Since 2012, Ochonye Bartholomew Boniface – popularly known as OBB – has served as Country Director for Heartland Alliance International (HAI) in Nigeria. He has led a strong, self-motivated team to implement the largest key populations program in sub-Saharan Africa, reaching over 600,000 individuals across 9 states and including men who have sex with men, transgender persons, sex workers, and people who use drugs.
OBB believes deeply in collaboration, pioneering the platform for all HAI country directors to meet quarterly and share experiences and challenges to find solutions to common issues. His commitment to partnership also extends to the relationships he fosters between HAI and the government of Nigeria, as well as development partners like UNAIDS, WHO, UNODC and the Global Fund. Through those partnerships, OBB has reshaped the funding model of HAI Nigeria, diversifying funds and securing financial support that grew HAI Nigeria from a $7m to a $47m project. In 2016, OBB spoke to the UN General Assembly, presenting a paper on “leaving no one behind” and elevating HAI Nigeria’s work to a global audience.
OBB has dedicated his life to achieving equity and opportunity for some of the most vulnerable populations in Nigeria because it challenges him professionally and fulfills him personally. In honor of World Humanitarian Day, OBB shared his thoughts about his work, his passion, and the ways in which his job feeds his spirit.
How did you get into this work?
My passion for public health and social development stem from my experience growing up in the military barracks in Borno state in late 70s and early 80s. I lived with diverse persons from numerous backgrounds, both soldiers and civilians, who spent time at the Brigadier Maimalari Military Cantonment because it was safe. Freedom was enjoyed by all within the barracks irrespective of our differences! Later in life, I was exposed to abuse by older persons I trusted while in boarding school and I have lived with that memory all my life. I have also had to deal with the loss of very close friends and relations due to HIV and AIDS, as well as substandard or inadequate medical practices. All of these experiences spurred me towards becoming a human rights activist and doing everything possible to reduce suffering and stigma, and making the world a better place for ALL! My perspective on life is that everyone has something positive to offer, if given the opportunity to do so, and I believe in supporting and encouraging people to maximize their full potentials against all odds.
Why is this work important to the community and those we serve?
We are dealing with some of the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable persons who suffer human rights abuses and lack protection, even from the state. Most of them are young and struggling with trauma from bad experiences at home and in society. As a result, they are withdrawn and struggle with suicidal tendencies. The work we do gives hope to the world we serve. We invest in people! We believe it is possible to make it in life irrespective of your background or color, sex or race, gender or sexual diversity. At Heartland Alliance, we are home to the world’s most vulnerable populations and our philosophy of care transcends cultures and focuses on people. Touching lives in various parts of the world and seeing the results is what makes us happy.
Was there a moment where you knew you were in the right job?
Oh yes! So many times. I once met a young person who could not even look me in the eye or introduce him/herself some years ago due to complete absence of a sense of self-worth. Today, that same person is empowered and is a shining light for others to follow. The stories of many sex workers, persons who use drugs, sexual minorities and others who have turned into community champions, leaders and role models at local, national and international levels are so refreshing to me!
Putting smiles on faces and working in partnership with people who were so downtrodden makes the work so rewarding to me. It is so true that, based on our theory of change, those who suffer vulnerability often end up becoming great advocates when healing is achieved. It is also true that there is no healing without justice and no justice without healing!
What is your favorite part of your job?
Learning and unlearning! Every day is special and comes with different challenges and opportunities to do something new, meet someone new, fight some good fight, lose some good friends, or make some new friends. Being with community members and sharing in their diverse stories of transformation and impact is really quite fulfilling!
How can others get involved in your work?
It is in us, if only we can look inwards and find the space in our hearts to accommodate people – that is the true essence of life on earth! The opportunities to be of help to others are all over the place. We can start in our own neighborhoods and spread love until it fills the world! The world needs people who have hearts full of compassion and ready to share! I believe that individuals, corporate firms, public and private businesses, and bilateral and multilateral institutions can contribute to making the world a better place by protecting and investing in people and making sure that the environment is safer for all!