By CHRISTY ANYANWU, who was in Kenya
Meeting Choice Ufuoma Okoro for the first time, you would be forgiven for presuming that she is a showbiz personality. She has the looks and carriage of a diva. Now in her 40s, Okoro is a Nigerian working in Kenya with the United Nations. She heads the Department of Communications and Advocacy, UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In this interview, she talks about her love life, UN experience and lots more. Excerpts…
•Ufuoma Okoro Photo: Sun News Publishing
Give me a snapshot of your background…
I am a Nigerian working work with the United Nations Office in Kenya responsible for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. I head the Communication and Advocacy Department. I have been working here now for five years. Before that I supported the Canadian government on civil rights and international human rights issues for eight years, so I have been on the international scene for close to 20 years.
What was it like growing up in Nigeria?
I was raised in Benin, when it was the capital of Bendel State. I am the first born in my family. I have seven brothers and one sister. My father is my retired a customary court judge, while my mother is just retiring as the head teacher of a school. My parents have been a great inspiration to me. My father is a man with integrity, a very strong man but very fair. My father believes so much in justice and fairness; he believes the way you treat people is a reflection of our humanity.
He has this great philosophy about reflecting humanity in the way we treat people. My mother is a strong woman too who believes that strength is created by adversity, that adversity can sometimes be a gift. She taught me to make sure that I have the right point of view. My parents are people with very strong faith. I learnt leadership from them, and I very grateful for that. I learnt that being a leader means that you don’t put yourself first. For instance, I didn’t marry early because I spent a lot of time ensuring that my siblings were settled. People find it funny that most of my younger ones are married. I know it’s deliberate because now that they have all settled then I can move on. The opportunity to serve is a gift as well. That is my humble background.
So where did you school?
I attended Our Lady’s High School, Effurun,Warri and then went to University of Benin. After graduating from Uniben, I practiced journalism for three years. Then I was recruited as an intern to participate in an international youth project called, ‘Winning in a Critical Peace Initiative’, through which I went to South Africa and witnessed the end of Apartheid. I worked with civil right groups in South Africa through the mid-90s before going for my masters in the late 90s to early 2000. When I finished, a major Canadian NGO recruited me, based on my previous work on international peace building, to lead a kind of advocacy process.
You effuse so much happiness. What is the secret?
Simply it is the joy of being a mother. I was blessed over 10 years ago. I think God is my light, but he gave me a portion of his light through my son. He is my joy, my centre. At times when things are confusing, my son gives me direction. I have been a single mother but was blessed recently to fall in love with a great man: a Nigerian man, who is Yoruba. His name is Dillon Oloyede; we are getting married in June. We have decided to do it at home. He has been in Russia in the last 20 years.
How did you meet?
We met in Toronto, Canada four and half years ago. I was reading in a train, heading downtown and he came in. When he left, I noticed that somebody dropped a paper on my lap. Then I took it and he stepped out. I saw his back, and noticed that he is tall. He said, please do call me. About two weeks after, I called him; I didn’t know he was a Nigerian. I only found out when I called him – we chatted on the phone and have been together since then. We really love each other but we have decided to go back home to marry. I feel very lucky; as it is right now, I feel blessed, am very grateful. Like I said, my mother taught me how to have the right point of view, my father taught me how to be fair and have integrity in what I do. I think those two combinations are very strong foundation for me. Then working in an international organization and being a Nigerian is perhaps a gift.
What exactly is the nature of your job?
Before answering your question, let me lay a background. I believe that collaboration is critical to success in life. You have to be able to collaborate, understand your strengths and weaknesses and know how to share the spotlight. If you can’t do those things you can’t go far because nobody was made to actually shine alone. You are not meant to shine alone. These are some of the things I believe that guide me. In terms of my work with the UN, I don’t feel I was put in the UN to make the UN effective but it has to be effective for Africa.
