I was one of the most privileged whom she met along the way: Ihunnaya was my mother, my teacher and my most committed advocate. On February 19, I kissed her forehead and her feet, knowing that would be the last time I saw her alive. The following day, she received the final rites from my brother, Obinna, a Catholic priest.
It was sometime in late 1991. Uniformed soldiers were still in power in Nigeria. Somewhere in Orlu, in the then Imo State, kinsmen called a meeting with a rather curious agenda. They were worried that one of their sons, a young lawyer, was wasting his talents on opposing military rule and taking government to court, when soldiers wielded power through the gun. It sounded dangerous. This meeting was called so the kinsmen would decide on how to get him to become a more responsible lawyer. If he refused, they told his father, they would make arrangements to remove him from the far-away city where he resided and get him closer to home where he could be prevailed upon to listen to his elders.
At the back of the room, unseen by all the men, a woman had eavesdropped on much of the conversation. The young lawyer whose work was the reason for the meeting was her former student. Convinced the meeting was pointless, she decided to take matters into her hands. In seconds, she drifted quietly into the meeting room with some refreshments for the men. In an audible whisper, dropped with just the right dose of deference that the society required women to reserve for such gatherings, she asked the men whether they had considered that the person that they were discussing about was an adult who could take decisions for himself.
Before they could notice her, she had disappeared, leaving behind the refreshments that she knew they desired. The question was probably not designed to elicit an answer. After all, this was a meeting of kinsmen to which married women were not allowed. But it had exactly the effect that she desired it to have – the meeting was practically over.
Over a lifetime of living with patriarchy in the South-East of Nigeria, this female teacher, school manager and mother had become a quietly effective advocate against some of its most extreme tendencies with a mix of subtlety, stubbornness and calculated risk-taking.
She was born in March 1945 in the old Orlu Division of what would later become the Eastern Region of Nigeria, the first child of a Warrant Chief, Ogueze Agha, who named her Ihunnaya, meaning “the face of her father”. Her father, a produce trader, who had received no formal education, desired to redress that deficiency with his children. It was an era in which young girls were taught that their most elevated ambitions were to be wives and mothers. In primary school, she excelled, skipping the first year and being admitted as an eight year-old into the second. After four years, her local girls-only school run my Catholic Missionaries had no more classes left. Young girls were not supposed, it seemed, to go beyond four years of basic education. The few who desired to, had to transfer to another girls-only school a considerable distance away.
12 year-old Ihunnaya had some decisions to make. Some comfortable traders were already interested in her as a wife. Child marriage was rife and real. She told them where to get off. In the same year, 1957, she became baptised as a Catholic, taking the name Anthonia (after Saint Anthony of Padua, the Patron Saint of lost items). But there was the small matter of her education. She convinced her father to accompany her to the local boys-only school where they persuaded the school management to turn the school co-educational and admit her to complete the last two years of primary education. At the new school, the boys taunted her, telling her repeatedly that her place was in the kitchen, not in school. As their punishment, she became the best student in the school, leaving primary school as the valedictorian.
Over two decades, beginning from 1962 and lasting through a civil war, post-war reconstruction and mothering ten of her own children, Ihunnaya built a career in education as a teacher, schools manager and social justice and reproductive health advocate for women.
Her primary concern was with patriarchy and equipping women to create safe spaces for themselves in contexts in which such spaces were rare and opportunities for leisure and renewal for women did not exist. When she got married in 1964, she recalled, the leadership of the local Christian Women’s Organisation (CWO), was in the hands of two men, as if the women were children, incapable of organising or leading themselves. To make it a women’s organisation, she led the women to organise and wrest leadership from the men.
It was a concern that would inform her life-long investment in reproductive health education for rural women. She traveled long distances teaching women the importance of having the skills to manage the burdens of family sizes, child spacing, and numbers. This commitment came from hard lessons learnt from her brutal experience from having had and raised 10 children of her own.
Patriarchy, she argued, did not invent or replicate itself. It was enabled by family systems that made boys entitled to expect service from girls and women happy to see themselves as vassals and vessels for reproduction. So, she decided that all her children would receive life skills in cooking, cleaning, home management and child-minding. A roster for domestic chores ensured that all her children took turns in doing all of these. As a teacher, she said, the first test of her skills was with her children. All of them would also become her pupils or students through school.
Diagnosed with illness that would ultimately prove terminal a little over five years ago, Ihunnaya decided to defer her own treatment in order to nurse her husband who was then ailing. By the time of his burial in January 2016, her own diagnosis turned out to be a malignant metastasis. Given less than one year to survive, she said she had one final class to teach and set about writing the story of her life with patriarchy. In the event, she beat the doctors’ prognosis by well over two years.
It all began really over a pivotal eight-year period from 1957 to 1964, when Ihunnaya became in succession a Christian, a teacher, a wife and a mother. To her, these roles were all part of a coherent system of values formation, which only made sense if they were placed at the disposal of serving others and making the world better for those whom we meet along the way.
I was one of the most privileged whom she met along the way: Ihunnaya was my mother, my teacher and my most committed advocate. On February 19, I kissed her forehead and her feet, knowing that would be the last time I saw her alive. The following day, she received the final rites from my brother, Obinna, a Catholic priest. Within 36 hours, on February 22, she breathed her last. On March 29, 2019, her mortal remains will be committed to earth.
Chidi Odinkalu, a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the NBA, is co-convener of #NigeriaMourns.