Titilope lending voice to she will connect programme

Titilope-SonugaTitilope Sonuga is a civil engineer and an award winning poet, writer and performer, whose words have graced stages and pages across Nigeria and internationally. She was the first poet to be invited to perform at a Nigerian presidential inauguration, performing a stirring piece, We Are Ready, at the May 2015 inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Titilope adds acting to her accomplishments playing Eki in the Ndani TV hit television series Gidi Up, which airs across Africa. Her poetry afforded her a meeting with the late poet, Maya Angelou, and Titilope has taught many adult and youth poetry workshops across Canada and Nigeria. She has served on the boards for the Edmonton Poetry Festival, Spoken Word Canada, and Lagos International Poetry Festival. She spoke with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR on her project.

Who is Titilope Sonuga and what does she do?
I’m a poet, writer, engineer and an actor. I was born and raised in Nigeria, but moved to Canada as a teenager. I’m the last of four girls; I like to think that a lifetime of trying to get my voice heard made me a storyteller.

You have selected quite an interesting career path for yourself, from engineering to the creative arts. Is there a reason for this?
I could not have predicted the journey I have been on. I do not think it was something I could have actively selected, but I am certainly glad it has unfolded this way. My father was also an engineer, and I was raised to believe that there was nothing I could not do, if I would only apply myself. Academic excellence, particularly in the sciences, was a big deal in my household; so, no one was surprised when I chose a career in engineering. It was what was considered a ‘serious’ and acceptable career, and even though I always had a love for the arts, it had not even occurred to me that I could also make a life out it. Having the backing of a growing career in engineering allowed me the freedom to explore my writing and performance without any added pressure, I was able to do it simply because I loved it, and that period of carefree exploration led me here.

Where do you get your inspiration? Do you have any mentor in or outside the industry?
Everyday survival stories inspire me. People who transcend the obstacles they have faced and shine and women making way for other women. Every time I see a woman or girl becoming something that she was told she could never be, I get very excited. I’m constantly learning from people’s stories and experiences.

You were announced Intel Ambassador about a year ago. Tell us a little about this
I am currently the Intel She Will Connect Ambassador for Nigeria. Intel and its partners, in response to the staggering Internet gender gap around the world, developed the She Will Connect Programme, particularly, in sub-Saharan Africa, where the gap is the greatest. The programme works with NGOs, government agencies and other local business partners, and has begun with the initial pilots in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. The goal is to reach 5 million young women in Africa by 2020. Lending my voice to the initiative was a no brainer, because of my passion for women and girls and my desire to contribute to initiatives that uplift them. It is unacceptable to me that millions of women and girls are simply being left behind and left out of the many opportunities that exist online, so contributing my story and my art to promoting the program was an easy choice.

Why do you think it is important young girls and women learn how to use technology? What is the pay off?
Through technology, the world is transforming at neck breaking speed. The online space is exploding with opportunity and innovative ideas that move humanity forward. Being online and knowing how to use the technology around us has shifted from being an option to a necessity, it is simply the way the world converses. I might be biased in saying that women are the birthplace of innovation, but I believe this to be true, and it has been this way even before the dawn of technology. Imagine the transformative effect of equipping them with a tool that can send their ideas and thoughts across the globe. When you empower the people who are the backbone of communities across the world, the effect is instantly multiplied into the lives of the people they care for and on to everything that they touch. The pay offs are exponential when you tell a girl that she can do anything in a world that is constantly saying that she cannot.

What impact has the initiative had on young girls and women?
So far, 30,000 women and girls have been trained through the programme, but over and beyond the numbers, it is beginning to cause a shift in cultural norms and the rigid mindset that women and girls cannot excel in the STEM fields or any field they choose. What has been particularly encouraging is watching the sense of accomplishment and the growth in confidence that spreads into other areas of these women’s lives and anticipating the ripple effect of that in the lives of all the people they come in contact with.

What challenges do you think young girls and women face when it comes to using technology?
There are several challenges at play all at once. One is the mindset and the general culture around what women and girls can or cannot do or be across the world, particularly here in Africa. That it is still a success story when a woman excels in any field but particularly in the STEM fields, means that it is not yet normal to us, it is not yet so much a part of who we are that it is an everyday occurrence. Technology feels like a luxury when we are still having conversations about the basic human rights of women and girls. When girls are raised to believe that certain things are forever out of their reach, it is a challenge to change their minds once this idea is cemented.

There is also the issue of familiarity and the financial barriers to access. In order to become comfortable using and experimenting with technology, you have to practice and that requires consistent access to the tools you need. If you have never seen a computer in your life, how would you know that you could actually be a computer engineer?

There have been concerns regarding the digital security and technology, and in fact, this is why most people shy away from technology. What is Intel doing to address this?
This is definitely a valid concern particularly with new users. With all the opportunities online, there are also some very serious risks that people can be exposed to. The My Digital Journey Platform (MDJ Platform) was developed as part of the She Will Connect programme’s dedication to innovating along side the needs of its trainees. It is an interactive platform that uses a community of women to teach digital literacy skills and the concepts of digital citizenship and online safety. Through a series of tasks and challenges set to real life scenarios new users are able to prepare for the online space. Of course it is difficult to mitigate every single risk, but it is a strong start.

How can one get access to this platform and what are the benefits?
The platform can be accessed at africa.shewillconnect.intel.com. The beauty is that it does not have to be taught in a classroom or training centre. It puts learning in the hands of the user.

Have you faced any challenges being a woman in the industry?
Whether it is in engineering or in the arts, there are challenges in every arena. It is comforting to know that many came before me and many will come after, so I am not alone. I have tried to keep my mind on the pursuit of excellence and to continue to “face my work” no matter what. Of course, some days are easier than others.

When Titilope is not busy being She Will Connect ambassador, a poet or an actress, where is she, and what will we find her doing?
I love to travel, so I would probably be on my way to the airport or daydreaming about my next trip. When I’m home, I’m curled up with a book or eating, which is another great talent of mine.

What advice do you have for young girls and women out there?
Take up space. Make noise. On the other side of your fear is everything you want to do and someone else needs to see you do it so that they can have the courage to chase their dreams too.

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