In Conversation: Princess Nikky Onyeri (Part I)
October is the International Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Princess Nikky Onyeri. A woman, who refuses to give up on her sisters and brothers on the African continent.
Princess Nikky Onyeri has been credited for raising the profile of cancer in Nigeria and Africa. Her unwavering commitment to bring awareness about breast and cervical cancer on the continent has been described as exemplary. In her own words, Princess Nikky Onyeri and her vision for a world without cancer especially in Africa.
Belinda: You have been doing this for a long time, where does the passion and strength to keep going and do the work that you do even when things seem hopeless come from?
Princess Nikky: It comes from within you. My story is the fact that I came close to this disease after I walked into a doctor’s surgery to have a medical check up and I was told that I had breast cancer and had six months to live. That was the first time as an educated person I had heard, not just about breast cancer but that I was going to die within a short period. So for me to travel immediately to the place where I found that it was not breast cancer but a benign cyst, which is not life threatening, for me means that I have been given a second chance at life and it is a privilege and a new day and a blessing because its possible I could have been dead. And so for me, it is an everyday thing and that whatever is within my power to reach out to be able to talk to somebody and save someone’s life, I do that and I thin k that has been a driving passion for me and the fact that as a person, I don’t take no for an answer. My outlook is that there is a way to give people an opportunity to come on board and they can only say yes or no, and there is no sitting on the border line. You either tell me, yes, I will follow you with this dream or you say no, I don’t want to be part of it. The beauty of it is that if you say no, we do offer you an opportunity. If you say yes, you get on board with us and we work things out. The exciting thing is that years back, we have been doing this for 16 years and years back, no one would go public to talk about breast cancer. And on television, when I talked about it and touched the breast, people would say, no don’t do that. Why are you using yourself to talk about it but today, people talk about it openly, saying they have breast cancer, they are surviving, some are still undergoing treatment and so much has changed and its is not just in Nigeria but across Africa and that is a whole new field that has opened to us. The fact that in Africa, this is one disease that is still clouded with a lot of tradition and cultural barriers to break down but everyday is a new day and the message is getting across to the women of Africa. When we started, we started with breast cancer but we have realised from my speaking arrangements around the world, that in developing countries, we are still battling with resources and funding. We are dealing with the same woman, therefore, we must include breast and cervical cancer because it will be terrible that you educate a woman on breast cancer and she later dies of cancer of the cervix. We have not done justice with that. In addition to that, my vision and this is the way in the way the world is going now, is that women’s health should be brought under the same umbrella. There should be a holistic integrated approach to health. It should no longer be a single disease approach. So when you get a woman, you educate her on breast cancer, cancer of the cervix, hypertension, and diabetes. Things she is likely to deal with in life. I think that should be a better way to help the women on our continent.
Belinda: Africa is so different in comparison to a woman who lives in the west, whose chances of survival is a little higher. Why do you think there are so many women suffering from this killer disease in Africa with no hope of survival in comparison to their western counterparts? Princess Nikky: Let me say that years back when we started…I am from this continent and it is a place I have always loved and cherished so much but there has been this belief around the world that the disease you have here are malaria, Tuberculosis, HIV Aids but…I have raised my voice a lot of times in meetings at international and regional conferences that we have an epidemic coming and its here already. It is going to get worse if something is not done now and that is for breast and cervical cancer. Then nobody paid attention but it is also very exciting that in the last few years, suddenly, there is so much awareness. People are now realising what’s going on, especially with the menace of tobacco companies. That is a great danger for Africa. The tobacco companies have moved from developed countries and moved steadily into Africa and not only are they investing millions of dollars but also in the governments and you see a lot of adverts and the companies are supporting government programmes. However, more awareness is spreading because with our awareness campaign, we don’t just do it in English language. We try as much as possible because we have a lot of women in Africa who are uneducated, so the only way due to the language barrier is to do the campaign in the local language in order to get the message to them. So we either create awareness in those languages and most times, it is expensive or the cheaper and easiest way to do it is to get somebody from the local area to do an interpretation in their local language. The beauty of that is that the fact that as more women are becoming aware, they are realising that a lot of people they have seen die from other diseases really died of cancer. A lot of what they are suffering from, which they didn’t know because we have traditional medical practitioners, they go to these people and these people don’t even tell them that they have cancer. It is only at the worst stage where they now get to the hospital and they are at stage 3 or stage 4 that they realise they have cancer and could have had so much support. Another barrier we have in Africa is the fact that cancer treatment is very expensive. The drugs, none of them are manufactured in Africa. They are imported and by the time they are imported either in dollar or pound, by the time they are converted into the local currency, it is rather expensive. We don’t have any insurance that covers cancer treatment in Africa, we don’t have that. Just from the point of raising awareness, the screening g, the treatment, you have to pay out of your pocket and as you know, our women are not empowered to afford these kinds of treatment. So we have a whole lot of barriers; cultural and traditional, religious, and language. The needs are there when people have cancer but people call it another name because they don’t want to be associated with the disease due to the fact that if they say, their daughter or themselves have breast cancer, there is this fear that that family might be stigmatised and their daughter might not be able to get married again because they will say this is a disease that passes from mother to daughter and a hereditary thing. Yes we know there are some parts of it that are hereditary but it shouldn’t be such a barrier like it is in Africa. However, the story behind all this is the fact that awareness is coming, awareness is here and the world is suddenly realising that there is a huge burden in Africa, especially breast and cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the number one burden disease in Africa, followed by breast cancer and 80 per cent of the whole cervical cancer in the world occurs in Africa. Therefore, the world, with the excitement of the HPV vaccine, I think the world cannot afford to sit still. The HPV vaccine is available, demonstration projects have been successfully done in Uganda and the barrier we have now is that there is no funding for HPV vaccine. So, this is why we are looking forward to the meeting in Washington DC and tell the world, this is one disease they should step up and do something about it. Our women are going to benefit from it and so we need funding, especially for HPV vaccine for cervical cancer prevention. It is a challenge and it is exciting. I feel blessed to have been given this opportunity to reach out to people.
