By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
There is a very busy diner in New York on 2nd Avenue known as John’s Café. I started visiting John’s in the 1990s when my late older friend Joana Foster, who passed away recently, introduced me to the place. John’s is very close to the United Nations, so this means whenever I attend the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, I have breakfast there. They open up till 8pm, so I also have dinner there on occasion. It is a very small place, it could probably not sit more than 40 people at a time.
There is nothing fancy about John’s, everything is basic and to the point, but it is one of the most efficient restaurants I know. When I first started attending the annual CSW twenty-four years ago in 1993, the organisation I was working for at the time in London did not have a lot of resources, so I saved money by staying with friends who lived in the Bronx. I would make the journey by train every morning into Manhattan to attend my meetings at the UN, and go back the same way in the evening. The CSW is usually February-March and it is quote cold at that time of the year, and there is often snow. When we became more successful at mobilizing resources our delegations to CSW could afford to stay closer to the UN, which was a whole lot better than traipsing around New York in the cold. As from 1997, whenever I attend CSW I stay at either the UN Millennium Plaza, or the Hilton, both across the road from the UN. They are also just a block away from John’s Café. I don’t bother with the overly expensive hotel breakfast. I just walk the block into the familiarity and simplicity of John’s Café.
I am currently in New York, attending this year’s CSW. Every morning since I got here, I have gone into John’s for breakfast. There is a place I like to sit, in a corner next to a window, near the cashier. The first morning I was there this year, I had tears in my eyes. I thought about Joana and how we used to go there for breakfast and plan our day at the UN meetings. I would picture her throwing her head back to laugh if there was something she found funny. As I sat there, staring out of the window and sipping my coffee while I waited for my toast and eggs, I was painfully aware of not only the finality of Joana’s absence, but of the permanence of movement. Everything and everyone moved. Traffic moved. People moved. The staff in John’s moved. One of us drops away and everything keeps moving on. In December 2015, the prominent Nigerian women’s rights activist and Lawyer, Mrs Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi passed away. She too had been a regular presence at CSW for a long time.
I have found myself thinking about why I keep coming back to John’s. I can afford to have breakfast in the warmth of my hotel. Yet I still walk the block to John’s. Is it because it is cheaper? Is it because it reminds me of Joana? Is it the Polish waitress Christine who has become a friend and who I sometimes tip more than what the food costs? Probably the smell and taste of their coffee? Is it because I have had many breakfast and lunch meetings there with other people attending the UN meetings? Is it the view from the window, watching people hurrying to their respective destinations? Is it the feeling of peace I have whenever I am there, even in the midst of all the noise of the early diners? Is it the familiarity of the place? Certainly all of the above, and definitely not just one reason.
At John’s Café, I am reminded of how life stretches into infinity, and all we can do is mark ourselves as present and carry on till one day our time comes and we become absent. Our absence will not prevent the presence of other people. They will still move around, grabbing their coffee and donuts, and the cheerful Christine will continue working till one day, some other young woman will take her place in search of the American dream.
I butter my toast and think about all the years I have been planning, organizing, advocating with other women, hoping for a better deal for women and society as a whole. Many gains have been made over the years, but huge challenges still remain. Patriarchy is not about to go away any time soon. I look around me and see other women who are attending CSW from around the world, making the annual pilgrimage to fight the good fight. Some like me, have been doing this for years, others are here for the first but hopefully not the last time. I look at the veteran and rookie troops, and a new resolve sets in. Knowing that just like Joana, one day I will not be here to do this anymore, I recommit to ensuring that there will be scores of other women who can figuratively sit in the window at John’s and keep watch over the struggles we have fought for so long. I have run many programs over the years to help build the leadership capacity of thousands of young women.
However, because I started doing this at an early age, a lot of the work has been with women who are now either my peers or just a few years younger. The great news is that a lot of my mentees are now mentors to other young people. The inter-generational movement building however needs to continue.
One of my best friends and mentors is Dr Abena Busia, a Professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey. During the week, she invited me to address some young African women who are part of a leadership development program she is involved in. I spent two hours with them, and it was a very rewarding experience for all of us. They asked interesting questions, no different from some of the issues raised in other gatherings of young women I have been a part of. They had concerns such as How do I balance my family obligations with my career? How do I know when I meet the right person to marry? What do I do when I am treated badly at work?
How can I become financially independent? There are no simple answers to any of these questions because we all have different contexts. I am however committed to doing whatever I can to recruit both young women and men into social justice movements. So how did I respond to my young friends, who I hope will take their place at John’s Café as they start their day? These are some of the things I said to them, in no particular order.
Learn the discipline of planning. You will never be an octopus, but you will get things done. Tell yourself what you are worth. Never let anyone devalue you
You will know The One when it is time. You will just know. Have faith.
Be yourself, not an imitation of someone else. You can have it all, but probably not all at once. There is a reason why Superwoman and Superman are comic book characters. Be kind to people. Others will be kind to you too. Use your voice when you have to Use silence when it is necessary. Hold on to your faith, however you chose to worship God. It will see you through your journey. Understand the difference between being selfless, selfish and self-full.
I have a few more days to have breakfast at John’s before I leave New York. I am grateful for the peace I find in this small, nondescript diner. It makes me appreciate the simple joys of life. Just being able to take twenty minutes out of a very hectic day to appreciate life and good health. May we all find meaning as we rush about our daily endeavors and may God bless the work of our hands in this and the next generation. We will come and go. Even John’s Café might not be there one day. Yet coffee will still smell the same.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com