Patience Ozokwor on Life in the Refugee Camp: We saw people die…

by Sola Osofisan
patience ozokwor

I prepped for this interview like I was going to war. I had read many of the interviews she had granted over the years and felt there were several questions that still needed to be asked, gaps to fill.

I had about 30 questions on paper, not counting what would be follow-up questions. I wanted it to be a deep, reflective and revealing conversation. Instead, it turned out to be the most hurried and harried interview I have ever conducted. All questions and responses were interrupted by the festivities and fans around. And those were the minor interrupts. The major ones were stop-tape moments…painful, to say the least.

The agreement with her handlers was to have at least 30mins of her time before the public event she came for started. They brought her in more than an hour later than the event was scheduled to begin, and they were driving her down to Philadelphia immediately after for another occasion, so everything became rushed. It was either squeeze beside her, throwing in the occasional question between autograph signings and hugs, or wait another time. I chose to get whatever answers I could now and get another interview at some future date. Since I couldn’t get a proper interview going, we had a chat instead. Still, it was worth it. Strangely, while I worried about my tape’s recording level amidst the noise around us, Patience Ozokwor handled the attention effortlessly. She’s an actress after all…

Like many actors in Nollywood, Patience Ozokwor, known to many as Mama G (“G for General!”) has lost count of the number of home video films she has featured in. She started acting at the Teachers’ Training College in Afikpo, thanks to a literature instructor who made them get practically into the books they read in class.

Incredibly, Ozokwor’s membership of The Scripture Union – a cross-continental interdenominational Bible-teaching organization – could have deprived her many fans of her presence in Nigerian movies today. She reportedly delayed embracing Nollywood because she felt the involvement would give her “unnecessary exposure”.

That is water under the bridge though. She has more exposure now than she ever imagined and hasn’t become less a believer in God and the Bible.

As Nigerian and African movies mature in production values, the audience also matures in taste and critical appreciation. Still, some find it difficult to separate the reality of Nollywood from the make-believe world it creates. And so Ozokwor – as stereotyped in some of her movies in the role of the “wicked woman” – is sometimes imagined to be a “wicked” woman in real life. This, understandably, makes some of her fans hesitate before approaching her…Until she laughs…

She laughs a lot. A nice infectious sound that tinkles up her throat and out her mouth into the air around… She laughed out loud several times in the course of this conversation. She waved, smiled, laughed, signed a book or photo, hugged a warm body, laughed, posed for photos even while trying to follow the random train of my questions, laughed… She laughs a lot.

Patience Ozokwor’s husband was chosen for her by her parents. This was, of course, in a time when it was normal for parents to select spouses for their grown children, usually after varying criteria, depending on the locale. He passed on in the early 90s after an illness. The four children from the marriage are grown and achieving today.

Ozokwor who earned the name “Mama G” from the character she played in Old School, one of her movies, would like to be remembered for depositing something positive, no matter how miniscule, in the life of everyone she comes in contact with.

patience ozokwor

Image: Sola Osofisan

Sola Osofisan: Mama, I guess you’ve been to the US many times. What brought you here this time?

Mama G: This is my first time in the US.

Sola Osofisan: Really? So many of your movies imply you’ve been here several times.

Mama G: You know what movies are…Its make believe. But I’ve been to a lot of countries in Europe. I’ve been to Germany, several cities in Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, name it… I’ve also been to London. This is my first time in the US.

Sola Osofisan: You arrived on Thursday night?

Mama G: I arrived on the 14th (September 2007). That was my birthday.

Sola Osofisan: What did you do to celebrate your birthday? Did we mark it for you specially here in the US?

Mama G: Well, they tried. People around who received me, they tried. They gave me flowers and they took me out. I enjoyed myself.

Sola Osofisan: Compared with the rest of the places you’re traveled to all over the world, what’s the experience been with your fans here in the US?

Mama G: People are crazy to see me here in the US, you know… A lot of people who are not even Africans watch my movies. I love them so much. They take out time to tell me about my stories. I’m so impressed.

Sola Osofisan: They know your stories even more than you do.

Mama G: You know! They tell me about my stories. Even the role I played in the story. I’m shocked. People who are not Africans…Its so nice to be here.

Sola Osofisan: The US is so big, so you can’t even properly gauge how popular you are down here. But as you travel around, you will see…

Mama G: Not just that. Even back home, I receive calls from America. I don’t know how they get my number, but they call me from every part of the United States. That’s why I said I must set everything aside and come over here and see my fans because I like associating with my fans. I like to be with them at all times. I like to make them feel me (because) some think I’m not a human, you know… (LAUGHTER). So, coming to interact with them, see them, make them see that I’m still human like them. (INTERRUPTION)

Sola Osofisan: I know your parents had to relocate to Enugu due to the political crisis in Lagos when you were a kid. You had completed your primary school then, right?

Mama G: Yes, I was in Enugu. I have a sister who was a teacher. She always took us to school when we were very small. So, we always started school before the normal school age. So, that’s why I was able to get to where I was (academically) before the crisis.

