Before Olutosin and Urmila met in person, they had already changed each other’s lives.
Although they are divided by their geography—Urmila lives in India and Olutosin in Nigeria—the two women see themselves as sisters. Their online friendship has boosted Urmila’s confidence as a journalist, strengthened Olutosin’s evolving role as a mentor, and surprised both women with the depth of love that can grow from a few supportive messages sent through the Internet. Here they join their voices together to tell their story.
Olutosin: After three years of online friendship, I couldn’t believe I was finally in my dear sister Urmila Chanam’s home in Bangalore, India. Her whole family was there to welcome me with food, love, storytelling, and eager conversation. Urmila’s sister-in-law confided in me, “We have never had such a huge feast in this house before, and I have never anticipated the visit of a foreigner like this.” Her mother went into her wardrobe to decorate my neck and ears with her precious jewels. Her elder brother said to me, “Young woman, I have heard so much about you from Urmila. Please make yourself comfortable. Our home is your home.”
“My daughter,” Urmila’s father advised me, “Go and write your story. Make it into a book for the next generation because I made a mistake. I did not write the story of my experiences in the Indian army. Now I have forgotten everything and it will enter into the grave with me. Write about your experiences, make others read and learn from those facts.”
Later that night as I lay in my bed I reminded myself of Urmila’s father’s advice. I whispered into the wall in the thick darkness: “Olutosin, go and write the story of sisterhood before your memory fails.”
2011: A Friendship Sparks
Urmila: Our relationship began through a medium most consider frivolous—the Internet. Olutosin would read my articles on World Pulse and leave comments. I don’t even remember how the comments on my stories transitioned to undivided support, to affection, to understanding, to love. I began to share everything with her and she returned by sharing everything with me. From messages on World Pulse, we also began communicating through Facebook and Gmail. We used Skype to talk to each other, share our dreams, our aspirations, our thoughts, and our souls. We also shared our disappointments and our heartaches. We shed many tears for each other’s hardships.
Olutosin: On World Pulse, I had already experienced incredible support, motivation, love, solidarity, and kindness. I received six months of citizen journalism training. I was mentored by two great women who were committed long-term to my cause. I had access to help in times of distress or sickness, and recommendations for leadership programs, grants, and awards. I knew I had a home in more than 100 countries. I had a mountain made of sisters. I had international recognition, respect, improved writing skills and self-confidence. I had new dreams. After receiving so much from World Pulse, I decided to give back to every aspiring sister who raised her hand looking for friendship and sisterhood.
Finding a Shoulder to Lean On
Urmila: In the afternoons my bedroom gets very warm. I remember a day when the back of my neck was wet from perspiration. I was drowsy and demoralized like never before. But I knew I could not rest yet. I had to look up more job portals and apply for more jobs. I needed a job and I needed it badly. I had lost count of how many interviews I had been to.
A good job is hard to come by in India, where it seems journalists are sworn to poverty. I was a social development journalist and I couldn’t find newspapers with a beat other than politics, crime, fashion, travel, business, and food! My self-esteem and my resources started to dwindle. There came a time in my life when I began to think how much a meal would cost me and if I could make do with eating just boiled corn in the street before I got home.
Olutosin: We all need encouragement and support to become better, more focused, individuals. I was driven to stretch my hand to Urmila, who is blessed with openness and desire for change. All I had to offer her was my commitment and loyalty.
Urmila: The day I was shortlisted for a big position in a renowned organization, I still remember finding Olutosin online and breaking the news to her. I was jubilant to have the opportunity to compete for the position. “Go, sister, go!!!” were Olutosin’s words before I left for the interview. I faced a difficult selection procedure, where I learned that this selection had been going on for a few days and there were many others who were competing for the position. I gave it my best, but deep in my heart I had decided I could not expect to get this job. When I walked out I looked back to that big beautiful office, thinking this would be the last time I would see it.
When I met Olutosin online that night, she asked me about my interview. She now tells me that this is what I told her: “I did well but I have no chance of getting that job. There were so many out there who had better qualifications than me.” Olutosin responded with reassurance and unwavering faith in me, which motivated me to hold on to hope and optimism.
Olutosin: Like every sister, Urmila has myriad issues and most of these issues are a mirage; they do not really exist. They are fragments of our imagination, borne out of fear due to our socialization and tradition. I realized that, like me, she needed a push from someone who would just stay behind her and say “go ahead,” just as it was instilled in me by other women on World Pulse.
