The co-convener of the Bring Back Our Girls group, Aisha Yesufu, tells Ademola Olonilua about her family and love life
You became quite popular through the Bring Back Our Girls campaign after the Chibok girls were abducted in 2014. How did you become an activist?
For me, activism has been part of me all my life. I am somebody that stands up against injustice because I have a ‘big mouth.’ While I was growing up, I always asked questions; be it from my parents or when I was in school. I always spoke my mind. My first protest happened when I first got into the university in 1992; it was at the Uthman Dan Fodio University. The school was closed down and we were asked to go home. I was about 18 years old at the time. I left Uthman Dan Fodio University and enrolled at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where I studied medicine. In the school, we held about three protests; during our time, they normally said that students do not protest especially medical students but we were very aggrieved about some particular things in the school, so we staged something like a take-over of the Senate building. Before the school authorities realised what was going on, we had already got to where the Vice-Chancellor was. I have always had that spirit of activism in me.
I left Ahmadu Bello University when the school was closed down because a professor was killed in 1994. The school was shut down for a year, so I left and completed my university education at Bayero University, Kano, where I studied Microbiology. Even when I was there, if I saw any form of injustice, I always voiced out and I remember back then, there were people that did not want to be with me at the administrative blocks, they always said that they did not want trouble. I had a big mouth and I could never keep quiet. There were times I always believed I would not complete my education. After my schooling, I went into business, I have never worked for anyone in my life and I never intend to. I have been doing business since 2000; I started my business after school and it became my main focus.
How would you describe your childhood?
I come from a very poor background. Back when I was in secondary school, I would go to classes without breakfast and when I closed and went home, I never expected lunch. I was born and raised in Kano State. Where I grew up in Kano State can be compared to a ghetto, in fact, some people call it the Ajegunle of Kano where you have a lot of drug users, street children, alumajiris, and using drugs was very normal over there. If you were not into drugs in that area, you were seen as an odd person. By the time I was 11 years old, I did not have any female friends because all of them had been married off but I wanted to be educated and leave the ghetto. I really focused on my education and people really insulted me because of that. I got married at the age of 24 and as of that time, my mates were already grandmothers. I was a very old lady who did not marry on time in the sight of a lot of people. By the time I was done with school, I knew that I had to work on my financial independence because in this country, anyone who is poor, he is faceless, nameless and voiceless. Poor people do not have any right and the hopelessness of it was something I did not want to continue to live with. I remember when I was in ABU, Zaria, I could not even afford to buy something as little as tomatoes.
If you grew up in such a poor neighbourhood, how were you able to finance your education?
Initially, my father was doing well but he lost everything, he was quite educated. He had a Higher National Diploma and he was doing quite well until 1984 when he lost everything under the Buhari military administration. His business collapsed and he lost everything. It was a very difficult period in our lives but I had always loved to read, I am a very voracious reader and it had been a trait I had since I was a little girl. Because I read a lot of books, I knew that there was a world out there and I wanted to explore every inch of it. One of my main goals in life was that I wanted to drive a car and when I started driving in 2000, I would go to where I grew up and the children would be running after my car yelling, ‘see a woman who is driving a car’. I read so much I had a very big dream about my life that even my parents could not comprehend. In 2014, my mother said to me, ‘thank you for all the things you dreamt about because we did not know it was achievable.’
I got married before I left university but I made sure that I worked on my financial independence. Some people asked me why they had not heard my voice before the BBOG campaign and I told them that it is because I had to work on myself. Who would listen to you when you are poor?
Some people believe that growing up in the north means your parents would be responsible for choosing a spouse for you. Was that the case with you?
I am not from the north but I was born and brought up in Kano. My husband and I are from Edo State. Everyone around me got married early and I was the last person among my peers that got married. I remember when I was in JSS 2, there was a man that approached me saying that he wanted to marry me. I had to stop him on time. I was the oldest amongst all my cousins to get married. I insisted that I wanted to go to school and I stuck with the plan. I remember there was a time something happened and my father told me that I would not go beyond secondary school; I had already made plans that I would leave his house and move in with a friend but my father later changed his mind. Initially, my father had also believed that as a girl, I should not go beyond secondary school but as he grew older and saw the way things worked outside our environment, he had a change of mind. My parents really worked hard to ensure that we all went to school especially me; I attended a very expensive private secondary school. There were lots of rich children in the school. When my father’s business was still very vibrant, he had invested in company shares so whenever he got the dividend, he invested it in our education. Most times I did not have textbooks and I had to trek long distances to get to school. We had no food at home but my father made sure that he paid my school fees. That is why I always preach that people should go to school because without education, I wonder where I would be today. I would not be able to express myself the way I do now. I spent the first 40 years of my life trying to achieve financial independence.
But how did you meet your husband?
