Interview ~ I have been in that place of want ~ Teresa Oyibo Ameh

Teresa Oyibo Ameh also known as Aunty Talatu is fondly referred to by many as the Mother-Teresa of Nigeria, because of her charity work and girl-child empowerment programmes. A reputable writer of children’s works and author of eight (8) books, she is the author of The Torn Petal, and Founder of the Aunty Talatu Reads Foundation, which encourages reading culture in children and young adults. The Kogi State born philanthropist is also a successful Civil Servant and Board Member of FCT Basketball Association. In this interview with Paul Liam, she sheds more light on the inspiration behind her foundation and charity support for the less privilege members of the society. This interview was conducted via email.   

I think my early challenges prepared me for what I do now. I can empathize because I have been there. I can relate because I know that pain
Please, could you give us a brief background to what informed the Aunty Talatu Reads Foundation?

Aunty Talatu Reads Foundation started as a hobby. It was my desire to see our children develop interest in reading that started it all. Aunty Talatu Reads is actually an initiative aimed at encouraging reading. My focus is on the Nigerian child because of the low reading culture in our country, I opted to do something to promote reading among children. In addition to that, we delved into the girl child empowerment scheme, because we needed to give the girl child the desired hope, the desired voice and the desired confidence. We also have The Aunty Talatu Reads scholarship scheme. We give scholarships to children whose parents cannot afford their school fees.

Does your childhood and upbringing have any influence on your resolve to change society through the improvement of other human beings? Does it have any religious connotation?

Yes, to a large extent, I grew up in a house where the extended family system was practiced. We always had a large number in the house, even though my parents had five of us. I have always been a mother figure, probably because I am the first child of my parents. I learnt that I needed to take care of others.

At what point did it occur to you that living for others was as important as living for one’s self?

Even as a child, I hated to see people suffer. I have always been a great dreamer. Most times, I get lost in my own thoughts. All I see is paradise. Suffering always moves me to tears, probably because I am a highly emotional person, and I have been in that place of want. My life as a single mother was rocky, somehow things didn’t go as planned. You know, being faced with hunger, being unable to pay school fees and other bills. I think my early challenges prepared me for what I do now. I can empathize because I have been there. I can relate because I know that pain.

As a writer, you have dedicated your creative energy to writing for children, a very complex specialty. What inspired this resolve?

I love children. I am passionate about children too. I study them, I talk to them, I listen to them. Children are interesting to work with. With children, you encounter purity, innocence, helplessness and mischief. I love the impact I have made. I love the love and laughter I see around me. I love what I do. I love my work with children. Working with children is wonderful. Writing for children gives me fulfillment. You know, this happens to be my comfort zone.

In your recent work you highlighted the plight of the girl child in the North East. What moved you to write such a story and has the plight of the girl child improved since the publication of your book?

My latest book, The Torn Petal, was an attempt to bring the vulnerability of young girls to the fore. I refused to delve into the politics of war. I was only interested in the effects of war on the vulnerable ones. I dwelt so much on life in the refugee camps. The trauma our children have to go through. Some of them lose their minds, others become mothers even though they are too young to be saddled with such responsibilities. 
The story has a universal appeal because where there is war anywhere in the world the vulnerable ones suffer the most. Now, to the second part of your question, the book brought about the birth of my Girl Child Empowerment Initiative. The initiative is aimed at empowering the girl child to be a self-reliant adult.

Is it part of your belief that beyond textualizing societal wrongs, the writer has to play a more practical role in entrenching the ideals propagated in her text? Could that consciousness have contributed to your humanitarian interventions, particularly for the girl child and young people?

Oh yes. You know, you write what you believe. You write because you believe. You cannot write what you believe without a follow up. After I wrote The Torn Petal, I had the urge to do something about the plight of the girl child. It was frightening because I had so much to do, in addition to being a civil servant. I was already running the Aunty Talatu Reads, which was time consuming and energy sapping. I am glad I chose to go ahead, and started the Girl Child Empowerment Initiative. So, we encourage reading in children and we empower the Girl Child.

 What does giving back to the society mean to you?

Giving back to the society means joy. It means peace. I love to see people smile. It thrills me when I know I am the reason for the smile. I give so much of myself, resources, time and energy into making other people happy. I give until I am empty. That is pure joy.

Could you share some of the highlights and challenges you have faced running the Aunty Talatu Reads Foundation?

Highlights? Well, Aunty Talatu Reads is a brand. To the glory of God, we are going places. We are being recognized. Yeah, I’ve won awards either because of the role I play in encouraging reading in children or because of my Girl Child Empowerment Initiative. Aunty Talatu Reads is all about touching lives positively. Now, challenges, my first challenge is funding, I have great ideas but funding is a great issue. I want to set up a mobile library, I want to set up a vocational centre, I want to give out more scholarships. However, I must say the challenges are fewer now because I have learnt to handle negativity. I used to battle with ingratitude until I realized my mission wasn’t to seek people’s approval. I do what I love doing.

What is the profoundest lesson life has taught you? Do you have any regrets doing what you do for humanity?

No regrets at all. Life has taught me to give without expecting anything in return. I give so much of myself because it gives me joy to see smile and laughter all around me. It’s unfortunate that I also come across fraudulent people who want to take advantage of my generosity. I also come across others who feel so entitled. However, after the initial shock, I move on and remain focused. I cannot afford to be distracted for too long.

Where do you derive your inspiration from considering that we live in a world that is gradually losing its sense of empathy and compassion?

I think, I have refused to let go of my spirituality and humanity. Unlike the Biblical Cain, I am my brother’s keeper. You should not go through life without making an impact in the lives of others.

What would be your advice to those who believe that the welfare of the less privilege is not their responsibility?

Remember that if you do not take care of their welfare/education, they will grow up to become the hooligans that will torment you forever. We have to join hands to make the society a better place.

Thank you, Aunty Talatu, for responding these questions.

You are welcome, the pleasure is mine.