Mrs. Iyiola Olatokunbo Edun is the administrator of a foremost citadel of learning in Lagos State, Grace Schools. A seasoned administrator, she has been working at the school for over 35 years. She has battled all odds to take up the responsibility in 1984 and take Grace Schools to the next level.
Edun, in this interview with Adelowo Adebumiti spoke extensively about the condescending gesture towards black women and the gap that reflects the intersectional reality of their daily lives.
How Airline Staff treats black Women
All over the world, as a black woman, you are seen as uneducated, poor, even if you have the means. I travel business class. Whenever they announce that business class should begin boarding, even the airline staff will ask me if I was traveling business class. I will respond, "do you have any problem with that?" I entered a plane some time ago, and I put down my bag in the overhead bin. I asked the air hostess where the toilet was. She immediately pointed to the back, and I wondered if the front restroom is only for the pilot? So I went to the rear restroom at the back of the plane. A minute later, I wanted to go back to my seat, and she was shocked that I was heading for the business class. Then she apologized, "I'm sorry, I thought you are going economy." It happens to me all over the world. One day in Amsterdam en route to Atlanta, I can also remember the priority line and economy line. I went to the priority line. Suddenly one of the KLM Airline Staff, a man, pointed at me and shouted at the top of his voice that I should go back and line up the passengers on the economy line. I felt confused, embarrassed, and saddened.
I went back and queued in the economy line. I walked up to him at the front of the line. I told him that if you know that everybody will line up together, why were you saying one is a priority and the other economy? He had assumed that I was traveling economy because of my simple clothes and the fact that I was a black woman. But that's what I face a majority of the time. It happens because you are black, you are a woman, and they don't expect that you even have the money to travel business class. Even when you enter the plane, sometimes people sitting in the business class will wonder, "they will soon send her back", "maybe she made a mistake." So that's an experience as an African, a black, and a woman. We are not rated highly. We are at the bottom of the food chain! I am so happy for Kamala Harris because we black women are always looked down on most of the time. Ms. Harris has been able to prove herself that despite all the odds stacked up against her as a woman of colour, she has been able to hold her own! Emerging as the Vice President of the United States of America is not a mean feat! Kamala Harris' achievements are highly commendable.
Being a Black Woman Puts You At Disadvantage
Let me share another experience with you in Genoa, Italy. We were sitting down, and there was the announcement that the people on the priority line should stand up, and I did. There was a white lady who walked up to me. She probably thought she was trying to help by telling me that the announcement was meant for those in the priority category, so I should not stand up to queue. She assumed that I was going economy! I replied to her that "I know." So you are already at a disadvantage if you are black and a woman.
You don't usually have such issues in Nigeria. However, it is when you get to Europe or America that you encounter such problems. I also encountered a similar situation in Canada where the KLM airline staff at the business class counter instructed me to go and check-in at the economy counter as I tried to make my way to check-in at the business class counter. They did not even bother to speak to me or see my traveling documents!
How To Change The Perception
I'm very assertive. Whenever anyone asks me, "are you sure you are flying business class," I always reply, "Do you have a problem with that?" Sometime in March, when I was traveling at Atlanta airport, my son and I went to the airport and were in the priority queue. Again, an airline staff pointed at us, trying to inquire if we missed our way. I told him, "yes, we are on the priority queue, so what? So, I asked him why he did not ask the white lady in-front Of me why she was queuing up in the priority line?
Making a Case For The Girl Child
Our young girls need to be more assertive. They should not feel that they are second class citizens. I don't feel like a second class person even if some people try to make me think so! I believe that women should be able to speak up to defend their space in society. Nobody will do it for them.
The role of the school
Yes, when I attended university in the U.K., one of the lecturers referred to me as "that black girl." He talked about how I used to walk tall and talk boldly. The lecturer felt this way because of my carriage and confidence in all that I do. Sometimes, the family you come from has a high impact on how you see yourself.
My mother didn't make me feel as if I am second class to my brothers. I think she had more confidence in me. So, I got my confidence from early childhood and my father's family. They had influential women and held their own in society.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My father Olorunmo Oshinowo, was a pharmacist. My mother, Grace Bisola was an Educator.
