By Emeka Mamah, Vincent Ujumadu, Chidi Nkwopara & Anayo Okoli
WOMEN in Igbo states including Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo are holding their yearly August meetings in their various communities to contribute their quota towards developing of their home towns.
Although, this year’s meetings are not glamorous as they used to be because of the economic recession, which has brought gloom to most families, the yearly meetings, which began over 20 years ago, have become a yearly ritual as Igbo women living at home and abroad return home as part of their efforts to complement the efforts of the men in providing essential amenities like roads, health centres, electricity and churches among others in their communities.
During such meetings, the women organise bazaars and levy themselves and whatever is generated is usually channelled towards providing amenities in rural areas.
Community involvement in rural development began at the end of the 30 months civil war between Nigeria and Biafra in 1970, when the late Sole Administrator of the Eastern Region, Dr. Ukpabi Asika,urged communities to develop their areas under the aegis of Otu Olu Igbo.
Since then, most Igbo communities have been building schools, health centres and hospitals as well as grading their local roads and handing same over to their various state governments.
However, the involvement of women in the development of their rural communities became popular when churches organised their various women organisations to contribute towards the building of their worship centres in particular and their communities in general as a way of complementing the efforts of the male folk.
Initially, the period of “august returns” was as used an avenue for displaying affluence by most women until the churches decried that only cheap uniforms belonging to Christian mothers are worn during such meetings. It has, however, shifted from an avenue of displaying affluence to a period of brainstorming on how to make their communities better.
At Ogbe, Ahiazu Mbaise Local Council Area of Imo State, the meeting started on a controversial note as the women claimed that a health centre which was built about 17 years ago had been used by some government officials to “retire some expenditures,” without their knowledge.
President of Ogbe Women Development Association (Home and Abroad), OWDA, Mrs. Anastasia Anyanwu, said: “Our frame of mind when we opted to build a health centre, about 17 years ago was not for anybody or group to take credit for what they were never a part of.” Anyanwu said their priority is and remain “to actively bring in development in the community, including but not limited to, training our children, according to modern demands’ and improving the quality of family life.”
Surreptitious taking over
She, however, frowned at the surreptitious taking over of their health centre project by government, claiming that it was “built by the Federal Government in collaboration with Imo State Government.”
According to her, what further irked the industrious women was the signpost displayed at the health centre, which portrayed their handiwork as “MDG’s 2011 Conditional Grant Scheme, funded from debt relief gains and Imo State Government.”
Speaking in an interview with South East Voice at Ogbe, Mrs. Anyanwu said the women purchased a piece of land in 2008, from Umuokawa Ogbe Progressive Club of Nigeria, for their health centre project at a cost of N1.5 million, adding that over N2.5 million was spent by the time the land deal was finally perfected.
Also, the immediate past president of OWDA, Ezinne Scholastica Onuoha, said the project was initiated by her regime.
“We decided at our August Meeting to begin with the primary health centre. We launched the programme and all monies realized was channelled towards the realisation of the project,” Onuoha said.
She recalled that one of their sons, who was in government (names withheld), told the women that the Imo State Government was planning to build health centres across the state and would readily take over and complete that of Ogbe community.
“On April 3, 2013, the traditional ruler of the town, Eze Patrick Ihuoma, addressed a handwritten letter to me, demanding the survey plan for our proposed Model Primary Health Centre. He also stated in the letter that it would help in the processing of their application to the MDG Office, for assistance,” Onuoha said.
She added, however, that “instead of bringing in his materials, the contractor brought in by Imo State government used our blocks, cement, sand, gravel and other materials on ground and quietly abandoned the project.
“We sunk a water borehole, built the perimeter fence, a hall, did the landscaping, installed a big iron gate, bought chairs, beds, mattresses and connected the health centre to public power supply.
“The Abuja branch of our association bought and donated electricity generating set. So, I can’t understand why government should take credit for what they never did.”
According to her, there was no discussion between the government and the Ogbe women where any takeover would be deemed to have been effected.
Discussion with government
She said: “We had no discussions with government. We never handed over our project to anybody. We were not refunded the money we spent on the project. This is a democracy and not the military era where things were done by force. Government should please give us N100 million, if they want to own the project.”
But, when the MDG office was contacted, a staff who spoke under anonymity, brought out a letter written by Ogbe Community Government Council, CGC, on April 3,2013, and jointly signed by the traditional ruler, the CGC Secretary, Woman Leader, Eze Patrick Ihuoma, Mr. Toby A. Njoku and Mrs. Francisca C. Uchegbu respectively.
This letter gave an undertaking/commitment to Imo MDG to use the parcel of land on survey plan FEA/1772/IM.182/2011, for the purpose of developing a Modern Primary Health Centre for the community. There was, however, nothing to show the leadership of OWDA gave tacit approval for the takeover.
In Abia State, this year’s August Women’s Meeting kicked off with the theme, “Sustainable Empowerment for Rural Women: Peace to our Mothers.” The meeting is being coordinated by the wife of the state governor, Mrs. Nkechi Ikpeazu. Mrs Ikpeazu flagged off the meeting at Okpuala Ngwa in Isiala Ngwa North Council area for the Abia Central Senatorial District.
