‘My bags have put Nigeria on global fashion map’
‘How war trauma propelled me to success’
BY CHRISTY ANYANWU
The maxim, ‘empty barrel makes the loudest noise’ bears relevance here. Aside her graceful personality, Mrs Chinwe Ezenwa is a down-to-earth person. Also, you should not be taken aback if one day, you bump into her moping the floor of her office. That is how simple she could be. When she was much younger, Ezenwa worked with Heads of States and Presidents: Shehu Shagari, Ibrahim Babangida and the current President Muhammadu Buhari as a military Head of State. Those were immediate years following her return from Canada where she studied. Ezenwa worked with Federal Ministry of Transport and retired as a Director of Maritime services. She was one-time, Acting Managing Director, National Inland Waterways Authority. After retirement, Ezenwa ventured into manufacturing of exotic made-in-Nigeria bags and footwear. Today, her bags with the brand name LeLook are sought after in luxury shops in overseas countries. In this interview she spoke with Effects about her life journey, her Lee Look.
There’s this aura of humility around you considering your success story, whats your take on that?
It is the grace of God. Life has thought me to be humble. I have come to realise that without humility you can achieve nothing – you would just be empty as a barrel. Humility is everything. You have to stoop to conquer. You have to stay humble to be successful. As the saying, ‘pride goes before a fall’. That, I learnt a long time ago. You can’t be too proud of anything because you can lose it too.
I suffered as a kid during the Civil War. So, if you cannot not be humbled by that, I wonder what would humble you. Many of my age mates died from bombs and gunshots. The soldiers abused many of our young people and you came out of all that, alive and free from the violence of the civil war, why won’t you be humble? I still feel that I am not humble enough. Even at my work place, my staff are amazed at my humility because there are times I would decide to sweep and mop the floor. I tell them that I can do all the things they do because it is the same blood that runs in our vessels. The only thing that separates us or differentiates us is the opportunity that I had.
Moreover, I have this sense of spirituality that is unique to me. We appreciate the fact that it is only God who knows those that serve Him. I don’t believe that I have to be in front anywhere or in front of anybody in order to prove who I am before God. On that basis, I have remained humble because someone created me, I didn’t create myself. So humility is part and parcel of my life.
Before Le Look, what exactly were you doing?
I have always been engaged. I was doing this because I had this brother who is deaf and dumb and also a sister who is physically challenged. So, in my family I have two siblings who have issues. I didn’t want them to be looked down upon with pity, so I turned their issues to things they could be proud of. As I was working for government, I set up business for my brother and after office hours, I would come over and look into what they were doing. After a certain period, I sent him abroad to get special education because in Nigeria, the deaf and dump schools do not offer anything after elementary education. So most of those who passed through those schools could not really progress in their education. So, I struggled to get my brother to attend Gallaudet University in Washington DC. After he completed his training, I also got that sister of mine to learn how to use her hands. I engaged managers to manage the business with her until I resigned from government job. I decided to come in fully. I worked with the Federal Ministry of Transport and retired as a director in Maritime services. I was also once Acting Managing Director of National Inland Waterways Authority. I have always tried to do my best in every circumstance I find myself.
You started Le Look for your physically-challenged siblings and at a point you got involved and became passionate about it. What was the driving force?
The driving force mostly was and is still, the fear of poverty. The fear of not having; the fear of the condition that the civil war left us was still hunting me. I knew the condition under which we lived. I didn’t want a repeat of that for anybody. So, poverty is something to fear because it can lead to many evil. Again, I wanted to put food on so many tables. I want to be able to beat my chest that I tried my best while I lived; that I encouraged people through this work to put foods on their tables and train their children and that is what I am doing.
But you don’t look 66 years old?
It is because I work but think less about my age. I work out every morning except Sundays. I go for very long walk every morning. I do aerobics and eat good food. I have a plain heart, I don’t harbour malice and I don’t envy anybody. The world is a free place, whatever you want, you can get it if you work really hard.
You still look very trendy at your age, what do you do?
I still do aerobics. i exercise. if there’s need to attend a party i will attend. I’m not much of a socialite but if theres need, I attend.
What is style for you?
Style for me is that my body must not be exposed. because I’m a very shy person. I don’t want anything that will draw much attention to myself. i like to be trendy. I like colors that are in vogue, for me to be one of those that will reflect it. whatever I’m doing i must remember that fashion is our business. Looking good is our business. Any time I traveled overseas and people saw my bag and asked where I got it from. I would reply, I got them in Nigeria. I would not tell them I made it. Some of them would even offer to pay and collect the bag. I would agree. When the person opened the bag, she would see my telephone number inside.
In all these, what has life taught you?
Life has taught me to be humble; to do to others as you want others to do to you. You must learn the art of negotiation. You must be ready to give some and take some. Don’t be proud. if somebody perceives that you are too proud, they can punish you for that for no reason.
How did you come about the name Le Look?
‘Le look’ is a French word that means ‘The Look’. When I looked at that circumstance of my brother – he does not hear nor speak but can only see. I felt that despite his challenge, with his eyes, he would be able to know what to do by mere looking at things. So I stated calling him Le Look and so the business was named after him. .
Is the government helping business like this?
I would say maybe now, they are trying. Meanwhile, it is the same government that is telling their agencies not to buy conference bags. They have sent circulars to the agencies that they should no longer buy conference bags and that used to be our business. Another way they are supporting is that government is canvassing for patronage of made in nigeria products. But government should remove that circular because its deceptive. why would government say buy made in nigeria yet don’t buy conference bags. what does that mean?
What have been the challenges of staying in the business?
One big challenge is that there are lots of technicalities involved in getting our products done because we don’t just cover bags; we manufacture them from start to finish. We want to always produce what we would be proud of anywhere in the world. So, we need to ensure total concentration of the workers because the slightest mistake affects the whole production. Our biggest challenge is human resources and their behaviours – they are here today and gone tomorrow. If we are able to manage the human resource issue, we would overcome the infrastructure challenge. That is why I invest in training of my workers.
You witnessed the Biafran War , can you throw more light on some of the effects of the war?
When I see the people at the IDP’s camps, my heart is broken because that is the only time, I remember how we were, for three years during the Biafran war. We couldn’t have food, my younger brother even suffered from Kwashiorkor as a result of malnutrition. Millions of people were dying of hunger. Young could only get a little to eat when you go the World Council of Churches’ camp and that meant a long trek for very long hours. Then as a teenager, I witnessed how soldiers were forcing themselves on young girls. Although I was young, but I didn’t know what it meant to be a youth because mine was a life of struggle even up till now but I never regret it, especially now because there is merit in suffering.
Suffering strengthens you spiritually, if you take it as the will of God. So the war was rough and that is why when I hear people calling for division today, which might result in war, I just say may be they don’t understand what it means to go to war.
Exactly what is happening to people at the IDPs camps in the North-East is what happened to the Biafrans. In fact it, was worse because it was our own soldiers shooting their people. The effect was horrible and till now, I don’t like to think about being broke. It must not happen because I don’t know how to beg. And this fear of being in lack has driven me to work so hard and until the last day, I will continue to do this. People say you are 66, slow down. And I ask them: Slow down so that what will happen?