As Equals Interviews Anwulika Okonjo

As Equals Interviews Anwulika Okonjo

Anwulika Ngozi Okonjo, the founder of TEAW, a women-led nonprofit organization serving to “unleash the wealth of knowledge African women create through their lived experiences and works in different fields,” grants us this highly refreshing and insightful interview. She talks about the birth of TEAW, anticipated obstacles, why the work of TEAW is so crucial, TEAW’s upcoming launch and where she sees herself and TEAW in the next ten years (world domination!).

This Interview Was Conducted by Tito Sanusi

Tell me about yourself, Anwulika.

Anwulika: That’s a lot. What would you like to know?

Educational background, family background and interesting facts you would like to share.

Anwulika: I’m currently a second-year student at Duke University. I major in International Comparative Studies, with a concentration on Africa & French, and dual minors in Chinese and Gender, sexuality and feminist studies. I was born in Nigeria and I moved to South Africa when I was 7/8. I started boarding school in the UK when I was 12.

My parents have pretty much always lived in Nigeria though, and that’s where I spent most of my holidays. That’s home, first and foremost. Aside from my major, I love philosophy, theatre, music and pretty much anything creative.

Okayy. Thank you very much. Now, about TEAW, What is Through the Eyes of African Women in 2-5 words?

Anwulika: Haha 2-5 words?

Yes, just 2-5 words you can use to describe TEAW.

Anwulika: Multi-dimensional, collaborative, feminist, human-centred, vision-based.

Multi-dimensional. I like that. Why is now the time for TEAW to exist?

Anwulika: I feel like we are (as in humanity) at the pinnacle of our struggle to define and determine who we want to be. Everywhere you look there’s conflict - globalists versus populists, Black people versus racists, homophobes versus LGBTQ, the global south versus imperialists and capitalists, and of course the fight over women’s right.

For me, Through the Eyes of African Women isn’t really about starting anything new, my hope is that we can enhance conversations and actions in order to push Africans, at the very least, in the right direction. It’s about showing how each of these issues isn’t isolated, but rather are intricately interconnected and interdependent, so we need to pay attention, and we need to centre the voices of the most marginalised amongst us which I think is black African women. We are critical voices that are left out of these conversations and debates more often than not, and I think that if we start to amplify the voices, perspectives, experiences, KNOWLEDGE of African Women right now, and enhance our social movements by providing our young activists with spaces for collective conscientization, we stand a far better chance of moving in a direction that is best for all people.

A direction that recognises and affords everyone their full dignity. I am so empowered and impressed by the passion of global activists from many different movements, but I am encouraged to move forward with TEAW in particular because I have seen, and am seeing, first hand how badly young African women want to change. How much work we are already doing, even just in our own personal battles. I see young African women as warriors primed for this fight who just need to be acknowledged and provided with the right resources and knowledge.

We are critical voices that are left out of these conversations and debates more often than not, and I think that if we start to amplify the voices, perspectives, experiences, KNOWLEDGE of African Women right now

How insightful. So you said Through the Eyes Of African Women isn't about starting anything new? Then, with so many great feminist organizations to support, how does yours stand out?

Anwulika: TEAW isn’t about competition, it’s about collaboration; it’s about working with other groups, scholars, activists, creators etc. What we are doing that I think is different is taking grassroots work and specifically, African women activists very seriously as the source of change and development; working with African women from all backgrounds to incorporate development strategies in dialogical, consciousness-raising education that is based on people’s lived and embodied experiences.

Our approach doesn’t try to stifle the radicalism or passion of young activists like many organisations that talk about empowerment and development do. It’s not about a focus on the value of women as “producers for an economy” as a reason why they should have rights. TEAW is different because we are here to serve. Not preach. Not tell. But support and enhance and amplify what already exists.

We recognise that no one knows better how to help their community than the person who lives in it. But that person, in today’s world, is often ignored in favour of large organisations with top-down approaches that don’t centre the richness and diversity of human experiences.

I love this! At this moment, how do you measure the success of TEAW? What are your metrics?