There are specific challenges that we face here that have to be addressed by a solution that are developed in the continent. I don’t think any solution you bring from outside will be sustainable. So in doing my work, I go round the continent, I go to people, to fellow Africans to find out what solution they think will work and I take that to decision makers. I have done some work in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. I was in the regional office at a point, and have gone to Karamoja in Uganda. I have gone to the most difficult place in the whole of Africa. I am an advocate for the rights of people in need as well as their right to respond as well. My approach is this: if we have certain disasters that happen like when it rains in Nigeria and you have flood in Lagos, in Kenya it is draught, and we have political conflict in Nigeria resulting from elections – all these disasters throw up situations that need to be corrected. So in essence, my work concerns every African matter.
Every Nigerian matter, in terms of policy development, is not considered done until we can fashion it in into the decisions we make. We make effort to include the people who suffer in our work. Even if they are not participating, we have to think of educational system. For instance in Nigeria the thinking is that every child matters; and sometimes we don’t and that is what I do as an advocate. I advocate for the right of people in need. That somebody needs help does not mean that they don’t have a right. That is what I do and I bring their voices in so when decisions are made I want to make sure that people who don’t have access to power, I try to create a space for them to speak, not violently but in a peaceful way. I try to create a way for their voice to be heard. Kenya is beautiful. You see the beauty of the public places, but the majority of the population never get these places neither do they have access to the buildings of their own country. I feel that we celebrate the buildings here, but marginalize the people. So what I do generally in the UN is to advocate for their rights.
How do the people react to you?
Generally, am grateful to be a Nigerian, and it’s a beautiful time to be a Nigerian in Africa. It’s a beautiful time to be a Nigerian working outside the country because am experiencing how loved Nigeria is; for instance in Kenya, I am experiencing how Kenyans love Nigerians. They love our culture, they just think we are positive people, they think we are happy and ambitious people. These are positive things most African countries want for themselves. There is this perception that Kenyans didn’t appreciate Nigerians years ago.
You know for many years, even in Canada, we were all caught up in these corruption, fraud and what they call Nigerian scam and it did really cover up the positive sides of Nigeria but some of us used to tell them that the individuals involved all these things were just an insignificant number of people. There was fear about Nigerians. When Nollywood era started, the home videos were initially filled with a lot of voodoo scenes. This only made the fears about Nigeria worse. But the voodoo content has greatly diminished now. The image now is more positive. Our music has also helped to the perception of Nigeria. Nigerians really have to give kudos to the entertainment industry in Nigeria.
What are the major challenges you have faced?
I most say one of the initial ones was mobility. I move a lot. I have always enjoyed gardening, which gives me joy. I love to watch things grow. There is nothing I enjoy more than cooking with herbs from my garden; I love growing my own tomatoes but you find with mobility you are not able to stay in a place long enough. I’m a single parent with a son but I have to leave him in the hands of strangers sometimes, though I pay them. I have a driver, gardner, a nanny and help but I still leave my son more than I want to.
Thank God for technology, I can have conference calls with him and domestic staff wherever I am. Luckily these days I can afford to take him on trips, to expand the world for him. This year, we were in Dubai; we have been to India, so I travel with him a lot, and he has come to know the world but the challenge is still there, because moving around and leaving your child at home is a big challenge. When I arrived here, I had to go to Ethiopia in the middle of the most inaccessible paths and this was five days after I resumed work here. I had to leave my son. That was a very difficult moment. These are challenges but apart from that, as a single parent I have succeeded on the job. Apart from that, it’s exciting; it’s a great opportunity to serve in this way.
You look more like one in the entertainment industry…
I hear that a lot but I do enjoy it. That is what I was trying to say – I am a woman and I love being that. I try to be myself, I enjoy music, you will be surprised I know all the Nigerian music artistes. I could take you tosee my collection, nothing relaxes me like music. I share that with my son and I love beautiful clothes. I think one of the ways I can speak without saying a word is the way I dress.
