Vanessa Obioha writes that a glimmer of donations from Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo and his wife, Yemisi to widows in his hometown, Ode Omu in Osun State has grown into a huge annual charity that attracted a record, 17000 widows this year
On a recent Saturday morning, a large group of women found their way to the sprawling grounds of Kings University in Ode-Omu, Osun State. Some of them arrived in buses while others made the long walk from their different towns to the location. As they spread across the grounds of the university, they attracted the attention of passersby and travelers en-route to Osogbo. The women who were mostly aged were scattered round the gate of the institution. The security men had a difficult keeping in check, according to a pre-arranged order, which they refused to keep to in a bid to gain entry; thus creating a frantic atmosphere at the point of entry. Some sat on the green lawn with their bags clinched to their sides, others stood on a queue. Quite a few engaged in small talks with dramatized moves for emphasis while waiting their turn. The expressions on their faces were a gamut of emotions: anxiety, excitement, gratitude.
The frenzied ambience suggested to quite a few that the occasion must be orchestrated by a politician. The reason for this is not far-fetched as the state is just months away from its next gubernatorial election. It is a norm for most aspiring political candidates to host such occasions in order to win votes from the people.
However, the brains behind the large gathering were neither politicians nor aspiring candidates. They are just a couple who are dedicated to bringing smiles to the widows and the less-privileged. Twelve years ago, Mathew Ashimolowo, the founder of the Kingsway International Christian Center (KICC), alongside his wife Yemisi took on the onerous responsibility to empower widows in his hometown Odeomu. Originally, they started the charitable event at their family home in Odeomu where widows from each compound of the village were invited to receive cash, food and clothes from the couple. The figure then was 308. But that figure has since ballooned to thousands. At the 2018 ceremony, over 17,000 widows were empowered.
The Ashimolowos Widow Empowerment Programme over the years has assumed a life of its own. It is now one of the most anticipated events in that part of the world. It is usually held during the New Year celebration, giving the locales one more reason to extend the usual New Year festivity.
Prior to the annual event, the couple request each family to send names of widows in each compound. The list serves as a guide to the couple who are the sole sponsors of the charity. From their hometown, the news of their philanthropy spread to other villages. Now there are about seven villages benefitting from the programme: Ikire, Isokan, Apomu, Modakeke, Ile-Ife and Ikoyi.
“Yoruba towns are organized in compounds. Odeomu was my main focus. We used to knock on all the 120 compounds and they will write the names of the widows and they have to be acknowledged by the head of the family. We didn’t want a woman who wasn’t a widow to smuggle her name in since it is free clothing and free money. Modakeke which is about 20 miles from Odeomu is a twin town because of their history so every compound in Modakeke was replicated in Odeomu. Modakeke showed up in the first year with 600 widows, the next year, 1000, before long, it became like 4,000. The other towns next door began to hear about it. Because we can’t go around accrediting compounds that we don’t belong to, we insisted that the king of each town must accredit a head for these widows. The king of Osogbo, Ikire, one of the Obas of Ile-ife also wrote names. These widows I assume began to bring each other together because they have challenges in the land and they need to support one another. They became widows’ groups and heard about what we do every year. With the acknowledgement of the kings, we therefore allowed them last year that was how we got 10,000 widows. They are also in age groups. We have the old ones and young ones.”
For the recent occasion, Ashimolowo received 17,000 names from the various widows groups. That figure was alarming to the clergyman and at the same time indicated the high mortality rate among men in the state.
“About 60 per cent of the widows are Muslims, so this has not been targeted at Christians. However, that itself sent a message across in the state and to the widows and it changed certain perspectives. Secondly, the median age of widows in that part of the world is beginning to look like more on the younger generation. This is often times because young men who do not have as much care for their lives as they should and slumbers with two or three wives. So instead of taking care of aged widows from 60 years which according to biblical injunction are those who should be taken care of, we find more younger widows in need of help and solace. The statistics we did revealed that infant mortality is so high, the death rate for men is so high. A lot of men in Osun state do not hit 50. Things as basic as malaria is a high killer in that part. So this has influenced and caused the increase in number of widows.”
An estimated budget of N57 million was set aside for this year’s project but at the main event that fateful Saturday morning, the turnout exceeded the number given by about 300.
The clergymen however anticipated this and therefore always have extra provisions. For instance, a new village Gbogan in the outskirts of the state was represented at the recent gathering.
The astronomical increase also indicated that more hands were needed on the deck. Although members of KICC flew in from different parts of the world to help the couple alongside other dignitaries including the Deputy Governor of Osun state, Mrs. Grace Titilayo Laoye-Tomori, and Senator Iyiola Omisore, an effective means of crowd control was very important. What the pastor and his team did was to give different time tickets to each of the villages to come to collect their gifts. For instance, the large batch of beneficiaries were from Osogbo and Ile-Ife. Only the expected batch is allowed inside to maintain decorum and until they are done, no other batch is allowed inside.
Despite this effort, most of the widows arrived before their scheduled time with their bags of hope, causing mayhem as they struggled to enter the premises. Canopies were erected to provide shelter, a stage graced by different musicians was set up at one side of the grounds, and tables piled up with different African print fabrics were also placed under a canopy. The recipients formed a straight line while the protocol officers strategically stood in different places to avoid commotion. Those who were yet to gain entrance, pressed their bodies to the gate, waiting for any opening to run in to receive their lot. Perhaps out of pity for those who were oblivious of the yearly celebration, some of the recipients gave out their cards to those who were not on the list, forgetting that the organisers had marked their thumbs.
Definitely, the magnanimity of the event requires extra support. For coming editions, the pastor is thinking out of the box.
”My vision for the future is that we believe that God is laying in our hearts that this should metamorphose to something that is bigger than just giving the widows and to start a ministry called ‘Christ Compassion to the Rurals’. We want to hit the rural areas with six levels of need we want to meet. We want to bring hospital on wheels which will cost a lot of money. It will be a sterilized trailer where five surgeries can be done while the ministration is going on. We believe this is possible.”