Hon. Dame Blessing Nwagba PhD: Woman and Human at 61 | #IgbereTV
In a world of plastic emotions, her smile is not a performance. Her laughter is not a commodity, a vendor’s stake in a bargain or his lustuous wave at the means of others. Her words come from grace, a place where queens mine their royal nectars. Age has not wrecked her beauty. Its mockery has not touched her eyes. Her steps are cast like gold’s eternal lusture raising and lifting, lowering, glazing, pouring incandescence on dust, that steps behind may walk on gold. “This woman, she answers when men are called,” is a line of a poem I wrote to celebrate her 60th last year. It did not flow from the shallow waters of vain praise or the empty wells of benevolent wiles that reverberate lies landing hallucinations of truth on the mind. It came, however, from a line of years of watching, searching, finding and following the persona behind the politics.
Meeting her was rapturous. I felt my feet bury themselves in the floor of the waiting room of her office at Fulfilment International Schools, a school she founded in 2005 in pursuance of her passion for education, when she emerged, almost in a rush, to attend to a caller in the compound. I had heard tales of her courteous gestures especially to strangers. But, that day I saw it stand in flesh and blood before my eyes. For when she returned, she walked towards me with an apology, one that I didn’t consider necessary given that no wrong had been done. I would later learn from my conversation with her that it was not strategy but, character, that drove her thus. She was full of it speaking with grace and out of the fullness of knowledge. She knew the issues, understood the challenges, had ideas of practical solutions and faith in our ability, as a people, to apply them, and the possibilities that the application holds. Suffice it to say that she is not an unbeliever. She believes in the human spirit and its ability to evolve, within the context of social dynamics, behaviours and patterns that espouse good for all. This, I believe, sits at her core pointing the projections of her politics. So, politics is the anteroom. Her humanity is the den. It is the river that flows through it all.
My desire to tell her story was older than that day. It had been a long standing itch on my creative hide. As a storyteller and performer, I know a good story when I behold its face. Faces are pages. People are stories. When people meet, it is more than their bodies that show up. The unseen accoutrements at these meetings are things encapsulated in words. Sometimes, they are words melted in the furnace of silence served in trays of emotion. Or they are just words undisguised by circumstance. I plead the latter, for when she sat across from me at a table in Transcorp Hilton’s Pastry Corner, I felt the same rapturous feeling run through my spine and sow my feet in the floor. For two hours, I dug through her life unearthing pieces of her humanity. My duty was to find the human before, during, and the human that would remain after the politics. It was an honest search and she graciously obliged me all the tools.
Dr. Dame Blessing Nwagba has nothing to hide. She speaks of her integrity with almost a boast paying unbridled homage to her parents for her decent upbringing and her husband for his trust. Her late father, Venerable Joseph Ukomadu Ufomba, saw her abilities before she knew them. He guided her through the path watching her climb rungs of excellence during her school years. “My father had great value for education, and he gave us a very good foundation,” began her tribute to her father for his contribution to her mind. He was an education officer who was on the teaching staff of a record number of Federal Government Colleges before joining the clergy rising through the ranks and retiring at the coveted rank of archdeacon. A bachelor of arts (BA) in religion from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, had preceded his time in the clergy. This illustrious son of Mbutu-Isiahịa, Ibutu Umuojima-Ogbu, Osisioma Ngwa LGA, of Abia State, and his wife, Nneoma Comfort Ufomba, bequeathed the greatest treasure that a parent would leave for a child: education, thus standing in tune with Nelson Mandela in that epic statement that, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change world.” And yes, it changed her world. What more? She became change in flesh and bones. She would go on to become an entrepreneur, supervisory counsellor, board member of the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, two time member of the Abia State House of Assembly, holder of doctorate degree in sociology, knight of the Anglican Church, governorship candidate, among other notable achievements. “I come from a line of strong women,” she said reminiscing on her memories of her grandmother. She had her mother at the first decade of the Aba Women Riot of 1929. “My grand mother was a strong woman, just like my mother, and if the riot was done in any location near her, she would definitely have participated,” she hinted on the possibility of her grand mother’s participation in that event of 1929. Her mother is still strong at 82. She was many things to her young daughter and her siblings – father’s wife, mother, farmer, trader and typist – nothing short of a mirror of womanhood. Hence, her entrepreneurial sprint is hardly a mystery to the informed observer. Belzy Fashions woke her journey into entrepreneurship.
