A Conversation with Sister Francisca Ngozi Uti, A Sister in the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, Nigeria

With: Francisca Ngozi Uti Berkley Center Profile

April 27, 2023

Background: Sister Francisca Ngozi Uti, HHCJ, initiated and leads a center in Nigeria that aims to advance women’s empowerment. The center focused initially on the challenges for religious women, but its mandate now encompasses all women and girls. This discussion with Katherine Marshall in Washington, DC, on April 27, 2023, during a fellowship visit explored the different dimensions of her work, beginning with what she describes as the “torch,” the fire that inspired her to take on a wide range of issues confronting women in Nigeria and beyond. She addresses tensions that can arise between her strong commitment to human rights as the anchor of her work and her commitment to obedience and poverty that is part of her life as a Catholic sister. She discusses both her own position and relationships within the Catholic Church where child spacing and contraception are concerned. She explores issues linked to culture and religion and the processes of change that are part of the broad goal of empowering women and girls.

The discussion with Sister Ngozi forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters participating in the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship (WFLF). The fellowship works to amplify the visibility, vitality, and voice of Catholic sisters in responding to the complex challenges and opportunities faced by women religious within their organizations and communities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University have collaborated in the design and delivery of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Sister Jane Frances is a fellow in the inaugural cohort, and this discussion forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters in that context.

Where did you start? Where you came from, and how you became a sister?

I was born in the northern part of Nigeria. My parents lived then in Jos, the capital of what is today Plateau State. I’m the third of 10 children.

My full name is Ngozichukwuka, which means “God’s blessing is the greatest,” and it was given to me because of the circumstances of my birth. My father was the youngest and only male of three children, and the extended family wanted him to bear male children to keep up the family name. He got married early to my mother. My mother had their first child, a girl, then the second child, also a girl. She was actually warned that if she begat another girl, she would have to go, because the family wanted more male children. But when I was born, another girl, my father thought otherwise and said “No” to the family: he was not going to get married to another woman. He was going to keep all his girls, even though he did not know what the future would be for them. And that was how one of several names that I have is Ngozichukwuka. That’s the one I love most, so I keep that one. I was baptized Francesca, my middle name Ngozichukwuka, and my family name Uti. But then in my profession, I didn’t want to change any of my names, so I swapped. That is why in religion, I am actually Sister Ngozi Frances Uti, HHCJ, which is the name I like because I know what it means. Later in life, I picked the short form Frances, and Frances means independent. But you cannot really be independent as a nun with a vow of obedience.

Anyway, I grew up and I went to primary school, which is the equivalent of your elementary school, then secondary school, which is high school. And in between, I met the sisters of the congregation of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA), who were my teachers in both primary and secondary schools. I developed some kind of interest in the religious life. As children, when the sisters asked, “How many of you want to be sisters?” I answered, “I want to be a sister.” But that fizzled out for some time.

Has your family been Catholic for a long time?

Yes, yes, yes. Well, I wouldn’t say from a long time ago, because this was in the 1950s. Christianity had come in and it was growing. My grandparents were not Catholics, but my parents were Catholics because they had met with missionaries. I wouldn’t say they converted, as it were, because I don’t know what religion they practiced at that time. But I was born a Catholic and I was baptized a Catholic.

Where did you go to school?

I had my primary school in Jos, Our Lady of Apostles Primary School, which was run by the Our Lady of Apostles sisters. The Nigerian Civil War of 1965 broke out by the time I was ready to go to secondary school, and my family was now forced to leave the north and go back to the south (I’m from the south, originally, even though born and bred in the north). That’s where I had my secondary education, at Marymount College in Agbor. At the time it was Midwestern State, but today it’s in Delta State. My secondary school there in Agbor was also run by the Our Lady of Apostle sisters. So, that’s it.

