As the first-generation American daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo was raised with a deep sense of responsibility toward her community, a tradition she and her husband want to pass on to their daughter, Omolara (1). When a family health scare demonstrated the need for basic health care and information in Africa, Eyeson-Akiwowo took action. Here she shares with mater mea how her passion to help her community led her to a life-changing career move.
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo, 36, has always valued the importance of family. Eyeson-Akiwowo, a first-generation Ghanaian-American, and her husband Akinola, who is of Nigerian descent, were both brought up in households that cherished their African heritage.
When the couple welcomed their daughter into the world in 2013, they chose a name for her that reflected this connectedness: Omolara. “Omolara means ‘this child is family’ in Yoruba,” Eyeson-Akiwowo explains.
Indeed, from her “look-into-your-soul kind of eyes” to her persistent personality, Omolara (1) is a reflection of her family and ancestors.
“She looks like my mother,” Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo says. “She has the most magnificent eyelashes and big brown eyes. We don’t know whose eyes those are, but the eyelashes are his.”
Omolara is already experiencing her family’s culture beyond her name.
“We eat traditional food. We go to functions and we’re very connected with our families. She’s been to Ghana [and Nigeria] already,” Eyeson-Akiwowo says. “She’s going to continue to see that part of herself and that part of her family.”
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo also knows that the meaning of family extends far beyond the bounds of immediate kinship. She learned the importance of extended family growing up with parents who often welcomed their countrymen into their home.
“My father was always active in the Ghanaian community,” she remembers. “There’s always been a place for someone.”
In a sense, the tradition of connecting with others for a common good followed her into her professional life as a bookings editor at Essence Magazine.
“I produced photo shoots from beginning to end,” Eyeson-Akiwowo says. “I’d create the budget, figure out where the shoot was going to be. Who’s the photographer? Who’s the model? Is it within budget?”
Little did she know that her professional skills and personal interests would merge to lead her on an unexpected and emotional journey. In 2006 she received a distressing phone call at work from an uncle in Accra—her father had suffered a heart attack.
“I remember I was sitting at my desk; I was crying still,” Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo recalls. “My friend Lanre had just moved to Nigeria. He happened to IM me and [say], ‘I’m in your neck of the woods. I just landed in Accra.’ I just started to type, ‘My dad had a heart attack.’”
When Eyeson-Akiwowo told her friend which hospital her father was in, he promised to find it and call her back.
“Maybe midday, after I’d been calling all these relatives and no one [could] help, Lanre calls back and [says], ‘I found your dad, he’s in the hospital. He was in the hallway, they hadn’t put him in a room yet. I got them to put him in a room [and] I saw the doctor. I’ll be back to visit him; I’m in Accra for the weekend. Everything’s going to be okay.’”
Knowing that someone she trusted was looking after her father meant the world to her. But along with her friend, Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo says the entire community of Pokuase, a suburb of Accra her family called home, joined together to support her father in his recovery.
“It was the community that made sure he had food to eat. People came and they washed his car. Someone was always with him.”
Those simple acts of kindness inspired her to return the favor in the form of a health fair in Pokuase.
“It just seemed like the appropriate thing to do,” she says. “Knowing the population, I knew that if my father could afford to receive and seek proper health care and wasn’t [receiving it], then what [would become] of a person with lesser means?”
Drawing on her skills as a bookings editor, she pulled together 21 friends to volunteer time and supplies for health screenings at the event she called A Gift of Life @ Christmas.
“I raised the money by literally asking everyone I knew, and what I didn’t raise I matched with my own funds.
“When we did our first health fair [on December 26, 2006], it was really meant for that little area,” she recalls. “Instead 300 people showed up. My dad [said], ‘You have to keep doing it.’ It was never my intention that it would become a nonprofit or it would become something that I would do again another year.”
What helped change her mind? The 301st health fair attendee.
“The next day one old lady had missed it completely. I [said], ‘The fair was yesterday! All the doctors have gone home,’” Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo recalls. “She had walked and taken a dollar van, a tro-tro, all the way here from two towns over. She was so defeated that she had made this trek.
“So [my father and I] gave it to her right there,” she continues. “We did her blood pressure and glucose. She [said], ‘Thank you! That’s what I needed because I don’t have the money to go to the doctor.’”
