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Featured Activist: Valentine Okolo

Valentine Okolo is a poet, a filmmaker, and a social activist. His poems have been featured internationally in various literary magazines, including Apogee Journal, Origins Journal, Shot Glass Journal, African Writer and other places. He is the author of the poetry book: I Will Be Silent.

What excites you?

The smiles on the faces of people. Sensing their happiness and the warmth from their hearts. Watching them walk with grace as they celebrate each day as a gift from the Almighty God. Witnessing this grace in their lives and how they are able to persevere and overcome those obstacles placed in their way. I have been privileged to experience both plenty and want. I have known what it means to have much more than I need. And I know what it means to go hungry sometimes for a couple of days. I have known what it means to live in the magnificent part of the city. And what it means to have lived in the ghettos. I have lived and experienced in my lifetime, the dual extremes of life. And I have witnessed the lives of the people who live on these opposite extremes. And I am grateful to have gone through this humbling tutelage about the true meaning of life. Now, I know what is important and what is not. And nothing is more exciting and worth more than gold than the smile of a struggling child in the sunset of a slum, whose spirit is not broken by the environment and who is still able to dream and work to see those dreams come to be.

What matters to you?

To live a simple life. One in service to God and reaching out to His children wherever they may be. To seek the lost, the damaged, the depressed, the abandoned and the forgotten. To share my story with them and to let them know that the loving kindness of Jesus Christ is sufficient to save them no matter how worse off they believe their lives are. And that He is willing to bring them all into His arms and embrace them and make them whole. For I was once damaged and lost and alone. I was broken and suffering and His love and Spirit sought and found me, even when I wasn't even deserving of it. Because God is seeking those who feel they are not deserving of it. He earnestly seeks the broken in spirit and in body to heal them and give them life anew.

What drives you?

I always strive to better myself with each thing that I do. So, in essence, I am always competing against my last creative output.  Because of that, I am always driving myself forwards. Sometimes, some people say that I have this unquenchable thirst for perfection. At times, this may be true.  Because I always try to wring out the best from whatever I am doing. It really pains me when I notice that I have not given more than 100% in whatever I am working on. And when I go through that experience again in my mind I always wonder what I could have done differently.  And even better.

What do you stand for?

Truth. Always the truth. No matter how bitter it may be. Truth I have come to learn is a lot like bitter-leaf, a West African plant used to make soup in Eastern Nigeria. Bitter-leaf is acrid to the tongue but soothing and quite medicinal to the body. It has been traditionally used to treat a few ills. One of which is stomach pains. The Igbo's, of which I am one, eat it as a delicacy called Ofe Onugbu (bitter-leaf soup). It's actually delicious once properly prepared. Once consumed, it actually leaves a lingering  sweet aftertaste on the tongue. And truth is a lot like that bitter-leaf used to make that soup. Bitter but curative.

What causes are special to your heart?

To look out for those who have no one to speak up for them. The forgotten. The weak. The lost. Those whose voices are silenced. Most times, the silenced are women and children. They are the ones that I bear witness for with my poetry. Because most of the time, their cries go unheard. And their stories, untold.

I also care about the victims of genocides and rape. Especially the rape of women. I care a lot about the issues that happen to women, and young girls.  And rape is one of those issues. Because rape is a weapon used against women. By men who have sold their conscience to receive a twisted version of pleasure. I sometimes wonder how someone would even get a hard on by making someone else suffer; by threatening and molesting them with a gun or a knife? What sort of person would get any satisfaction by wielding violence to have sex with a woman? It is not a normal behaviour and it is definitely not right. 

What's the difference you want to make?

To create awareness. And to bear witness. Because my people are so concerned with celebrity worship, they don't care what happens to those whose names don't even register in the social hierarchy. For instance, a village is razed to the ground in Eastern Nigeria by Fulani Herdsmen, with the villagers executed in their beds in the early hours of the morning. And this incident is not even considered to be "news" in my country. Nobody talks about it. There are no protests over it. There is no national emergency. No outcry. Just media silence. Instead, the people continue to be lulled by a constant bombardment of entertainment, and baseless shows like Big Brother Africa. And no one is questioning the state of insecurity in the country. Everyone goes about their business as if nothing happened. As if the scores of people killed in their homes by a group of people with a genocide agenda are figments of the human imagination. And tomorrow, when another rural community is attacked somewhere within the country, with fatalities going into hundreds, nobody will even bat an eyelid

But, if on the other hand one celebrity dies, everyone will stop what they are doing to mourn that celebrity. 

So I ask: Are the lives of the thousands of villagers who are constantly obliterated in their homes within Nigeria of no value whatsoever? That nobody even bothers to mourn them, save their relatives? Are their lives worthless? Is it because their combined names won't even tilt the scales of the social hierarchy an ounce, once it is measured against the single life of one important person?

Personally, it should not be so. To me, everyone is important. Both great and small. Life is life. And life is sacred. And for these, whose lives are believed to have no meaning because they are nameless, it is my quest to bring awareness to their plight. To give them a measure of significance. I know that it would not be an easy battle. But I will not abandon them no matter the odds. I will always stand with them. Even if I have to stand alone without any human help.

What inspires your activism?

The suffering of others. Because I feel their pain as acutely as my own. And I also picked some traits, I believe, from my mother. My mother was fearless and would stand up to anyone or group of people who oppressed their fellow men. She never remained silent in the midst of injustice. Even if she was all alone she would fight for the victim sometimes against great odds and prevail. She always reminded me when I was little to never see black and call it white. To never see the oppressed and keep silent about their plight. Despite her diminutive stature she was nicknamed the leopard lady. Because she would never give in to any form of oppression. Even at the threat of the gun she would always speak up against her oppressors and those who oppressed others. In my poetry, I do the same. I fight for the oppressed and the forgotten. My book: I Will Be Silent is the voice for those whose voices have been silenced in one conflict or the other. Or one political propaganda or another. 

If there's one message you want to leave readers with, what would it be?

They should always seek the truth and stand by it, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. 

When everyone tows a popular line, the truth itself becomes unpopular. And unfortunately, truth is never popular. Its initial taste is never sweet. It's akin to bitter-leaf. And those who speak the truth are regarded as villains by society because of the things that they say. They become outcasts and are vilified in every single way by almost every one. There are people on this planet whose profit stems from untruth and whose trade is deception. And these ones would try as much as they can to impede the truth. Here, I remember Nicolaus Copernicus who disproved the teachings of Ptolemy by saying that it was the sun and not the earth which was the center of the solar system. For that believed heresy, the Catholic inquisition found him guilty and had his eyes plucked out. Today, the words of Copernicus ring true. And the teachings of Ptolemy forgotten.

Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago spoke about the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of mankind to God the Father. He said that He is the way and the truth and the life. For that believed heresy, the Jewish leaders conscripted the Romans to nail Him to a wooden cross, until He bled to death. Many people in the world might not agree with my words, but the words of Christ Jesus also ring true.

Those who truly seek the truth will be found by it. And that truth which they find will indeed set them free. 

Connect with him on Twitter: @poetval

How will you honor your truth this week?

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