“If people need help in their life, you should be grateful you are in a position to help them.” – Toyin Saraki
Recently, a reader suggested I look into Ms. Toyin Saraki with an eye toward my ‘good people’ post. I followed her suggestion and am so glad I did. This is one amazing woman, and I think you will agree.
We don’t often think of those born into a wealthy royal family as being the type to give not only of their money, but also of themselves to help make the world a bit of a better place, but that is exactly what Ms. Sakari is … both royalty and a top philanthropist.
Toyin Saraki was born into the Ojora and Adele royal families of Lagos, Nigeria, as the daughter of the Yoruba aristocrat Oloye Adekunle Ojora, the Otunba of Lagos. She then obtained her L.L.B degree from the London School of Oriental and African Studies and her L.L.M (roughly equivalent to a JD in the U.S.) from King’s College London, both of the University of London. She returned to Nigeria and passed the Nigerian Bar in 1989. Royalty, wealthy, a lawyer, a privileged class, yet one thing changed the path Ms. Saraki might otherwise have taken. She lost a child.
The year was 1992 and 25-year-old Toyin was 28 weeks pregnant with twins when she traveled from London to Nigeria on holiday. And then she went into labour prematurely. The first girl was alive, weighing a scant 1.2kg, or 2 pounds 10 ounces, but the second died. She never saw her dead baby, and to this day does not know where the baby is buried.
“In our culture, we don’t really deal with grief. You don’t bury your child, so every time I go to a funeral, I am always checking to see if my child is there. One of my husband’s uncles knows but he won’t tell me. Imagine being unable to put flowers on a grave.”
To add insult to injury, Toyin felt her family and friends blamed her for the baby’s death. “I’d given them names so people blamed me because it’s bad luck to name a baby here until seven days after birth. I was made to feel like it was me.”
Nothing drives a person to action quite like having catastrophe strike, and thus began Ms. Saraki’s lifetime of philanthropy.
In 1993, the year after the death of her baby, she and a group of friends established The Lifestream Charity, which sponsors children with heart deformities to receive corrective surgeries in Israel, the U.K. and South Africa. The Lifestream also builds schools, offers scholarships to needy students, and offers disaster relief.
But in 2003 she gained a new platform, a new voice. Her husband became the leader of Kwara State, Nigeria, and Toyin was now the First Lady of the state. One of the first things she did was to lead a movement for every citizen in Kwara to have access to education and healthcare and founded the Kwara Wellbeing Trust.
One of the first things Ms. Saraki noticed when she and her husband moved to Kwara was that not only were babies dying at a high rate, but mothers were dying in child birth an even higher rate. So she began watching very closely, and in her first year there … “I realised there were so many women who were ‘unlucky’. When I went to I counted 1,000 births, and 200 [women] had died.” Saraki then went to meet the health minister and thus began her crusade.
On a trip to London, she came across the red books healthcare workers give pregnant women to record their children’s immunisations and other data. “I realised we needed this in Nigeria,” she explains. She tracked down the makers and had thousands printed to take back to Nigeria.
In her effort to find ways to prevent so many deaths, Saraki first focused on doctors. “Eventually, I thought ‘why am I struggling with these doctors?’ Midwives are the ones that are with these women and they’re not so hoity-toity that they won’t listen. It’s an alliance.”
And then came her most lasting achievement, her widest outreach, her legacy, if you will. But I would like to let Ms. Saraki tell you a bit about it in her own words:
In 2004, I realised that the silence on the inadequate maternal health system in Nigeria and Africa could not continue, and it had to change. This is when I founded the Wellbeing Foundation Africa. It was actually my own traumatic experience in my home country Nigeria, where I lost my own child; which made me fully aware of the challenges and deficits every mother was experiencing, every day, every birth – be it unsanitised and old equipment to cold and unwelcoming health workers.
I had always understood that many Nigerians suffered from lack of education and opportunity, but this inequality was most pronounced in childbirth. Every aspect of the process – from medical staff access to availability of resources to even basic cleanliness – is impacted upon by regional and national standards. The trauma of losing a child opened my eyes to how few options were available for Nigerians. For all to learn, to be vocationally skilled and to be employed. All of this is dependent on various social factors, including class, geography, and gender. Women and girls unequivocally face the greatest challenges and barriers to education, work and rights in Nigeria and across Africa.
We advocate for improved health, education and individual empowerment across Africa through a multi-layered strategy of research, advocacy, policy development, education, community engagement and private-public sector partnerships.
Ms. Sakari and Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA) do so many things, and Ms. Sakari is so involved with not only her own organization, but many others also, that I could write a short book here, but time and space being limited, let me just summarize a few of her most important accomplishments.
Through the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, which achieved consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Welfare Office in 2015, and working with high-level partners that include the UN and the Nigeria Federal Ministry of Health, Saraki has demonstrated leadership on the UN Secretary General’s Every Woman, Every Child initiative and continues a focused advocacy on the post-2015 agenda. A committed grant maker, this year Mrs Saraki launched the Alaafia Universal Health Coverage Fund which bestows 5000 health insurance access grants annually to pregnant women, newborns, children under 5, adolescent girls and aged citizens in Kwara State.
Saraki is the global ambassador for the International Confederation of Midwives, Newborn champion for Save the Children Nigeria, board chair of the White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria, Goodwill Ambassador of the Olave Baden-Powell Society and board members of the Global Foundation for the Elimination of Domestic Violence and The Africa Justice Foundation. Her Foundation WBFA works in line with the Saving One Million Lives, the MDG Health Alliance and the Private Sector Health Alliance of Nigeria. – Global Philanthropy Forum
I am exhausted just from reading about all she does and has accomplished. I cannot possibly do her justice in this post, cannot begin to give her enough credit for all that she has accomplished, for all that she has given.
Saraki launched the Mamacare clinics two years ago and has educated more than 200,000 mothers about birth and children’s health. Subjects such as drugs, domestic violence and savings are discussed too. “By the time a woman’s done eight months of Mamacare classes she’s got a new worldview.” The results are remarkable: they haven’t lost a Mamacare mother yet. “I’ve seen triplets – born at 24 weeks – all survive. We did kangaroo care, with the mother, the grandma and the aunt.”
In the early days, Saraki most often paid when a mother needed hospitalization or a Caesarean, and sometimes she still does. Recently she was called by one of her midwives at 2:00 a.m. the night before a flight to London. A mother was having triplets and didn’t have money for a Caesarean. So, Toyin headed to Abuja General Hospital. “I didn’t even know the name of the mum! I said, ‘Is there a Mamacare Mum here?’ A woman popped out of bed and said, ‘It’s me!’ By the time I landed in London at 3pm she’d had the babies — a boy and two girls. Gorgeous children!” Not only that but they found her husband, who’d lost his job, new work with a senator: “We’ve turned into an employment agency too!”
Saraki says how much she loves her work. “I know this isn’t sexy work – and I’m not saving the world, but one mother at a time. They are living. They are actually living. For me, that’s fulfilling.”