It was then Eyeson-Akiwowo realized it wouldn’t take a superwoman to change the continent—just a strong community that shares resources. That first health fair was the beginning of what would become African Health Now (AHN), the nonprofit organization Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo founded that year to provide healthcare accessibility and information to Africans.
The transition to the nonprofit sector while continuing her full-time job at Essence wasn’t easy. “I realized that I didn’t even know what nonprofits were and I didn’t know how to do them!” she says laughing.
To her surprise, Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo found that she already possessed many of the tools she needed to succeed in the nonprofit sector. “In publishing, everyone’s had to write a press release,” she says. “Having started as an editorial assistant [and going] all the way to the production side of it, I’ve been able to do all those things. All of those skills came into play working for a nonprofit that had a small development team.”
Eyeson-Akiwowo became so engrossed in the nonprofit world that when Essence eliminated her position in 2008, she considered her layoff to be an unexpected gift. “’This is a great opportunity for me to do my nonprofit,’” she recalls thinking.
“I started doing a lot of freelance, volunteer opportunities, and even internships for nonprofits. Just to understand the ins and outs, I started taking courses in nonprofits.”
Her growing nonprofit experience also laid the foundation for a career shift to full-time nonprofit work. She now works at the New York City Mission Society (NYCMS), which provides services for youth and their families. “I’m the special events, marketing, and community relations manager,” she says. “I am three people in one!” Many of her duties at NYCMS, such as development, stewardship and accounting, have helped her grow AHN.
Enlisting the help of professionals and volunteers, AHN has hosted five health fairs serving approximately 2,000 people in Ghana to date. “My vision for AHN is to really help inform and shape the conversation about healthcare on the continent. How something as simple as [information and accessibility] is so important,” she explains.
Although Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo is passionate about both AHN and NYCMS, she admits that sometimes, “I really just want to play with my kid.” She finds creative ways to spend time with Omolara when working weekends. “We have a community center [at NYCMS], so I take Omie with me. We can hang out there and do some stuff in the city.”
More than just a nonprofit, AHN represents a family legacy of service Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo hopes to pass on to her own daughter.
“Even if she doesn’t want to be a doctor, I totally see Omie participating in every health fair and understanding what it means to help change someone’s life, even for a day, in a small way,” she says. “I want her to understand that sense of community, why it’s important. If you have that, it takes nothing from you to give it to someone else.
BETWEEN YOUR FULL-TIME JOB, AHN, AND YOUR FAMILY LIFE, WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?
We work really hard during the week—I’m trying to juggle my regular 9-to-5 job and still find time to do my African Health Now project—and [Akinola] is in IT, so he’s always on. Monday through Friday, I’m getting up at 6 a.m. to get ready for work, to get her ready for daycare. [We] don’t pick her up until 6 p.m. that night and [we] haven’t spent any time with her. She’s going to bed at 8 p.m..
So [during] the weekend we make up. We probably stay in our bedroom most times. She wakes up from her room, we bring her to bed, and we sleep in the bed as a family for an hour or so. Everything’s done in here. We play blocks in here, we chill, and then we decide, “Do we want to see other people? Or do we just want to be with ourselves?”
AHN takes up a lot of time and sometimes I feel guilty if I don’t give it enough time. And it’s probably something that’s part of the motherhood process. When I read all those other mater mea [profiles], it’s like, “You chicks are superwomen! How much time is in their day?!” Maybe I should wake up at 5 a.m. I could do so much, but I’m so damn tired. Now, with the change of being a mom, I [have to] get better at organizing time.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU FOUND OUT YOU WERE PREGNANT?
I felt good! We were trying [and] we had some complications in the beginning. I had to have polyps removed. Once we got the polyps removed and we got the go-ahead, we [had to make] sure that we could get pregnant. [I learned] in biology…as long as you’re having your period and you’re ovulating, then essentially, you are producing viable eggs. [But doctors said], “Of all the eggs, maybe one of yours is viable.”
We went through a system where I’d ovulate, I’d run to the fertility clinic and the lady would probe. She’d look at my eggs and tell me, “Okay, you have a good one.” I’d get this shot to make those eggs drop, and I’d get 36 hours to have sex, which didn’t make for romance! I’d call, “Aki! You at home?” [He’d reply,] “No, I’m not home; I’m at work!” ”No, we have to go home!’”
