By UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin
My mother, Morenike Osotimehin, was a remarkable woman. Born in Nigeria on the 4th of August 1924, she gave birth to eight children, four boys and four girls. I was the oldest.
She was very loving, but also very firm; you couldn’t get away with things that you really wanted to do, without her knowing, and when it was not acceptable, she’d let you know. Though, that didn’t mean you were not going to get your cookie later.
A great entrepreneur, and an excellent wife to my father, who was a schoolteacher, my mother managed her own business in our small town of Ijebu-Igbo in south-west Nigeria. Her business was sourcing organic foods. Somebody wanted mangoes? She’d tell you where to get the best and organize that you got them. She was successful, contributing to feeding, clothing and sending us to school. She was able to establish herself and to be different from my father.
Women in my part of Nigeria were allowed to own and run their own businesses then (and still are), to own land and inherit property. My mother followed that direction. My grandmother and great-grandmother took that path too. It was a tradition for women in Ijebu-Igbo to be independent.
Every morning, it was my father who got us up at 5 a.m. to exercise, help us with our homework and send us off punctually to school. In my community, everyone was on the road by 7. You had to be part of the motion.
My mother was one more person in that motion. She’d take the little ones with her as she conducted her business. Every day was a balancing act between work and the requirements of a big family. Apart from her own children, our household also consisted of cousins and nephews; often we had 15 people around. For me, that was the happiest time in my life.
My mother never complained. At 7 p.m., when we had all finished dinner and done more homework and were getting ready for bed, she’d sit there and look at all of us and ask, “You happy?” Anything we needed, she was there.
She was an inspiration. She understood that each one of us must live a productive life and contribute to society. But she also had a soft spot for those not doing so well. She insisted that we show progress in school, develop our skills and go to college; these were things that were celebrated, and I went along.
Both of my parents taught me to be humble and sensitive to others; once I hit a cousin, a little girl, and she told on me. I was summoned by my mother, who told me to never do that again. My father warned me, saying, “You must always treat every girl and woman like your mother and show respect. “
When my mother became a widow, I became her close friend, being the oldest child. I spent Sundays with her, driving 45 minutes to see her, have lunch and conversation. We’d talk about everyone and everything: local politics, my siblings, the economy. We became especially close the last 10 years of her life, before she died at 80. I was doing what a child should do for his mother; look after her. I’m an emotional person, tears are not very far from my eyes when I talk about her, but when she passed I didn’t cry and that is because I still felt - and feel - her presence. She continues to be my guiding spirit.
My mother was a strong woman. She had a strong sense of self and she believed that as a woman she had rights. She also believed she could choose what she wanted to do. She knew that lives had to be saved and women had to be empowered.
Back then modern contraceptives weren’t readily available; today being able to plan your pregnancies is a cherished human right. I don’t think my mother used birth control, though it was clear that her children came more or less with two or three years in between them, so she must have been deliberately spacing her childbirths. When she had her babies, she used a midwife in a community maternity center. The center was open 24 hours, and women went there for pre- and antenatal care - and to deliver. This is 50 years ago. It worked – and still works - very well. All villages should have centers like that.
My mother was alive when I became Professor of Medicine and later the national coordinator on HIV in Nigeria, and she was proud of me. If she could see me now, heading a UN agency, she’d be very pleased. But she’d also tell me to be humble and do my very best. She would say that providence has put me here to accomplish an important mission in the world.
Dr. Osotimehin is the Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, the lead UN Agency working on making every pregnancy wanted, every childbirth safe and every young person’s potential fulfilled.