I was with him, a young man came to find out how far my friend had gone with assisting him secure a job in the bank. My friend said he was working on it and told the young man to return on a certain date. When the young man left I said to my friend, ‘You know you don’t intend to do anything for this young man.’ He agreed but argued that telling the man he was working on it would give him some breathing space; otherwise, the young man would stay there and start begging him. I asked if he has considered the fact that the young man was depending so much on his help. The man needed to hear the truth (no matter how bitter) so he could concentrate his energies elsewhere. I tried to ask my friend to put himself in the young man’s shoes. He felt I was taking the matter too seriously and indeed I was because I felt it was unfair to lie to someone who needed help so much. These are little things we take for granted, but for me such things matter.
God was another great influence in my life. With friends like Beatrice, I learnt to seek a deeper relationship with God and my first real encounter with Him, I would say, happened during my WASC exams. I’d prayed to God that I wanted to have five As, two Cs and one F. I hated Mathematics and thought it wouldn’t be fair to ask God to help me pass a subject in which my interest and performance was poor. Surprisingly, when the WASC results came out, I had five As, two Cs and one F; exactly what I asked for! Since then, I never went too far away from God.
As a teenager, I was averse to authority. I obeyed instructions better when I knew the reasons behind them. I suppose as the last of the girls, I got away with so many things. For instance, my dad didn’t support evening parties because, according to him, many atrocities could be committed under the cover of darkness. But I let him know that if he was confident he had brought me up well, he needn’t be unduly worried about my movements. Moreover, one didn’t need the cover of darkness before one got involved in any atrocity. I told one of my sisters I was going to a party one day and she asked, ‘through the back door?’ I said, ‘no, the front door’. I believed there were times when certain things just felt right.
The Human Project
I place a lot of value on human beings. I really take the ‘love thy neighbour’ commandment very seriously and literally. As a result, I abhor violence because I think it demeans and debases the human person, both the aggressor and the aggressed. Many people argue that some degree of violence is necessary and indeed justifiable. They argue that certain levels of provocations cannot help but elicit violence. I disagree because I have discovered that it is not the level of provocation that one receives that invokes violence but the value we place on the offender. For instance, many people especially men justify wife beating because they argue that wives can be exceptionally provocative. Yet this same man will take provocation from his mother or boss without resorting to violence. Thus, the reason a man beats his wife and not his boss or mother is because he places more value on his mother and his boss and therefore regardless of what they do to him, they are beyond violence.
I treat all people with equity because of the value I place on the human person, whether a president or a cleaner. My favourite books have themes revolving round the African-American liberation struggles, and though I wasn’t officially a student unionist in school, one would find me ready to stand in the frontline, if the need arose, to challenge any form of oppression.
My strongest philosophy is fairness to people. I believe in the human project. It explains why I love many things about Christianity. Loving my neighbour as myself reflects in my every dealing. That was why I didn’t particularly enjoy the banking sector. I wanted to be in a place where I could empower human beings. A society with inequalities is bound to crumble. My sister calls me Chief Refugee Officer because of my open door policy of admitting anyone who needs a place to lay his or her head into my home. For instance, I once had a house-girl who sent a letter home that a spell be cast upon me so she could control my mind. She enjoyed living with me so much that she never wanted it to end. As God would have it, her plans were discovered and she returned to the village. News got round to me sometime ago that she had contracted HIV/AIDS. I went to visit her and gave her some money. I went further to contact an NGO I knew in Ilesha that was doing excellent work with people living with AIDS and the founder came to Enugu, gave her drugs and asked for her to be sent to Ilesha where she would be closely monitored. Many people thought I had lost my mind to be helping someone who had wanted to cast a spell on me. I did not think of it that way. I just saw a poor girl who desperately needed help and I could give it. To me, her resorting to charms was out of poverty and desperation. I never believed the charms could have worked on me anyway and so didn’t have to crucify her for it.
