Delivered at Intersections International’s ‘Keep The Faith: A Global Perspective on Women’s Voices’ Conference. December 8–9, 2020.
It is my absolute pleasure to be able to be here with you today to share a little about how hope and healing have been instrumental in my life and in our work over the past 10 months.
When people ask me what I do, I often say that I stretch tight shoes, since, as a young child growing up in Nigeria, my mother would often summon my sisters and me just before she left for England, or the US, and literally trace our feet on paper. Upon her arrival abroad, she would awkwardly take those drawings to a shoe store to estimate our shoe sizes to purchase shoes for us. Sometimes the shoes she would return back to Nigeria with worked- and painfully, excruciatingly, other times they didn’t. We wore them anyway.
Because my feet were bigger than those of my sisters, I would often wear their smaller shoes for some time in order to stretch them; to create more space for them to walk more comfortably. But as I grew older, I realized that stretching tight shoes, creating more space for other people, became a consistent posture in my life. It is the impetus for why I do what I do; it’s the way that I move through the world to do that which God has ultimately called me to do, i.e., to stretch tight shoes- to create more space for women and girls at the table.
I consider myself rather fortunate to be able to do the work we do at the NGO I founded six years ago, Pathfinders, with women survivors of sex trafficking and sexual violence in Nigeria. It is the work of justice, of making that which is unseen seen, of standing in spiritual defiance of what is, of reconciling our everyday reality to God’s intention. It truly is sacred work. Because the truth of the matter is that the bodies of African women, including those that we partner with, are some of the most weaponized and legislated upon in the world. Any of us who do this work know that we stand as intercessors.
Generally speaking, our work at Pathfinders is threefold:
1. The Redemption Project. We partner with survivors of trafficking and sexual violence, many of whom recently repatriated to Nigeria after having their bodies consumed and recycled on thousands of occasions by the European sex industry, to provide holistic rehabilitation on their terms. We refer to them as PATH Plans, Personalised Action to Healing Plans, that are powered by their voices as we work to return their sense of agency and self-determination.
2. The Justice Initiative. We also work to dismantle inequitable social structures by demanding accountability from those who have the power to end sex trafficking and sexual violence against women. By influencing the influencers, through trainings, through workshops, through partnerships, we are striving towards a form of what author and Pastor, Jose Humphreys, would refer to as ‘redemptive rescripting’ that shifts that power to those from whom it has been stripped.
3. Truthtellers. Finally, we are not only speaking truth to power but also speak truth to the seemingly powerless through the awareness raising arm of our work. Here, we engage the community to see trafficking, to see sexual violence as a crime, not solely against the individual, but against the community itself. That shift in power, that shift in the power dynamics, is what we empower the community to reclaim.
But right when we began to get our stride as thought leaders, as a leading voice in this fight against trafficking in Nigeria, in March 2020, the entire world stopped. Perhaps I wouldn’t have, but I was forced to stop after contracting COVID-19 in March 2020. I had to pivot. We all had to pivot.
There were days that I wasn’t sure if I would awaken the next morning; days that my final prayer every night was that my 14 year old daughter would find that I too had arisen with the new dawn. But it was in those moments, when I was facing what some would call an existential crisis, that I miraculously summoned up the courage to choose hope over paralyzing fear. You see, hope became a renewable resource that connected my faith to the substance of things hoped for; to the evidence of things not seen. But as hard as those moments were, hope offered the gift of teachable lessons in my personal life, as a leader and in the work that we do in Nigeria.
1. Choosing hope is an act of resistance. It is an act of resistance in much the same way that me showing up as myself; me taking up my own space at the table as a black, African woman, is often an act of resistance in a world that has intentionally denied access to women that look and sound like me. Hope seeks out the beauty in a kingdom that is here but not yet and barks down the face of despair, of anguish. Hope anchors us as we lean into our pain and suffering; it offers us a way to curate beauty from ashes.
No one exemplified this sentiment more than our survivors who also chose hope; hope over circumstances that triggered their past trauma; hope over what threatened to obliterate the walls of the lives they had just painstakingly began to rebuild. With most of them working in the informal sector that required that they work daily to eat, to survive, they chose hope and trusted us as we encouraged them to pivot, to restrategise; to bring their businesses online or to engage in mobile services- all while facing debilitating lockdowns and curfews.
2. Secondly, hope is a healer. It is a healer that, as Walter Wink would say, envisions an alternate reality; an alternative future to the one fated by the momentum of current forces. It calls forth that which is unseen and hinges the moment to a future that is anchored by God’s redemptive plan. It is what flows, as the Balm of Gilead, and in embracing it, in applying it, we start to heal.
I started to heal. And so did our survivors.
3. Hope is a person; in much the same way that Grace and Truth are embodied in Christ, who in the scriptures, assures us that as He is, so are we in this world. And so, I began to seek that Grace, that Truth, that hope in those who God had sent to support me during that season. It showed up in the eyes of my daughter, through the groceries that some of my friends forced over my pride, in the Facetime calls with my team and our survivors who prayed for my healing, as I did for theirs.
4. Hope seeks out hope and ignites a community of light. And what I mean by that is that it surfaces to connect the likeminded. Over the summer, as we watched America reckon with the fruit of racial injustice, hope was what connected millions of people around the globe who demanded the change they wanted to see. Hope is also what unified me and many other activists, some of who also attended this conference, to demand that the Nigerian government #BringBackOurGirls; the 276 girls from Chibok, Nigeria who were stolen from their lives by Boko Haram, a terrorist group in Nigeria. Almost 7 years later, 112 of them remain missing and #BringBackOurGirls has transformed to a prayer to God. Hope endures.
And so, as we end this unprecedented year, I, like many of our survivors, continue on our journey to wholeness in our healing. But we persevere for the sake of those against whom marginalization has been used as a tool of oppression. Yes, there is a Balm in Gilead; but we have been called to apply it. We have been tasked with rescripting the narrative; with praying into being God’s justice. Along with hope, we collectively stand at the intersection of God’s kingdom that is here but not yet and the fragility of our broken world.
And at the end of the day, hope wins.