Grace became a widow only one year after her husband had finally landed the university position he’d worked almost two decades to obtain. Just the year prior, he had encouraged her to pursue a teaching credential that coupled with his income would secure the family’s finances to enable their son to attend college. Grace had graduated from secondary school two and a half decades earlier, so to return to school seemed like a daunting task. Her own background had instilled in her the importance of education, so the challenge was one she was willing take on especially if it would allow her son the chance at an education she so desired to give him.
Grace’s value of education might be attributed to her parents. Neither her father nor mother had attended school. Nevertheless, her father had insisted that his children would school including the girls. So Grace’s parents enrolled her at a boarding school far from home because it was the nearest secondary school that would accept young women. The closer schools were reserved for boys alone. Sending her to a school so distant and perhaps taxing on the family’s finances is a testament to her parents’ deep belief in educating their children. When I asked her if it was common among her mates for most people to attend secondary school Grace replies, “Many went, but many could not. Their people could not sponsor them.”
Grace’s parents’ value of education has certainly become her own over the years. This is especially apparent when she thinks over how her education has changed her own life:
“It’s not that I’m doing something extraordinary, but it’s that I cannot do without it [the education].” She expands by saying that without the education she has received, she might be forced to beg for food by now: “Later when I went to do the teacher training thing, if it wasn’t that, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. Perhaps I would be carrying a plate around asking people if there’s something they cooked that they can share with me.”
We both laugh– me because I cannot imagine her not being able to use her bright and determined mind. It is the chance at education she received that she longs to pass on to her family and her community. Still, over the years, many obstacles have threatened to prevent her from doing just that.
Following secondary school, Grace landed a job at the university’s depository department in Port Harcourt, the nearest intellectual and commercial hub to Gokana, her home. Though she tries to make the work she performed sound ordinary and shares that her father’s connections enabled her to get the position, something tells me Grace’s merit equally played a role. Perhaps my eyes reveal that I’m impressed, so she adds, “When you get there, they teach you the work. I didn’t learn it from home,” as if to emphasize that anyone could have learned the job. Soon after beginning her job, Grace married a man whose dream was to pursue higher education. Grace’s job at the university supported her husband’s educational endeavors and the rest of the family until one fateful day. In 1987 due to downsizing in her department and perhaps structural adjustment in the nation, she lost her job. The family had to move out of the city back home to Gokana. When I asked what she did after moving back she replies, “I went to farm. I had no choice but to farm.” At home, she joined the profession most Ogoni people had occupied for centuries before, laboring the land. In her interview, we jump from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Grace says nothing about the early 1990s to 2000, and I do not ask her. This period of time when Grace was supposedly farming also coincides with the the Ogoni Crisis and the series of military dictatorships that supported the militarization and terrorizing of Ogoniland. I doubt she did much farming during those years.
By 2001 things were looking up for Grace again. The Crisis had calmed and Ogoniland saw peace again. Grace’s husband had finally finished school and gotten an appointment at the polytechnic in Bori the nearby town. He had also encouraged Grace to attend a distance learning program for adults in Bori where she would become a credentialed teacher. Suddenly, a year into her program her husband died from illness. Soon thereafter, one of her sons also died. The death of this son was especially devastating as he was already attending college. Grace had lost two children prior, but they died as babies. With these two deaths, Grace’s world had taken a terrible turn.
At this serious juncture in our conversation, Grace and I are happy to be interrupted by a little girl searching for a cup around the water station where a lime-green covered plastic bucket stood. Grace spots her and asks, “What, would you like to drink water?” The girl nods. Grace takes out her own small water bottle and pours water into the lid for the girl. “Alright,” she sighs at the child’s satisfaction. I get the feeling that Grace’s gesture is symbolic of her position at the nursery school and at the church. She gives herself freely, even of the little she has.
Her husband’s death no doubt brought Grace to a crossroads in her life, but Grace was able to draw strength from the church where she spends most of her waking hours. Since its erection in the mid 1930s, the church building had undergone little renovation until the recent expansion of the main cathedral. The cement corridor surrounding the edifice, which Grace later told me the women’s fellowship had raised funds to build, adds a nice finish. The grounds though unpaved is neatly swept and the three smaller building stand gray plastered only with a thin coat of cement. On Sundays, you might find Grace sitting in the pews in the main cathedral, leading women’s Sunday school before service or serving as a lay preacher when was given the opportunity. During weekdays she teaches in the one-room building against the fence from the cathedral on the same compound. Some mild mornings like the one on which Grace and I meet, she is able to move her class outside to escape the other two groups of restless four and five year olds with whom she shares the space.
It is there under a skeletal orange tree that Grace and I attempt to discuss her participation in the church’s women’s fellowship. But first, Grace must attend to a mother who had been waiting to speak to her about her child. The woman was the mother of one of the children in the class who had come to pay part of the school fees she owed. Her outstanding balance was N23,000, approximately $100 or half of one month’s salary, but she came to bring N5,000 just so the boy could remain in school. Grace explained to her that N5000 will do little for the outstanding balance as a way of encouraging the woman to pay more if she is able. The woman instead sits quietly as a form of pleading with the teacher to please accept the money she has brought.