The oppressor needs to keep the oppressed ignorant and uneducated in order to keep them oppressed. When the whites denied blacks access to formal education, it wasn’t because they truly believed blacks couldn’t learn as they claimed. Rather, they knew formal education would enlighten the blacks and make them fight against their oppressors. So in order to keep women oppressed and in the dark, patriarchal society does the same thing. It keeps them uneducated, ignorant and gives them very few choices. It has nothing to do with women being the weaker sex. It’s an attempt to stop them from challenging the status quo. They know that as more women become educated and economically empowered, they will challenge their subordinate position in society. The law does not help either. Although the Nigerian Constitution does not overtly discriminate against women, there are other statutes that allow for discrimination. For instance, the law allows men to use a certain degree of force (beating) to reprimand their wives. Apart from the law, women face all kinds of discrimination in society.
In most parts of Eastern Nigeria, for example, women cannot inherit property. There are certain ceremonies that women can’t witness. In the Catholic Church, women are excluded from the priesthood. Widows are still ill-treated in some parts of the society. Single ladies occupying key positions are frowned at. Barren women are intimidated. Nonetheless, I have great admiration for Nigerian women. Despite all the religious, social and cultural barriers they face, many of them have emerged successful and great role models. Imagine what would happen when they have real equal opportunities with men.
I’ve never allowed myself to feel inferior because I do not believe any man is better than I am. However, society has some subtle ways of trying to influence independent women like me and trying to ‘keep us in our place’, so to speak. For example, the fact that there are certain places I can’t go to (such as hostels, night clubs or bars), except in the company of another man, really infuriates me. The other day, I was going into the Le Meridien in Lagos where a foreign friend of mine was having her birthday celebration. I was formally dressed, yet the security man stopped me, physically restraining me. Single men were going in and there was no problem. I was livid. I went to see the manager and told him that if they would stop me, a single woman, from going into the hotel, then they must stop the single men as well because the men, to me, are the real culprits. I was furious because I was the only Nigerian in the group and I was being discriminated against in my country. I thought it was ridiculous. Even if I were a prostitute, I noted, he had no business stopping me because I could be going there to relax and not ‘solicit’. This was a public building for heaven’s sake!
In the nightclub of the Hilton Hotel, Abuja, it is boldly written: ‘Single women are not allowed.’ Can you believe that? When I lived abroad, I went to places where I hung out with my girlfriends, with no men in our company. It may seem a small thing but imagine how that can make an average woman begin to feel inferior. It implies that you can’t even enjoy yourself without being with a male companion. So the average woman grows up believing she must be dependent on a man to survive. These are the subtle ways gender discrimination is reinforced in and by society.
I think women make better office holders. CNN reported about a year ago the findings of a research that showed that women were more honest than men in the workplace. To me, women perform better because they understand the problems of society much more; they feel the impact of the failure of any sector of society much more than men because they use society’s infrastructure more than men. For instance, if a woman has four children and her husband is still alive, it means she goes to the hospital six times: when her four kids are ill, when her man is ill and when she is ill. The man only goes when he is ill or when he has been notified that a member of his family has becomes seriously sick. So why won’t the woman feel the impact of failure in the health sector more and carry out the job with more passion and commitment? It is really women who run society even though they are accorded little power, which is the real problem. It is the women that attend the PTA meetings. It is the women who know when the school needs one thing or the other. Women are more likely to feel the impact of the failure in the educational system. Consider the passion of the NAFDAC helmswoman for the job. It goes beyond whatever financial rewards she gets.
Yet, Nigerian female politicians are still dancing to the dictates of the men in their respective political parties. Apart from Margaret Ekpo and a few others, many other women that perform political roles have not been great role models. It is not enough that women are getting into positions of power; they have to be representatives of women as well. The mere fact that a woman is in a position does not mean she will represent the interest of women. For example, being a senator doesn’t make one a woman politician. Rather, a woman politician is someone who is able to mobilize the womenfolk because of her impact in the women’s movement.
With respect to women politicians and indeed men politicians as well, what we’re experiencing now is a set of people looking for their daily bread through political offices. We have political office holders and not politicians. Being a politician goes beyond holding a political office. It is not just what one is doing, but one’s character. A politician is charismatic, therefore able to make people buy his or her ideology, ideas and programmes.
