I will take a cue from C. Joybell C. by reiterating her wise words: “Every girl and every woman has the potential to make this world a better place, and that potential lies in the act of thinking higher thoughts and feeling deeper things. When women and girls, everywhere, begin to see themselves as more than inanimate objects; but as beautiful beings capable of deep feelings and high thoughts, this has the capacity to create change all around. The kind of change that is for the better.”
That profound statement sums up exactly how I feel about this episodes ‘SHE Is’ woman. She is driven by her convictions, she permits her intelligent thoughts to shape her actions, she feels her environment deeply, she lets empathy into her heart and she allows said empathy to lead to her spearhead the journey to effecting positive change in her environment.
Today, SHE Is Farida Yahya
Photo Credit: Ajayi Philip
Farida Yahya is a 30-year old entrepreneur, biochemist and writer from Adamawa State. She is the editor-in-chief of Northernlife NG, a lifestyle platform focused on Northern Nigeria and its people, culture and economy and history. She is the founder of JaMuje, an evidence-based, solution-driven initiative aimed at addressing key factors affecting Northern Nigeria’s development. Farida resides in Abuja where she is also the CEO of Lumo Naturals, a brand that provides full services for natural hair with a natural hair product line and Abuja’s foremost natural hair salon. While her work speaks for itself, the opportunity to have a one-on-one chat with her was priceless!
Hi Farida, it really is so great to finally have this chit-chat with you. We’ll just get right to it!
Your work is driven to impact Northern Nigeria and so I’m compelled to ask ‘why the North?’ I do know you are from the North and so I believe that explains your connection to the North. But what I am asking is that beyond an emotionally connected place, was there a specific need or gap you identified in the North that sort of drew you to finding solutions within your control?
So, I have told this story so many times but what happened is during the early 2000’s when I was an undergraduate in Maiduguri, there was this MTN chat where you could register your number and talk to anyone around the country between the age of 18 to 44. So, I started to talk to a guy in Lagos, I believe his name was Emeka if I recall correctly and this guy started to ask me questions like: ‘Do you guys speak English in Maiduguri?’ ‘Are women allowed to talk to boys?’ amongst other really weird questions and at the time, Maiduguri did not even have these insurgency crises. So imagine me, an only girl with three brothers, I was actually climbing trees and wearing knickers and not even covering my hair at the time and so I did not understand where he was coming from. I was really frustrated by the questions and the lack of understanding. He had said he genuinely thought Maiduguri was part of Cameroun. I began to realize that a lot of people do not know anything about Maiduguri; only that it’s part of the North East. And then, the insurgency began just when I was about to graduate from university. It was after this I came to Abuja before my NYSC to start working and again and I was faced with the same questions. People were surprised that I could speak proper English or that I had even read certain books or novels that they did, so I think that is where it started for me. Also, for the fact that I was a Muslim, people also thought that I actually believed in or I was sympathetic to the plight of the insurgents. All of that combined, led me to want to tell a different story of the North and try to show that beyond what meets you on TV we are just as human as possible and even though there are a lot of odds against us: even though there is a high illiteracy rate and high inequality rate, the average person in the north also wants the same things as the person in the south. I wish I could do it for the whole country but I feel more connected to and I feel a stronger sense of responsibility to the people in the North because I am from there.
“…beyond what meets you on TV we are just as human as possible and even though there are a lot of odds against us: even though there is a high illiteracy rate and high inequality rate, the average person in the north also wants the same things as the person in the south.”
You have sort of touched on my next question already but I will go ahead to ask in case you have more to add. So personally, I genuinely took a liking to Northernlife. I am what I coined a ‘knowledge scavenger’ and Northernlife feeds that part of me with ease as I find it a great one-stop platform to be more enlightened on the North and not even necessarily about serious issues it could just be light-hearted information like reading recipes just for the sake of it. I wondered who your target audience was when you were creating the platform.Was it intended for people like me? I am from Cross River State so by people like me I mean Southerners. Was it intended to enlighten us on Northern Nigeria and culture? Or was it a platform for Northerners to connect with themselves, celebrate their culture and perhaps actually learn more about themselves?