And then during the crisis, we lost some 2-3yrs and then we started again from where we stopped. It wasn’t difficult for us because even in the refugee camp, she was always teaching us. For all of us children, there was time to play, there was time to bring us together, there was time to run for our dear life because of the air raid and things like that…

Sola Osofisan: That’s the first I’m hearing that you were in a refugee camp…

Mama G: Yeah, during the Nigerian crisis… They’d brought us down from Lagos to the village. We experienced it. Of course we were very small then. We were small and they would always take us and hide us in trenches…In the ditch… And the things would clear…

Sola Osofisan: I’ve never heard you talk about this anywhere…

Mama G: No, I’ve never talked about it. It’s not good to be remembered because it was a terrible period. Horrible period. We saw people die. On many occasions, they would drag us and run into the bushes…

I could remember there was a day I went with my elders to fetch water. Then there was this air raid on the road. It was as if the (air)craft was following us as we were going through the paths in the bush to come back from the stream. We ran into the bush and all of us threw the water down and laid flat on the grass. You don’t even bother where you were going to fall into… As for small-small ones like us, they would just grab us down like this and everybody would be still until the craft passes and then we’d get up. After that, there would be stories… We would just sit down and be hearing stories from our parents. What happened, how many people died… It was horrible.

Sola Osofisan: Looking back at that time now, were the sacrifices worth it? As a nation, did we learn from that experience?

Mama G: We have really not learned from that experience and I pray that in my lifetime – even after I’ve gone – my children and my children’s children will never experience such a thing in life. As young as I was, to just see somebody’s tummy split open like that… Our mother would drag us, “Come! Come! Come!” And everyone is running. That one is gone. It could be your neighbour in the market, because everybody was selling then. Its either you’re selling or buying. (INTERRUPTION)

Sola Osofisan: Mama G, let’s leave all the heavy stuff for now. You went from teaching to broadcasting. How did you make the leap? How did you even connect the two – teaching and broadcasting?

Mama G: (SMILING) Providence. (INTERRUPTION)

Actually, I was in school and one of my colleagues who worked with adio Nigeria came to present a children’s programme in my school. They’d arranged with the Headmistress of the school and they came. She saw me and said “Aha, aunty, you work here?”

I said yes. Her name…Florence…I can’t remember her marital name. She just said “Okay, come, come, come. Let me see if you can do something for me on this panel”

She put me on the panel and at the end, she asked me – because she saw the way I did it and she was impressed – “Oh, I love the way you presented this. Please come over to our…”(DISTRACTIONS). She said I should come on that day. I went. I moderated on the children’s programme and that was it. (INTERRUPTION)

She started using me to moderate children’s programmes for her on Radio Nigeria. From there, they got to know me and… You know, one thing brings up another. They now gave me a women’s programme to moderate. I did well too. I moderated children’s programmes, Schools Debate, Children’s Time Out and things like that.

From there…they put me on Radio Drama. From Radio Drama… And they paid me for every bit of thing I did there. It became so much addition to what I earned as a teacher. From there, I became so popular that the managers called me and said they were going to open a medium wave band station. There were interviews. They interviewed me and… It was even from there that I entered school again to read Theatre Arts. I went to Institute of Management and Technology, gained admission… And then when I got there, after the orientation course, they told us they couldn’t continue with Theatre Arts because they just disqualified their stage. It was not good enough. The students who were ready could switch over to either Art Education or Fine and Applied Arts. I took up Fine and Applied Arts and I majored in graphics.

So, I was working as a staff of Radio Nigeria and going to school at the IMT. When I finished all that, I now went back to read Mass Communication, because that was the closest thing to Theatre Arts around where I lived. I still lived with my family because I was actually having children, going to school and doing all these together without a problem. (LAUGHTER)

Sola Osofisan: I know you were happy as a broadcaster. Did you leave teaching because you were not exactly happy as a teacher?

Mama G: I left teaching because people demanded that I should come into broadcasting. And when I was tested and they found out that I was good, they took me. I became a broadcaster, a newscaster with Radio Nigeria… A trained announcer. I was retrenched at the time they shut down the station –

Sola Osofisan: Did the Government compensate all of you that were retrenched at that time?

Mama G: No, no, no. They just paid us our salaries and that was all. (INTERRUPTION). We were not compensated for anything.

Sola Osofisan: Do you find acting as fulfilling as you found broadcasting?

Mama G: Yeah. When we left broadcasting, I was like a child snatched from her mother’s breast. I felt so depressed. I never knew I could come up with anything to do again, until movie-making come up. I joined and by the Grace of God, I made an impact. I feel fulfilled. You know why? I’m enjoying my career. Anything you do and you enjoy it, you feel fulfilled. I’m just happy. (INTERRUPTION AS HER HANDLERS BEGIN TO HURRY UP FOR DEPARTURE TO PHILADELPHIA)

Sola Osofisan: I understand you’re doing some work with widows…

Mama G: It’s only in the pipeline. I have just started with orphans…motherless children… By the Grace if God, I started with 4 already in my house. I intend to have a home for children.

Widows…some of them who don’t have anything to do… Instead of begging or depending on men to give them something, we’ll find them something to do with their hands and things like that. Getting them into trade – (INTERRUPTED AND RUSHED OFF TO PHILLY).
– Thanks to Bethels Agomuoh, Comfort, Philip Ideh and Dan Ashitey for making this story possible in their different ways.

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