By Morenike Taire
•Says people only see the glamour in pageantry
After emerging winner of a beauty pageant in Abuja (name withheld), Okolie Isioma Gift‘s crown was withdrawn because she turned down the demands of the organizers. Determined to alter the stereotypes and chauvinistic treatment meted to women in Nigeria, Isioma’s El-Beulah Development Foundation, which aims alleviates the lives of vulnerable young girls in the society sheds light on the need for resilience.
In this interview, she also spoke on the necessity to save the girl-child from the dysfunctional and suffocating social norm of the streets, education, discipline, emulating Oprah Winfrey’s leadership academy for girls and other issues.
With the ubiquitous non governmental organizations in Nigeria claiming to be elevating the lives of women & girls, what makes yours outstanding from the others?
It’s very interesting that you asked that question.
Actually that’s one of those challenges we have to contend with not just in this adventure into charity (NGO) but also as Nigerians in general. There are certain levels of cynicism out there for some obvious reasons. But it is also wrong to dismiss everybody and judge them same or place them on the same pedestal.
I must admit that our unique Nigerian factor has played into NGOs. But having said that, we must also recognize that no two situations are exactly the same. They must differ in time, people or place.
Well, to answer your question directly, I think El- Beulah is an organization which idea is strictly driven by empathy and some of what I saw growing up. Not exactly experienced. I realized earlier enough how vulnerable young girls or girl child in general are in this society. The issue of the Chibok girls and the depressing reports coming out of our IDP camps where the young girls are the most vulnerable to all manners of abuse and influence just simply underscores why some of us must get involved in the issue that relates to adolescent or teenage girls.
So El Buelah is driven by a call to service not for material gain. And let me be very frank with you, even if it is only a few girls that we are able to save from the dysfunctional and suffocating social norm of the streets then our job is done. We obvioulsy cannot save the whole world, but are determined to make a difference.
Because the truth is that we truly believe that if you save and stabilize one girl child, you must have stabilized a potential wife, mother and by extension the entire society.
So we are not there for money or whatever that drives others. But realistically it takes material and human resources to run a very viable and successful non profit charity organisation . But whatever we do and may yet do must be in line with the international best practices and standards.
What impact have you made in the lives women and girls in the society?
Well, I think the emphasis at this seminal stages should be on what we are about to accomplish based on our vision and strategy.
Although on individual level I’ve done quite a bit in line with my philosophy. I’ve done some of the things that will make a difference in the lives of people. The women, the elderly and of course girls in general. I’ve been very active in creating awareness for cervical cancer that plague women. Subsequent to my emerging the winner of the beauty pageant I embarked on trips in some of the areas one may consider areas with the dire need for awareness and education on some of the issues relating to women.
In Nassarawa state we partnered with an existing Majalisan Maccido Andaha Foundation NGO based over there. We visited some motherless babies home and orphanages over there, and I must tell you it was an experience that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. And to me, in absence of anything else, making a difference and seeing smile on the faces of some of the kids we visited is much more than any material gain. It is indeed priceless. I don’t need to say that when we travel to the village, of course the widows are not left out. Even ordinary visit and pleasantries gives them hope as they feel appreciated.
As an ex-beauty Queen, what experiences can be learnt from it in relationship to what you are doing?
Let me be straight up with you, this is yet another area where women are also exploited. The beauty pageantry and all. Basically there are no standards. People know about the glamour and the flashy images of beauty pageantry but know very little about the rest of the story.
Referring back to your first question, you will find out that even this is equally subject to those Nigerian idiosyncrasies. In fact, one has to have strong family values and emotional intelligence to go through this and actually transform it to a force for greater good, otherwise it could be another exploitative area of women as the case may be.
So I wouldn’t bore you with my personal experience in the aftermath of the pageantry I duly won and the crowning. This is where I really want to lay some emphasis because that is really what inspired me and propelled me to where I am today, and where I am going from here. In fact, because I refused to capitulate or submit to some of the demands of the organizers after going through the entire process and winning, they in fact withdrew all the prizes I won including the car and the cash prices and all. Very sad experience, but it did not really discourage me, because I was not there for the material gains and glamour. I was there to make a difference, and to use the platform to do what has always been my passion. So I can say that it is that same experience and resilience that is guiding me as we move forward.
Give us a glimpse into your bio?
Okolie Isioma Gift is my name, from Issele-uku Aniocha North local government area of Delta State. A graduate of Insurance from University of Lagos, a designer and by his grace the CEO of El-Beulah Development Foundation.
What inspired you into this project?
The general condition of girl child in this part of the world. In fact, unlike in some other societies, the weak legal frame work and other institutions that is lacking here basically often left the girls open to abuse and subject to exploitation. I just don’t like the way otherwise useful girls have ended up on the wrong side of life for one reason or the other. So you could say that every day I wake up, I find more convincing reasons to do whatever I can to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable in our society.
From the creative point of view, who will you say inspired you into this distinct content creation?
Definitely Oprah Winfrey. The American media mogul.
This woman left America and came here to establish a leadership academy strictly for girls in South Africa. She was deeply worried about how she can actually help humanity in Africa, and I guess her research led her to the conclusion that if Africa will rise, then the women will play a pivotal role in the leadership of African societies. And if you look at the Rwandan outstanding performance and success today, you can see that women are more than 50% of the people in leadership positions.
So Just like Oprah who truly believes that the future of Africa depends on their women, to me the girl-child of today in this country holds greater promise. I definitely share this Oprah Winfrey vision and philosophy. In fact, my ultimate ambition is to eventually attain that level as we are already seeking to reach out to them at the appropriate time.
Someone like Stephanie Linus Okereke has also inspired me as she used her star status to bring attention to the issues impacting the girls child negatively in this society.
Do you feel that your management traits are a genetic factor imbued in the family or it comes rarely in individuals?
Coming from a family with military background- my dad is a retired Military officer. So of course, discipline and strategic thinking are some of the things you learn early in life.
I guess that’s where the “can do” attitude came from.
As they say ; Every plan is like an enemy that must be defeated. That’s my attitude towards my goals and pursuit, and this is no exception.