Pro-Life in Africa: ‘What We Hold in Common Is This Value for Family’
Obianuju Ekeocha, founder and president of Culture of Life Africa, shares her continent’s long-held values.
WASHINGTON — Obianuju Ekeocha is the founder and president of Culture of Life Africa, an initiative dedicated to the promotion and defense of the sanctity of life, marriage, motherhood and families. A lifelong Catholic, she was born and raised in Nigeria. She is a biomedical scientist in hematology and works at a hospital in the United Kingdom. At a United Nations question-and-answer session earlier this month on best practices for maternal health in Africa, Ekeocha clashed with a U.N. delegate from Denmark, who promoted the U.N.’s policy of “reproductive health,” primarily contraception and abortion, in African countries, which Ekeocha referred to as “neo-colonialism.” Most of the African countries, she told the Danish delegate, Mette Gjerskov, believe that abortion is a direct attack on human life. “Uju” Ekeocha spoke with the Register on April 11 in Washington after her U.N. appearance. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
In the United States, many pro-life organizations focus on providing legal protection for the unborn or on providing care for mothers who are in difficult situations. How much does that overlap with the work that Culture of Life Africa does?
Culture of Life Africa is an organization that was founded with the situation in Africa in mind. So my desire from the very beginning was — having lived in Africa for most of my life and then having lived in the West as well, and taken in a little bit of what was going on in the fight for the sanctity of life — to apply what I was seeing in the pro-life movement in the West (in my case, I live in England) to the situation in Africa.
So, obviously, they are completely two different places, at two different stages of the fight, because throughout most of the Western countries, including America, abortion has been legalized. I know everybody desires first and foremost that one day abortion will no longer be legal and the sanctity of life will be respected from the moment of conception: That is the desire of every pro-life person. But, in the meantime, I do know that the pro-life movement in America, in England, in Germany, in France [is working hard] — all these people are now working on a day-to-day basis to get different protections, restrictions, things like parental consent — in other words, trying to end abortion, but in steps and stages. So it’s quite different from what I do and how I concentrate on my work, because most of the African countries don’t actually have legal abortion.
We are now fighting because a lot of the Western nations, which have had legal abortions for the last 30, 40, and even, in the case of the U.K., almost 50 years, have started putting pressure on African countries to legalize abortion. And my desire for Culture of Life Africa is to stop that from happening. … But where the work overlaps — to answer your question — is the fact that within the Western world there has been a thriving and a very beautiful growth of facilities and resources like crisis-pregnancy centers to help women … that is the part of the work within the pro-life movement in the West that I am trying so hard to get to my people, because it is not easy: We don’t have the resources. …
But most of my work is in lobbying our leaders, trying to educate them, trying to tell them about what legal abortion would look like — that it would not help! — and trying to divulge some of the horrible statistics that the abortion industry uses to advance their lobbying in Africa for legal abortion.
How did you get interested in life issues, and what led to the founding of Culture of Life Africa?
I was born in Africa, lived most of my life in Africa, went to university in Africa and even started my professional life there, working in a hospital. But I’ve always been pro-life. I was raised in a society that did not have legal abortion — in a society where abortion could never be seen as a good thing. That was part of how I was educated as well. And many Africans can attest to having been raised in such a society. The fact that we don’t have legal abortion in different African countries is not just an oversight: Abortion is seen as a terrible thing. It’s a taboo, if you like, to kill a child that has no chance to defend himself.
I was raised in this pro-life society, so that, by the time I came to the West, it was a big shock for me that abortion was legal.
I was working in a hospital in England, in the pathology department (I am a biomedical scientist by training). Seeing how hospitals actually function in the U.K. … was very much a scandal, for me anyway: In one room a baby’s being delivered; in the next room, a baby is being killed. Sometimes they’re even the same age, if it’s a premature baby who is being born.
Still, I never thought that I had a role to play in the pro-life movement. … But in 2012, by sheer Providence, I got to watch an interview that Melinda Gates, the wife of Bill Gates, had on CNN, when she was launching her big contraceptive project that was to change Africa and the language of population control forever. She made it all about women’s well-being, even as she was pushing some of the most dangerous contraceptives that we have now on the market — some of the injectables. … I was quite disturbed by it and by the way she talked about it, as if this is the one thing that she believes that African women need. She talked about different trips that she had made to Kenya and how she saw women who told her that they needed contraception more than anything else.