I met my husband at my uncle’s bachelor’s party and that was the first party I ever attended in my life. On that day, I was supposed to go to Kastina for a friend’s wedding but my uncle insisted that I had to be at his party. My uncle expected that he was going to get money from guests that attended the bachelor’s party and he trusted me enough to keep the money for him. I was angry that he made me stay at his party because I wanted to be with my friends. My husband and my uncle are friends and he was at the party as the chairman on the occasion; till date, my family members call him chairman. I was an usher at the gathering and as soon as they called the chairman and this tall, handsome man stood up, for me, it was love at first sight. For him, it was not love at first sight because he was in a relationship then with someone he hoped to marry but she eventually left him. I liked him and since I am someone who is very forward, so I decided to take the wedding cassette to him; I would say that I courted him and 20 years later we are happy together.
How would you describe your husband because people see you as an outspoken person…
He is a very quiet person and he is just different. A lot of people said that I would not be able to stay in any man’s house because of my big mouth. When people try to take up issues with me, I laugh because they do not know the kind of person that I am; even my parents do not. Despite what they all say about me, whenever there is an issue and they need candid advice, they run to me because I say the truth. However, I always see things differently from the way others see them. My husband and I met on December 13, 1996, but we did not start dating till August 1997 and we got married eight months after. Three weeks after we started dating, he met my father and told my father that he would like to court me. After he got my father’s approval, in no time, we began to plan my marriage.
I remember when I took my uncle’s wedding cassette to him at his office, he asked why I was not in school and I told him that I was sorting out my accommodation issues. He then told me that the next time I needed to sort out my accommodation, he would take me to school. When I finally secured accommodation in school, I told my uncle to inform him and they both came to pick me to school. When he dropped me off at school on a Wednesday, he said to me, ‘maybe I would come and see you on Saturday.’ I simply replied him saying, ‘I do not do maybe. It is either you come and see me or not because I cannot stay in my room all day hoping that you will come and visit.’ He laughed and told me that he would come. I am someone who is always very blunt. When he finally proposed to me, I told him some of my flaws.
What were those flaws you listed out?
I cook very well but I need to be very motivated before I enter the kitchen to cook. I am not a big fan of house chores but I love to read. I have a cook who comes to my house to cook for us and the food is sweet. If you do not like doing something, pay someone to do it for you. My husband is such an amazing human being, he is just different from other men and I would say it is the only reason we have spent 20 years together in our marriage.
Has your activism taken toll on your family?
It has definitely taken a toll on my family but I have always had a balanced life. Since I work for myself, I always work from home. I don’t work from an office; instead I work from my house. I have people at my warehouses and they make sure things run smoothly; once in a while I go to inspect and make sure that things are fine. I am a stay at home mum and I have always been there for my family. Whatever I do I put in all my passion, for instance, I worked on my marriage the way someone would grow a business. I sit down sometimes and I begin to write what is working in the marriage and what is not. I worked on my marriage the way people work on their business or career and I did the same thing with my children and family as a whole. I was my children’s lesson teacher, now they are all grown up and I am proud of them. I turned 40 years old in December 2013. As at that time, I knew I had reached a financially stable place in my life. I do not need to work to foot my bills and if I decide not to work anymore today, I have invested in so many businesses that I would be able to take care of my expenses.
During that time, I told my husband that I needed to occupy myself with something. Two things I was interested in was financial literacy and independence as well as education. Then came the Chibok girls’ incident. I remember that I was at the gym with a friend who told me that later that day, she was going for a protest because of the abducted Chibok girls. I asked for the colour they were wearing and she said red. Since I did not have a red hijab, I decided to buy one that day. I called my husband to inform him of my decision and he supported me; that was how it started. When the Chibok girls’ incident happened, I was already set to give back to my society and I saw that as an avenue.
In what ways did it affect your family?
Before the Chibok girls abduction, I had a hundred per cent time for my family but as I joined the campaign group, my time had to be divided. In the second year of the Chibok girls’ abduction, my daughter said to me, ‘mummy I cannot wait for the Chibok girls to be rescued so that I can have my mummy back. You used to be fun but now, you worry too much.’ I was touched because we always had fun times. We travelled together and bonded so well. Sometimes I picked them from school and we went somewhere for lunch. We bonded a lot. But my husband has always been someone who inspires and supports me to be the best. In 2000, he said to me, ‘you are going to be a businesswoman that the whole world would reckon with.’ I still have the note where he wrote that to me. He has always encouraged me to be financially independent. He is a chartered accountant and this year would make it thirty years that he has been in that sector. He is an ICAN prize winner. That was one of the reasons I did not work but started a business because we felt that I would do better if I worked for myself. One of the things we have been able to build is that if anything happens to any of us, the other party can take care of the family effortlessly.
How do you unwind?
I hate going for parties, it drains me a lot. I love reading a lot. I also love joking and goofing around. I make jokes out of everything. That is a form of relaxation for me. My husband and I are also very good at making conversations with each other; there are times that we talk all through the night. We used to have our date night till the terrorist attacks began. Every Saturday evening, we would go out for dinner and talk all through, we still do it sometimes but not as regularly as before. Back then, it was more or less an unwritten rule that it must happen. Even my children used to call it ‘mummy’s night’. They knew that their father just had to take me out that evening. When the terrorists attack started, we had to stop that but most nights, we watch films together. Now the social media is there and I occupy myself with what happens on my timeline.
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