Mariam Babangida, wife of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, has been gone for 12 years, but her legacy is not just alive, it is expanding in reach.
Her daughter, Aisha, has picked up from where her mother left with her signature project, Better Life for Rural Women, and is running with the vision. BetterLife as it was fondly called when Mariam Babangida initiated it as her pet project in 1987 as Nigeria’s first lady, was all about the training and empowerment of women in agriculture, industrial skills, and adult education.
Speaking to a team of journalists in Luxembourg, Aisha said that the vision has been widened to accommodate women from other African nations and has been renamed, Better life Program for the African Rural Woman (BLPARW). “Our first entry point (into rest of Africa) now is Cameroon. That’s where we’re going. We’re gonna replicate there what we are doing with our women. You know, the yellow pepper, they call it the Cameroonian pepper. It’s really a nice spice. Rather than remain restricted to just a small market, we go in now and help train them, give them the right skills and, you know, access to the funds. The same thing we offer the rural women in Nigeria is what we’ll offer them in Cameroon. “You know, we need to do things together. We need to trade together and we need to establish finances together”, Ms Babangida said.
Among the projects that Better Life is using to empower women, is the multi-crop project in the agricultural sector. It is a strategy for reducing soil erosion and controlling pests by inter-cropping. It entails planting deep rooted crops with shallow rooted crops; tall plants with short ones which may require some shade. This tested method has produced salutary results and the BetterLife team is ingraining the best practices in this area into the women. It hopes to impart this skill on some 100,000 women.
In Nigeria’s north east which has been destabilized by Boko Haram and sundry insurgents, BLPARW has trained women in refugee camps and given them soft loans for targeted agriculture. For instance, they get loans to acquire and fatten rams for the Muslim festivals that require rams.
Addressing the vexed issue of insurgency in Nigeria’s north, Aisha blames it mostly on education. “When I get questions like this, it’s about education, education and education. We need to put great emphasis on educating our youth. Now, once they’re educated in their minds, nobody would come up to them and give them a bad interpretation of what they know as their religion”, she said. Besides agriculture, BLPARW also has a project called multi trade. Under this, it is working on getting some 5,000 women into co-operatives to ramp up their capital, enhancing their bargaining power and give them economies of scale. In executing its projects, the BLPARW has to navigate around cultural and religious practices which circumscribe the empowerment of women.
Here, Aisha rides on the goodwill of her mother, her knowledge of culture and her bargaining power to press forward. “I’m an African, I know how to kneel down and greet to my elders. You know, I know how to conduct myself with them as well… I think, why you have people having challenges in that area in terms of tradition or cultures, (is) because you go in imposing your thoughts to them and not respecting their culture and their norms. I’m an African, I know my culture and I know my norms, so I will not distort that in anyway.”
She strives, and often succeeds. But where the local institutions remain stiff about allowing married women to venture out, she often gets them to allow their daughters, teenage and divorced, to get the empowerment. She may not get everything she wants, and would negotiate partial successes which are better than the status quo.
Written by Okwudili Ojuku-Enendu