Belinda: Have you ever felt that you were taking on too much? Hence, you had to develop the skills to negotiate and get the work done? Princess Nikky: If anyone had told me when I started that this was the path my life would take, I would say no, for I had no idea. I was driven by the fact that this was a personal story. My family sat together and decided that I needed a second opinion before embarking on any treatment and then go to the UK but we have millions of women in Africa, who do not have that opportunity and so if there is a way one can reach out and give a face and voice to these disease that people are not willing to acknowledge, I start off by telling people that headache, toothache and malaria kills and whatever you leave untreated kills and cancer is the same. If you get at it on time, you will live but if you pretend it does not exist, cancer is going to kill you. Now that we have put forward what we have in a survival group, women are now coming out and telling their stories which is unbelievable. When I started there was no strategy and I was taking it one step at a time and my aim was to reach out to women across the African continent for they are the women who take care of the family. African women are strong willed and if their health is not taken care of, then we have trouble in the society. How can we achieve the Millennium Development goals if we don’t take care of women and children, who are the future of tomorrow? Today we have the Forum of African First Ladies Against Breast and Cervical Cancer. This year, we are going to the ministers and parliamentarians and ask them that we need our own forum again and we are also going to get together for the Forum of African Parliamentarians and Health Ministers against cancer. We have also been able to go to some of the African presidents, on a one-on-one level and solicit for their support; asking them and telling them we think that there is need for this issue to be taken up at the African union. To date, we have met with the president of Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland and South Africa and they are very supportive and have assured us that they are willing to take this up and champion it at the African union. So, 2010 is and has been an exciting year for us. We are going to break down a lot of barriers and women’s health issues is going to be placed on the front burner of things. We are not going to sit back for people to do things for us again. We are going to let the world know that we are ready to take this programme up and do things for our women, the bedrock of our society and we hope the world will help us to achieve our aim.
Belinda: Is it still a taboo to talk about cancer across Africa openly on a cultural, traditional and religious level?
Princess Nikky: It is the same cross Africa not just Nigeria. I have been to South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and it is the same story. The fact is that people are not willing to step up and admit that they are going through this. But I believe things are going to get better. To date, we have the first ladies coming onboard to talk about these issues and I know that by the time it become a policy statement at the African Union, things will change. Cancer needs to be put on the health agenda and not where it currently is as a non-communicable disease. In African countries, there is no cancer plan in place; hence, you have no policy statements saying this is the way we should go. So we have a lot to work at. But I think if the presidents and African Union can make a policy statement, saying we have decided that we are going to focus attention on cancer in Africa. Things will change. It will become a priority with budget and then we can talk about creating more awareness, immunisations, drugs and subsidising them and the treatment , if its not free, should be subsidised. The screening machines too. There are African countries without a single screening machine. So whoever has cancer in that country has to travel outside their country to find treatment? So, how do you educate people on such a platform about such a disease? In addition to the bottom-top approach, which is to raise awareness in countries, work with people who we identify are serious about the work for change, the critical change must come from the African presidents and first ladies for we need budgets on these issues and that is the only way we can raise awareness and start dealing with it.
Belinda: Who do you have on board working with you and from which countries?
Princess Nikky: For the first ladies, the Forum of African First Ladies, was launched in Cape Town South Africa on 20 July 2009. During the first cervical cancer conference in Africa, there were four first ladies present there. 5 African first ladies sent representatives and we had health ministers from Africa and dignitaries of parliaments and parliamentarians were also present and a good representation from around the world with about 350 delegates. The firs lady of Uganda, honourable Mrs Janet Musaveni was elected the first chair person of the forum, the elective office is only for 1 year and after that there is another election every July. The vice chairperson is Madame Thobeka Madiba-Zuma, the first lady of South Africa. We also have on board, the first lady of Swaziland, the first wife of the king of Swaziland. We have Ghana, we have Rwanda, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania, Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have about 10 of them on board and among the presidents that we have reached out to is President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the President of Tanzanian, President Jakaya Kikwete, President Jacob Zuma and the King of Swaziland, Mswati III, are all giving us their support. We have 53 countries in Africa but not all the countries have first ladies because either there is no official first lady. Malawi is also a strong supporter our work and we are still working for other first ladies to come onboard. The forum started in 2009, and Harvard University invited us, myself and forum of African first ladies to come and do a presentation at Harvard University. I travelled with the first lady of South Africa and this is the huge potential we have for making a change. We are also working on getting funding for HPV and the Forum of African first ladies is working on that challenge because we feel that the burden of cancer of the cervix is in Africa, Africa has to lead the way to solving that problem.
Interview continues tomorrow. Don’t miss it.
The Feature, A World Without Cancer appeared in the New African Woman, Edition 6.