Loud Whispers With Erelu Bisi Fayemi
It probably all started with an innocent fondness of former US First Lady Maime Eisenhower for the colour pink.
It was said she loved pink so much that she wore it at every opportunity, including a pink gown with 2,000 pink rhinestones for her husband’s inauguration, and he in turn sent her pink flowers every morning. She brought so many pink furnishings into the White House that some journalists started calling it the ‘Pink Palace’. In North American and European culture, pink is the colour of femininity.
That in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, growing up, when I discovered that there were colours that established the inferiority of women and girls and the superiority of men and boys, I hated the colour pink.
Little girls are brought up to have a natural relationship with pink. The mothers have little choice in the matter because when you go shopping for baby clothes, the girls’ clothes are pink and the boys’ clothes are blue, with little else in between.
I was brought up to think of pink as befitting because it was meant to symbolize femininity, delicacy, sweetness, calmness, gentleness, all the things associated with being female. Blue for the boys symbolized masculinity, strength, natural leadership.
This is how girls grow up believing that they can probably do what boys can, but that they are not really expected to leave their pink comfort zones. The pink world of girls helps strengthen gendered stereotypes about their capacities and potential. For many years I stayed as far away from pink as possible, that is probably why I developed the same relationship with Purple that Maime Eisenhower had with Pink. To me purple signifies strength, dignity, beauty and power, all the things I want for myself and generations of daughters after me.
I began to change my attitude towards pink when I met my beloved late friend and sister Mrs. Funmilayo Adunni Olayinka, the former Deputy Governor of Ekiti State. We had many things in common. We were both born in June. We had the same shoe size. We loved to dance. We hated ‘African time’. And we both loved Purple.
However, she loved pink too and I hated it. Every time we went shopping for fabrics, she would tease me about avoiding pink and focusing only on the purples, blues and golds. I would reluctantly give in to her teasing and take something pink. Then I lost her and with that loss came a new appreciation for the colour pink.
I am not a little girl anymore who can be forced to dress up in pink and go through life having certain expectations and limitations drummed into her head. I no longer have to hide behind my favourite colour purple all the time. Now I wear pink with a tinge of sadness but a lot of pride and joy. Pink to me now symbolizes passion, resilience and survival.
This is October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this period, there is a lot of awareness raising, fundraising and advocacy for the full range of interventions required ranging from avoiding risk factors, self-examination, diagnosis, treatment to rehabilitation and palliative care.
Breast Cancer does not have to be a death sentence, but if it is caught too late, with the poor or even non-existent facilities we have in the country to respond to patients, the body count will continue to pile up. Last week, it was heartening to hear the Minister for Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, promise a Cancer Treatment Fund that would be supported by the government and the private sector to ease the burden of treatment.
The World Health Organisation has stated that there are an estimated 116,000 new cases of cancer in the country and that 41,000 cancer related deaths were recorded in Nigeria in 2018. I am not sure if these figures include thousands who pass away in our remote rural areas, with little or no access to treatment.
Breast Cancer is no respecter of age, status, class or religion. Any woman can get Breast Cancer. Any man can lose a mother, wife, sister or daughter to Breast Cancer. When Mrs Olayinka was battling with the illness, for the first time in my life, I realised how naïve I was with regards to our attitudes towards the disease.
Not only did I not expect the deep stigma attached to cancer, I was also blissfully ignorant of how even well-educated people cling to superstitions and myths about cancer – you get it if your enemies inflict it on you.
Over the years, I have mourned relatives and friends who have died from various forms of cancer, majority of them from breast cancer. Each story is different – late diagnosis, recurrence after remission, inability to afford treatment, refusal of orthodox treatment, the paths vary but all lead to the same place.
Every time it happens I ask myself what could have been done to change the story. There are many things we can do. Even if we can’t save the life of someone dying we can be part of a movement that significantly reduces the alarming numbers of women and men cut down in their prime.
We can all do something. We can start with ourselves and cut down on risk factors such as obesity, sedentary life-styles, smoking and alcohol. We can practice self-examination as well as go for regular screening. We can raise money and donate to breast cancer charities. We can sponsor free screening services. We can give talks on cancer awareness. We can counsel those who have detected something and are afraid to go to hospitals for further screening and diagnosis. Please do not take them to your Pastor.
Take them to the hospital and hold their hand through whatever news they get. We can stop spreading rumours about those who have terminal illnesses. Let us mind our business and watch what we say about things we know nothing about. When those battling these awful diseases pass away, we can help those they leave behind.
In addition to doing all the above, one other thing I am able to do is be an advocate. It was through advocacy and resource mobilization efforts that the Funmilayo Olayinka Diagnostic and Wellness Center was established on Ekiti in October 2013. Since then, the Center has helped save many lives, and it is a project I am re-dedicating myself to.
There is a network of serving and former Nigerian First Ladies called First Ladies Against Cancer (FLAC). It is a platform for First Ladies who are passionate about advocacy and services for cancer prevention and treatment. We also have cancer survivors amongst us. We are using the various platforms we have to advocate for political will and increased financial, technical, material and human resources in the fight against cancer.
On Sunday October 27th, to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month also known as Pink October, we will be supporting the premiere of a wonderful new movie, ’Diamonds in the sky’ in Lagos. The movie features stars such as Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, Toyin Abraham, Femi Adebayo, Ali Nuhu and many more. As First Ladies, we are all aware of how privileged we are and the options we might have should we ourselves fall ill. We however know that cancer does not work that way. It has a way of disgracing money.
A few years ago, someone said to me, ‘Why should I donate money to a First Lady, that is like pouring water into the ocean’. It was meant as a joke, but it does not make it any less silly. The ocean is endless and deep.
So is the issue of Breast Cancer. Please let us all fight this battle together, we face a common enemy and our weapons are very sparse. You can send donations to FLAC, c/o Leah Foundation, Polaris Bank, Account Number 1771214084.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com