Grace turns to talk to me on the side and tries to get me to see her viewpoint. She explains that there is nothing she can do if the parents do not pay their children’s fees. She says that she can try her best to continue to teach, but many times the parents simply refuse to pay the fees and tell their children to come home if the teacher kicks them out for not paying their fees. I nod in consoling agreement. Grace asks the woman if she indeed is saying such things to her son, the woman assures Grace that she would not dare utter those words around her son. The mother assures Grace that she truly wants her son to get an education. With that Grace receives the woman’s payment and the mother voices her gratitude before making her way out. Over the course of my meetings with Grace two other parents also drop by to pay school fees. In all cases Grace tries to encourage the parents to take their children’s education seriously. To one younger man she says, “Don’t you know that all these fees you’re paying is what will enable your son to take care of you in the future?” Each parent leaves grateful for her understanding.
When Grace and I eventually resume our interview, I ask her what she gains from the women’s fellowship. She responds emphatically that she gains encouragement as a woman. Knowing a little of her story, it seems befitting that she should choose the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi as an example of how the lessons taught in the women’s fellowship can encourage women in their difficult lives:
“They [the women’s fellowship] emphasize those women of old who managed and endured and did all they could to become a good mother and a christian mother. When you see some of these women, you’ll now be forced to think about how that woman did it. And then you can say, the way you are doing it, no matter how there’s bad things in the world, and each of us have our own habits, you will not forget to remember. You’ll always be remembering that if these other women were able to do it, then you too will try. Like Ruth, Ruth was bent on not leaving the mother in-law. No matter that her husband had died, she would go with her. ‘Where you die I will die. Where you go I will go. Do not force me to leave you,’ was the verbatim of Ruth to her in law. If you then look at Ruth and her mother in-law, Naomi, it then gives encouragement to women because it will not take time before you’ll see someone who is a widow. Husband no longer surviving, and it’s just you. So you now learn from how Ruth behave to the mother in-law. Yes, those instances will then make you strong. If a woman (she raises her voice here as if to draw strength from her own words) sees that people have gone through, … that people have gone and come back, so those kinds of things bring peace to someone’s mind. It encourages them, women, to really choose for themselves so that they know that if you really get into it, redemption is yours. You’ll have …things come your way that many people would not ignore. But you’ll be able to ignore and focus on where and what you want to be and where you are going. So it [the women’s fellowship] is much of an encouragement.”
Grace draws strength from the women’s fellowship which she says teaches the Bible from a perspective that empowers women. The organization has encouraged her to “focus on where and what you want to be and where you are going.” No doubt this same encouragement enabled her to complete the teaching degree following her family’s tragedy. Throughout our conversation, Grace explains that the women’s fellowship is teaching about Godly women. “They don’t teach anything apart from Christian women.” In such a patriarchal space like the church, this group of women seem to have found a way to make the teachings of the church work for women. “They don’t just do anyhow, they take places that will make sure that the minds of women that are in the meeting that day… you’ll be happy that you too were in the meeting. The things you hear that day will help you.” In this way, the women’s fellowship allows women to demand a seat at the table of their faith. They will not be left out. They too will receive the Biblical encouragement they need regardless of their gender.
Grace’s interview suggests that such empowerment of women comes as a result of a particular type of space–one that allows for a certain degree of inclusiveness.
“ [Our church] believes in the priesthood of all members. That is that all persons are people who can relay God’s words. If you can stay with them, stay with them, stay with them, especially if you come back to be a lay preacher just like I am, you’ll be given,… There are some days that they’ll give you an appointment to go to other churches and talk. As you are talking, if they are doing a women’s day, you talk to women through the tune of the women in the Bible in accordance with the behavior of the women in the Bible. By doing so, while you are talking, you too will be close to the real other women [of the Bible] too. Your mind will then feel happy, that sense of belonging. Like you belong to the Christendom, belonging to Jesus Christ.”
Grace’s role as a lay preacher in the church has allowed her to uplift other women and continue the cycle of empowerment that increases her impact on the community at large. Her desire for a sense of belonging reveals her wish to be global. The women’s fellowship is able to connect her to this larger world. Much of our conversation reverted back to the international women’s day which the women’s fellowship have instituted as an annual week-long celebration. She emphasizes how women’s day is celebrated in churches all across Nigeria which suggests to me that she appreciates the chance to connect with global initiatives that empower women. Moreover through the women’s fellowship, she is able to empower herself and other women in a space she knows well and through her faith which she loves dearly.
During my last meeting with Grace, a heavily used Bagco woven plastic bag packed with clothes rests near her teacher’s chair. She divulges that she will proceed with her second day of fasting and prayer which will require that she sleep at the church immediately following the culmination of our interview. By this time, I am beginning to understand that the cycle of empowerment which is her life mimics her trek from this nursery school building to the larger sanctuary across the church grounds and then back again. Her participation in the women’s fellowship through fasting and prayer and the various other ways she participates gives her the strength she needs to do the work she does to encourage her own education, the education of her family, the nursery school students she teaches, as well as the education of members of her community.