From Rural New York, Rolake Odetoyinbo Fights for the Rights of Nigerian Women and Girls With HIV

Rolake Odetoyinbo featured in a January 2015 video from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"Love, family, and community. That's what I'm most proud of," said Rolake (pronounced raw-lah-ke) Odetoyinbo on a cold January night in New York State's North Country region. It's a long way from Lagos, Nigeria, where she is from. But this world-renowned AIDS activist has found a home in rural America.

"I'm proud of watching my child learn, grow, and thrive in a new culture and of the connections and friendships that my spouse and I have found in the Canton-Potsdam, New York, area," she said. "In Nigeria, I'm proud of the work we're sustaining through the growing advocacy group Positive Action for Treatment Access (PATA) and through Mary's Home for Adolescent Girls in Lagos."

Odetoyinbo smiled, and throughout the remaining conversation, she showed all of the traits she has been famous for during her past 20 years as a leading African HIV activist -- warm humor, sharp wit, and a driving courage and strength to make the world a better place.

In Nigeria in 2002, recognizing the need for African women to advocate for HIV treatment access for all, Odetoyinbo stepped into the fight against HIV as one of the founding organizers of the Treatment Action Movement Nigeria, the Pan-African Treatment Access Movement (PATAM), PATA, and the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC).

She then converted her childhood home into a 20-bed home for orphaned adolescent girls, and registered and licensed the program as a Lagos state orphanage called Mary's Home. She named it in honor of 13-year-old Mary, the first person to test positive for HIV in Nigeria.

Odetoyinbo became a powerful global voice for HIV treatment access and women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. She has served on advisory committees for the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In 2011, she was named by Women Deliver as one of the world's top 100 people delivering for women and girls globally.

Then, in 2013, Odetoyinbo moved with her son to upstate New York to attend graduate school at St. Lawrence University. She got married in 2016 and now works full-time as a mental health counselor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. She is also an associate instructor at St. Lawrence University, teaching a course on global advocacy for women's sexual and reproductive health and rights.

"The transition from Lagos, a fast-paced, business-centered megacity of 18 million people, to Canton, with 6,000 inhabitants, has been an interesting experience," she said. "I failed my first driving test in Canton, and it was too funny to be offensive. I had been warned not to drive like a Lagos girl, so I strictly followed all the rules in my DMV handbook. As a result, the instructor, who knew nothing about my Lagos driving skills, failed me because she thought I lacked road confidence!"

"On some days, I want to take my son back home to learn the resilience of an African, the arrogance and pride of a Nigerian, and the wisdom and creativity that comes from making a little go a long way."

Health activists and service providers like Odetoyinbo who have experience both in Africa and the U.S. are a valuable resource to the public health movement and specifically to the fight against HIV. The dual experience across countries gives people who have migrated a unique perspective about the commonalities and differences in advocating for health and serving people in need.

"Things are, of course, vastly different in urban Nigeria and rural New York!" Odetoyinbo said. "But there are similarities and lessons to be learned across borders. In Nigeria, we led and won our national fight for free HIV treatment, and we set up community-based services for people in very poor communities. In the U.S., there were and still are similar efforts to push for affordable health care and treatments and to provide services for those in need. Health advocates are not so different from country to country. Our contexts and strategies are different, but our cause is the same."

For example? "Whether in rural New York State or a neighborhood of Lagos, homeless adolescents need support over a timeframe that goes beyond a grant funding cycle. At Mary's Home in Lagos, we take in orphaned girls and provide them with a safe home, clothing, counseling, mentoring, and support for getting through high school and university. That's a long-term effort. Who will fund this? Mary's Home is struggling to survive, and I see similar organizations in New York's North Country struggling to piece together a full long-term program."

"This is outrageous," she explains. "Nigeria is a rich country, and Lagos has a lot of wealthy, well-educated people. New York State has an economy that's over four times the size of all of Nigeria, and there are lots of wealthy people here too. We can do a lot more in both places to meet people's health needs in the communities where they live."

In the remaining time of the interview, Odetoyinbo talked more about the work of Mary's Home, which includes the girls' home in Lagos, as well as helping adolescent boys and girls get through school, graduate from university, take on state and national youth leadership roles, and establish their own independent lives.

And for parting words, what does Odetoyinbo miss about Lagos? "Along with Nigerian dance, music, and foods, I miss the hot sun. Here, I am still learning that the appearance of the sun in the sky does not translate to heat," Odetoyinbo laughs. "But with my wife and child, other close friends and family members, and an amazing North Country community, I have more than enough to keep me warm."