The annual gathering has offered the women opportunity to discuss issues affecting the women, especially on how to tackle and defend their rights against some obnoxious practices such as the ill treatment usually meted to widows, concerning inheritance and circumcision, among others. Addressing the women in the various zones, Abia State governor’s wife, Mrs. Nkechi Ikpeazu, stressed the need to “educate, empower and keep our women healthy so that they can contribute effectively in keeping their family and community solvent.”
Mrs Ikpeazu said that “when women are empowered in a sustainable way that allows them to replicate their successes in any particular field, profession or enterprise, they are better equipped to pull themselves out of the poverty trop and assist other dependants to become economically stable.”
She also spoke to the women about sickle cell anaemia and cervical cancer, advising that since sickle cell has no cure, mothers should educate their children on the dangers of marrying people with incompatible genotypes, as well as the need for genotype tests before marriages are consummated.
The governor’s wife lamented the prevalence of cervical cancer which she said “is gradually increasing as societal changes occur,” and urged the women to go for regular tests to ensure they are free from the disease. Healthcare personnel were mobilized to give health talks to the women in a bid to improve their family members’ style of living. Financial experts were also invited to speak to the women on how to secure loans to boost their businesses.
The format for the annual August meetings of women of various communities in Igbo land has been changing over the years. There was a time the annual get together was organized along church denominational lines, with women attending in their various churches.
The organizational structure was such that after attending the meeting at the church level, the women returned to their immediate villages where both the Anglicans and Catholics later attended joint meetings, primarily to plan for projects needed in their communities for which funds were raised.
That is why it is common to find gigantic halls in the various churches executed by women organizations, with monies provided by their husbands and well-wishers. Some communities had also used proceeds from August meetings to provide basic amenities, such as water, market stalls and electricity in their areas and catered for widows among them.
In those days, however, women, especially those living in urban cities, used the August assemblies to intimidate their counterparts in the villages through their expensive wearing outfits. It got to a stage in the competition among the women as the issue became who was more expensive than the other. This made some of the not-well-to-do women to begin to feel inferior and, therefore, began to absent themselves from the August meetings.
The pressure on what to wear by the women during the August meetings was later transferred to their husbands who had to cough out huge amounts of money to satisfy their wives who insisted on outshining other women at August meetings. The competition among the women degenerated to a level where, in order to meet up their August meetings requirements, some of them became promiscuous when their husbands could no longer meet their demands. It was common in those days for women to concentrate on finding money for what they would wear during August meetings, than how to cater for their children.
Worried by the development, the church authorities decided that the women should be attending the August meetings in church uniform so as to discourage extravagance among them. Though this decision considerably reduced the competition, some unrepentant women still chose to wear very expensive jewelleries to the meetings, to look different.
The present economic recession is also taking its toll on the annual August meetings as the attendance dropped considerably in many communities this year. For instance, many communities cancelled physical attendance this year, even though they still contributed their levies to continue with ongoing projects. In one of those communities, the women took into consideration the economic hardship and decided that the August meetings should not hold, but the contributions should reach the appropriate quarters for project execution.
But one community that organized a well-attended August meeting this year is Adazi Nnukwu in Anaocha local government area. At the ceremony held weekend, the women organized a beauty competition which was used for fund-raising and all the women selected had to bring their families and friends to support them. At the end of the exercise, a very substantial amount was raised for community projects.
Involvement of Governor’s wives: In the past few years, the wives of governors in Anambra State had been setting out a day to the kick off the August meeting in the state after which the various communities would fix dates for their own meetings. The government involvement in the exercise started when former Governor Peter Obi was in power as his wife made it a point of duty to attend August meeting in all the 177 communities in the state.
The wife of the incumbent governor, Mrs. Ebelechukwu Obiano also continued with the format. Last week, Mrs. Obiano flagged off this year’s August meeting in August, thus paving the way for the various communities to organize their own meetings.
Mrs. Ugwuanyi seeks improved birth registration in rural areas: The wife of Enugu State governor, Mrs. Monica Ugwuanyi, has enjoined women in the state, especially in rural communities, to always register the births of their children and wards for an improved population data and to enable the relevant authorities carry out reliable economic planning.
Speaking during the Enugu State Women Conference/August Meeting organized by the Ministry of Gender Affairs and Social Development in collaboration with her pet project, Ugo Touch of Life Foundation at Queen’s School, Enugu, Mrs. Ugwuanyi said that U-TOLF would undertake advocacy visits across the state in partnership with the National Population Commission to promote the registration of all children born in the rural areas.
She also advised women to register for the ongoing National Identity Card, pointing out that lack of the card and birth certificates may be stumbling blocks to procuring important services. “As the world is going global, it is necessary and wise for women to adapt themselves to current innovation,” she noted at the event with the theme, “The Power of a Praying Woman and the need for Birth Registration.”
The Enugu State first lady was also at the grand finale of the August arm of the Women’s Prayer Network where she called for prayers from women for continuous peace in the state and the country at large. She explained further at the event held at Okpara Square, Enugu, that much transformation has been recorded by the Gov. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi administration, adding that prayer is necessary for success in every venture.
“Be constant in your prayers against all odds because God reward those that diligently seek him,” she added.
The highlight of the event was the presentation of hairdryers, power generators and sewing machines by Mrs. Ugwuanyi to over 60 women and youths from the state’s 17 local government areas who had earlier received training in various skills.