“Belzy Fashions enabled me express my artistic intuitions,” she explained, as vocal as anyone could be about their achievements. The name has not faded from the memory of some of her friends and contemporaries who at every chance would throw it at her as a fond moniker. It must have been a monument to a great future. Something that woke more than her artistic side. Maybe a bit of her humanity that wasn’t captured by her other abilities have woken with this entrepreneurial sprint that rode her to the doors of power as a government contractor years later. Belzy Farms would follow with other businesses spreading her entrepreneurial seeds on fertile soils. Little wonder her life is premised on the philosophy embodied in that Napoleon Hill’s famous quote, ‘Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.’ She had framed it and hung on a wall in their home and would draw her husband’s attention to it each time a challenging situation stared them in the eyes. Dr. Blessing Nwagba takes no prisoners in pursuing her goals. She goes all the way to the end leaving a clear path behind. But, she is not without bruises. She has earned scars like all hands that try. For instance, her dream of becoming a lawyer was dashed after a one year stint at the University of Nigeria Enugu Campus (UNEC) following a disciplinary action by the institution for bagging multiple admissions in the same discipline owing to separate applications to the institution through Higher School Certificate (HSC) and Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) results respectively. “Define your goal, be clear about it, believe in yourself. . . You have to get started to go anywhere,” she said speaking of her life’s philosophy, adding, “I take responsibility for my failures. I don’t regret them. It is better to try and fail than not try at all.” She posits that it is the duty of every human person to find their niche in life. This she believes is the only path to true progress for humanity.
From expressing her artistic intuitions in business to running for office, she carved a niche for herself. But, she won’t let herself own the plot alone. She would go on to mentor young women to become themselves and nothing that a society high on male chauvinism curates. This was her motivation for joining the Partners West Africa as a consultant and mentor/coach. A good number of her mentees are well established in their communities as leaders of thought leading discussions on politics and development and will in years to come emerge as substantial political leaders in their communities. It is worthy to note that though these women have been nurtured with fluid from her Pierian Spring, they have not been taught in the manner of clones in which case humanity would incur impoverishment in thought or lose the essence of our core values and norms which negative feminism blatantly espouses. They have been taught to be in tune with the nuances of society and leadership; to embrace knowledge. This is how she believes the world, especially Africa, can change for women. She does not approve that a woman’s place be given to her like a piece of cake in a tray. She believes in lieu, that a woman should take her place herself with whatever merit it costs. Hence, if a woman must fight for what is truly hers, she must be able to meet the man in the battlefield with her arsenal of merits. This way, the value of women in leadership would appreciate and the respect and regard that follow would affect all women.
She explained that the purpose of Affirmative Action is to right wrongs and compensate for denial, saying, “It is not just about women. It is about the fact that there is a wrong, there is a denial that needs to be corrected.” She insists that the Quota System as currently practiced in the country is an Affirmative Action. She frowned at the practice in our political parties where women whose qualifications are proven and tested are denied their right to contest or ascend to positions of leadership due to poisonous male chauvinism. She does not understand the rationale for the practice where a woman would stand beside a man and the world would hardly count from her side even though she wields a more formidable brain power than the man. It is not a race for equality. But, one for justice. Everyone must get their due in society. This is what she does for and means to women in Abia State and other parts of Nigeria and Africa. Her Total Blessing Foundation is turning the wheels in this vision with their agricultural and health programmes. There is also the Nwagba Foundation on which board she sits but has no political links with. She maintains that The Pull Her Down Syndrome (PhD), a popular singsong phrase used in the political sphere has been abolished. “Henceforth,” she said, “women will support fellow women running for office. But, this must be based on merit. Like I said during my gubernatorial campaign in 2019, my bid for the office of the governor of Abia State has nothing to do with my gender.
