Anthonia Ojenagbon, Survivor & Ceo Silton African Kitchen
Anthonia Ojenagbon is rising from the ashes of adversity and inspiring others to do so through her story. Her dream is to help victims of sexual abuse find a voice by encouraging them to speak up and break the silence. She has turned her lemon to lemonade by speaking publicly about her experience and how she was able to go through the healing process after her uncle abused her as a young girl. She shares the story of her rise from the ashes to glory and how her business took her to Aso rock to meet the Former President of Nigeria in this interview.
My mum was a full-time housewife while we were growing up and my father was in the military. Things were tight and we could hardly make ends meet. Having three square meals a day was such a big deal. Then I grew up and got married with a firm decision to contribute to the home by assisting my husband as best as I could. I really wanted to be useful to myself and my generation. I wanted to be able to feed people because l understood while growing up what it meant to be hungry.
My name is Anthonia Ojenagbon, the first of nine children. I am a product of Wavecrest College of Hospitality and the Pan Atlantic University. I am the lead chef at Silton African Kitchen.
I was born in Port Harcourt but came to Lagos in 1992 at the age of 12 to stay with my uncle because my dad could not afford to take care of nine children. Soon, this uncle I respected so much started sexually abusing me every night and this went on for years. l could not tell anyone or seek help because he always told me he would kill me if I told anyone. That made me really scarred. Then my father died in 1999; I could not have felt more helpless. Remember my mum was a full-time housewifeso any hope of running away to meet my parents was all gone.
Somehow a friend took me to a church and the pastor counselled on how to make my uncle stop what he was doing to me. The night after the pastor spoke to me, my uncle came again but this time l shouted with everything inside of me, pretending I was having a nightmare. I kept shouting until everyone in the house woke up, trying to find out what was wrong. Although I did not tell them what the problem was, that was the last time he tried to touch me. But by then a lot of damage and emotional harm had already been done. I became a shadow of myself because l felt l had offended God and that was why He allowed this evil to befall me. l lost every sense of self worth and my mind was in turmoil. I became very bitter towards men and hated them until l met my husband who is a complete gentleman. Since we got married, he has never ever made reference to my past and has never judged me.
The trauma and psychological effects of sexual abuse and rape are grievous was filled with hatred and bitterness. I was ashamed and felt guilty because l could not understand why this happened to me despite of the fact that l was brought up by Christian parents. I battled severe depression for a long time and eventually checked myself into a depression facility to seek professional help.
The healing process was not easy. l had difficulty making lifesaving decisions. L had sleep problems. l got to a point where l knew l needed help but did not know where and how to get that help.
Then one day l watched Funmi lyanda on New Dawn on NTA where a survivor of rape was interviewed. There and then l knew it was called child sexual abuse and the first step to healing was to talk to a trusted person. The guilt of sexual abuse and rape is such a heavy burden that must be broken, so I looked for an aunty to talk to. Luckily, l found two ladies who were not professional counsellors but were willing to hear my story and not judge me because we live in a very judgemental society where sexual abuse and rape is considered a taboo and victims are blamed or treated with disdain. I learnt to forgive myself because l always thought it was my fault. Thank God for social media, l decided to tell my story and the comments and responses have been phenomenal. l am now a trained emotional intelligence coach and a counsellor of traumatic and troubled children.
l used to make hats but was not making a lot of sales. Even in my church, people are not required to cover their hair so selling hats to the ladies was a Herculean task. Yet l really wanted to assist my husband financially and be useful to myself for the first time in my life. Although I was not making money, my creative designs got me the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Scholarship to study at the Lagos Business School. On the first day of class, a woman was brought to speak to us about starting and running a business. As l listened to the woman, l knew l was in the wrong business. My mind was racing here and there and l just started to think about what l could do and do very well.
As l searched my mind, l just heard peppered snails; So during lunch break l started telling my colleagues that apart from making hats, l also sell peppered snails. That was how the business started. Now we make peppered snails for bigs events and offer office and home delivery services. We now also fry yam and plantain in addition to peppered snails and guinea fowls for events. The snail business won me the federal government of Nigeria YouWin grant for women and I was also one of the 1000 entrepreneurs selected from all over Africa by the Tony Elumelu Foundation for a grant and mentorship. We also run the breakfast canteen of the Central Bank of Nigeria Lagos Office. We actually provide full-fledged indoor and outdoor catering services now and run or manage corporate canteens.
When l first started the snail business, l was selling because my colleagues in class and members of staff were buying. l did not however think about what would happen after the course at the Pan Atlantic University. But after the course, getting customers became very difficult. l tried all the traditional methods of marketing l knew, but at the time nothing seemed to work. With time I started using social media. Before then, it was really frustrating and I even became severely discouraged and almost gave up.
My biggest reward so far was when l was invited to the Aso Rock State House to exhibit my snails. lt was such a dream come true for me. Again, I am also able to support my family in whatever little way I can and also a few other people who need help. But nothing compares to the excitement of hearing that I am an inspiration.
Challenges of Running my Business
In my catering business one the major challenges we faced initially was brand acceptance. It was difficult convincing our target audience to believe in our brand, but now the story is a lot different. Then in my social work it is difficult to convince people that I am speaking out because l want to be a beacon of hope to other survivors who have never spoken about their abuse and rape before.
Nigerians are not well-sensitised yet; sexual abuse and rape is still being treated as a family affair. Survivors are still being blamed and shamed for speaking out. Wives still cover up for their husbands who are either sleeping with their daughters or family members who defiled their children. Survivors are still being blamed for bringing the rape or sexual abuse on themselves. Victims still blame themselves for causing the rape or abuse. Religious leaders still do not think it is a serious matter or that it should be treated as an epidemic.
Sexual abuse and rape is a cankerworm. Society still does not understand that survivors suffer a lot of emotional pain, loss of every sense of self worth, are severely depressed as a result of the abuse and rape. Society still is not sensitised enough to know that a lot of survivors are suicidal and are becoming more violent towards the opposite sex. Society still does not know all hands should be on deck to fight sexual abuse and rape and minimize it to the barest minimum. Parents should begin to talk to their children from an early age, victim should no more be blamed or shamed, survivors should not be judged because already they have suffered and are still suffering psychologically. We need more counsellors; in government hospitals they should be trained to attend to survivors when they come in. Survivors should not be stigmatized. Sometimes people disallow their children from marrying someone who has been sexually abused and raped before. All that has to stop.
Being a Woman of Rubies
OK, l think am a woman of ruby because l have excelled in both business and life generally inspite of what life has thrown to me. l have not allowed the abuse l suffered to keep me down. I have turned my lemon to lemonade by speaking publicly about my abuse so as to bring healing and hope to others who have also gone through similar experiences. I have not allowed my background and experience in life to keep my back on the ground.