I willingly went to simple funeral today and left enlightened, grateful and awed.
Chief Mary Ekpiken normally called Ma May, was tiny, pretty, and the de facto head of my mother’s mother’s side of the family for as long as I had any memories. In fact she is so ingrained in my consciousness I wrongly believed her to be older than she actually is. Every one came to pay respects.
If my mother is my inspiration then Ma May was hers. Some people feel I’m a strident feminist. I don’t know what the term even defines. What I do know is that I grew up knowing that my extended family on my grandmothers side looked up to a woman for counsel and respected her voice. She blazed trails for them to follow and still managed to be fun loving and raise her own. This is what I knew growing up.
I didn’t know I should walk a step behind or understand biblical interpreters telling me a rib isn’t as important as the whole skeleton. I learned limitations later and I’m still trying to unlearn them.
I didn’t know many details about her public life. I knew she retired as a director in the Federal Civil Service. I knew she was given National honours decades ago. I knew she was educated when many women were not. I knew she was the head girl of Queens College in 1943.
But I never knew she could not write her science final exams despite the fact that she studied science subjects because though QC girls were eventually allowed to study science they could only write thier final exams in Kings College. (Schools for girls then focused on grooming, secretaries, teachers or simply literate wives who would keep good homes so science subjects were not originally available to girls) Even though it was technically possible it was regarded as extremely unfeminine and as the head girl she felt pressured to show example and eventually backed down from writing them. But my great aunt wanted to be a doctor and tried again! She registered as an external candidate in Kings College after leaving QC but still wasn’t allowed to do the exam (some crap about her being too tiny to be a doctor) She then settled for studying Economics in the UK.
I also just discovered today she organized women to seek equal pay once she realized her £38 a week salary was £8 less than that of a man with equal qualifications and the same job title. They won. Of course they did, she was a labour expert. I didn’t know this. She went to the ILO before I was born, I just went there a few years ago. We never realize what trails women blazed for us because we document nothing in this country (Nigeria).
I’m grateful her son Tunji Roberts put together such an informative funeral brochure. I loved all the tributes and pictures especially the one of her driving her convertible in the 60s and the one of her in shorts, sun shades and a jaunty hat. I read the tribute from her friend who said she would miss their outings to the over 60s dance in the London and watching free movies together. I saw the pictures of her with American politicians, her chieftaincy ceremony, her beloved Red Cross Society, her son’s family and her age grade mates.
She followed her dreams, fought for her rights and that of others, kept her doors open to many others in her family who have gone on to be “big” men and women. She made unusual seem normal to me. Sadly I’m sure as extraordinary as her story may seem to me there are many more stories we never get to hear. We need to do this.
Rest in Peace Ma May. I applaud you.
After posting this note on my blog I got an email telling me more about my Grand Aunt. Apparently she was featured in a book Pioneering Women: Riddel Hall and Queen's University Belfast By Gillian McClelland, Diana Hadden. None of my family member knew this! the internet is awesome.
Mary Ekpiken, who was resident in the Hall from 1953 to 1955, was the first Nigerian woman to graduate from Queens’s University. She returned home as an Economics graduate to take charge of the employment and statistical section of the Nigerian Civil Service. Her post required her to travel to the United States for research into establishing new industries as well as training teachers from the United Kingdom and the United States to assist in Nigerian educational projects