That, to me, rang as if it was a lie. … Having aunties and sisters and relatives who are in Africa — some are rich; some are poor; some are very educated; some are not educated at all — never in my life had I heard an African woman ask for contraceptives as the one thing she wants, or the first or primary thing that she needs for her life to be better. So I decided to write a letter … that became the open letter to Melinda Gates, pointing out that instead of putting so much money into contraceptives, instead of having a new movement for population control, if she wanted to help African women, she actually can spend the money on things like school projects for women, good education for women, microbusiness training, chastity programs, NFP programs — I was just naming things that I felt would be more productive, if she really wanted, as she was claiming, to help women.
I sent that letter to … a host on EWTN (Teresa Tomeo of Catholic Connection) … [who] read it on her show, and the letter just went viral. Eventually, the Pontifical Council for the Laity published it on their website, and then translated it as well into Spanish, so many more people got to read it. Eventually, through that, I started helping to advise some of our Catholic bishops in Africa back in 2012; and then I started writing a bit more, blogging; and then I formed Culture of Life Africa as a small blogging platform where I could tell the world some of these things: the African values on openness to life, how we feel about family and motherhood.
With time, I also started getting invited to attend some of the meetings at the United Nations, getting invited to speak at different places; and then I started trying to learn more about some of the policies and resolutions that were being passed around Africa and some of the Western organizations that were coming to Africa to promote so-called reproductive rights. Organizations like International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) had already established, unbeknownst to me and so many Africans, more than 11,000 centers all across the Sub-Saharan African region. They are promoting abortion and contraception; they are sterilizing people … and they are doing a lot of damage, I believe, to the African society.
One of the terms that you have used, referring to the way that various secular groups in the West approach Africa, particularly on life issues, is “neo-colonialism.” Could you explain your use of that term?
Everybody knows — this is history, even though it is recent history — that the African nations were colonized back in the late 1800s, and for more than half of the 1900s, most African nations were still under colonial rule. In my case, Nigeria was being ruled by England, and England was our colonial master (as we referred to them in Nigeria) up until 1960. Most of the African nations gained independence from the 1960s from the major colonials at the time, who were England, France and even Belgium; Germany was there up until World War II. … It was very different from slavery, because they still let the people live on their land and all that — but they ruled us; they were the ones who were making decisions.
It lasted for the better part of a century, from the time they came to the time, eventually, they left us, in the early ’60s. And this was history — this did happen. My parents, when they were my age, lived under these kinds of regimes that were not of Nigeria but were in Nigeria and making all our decisions for us. … Then, after the land grab of Africa and the colonization of Africa, we gained independence. … We started making our own decisions — we had our own difficulties — we tried to arrange ourselves in the way we thought best.
But more recently, this desire to suppress the population of Africa, this population control is coming to us from the West. They are coming in because a lot of African nations are also the poorest countries in the world, the ones with the highest maternal mortality in the world, the ones with the least infrastructure. And so because we have all these other needs, economic needs, they are using … the carrot of humanitarian aid to get to African countries, and then tell us — right, as if they were going back to that time when they were telling us what to do — how to solve our problems, without giving us that freedom of sovereignty for us to decide whether we will take it or not. They are making it more and more difficult as the years go by for African leaders to actually say No. … Melinda Gates made it compulsory that for her to give money to any country, the country had to change its budgets and show her that they are making provision for contraceptives; she wanted to see channels of distribution.
America was never a colonial master to anybody in Africa, but now they are coming in as well as anybody else, with Britain, with Germany, with France, even Denmark, and trying to push for the kinds of social things that will be diametrically opposed to our cultural values. Without any cultural sensitivity, without any respect of our way of life, they are still just pushing it — the destruction and deconstruction of family life, of motherhood, of sanctity of life: all the things that we hold so dear in our communities.
From what you’ve said, it sounds as if you are describing pro-life issues as more of a cultural matter, more of a matter of tradition. Is that how you see it in Africa?
It is a combination, really.
