Iyaiya Thomas Ofem is a mother, author, essayist, development person and the egg head behind Evolved360, an initiative that charges women to “…be that woman that trains and develops herself in her chosen career and in the process motivates another woman to know it is possible!”. She traveled all the way from Malawi, where she resides, to Nigeria and seized the opportunity of the New Yam festival in her native Ugep, Yakurr Local Government Area, Cross River State, to host the “Evolved360 Conference”. The theme of this engagement was “Lead From Within” and it was thrust on the women at the conference that they must “Develop, Grow & Evolve”, to strengthen their contributions to the growth and development of their local community.
Not to let the opportunity of engaging her pass us by, www.calitown.com, sat down with her and engaged. Excerpts:
Please introduce yourself, for the benefit of our audience.
My name is Iyaiya Thomas Ofem. I am a wife, mother of three, from Ugep, Yakurr Local Government Area. I am also an author; I wrote the book: “Ezianya, the Nigerian housewife” and a beaded jewelry designer. Well, I am an entrepreneur and many other things I hold dear to my heart.
Precisely, what midwifed the Evolved360 idea?
Evolved360 is a certain child of necessity. It came about after I sat down and I thought that for a woman to achieve all that she wants to achieve, she needs to be authentic, she needs to be herself, she needs to love herself, she needs to come into the fullness of who she was destined to be. And in the process, when you as a woman has evolved, you need to teach other women how to evolve, you need to motivate other women, you need to encourage them so that they too can learn. It was built and crafted to be a circle. You know, for me, 360 and its adaption to this initiative is the fullness of the woman, who she is, who she has successfully become and how she lends a helping hand to her fellow woman. So, the circle continues and when it fully becomes 360, it means a lot of women have been brought into the circle. It is kind of a sisterhood movement.
What key ingredient(s) do you hope to plug this initiative into?
Ok, the basic ingredient is just to encourage the woman to empower herself, to evolve and become a positively self-reliant person, who in turn empowers and motivates other women to do the same. Clearly for me, this is the real ingredient of this initiative that must be driven. Short of this, the Evolved360 idea will fall short of our expectations.
Was the conference the first Evolved360 conference and further, are you looking at taking it beyond where it is?
Yes, we are looking at the future. For now, we have a three-year plan where we hope that in the next three years, we should be able to encourage other women to go into and embrace the crafts we will package. It shouldn’t only be about education. If a woman has finished her first degree and she’s interested in learning a craft, the Evolved360 team should be able to assist her into learning that craft because once she has mastered her craft, she can be able to train other women. That’s the three-year plan we have right now. We will focus on other things going forward, but I think that right now, we will just keep our plans close to our chest and unveil them methodically and according to what directions we push forward for.
How was the conference participation like?
Ahh! the response was encouraging. It exceeded our expectation. We weren’t expecting that large number of women to turn out since it was the first time but it is encouraging that they turned out. And one of the women’s statement was encouraging. She said she needed that conference at the point it came on because she learnt a lot from one of the speakers who encouraged her and other women to stop going into hiding. They were encouraged to always come out as women with skills and experience, not the fact that they are just women. They should always come forth as individuals with the skills and the capability that suits the job they present themselves for. I think that is inspirational enough.
Who is funding this initiative? Do you have government funding?
For now, we don’t have any government participation. Aside from IPGH and Eugenia Academy that came in as sponsors at the last minute, it was just individually sponsored by me.
Do you intend to expand the scope of this project?
Yes, we are planning and working on defined partnerships with corporate bodies because we know every organization has a corporate responsibility to the communities where they operate; our own community cannot be an exception. So we’re hoping that, if we send out our proposals and the three-year plan to these corporate organizations, they should be able to come in as sponsors using our platform to fulfill their corporate responsibility to the communities.
Take us through the difficulties you encountered putting this initiative together?
