Special Edition Interview with Mrs. Uduak Alanyingi Sylva

Special Edition Interview with Mrs. Uduak Alanyingi Sylva

You are a renowned advocate of personal wellness as a strategy for women empowerment, tell us more about your passion as an integrative health coach.

The whole concept of empowerment for me is that ‘your first wealth is your health’ and when you are healthy you have the energy and the zeal to go out and do whatever you want to do. But, when you are unwell the quality of life is not exciting; you don’t look forward to anything. Take for example someone with a toothache. Nothing in this world matters to them anymore except for the toothache that is pounding in their brain. Like everyone else, I have been ill and I have been well and I know the difference. And that is why I tell people around me, particularly the women, how important it is to take care of their health because only then will they be able to contribute and make an impact in society.

I tell you a funny story. Some years ago when we were in Bayelsa, we had a family friend who was wealthy by all standards at the time, however, he was very unwell. He was riding in his jeep one day when he saw a poor pushing a truck. He could not help but notice how fit and agile the man was despite his low economic status. At that moment, our friend said he would have gladly traded places with the man pushing his truck in the heat of the day if only he gets to be as strong and healthy.

The mind set of one who is unwell hinders them from giving their best and in most cases stomps their fighting spirit. So, this is where it starts from, my passion for an integrative approach to wellness.

Your outreach to indigent children and young adults in Abuja through the ONE MOTHER ONE CHILD initiative have ignited hope for these young minds. What is your vision for this initiative?

That is an interesting question and each time I get asked, I always start with why not?

About eight years ago, I saw a UN Report on the number of out-of-school children around the world, particularly in Nigeria where the issue is compounded by the increasing numbers of IDP camps due to the various security challenges across several states in the country.  I am an ardent believer in education and the good it brings to our society. So, it breaks my heart when I see children that should be in school roaming the streets because their families cannot afford simple things like school fees. After consultation with my team on possible ways of addressing this challenge, we came up with the concept that if every woman were to adopt the financial responsibility of educating one child, then the problem of out-of-school children can be resolved in Nigeria. I mean the women are not required to bring the children into their homes, they might not even have direct interactions except for those women who would like to add further value by mentoring the child. By our calculations, we discovered that it took less than ₦60,000 per year to put a child through school. 

So, we drove the campaign and launched the One Mother One Child Initiative through our pilot project at a public secondary school in Kubwa, Abuja. I recall the excitement of the school’s principal when we approached her for a list of students who could not afford the cost of completing their secondary school education. She was overjoyed because quite a number of her best students had dropped out of school and she wanted us to every one of these children.  We picked up the bills and sponsored our first set of beneficiaries to complete their secondary school education just as we were running this project, Boko Haram hit and IDPs were all over the place. Now we were faced with the striking realisation that this is a prevalent issue and the initiative must be up-scaled to accommodate the unfortunate reality of children being away from their homes and out of school.

At first, when we visited the IDP camps, it was with the thought of donating clothes, food and other humanitarian items, but an in-depth assessment of the situation in the camp revealed the need for an initiative like the One Mother, One Child.  So, we consulted with the chairman of the camp about the possibility of these young people going back to school and also had direct interactions with them – which was not easy considering that they were traumatised kids who do not speak or understand English and did not trust a bunch of strangers who like many others seemed to be making promises that might not be fulfilled. Luckily, we had with us a team member fluent in Hausa who was able to reassure them that our intentions were genuine. Reluctantly, they signed up and we started our first class with four (4) students. Within a short time, the class grew to over a hundred in attendance, with students coming from other IDP camps to attend our classes. At this point, we needed every educational resource that we could get – I had to bring some of my children’s old computers so that we could set up a computer lab because we discovered that some of our students were interested in IT and they were very good at it. I must say that some of these students are very smart and bright. In fact, we have two first-class students out of the nine that will graduate in June.

We have enjoyed the continued support of well-meaning Nigerians in the diaspora. Recently, at the launch of the program in partnership with the African Women in Leadership Organisation (AWLO), we had an induction ceremony where five of our students sat with us on stage and were given the opportunity to address the audience. Hearing them speak about how far they have come was so touching and heart-warming. One of the young men who spoke said “imagine starting from an IDP Camp and here I am today standing before Ministers and Governors as a Registered Nurse”. It just makes my heart warm because this all started from an idea, a concept and now we are impacting the lives of the younger generation, preserving Nigeria’s future.

