Few months after I started working with Woman.NG, the Editor told me about Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale and how she would love to meet her and learn more about the amazing work she is doing with women and children in rural areas.
After that conversation, I started following Olutosin on Facebook. I read almost all her interviews on different news outlet and by the time I was done, I could tell why the Editor wanted to meet this woman.
On the day of my meeting with her, I was on the street of her office trying to locate her apartment when I saw a couple alight from their car. I approached them to make enquiry and it was Tosin and her husband, who came to drop her at the office.
She was carrying a bag and her husband helped her with another bag before I stepped in to help. Amazed at her husband’s gesture as I recalled her domestic violence story, Tosin said her husband was a changed man.
I followed her into her office and our discussion started.
Fifteen years ago, her husband would not even help her carry their child, who would not stop crying. Tired from a rigorous childbirth 28 days before, Tosin pleaded with him to help her carry their baby so she could sleep a little, but her husband’s response shocked her.
“He beat me that day and I thought I was going to die,” she said. “He beat me so much that I spoke in my native language. No English word came out of my mouth.”
Having witnessed how men from her hometown in Owo beat their wives, Tosin’s mother had advised her to marry a man who spoke English because educated men do not beat their wives. This advice led her to study English language at the University of Lagos, where she met her husband.
Unfortunately, despite being an educated man who spoke English, her husband beat her so much that she covered her mouth with cloth to choke the sobs so as not to let people know that educated wives get beaten by their educated husbands. But when he concentrated his fist on her jaw and the beating got terrible, she screamed.
She landed in the hospital after that beating but her encounter with the doctor, who attended to her, changed her life forever.
“When I told the doctor what happened to me, he said I was brave because not all women, who got beaten by their husbands, would tell the truth. He advised me to either divorce my husband or get empowered. I asked him how to get empowered and he said I should join other women fighting for their rights and reject what I don’t like.”
Sadly, Olutosin’s siblings, who came to visit her baby that week were unbothered about her physical state until she confided in one of her sisters who advised her against telling anybody because it happens in all marriages.
Armed with the doctor’s words, Tosin demanded a divorce from her husband, who begged her that such incidence would not occur again. That marked Tosin’s journey to empowerment and the last time her husband laid hands on her.
Her experience with domestic violence
Even though she couldn’t put a name to it at the time, Tosin’s experience of violence started when she lost her father as a four year old and his family threw them out of the house, leaving her mother to cater for the children, a responsibility so heavy but shouldered gracefully.
A poor farmer, Tosin’s family was living in her mother’s immediate brother’s house but they were thrown out one day when he claimed he had a fight with their elder brother, so, they had to move to an uncompleted building.
Stepping out of the building to school was always a shame for Tosin because some of her classmates lived in another completed apartment in the same compound. Returning back to the building after school hours was another struggle, so, she would stay back in school till it became very dark before she left for home.
Her mother’s experiences of violence from her first husband, her brothers to her last husband was so bad that Tosin felt it was as if her mother fought a war all through her life.
She would also not forget how her grandmother was forcefully made to marry three brothers consecutively and had children for all of them before she died.
From the husband to his wife, a brother to his sister, a parent to a girl-child, and a woman to a fellow woman, Tosin believes that violence against women happens in different forms and is aided by culture.
She narrated how the bowls that will be used to fetch water at the stream would be piled up for the wife of an uncle or a brother to carry and how such women would say ‘yes ma’ to children because they were not born in her presence.
“In our community, when you say she is the wife of.., the respect comes down. It’s even better to say you’re the daughter of…, because a wife is always lower,” she said.
As classmates, a man and a woman are seen as equals but the moment they decided to get married, the tune changes and all these makes Tosin wonder if the world truly wants women.
“Sometimes I really wonder, do they want us, if not just to procreate and cook? Where are women welcomed? I love men, I don’t want to be misquoted but I hate patriarchy. There is no place where women are free. Maybe in heaven but this world is created for all of us. Anytime I say I don’t want to be treated this way, they say she’s a feminist. I was created a feminist and I accept my feminism.”
All these experiences led her to starting her NGO, Stars of Hope Foundation Centre, where she empowers women who have gone through domestic violence like her.
Empowerment is coming up with a purpose and following it up
For Tosin, education is not the same as empowerment, which she describes as a thing of the mind. She also noted that empowerment is not skills acquisition as it is commonly described.
“Empowerment is about knowing what exactly is happening to me, what do I want to happen to me, what will I allow somebody to do to me, what do I know about myself, what do I want to accept or I want to reject. Empowerment is being able to say NO and stand on your NO and mean it. Empowerment is coming up with a purpose and following it up.”
According to her, a woman can be educated and not empowered and vice versa.