I have a great interest in empowering women because I believe that the more young women have confidence in themselves and look beyond marriage as their sole achievement, the faster they will attain equality. My private project is to expose young women to successful women as role models whom they can interact with and learn from. I was very impressed by the fact that during the September 11 bombing in America, George Bush was reading to nursery school children. Nigerian leaders don’t do that kind of thing yet; such things impact on the children. I remember Shagari’s visit to my school when I was a student at Federal Government College, Ilorin. It endeared me to the President because, while security men crowded him, he asked that they allow him mingle with the children whom he came for.
The Learning Field
My first working experience was a summer job I did with the United Nigeria Insurance Company, UNIC, Marina, Lagos. There I had to deal with the tough work of filling out the clients’ forms. I usually had to resume at 7:30 AM. I didn’t stay long on the job. It was supposed to last for three months but I ran away after two months. It was great for the income, but filling forms from dawn to dusk wasn’t too palatable. I did the job before my admission to the university. My Youth Service was with the Nigerian Merchant Bank (NMB). But my first permanent employment was in Fidelity Union Merchant Bank. It was a great learning field in the sense that it gave me the business background I now utilize in the social development sector. Development, as important as it is, has to be well packaged.
After a while, however, it started to pall. The only goal then was making money; I had no chance to impact on people. I once confronted my boss in the bank on the mode of operations of the bank. I found it most frustrating to be given unrealistic targets for attracting deposits to the bank by chasing after dirty old men, when the bank could have been making so much more money by investing in such areas that needed real attention such as housing to curb chronic accommodation problems. It would have made huge profits for the bank and would have increased their profile, but that was not the mode in 1992 in Nigeria. Another thing that annoyed me about the banks was being made to stay very late even after the formal office hours because the boss hadn’t yet left his office, even if he was only having a conversation with a friend from America! It did not matter to him that some of us had to travel to the end of Lagos, while he only had a stone throw to go to get home. I have to confess that it got to a stage where every morning as I prepared to go to the bank, I thought of a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t go to work. In the end, I couldn’t go on with it anymore so I quit, even though I am almost certain I would have been fired if I had not quit. So there was no love lost.
On Getting Married
Sociology strengthened my resolve to live a life of value; a life not lived in someone else’s shadow. Everything, including marriage has to make sense to me and really be useful to me for me to embark on it. For instance, I’m 37 years old and only recently got married traditionally. I never got to a stage where I felt, ‘oh God, I’m getting old’! I had no intentions of getting into a union because of societal pressure. I’ve always been confident in myself and in my company; so there was no fear of being alone or not having one’s biological kids. I have no problems with marriage. It’s a wonderful institution that one should go into as a complete individual, not necessarily as an end it itself. It explains why many pleasant and successful women have had their lives destroyed by marriage.
If you are not happy as an individual, you can’t have a happy marriage. If you want to stay married, it’s important you marry someone whose reasons for marrying are for the things you value. If a man gives you five reasons why he loves you and none of them includes those things that you value and love about yourself, then there is no wisdom contemplating living with that kind of person for the rest of one’s life. For instance, if you are a vivacious person and that’s what makes you happy as well as what you love about yourself and he doesn’t have that as one of the things that he loves, then it’s folly to go into such a union. I love the outdoors. If I have to give that up because of marriage, then it’s giving up life itself for me.
One should marry for the right reasons. One should not marry because the individual fits into one’s friends’ or parents’ criteria. It’s not only women that are subjected to the various forms of pressure; men are too. People have to be mature enough to marry. It has nothing to do with age. One could be forty and still not be ready for marriage. Marriage alters one’s lifestyle. I’ve always been independent, so I would have a lot of adjustment to make.
Directing Social Entrepreneurship
I love Ashoka. I love the ideology behind the organization. Ashoka’s mission is to develop the profession of social entrepreneurship around the world. As a global, non-profit organization based on the social venture capital model, Ashoka identifies and invests in individuals we call leading social entrepreneurs. A social entrepreneur is one who has an innovative idea and strategy for solving social problems. He or she, to a large extent, has the same qualities as a business entrepreneur, i.e. innovation, vision, creativity, determination and drive, in addition to a high ethical fibre. The only difference being that the effort of the business entrepreneur is directed towards profit making, while that of social entrepreneur is directed towards non-profit and poverty alleviation. As a business entrepreneur frequently creates new industries, a social entrepreneur creates solution to social problem on a large scale. In order words, Ashoka is looking for the ‘Bill Gate’ of social development. The strategy is simple: Ashoka identifies leading social entrepreneurs around the globe and invests in them in four ways; by granting them a stipend that takes care of their living expenses for three years; by helping them to acquire skills that are necessary for that development such as strategic management; by paring them with mentors in the business sector that can provide further training; and by subscribing them to a network of like-minded individuals who provide ideas, contact and fellowship.