I tease my friends or tell mothers that can you just not buy one handbag in a year and just use it to train a child? You know, the cost of one handbag can train a child for a year. This realisation has completely changed my priority in life.

In what other ways are you advocating for women and the girl child in Nigeria?

I am an advocate for the STEM program and I currently support quite some girls who are enrolled in science schools – I have one of them studying Environmental Engineering.

Last year, we visited my husband’s village during the lockdown of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was disturbing to see that children in the village could not continue learning because they did not have access to computers. I mean, these people are in the village! So, we made a case and reached out to the Nigerian Content Development & Monitoring Board (NCDMB). They obliged and donated desktops and laptops to the schools. Now we have children in the village who want to go into tech and other fields of science because of the opportunity of having access to the world through the screens of their computers. 

These are simple things that trickle down to make a huge impact on the lives of the younger generation. You know, my husband has always taught me that human beings are the most impactful resource for any nation. He is a huge advocate for the youths – he tells me “Alanyingi, humans are the first resource there is, blessed with the phenomenal thing called the mind…impact on them, steer them in the right direction and you would achieve the greatest thing you can ever imagine”. 

 How would you access the prospects of increased women’s participation in policymaking in Nigeria and Africa?

I believe that this is a discussion that we should have had fifty years ago or even a hundred years ago. The truth remains that when women are excluded from the table, it is like having two legs but deciding to only stand on one – that only leads to imbalance. Many years ago, I saw a picture that was making rounds across the media; it showed a group of men sitting at the White House, discussing the impact of breastfeeding on mothers and trying to decide on when breastfeeding women can come back to work. This resulted in an outcry among the women; how can a group of men make that decision when none of them had ever breastfed in their life! Women must be part of decisions and policymaking. Women are natural leaders: it starts with how a child would always revert to their mothers because they are the first teachers in the formative years of a child’s life, or how most grown men still worry about what their mothers think of their actions.   If a woman can have that level of influence then you can only imagine the impact she will bring to the table when it comes to policymaking and things that will affect the lives of not just her children but people around her. Women bring value to the table and that is all we have ever advocated for – the right to be heard, to be able to add value and to what you are doing.

I am a bit conservative in my approach, I am not an advocate of “what a man can do a woman can do better”. We are not trying to take over nor are we contending to see who is better. However, women have a value that they need to bring to the table – I believe that I can bring value and so can every woman if given the opportunity. 

A member of our team gave an illustration that is apt to this discussion. He said, consider a construction site bustling with numerous workers. Before the activities swing into full gear, one woman is sitting in a corner at the site, selling ‘Akara’, bread and other food items and almost everyone at that site comes to her for sustenance – you can begin to understand the value that she is adding to that place. If that woman does not show up for one day, then there will a chain of problems at the site because those workers must find somewhere else to eat and that could lead to a delay in meeting up with their daily tasks. That is a simple illustration of value – it could be small, almost hard to notice without a second look, but it is real and it makes a difference – that is our advocacy, a chance to bring these simple but tangible values to the table. 

Having been nominated for this award by the Honourable Minister of Women Affairs, how do you feel as a recipient of the VIP Woman of Impact Award?

I am so pleased and I want to sincerely appreciate the Honourable Minister of Women Affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen. She is a phenomenal woman and a relentless fighter for the cause of women in Nigeria. I feel honoured that she thinks me worthy and nominated me for this award.

When we first started on this project – reaching out to schools, starting classes in IDP camps – none of us thought about getting an award or any recognition for that matter. We were just a team that saw a need in society and rose to bring value through our work. A recognition like this from the Honourable Minister of Women Affairs goes to show that we must be doing something right and assures us that someone, somewhere is noticing the impact we have made so far. It is like a pat on the back to say “you did well, I see the impact you are making and I see you”.

I also want to thank the publisher who has put in a lot of time, effort and resources to organise this award. Thank you very much. 

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