When former beauty queen, Ibidunni Ajayi, got married in 2007, her expectations were predictable. Like many married women, a leading anticipation of hers was the hope to give birth to children. Her wedding to accountant and clergyman, Itua Ighodalo, was celebrated, even if it was attended with a heat of debate from his previous union.
Close to one decade on, the loathing generated in some quarters at the onset of their relationship has definitely receded. The rumour mill which spewed torrents of lopsided and coloured tales that caused the couple a lot of trauma, even if a bit, has withdrawn, but the pain of those turbulent years live with her still. For one who keeps to herself, the scrutiny of her marriage in the public, led her to sew-up. She reduced the number of persons she called friends to a handful, becoming more and more engrossed with her husband.
Apparently, the media is one of the perpetrators of the wind of ill-perception blowing around her; so letting this reporter into her Ikoyi-Lagos home was a decision she weighed thoroughly. First, she insisted on a questionnaire against the suggestion she should have a sit-down with the reporter. She would later concede to the one-on-one at her event centre, The Dorchester, at Oniru-Lagos.
The venue was changed at the last minute with the explanation that artisans carrying on renovation there may distract the discourse.
Smiling with her hand extended for a welcome shake, she waved the visitor to make himself comfortable in her living room. Her publicist, Uyai Abasi, took a seat as well.
‘I have answered your questions,” she began referencing my earlier questionnaire. I took time to explain how a personal encounter brings home the mood and circumstance of an interview. She listened quietly (all the while studying her guest), then she declared her confidence in the one who brokered our meeting. “I trust her. She said we should do it.”
Incidentally, the Ighodalos are frequently involved in news worthy activities, even if it may be argued that they do not deliberately hug the media. For instance, they have given life to and support a couple of charities. Mrs. Ighodalo’s known trade may also have unwittingly ensured permanent presence for her in the media. As CEO of Elizabeth R, one of Nigeria’s high profile event management companies, she is often spotted at widely publicised occasions.
However, Elizabeth R was just going to be an appendage at this meeting.
It was agreed that the focus would be on her new passion to bring a cheer into the lackluster life of childless couples through her Ibidunni Ighodalo Foundation, IIF.
IIF is the latest paradox in the life of a woman who makes a job of organizing huge, crowded events, but prefers to remain behind the scene; a beauty queen who does not flaunt her beauty (this trait was displayed when it came to choice of photographs from a recent photo-shoot by celebrity photographer, TY Bello, to illustrate this story. She gently, but firmly refused to allow certain images of her go public; so they will not be misconstrued).
Her newest contradiction to fund IVF treatment for couples who are hoping to have their own babies is a landmark irony. How can a woman who is challenged under similar circumstances forget her own predicament and turn all her attention and huge resources towards helping others out of the quandary?
Finally, when she started talking, it was in a soft and measured tone like one dwelling on the implication of every word. No doubt her heart was heavy. Often the vehemence in her statements were conveyed in her narrowing and widening eyes and her flying hands. Her voice never rose one decibel above what may be considered normal with her. Throughout the interview, it remained almost a whisper. With each sigh that preceded her response, she yearned to share her heavy burden; to find an understanding soul, apart from her husband. The words came through her teeth, almost without parting her lips. “I have heard stories of in-laws calling the woman painful names. Those are hurtful things to say. There are names you don’t want to call a woman that is looking up to God.”
She continued to share her experiences. “People may not want to be mean, but they don’t know that certain statements and body language hurt. When you are waiting on God, you can be sensitive to what people say or do and they might not know it will hurt or hit you. It is good to raise awareness and understanding about childless couples. Friends and relatives should be a bit more sensitive to women or couples who are waiting on the Lord. I know that because of our culture, the pressure is so much. The shoes of women who are waiting on the Lord are not very easy shoes. Emotionally, mentally and psychologically, hormonally, when you are going through treatments, it’s a rollercoaster-you deal with in-laws, society, friends, there’s a lot going on.”
“People who get married and have children don’t know how lucky they are. I mean you are even careful not to get pregnant again, you are so blessed by God, you should thank God every day. It is not easy to find yourself in a situation where your friends are doing school runs, you don’t know what that is, you don’t even know what your first trimester is. The friends you had bridal showers with are having baby showers, it takes the grace of God to remain sane, honestly.”
Today, she hid her tears. But you could tell a woman who had previously cried her heart out. In fact she was not ashamed to confess she was frequently given to such emotion in the past.
On her 35th birthday last year, she decided to turn the lemon that life had thrown at her into lemonade. It had become her fashion to write a wish list on the day she was born and then tick-off the accomplished ones on her next birthday. Every year, she scored high on every point, but one: The issue of childlessness had become a sore point that could not be addressed. She had prayed and sought different avenues for a medical solution, but the problem just could not be wished away. Although she enjoyed the understanding and love of her husband and in-laws, the quest for a child consumed her.
“I had tears in my eyes when I told God, ‘you know what? This is enough. You are going to do it when You want to do it, in Your own time and if You are not going to do it, let it be left undone. This is You. I trust You. Right now, it’s ok, I’m going to live my life. I found out that I had stopped living, because that was all I wanted. I said no, I’m going to be happy, live my life and leave it all to God. I’m grateful to God for my own family, for the family I’m married into.”