It was actually on a trip of happy memory to the episcopal ordination of Bishop Most Rev. Dr. Gabriel Gonsum Ganaka, whom I knew as a child growing up in Jos. Just traveling on the train, I met a group of sisters (nuns) and traveled with them as we were all going for the same ceremony. I fell in love with one of them: the way she was, always on her own, picky about food (I didn’t know it was because she had an ulcer). I admired that she was not eating like the rest of them. It was actually on that trip that it hit me again that these beautiful women were nuns. And that’s how my vocation was rekindled. As soon as I got back from that trip, I went back to the OLA sisters, who were those I knew, and inquired about what it takes to be a religious. I was 19 at the time, and I was actually working. I had finished secondary school and wasn’t too sure what to do with myself, but I needed something to keep me busy while I was still discerning. There are times in one’s life when you are not too sure what’s the way forward or what one really wants to be. Eventually, I joined the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. This was in 1974. And that’s how my life as a religious started.

And they were a Nigerian order?

Yes. They were founded in Nigeria. Actually, it’ll be 100 years this year that our foundress Mother Mary Charles Magdalen Walker, RSC, arrived in Nigeria from England. She traveled from Ireland to England because she needed some special permission to come to Nigeria. Her congregation was then known as the Irish Sisters of Charity, today Religious Sisters of Charity. When the invitation came to their congregation for sisters to come to Africa, to Nigeria in particular, to help with the education of girls, her congregation was excited about that invitation. But then they wanted to be sure of the decision they were about to take, and so they made inquiries.

At that time, in the early 1920s, Africa was considered the white man’s grave. Not many people—except those who were prepared to die and those who loved taking risks—were able to embrace the call and come out to evangelize. So, at one of their chapters, the congregation put an end to the discussion and decided that they were not going to accept the invitation. But one of them, Sister Mary Charles Magdalen Walker, our foundress, had this burning zeal in her heart that she wanted to go make a difference in the lives of the children. She had to appeal to Rome, to the Holy Father. Eventually, she got the special permission to live outside her religious community and traveled to Africa. So that’s how she came to Nigeria, and she started with the education of girls in Calabar, southeastern Nigeria.

So, the congregation was focused on girls from the beginning?

Girls and women from the beginning. Actually, I can put it that we were founded to empower women and girls, because that’s what she came out to do. She lived for 10 years alone, but her health failed, and other issues came up later, so she had to leave Nigeria. She actually started the Montessori teaching method in Africa. People used to come to her to learn more about the Montessori method.

Before she left Nigeria, four of the young women that she taught and trained had expressed their intention to be nuns. I don’t think they quite understood what it meant, because we didn’t have that tradition and way of life. I don’t think they understood fully that taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were contrary to our way of life. Every young girl wants to be married, and every family will want their young daughters to be married somehow to have children. Mothers will want to have grandchildren and go to take care of them.

Poverty: how can one take a vow to be poor and you cannot give anything? In our own situation or culture, if you are trained and educated, then it’s your duty to help to educate somebody else from the extended family. So, it was odd to think that someone would want to live alone, a poor life.

She started the congregation. And just before she left, those four were hooded. This is the first step of their formation. And that’s why in another seven years, 2031, we shall be celebrating a hundred years as a congregation. We’re actually the first indigenous congregation on the west African coast; I’m sure of that.

So you joined, very young, after secondary school.

After my secondary school, I worked with the then-Ministry of Labor as a clerk. I took up employment from 1972 to 1974, then I went to the convent after my twentieth birthday. So, that has been my journey.

That’s the beginning! So then what?

I finished my education, my high school, secondary school education, joined the congregation, and finished my formation. I made first profession of vows on August 15, 1977. Then I took up some other primary apostolates mainly in education. At the time, I was more into teaching, and I taught in elementary schools.

Then I went for further studies in the United Kingdom, sent by my congregation. I had my first degree from the University College, Cardiff, in Wales, and then my postgraduate studies at the Institute of Science and Technology in Cardiff, after which I came home and worked as assigned me by my religious superiors. Within the period I worked in one of the major seminaries—Saints Peter and Paul, Bodija, and Ibadan—as the bursar and a lecturer.

Then, in 1997, I had this inspiration which was like a burning torch.

You had this torch?

