Dr. Matilda Kerry is a former Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN) in 2000. At the end of her one year reign as Miss Nigeria, she handed over her crown to Agbani Darego in 2001, same year Miss Darego won Miss World International Beauty Contest. A graduate of Medicine and Surgery from Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), University of Lagos, declined to speak on her reign as Miss Nigeria, but told Flora Onwudiwe why she is passionate about creating awareness for women in the community. Excerpts…
When you won the crown as the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN), your major concern was to raise awareness for leprosy victims, how well did it go in creating the awareness?
I put my best in, as my heart really went out to them. I attended Federal Government Girls’ College Benin and would always see people with Leprosy along the bad patches of the Lagos Benin Expressway begging for alms. This had always bothered me and why I decided to use the platform to draw more awareness to their situation. At the time awareness reached many donors and even the government of Edo state which swung into action to provide some relief but there still needs to be consistent work on sustainable programmes for this marginalised group.
The victims are usually isolated because the disease is contagious; did you get to meet them physically?
At the time I didn’t meet any of the people with leprosy personally but in my line of work as a public health physician, I have met with clients at the clinics. As for being contagious, many persons with leprosy are on medication through free drug programmes by the government and are no longer contagious. What we see as physical disabilities are the long-term defects caused during the active phase of the disease
You have been practicing medicine for quite some time now, why are women susceptible to cervical and breast cancer?
Cervical and breast cancers are the two top cancer killers of Nigerian women. Cancers, in general, are linked with modifiable risk factors like smoking, alcohol intake, lack of exercise, poor diets high in saturated fat and low in fiber, genetics also plays a big role in breast cancer. Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, which is sexually transmitted. I guess our way of life has become more sedentary and unhealthy with desk jobs and fast food. Simple daily decisions can help to prolong life and reduce the risk for cancer
After the reign of most beauty queens, their one-year projects go into extinction; in your own case, was it the same?
Yes, unfortunately, the awareness for persons with leprosy only lasted for the period of my reign and the same for many beauty queens’ pet projects. Funding is limited and beauty queens every year have their individual passions so there is no continuity. However, the succour each queen delivers during her reign goes a long way in touching lives, the lessons each queen learns in delivering a charitable project stays and feeds other future projects, so I strongly encourage pet projects to continue within beauty pageants. Charitable projects make the programme worthwhile.
During your reign you were involved in contagious disease and then helping women with cervical cancer, why did you choose to go in these directions?
I envision equitable healthcare for all Nigerian women, involve myself in projects that empower women. The reason is simple, I am a wom-an, and women in developing countries face so many barriers to living productive and fulfilled lives, poor access to health is just one barrier. As an Autism mum, I also work in the disability space raising awareness about inclusive education.
Could you intimate us with what the Foundation does as the founder?
The George Kerry Life Foundation (GKLF) has been raising awareness and providing free and subsidised preventive services since 2007 against non-communicable diseases including cancers, hypertension, and diabetes. We provide community- based awareness and screening programmes for non-communicable diseases and train healthcare workers to improve service delivery. Behavioral change communication is also a strategy employed by GKLF in getting women to make healthier choices to prevent illness rather than get sick and spend so much money trying to cure the disease. Also the Foundation provides accessible, afforda b l e and community centered health services to low income communities most in need of them. We embark on various health awareness programmes in order to reduce the sufferings and better the lives of the people. We carry out sensitisation and educational campaigns to communities. We sensitise and educate the people on safe health practices and provide other vital information necessary for healthy living. GKLF provides training for volunteers, health workers and community members on best practices. This is to ensure sustainability of our projects and ensure provision of quality services to beneficiaries.
You were one of 100 Nigerians selected to participate in the 2016 Mandela Fellowship organised by the United States government, what were the effects of the six weeks’ studies?
The exposure elevated the work that GKLF had been committed to over the years in terms of validation but was also a brilliant learning experience for me in terms of building sustainable programmes, applying design thinking to programmes, and lobbying the government. One can’t buy the experience and learning gained from participating in such a corldclass programme.
How do you fund the projects that are run by the foundation?
The foundation does fundraisers, applies for grants, and provides some paid but subsidised services like training of healthcare workers. This means we don’t run at a loss.
Why did you name the Non-Governmental Organisation after your father?
The found a -tion was named to honour my father’s memory. He was a great man, very kind and passionate about helping others. My father was all for charity. He would literally give you the shirt off his back. The foundation stands strongly for what the late Dr. George Kerry’s believed in.
Foundations have their challenges, what has been the major challenge since it was established in 2007?
Funding remains number one, and in a close second is the attitude of people to health which needs to change from curative to preventive.
We heard about over 100 medical practitioners are relocating abroad to continue their practice, what is your comment?
I believe everyone has the right to seek career development and pursue happiness, but I also know leaving the country won’t solve the problems in the healthcare system. I’m not too worried though, those who have left will build capacity and many will return in later years to contribute positively to the Nigerian health system. Meanwhile, the government and private sector should work in hand to develop stronger systems for healthcare delivery and attract human resources for health. It’s a bit of a mess right now.
Your wedding attracted other ex -beauty queens: Agbani Darego, Munachi Abii, Chinenye Ochuba- Akinlade and one of them was Chief Bridesmaid; was it a re-union of other ex-beauty queens, or it was co-incidental?
Actually none of them was on my bridal train; my sister was my chief bridesmaid. I invited them because we’ve remained friends and bonded quite a bit since winning MBGN. They were just friends there to support me on my big day.
Could you intimate us of your experiences as an ex-beauty queen, wife, and mother?
It’s all in day’s job for me. Being a mother is HARD. I’m a perfectionist so that makes it all the harder, but I’m learning to be patient with myself and growing strengths I never knew I had.
How did the foundation fare with some of its activities when COVID-19 was at its peak?
Community-based outreaches were on hold as the foundation like many organisations conformed with the protocols in place and restrictions on movement and gatherings. We however remained active online and conducted as many programmes as we could through this vehicle. Things are opening up now as many people complete vaccination and have learned to live with the precautions of hand washing, social distancing, and the use of facemasks. We find ourselves slowly returning to the status quo with all COVID 19 precautions in place.
How do you relax when you are not involved in any medical work?
I spoil myself at the spa sometimes, there is nothing a good massage won’t cure. I also enjoy a treat with the family at some of Lagos hot spots for good cuisine; Korean food is my new favourite thing.