22 September 2017

Nigeria: Tribute - Anne Nnenna Nnaji: Call Me a Woman!

'Call me Woman' is the title of an autobiographical work by Ellen Kuzwayo, one of the noblest of South African women who waged scientific war against apartheid. The foreword to that book came from Nadine Gordimer, South African writer and political activist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991.

I do not intend to write about Kuzwayo. Neither do I plan to write about Gordimer. I recalled the title of that book as I set to write about Anne Nnaji, my colleague with whom I shared same office space until September 9 when she left us to be with The Lord.

Kuzwayo's title fascinates me. Unlike Jessica Valenti whose voice was amplified by Ryan Andrew Thomas (2016) in one of those strange antifeminist narrative - Please Don't Call Me A Woman, Ever!, because "The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult". - Kuzwayo like Anna callmewoman.org (wife, church planter, social worker, writer... ) who shares first name with Nnaji, believe 'Call Me Woman' is a strong statement that exudes "confidence, strength and power" and not necessarily feministic.

Anne Nnaji, was the type that will stand in the market place and say "Call Me A Woman" because she knew the full meaning and weight of the phrase. Her life epitomized precisely and in a perfect sense the existential realities of a woman's many roles as a wife, mother, sister, aunt, worker and so on.

Although married to Gilbert Nnaji, a senator and prince of Nike, Enugu, Anne Nnaji was unassuming despite her privileges and great beauty. She was amazing and exceptional in her combination of physical beauty with an uncommon beauty of the spirit. This rarity, a gift many men crave for in their women, made Madam N (as I called her), one of the most wonderful women I had the privilege to meet.

When she resumed work at NCC in mid-2012 with Boma Willie-Pepple, they both walked into my 'hands' just like Grace Bose Ojougboh and Patience Yusuf did six months earlier. And we bonded almost instantly. Few years later, we both became occupants of the same office space. She had shared the space with my beloved sister, Ajagbonna Oritsetserundede, before I joined them and naturally the bonding process deepened.

Anne Nnaji was more than a colleague. She was a great friend and sister. I said this to her husband on September 10 when I paid a condolence visit to the family. As I was ushered into the family home by her brother in-law, the husband joined me shortly afterwards and he looked at me and said "Niyi, your friend is gone", and my response was instant: "Distinguished Senator, your wife was more than a friend. She was my sister".

Perhaps, she was many people's friend and sister. Anne Nnaji, despite her privileges carried herself with unusual humility, never came late to the office and carried out her responsibilities with a gifted diligence. Never under pressure. Calm in body and spirit. Never held on to anything against anybody, and whatever bothered you, once you met her, rest assured to be disarmed first by her usual smile. She never said anything disparaging about anybody. Whatever the matter, her response always was: It is well. If you say that to her first, her reply will be: It is perfectly well. I recall your words daily whenever I raised my head to behold your desk and chair, right in front of mine and hoping that you would return.

Madam N, there was nothing that belonged to you in a material sense that you could not part with. Your generosity was distinctive and legendary, demystifying the jocular 'IJEBUness' of the Igbos. In fact, Anne Nnaji's life and times deconstructed the terrible myths and fixations about Igbo worldview. Every day, I learnt something new from her conduct. I cannot remember any woman I met at NCC who personified the inherent goodness of man than Anne Nnaji. However wrong your actions are, Madam N would put you right without you taking offence. She just had her ways with words and their usage in proper context and in appropriate tenor. Very civil, disciplined and courageous.

Madam N was a practitioner of Gandhi's principle of exemplary living. As Gandhi would say, 'Do not tell me about your faith but live the life so the faith will be self-propagating,' so did Madam N lived her life. She was an unusual kind of disciple. A Christian in the real sense of the word. Though I had gone to Bible College and graduated atop my class, Madam N severally acted in ways that made me feel I needed to go back to school for practical lessons or to some laboratories for spiritual experimentation or practical spirituality, the type Dalai Lama will offer his followers.

There was a day in 2015 when I told her I was done with the Commission and I actually had my resignation letter ready. I was going to talk to my boss after speaking with her. Naturally, when I mentioned it to her she was shocked. Then she followed up with a smile and said: 'Omoniyi! You can't do that'. I told her I was ready because someone needed to make that point to the management. Then she asked me to hold on till the following day. She followed up with many conversations to ensure I dropped the idea insisting it was a phase that would soon pass.

'Call me a woman' is a tribute to a wonderful woman - one that is among the finest of that tribe - who combined every role a woman should play and did it so perfectly in kindness and with a philosophical calmness. Even in sickness, you engaged that terrible 'foreigner' in a battle. You gave it a good fight bearing the pain with equanimity. Madam N, I call you a woman because the Word says 'She will be called 'woman'... (Genesis 2:23). You were specially created and you have served your purpose. Nothing happens without God's knowledge. Return to Him in peace. You have ran a great race and we will let the world know you were here for good.

The Almighty God will continue to uphold your husband, your children, your mother and the entire family you left behind. May your tribe increase.

Sleep on Madam N. Sleep well Good Woman.

May your great soul rest in peace.

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