George Aken’Ova and Cesnabmihilo Dorothy Nuhu at Caen, France, in 1984.
By Amatesiro Dore
The harsh winter of Caen, north-western France, drove Dorothy [Miss Cesnabmihilo Nuhu] back home. In her own words: it wasn’t conducive or palatable at all. Used to the scorching sun of Sokoto and Maiduguri, the refrigerating French cold compelled her return to A.B.U to complete her French degree qualification. After which she lectured as a Graduate Assistant at the French Department, Ahmadu Bello University, in Zaria, where she had begun her university education in 1981. She obtained her Master of Arts (French) in 1991.
Barely four years as a lecturer and the Nigerian educational system had begun to fall apart: students were beginning to get away with exam malpractice, lecturers were very poorly remunerated for their labours and the institution that produced the brightest Made-in-Arewa minds of northern Nigeria [at that time] had begun to live on past glories.
In 1991, Dorothy joined the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) as a result of a dream inspired by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [a novel by John le Carré]. She began at the Drug Demand Reduction Unit until she was subscribed into the Training Unit for NDLEA agents.
In Lagos, destiny beckoned during a chance encounter with the wife of a hairdressing and massage parlour owner who informed Dorothy about an NGO that needed a northerner to coordinate their works with rural women in the region. That was how Dorothy met Professor Peju Olukoya, the Amazon who would mentor and redirect her destiny.
Professor Peju Olukoya [then Associate Professor of Paediatrics at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), renowned activist and doyenne of the World Health Organisation] founded and directed the Women’s Health Organisation of Nigeria (WHON), a pioneer Nigerian NGO for women’s rights, health and activism. Dorothy’s first assignment was an article on drug trafficking and abuse in women and adolescents. And her first field job was a Youth Action Project at Ijebu-Ode, in Ogun State, Nigeria. She was thirty-two, on the verge of a brand-new career, married since 1987, with a kid [Samson], plus a new and beautiful surname [Aken’Ova from her late husband and love of her life, George: ten-years older, Geology lecturer at A.B.U, and liberal man she met at the Central Market Motor Park in Kaduna, in 1982; who sold his only car, in 1984, to buy a flight ticket to go visit her in France; and for whom she changed her surname in 1989, not at his bidding, but to prove he was married in order to sort out an administrative matter at the patriarchal and conservative Ahmadu Bello University].
This was the golden age of women’s rights movement around the world and Ms Cesnabmihilo Dorothy Nuhu Aken’Ova’s journey into formal activism began just after the United Nations coordinated International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt (from 5 – 13 September, 1994) and preparations had begun for the Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace convened by the United Nations from 4 – 15 September, 1995, in Beijing, China.
Dorothy’s work at WHON became her first platform to express and experience institutionalised activism which was very different and more profound than the solo efforts she had made before that time. This period of her life also provided a global network of intelligent connections and resources that would aid the rest of her journey as an activist. Governments around the world were willing and motivated to operationalise programmes and policies for the advancement of women’s rights. And multiple avenues were opening up for radical and transformative ideas. It was a great era for women (literate and illiterate) who had long suffered under the evils of corporate patriarchy and domestic misogyny.
Professor Peju Olukoya was also the first boss to recognise the endless potentials of Dorothy. And the kind and visionary Madam never attempted to stifle the exuberance of the young woman. Dorothy was permitted and encouraged to expand and develop projects in whatever direction she thought necessary. And the then middle-aged Destiny Helper [Professor Olukoya] was like a mother to Dorothy…within the confines of their professional relationship.
It’s important to note that within the first quarter of her new job and mentorship programme with Professor Olukoya, Dorothy was contacted by a bosom friend and fellow feminist, Hajara Usman, who said Ayesha Imam, Ph.D., [their sociology lecturer at A.B.U; organiser of the first feminist organisation in Nigeria, Women in Nigeria (WIN); renowned human rights activist who was later awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award by the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights & Democracy); and former Head of Culture, Gender and Human Rights department at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)] was seeking a working partner to run a women’s rights network which was relocating their African office from Dakar, in Senegal, to Lagos, Nigeria. It was only natural for Ayesha Imam to seek to empower her mentees and sister-feminists from WIN by furnishing them with profitable career opportunities. Due to Dorothy’s personal etiquette and professional loyalty, she turned down the great offer despite multiple solicitations and mouth-watering offers from Hajara Usman. Moreover, Professor Olukoya had sent and sponsored Dorothy to a training programme in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, within her first week of employment.
In Dorothy’s own words: it would have been ethically wrong. Hajara Usman would later take up the kind offer and help set up the new Lagos office of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) alongside the Baobab for Women’s Human Rights which she had co-founded with Ayesha Imam.
In 1996, Dorothy would receive another lucrative offer to abruptly depart from her faithful service to Professor Olukoya and the Women’s Health Organisation of Nigeria (WHON). This time the attractive offer came through a Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) brother, who she had met at their Diko chapter, informing Dorothy of a job opening at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) newly-established project office in Abuja and for its environs. The job required a bilingual [French and English] female activist, preferably an indigene of Gbagyi ancestry [the traditional landowners of Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory], who would work for remuneration [in US Dollars] far beyond her WHON income and wildest career expectations at that time. To her advantage, the office was going to be located at Abuja, a few hours from her ancestral homeland, in Diko, and Minna, her state capital. She was lobbied through her elder brother [Dr Shem Zagbayi Nuhu] yet she turned down the opportunity and stayed on course with Professor Olukoya.
This was also because Dorothy felt her calling was grassroots activism, an area where she would work closely with direct beneficiaries. And she genuinely enjoys small-scale but impactful interventions, the kind of projects that challenged the status quo and required personal passion and commitment to execute. Within her circle of friends and family, Dorothy famously said: what will I do with all that money? And that was the end of the matter.
Read Increse at a Glance: Begin with a Girl [Chapter I] here
Read Increse at a Glance: Destiny Begins [Chapter III] here
Read Increse at a Glance: Partners and Partakers of the Vision [Chapter IV] here
Read Increse at a Glance: A luta continua [Chapter V] here