Anwulika: We’re just getting started but our four impact measures are education, representation, re-envisioning and restructuring. We will know how successful TEAW is by how well young African women activists feel we are doing at helping them refine, increase and improve their personal lives and their efforts to change their communities.

Education is about access. Are we helping young women access and discover knowledge that helps them improve their understanding of their realities and those of others? Representation: Are we doing a good enough job of showcasing the experiences and contributions of African women from all backgrounds, religions, socio-economic standings, sexualities etc.

Re-imagining: Does our programming tangibly help young activists embrace radicalism and challenge the status quo for the better? Does it enable us to collectively imagine alternatives to the current? And finally, restructuring: Are we helping young activists take the best actionable, strategic steps towards change at the grassroots or even greater level? I think what’s important is encouraging young African women to live prefiguratively.

I have seen, and am seeing, first hand how badly young African women want to change. How much work we are already doing, even just in our own personal battles. I see young African women as warriors primed for this fight who just need to be acknowledged and provided with the right resources and knowledge.

Great! This sounds very well thought-out.

Anwulika: I hope so.

Can you share the biggest obstacle you’ve faced with TEAW and how you’ve mastered it?

Anwulika: I anticipate there will be many many challenges to come with TEAW just given the nature of our initiative. The biggest obstacle I’ve faced has actually been the name. Originally it was called “The African Feminist Project” but over the summer as I got started, I realised just how much of a barrier calling it “feminist” was.

It seemed like instead of addressing the issues that the project was all about, I was getting stuck arguing about the name. About Feminism. Feminism to me is a multi-issue ideology and an important one. It’s a pathway to talking about collective human problems such as class, racism, bigotry etc, that emphasises the importance of marginalised voices in a way that no other ideology I have come across does.

So TEAW is and always will be feminist but I realised that in order to move forward I had to ease people into this understanding. Not make it about feminism in the title but about feminist principles - making it about the issues, not the ideology. At least not yet. I do plan to write and talk in depth at some point about the merits and disadvantages of explicitly claiming feminism because I think about it a lot and I believe it’s important.

I can’t wait to read this, sounds really interesting. Now earlier on, you mentioned your parents. How have they influenced you and what lessons have you learned from them?

Anwulika: I don’t know why that’s a tough question lol. My parents are very progressive, I think when it comes to gender especially. My parents are very much whole human beings, and I think that’s the biggest thing. My mom is her own person, my dad is his own person. So it was always very important to be self-realised and self-determined and to see other people become the same.

Aside from that, the biggest thing they’ve taught me is to always focus on how I can contribute to the lives of others. They’ve taught me that no one exists in this world to serve themselves. So while I have come to my own understanding of who my community consists of based on my experiences, that need to contribute is ingrained in me because of them.

They sound like amazing people. Where do you see TEAW in 10 years?

Anwulika: World domination!! I’m joking. Lol, I do envision world domination but through TEAW on college campuses, members of the Young African Women Activists Collective from every country in Africa, working collaboratively to build social movements that radically alter the trajectories of our continent and our world. I want TEAW (and this other organisation I have plans for in the future) to be the number 1 facilitator of youth-led change in Africa.

Lastly, TEAW’s launch is in ten days. What can we expect on the D-Day?

Anwulika Well, TEAW is supporting and amplifying the voices of African women who kick ass for a cause. With that in mind, I think people can expect an evening that will be intense and uplifting and celebratory. We plan to have a great time because it is our launch and we are extremely excited!

But it’s more than just a barbecue or a party. There will be dope music and great food, but it will also be about really connecting with other fired-up young women to share our stories and fuel each other’s passion. Our theme for our launch and next year is Resistance, Resilience and Reformation: African Women’s Activism. So I’ll be talking about TEAW, but it’s also an opportunity for local young women leaders of activist groups to talk about the amazing things they are doing and what they envision. If people are looking for a space for uninhibited conversations and self-expression, that’s exactly what they’ll get at our launch and with TEAW generally.