If you type the words “Kuku’s Hair” into any internet search bar, one common thread that will pop up is the quality and durability of a brand that Akunna Nwala has built in almost 10 years as a hair/beauty entrepreneur. In recent times, Akunna decided it was time to do even more, leveraging on the business she has built. Collaborating with Sebeccly Cancer Center, she decided to do something to uplift and inspire women surviving cancer. Losing her dear friend, HRH Queen Nothando Dube and her great-aunt to breast cancer, Akunna is no stranger to the pain that comes with this terrible disease.
BellaNaija chatted with Akunna Nwala about the partnership with Sebeccly, her inspiration, lessons learned and her plans for future collaborations. We hope that everyone reading this will be inspired to do something from within their sphere of influence.
Thank you for chatting with us, Akunna. You’re an inspiration to a lot of us. Tell me why you chose cancer as your area of focus for this project.
My childhood friend’s mother died of intestinal cancer. I got to have a firsthand experience of my friend’s mum struggle, as my friend lived abroad and to take care of her mother, she moved into my house in Nigeria. I was privy to the entire process, from treatment, to gaining and losing hope, to finally accepting the inevitable. Watching my friend’s mum go through that stayed with me, and I knew someday I’d do my best to help fight the scourge of cancer.
As the CEO of a wig company, I thought providing wigs for women who had suffered hair loss would be a natural synergy, and decided to take some wigs there for my inaugural visit. I worked with Pauline Gwom, the Head Colourist at Kuku’s Hair, who made all the wigs, coloured them, and ensured the fit was exact. My executive assistant, Grace Alaine, took charge of logistics.
Wow, it was all hands on deck from the Kuku’s Hair team. When we read stories of people going through different stages of cancer, we hear about the hair and weight loss, but there’s not a lot of emphasis on the effect on the psyche of the patient. Did this have any impact on your decision to work on this project?
Oh definitely, this was why I had the idea to start out with donating wigs. The crux of my work is making women look and feel beautiful. No matter how confident we are, a lot of times, looking good on the outside helps to bolster our feelings. I’ve seen women who lost their hair and tried to hide it with scarves because they were self-conscious, so I thought giving some of the women our high-quality wigs would go a long way in alleviating the process.
The happiness they showed when I presented them with the wigs were so potent. They told me stories of how downtrodden, how unattractive, how depressed they felt. A wig is certainly not a cure-all, but it can play a small part.
Definitely, you’re right. So, tell us about the partnership with Sebeccly. How did you choose the organization you were going to work with?
I specifically wanted one that worked with women, that was recognized as an official non-profit, that included low-income women in their demographic, and was run under the highest standards possible. I searched for a few weeks before I came across Sebeccly. It didn’t hurt that they had a very distinct internet presence, so were not difficult to find.
The partnership with Sebeccly is still in its early stages. I started with meeting the patient, meeting the staff, hearing their concerns and what they need. Because I feel, too often, people tend to rush into philanthropy, with the best of intentions, but not always knowing the right approach to take. So I’ve always been conscious of that and thought it was imperative I understand what the ladies need, then proceed from there.
My project is women-focused and has always been targeted at women in low-income brackets and of all ages. Specifically, with Sebeccly, the economic bracket doesn’t really matter; my focus is all the women who are patients there. They are between the ages of 28 and 40 and go as high as stage 3. The most common cancers I witnessed were breast, cervical and skin cancers.
So many young women! This is so sad. Did you face any push back or constraints as you embarked on this project? Were there any specific challenges?
Not really, it’s 100% funded by me, so I didn’t have to check with anyone. The only constraint might have been availability, as we had been in talks for months, but our schedules kept conflicting. Besides that, it was a very smooth process.
Usually people are wary of someone coming with gifts (without asking for something in return) how did you get the recipients of the wigs to trust you? Trust your intentions…
I understand situations like these may seem a bit self-serving, especially as charity has been so misused. But I’m a very genuine person and authenticity is blatant – it can’t be hidden. My first meeting with the ladies had them a bit hesitant, but by the time we all shared our stories and I’d spent time with them, it was easy to tell that this was a frank and honest exchange. Especially when I took my wig off as well!
The only reason I’m even making the visit public, is to help get Sebeccly some more assistance. Raising awareness about the work they do is a big part of the partnership proposal we’re working on
We’re very happy that we’re a part of this awareness endeavour. Can you share any of the stories from your visit with the women?
There was a lady who took off her wig to show her scars. Her story struck a chord in me. She felt a lump in her breast and rightly went to the hospital. The doctor took out the lump, tested it and declared it was benign.
A few weeks down the line and she was bleeding, so she returned for a second opinion. After another test, it was found to be malignant, and the doctor recommended her breast be removed immediately. She resisted the diagnosis, insisting that to remove her breast would be to strip her of her femininity. Even the doctor telling her that being alive was more important than being feminine didn’t deter her ,and she decided to take her chances.
Not too long after, her breast began to rot and give off a very pungent, putrid odour. She was rushed back to the hospital and immediately put on chemotherapy and she survived.
Her story touched me because I know this is a woman who didn’t want to die, but in that moment of panic, made a decision that would have killed her. I can’t imagine the mental and physical strain she must have been under. Her account really stayed with me.
At some point during the visit, she took off her wig to show me her scars, and I was so moved I took mine off as well. I wanted to show her that looking beautiful or glamorous does not define us; we are more than luxury items, make-up, lashes and wigs. I wanted her to know that I stood with her and underneath all the finery, we are all exactly the same. All female, all strong and always holding each other up in love.
This is so powerful. Please share with some of the lessons you’ve learned from this project
The fragility of life, definitely. That just because one has never experienced tragedy doesn’t mean you’re special or blessed. That money can become meaningless when one is literally confronted with death. It was a very humbling experience.
So, behind every charitable venture is a cost that nobody really quite talks about. Do you have any plans to scale up the project?
Oh definitely. I initially said I went there for an inaugural conversation to find out what they need, and there’s a lot. There are no air conditioners, no large generators. I intend to see if those items can be provided. I also want to look into starting a community for cancer patients to be able to come together and share amongst themselves and also provide for their needs. I’m still drawing up what form that might take for now, so I don’t have any concrete plans as at yet.
Right now, we’re in the process of drawing up a long-term proposal for a partnership. It should involve a more financial collaboration and more public awareness to their cause.
This is very important. The work seems a lot and daunting, Akunna; what keeps you going?
Just the thought of helping women, of helping to save their lives, putting smiles on their faces. I’ve given to charity and been involved in non-profit work for years, but I have never made it public. This is the first time. And that’s because it’s a big project and I foresee it’ll need a lot of hands.
The benefits of privilege are not something we should keep to ourselves. It is our duty as human beings to share our blessings, and I have been abundantly blessed. It would be evil to keep it all to myself. I have a son who I’m raising to be a good man, and our charge as parents is to ensure the world we bring our children into is a better one than we met it. This is just a little part of me executing that charge.
Because it takes one to reach one, How can BNers reading this help? What can we do?
Sebeccly was founded in 2006 by Dr Omolola Salako out of a need to improve cancer services, and the work she’s doing with these women is phenomenal and deserves all of our support. We can all support Dr. Salako in our own way, to ensure Sebeccly keeps running and inject a little sunshine into the lives of these brave women.
If you’d like to support Sebeccly, you can reach out to the Programs Coordinator, Olamide Olatunde, at [email protected]
Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It’s an honour. We hope BellaNaijarians reading this will contribute to Sebeccly (and other organizations helping others) in any way they can.