Torch. A feeling. A fire burning within me. Actually, let me explain why I feel that way. For me, it was the fact that as women religious, at the time, we were really not given the freedom and opportunity that we needed to excel and prove our worth. It was like we were being stifled in the Church. We didn’t have the freedom like the men had. And I didn’t quite understand what gender equality, women’s empowerment, was all about. I didn’t know what it was, but that was what was burning within me. That we needed to do something. At the same time, it was going to be a difficult journey. There are times when you rear your head and you are afraid of the next step and say, “Oh, how far will I go with this?”

I mentioned it to my superior general, and she discussed it with her council. They didn’t quite understand what I was talking about. But I guess because I was persistent in what I wanted to do and knew that I had found grace, I was focused. I had one or two sisters who encouraged me, especially Sister Caroline Mbonu, HHCJ, who was my classmate during our formation. At that time, she was a member of the general council, and she said to me, “Ngozi, you know what, just go ahead. Just keep on trying. Put the pieces together, remain focused, but above all pray about it. I will support you with my prayers, too.” That was a good support, and it really gave me the courage to move on.

I didn’t have a clear strategy, so I started reading and I started asking questions. The internet was not then so familiar to me. Even though I was one of those who took up computer studies at the initial stage in undergraduate studies in my first year, it was just to pass that course. I didn’t know that in the future, it was going to be the way of life of people. So, I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to it. But I did it, studied, worked to pass it, and got a good grade.

As with my superior at the time, it was not an easy decision to make because it was a new apostolate. It was like, “You know, Ngozi will not let us be if we ignore her. She will not give us a breathing space if we don’t allow her to start this project. So, let us give her the permission. We know it’ll just fizzle out.” Each time I remember it, it takes my mind back to Peter and John and the intervention of Gamaliel, a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin, who advised that they should not stop the apostles from preaching in the name of Jesus, because the enterprise will survive if it is destined to be.

I just took it in my own stride: “If it survives, good. If it doesn’t, I would have tried.” And so, I initiated it, and I got the blessing of my superior general at the time.

So, it was what? Study, or to start the center?

To start the CWSI [Centre for Women Studies and Intervention]. I had finished my studies at the time and was working as the coordinator of projects in the congregation. Before then, I had done some other assignments.

I got started. First, I needed to get it registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, which I did. When I completed the process, work started. With time, we had to add more programs. We started with awareness programs on human rights, then with women’s empowerment. But what was women’s empowerment? What was there for the women to know? They needed to know about their rights as human rights, but what else? We had to look at cultural and religious practices that dehumanized them. We needed to know more about universal rights, which was a starting point for us at CWSI. I had to learn a lot of things that I was ignorant about but which were important if we were to make the needed impact.

But God was really faithful, and God guided me along the way. So, the fear of the center dying out for different reasons was surmounted. We overcame a first big obstacle, which I do not need to talk about in this conversation, and it was a big obstacle.

So this started a long time ago?

It was registered in 1999, almost 24 years ago. The headquarters are in Abuja, but we work in other places. Actually, when we started, we were working in many states, but we have now decided to streamline, to consolidate. And we now work in four states. We work in Cross River State, Delta State, Kogi State, and Ebonyi State. And then we work in the Federal Capital Territory.

And what is the main work that you do? Is it training or research?

We do capacity training. We do research—but a different kind of research, and at the end of which we try to advocate through intergenerational dialogue with the community to eliminate any practice that we find relegates women and girls to the background. My main goal or objective is to see CWSI as a research center where, call it a one-stop bus stop, anyone can come in and say, “Okay, I hear that in this state or in this part of the country, this is prevalent. Can I find something?" And the person can actually find literature, documentations in CWSI. That is my goal. We’ve not reached there. We’ve done some small research projects, but that’s really not what my dream is. My dream is to see it a research center worth its name.

In the last three years, I’ve always told people I meet, funders I come across, that my ultimate goal is to make CWSI a research center where one can come in and say, “I need to look at issues on violence against women.” And you will have cases to refer to, you will have examples to cite, but it’ll be from a document. If these findings are not documented, then there is no evidence of what has been done, and after some time they are forgotten.