“Sometimes, I see my mother who could not read and write stand her ground. Sometimes, you may be poor, you may be an illiterate and you are empowered.”
An empowered woman is a woman with her own dreams; hence, Tosin’s dream is to “build a city for women, a haven where any woman from anywhere can run to. That is my dream and I believe it is possible. That is being empowered.”
So passionate is she about her dreams that she does whatever is in her power to help less privileged women, including donating the proceeds from her artwork, no matter how much it is.
Tosin Turns Trash To Treasure
Her artwork is beyond gathering trash and turning them into beautiful pieces of treasures, behind it is a message.
Seeing how women are abused and maltreated, Tosin decided to pass a message across using pieces of fabrics that would have ended up in a dustbin.
“I was treated like trash and I met other women too who were treated like trash. I see women daily treated like trash but they don’t know. They don’t have the consciousness just the way I was conscious of the fact that, no, I am Tosin, I am not trash, and I have some value.”
“So, when I pick trash and set them up, I sell them for thousands of dollars. If you want to buy, buy, if you don’t want to buy, leave. Just to change the way we look at things and ourselves. Nothing is trash, nobody is a nobody.”
So, for every artwork of a woman she creates, there is one central message it carries and it is about the strength of a woman.
“I don’t draw about women being pathetic, poor or dejected. Even when you see a woman who is frying akara, you see her in all her glory. I love beauty, nature and strength of a woman and that is what I portray in what I do.”
Many times, because of how real her artwork looks, some people think they are painted. Surprisingly, Tosin did not learn how to draw, sketch or combine her colours, she just does it, something she ascribes to passion.
Recalling how it all started, Tosin said one of her daughters came home from school with an assignment that entailed drawing a hen and the map of Africa with a newspaper. While her daughter was making her drawing, a neighbour recommended a suitable gum and the drawing came out well.
Tosin loved it; so, she started making her own creations using pieces of fabrics, newspapers and other kinds of trash to make bed sheets, bags, mats, caps and other household items. She also gets trash from Australia, UK, America and Nigeria.
“I did the first one and it was very beautiful, I did the second one and it was not as fine and then I did the third, fourth and all. I started last year and people love it.”
Helping the poor
Tosin’s passion for helping the poor stems from the rough childhood she had. Having come from a very poor and struggling background, Tosin said, she knows what it is to be poor.
It was so bad that her mother told her that she only promised to send her to school and not buy her books. Tosin would also go to school, sometimes on empty stomach, and then return to eat roasted corn.
However, as bad as it was, Tosin said she never begged for food. If it became worse, she turns it into fasting.
One day, Tosin came back from school and met her mother crying. When she asked her why, she told her the only food remaining in the house was just one yam.
“She said the yam did not beat me but if we eat this, what shall we eat tomorrow?” her mother told her.
Even though she finds her generosity strange, considering her background, and her family is scared of her being poor, Tosin believes all that she has came from God and all that she would need will also come from him.
Albeit, she is grateful for a very supportive spouse and her international network of women she refers to as ‘sisters.’
The women of Ibasa
Tosin has been working in Ibasa, a community across the sea, with no road, secondary school, police station, electricity and other basic amenities but it houses over ten thousand people.
After almost five years in the community, Tosin could only train 40 women because she realized that many of the women wanted a business that would bring in daily money to run the family.
“Some of them will come to me and say, aunty, please I want to sell garri, so that I can also feed my children from it.”
Touched by their stories, Tosin, after the sale of an artwork, gives the proceeds to one of the women until the sale of another one.
“The last time I sold an elephant (artwork made from ankara fabric) , I gave the money, N160, 000, to one woman, and she was weeping. She said, ‘aunty, after so many years, you allow my hand touch money again.’ I’ve never heard such statement in my life. She has started an ankara business and gone to Cotonou six times.”
However, there are criteria to training and helping women, Tosin reveals.
“They must be women who have stories, women who will understand these issues because we have our sacred moments. Every morning, you tell your story, if it is too heavy; we may not listen to stories again that week.”
Through their gathering, they find healing in each other’s stories and the assurance that they have support in each other. So, for Tosin, her programme is more transformational than skill acquisition.
“So after training these women, they come every day, we dance, we sing, we pray, we share our stories, we share bad moments, ugly moments beautiful moments together. Then we try to change the way we think about the way we were treated.”
The 2013 Nigerian Demographic Health Survey reveals that 28 percent of women between 15 and 49 years have experienced physical violence at least once since age 15, while 45 percent of women who experienced violence never sought help or never told anyone about the violence but Tosin is changing that, one woman at a time.
And that remains the only thing that gives her joy after her family.
See more of Olutosin’s work at