An Interview With Kiki Mordi, the Nigerian Journalist Behind the BBC’s #SexForGrades Documentary
Nigeria and Ghana have been reeling ever since the release of the Sex for Grades film from BBC Africa Eye earlier this week. It was an undercover expose of the sexual harassment and extortion female students face in two of prestigious universities. Since the release of the year-long investigation, #SexForGrades has been trending, and many more women have come forward with their own experiences. Four of the professors implicated in the footage have been suspended from their positions and the Nigerian Senate has decided to reintroduce a sexual harassment bill. Suffice it to say, the film has caused a stir.
The woman behind the film is Kiki Mordi, a 28-year-old Nigerian journalist who had experienced sexual harassment herself in her university years. We spoke with her in an exclusive and enlightening interview about her reaction to the waves she’s causing, what it is like to relive and report on traumatic situations and the depth of harassment culture. She also gives a direct answer to one of the implicated professor’s statements that she was enacting a form of neocolonialism.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: What is your perspective on the intense reaction that has happened since the release?
Equal parts shock and joy. I can’t deny that I knew a lot of women went through this and that I knew they would be able to relate. But I didn’t think that we would be as vocal as we are currently. So I’m happy that, the fact that we are able to be vocal about this one.
“Then I remembered my 19-year-old self, or a 17-year-old girl, and they do not have a panic button.”
It’s impressive how quickly it morphed into a movement. A lot of people have spoken up and it seems to have prompted actual action. For instance, how do you feel about the new legislation that was presented in Nigeria today?
It’s amazing that the subject has been revisited. As a matter of fact, one of the senators brought it up a couple of years back and it was just thrown out the window. Right now it is being revisited, so it means that this is a landmark. This is a point in our year where we all collectively decided we are ready to do something about it as universities, as government and as society as a whole.
It was also quite impressive that Nigeria’s First Lady Asha Buhari came out with a statement just after the report broke.
Yes. Sometimes we fear that the system is tone deaf and we talk and no one really listens. So it is nice to hear back. It’s nice to hear that you are not talking to yourself in an echo chamber but that people are actually listening to you and that the people up top are not disconnected from the realities of what the masses suffer.
One of the victims speaking about her experience with sexual extortion in university. Mordi wanted to protect the women’s identities but also give them faces that looked powerful and strong.(Photo Courtesy of BBC Africa Eye)What was it like to be in that room with the women wearing masks and discussing the events that transpired. How was that for you?
[Deep sigh] That was not easy. Honestly, that was not an easy place to be. There were so many things that I realized in that space, and while I was coming to these realizations, I still had to be professional in my job. I came to the realization of how these lecturers know that they have stripped you of all of the authority and power that you have–you know, your autonomy. They know.
There are some things you can’t capture on film. You can’t capture tension—which I could feel. You know, intimidation and body language. I myself, a trained journalist, was feeling that intimidation [when undercover] and I had a panic button that I could click and my crew would come and get me. Then I remembered my 19-year-old self, or a 17-year-old girl, and they do not have a panic button. They don’t have any training whatsoever. They are dependent completely and wholly on that lecturer to give her a good grade so that she can graduate. I just remembered how helpless and hopeless it was. And it made me feel so sad, it was such a sad feeling. Then there is also the feeling of disgust when the person just looks at you as a piece of meat. It is a very disgusting place to be. You ordinarily would want to run, take flight. I just wanted to be away from that space and I had to remind myself that I am here to do a job and a lot of women who might be harassed in the future are dependent on me. I had to do my job.
I think something that maybe what has tipped this story to be so influential at this moment is that in the way that it was filmed. As a viewer, you watch it and you think about the victims but more importantly you’re more disgusted and angry at how cavalier the behavior of the lecturers were. I’m not sure if that played any part but the timing has been crucial in this as well.
What is your take on how #MeToo and women’s rights movements across the continent coincide with your report?
I think that pouring my humanity into it—we all poured our heart and soul into it. Each and every one from the team, all these passionate, young, amazing women. Honestly they are the best, I can’t over emphasize how much we applied ourselves in this job. I poured my human self into it—my Nigerian woman into it. That is something a lot of people can instantly connect to. It is something that has been so unspoken for so long and I feel like if this film does as much as spark a small light, there are hundreds of thousands—in fact millions—of other women who are ready to ignite that fire.
“We will take back our rights, we will take back our bodies, we will take back our educations.”
Deep down I knew that a lot of women would connect because during the phase of talking to people, I could hear my story repeated over and over again. It was just millions of me everywhere. I crossed countries, all the way to Ghana, and it was the same thing.
One of the things I hoped to happen is that we would speak louder than the aggressor, the oppressor. The oppressor has the loudest voice here. How far can you go when you’re just a tiny drop in the ocean? How much can you really do? Well, right now, this strong sisterhood that I have experienced is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever felt and I am so glad to be in this generation of women who are not keeping quiet. Women who are yelling louder than the aggressor, than the oppressor. We will take back our rights, we will take back our bodies, we will take back our educations.
I am rooting for every woman. On days where I don’t have strength, I genuinely draw strength from the rest of the women who are still shouting, still talking and including their voices in this fight. What we’re saying here is “no more.” We know that it happens to everybody. “Me too” is apt here. Yes, me too, my sister too, my mom too—if you talk to a girl you will hear that her mom was harassed, her sister was harassed, she was harassed. We’re saying no more. Not any more. If this is a movement then I am happy for it to be that.
I was looking through all the reactions and responses on Twitter and there was one from a man who commented on how the lecturers would mention the family and using the family as a threat. His comment was that there is such a sadness in them knowing that the girl’s parents wouldn’t believe her and would put the professor first.
Honestly, that is a very significant part of the problem. For a lecturer to know he can weaponize your own parents against you–when I say that they have all the power, this is what I mean. They have all the power and all the support system and you have nothing as a young woman in school. You have nothing. Not even your own parents to support you.
There is an aspect of prestige that plays a very big part in the report, and of course in power as well. Do you think this behavior is just as rampant at smaller universities?
It’s worse at smaller universities! That’s why this is a testament to how ridiculous the scale is. The report shows universities that pride themselves on being the best and they will tick all the boxes to make sure they are the best. Except sexual harassment. It’s like women can be the collateral damage. People even came out to say “oh, don’t tarnish the image of the school.” They were okay with the school having such a great and prestigious image—so what if a few girls get harassed? So what if a hundred girls get harassed every year? Doesn’t matter as long as we look good. We all silently agree to it.
It’s not just prestigious universities. It is everywhere. It is a culture.
Did you hear Professor Gyampo called your report a form of neocolonialism?
Yes, I heard that. I just saw him as trying to grasp for straws, fighting for his life, using all the tools. It happens. Whenever I try to speak up for something, contrarians will say “well, what about this” or “what about that.” They’re saying it because they are angry, or bitter or evil. He is saying that it is white people. But I am a Nigerian. I was born here. I was failed by my own system and I decided to do something about my own system.
The journalists who worked in Ghana were Ghanaians, the journalists who worked in Nigeria were Nigerians. The person he was being inappropriate to was a Ghanaian woman. He didn’t think “oh, this woman is from my country, I should protect her.” He didn’t think that. And now that he has been exposed he thinks it is a testament that he will play on the emotions of Ghanaians and Nigerians and say the white people are trying to do us dirty. When, in fact, people like him are the ones who are staining the reputation of our country and we have to clean it up ourselves.