Friday 17 April 2020

TET Presents: Lolo Cynthia Ihesie

In a quarter of a century, Lolo Cynthia Ihesie, has become the spokesperson for the voiceless by spearheading change in sex education and consistently challenging beliefs in a nation deeply embedded in its rigid cultures and traditions. Through her community work, online persona and artistic endeavours this Igbo warrior continues, at an effortless pace, to successfully bring to the centre stage social issues affecting millions of Nigerians today, doing it in the most unfiltered, non-bullshit way which has made her Shango to her nay-sayers but a ray of sunshine to the countless of lives she has touched – so either way, her presence cannot be ignored. 

Ihesie’s core desire in all that she is doing is “sexually liberating women and men by providing contraceptives and sex education.” And I get it. With a population of over 200 million, ranking 7th in the world, one would think a country like Nigeria would have a liberal approach in discussing the human anatomy but for some reason talking about segz de be big problem.

The estimated worth of the global sex industry is worth a reported £150bn meaning there is high demand for penetration. In countries like Germany, prostitution is legal and just like any other industry, regulating bodies and trade unions are in place so workers can rightfully have that blanket of protection should anything go awry in their working life. They can also get health checks without fear of judgement and contribute to society by paying their taxes which in turn benefits the country’s economy whilst also reducing the risk of human trafficking. 

Unfortunately, within Africa only Senegal has been able to systemise the sex trade and it certainly begs the question why Nigeria has not jumped on board when the advantages are more apparent. Some might say that the federal government’s hesitancy in legalising sex work is due to its fear of promoting promiscuous behaviour but really and truly it is about protecting the women (and men) who for whatever reason have found themselves in a place where that is their source of income.

Hence why initiatives like Ihesie’s ‘MyBodyIsMine’ which she started in 2018 giving out free condoms and offering free STI health checks to sex workers are invaluable; deploying empathy to this community and not making them feel isolated than they already are. To date she has taught over 2,000 students about their reproductive health and was recently recognised by The Aspen Institute as a New Voices Fellow for her efforts.

Bottomline – Nigerians love sex and we are fertile.

But being a highly religious and spiritual country, it can make one think otherwise. Those of us who grew up in Nigerian households were most likely never talked to about sex and if we were talked to about it, more likely than not it was talked about in a negative light. And when children grow up with the perception of something that is so innately part of their biology being Pandora’s box it leads to the high rate of teenage pregnancy (31%), which  the country currently has. 

It is only natural that from a young age we became curious about different areas of our bodies and when certain body parts started swelling, tingling, smelling, leaking or bleeding we wanted to explore them. But if children are not guided by a trusted adult who makes them understand the beauty of hormones and how to embrace the changes whilst also educating on the emotional, mental, and physical significance of these things it further perpetrates the negative ideals people have of their sexuality and for those young individuals (mostly women) they end up carrying a responsibility before they are mature enough to do so. This problem is intensified when 48% of inhabitants in Nigeria live on less than £2 a day, meaning that children being born out of the horniness of these parents are less likely to have access to education, employment that would take them out of their poverty.

Ihesie handing out free sanitary items to women in the community
These are the kind of issues that resonated with Ihesie whilst she was in South Africa studying Public Health as her undergraduate degree at Monash University a change she made after not going on with her first choice of Medicine. “I was focused on linking the social angle to the health angle, finding out what are the sociological factors that is pushing someone to have a health issue.” Her deep interests led her to pursuing her Masters in HIV/AIDS and Health Management which she completed in 2014 before returning back to Nigeria.

As a UNHCR media ambassador she has produced several documentaries highlighting the refugee crisis in Libya and the Nigerian refugees that return. On her YouTube channel, ‘LoloTalks’, she produces profound social documentaries and interviews which has amassed over 1.5million views. In her masterpiece documentary, ‘Dream – Street Teenagers in Lagos’ she reveals the heart-breaking conditions of children living under the Lagos bridges, which Ihesie confirmed to me were all under the age of 18. Asking her what it felt like to interview these children she said, “we are listening to them, but they are living it”. Going further to explain how deep-rooted the issue is she said, "the trauma really, really dehumanises us in this country that you forget to see people for who they are. They don’t have empathy, and that is the only way you can survive - not having empathy.” 

This is a stark reminder of the poor infrastructure caused by the inadequate school curriculum, lack of health reforms and under skilled workforce.  Many of these children had been forced to resort to petty crimes such as stealing in order to sustain themselves. There were several instances I had to pause the video because I would start tearing up from the pangs of guilt I was feeling of watching it in the comfort of my bed in my heated apartment whilst they were out in the streets their innocence eroding day by day. Scenes from Chris Abani’s post-colonial novel, ‘Graceland’ reappeared in my head of the 16-year old protagonist, Elvis who became a ‘caretaker’ to the kids living under the bridge because many of them were sexually molested and physically assaulted whilst they were out begging. The part that really fucked with my emotions is when Abani describes how many of the children would sleep standing up during rainy nights. And I know it is fiction but much of fiction reflects real life. And therein lies the problem.