Whenever you hear, or whenever one sees in the news, problems in Africa — things like drought, things like famine, you know, all these kinds of catastrophes — the one thing that remains resilient, whether this is from the religious point of view or not, is the family. Before even religion (which was something that came to Africa later, during the time of colonialization), first and foremost, the Africans value family and what makes family: a marriage; and what is within marriage: man, woman and children. So all of these things in practice form the core of African society. That is why we have less divorce, and that is why we have more openness to life — these things come first culturally.
But … a lot of Africans are also religious. Let’s just say that when religion came to us, it would have felt consistent with our cultural values. So [in] a lot of places you have very strong Christian populations, and in some other places, you have very strong Muslim populations. But what we hold in common is this value for family life. And if the family life is valued, then, yes, things like abortion are seen as abominations, as taboo, as horrific. … It always is an ugly thing in the minds of people that a mother could ever kill her own, be it before birth, be it after birth — it’s all the same thing: that is, horrific.
One of the common perceptions in Europe and America is that contraception has liberated women, has given women the freedom to do what they want with their lives. As a woman, what do you think of this perception? What, really, is freedom for a woman?
Well, it is really very unfortunate! … You know this is almost a pervasive thought that many hold, even some who are religious, maybe even some section of the pro-life movement. Regular people who believe in the sanctity of life actually believe that contraception is not all that bad: that it helps women or allows women more freedom to do what they want, or to achieve more in life.
Now, I don’t actually think that is true. Taking the bigger picture, if one begins to think of when contraception came on the scene, just by doing a little reading, [you find that] contraceptives became really popular in the ’60s. One can also look to see that that was when divorces started taking off, and marriages started breaking down more, and single parenthood started happening.
Because I’m a scientist, I do go through a lot of the research, especially the papers that Guttmacher puts out — Guttmacher being, in my opinion, a very biased research institute that has undeniable links to Planned Parenthood. Going through even a lot of their own data, one can see that a significant proportion of the women who come in for abortions are still contracepting. So how much freedom is the contraception bringing to women?
What I believe is true freedom for women is, again, some of what I have seen in Africa. Yes, we do have contraception in Africa, and, yes, people are capable — no matter what anybody thinks — of getting contraceptives if they think it’s going to help them. I personally don’t think it’s helpful, pumping oneself with all these very harmful chemicals, just in order to be available for a man, 365 days a year, sexually. I don’t think that is actual freedom. And I know women who have the right view and who have the bigger picture in mind: that freedom is when one brings to the core of one’s life what is most important, which, I believe, is faith and family.
The one Scripture that I love so much is Micah 6:8, “What does God want from you, O man?”— and I’ll say “O, woman”! — “To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” That is true freedom. It’s that we can understand that what is most important is what we should try for.
Of course, this is looking mainly from a metaphysical point of view; but also from the general social point of view, I have also seen things like education bring in real freedom for women. … None of the people in my own circles can say, “Contraceptives brought me freedom.” But I know women to whom education brought freedom. Contraception does not bring anybody out of poverty. It hasn’t, from people I know, made all that much of a difference. But what makes a difference in people’s lives would be that one has the stability of family life and the security that they need, and employment and education and good health care. … These are the things that actually afford one that balance in life, to walk freely and to continue to seek in different ways to serve humanity. So, for me, this is freedom. Freedom is to hold onto that which is most important.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
I’m actually very active on Twitter. … If anybody has any problems with any of these views that I’ve put out, or they want to engage me on it or they want to debate me on it, or they want to agree with me even, I am open to it. … So if anyone wants to debate with me, my Twitter handle is @Obianuju.
But I will also implore people who are in the Western world, be they in the pro-life movement or not, to please think about the plight of the African people, these days especially, with some of the things that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been saying, trying to make us more sensitive to the poor. We have to remember that if the culture of death is brought to Africans, who probably have some of the poorest populations in the world, that could actually bring our society down completely, to the point where we could never rise from it.
So I would implore people to think about that, and to pray for us, and also to talk to other people about it: that the African people be respected, especially where we already have these values. We’re not a vacuum, you know; we already have our own separate culture — that people would work with us, and respect this part of our lives, and that we all walk together in this world, shoulder to shoulder. That’s what we want — not that we get colonized again, as we did before.
Register correspondent Sophia Feingold writes from Washington.
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