I get you. When I started, my target was not even Nigeria. I think my target was even people who had never been to Nigeria and just put on the news and hear/watch stories on Northern Nigeria and just assume there is a single story coming from Northern Nigeria. At the beginning, that was my target. But over time, I realized that the same unawareness was even in the South like in the case of the story I told you earlier. Let me give you a typical example of another realization. On Northernlife, we have this segment called I AM where someone from a northern states says ‘I AM’ a certain state, sort of like taking ownership of the said state. When we did the first I AM KWARA, we had huge backlash and Northerners were coming at us saying Kwara is not part of the North. I was very upset and it took me a long time to actually understand where they were coming from and that was when I realized that even a lot of Northerners do not understand the diversity of the North. The North does not have a single story. The North has Christians, indigenous Christians from the North, it has a lot of people who are not Hausas but have been called Hausas. So I think what Northernlife seeks to do is to show you the diversity of Northern Nigeria so whether you are a Northerner or a Southerner or you have never even been to Africa, Northernlife aims to show you the diversity of Northern Nigeria. Another example is when we featured the soup, miyan Kuka. Miyan Kuka is very common in the North because a lot of tribes actually eat it but in different ways – it is a soup and can be eaten with different types of tuwo. When we shared that picture on Twitter I was shocked by the number of people who retweeted that picture and had comments about it – Someone who lives in New York saying “thank you for reminding me about home” or people saying “oh wow! I remember the last time in 1980’s when I was in the North and someone gave me this soup”, so it is also a way for people to actually remember and connect, and be reminded of something they used to know and love about the North. These are the things that Northernlife represents for a lot of people.
Your other initiative JaMuje, I’ll describe as more hands-on and geared directly towards grass-root impact in the North in terms of education, health and so on. Seeing as JaMuje begun after Northernlife, I wonder if there was there a learning or discovery whilst running Northernlife that led to you conceptualizing Jamuje?
If you notice we have not formally made JaMuje an NGO, we still call it an initiative because we are trying not to deviate from the idea. So, JaMuje came about because we have a part of Northernlife called Matsaloli. Whilst we try to share good Northern narratives, we cannot shy away from the problems. What we decided to do was get a segment where we did not just show the problems but people that are making good of themselves despite the problems, and also spotlight NGOs that are helping those people. So when we were going around trying to get content for that segment, we would meet people and interview them and when they tell us their story they’d be like “is that all?” “You cannot help us?” “There is nothing more you can do for us?” So, we started thinking “what can we do for these people? There has to be something more we can do.” And we did not want to just become an NGO because there is so much duplication of effort, especially in the North East. You will go into an area and find that there are about 100 people/NGOs and they are all doing the same thing and the resources are even scarce to start with so you find that they are actually not covering enough ground. We decided to become a platform that actually brings the NGOs together so that they can cover more ground so sort of like mobilization. That is what we decided to do with JaMuje and that was why we decided to focus on those 3 areas: education, health, and entrepreneurship. We have just 10 months in our calendar – February to November. We do forums, roundtables and then we actually have interventions. We have our flagship intervention for girls where we make sure the girls learn basic literacy and a skill so they can support their families. And then we are trying to flag up the Almajiri project so we can get the Almajiri kids (Do not know about Almajiri? Read here & here) to learn digital skills. We are also working closely with an NGO in Kano to get community health practitioners to partner so we can reduce maternal mortality rate in the rural communities. We do not want to come as a media platform that just takes from the community without giving back.
You also founded Lumo Naturals, before both of these. I’m curious… How do all facets of you intertwine?
So interestingly, Lumo Naturals came after. What happened was like I told you earlier the idea for Northernlife started in the early 2000’s but the only thing was I was not calling it Northernlife then. I was the only one blogging so it was just “Farida’s view” and it was on Blogspot. Over time it kept changing until it got to Northernlife and that was when I launched Northernlife in 2016. But with Lumo Naturals, from 2013 when I launched we already had one name. With Northernlife, people do not know that it was the same blog I had in 2007 that actually morphed into Northernlife. And then most times when people ask me how I do all of this, I think it stems from the fact that I was a science student but then again I was also the captain of my debating team in school. I have always had love and passion for both – I love the sciences but I have that thing for wanting to express myself and put my views out there. I have never felt the need to give up one for the other.
What do you wish you were told or knew before you ventured into each of them?