Let me give an example of the kind of issue I am talking about. In carrying out our program in a particular area, we discovered what the local community calls “money women”; that was of interest to the center. We researched on it and produced a small pamphlet. What the center did was not enough and did not go far. After what CWSI considered a finished work, an international NGO heard about it. They went to the place, did more elaborate work, including radio and television interviews, and put it out. And of course, since they got more publicity, they received the credit. It was like they were the first to discover that practice. There is really nothing wrong in others working on the same topic, but we should have had something more elaborate that others, including these organizations, could have referred to.

Let me explain what “money women” is. When a married woman is pregnant, her sister-in-law could say to her, “When this child is delivered, if she is a girl then she is married to Mr. A.” This is before the child is born. Most times, Mr. A could be someone already in his forties. So, this child, this unborn child, is already married before birth. And we didn’t think that was a good practice, because as soon as the child is of age, she would be forced to marry the man. She’s a child. As soon as she is 10 years old, she is taken to her husband. We looked at the practice, we did some research to a certain extent, and we stopped. We just produced a small pamphlet. But later, some other organizations took the credit even though I do not know if there is a printed document.

If CWSI gets some funding, I would want to go back to the community, do more research, and look at what will be the way forward, to find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem. Because even though people believe that they have stopped, there are still people who practice it. It’s in Cross River State, one of the states in the South-South geopolitical zone of the country. So, that is the kind of issue we take on and what more we hope to do in the future.

That’s how the center got started. How far does it have a religious focus, and how far is it non-religious?

From the beginning, it was clear that we would work with anybody who is a woman or a girl, irrespective of her religion. We have three major religions in Nigeria: Christianity, Islam, and traditional. We cannot rule out the fact that some of our family members are still traditional religionists. They believe in God; it’s not like their religion is all idol worshipping. They believe in a God that they worship with good intentions, but it’s an unknown god. Like Saint Paul pointed out to the people of Athens, this unknown god, this one that you labeled as an unknown god, is actually the God we are preaching to you and that you worship without knowing.

So, we work with anyone who is a woman or a girl. And when we do, when we carry out programs on conscientizing men on the need for them to have a shift in their mindset, we don’t discriminate. We don’t go there as laywomen; we go there as religious. And since we are not invisible, what will I say? Each time we go out, we have to dress as nuns, in our religious habit. So, anyone who sees me knows I am a nun. But we try to let them know, first of all, that we are not coming to preach religion to them or to convert them. What we want is to look at the rights of the woman, how we can empower her and how they—men—can help us in achieving this, which is gender equity for a better life for all.

So, you went from a concern about the women religious to women much more broadly?

Yes. At one stage we worked with the women religious. When we started, we went across the nation to educate women religious on their rights as human beings, but conscious of their vow of obedience. Some of us still live at the level of “the bishop or the parish priest has said,” and so we accept that without asking questions. We should be able to express our own opinions as human beings and expect to be listened to.

But there’s always a friction between my basic human rights and my vow of obedience. And that’s what we are trying to grapple with now. 

When a religious says she has a right as a human being, she should remember that it was as an adult she gave up those rights. When I, Ngozi, said, “I accept to live by the rules, the constitutions, and the directory of the congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus” as an adult, I have in a way, given up those rights because it’s clearly spelt out in the constitution, what I can or cannot do.

So, we started with that, and we are still working on it. I am sure you have listened carefully to some of the conversations we the sisters have had during this nearly two weeks [of a WFLF cohort training session in Washington, DC]. You have heard us talk about “my superior general or the leadership of the congregation,” which is true of our life as religious. But there is always room for dialogue, which is very important. Whatever a religious wants to do there must be dialogue, even though at the end the superior takes the final decision. In dialogue, there are always opportunities to learn and reach better solutions.

But as you also said, there’s a torch and a passion for some cause that can drive you and also lead to tension.

It will or it might lead to tension. But I know, if, for example, I wanted to come for this program, and my superior general says, “No, I don’t think you should,” I’ll try to explain to her, we’ll dialogue, why it’s important for me to be part of this program. But if at the end of the day she says, “No, you cannot go,” I’ll take it that I cannot go. I cannot go against her decision. As a religious if I go, and at the end of the program when I return and she welcomes me back but says, “No, Ngozi, that’s not what we want; you cannot go any further,” then that will be it. As I said earlier, I needed the permission of my superiors to start CWSI. If at any point she and her council said no, then that would have been it. Even now, there are things we have to talk about, just to be on the same and right page.