I can trace back four generations on both sides of my paternal and maternal family.
My Paternal Grandmother Moriamo Ibidere Oshinowo was a big-time textile merchant. She was an itinerant trader who traveled around Yoruba land to display and sell her goods on designated market days. Market days varied from one part of Yorubaland to the other. She had three daughters and two sons. Her daughters also helped her with her business. Her days active trading days were in the 1920s- the 1950s. I never met her because she died many years before I was born. You know this Yoruba belief about re-incarnation. My aunties believed that I was their mother, who came back and never Could call me by my name. Anytime they saw me, they used my grandmother's Oriki (panegyrics) to address me. They said, I'm like her; she was tall, kind, quiet and unassuming, and would not take rubbish from anyone trying to push her around.
My father's family was very tolerant when it came to religious practices. My Grandmother Moriamo was the High priestess of the Etunweren Shrine in Ikorodu. Her husband Sanni, was an Imam. Her three daughters were Muslims, and her two sons were Christians. They all lived in harmony; no one tried to impose their religious beliefs on one other! It was a case of live and let live! I suppose I am also very tolerant of other religions. I believe people should be allowed to worship God in whatever way they feel comfortable. That was why I never had qualms about praying and lighting incense in a Buddhist Temple in China Or turning prayer wheels at a Hindu Temple in Nepal!
Before my grandmother died, she divided her textile business into three and shared it amongst her daughters.
The middle daughter Sinotu Oshinowo, diversified her textile business and started the famous Oshinowo Transport Service. She was very successful at it, and she had a long-standing business relationship with Leyland Motors in the U.K. They were the makers of a majority of the buses she used for her business. Part of my Master's thesis centered on the life of Sinotu Oshinowo. My Master's thesis talked about the Yoruba market women and colonialism's impact. So I had to look at traditional pre-colonial society and why women were the traders in the colonial society. And why was it that women sell certain things that men could not sell?
You can never see a man in the market sell pepper; neither can you see a woman sell beef or any other type of meat. However, women could sell the intestines of animals. The men would catch the fish, but it's a woman that will sell it. In Yoruba markets, all the people who sold the same thing always sat together. You will see oil stalls, pepper stalls, or garri stalls. So, that was what my Master's thesis was focused on, and also how colonialism has affected women. As a result of colonialism, Yoruba men have gone into trading, which was the exclusive preserve of women in pre-colonial society.
In pre-colonial times, the Yoruba men were predominantly farmers, hunters, Iron smiths, Ifa priests, etc.
Your upbringing reflected in your confidence as a woman. What role do you think schools can play in building up the girl-child?
Schools should encourage the girl child. They must be enabled to be assertive and hold their heads up high. They should also be tutored to be independent, well behaved, and respectful.
We have introduced etiquette lessons here at Grace Schools for more than 20 years now. It is not in the Nigerian curriculum. But we introduced it. I always tell the girls that there are so many things you can't cover up with lipstick and powder, like destructive behaviour, all other vices.
Many big names finished from Grace school, such as the Ekiti State first lady, Bisi Fayemi, Bollywood star, Funke Akindele, and head of DSTV, Chief Dewunmi Ogunsanya. How do you feel when you see these people doing exploits?
I feel delighted seeing these people as alumni. When I started, I didn't begin at the top; rather, I started as a nursery assistant. I taught Year 2, Year 3, and Year 6. These were called Primary classes at that time. Some of the children I taught, their children are here now. So whenever we have a PTA meeting and I see some of them, I feel so happy. So I'm pleased about seeing their children here.
How has COVID-19 affected the education sector, particularly the payment of school fees?
COVID-19 affected everybody; now people have clarity because they realised that they attached importance to useless things. During the pandemic, I notice that most of the time, you can't even tell when it is evening or day because there's nowhere to go. You sit in front of the television, watching News. You hear reports about hundreds of people in Spain, Italy, the U.S., and the U.K., dying daily due to Coronavirus.