It has everything to do with my character and the fact that I am qualified to run given my antecedents within the political sphere in the state. A woman must not cry her way to office. She must walk with high shoulders because she has earned the right to lead through merit.”
She had downed her coffee when we turned the page to gender based violence. The warm drink foamed down her throat emulating the urgency of the time metres that paced in our phones. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 has been described as the international bill of rights for women. It was ratified by Nigeria in 1985. Since then the issue of domestication has dominated discussions around the treaty. Dr. Blessing Nwagba blamed a number of factors including male chauvinism for the non-domestication of the treaty insisting that the legislative barricade on the path to domestication was the result of such unhealthy ideologies in Nigeria. She decried the long wait lamenting the continued rise in issues of violence against women. But, she is hopeful that the sails would turn someday.
She looked different when she spoke about her late husband, Pharmacist Israel Nwagba. Something woke in her eyes. A spark that wasn’t there before. I could see her struggle to reconnect the fibers of his memory with hers. It felt like a rite, something she did each time she spoke of him. She held his name with grace and sang her words. It was beautiful. There and then, I knew that their love was true. His passing must have been devastating for her. But, his memory must have been rich enough to feed her endlessly for a lifetime. Hence, her decision to remain his wife even in his absence. They met during her one year national youth service in Warri and were married in
1984. Three boys and a girl would follow their union years later. “I married a man that loved me. I married a man that found me. He just saw me and saw a wife. He was a fine man. Very intelligent. He had great confidence in himself and was never suspicious of my dealings in politics. And I never failed him. He understood me. He never abandoned me and the babies. He gave me very interesting children. He was my friend. We had things in common that we found very interesting and we followed those. We connected,” she described their time together. Her face would tell the story. Her eyes would agree. Her hands would roam the table holding nothing at all. It was not a search. It was a neural dance to the past to play jazz and classical music in the warmth of his company. I heard him in her voice. He never left. The world buried a body. But, he never died in her heart. He stood there waiting, knowing she was making him proud. And she knew it. I wonder how she remembers their anniversary. I doubt if tears ever flow for the pain or loss. I think from permutations of my untrained eyes that whenever tears flowed, they did for gratitude, a thanksgiving for his love. I saw things here that my single heart must learn. Things like trust, hope, respect, substance, direction. None of these things can be held with quantifiable value. They are things that draw their worth from the hearts that hold them. Keep your price tags! Advising young people, she said, “I would advice young people to look for substance in marriage. Someone with prospects, character, integrity, and good values. Someone you can call your friend.” She attributes her success in politics to this beautiful man’s support. There is no luck in it! Just one man who loved her so much he held the ladder and whispered, “Climb.” As a testament to this love, she wishes to be remembered as his good wife, mother of his children, daughter-in-law to his father. She wishes to be remembered as the woman who never gave up on her dreams. She wishes to be remembered as that woman who imparted good values on her society. She wishes to be remembered as that woman who believed that women everywhere have what it takes to change society.
The sun had journeyed further west when I found the strength to unhook my feet from the floor. My mind had grown and my heart had learned. I had erected a giant sculpture with the pieces of humanity recovered from the dig. It was a beautiful image of life. I paint it here for all to see the essence that political tussles have failed to erode. There is truth in everyone as there are lies. But, this woman, she answers when men are called. Her truth is in the way she answers the call. Her story was told before I met her. She held it on her face waiting for a hand to pluck it from there and plant it in hearts. She is already doing that with her editors in her new book set to be released on a date in tomorrow. But, I realized, facing the Pastry Corner with my back, that my claim of telling her story is a lie. This woman has told her story. I am just a hand.
About the Author.
Agu, Prince Osinayah (happyprince) is an experimental poet, performer, and activist . He is the founder of Aba Poetry Club, a group of young artists who believe that art is a tool for social change. He is the Creative Director of happyprince Blog, and Musings of A Madman, his solo performance poetry show which premiered in April, 2020. He currently works as programme manager at the International Institute for Creative Development, Abuja, (IICDCenter).