#FutureLeadersConnect Files No.4: The Most Epic Day Of My Life.
Circa 6:00am: My alarm clock goes off. Most days, I hit the snooze button, but today my iPhone’s alarm label reads: “Do not disgrace yourself on live TV!” It is a reminder I set the night before to prepare for my panel discussion with Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Algerian Freedom fighter Lakhdar Brahimi, and two of my Future Leaders Connect (FLC) colleagues at The Elders #WalkTogether event in London. Between classes, workshops, dinners, and trying to blog between it all—I have not had any real time to prepare for this panel, or to even process it. As the alarm rings, I remember that the British Council has placed great trust in me by selecting me to speak on this panel. I know I am representing my country team, my family, and all the people who support me and will be livestreaming the event. Most of all, I know that I will be representing myself, and I ought to show up prepared. Somewhere between the ring of my alarm, and the thoughts ringing in my head, my eyes are wide open.
Circa 6:05am: I scroll through the Whatsapp messages on my phone. There are messages from the other Nigerian FLC members: they have double-checked some statistics and facts for me, and sent well-wishes. There are also messages from my mother, aunties, sisters and friends filled with affirmation and prayers. I say my own prayers and open my laptop. I YouTube The Elders I will be speaking with, and print notes from my previous work that might inform our panel discussion topic: Building Peace, Bridging Fault Lines.
Circa 10:00am: I am on the group bus en route to London from Cambridge, sitting next to one of my favorite FLC members: Seun Tuyo. I want to gist like we always do, but she stares me straight in the face and instructs: “Blessing, prepare!” To reinforce her point, she puts her earphones in and starts watching a How to Get Away With Murder episode she has saved on her phone. Rude. I have no choice now but to study my notes. I put some South African House music on and get to prepping.
Circa 12:00pm: We arrive a nice hotel facing Hyde Park in London and our coordinator warns we have one hour to re-group (time-management has not been the 2017 FLC group’s strongest suit). It’s a good thing I have spent some time preparing on the bus as I don’t even have time to get lunch between ironing my clothes and doing my make-up. Being a woman can be so time-consuming sometimes. Read Nora Ephron’s ‘On Maintenance’ if you doubt this.
Circa 2:30pm: I arrive Church House, Westminster (headquarters of the Church of England) with other FLC members who will be speaking at The Elders event—we have been nicknamed the ‘The Elders 10’ by our British Council coordinator. I notice my name has been placed on the same row as Ban Ki-moon. It is at this exact moment the magnitude of this event starts to hit me. I immediately need to pee, even though I haven’t drunk anything in hours.
Circa 3:00pm: Staff from The Elders organization arrive Church House and walk us through the events of the evening. We practice our stage entrances and exits. We are then told possible questions we may be asked, and the order in which we will speak. I start scrambling to assemble talking points on my phone and to cram them. But a small voice within tells me to discard my notes and speak from the vantage point I know best: gender. I close the notes app on my phone and spend time taking pictures, whatsapping, instagramming, and generally having fun.
Circa 5:20pm: I arrive Trafalgar square with The Elders 10, where we will be meeting the rest of the FLC group and The Elders. I am casually minding my business in front of the National Gallery, when I turn and see Richard Branson standing next to me. It is just the two of us for a few minutes. I am literally dumbfounded. The silence must have gone on for some time, because a British Council staff member walks up to me and whispers: “You can speak to him you know.” So, I do. I tell him about how my mother watches his YouTube videos every other day, and how inspirational he is. He gives me a hug and a double-kiss. We are officially best friends now (that’s my story and I am sticking with it).
Circa 5:35pm: The rest of the FLC group joins us on the stairs facing Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery is behind us, and a large group of people with different placards and candles have assembled before us. There is a lot of press as well. And then I see them approaching us: The Elders, that is. Former presidents, UN Secretary-Generals and other global leaders—all within arm’s reach. A band starts to play music, and at this point I am convinced this is no longer real life. In this dream, Ernesto Zedillo (former President of Mexico), walks up to the group I am standing with and says: “A British Council program changed my life too.” Kofi Annan and Graça Machel give speeches. I hear what they are saying but it is hard to process any of it. One questions rings in my head: “Is this real life?”
Circa 6:00pm: We begin our symbolic walk for peace through London’s streets. There are tons of people and press lining the street. The walk symbolizes the continuation of Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. I spend most of the walk with Ban Ki-moon, who is kind and gentle. We complete the walk at Madiba’s statue in Parliament square.
Circa 6:45pm: After taking group photos (one of which Richard Branson hilariously photo bombed), all panellists get to meet and mingle in the green room. I speak briefly with President Ahtisaari and Mr.Brahimi. Baroness Usha Prashar CBE (Independent Member of the House of Lords/Deputy Chair of the British Council) introduces herself and asks about my life goals. I also spend some time chatting with Prime Minister Brundtland (first female Prime Minister of Norway). None of it feels real.
Circa 7:15pm: I get miked. Surprisingly, I do not feel nervous anymore. Somehow, I can feel the energy of people praying for me.
Circa 7:45pm: My name is called and it’s time to go on stage. I remember a Maya Angelou quote my mother frequently shares with me before a big event: “One of the things I do when I step up on a stage…I bring everyone who have has ever been kind to me with me…Everybody. I say come with me, I’m going on the stage; come with me, I need you now...So I don’t ever feel I have no help.” I walk on stage carrying everyone who has ever loved me in my spirit.
Circa 7:50pm: We are on the stage and the weirdest thing is happening: I am not thinking about what to say—I am feeling it. I feel the words in my belly. A still, small voice whispers them. I am keenly aware that in this very moment, I am only a vessel.
Circa 8:45pm: The event is over. Graça Machel walks over to me and gives me the biggest hug, twice. I see her mouth moving, I see her speaking to me, I feel her holding my hands—but I am finding it hard to add these things up. I hear words like: “You must give me your details and keep in touch” and “I will be watching your career.” She then gets Kofi Annan to meet me. Baroness Usha Prashar and Prime Minister Brundtland thank me for bringing women into the discourse. My fellow FLC members give me hugs and positive feedback. I feel dizzy: too much is happening at once.
Circa 9:00pm: I am in a cocktail reception with The Elders, FLC members and representatives from organizations who supported the event. I have fascinating conversations with diverse and fascinating people about women’s rights and gender equality. There are lots of drinks and hors d'oeuvres, but I can’t eat. I am full on life. I walk to the balcony area overlooking some of London’s most famous buildings, and take the night in. Gratitude overwhelms me.
Circa 11:50pm: I get in bed and I think. I think about my grandmother who walked barefoot many days, selling various goods so that her seven children could get what she hadn’t: an education. I think of my mother who walked slum streets in Kaduna selling food on her head every morning before school. I think of my father who moved to America with a bachelor’s degree and a dream, and who washed toilets to fund that dream. I think about walks with my mother to the social security office to get food stamps and welfare as a toddler. I think about all the times I have pounded pavement seeking access and opportunity. And then I think about where I have walked today and who I have walked with. I ask myself, again: “Is this real life?” I set my alarm (no labels this time), and hop into bed. Words from one of my mother’s (and my) favorite Maya Angelou poems lull me to sleep: Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise/ Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/ I rise/ Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave…I rise, I rise, I rise.
† Times used in this blog are guesstimations and may not be exact.
‡ You can watch the full Elders event, including my panel discussion here.
†‡ My panel contributions were quoted in the UK's Huffington Post. You can read the article here.