Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, June 12 2012
Lady Felicia Okei
Why does someone reach out to help others? In the case of Lady Felicia Okei of Nigeria, perhaps it’s because she understands all too well what it is to need help. And in her case, how fortunate she was to find it.
Okei has no memory of her mother’s face; there are no photographs. Her mother died when Okei was just three months old. Thankfully, her grandmother stepped in to raise her, but from the start it was difficult. There was little help and even less money. The young aunts in the family, the many wives of her mother’s brother who were raising their own babies, refused to nurse the orphaned infant. Their belief in voodoo and curses led them to blame Okei for her mother’s death.
Alone with the hungry baby, her grandmother did what she knew how to do. She fed the baby mashed bananas, which she soaked for several days to soften and ferment, and boiled potatoes that she flavored with salt and palm oil.
But by age 7, it was Okei who was now working to feed her grandmother. By day, she would stand in the marketplace and sell wood she had chopped, fried cassava mash she had made and snails – a Nigerian delicacy – that she would collect alone at night in the bush.
As she explains, “I brought myself up, and I brought up my grandmother.”
Honorable Sir Barrister George Okei, Esq.
and Lady Felicia Okei
In addition to the poverty and hunger, Okei endured the abuse of her many cruel aunts, but her life changed when she married a man that would become a lawyer, a state’s commissioner, a manager of the Central Bank and ultimately a Commissioner for Commerce and Industry. Her husband, the Honorable Sir Barrister George Okei, Esq. (KSM) recognized his young wife’s intelligence and spirit and sent her back to complete her education. As his career progressed, her opportunity to help others also grew.
Today, Felicia Okei is no longer that cursed child, but instead she is called “aguoin” (or woman leader) in honor of the work she does to care for others – specifically the women of the Agbor community in the Delta region. In her sky blue headwrap and elegantly embroidered gown, she quietly explains how she helps more than 50 women through her non-governmental organization (NGO), We Care For All.
She explains, “When you train a woman, you train a nation. You are changing a society.”
And that is her hope – to change a society – to teach skills like farming, sewing, and hair dressing to women – to give them economic opportunity, independence and stability. Her generous efforts touch women from all walks of life, including young women who have returned home after being exploited by human traffickers abroad, but Okei seems most committed to caring for the widows, especially those with children.
“The widows have no one to help them,” she says. “They don’t have money for school, and so their children dropout. The boys start to steal, and the girls turn to prostitution. But if I can teach these women how to make a little money for their families, their children can stay in school.”
Tonna Okei with his father Honorable
Sir Barrister George Okei, Esq.
Lucy Mbaye, who is from the same village as Okei's mother, is one of the many women whose life has been changed because of Okei.
“Lucy lost her husband, lost one of her daughters and her only son. We met when I was teaching Bible, and I would say to her, ‘Don’t cry too much. You don’t know why God has allowed it.’” Okei continues, “And for many, many years, I have helped her. I gave her money for the burials, paid off her husband’s debt. I’ve given her food, clothing, helped her with her three daughters, and now she is happy. She calls me Mummy.”
For now, We Care For All is supported and tended by Okei, but her son, Tonna, wants that to change. He has just completed a bachelor’s degree in social work from Georgia State University and will continue his studies in a master’s program this fall at the University of South Carolina. His hope is to transform his mother’s passion into a sustainable, global effort.
“I grew up watching my mother take whatever we had – baskets of clothes or rice, salt or onions - and loading them into the van to take to the villages. It is what she has always done.”
He continues, “Right now, if you removed my mother, our efforts would be dead. This good work should not stop with her. We need a western perspective on how to empower these women. That is why I am here; that is why I study what I do – so I can become a community leader and bridge the world there with the possibility here.”
And so on this graduation weekend, the Okeis are hopeful for what the future holds for mother and son and the women of Nigeria.
Okei shares quietly, “I have suffered so much. I can see what they have gone through because I have gone through it myself.”
“But there is a limit to what one person can do,” he adds. “Nigeria needs people like you. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
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Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.