I have become increasingly confident that one of the ways we can promote innovation and truly experience the abundance around us is by making it easier for difference in people and systems to be acknowledged. There should be no need to be scared of being misunderstood, and being radically different. There should be no need to pursue conforming to what society calls ‘normal’.
This conviction was reignited a few weeks ago, as I moderated the weeklong fellowship for selected finalists of The Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity. Over the course of their fellowship, we discussed touchy topics, as they interacted with some of the best minds in Nigeria working across the various strata of society .
Endowed with a million Naira by Chude, the prize finds and supports young people across Nigeria who are creating safe spaces for and giving voice to people who are different in seven key areas: gender, sexuality, faith and spirituality, mental and emotional health, art, special needs, and human rights.
As a member of the central working committee, I was amazed by the stories of several applicants and those of the finalists. I was in awe at the work they are doing, and in a few cases, upset at the experiences and sacrifices they’ve made, and the prices they paid because of non-conformity and difference. In a world often optimized for conformity, progress is hinged on accepting and celebrating the diversity and difference around us.
I learnt about the work Adelola Edema is doing as an autism educator, the persistence of Angel Nduka-Nwosu whose platform, As Equals Africa is a growing feminist community on the African continent. I listened as Ani Kayode Somtochukwu shared what they have been through as a queer liberation activist, and as Chisom Ogbummuo made it her responsibility to create space, to hold space, and be a space for conversations worth holding. I smiled when I told Daniel Orubo how the stories he wrote at Zikoko have allowed others to appreciate the diversity in how love is experienced by others.
I met with Elizabeth Talatu Williams, Ezeigwe Juliet Chioma, Mike Daemon, and Sada Malumfashi whose works across development activism, gender equality advocacy, human rights advocacy, and journalism respectively have led to the safety of many in underserved and often ‘obscure’ communities. I noticed the quests of Michael Nwah Ernest and Toluse Dove Francis to make emotional and mental wellness accessible to all, and Oluwatobiloba Ajayi’s approach to ensuring children living with cerebral palsy get more options for independence and learning. I learnt from the story of Solomon Ayodele who founded Boys Quarters Africa to give boys a chance at grooming that opens more doors for them in the future; and the courage of Vincent Desmond and Zainab Adakole who are creating safe spaces for sexual minorities in different parts of Nigeria.
I know how it feels to be different, to be tagged solely on what you don’t share with others, especially in communities that dread what they don’t understand. And this made me appreciate the work these beautiful humans do.
The work they do is one of love. The least we should do is celebrate the difference in the world and make it easy for others to bring their full selves forward. There is so much beauty hidden in people; we only see it when we are ready to accept and appreciate individuals for who they are and celebrate that diversity genuinely.
“This conversation about love—and with it acceptance and justice—matters.” Chude wrote while announcing the prize. “The consideration of love as the fundamental ethos of a society that wishes to thrive and ensure the greatest well-being for the greatest many, is as urgent as it has always been. If we all had to wait for people to understand us before they loved us, what kind of world would we have? Without people ready to suspend judgment and empathize with things they cannot understand and cannot prove, who would we be? We ask people to live honestly and live in their truths, and yet we tell them to shut up and stay hidden, because we dislike their truths.”
Not so many people died of so much love, but several are dying every day for the lack of it. Love is the acceptance and celebration of difference. Before inclusion and diversity became words to describe it, love was it. As Blessing Omakwu advised in her GoalKeepers speech, we really should let love be our bias.
Celebrating difference is the first step. Amplifying it as a catalyst for innovation is next. I’m excited about what change this will bring to the African continent over the next decade.
Slowly, but eventually.
Footnotes . We are thankful to the faculty members, some of which include Olumide Makanjuola, Kiki Mordi, Busola Dakolo, Fu’ad Lawal, Ayodeji Osowobi, Othuke Ominiabohs, Jude Udo Ilo, Gbenga Sesan, and Ayisha Osori. Other facilitators include Seun Onigbinde, Walter Ude, Aisha Yesufu, Edwin Okolo, with Shola Bamidele co-hosting this and working behind the scene to ensure a seamless experience for all.