Ihesie makes no pretences of the weight all these responsibilities have on her. Speaking on the last year she said: “Last year I think I was burnt out. It gets really overwhelming. I’m actually just coming back for air. It’s a lot.”

Sustainability is a huge factor in all her projects and one of her many frustrations is the perception that sexual education has making attracting funds a challenge. “People see it as a passion they don’t see the fact that it’s a public health issue. It’s something the government should be doing. They see that’s just something you love doing, you like helping people. But it’s a proper job. It’s a real thing.” 

As much as the work she is doing is highly impactful she acknowledges that, “a hundred NGOs cannot replace one functioning government”. This is why one of her long-term goals is to work with the health and education departments to provide female students in primary and secondary schools free sanitary items. She believes this is doable. And Scotland, recently showed that this is something that can be doable as they are now the first country in the world who are close in making sanitary items free for all women.

For a few brief moments we talked about the descent of the new form of slavery which is the ‘economic colonisation’ from places like China in Nigeria and when I voiced my displeasure of what ultimately the leaders of the country were subjecting its citizens to, in a tired tone she replied, “I mean, were we ever free? […] But it’s just because the government is also not ensuring that it’s an enabling environment.” 

In 2019 the activist wetted her toes in the political pool by collaborating with the First Lady of Ondo, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu. The collaboration was a chance encounter given that Ihesie had been applying for grants to help finance her reusable pad initiative but all her applications were rejected. It was through the advice of her mentor that she reached out to Akeredolu who also had a campaign of her own that focused on period poverty and held summer camps for school-age girls during which Ihesie was also able to provide training to the girls on how to make their own reusable pad. 

Intrigued by the concept and the potential of profitability I asked her if she had considered coming out with her own line of eco-friendly sanitary products but she’d already beaten me to it as it was something that she was already looking into and going further to explain that she would want the materials to be locally sourced whilst also providing employment to women from the community. As someone who is a great proponent for Nigerians and Africans in general to be producers instead of exporters of goods this was music to my ears that this was somewhere in the timeline for Ihesie to achieve. 

I think it was only natural that a significant portion of our conversation was centred around talking about generational trauma something that sadly seems to be the backbone of Nigerian culture. And sadly it is something that I addressed in my TEDx talk having had to combat personal struggles of my own. So when I came across Ihesie’s interview with psychotherapist Amanda Iheme speaking on these same issues it really felt like our paths were perfectly aligned to meet (albeit, virtually - at least for now).

Somewhere in our childhood a lot of Nigerians have been robbed off their identity as individuals. Many of us grow tied to the expectations that our parents, elders set for us i.e. get a degree, get a job, get married, have children. All these activities of “getting” things exist outside of our beings, exist outside of us being okay with who we are within ourselves.
A lot of us from a religious households would more than likely had their parents throw a Bible verse like this their way “Children obey your parents for this is right” in order to manipulate us into doing what they want but then they forget the following verse that says, “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them’.

Ihesie teaching at a boys' correction centre
This is why Ihesie being the eldest of six siblings she had the foresight from an early age to create boundaries: “It might seem really tough, really mean in the Nigerian or African context […] But I’m not going to start running around picking up my sisters from school. That is the responsibility of my parents […]  I refuse to engage with activities that will drain me […]You want to take care of everyone but the responsibilities never stop so you have to create boundaries […] And whilst I’m focusing on my dreams my younger sisters are watching me do what I have to do. I don’t tell them I show them.”
In every Lagosian I interact with there is always this bubble of energy that seeps out of them in the way they talk and carry themselves. Their work ethic is incomparable and their love for life amidst struggle is infectious. This was no different to what I felt in Ihesie but as our conversation was winding down, I was interested in finding out about Lolo. The Lolo outside of rehabilitating boys in juvenile centres, the Lolo outside of interviewing keke drivers, the Lolo outside of chasing grants and the Lolo outside of standing up for her autonomy to decide whether to have children or not. 

So when I asked her what she liked doing it was almost not surprising that a lot of the things she enjoyed doing such as going to the cinema, going to the gym, reading African literature were all activities she did alone. A fellow empath, she’s obviously a woman after my own heart. “In as much as I’m giving to people I make sure that I also put back into myself.”

It was just as well that this interview took place on the eve of her 25th birthday which served a perfect time for reflection. “I feel so young. I can’t wait to be older. That’s actually the way I want to live.”

I couldn’t have chosen a more suitable person to interview for this new venture on
The Eféctive Times. The problems of Nigeria are plenty but it is individuals like her that make the future of Africa’s Giant exciting. And I can go on forever talking about why Ihesie is one to watch but for now I will let her actions continue to do the talking. 

You can find Lolo Ihesie on Twitter. Subscribe to her YouTube channel here.