I wish someone had told me to plan better when it came to money. I had to learn to plan my money better with time. You know when you have a lot of big dreams, big dreams cost you money. People tell you about passion but never about how much you have to invest for that passion to come to life. I wish earlier on I had a mentor who told me how much it was going to cost me. I find that people are very scared of mentoring others that is why early on even with the little I had and knew, I was very open to mentoring and I still do that at every opportunity I can and in any organization, I find myself I am very open to mentoring or sharing the little I know. I wish I had someone who shared with me so I did not have to make as many mistakes as I did then and I am still making now. But I think it is part of the journey to fall because if I did not fall I would not know I was making mistakes and would not have gotten better.
How do people get you to mentor them? Is there something you look out for? Or you are open to mentoring anyone?
I love for people to be themselves and I like for people to take initiative. I am not the type to sit on someone’s head and tell them what to do. I love people who have their own ideas and give suggestions. Even when I am hiring, I tell them I do not mind being the least intelligent person in the room. I am not the type that wants you to be a ‘yes person’ around me because you don’t grow that way and creativity does not flourish that way. For me, mentorship is not about being in my shadow but about knowing you can come to me for honest advice and I will talk to you based on what I know and if I do not know I can tell you I will reach out and get the right information.
Please share your hack/secret on how you balance all three, as well as other projects you get involved in?
Is there really a secret? I would not say it is a secret but it is a lot of planning. You have to really plan and work at your pace. I am not the kind of person that is always thinking of competition. First of all, I do not even think I have competition. I know this sounds cliché, but my competition is actually who I was last year. Sometimes, I try so hard to be worried like ‘come on you need to wake up… other natural salons are doing this and that’ but when I am honest with myself I really do not care, I just work at my pace. I try to ensure that I do not cheat myself – If I am tired I tell myself I am tired and I will take a day or two off to just sleep and rest and when it is time to work, I get it done. So if I am working this week for Lumo Naturals, this week is for Lumo Naturals – I am going do a bit of other work but it would not be on the front burner. So if the next week is for Northernlife everything else will take a back burner. Also, having an amazing support system helps. I have contributors that are always sending in articles for Northernlife even if I have to sort and edit myself. With Lumo Naturals, I have good staff, managers etc. Having a great team that understands the vision, working at your pace and knowing how to plan are the basics that help with balance. There is really no secret, only ensuring you keep bringing yourself to remember ‘why did I start this?’ As long as you remember that, you do not overwork yourself.
What do you think are 3 major stereotypes/myths/misconceptions about the North?
Hmmm… That’s a tough one!
The first one is what we spoke about – People do not believe there are people who speak proper English in Northern Nigeria and if there is anyone who speaks proper English maybe they studied abroad or their teachers were white.
Another one is the idea that we are all bigots and that things have to be done our way, that it is either our way or the highway – the idea that we are very intolerant.
The third one is about the women. People are always shocked when they find that there are women in Northern Nigeria who express themselves and have opinions and are emotionally intelligent. They are usually very shocked, ‘like you mean women are actually allowed to speak and go to school?’ To a certain degree, I understand it but then I am also like ‘come on this is 2018.’
What’s your personal grandest vision for the North?
Right now, my biggest worry is for the Almajiri children (Do not know about Almajiri? Read here & here). I am very scared that we do not have a concrete plan on how to tackle the situation with these kids and I fear that if we do not do something, we will end up where we are now or where we were 5 years ago when the Boko Haram insurgents took over the North East. My grandest vision for the North will be for us to come together to do something that will work for the Almajiri kids, for their parents to take responsibility for these kids, for these children to have some form of education, skill to help themselves, their society and community.
“My grandest vision for the North will be for us to come together to do something that will work for the Almajiri kids, for their parents to take responsibility for these kids, for these children to have some form of education, skill to help themselves, their society and community.”
A major part of what you do relies on networking which you seem to have a solid grasp on. How do you develop such key partnerships?
I am online a lot and I just take a chance. Also, when I find myself in certain places I am never afraid to introduce myself, say what I do, take numbers and ask for a meeting or follow-up. Whenever we have an event, I check my mailing list and send out emails saying this is what we are doing and this is why you should be a part of it. I think basically what I have found out is that people are willing to listen to you if they see that you are serious and your intentions are genuine. I have never been one to say “do you know this person? Please hook me up.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that so I would not say I do so. I try to follow events and if there is an event around me, I try to show up and introduce myself to as many people as I can. Sometimes, I am even surprised I go to events and people recognize me from previous events. I get calls saying “someone told me about you and I will like you to be a part of so and so.” It has been amazing and the feedback has been encouraging.