Finally, one day he was just like, “Can we stop putting pressure on ourselves? It’s going to happen. Let’s just relax.” And then it just happened. I think we’d gone to Chicago for a wedding, and it was so funny because I’m just having cocktail after cocktail! [Then] I go to the doctor’s appointment [and] she said, “Oh, Nana, this is amazing. You’re pregnant!” I was like, “I can’t believe I drank so much!” (Laughs)
That was really my first reaction: “Oh my God, what did I do?!” And then we were happy. This was what we wanted.
WITH SUCH AN EVENTFUL CONCEPTION, WHAT WERE YOUR PREGNANCY AND BIRTH EXPERIENCES LIKE?
I had an easy pregnancy, for the most part, with the exception of an extended term of morning sickness. It wasn’t horrible; it wasn’t morning sickness that made me want to die. [But] I felt like I had morning sickness from the day they told me I was pregnant. (Laughs)
I had morning sickness, I think, up until four months. I had to change my toothpaste. We use Arm & Hammer and the baking soda used to just—on sight—[make me sick]. We had ginger ale in the car, I had saltine crackers in my bag. I bought a little flask for soda alone. I was drinking soda at 6 in the morning.
I’m epileptic as well, so the bigger stress was just having a healthy pregnancy, being able to go the entire time without having a seizure. And we were good! We didn’t have any seizures, and I was able to carry to full term, to full on, “When are you coming out?”
The pushing was 18 minutes; she came out, she cried. She wasn’t a [fussy] baby. She wasn’t colicky. I had an easy pregnancy and I had an easy newborn, and now I have a very rambunctious—but still easy— kid.
WHAT SURPRISES YOU MOST ABOUT MOTHERHOOD?
The whole thing. How tired you are, how in love you are, how scared you are. What kind of kid am I raising? What kind of kid is she going to be? And we’re only 14 months in the process! I’m scared shitless all the time. Am I a good mom?
You know that your kid is your kid; your kid is not you. Your job as a parent is to help guide and mold this kid to be the person they’re going to be and be the best person that is.
But that is still scary. Because the traditionalist in me is like, “Well, I don’t want my kid to flip burgers. I’m molding you to go to college, I’m molding you to be independent, to be a critical thinker.”
That is the scariest part of parenting: being a good parent and being a parent that your kids look up to, that your kids feel like they can talk to.
WHAT ROLE DOES FAMILY TRADITION PLAY IN THE WAY YOU WILL RAISE YOUR DAUGHTER?
Our upbringing and our traditions are really, really important to us. When we were thinking about naming Omolara, a lot of people thought—probably because of how we were treated growing up not having an English name—that we would just give our kid an English name. Like it would be easier, we could call her Tiffany and all will be well in the world. (Laughs)
We said no. That name, and making sure people say your name properly, is important to who you are as a person. It’s important to them recognizing that you’re not just an American kid, you are African, and you take pride in the fact that we are African.
We wanted her to have that experience, because we felt that, for us, it was part of our identity. It would be great that she understood that as well.
Coming up as an African in America, the true definition of African-American in that sense, I remember the struggle that I had with my mom and my dad about tradition and American culture. I never thought I would be that parent, but I am that parent. I talk to my kid in Twi [because] I want her to know how to speak Twi. [My mom] would talk to me in Twi and I would respond in English. She’d [say], “No, I’m speaking to you in our dialect for a reason. I want you to have that.” And I want her [Omolara] to have that.
WHAT IS YOUR PARENTING PHILOSOPHY AND HOW DO YOU EXECUTE IT?
We were raised in households [like the one] that we want to raise her [in]. Everything has to be done in a respectful manner and you need to respect your elders. You don’t get to talk back to your parents. You don’t get to roll your eyes. You don’t get to slam doors because you feel like you should be able to express yourself.
Even at 15 months, when we introduce her to people who are not related to her, you still have to call them “Auntie” and “Uncle.” You don’t get to call my [friend] by her first name. And so all these small things that agitated me and Aki when we were growing up, incidentally, will be the same small things we’re going to instill in her, because we know that they were character-builders.