When we commiserate with people using the Yoruba language, we pray ‘Ojo a jina si ra won’, ‘May the days of mourning be far apart’. Recently, this saying has taken on such a hollow meaning. The days of tears and grieving over those gone too soon have not been far apart. It has been the opposite. The days heavy with sadness have been in quick succession, greedy, grasping and relentless. I was invited to join a Zoom memorial the other day for a younger friend who had passed away. And this was after speaking at another Zoom to honour two sheroes who died recently. After that a close friend lost her husband of 35 years. And then it happened. On the same day, we lost two iconic human rights activists, Yinka Odumakin and Innocent Chukwuma. Two days later, on the same day, I went with my husband to visit two grief-stricken widows, both of them close friends in their own right. Ojo a jina si ra won indeed. The days are getting closer.
It was early in the morning on April 4, Easter Sunday. I got out of bed to prepare for church, phone in hand as I rummaged through clothing. And there it was, all over the cold, unfeeling world of cyberspace. A dear brother and comrade, and husband of a dear friend, was gone. In 2016, Josephine Effah-Chukwuma asked me to write something for the joint 50th birthday celebration planned for her and Innocent. I was going to be out of the country on the day, but I was glad to be able to share my thoughts about the lovely couple. This is an excerpt from the 2016 tribute to both of them:
“Just before I met Josephine, she got married to a brilliant, handsome man, Innocent Chukwuma. Innocent was a kindred spirit and natural soulmate for Josephine. Like the colleague he fell in love with, he too was deeply committed to social justice issues, human rights, and civil liberties. In the tradition of the very passionate and cerebral Nigerian scholar-activists of the time – Ayo Obe, Wale Fapohunda, Chidi Odinkalu, Olisa Agbakoba, Clement Nwankwo, Kunle Ajibade, the late Chima Ubani, the late Oronto Douglas, Uche Onyeagocha, Abdul Oroh, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Femi Falana and so many others, they worked hard to create an enabling environment for democracy to flourish and for citizens to have a voice in shaping the future of their country. There were also those in the civil society community who were working outside Nigeria to complement the efforts of their colleagues at home such as the late Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Olu Oguibe, Kayode Fayemi, Odia Ofeimun, Ayesha Imam, Amina Mama, Bayo Olukoshi, Olaokun Soyinka, Danbala Danju, myself, and others who were part of writing a different narrative for Nigeria. Their mentors such as Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Professor Wole Soyinka, the late Gani Fawehinmi and other leaders, provided the much needed guidance and inspiration to these diligent soldiers fighting for justice.
“I have gone into this much detail to establish the context within which Innocent and Josephine came together and shared a life. They both made a choice to work in civil society, to serve people, to fight for justice and to provide opportunities for others. Their respective professional work has greatly enriched the civil society community in Nigeria. This is something we all need to be deeply appreciative of. The civil society leaders of yesterday are now in senior positions as government officials, academics, corporate executives or employees of international institutions. Very few of the old hands are still involved in the organisations which established a commendable track record for performance and delivery. The passion, expertise and deep commitment of the generation I have mentioned above is yet to be matched.
“As a couple, Innocent and Josephine have been exemplary role models. Their union serves as an example to younger couples that a marriage takes two devoted people who have mutual respect and unconditional love for one another, and not one partner on an everlasting ego trip. It takes a strong man to love a strong woman, and young men need to learn a thing or two about definitions of masculinity from Innocent Chukwuma. A strong man is not threatened or afraid of a woman’s success. A good man knows that he has a responsibility to hold his family together with love, respect and the fear of God. A feminist like Josephine who makes a choice to be married expects to have a relationship that is mutually respectful, supportive and dignified, and is also prepared to make the required adjustments when necessary. In celebrating these two amazing human beings as they both clock the golden age of 50, let us remember all they have taught us – lessons in love, integrity, respect, devotion, living their lives in service to humanity, to mention just a few. They have so much more to do, so many more things to accomplish.”
God Almighty in his infinite wisdom has decided that Innocent has accomplished all his assignments on earth. A lot has been written since his passing about Innocent’s many roles in building and supporting civic space in Nigeria and beyond. I have my own stories to share of the many ways in which Innocent was always there when his ideas and support were needed. The Ford Foundation has always been a part of the story and success of the African Women’s Development Fund, a relationship that goes back 21 years. When a time came for the Ford Foundation to make a major decision about scaling up and sustaining programmes of long-term partners, Innocent was there to make sure AWDF did not fall through the cracks. When I met Innocent at an event shortly after, I thanked him for his help and he smiled and said to me, “It is we who should be thanking you for all the great work you have done and continue to do.” That was Innocent. Simple, unassuming, to the point and completely human.
More recently, as I began to navigate the difficult terrain of linking policy advocacy around gender-based violence with grassroots community engagement, without government bureaucracy getting in the way, again, Innocent was there to help. With his support, the Ford Foundation entered a partnership with Nigerian Governors’ Wives Against Gender-Based Violence as well as four states, Abia, Edo, Ekiti, and Niger, to work on programmes to mitigate gender-based violence.
While I will be forever thankful to Innocent for his solidarity and expert positions on social change philanthropy and impact investments, my enduring memories of him will be those of a loving husband to a dear friend. In a space and time where it is hard to find men who walk their talk, Innocent Chukwuma stood out as one of the very few who matched their public opinions with their private actions.
The days keep getting closer and not farther apart. It hurts like hell, even when we know pain and loss have to coexist with life itself, according to another Yoruba saying, ‘If you are praying to live long and for your eyes not to witness calamity, you need to choose. It is not possible to have both.’
Rest in peace, dear friend, brother, comrade. Take heart, my dearest Josephine. Innocent will always be with you.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State and can be reached at [email protected]