The title of Robert H. Schuller book ‘Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do’ aptly describes the immediate past Speaker of the 4th and 5th Bayelsa House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Konbowei Friday Benson from Korokorosei in Olodiama clan in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. All that most people within and outside the state know about him is that he has set a record of being the longest serving Speaker in Bayelsa State. But beyond the allure of office is a man who has suffered personal tragedies, losing two children and waiting for 12 years to have another child; struggled to go to school and did all kinds of menial jobs to survive. He tells his story in this interview.
How has been your journey in life?
I did not just come into the office of Speaker without paying a lot of prices. From my youth, after my secondary school education at Government Secondary School Ukubie, I have been a competitive person. Competitive in the sense that I was a football player in my secondary school days and even featured during inter-communal matches. I have been a frontline player playing for Olode Lions. I see politics like football field, like a sporting activity. It is either you win or you lose. When you win you take it in good faith, and when you lose you should also summon courage and take it in good faith.
What was your early life like?
From what I know, my father lived in Port Harcourt while I lived with my mother in the village. Occasionally, my father was home and when he came around, we were always happy. More than that, I grew up from the kitchen of my mother. There was nothing rosy or anything like I was born with a silver spoon. I passed through all the hard times. A vivid example was when I was in secondary school class three, paying my school fees was a problem. I had to take boat with some other people during the midterm break to Azuzuama and from Azuzuama at about 6 pm in the evening; I had to trek for two hours, 30 minutes all alone to my village. I got to the village but my mother could not raise the money and my uncle who could also not raise the money said I should visit another Uncle at Ogboinbiri. I got there to meet another of my cousin and he could also not raise the money. So I had to return about two days later. On getting to a particular point on my way back, I became confused and was thinking how my life was turning to that my parents could not afford my school fees. I took my paddle and put it in the boat and floated in the river for a while weeping until I summoned courage that it was not weeping that would solve my problem but to go back home to persuade my mother to go and look for money.
Was that the only challenge you faced in life?
After secondary school, there was nobody to train me so I was there in the village. From 1981 until 1992 I was in the village until I became a Councillor. While in the village, I was doing all kinds of menial jobs to feed my family. At a time my brothers, five of them contributed N200 making N1000 which I used to travel to Warri on the big wooden boat spending two nights to and fro to buy garri, pepper, salt, onions etc. I did this trade from 1989 to 1991. After my councilorship, I returned to trading based in Oporoma where I had a shop. And I was travelling to Onitsha every two weeks to buy goods and sell. Before the creation of Bayelsa, I even sold Ogbono up to Kano from old Rivers State. I travelled to Kano without knowing anybody. I got to Kano, sold my Ogbono and travelled back the same day with 9 /11 truck nicknamed gboboro. I suffered on that journey so much because there was no seat for me when I was coming back. We were told we would be given attachment which I thought would be a small seat attached to the main seat but there was no seat; I had to stand from Kano to Onitsha. I suffered so much.
How did you become a trader?
Pastor Awolowo Paul from my village was the first person that sent me to Onitsha; he gave me money without following me to the place. I came to Yenagoa I did not know the route or anybody; I just entered the vehicle going to Elele-Alimi. We dropped at Elele-Alimi, and then I marked one woman whom I presumed was going to Onitsha. Any car she entered, I would follow her to enter until we got to Elele proper, then Owerri and then Onitsha. The whole journey then was N6.20k going and coming back N6.20K making it N12.40k. He (Pastor Awolowo) sent me to go and buy books. I was first a book trader going round all the communities to sell books. Even as we speak if you give me magi to tie, I would tie. I am a good fryer of groundnut, if you eat my groundnut, you would continue to eat and not be able to stop. My wife and I were competing on whose groundnut would be better.
How did you go about higher education since you did not have the early opportunity to advance like your peers?
My academic life was so rough. I contested the chairmanship election with my secondary school certificate and so when I came to Yenagoa after the chairmanship, I still did not have the wherewithal to fund my education because I was training my younger ones then. One day I thought about it that though my younger ones were going to school, if I don’t do anything about myself, I might not have the opportunity to go to school again.
There were some distance learning schools and my uncle persuaded me and I enrolled at Akwa Ibom Polytechnic. We wrote exams in Yenagoa and also travelled to Uyo to write. After graduation, I proceeded to Delta State University Abraka to obtain a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I also went to Imo State University and graduated with MA in History and International Studies and enrolled immediately for the Ph.D which was awarded to me in 2018.
How is your family life like?
I had two children before and they died. For about 12 years, I and my wife were together and had no child. It was in 2004, I challenged myself again that would I come to this earth and leave without a child. I am a lover of children and I am without any. I went to my pastor and explained to him that I would prefer to pray and die if I am not going to have a child. So I told him I want to fast, pray and die. He asked what I meant and I told him I wanted to go on dry fasting. He said he would monitor me. So I started the dry fasting and mixing it with what I called morning call which is going round to preach. On the third day after my morning call, I fell into a trance where I saw three people holding their hands together and in their midst was someone whom I did not identify. When I woke up the spirit of God made me to understand that Christ has visited me and that my prayers have been answered. So I also prophesied to my wife that she was going to be pregnant that month. That very month, she took in and we had a baby girl. Now I have three children. And in the midst of my busy schedules I always try my best to spend time with my children.
How do you relax?
I used to play football. But now I do more of cycling within the House of Assembly legislative quarters.
What is your favourite food?
Garri and bitter leaf soup