I can emphatically tell you that the number one difficulty we encountered is the lack of trust and believe in certain individuals within our community that we can go through with this initiative. See, when we mooted the idea, we sent out e-mails, sms, we sent out even WhatsApp messages to a lot of women from our community but most of them didn’t respond. So we had to work with the few that responded and those were our guest speakers and the other exceptional women who braved the odds and stereotypes and attended.
Specifically, some people seem to perceive the Evolved360 initiative as a feminist project designed only by women for women in furtherance of objectives for women that push aside the men.
Whoever has this kind of perception must work on what I now refer to as this misconception. But in all sincerity, I’ve had a few men come to me to say that they hope the Evolved360 conference will not be a problem to their families. I’ve had two or so men come up to me to say that. However, yes, Yakurr is a male-dominated society but, if a woman is supported by her husband, she sure becomes the best of who she is. And if a woman supports her husband, she helps her husband build himself up to the best of who he can be. A situation where a man does not support his wife, it means the wife can’t even have a vision of her own, but once her husband supports her and she grows, it means the family grows too. If a woman does not know herself, she’s not authentic, how can she help her husband grow? She can only help her husband grow when she knows who she is, when she has a vision, she has a purpose and her vision and purpose have to align with her husband’s vision and purpose. She cannot work alone; if a woman does not support her husband, it means the family cannot stand. Evolved360 is not a feminist movement, it’s just a platform for women to empower themselves and in the process, empower others.
Beyond what this initiative has just done, is there a plan in place to see how it would be extended to other communities in the state?
I know for certain that we cannot expect to go far if we limit the reach of this effort. You will agree with me too that the problems that confront women here, speak no language and aren’t limited to Yakurr alone. Going forward, therefore, the plan is to replicate this effort in the state as far as it can travel in communities. I assure you that we will work tirelessly until we have positive outcomes. Be mindful too that we can only do so much when we have sponsors and we have other women from these communities who are interested in moving that conference to their communities. And we also want a situation where women from these other communities can come up and tell us they want to organize something like this and we can give them the necessary support. So, it’s shouldn’t be and it’s not a Yakurr thing alone.
Now, if you understand the cultural dynamics of Yakurr, in as much as the people are really educated, there is also the cultural aspect of them that they carry along. How are you going to be able to strike a balance with what you do with Evolved360, and the cultural expectations that are on the ground.
When we talk about our culture, we need to understand that this culture does not operate in a vacuum. The culture finds better expression in the people practicing who we know as society. Who is society? We as individuals make up society. Who initiates the culture? We as individuals initiate the culture of the community. And you also discover that the main custodians, aside from the fact that it’s a male-dominated community, are the women. They are the ones that pass on the stories that propagate oral tradition to their children. Sometimes the men are usually very busy, understandably; they have to provide for the family although the women also do that now. But as a culturally oriented society, we need to keep our culture, it shouldn’t be diluted. Yes, we are getting modernized due to social media and the rest but if we look closely at Yakurr culture, I think it’s the only culture that is yet to be influenced too much by modernization. That’s the angle we are coming from. Our culture should not be diluted, we should be able to encourage our young girls, our young maidens to participate in the culture because we can’t change the culture, we can only build on what is already in existence. That is the angle we are coming from. I state for certain that this initiative, Evolved360, seeks to empower women and fortify to better hand down the culture of our society to generations coming after us. We are partnering our society for her good and not the other way round.
Now, if you were to speak to a broad section of young women from your area, what will you specifically tell them in furtherance of the objectives to ensure that not only is a woman sustainable to herself, she also becomes an add-on to the well-being of the community.
What I’ll tell them is the fact that they shouldn’t always come in as women, they should stop using the female narrative that becomes a stumbling block to us. They should come in as individuals with the skills and the capabilities to do these jobs, not because they are women. Because when we begin to say, Ok, we are women, it means we are going to segregate the kind of jobs women do and the one’s men do but when we come in as individuals that have the skills, the experiences and the capabilities we can be able to help each other. It is the way to go and I don’t think that this is asking too much of them.
Thank you for your time. Going forward, I’m sure we would extend this conversation.
I hope so too and thank you very much for having me.
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