For example, we the sisters were all concerned about the co-funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. We expressed that feeling because we belong to a Church that has social teachings. So, we needed clarification. Is this safe for us? Because we could have started and the Vatican says, “Oh wait a minute, these sisters from these congregations are in partnership with this group, and we know what the world thinks or says about their activities.” And they might say, “No, you cannot. You either stop, or...” So, you have to constantly think of your congregation and the Church you belong to.

You worked with Thoraya Obaid, when she was director general of UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund]. How did that happen, and were there issues with that?

There were no issues as such because as we worked, it was clear to them how far CWSI could go. Like I said, the Church is not against responsible parenthood, as some call it. And to do responsible parenthood, people have to have knowledge. So, it means that sexual relationships will be limited to marriage. That’s what the Church teaches. If young people, even married couples, want to space their children, the Church teaches and believes in the Billings natural family planning method. So, we cannot really say the Church does not believe in child spacing. It is the method. It is the method that is the issue, because there is life from the moment of conception. For this reason, contraception and abortion are not acceptable in any of our work.

So, in whatever we do or advocate for, we make sure contraception is not part of it, so also issues on abortion. So, when I worked with UNFPA, we let them know what we could do, areas around maternal and child care, even interreligious dialogue. UNFPA is not all about abortion and contraception. There are other aspects of their work that are great. Another example would have been collaborating with Frances Kissling and her organization, Catholics for Choice. As soon as I understood the objectives of their programs, I made it clear to her that we would not have anything to do with them. I will not engage in any project that has to do with abortion, contraception, the use of condoms, pills, and all that. I made it very clear to her. 

But when I also realized the tension between that organization and the Church, we cut off and severed that relationship. We hit a no-go area. I cannot compromise my religion and religious life and what I believe for that. 

So, that is the same way I worked with UNFPA. And UNFPA at the time was not just about family planning. One of the things we wanted was to see how to bring women of different religions together, to work as women, which was not about family planning. Sadly, that project did not materialize as it were, because the major stakeholders moved on to other locations.

So, it’s about knowing where to draw the line. If a funder says to me today, “I’ll give you X amount of money for your programs, to address LGBT issues.” No matter how much money, I shall not accept it for the simple reason that it is against my belief and faith. Moreover, the Catholic Church does not believe in it. I personally don’t believe in it, and most if not all the cultures in Nigeria do not accept it. If you give me funds for whatever and expect me to promote LGBT, I will not accept. I’ll not go with you. So, that is it.

You have made many very wise comments about culture and how you see the role of culture versus religion in bringing about change, including in women’s roles. Can you elaborate?

I think culture is a way of life of the people. And we were brought up in a particular culture, in a particular context. There are things that even though Christianity has come and taught us a new way of life as it were, it’s for us to see how we can live within that culture, and make it what God will want it to be. In places where it is the culture of the people that when a king dies, he’s buried with some slaves, that is not good. So, we have to begin to educate our people to know that this type of culture is bad, because we have no right to take human life. Every life is sacred because it is created by God, in the image and likeness of God—no slave, all free, we are equal in the sight of God.

That’s an extreme case. But there are other cultures that are bad in our present-day reality and one can stop them. Take the issue of inheritance rights in some cultures which discriminate against girls and women. First, I don’t believe in it because that child did not ask to be brought into the world, and neither did she create herself a girl. It’s not her making. And if the culture says, “No, because she’s a girl, she cannot inherit,” it is discrimination, and it is wrong. That’s the culture of the people. But is it right? No, it's not right.

Where a woman has only female children, when her husband dies, everything that both of them have worked for and possessed, is taken from her, and given to other family members. The dead man had a wife and children. So, what happens to the woman and her children? They are impoverished, and when the woman can no longer cope, the children end up on the streets. And except for God’s intervention, that is the level at which they remain for life. So, we try to speak against such cultures and work towards changing them with the help of the traditional rulers who are the custodians of their culture. You can now see why it is important that our people begin to understand the need for a change in mindset. One thing is sure: we have many rich cultures that need to be preserved.