So life is vanity. Most people, even women, who couldn't do without going to the hairdressers, can't go to the salon or do their nails. They could not wear fancy clothes and Jewellery. A lot of business suffered losses, but the only profits that most companies have made or we made is to stay alive during the crisis. The most significant gain is that you are alive. We thank God we didn't have it as bad as it happened in Europe and other places. Although they were not expecting that, they were expecting thousands dying on the streets, but we thank God we didn't have such things. Then, we had to go on lockdown in March, and the last fees that came in were in January, and we had to pay the staff salaries from March to September. Even when we were going in March, not all the students had paid their fees, because we were just about to start the exams. So, it was tough.
In several places, there is tension about the second wave of COVID-19. Should Nigerians be concerned?
Yes, it is happening in Europe. I hope it does not happen here. Our people are becoming complacent. Many people have stopped wearing their facial masks on the streets!
To what extent do you think the pandemic has helped Nigeria to embrace digital alternatives?
Actually, before the lockdown in March, we had an excellent system here. We were already used to the online course, so it didn't come to us as a shock. We could cope because all the things were already in place. But the only thing was that, because we had to do the online school, the teachers couldn't come here, so we had to pay for data. Sometimes, data is about N600,000 or N700,000 per month. That is how we were able to cope. And the parents didn't understand it at the beginning. They were complaining that they couldn't hear what the teachers were saying during the online lessons. The choppy communication was not our fault. It was due to network problems. In the end, the parents and children were able to get used to online schooling's intricacies. Many people now realized what teachers go through teaching children because some had to supervise their children, so they won't end up visiting other websites. Also, it made the students more academically independent. Some of the children started doing interviews. Can you imagine they have their own YouTube channels? It was awe-inspiring; it made them more independent.
Grace school has a strong alumni base. How supportive are they?
Well, not as much as I would have loved, but we are moving. When we celebrated the 50th-anniversary, Chief Dewunmi Ogunsanya, the head of Multichoice, was here. He supported the school in a big way. We have a few of them who support once in a while.
What should Nigerians be expecting from Grace School in the coming years? They should expect intelligent, confident, well-rounded children who can hold their own anywhere in the world.
They should also expect children who are multi-lingual, fluent in English, French, Mandarin, and some of our Nigerian Languages.
Grace School sometimes ago partnered with an institution in Canada?
Yes, with a Canadian school. We should have started in September, but we were slowed down by the COVID-19 effect. By God's grace, the announcement for admission will start by May 2021.
Can you take us through the process?
Ok, it's a diploma program. You'll do the first year here and then go to Canada to conclude the rest. We have built a separate wing for the diploma school from scratch.
When you look back on your journey so far, is there anything you'd wish you did differently?
Initially, I didn't want to be here. Well, I have always wanted to be a professor, because I like to read. I have always wanted to be like Prof. Bolanle Awe, a professor of history. I suppose now, it's not too bad, in the sense that I'm able to influence more people, children, and more young adults that I wouldn't have if I were a professor.
Let talk about your love for Ankara.
I have always loved Ankara. I love our local fabrics. Even in my A level days and university days in the U.K., I wore Ankara a lot.
Now I wear Ankara, even to work!
People in Francophone West African countries wear Ankara almost all the time. Some sew them into western-style and wear those styles to work. The men wear Ankara shirts on top of their jeans or regular trousers. The women wear theirs as Skirts and blouses.
In Paris, I noticed that a majority of the Immigrant African women were all wearing Ankara. They looked very dignified in it. In Paris, I first saw African women on France's street, selling Roasted corn on the pavement by the roadside as they do in Africa. They usually wrap the roasted corn in a newspaper.
In General what inspires you when you see children?
I love kids. You can judge a person from how they treat the weakest people in society, especially children, women, and senior citizens because they are the most disadvantaged.
Grace school as an educational institution, do you have any sustaining program?
Yes, we do a lot of charity work that we don't amplify.
For years we have given scholarships to scores of children from indigent families.
What is your philosophy of life?
I think you should be nice to everybody. Don't look down on anybody. Treat everybody with respect. We are all equal before God, so that's how I deal with people. I treat everybody with respect. Whether young or old, male or female, black, white, or whatever color.