If you work closely with me, or you ever did, you know one thing about me: there is nothing I find more unfair than ignoring the emails of random people who reach us. People who want a job, people who have an enquiry, people who want to be on the show, people cold-calling. I believe as much as is humanly possible, people should be responded to, even if it’s auto-response. Don’t ignore people. Don’t go quiet on them.
I believe I have always been like this. I also believe I am still like this precisely because of 2007 and Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili.
In 2007, she was one of the 10 most powerful people in Nigeria, a super-minister if there ever was and one of the only few to have the ear and respect of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most powerful president. And I was a 22-year-old, still at university, still living with his parents, and didn’t know anyone high up anywhere.
I found her email on someone’s desk, and I emailed her – this 22-year-old to this powerful woman, in a country just emerging out of dictatorship, where the gulf between leaders and led, elite and mass, older and younger – without the disintermediation of social media – could not have been wider.
I emailed her and she responded. And it wasn’t just her response, it was the warmth and energy of that response. She talked with intimate detail about the work we had done, which she was familiar with, she was excited to know this work, to hear from a co-founder of the project and the ideas and prospects; she wanted to meet us as much as we wanted to meet her.
That moment mattered deeply to me; it forever validated the strength of my voice, and my belief in the power of asking for what I want no matter how outlandish. Over all else, it made me wholly, fully human. I felt so… seen.
As it was before then (stories like mine are replete when it comes to her), and then, so it is today.
When I saw her come down from a flight in Lagos and immediately before her speaking engagement, race to Lagos Island to meet a peer of mine who was not close to her but was about to give up on business, just to say a word of encouragement, it was as it ever was. When I watch her, countless times, finish every naira in her hands within a short walk, because there was this person or that person who needed it, and without ceremony, it is as it ever was. When I saw her a few weeks ago go to war for an arrested young man on social media who she never knew and had never met, working the phones until he was released by security forces, it is as it ever was.
She became from the moment I first met her, she invited all of us and the winners of The Future Awards Africa to the Ministry of Education to find ways to collaborate with each of them, a role model for me – for authenticity, for warmth, for a deep connection to other people whoever they are and whatever they may be; for what it is to be human.
I am who I am today, and have the values I have today, because I have interacted so closely with a woman like this, and seen that it is possible to have the integrity to be the same in public and private, to feel the pain of others truly and fully, to connect deeply with the good in others, to sacrifice and serve with joy in one’s spirit, to say no to the things that don’t align with your core; to live in authenticity and in truth. It is no small matter, in a country where much of these has been strangulated by lack and corruption, to have witnessed this for myself up close, and to be modelled by it.
Today, as a woman I call my second mother celebrates her 60th year on earth, I want to pay tribute not to her incredibly accomplished resume, not to the unrivalled impact she has had on public service and the body politic, not to the force and strength of and her record in advocacy and activity. I want to pay tribute to her humanity. Because in that, she towers like a giant in a land that has stolen the souls of so many.
Thank you ma, for being. And happy birthday.