Those statements to God with tears in her eyes opened a window to air her bottled emotions. It lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. As she cleared her mind of the cobwebs of trying to have a baby, she was amazed to receive one of the most altruistic ideas with clarity. Her husband was no less enthused when she shared the idea with him.
“My focus now is to help others, one at a time. I want to make a family happy and with the help of God, their prayers would be answered. I know the pain and what it feels like. It will give me joy to see them jumping and rejoicing, saying that they are expecting their own children. I have seen it happen. I have seen the two sides during my course of treatment. I said God help me, let me do this. When you focus on helping others, you don’t know the blessings that come back to you. It is difficult but I said Lord you have put this in me, You have to provide. You know when God gives you a vision, He makes the provision. I have been amazed at the response. It is unbelievable.
“When I was going through some treatment, I would get to the clinic and someone who has just done a pregnancy test was being told that it didn’t work, it was always so devastating for me to hear them wonder aloud where they would get money for the next treatment. I have met women who came to the hospital to get the treatment but they couldn’t afford it. Some couldn’t even afford the test to know what was wrong. I have also met women who decided to share their burden, this is how financially draining this treatment can be. If you have extra eggs, you can sell them in exchange for the treatment. When women share eggs left from a successful IVF on another women or they use the woman’s extra cycle that has been paid for, these are ways women support one another because getting an egg donor can be very expensive.”
Mrs. Ighodalo is further challenged by her ecclesiastical responsibility as the wife of a pastor. Parishioners at the Trinity House in Oniru-Lagos where her husband presides call her ‘Pastor IB’. “I think you have to be called by God to be called a pastor. You know how it is when they say two have become one. Automatically, when they call your husband a pastor, they call you a pastor, as well. I’m under the leadership of my husband. I’ve learnt from him and I’m still learning. I’m just taking it, one day at a time. I provide a support system for him. I believe that being by his side is what God has called me to do. I lead sessions of prayer. I do that more. We all pray and should be able to lead prayer sessions. I allow the spirit of God to lead me really. There is no pressure whatsoever from my husband. He just allows me grow and learn as much as I can.”
Lucky to be surrounded by experienced and loving women in church who work in concert with her through a group called ‘Timeless Women’, they pray, hold business sessions, deal with issues on parenting, singles, the elderly, mature singles and try to meet as many needs as possible in the church. “I have ministers’ wives in church who help me to fulfil these dreams. They are so supportive. Some of them guide and teach me because they are much older. God has blessed me with the support system of women who have those skills to deal with the elderly ones, mature singles, women with the issue of the fruit of the womb, single parents. They surround me. I’m everybody’s mother.”
It is only when she puts on the toga of a matriarch that she sometimes sees the humour in her situation. “It is so strange and funny, but when you sit back and think about it, every family has somebody who is waiting on God for a child. The person might be your cousin or mum’s sister. There are certain ways we will treat the person. But do you know that there are certain ways we treat somebody else coming into our family with the same issue? We don’t treat them the same. It is not intentional. If you have in-laws who are not nice to you, they will think it’s your fault. They will call you names, talk down on you. If your in-laws have somebody in their family who is waiting, they will never speak to the person like that. We really need to have a support system and also learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.”
The interaction had been cordial with Mrs. Ighodalo markedly toning down on her cautious approach to answering questions as the interview progressed. Her husband came home as the reporter made to leave. As she moved into his arms to welcome him, he looked from her to the departing visitors. The query was not uttered. It was in his eyes. She understood and went on to explain my mission in their home. ‘I will see you upstairs’, she said, disengaging from him to see us outside. Before we left, she showed another side to her that is not frequently in the news. She loves pets and keeps different breeds of dogs. As she approached their quarters and called out, a couple of the canines bounced towards the iron gate separating us from them. ‘Let them come and greet you,’ she offered. She laughed when her publicist and this reporter cringed at the suggestion, but thanked her, nonetheless, for the hospitality.
Right now, Mrs. Ighodalo who is a graduate of Microbiology from the University of Lagos is using the platform of IIF to award grants for fertility treatment such as In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), Frozen Embryo Transfer and Intrauterine Insemination. She was forced to change her initial plan to help one or two couples when she received tons of applications. The plan has now changed to accommodate 28 couples. “There are some couples that have applied that have been married for between 20 and 25 years and when I read their history, they have come to a point where they are tired. I even found out that it was their family that applied for some of them. A lot of people have asked me why I don’t face my life, why am I trying to be Mother Theresa. What is it? Is it that you have so much money you don’t know what to do with it. I can’t even explain it.”
Mrs. Ighodalo is not new to charity. She described herself as a great supporter of a motherless babies home called, Heritage Homes, and as one who is actively involved in Lydia Grace, a foundation for socially challenged women. Working for this particular charity demands that she goes out on the streets (sometimes at night) to engage, re-form and re- habilitate delinquent women.
She also supports her brother’s charity called Biire Foundation- for malnourished children, women and HIV patients. Another great passion of hers is to lend whatever form of support she can for youth causes.
However, IIF is a pioneering work as there is currently no other charity with similar objectives of educating people and promoting other forms of becoming parents and providing a spiritual, mental and psychological support system for couples/families. The importance of IIF as espoused by Mrs. Ighodalo is to help address the prevalence of couples in this situation, while providing enlightenment on the causes of infertility and ways it can be dealt with.