Why Representation Matters

By: Fati Abubakar

Some fifteen years ago, my friends and I read a newspaper interview of Dr Hadiza Galadanci, Northern Nigeria’s foremost female consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. As young medical students, the article made a mark on our young impressionable minds and I remember one of my friends, cutting out the newspaper clipping and pasting it on the inside of her hostel drawer. For inspiration, she said; on days she felt like giving up. Today, that my friend has achieved Board Certification with the American Board of Pathology (ABPath) and has so many letters after her name, from Ivy Leagues schools, that I swell like garri in cold water every time she is mentioned.

On the first of March, 2021, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (NOI) assumed office as the Director General of the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Notice I wrote Nigeria’s NOI, as she’s our property now. The Invictus and Hushpuppi’s of this world are not Nigerians, we have long disowned them. I am sure a proper DNA search would trace them to DRC, Uganda or even Uzbekistan. Definitely not ours, Tufia!

Our hearts hypertrophied with pride, the way she strolled into the headquarters wearing her beautiful Ankara skirt and blouse, her head held high upon which sat her signature headscarf that people around the world tried to copy in a challenge which recently trended online. Nigerians all over the world clapped their hand in glee and raised our collective shoulder pads. Yes O! Na we we!

Dr NOI is an enigma who represents many firsts; First woman, First African and First Black. Through her appointment, the importance of representation in our global world has been forever set in stone. Women around the world, both black and white can look up to this figure and decide to aspire for better. The power of representation in life generally, is unquantifiable, and cannot be overemphasized. Representation matters- a lot- but for lack of space and at the risk of sounding monotonous, I will list only a few reasons.

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Firstly, representation matters, so that the full story can be told, and so you don’t have a one-sided story that isn’t a fair representation of a diverse population. The media needs to represent the society that it serves because if people don’t see themselves, then it’s almost like they don’t matter to society. When the world sees a Nigerian as head of the WTO, another dimension to our story can be narrated. We will not only be a nation of cyber-fraud and corruption; a country whose sole purpose is to send deceitful emails to rich, elderly, white women claiming to love them or posing as Nigerian princes whose accounts contain billions but has been frozen by government and will only be released upon payment of a particular amount, preferably in dollars. Our full story to some extent, will be told, as a random person somewhere in the world can switch on the TV and see that Nigerians can indeed be worthy of a such a position. Wow! So, they are not all thieves after all!

Additionally, representation matters because everyone should have a character or image that they can relate to. It’s a part of who we are and how we understand ourselves. A young girl sees on her social media timeline that a woman is the DG of WTO. Do you know the kind of inspiration gives her? Black people around the world see one of their kind there and realise that we too can occupy a place at the table. A study carried out in 2018 by John Hopkins University showed that if a black student has just one black teacher by third grade, that student is 13 percent more likely to enrol in college and those who had two black teachers were 32 percent more likely. Can you imagine that kind of positive impact? Admittedly, this only applies to countries where race is an issue, but have you ever thought about how it affects us here in Africa? All it took, was for a newspaper interview of a Northern Nigerian doctor whose name featured in our popular O&G textbook in medical school, among many authors, most of whom were men from southern Nigeria, to inspire us to dream of more.

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Having a role model whom one can relate to is especially important in this country where ethnicity and religion is strife. In Islam, we are taught to emulate the character and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as he is supposed to be the best role model for Muslims around the world. Similarly, in Christianity, Jesus Christ (PBUH) serves as the ultimate role model, so much so that you hear phrases like ‘What would Jesus do?’ or the American acronym ‘WWJD’.

Another reason why representation matters is because we all bring different perspectives to the table, and those perspectives are moulded by our experiences and our identities. Imagine if only white people occupied all the major positions in the world and got to decide our fate? To be fair, they would only be able to see things from their perspective and so will design policies best suited to them. In Nigeria, there is a reason each state has representatives to safeguard their interests. What may work in Katsina may not necessarily work in Imo! Our diversity therefore requires equal representation.

In these times where westernization is rapidly taking over our ‘Africaness’, representation encourages us to embrace our culture. Like it or not, the sight of NOI walking up those stairs decked in her green Ankara gave our culture a boost. Instantly, everyone started praising our dressing and an online debate started on why we could not dress in our cultural attire to work? Why do men have to wear those awful ties and jackets to work in our weather? Why are women forced to wear trousers or tight skirts just because they want to work in a bank? If Ankara or Atamfa is good enough for the WTO or world bank, then it is damn well good enough for any Nigerian bank!

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Lastly, representation matters because everyone deserves to see themselves in their heroes. We all need that little boost in our morale from time to time. Not everyone can be as accomplished as NOI, Hell! many of us may never even smell Harvard, but when you see something of yourself in a person higher up, there is a feeling of hope and optimism that engulfs us. Unless of course you naturally have ‘bad belle’, then, only God can save you.

This article on NOI was intentionally written to coincide with the International Women’s Day which is a day set aside to celebrate the social, political, economic, cultural and academic achievements of women around the world. A lot of women, some whom may never know, have inspired me consciously or unconsciously in my life. Therefore, for the sake of young girls around the world, we need to do better. As a society, we need to be better. So that a little girl, in a rural part of Nigeria, who wants to give up can look up at a picture and say ‘If she can do it, well, so can I.’

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