Most religious teachings had cultures that they had to fight against. The apostles had to teach people, “No, this is wrong.” 

Starting with the Jewish people, there were arguments about what was accepted in a culture but was against the principles and teachings of the Christian religion. That is always what we say: “Our religious tradition does not accept this.” The Jews even until today hold fast to their belief and traditions. There were tensions, but they were settled amicably. Christianity condemned most traditional practices in Africa, and that is why there seem to be some misunderstandings. There must be a meeting point. And that is what we try to do at CWSI. We do not accept that every cultural practice is bad.

What you’re saying, as I hear it, is that you need to understand the culture, the way people live, but not accept it as immutable. That it is changed through education and dialogue, not through imposition.

We have to educate the people. We have to read our laws. At least now, we have international laws and treaties that govern these norms. You have to let them know about these laws and the implications of what happens if they continue in the old ways. Times have changed and they have to follow suit. So, that’s actually what we do at CWSI.

Interestingly, Gandhi was very clear in saying: you take the good in culture, and you reject the bad.

That is true. I believe in what Gandhi said. You take the good. That’s what it is, because we have a lot of cultures that are good. We have a lot of traditions that we can’t throw away. But when Christianity came, it kind of saw everything that we did as fetish and negative. It was like starting on the negative part of it. We destroy everything you do; nothing good comes out of this. But now, they’re beginning to understand that the culture of any group of people cannot be all bad. We had and still have reasons for doing them. And it’s not like we have no brains. We have brains. We can also reason. We can think. And that was and still is our way of life. Just like it was your own way of life until you saw the light and you shifted a bit from what you had done in the past. So, that’s what it is.

So, now you are working at the center. Is that what you’re doing mostly? And what do you see the next years, what is your agenda?

For the next years, my goal is to continue to expand the scope of our work. Even in those states where we are working, I will not say we have reached all the communities because each community has its own unique way of life and beliefs. There are still communities that we need to get to. But it is important to concentrate on a few communities at a time, finish with those, and make sure the impact can be sustained before exiting. That takes some time. Continuity and sustainability are very key. Over and above all, like I keep saying: I’ve not shifted from my focus.

This fellowship has enabled me to come in contact with one thing that I’ve been dreaming about. And I’ve said it from day one: What I’m looking forward to is having a strong network that will bring sisters from other regions of Africa together, for us to work towards having a common voice. And now I have seen that I am not alone. From the west coast of Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, the sisters here have seen that we don’t have a regional conference of women religious or perhaps not a strong one. And it has been on my mind and I’m not going to shift from it. I have discussed it with an organization, CAFOD [Catholic Agency for Overseas Development], and they asked me to work with one of their officers in Malawi. We started, but then paused, because for me it is still a work in progress. I need to do a pilot project. So, it’s a dream.

But when you dream, there’s someone else in another part of the world who is also dreaming the same way. That’s what I have come to understand. There are people who have gone ahead of us. But it’s never too late to bridge the gap. To bridge the gap, we have to start somewhere. So, one of the things I want to see happen is that we have a regional network, and that I will start working on as soon as I get back home. I have my sisters in Sierra Leone, whom I can also ask to give me contacts to at least start something. I have the two sisters from Ghana, and we are thinking the same way. I know and believe that once started, it will grow. Moreover, now that there are sisters from other regions of Africa who now know me and the way I feel about this, I am sure I shall get their cooperation.

The second dream is in the same line of the research component of CWSI. I really, really, really want to see that come true, and that is my plea. We already have projects that we have done. We are not just going to start afresh. We’ve already done the first part of it, which is entry into the communities and working with them. We have several projects ready to go or ongoing. In some communities, where we have worked, the traditional rulers and the community leaders have accepted the changes we advocated for, and they have come up with bylaws that abolished those traditions. But we have to document and put them in forms, that somebody can come and say, “Oh, I saw this book somewhere on this issue.”

These are wonderful dreams and I am hopeful that you can achieve them! The clear goal that we share is a thoughtful but determined approach to translating the principles of equal rights into practice.

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