“Hidden Figures” is a movie that tells of the historic roles of women, and most especially black women who did most of the mathematical calculations that took America to space. Without their input, especially the landing coordinates supplied by Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji Henson), America’s first venture into space on May 5, 1961, would have been a disaster.
Despite their roles, these women were discriminated against on two accounts: being women and, worse still, being black women. At a time, Katherine Jackson was the only woman working in a white male-dominated NASA Control Room and office because she was the best at her job, which was an unbelievable sight because of the segregation laws still operational in America, even among scientists.
However, it did not take long before she was sacked to an all-female and all-black female office. Segregation between black and white was the rule then. It was remarkably a courageous act for her boss to have brought her into a white environment and a male-dominated environment. He was directed to segregate her. He did. She understood.
America was prepared to go to space, but Mr. Alan B. Shepherd, the Astronaut and pilot refused to enter the shuttle until he was sure of his landing coordinates. The guys could not do the calculations after hours of trial. It was only then that they remembered Mrs. Johnson, and a white man had to run to the all-female and all-black-female office to beg Mrs. Johnson to do the math, which she did in a few minutes.
Katherine Johnson ran back with the messenger to the NASA control room, only for her file to be collected from her and the door shut to her face. She was already leaving when the boss (who had always supported her, though) came out. Against all odds, he restored her badge and brought her into the all-white male NASA control room, and she became an instant consultant. When the landing became further problematic, they still had to rely on her input for confidence that all would go well, and it did.
Unfortunately, when the story of America’s first journey to space was told, little, if anything, was said about these great women. It is just like how the stories of European and American civilizations are told without mentioning the enslaved Black people on whose backs these civilizations were built.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, 2022, my mind wandered into the nooks and crannies of our diocese, which I have been privileged to tour to an extent. I imagined our women and girls (young boys too), in their respective engagements, laboring in farms and markets for their families. In our culture, women cannot easily afford to be lazy. Society has made it such that women have something occupying them year after year. The most typical jobs include caring for the cash crops harvested from their husbands’ lands. For most families, these cash crops are the only source of income. The women would process them, sell, and submit the proceeds to their husbands, who would give them housekeeping stipends. Some husbands do not give these stipends; instead, they spend it on drinking or other women (nwulo). So, these women must have other side businesses that are particularly theirs from which they take care of the family when the men fail. What mothers cannot do is see their children go hungry.
One may say this is what it used to be because women now go to school, own businesses, work as civil and public servants, etc. While this is true, women are still not recognized for who they are and what they offer. They are hardly acknowledged for all the effort they put in raising their children and taking care of their families. They are still treated as second-class or considered not equal to the task when they have proven in every way possible that they are equal to the task.
Statistics indicate that Nigeria’s average male life expectancy is 59.07 years compared to 62.78 years for females (Statista 2022). So, it is not surprising that we have many widows among us. It is still the case in some communities that widows who have no male children lose the inheritance of their husbands’ properties. These women, despite these challenges, would fight and still raise their children. Ironically, when these daughters are being given away in marriage, the same group of men who disinherited her and her daughters would come to preside over the marriage ceremony of the girls they “banished” and haggle over bride price and other marriage ceremony commodities.
Our society still sees women as expendables who are guilty of any crime of a sexual nature committed against them. We would rather blame the women for exposing themselves to be victims than blame the criminals who could not contain their inordinate desires or are psychologically deranged. Hence, we make mental accommodations for cases of rape and sexual violence. It cannot be overemphasized that the lives of women (of all ages) in Nigeria are in danger. Ugly thanks to the fetishism embedded in our neo-cultural and superstitious idiocy, women are being hunted like bushmeat.
We, the men, are often preoccupied with our primordial and atavistic egos that we forget that these women are our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. They are not safe walking along the roads at any time, inside buses, in schools, offices, in churches … everywhere! They are meat everywhere they turn. They disappear with ease, others return with bruises, and we blame them for being women.
When you entertain those thoughts making excuses for rape or any act of violence against women, remember you are enabling a society that will rape, ritualize and bastardize your mother, daughter, sister, or wife. Shocking, right? Yes, because when we hear the cases of women, we often do not imagine it could be someone related to us. Let those thoughts live with you.
Again and again, our women have proven to be capable of achieving many things. Their roles in our communities are innumerable. Many elderly parents today are still alive because of the care provided by their children but most especially daughters. Our CWO organization has proven that women can provide strong leadership in the church and community. Nevertheless, we find it more convenient to recycle incapable male members as Vice Chairmen of Parish Councils and station and zonal heads. In many villages, women have been at the forefront of stopping evils (I remember the famous Inyi Enugu Ezike Women and the stoppage of kidnapping and dismembering of women in their community), embezzlement, and corruption by the traditional rulers, Town Unions, and Nd’Oha.
Despite all our women do, they remain unsung heroes and hidden figures. Let us remind ourselves of that famous African proverb that says, “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” The right for women to live their lives freely and in a nonjudgmental environment is a human right. It is our collective responsibility, and if we fail, we are only burning our fingers.
We have enough evidence that societies and families where women’s rights are upheld thrive better and have fewer crimes. It is the lesson the world is learning from the Nordic Countries – Nwanyi bu ife.