Our standards are very high. We believe in the power of a few to transform the world. If every sector of society had a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela, that sector would see enormous change in a short period of time. So we are not looking for a crowd to effect changes. Ashoka has been around for the past 25 years. We know what is needed to be able to make a change in development. Anyone who meets our five criteria will be able to run an organization capable of transforming society.
It is difficult because it’s challenging to find the right people; people with new ideas and passion for what they’re doing. There are those with the right ideas but without a matching passion. We aren’t looking for visionaries or dreamers, but those who are capable of implementing their vision. We need people in the rural areas because it’s the area that needs the most transformation.
Another major challenge for me in this job is raising funds locally to support the excellent initiatives we have identified. Most companies in Nigeria are not really interested in long-term support to the social sector. They want to put a borehole here, a classroom there and be in the newspapers for that. The idea of becoming active partners of development is not the norm. Another challenge is getting good quality of staff. It’s a real dilemma in Nigeria because many unemployed graduates are totally unskilled even in the simple art of writing letters. Getting the several independent NGOs to collaborate is another major challenge. Many NGOs in Nigeria think they will loose their source of funding or comparative advantage if they collaborate; so they hesitate to share the information they have with others. In Ashoka, we discourage that because we know that through networking, NGOs can get a lot more done, faster and better.
So far we have elected over fifty Nigerians into the Ashoka fellowship over 90% of who are still working in their original field of work. It proves that our criteria in finding people are good. Our fellows work in almost all sectors of development. One of the Ashoka fellows was instrumental to the development of the sexuality education curriculum for secondary schools in Nigeria. Another established the first court-connected alternative dispute resolution centre in Africa, the Lagos Multi-door Courthouse. Okoli, another fellow started the first disability mobility appliance centre. In Ashoka, we insist that people interested in the fellowship must first have already invested in the project. We give the support. We only give our assistance. We have training for fellows through periodical workshops. The various fellows, on various stages of their projects, get together to brainstorm on how to better carry out their projects.
I’m a target-oriented person and I give optimal concentration on any project I’m involved in. I don’t believe that spending long hours on one’s office desk is a proof of diligence. The best way to achieve specific goals is by setting targets. How it is reached is not the issue. The motivating factor is the target set. I aim at excellence, both in simple and in complex matters of business. I give attention to any job I do, even in small tasks, because carelessness in small tasks inevitably shows in bigger tasks.
Thinking about Myself
I love reading books, especially development books that outline successful initiatives or methodologies. I also like novels with true live themes. I enjoy jogging, though I hardly have the time now. I don’t exercise much unfortunately because I travel so much, but I try to follow a diet. I enjoy cooking. I love potatoes.
I do not pay much attention to my looks. I do not like going to the salon to do my nails or fix my hair. I think it is a sheer waste of time. My hair is often packed into a bun and held with a ribbon, and that’s it. I try to make more effort these days for my husband’s sake; but truly, I cannot be bothered. I was a little better in the past but studying in Ireland killed whatever interest I had in such things. The Irish have no interest in clothes or looking good.
My greatest weakness is saying ‘No’, especially when it concerns finding solutions to problems brought to me. I find it hard to turn people away. I can also be so stubborn that it is hard to dissuade me from what I’m bent on doing.
Finally, I look forward to running my own development organization. My greatest challenge is to organize it in such a way that it is self-sustaining in terms of finances, so I can have the freedom to really do the things I want to do without having to run from one international organization to another all the time for financial support. I will like to be remembered as someone who touched and inspired lives, whose life has motivated others to heights they never dreamt of. I am someone who fervently believes that I was created to help people and I won’t stop until I see the things I believe in come to pass.
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