There are many things we can’t control in the world but I think you can manage how you want to be seen and the way I dress has become a statement, a way of expressing my point of view which means, I’m grateful to be here. I’m a child of God and am a person of faith too. I believe in God deeply and this is God’s world. He put me here in this beautiful world and like a child why I won’t enjoy it? So I work hard, I play hard. I love arts too. I love creativity, I love beautiful things. I work in an area that can be tough, I see some of the suffering, those are the communities I advocate for; I love to be with them and inspire and encourage them to want more because I go for that as well. I do put in creative things around me, it helps me to balance.
You cannot advocate for a people if you cannot speak in the language of hope an objects. My sister encourages me to take along one of my paintings to the room because it was showing big bum. It’s actually explicit and a beautiful interesting way of introducing the world to my son and to people. I love people. You cannot be who we are without balance. If you play too hard you have to balance it or you lose out. You are pursuing love; you are pursuing open space for romance and being a mother.
Being a mother doesn’t mean biologically producing children – it means living with kids, and it means being there among your nieces and cousins, friendship. I value my friends a lot; it’s like having the right kinds of friends, so it’s about balance. I enjoy looking the way I do and I feel that my body is indeed the temple of God and am careful about what I put in it. I don’t do it right all the time, I try to eat rightly but I try to eat healthily because healthy body helps in having a positive outlook.
How do you relax?
I relax by listening to good music. At the beginning of the year, people make New Year resolutions. I spend time cutting out words that are positive that speak to me and made the cuttings into a nice artwork, so I relax by that. I listen to music a lot. I will put the right music on and be dancing alone then I go to sleep. I enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings. It’s almost a ritual. I come home and I look forward to that. I have pool of friends who are lovers of great wine. We look out for the greatest wine and the most recently made wine, we get it, feel the smell and taste. We share information like that. My partner who is going to be my husband doesn’t drink at all. It’s interesting, so I can drink for both of us and I enjoy friends. I do enjoy friends. What calms me is watching my son sleep and wake up. I slip into his room and give him a peck on the forehead and watch him sleep. That calms me.
How do you maintain this youthful, zesty, sassy look?
In terms of my physique, I think a lot of it is genetic and I think to some extent too, outlook. I don’t know how to fake my feelings. I am very outspoken and honest. I don’t like hurting people, I will never be outspoken enough to hurt people, I do believe words are very powerful, I do believe what you keep in can make you or keep you happy; I tend to let things out quickly.
That is what my fiancée loves about me. I will immediately let him know. I think stress is one of the biggest challenges we face as women, not knowing how to manage stress. Exercise is one thing but I think communication is one other way to manage stress: you just let it out; speak it out. If you care about relationship, you must communicate, because if you don’t say it, it will explode. So I think my communication style helps me to stay stress-free. If I feel like crying, I express myself; if I feel tired I say it, if I want to take a nap I take a nap. I try to be who I am, if I need to be vulnerable, am vulnerable, if I feel low, I talk about it.
You can begin to imagine having Nigerian parents, the resourcefulness of being a Nigerian and a very positive outlook; this also guides me in what I do. My son has that as well. Yes, its like can do, a positive spirit. Yes, we are facing challenges in Nigeria, there are challenges but I think what’s kept us going is that attitude, characteristics of can do, of resourcefulness but sometimes I think it allows us not to push for some of the things we need to push for, like you should not expect government to do everything for you but I think Nigerians, sometimes has got to the extreme. We don’t hold our government accountable enough, it’s like if you can’t provide, I will find another way. The short cut is getting over crowded for us. I think that’s me generally.
What gives me strength again is being a woman think this is an interesting time for being a woman, in terms of all the opportunities that we have but we require to use it wisely as well. But sometimes, the assumptions is, you have to become like a man. Because of the work I do, people expect to see a stronger looking physically built. But am a woman, I have no intention of becoming a man or doing tings like a man. I try to do tings the right way and sometimes I found it even working in the area we are working , you are often told sometimes to operate like a man but I think I have come even far because I have come to realize that I have got unique strength as a woman.
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