How has womanhood played a role in your work? Negatively or positively
I think there will always be a negative but I do not really buy into it. I feel like anyone who is trying to remind me that I’m a woman and question what I’m doing on that basis is actually an insecure person. So I do not even pay attention to that. But when it comes to the positives, I will tell you that a lot of opportunities have come my way just because I am a woman and Northern woman especially. From the workshop I just came back from, one of my charges was that I will love to see more Northern women come to the forefront and share more stories from the North. In as much as I am happy to get opportunities where people call me because they need Northern representation, I am also very sad at the fact that they have to scan through and only get me. There have been a lot of opportunities for the fact that when people are looking to get people from the North they reach out to me just because they are like “oh wow a girl from the North is doing this, we need to support her”. So yes, I do not even listen to the negatives. From family alone, I have gotten a lot of support.
What’s one very important thing you believe a woman should know in 2018?
Emotional intelligence and strength are really vital for a woman today. It is very easy to be swayed if you do not know who you are or why you are doing what you are doing. It is very easy to be swayed by your peers, by society and you can easily be put in a box. There is a lot of depression, sexual harassment, eagerness and desperation to get to the top. In 2018, it is very important to be grounded in yourself and sure of yourself. Always take a step back to remind yourself who you are at your core – what your values are, what can you take, what is a no from you even from your friend or husband, you have to know that for yourself. There are a lot of women whom you think have it all, but when you speak to them you realize they are not themselves because they have given so much of themselves and can’t even look at themselves in the mirror. So we have to always try and bring ourselves back to that point where you know who you are.
What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
Very interesting. I have never been asked this question before. For now, I’ll say I am still building so I will only hope. I hope people will remember me as someone that pushed them to do better, someone that left the world a better place than she found it, as someone that used her life to change the world around her. Those are the three things I hope people will remember me for.
What are 3 things that make you, you?
*laughs* so you left the hardest questions for the end
- Equity – in the general sense, societal, gender. The act of injustice and not being fair makes my blood boil.
- Nature – I love nature
- Tea! – I take almost 10 cups of tea day
If you had a personal flag, what would be on it? And why?
I will have stars on it; I love the mystery of the stars. If it had to have a slogan on it, it would be ‘live and let live’. That has been my slogan since I was a teenager. Largely because I believe that if God gave us free will, who are you as a human being not to allow people exercise it.
If your life story was a book, what would be the title of the current chapter of your life?
“Roses in the valley.” Of course, we know what roses are – so roses because of a lot of beautiful things happening to me now. Valley because I’m not yet on a mountain – I’m not at the top yet. There are a lot of not so great things happening too, but there are a lot of roses so I’m grateful.
What are the top three activities you indulge in to recharge?
- TV. I binge watch a lot.
- I take walks. Like I told you I love nature so I just take a walk,
- Go to the movies. I love going to the cinema on a Monday afternoon when it is quiet.
Tell us your list of best-kept secrets. Activities, Books, Places, etc.
Right now I am reading ‘An Abundance Of Scorpions’ by Hadiza Elrufai. I am part of a book club called ‘Eccentric Readers Club’, where we read one Nigerian book every month.
What’s the best place for our readers to find and connect with you and your work online and offline?’
I think the best place to get me is on Twitter (@SpeshYH) although I do not tweet that often on my personal Twitter. Northernlife is @northernlifeng and JaMuje is @jamujeng. I am working on my personal website where I can share more and people can connect with me there as well. Offline, you can find me at ‘Eccentric Readers Club’, once a month we usually meet at the Cube Cafe, Abuja.
Thanks so much Farida for taking time out of your very busy schedule to speak to me I really appreciate you!
Thank you so much Uduak, for having me.
There is a lot to unpack from this interview but I will speak on just one thing – it has left me thinking on how there is so much my environment needs of me as an individual that I do not know of. And, I do not know because I am not allowing my mind pay attention and I am not letting my heart connect with the needs of the society that I am placed in.
Tell me, what is your takeaway from this interview?