Passing the Torch
Olutosin: Once, when Urmila sent me an email about a bad day at work, I responded to her with advice that my World Pulse mentor Ma Natalie Safir gave me in 2009: "There are some cases when those people you look up to make you feel as if you are a non-existing rag. It has nothing to do with you; it has a lot to do with them. Some people cannot handle what is right with you." As I went on, Urmila penned down all my advice, just the way I had written down the advice of my World Pulse mentors Ma Natalie Safir and K-Lee Starland.
Urmila: Olutosin has been there to hear what I have to say, to correct me when I waiver, to pick me up when I fall, to boost me when I lack confidence, and to believe in me when things go wrong. This is what I have found in the global sisterhood at World Pulse.
2013: Meeting in Person
Urmila: I could not believe it when Olutosin told me, “I am coming to India!!!!!!!!” She would be traveling to Kerala for a program at an organization called Kanthari. Later, in October, she would come to my city.
Olutosin: I would have an opportunity to meet my dear Urmila! She jumped and screamed when I informed her.
We have our pains and our tears and those moments of fear, but above all, we have one another. We cherish every opportunity to learn from each other.
When I arrived in Kerala, even before Urmila and I had a chance to meet in person, she offered a broad shoulder of support to me. She was always online to chat. “What do you need?” She would ask me. “Do you want your phone to be recharged? Do you want more Maaza (an Indian drink I love)? How can I mail Maaza to Kanthari? Should I send some money to your phone? Do you want to call your daughters?”
Ah, sometimes I would get fed up with her desire to give everything—even what she does not have at hand. I would scream, “I do not want anything!” Urmila’s love and kindness brings tears to my eyes. I could not ask for more.
Urmila: When Olutosin called me and told me she had taken a train to Bangalore and would reach my city in a few hours’ time, it all began to feel real. I was waiting for her, lost in my thoughts as flashes of what Olutosin and I had shared all these years came to me. My eyes filled with tears remembering how she had been a source of motivation and affection for as long as I had known her. And I had not even met the woman!
A small voice behind me broke my trance. “My sister! Is that you?” were her first words spoken to me in person.
Olutosin: Just imagine, we have been online friends for three years. She has become well-known to me like the back of my palm. I sighted her immediately, waiting by the roadside. “This is my sister,” I informed my roommate who accompanied me. Surprised, she asked me, “How did you know that she is the one?” I smiled and responded, “I don’t see her as an online friend anymore. I have accepted her as my sister and I can recognize every one of my sisters when I see them.”
Urmila: I jumped up and embraced her. We laughed, we hugged, we cried, we screamed. We beamed from within.
Olutosin: Everything stood still at the BEL Circle junction in Bangalore. We had so much to say at that moment; we both started talking without listening to each other. We had bottled up so many unsaid things, waiting for a warm embrace, for the ripe boil of our words to burst out. It was our moment, a time we had patiently waited for these past years.
Urmila: One of the first things I told her was, “I got that job, sister!!”
Breaking Down Barriers
Urmila: A circle was completed that day. I met the woman who had played such an important role in my life for so long. I realized that there isn’t any difference between a ‘real life’ and ‘virtual’ friend—there are just true friends!
Olutosin: World Pulse is a community of great people who are yet to meet. We are not just online people. We exist! We have a pulse, we have blood, we are human, we are clicking away softly at our computers in nooks and crannies throughout the world.
Urmila: Olutosin and I spent an entire day together in my house while she was here. I cooked for her with joy and we ate together as one big family.
This is what I want to say to all women of the world: Don’t you ever doubt that we women can support each other across continents and across manmade barriers. We can be there for each other to share our problems and seek joint solutions—until one fine day distance becomes just a word. Like it did for Olutosin and me.
Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale is the Founder of Star of Hope Transformation Centre in Lagos, Nigeria and a citizen journalist. She has traveled the globe and carries the message to support education of the girl child. She trains women to become entrepreneurs in a bid to strive for economic independence and empowerment. A powerful speaker, she is a change maker in her community, her country, and wherever she goes.
Urmila Chanam is a social development professional in HIV/AIDS, a gender rights activist, and a journalist in Bangalore, India. She works with vulnerable communities including transgendered people, sex workers, and trafficked women and girls. A columnist for a leading English daily, she writes against child marriage, domestic violence, and trafficking of women.
Olutosin and Urmila are currently working together to make a documentary film on Olutosin’s entrepreneurship trainings for marginalized women in remote parts of India.
And this is just a beginning.