By Magnus Eze
Lolo Kate Uzoamaka Ezeofor is President-General/Founder, Umuada Igbo Nigeria and in Diaspora with ECOSOC status at the United Nations, New York, USA and Geneva, Switzerland. Umuada Igbo Nigeria simply means “Igbo Daughters of Nigeria.” Every year, she takes 20 members of the NGO to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting of United Nations. In fact, she was responsible for launching the association and Otu Umuigbo (Union of Igbo Daughters) Homecoming Initiative project at the world body. Born November 11, 1946 in Jebba, Niger State, to the family of Late Chief Fidelis Muonedu Obi, a federal contractor and Lolo Theresa Onyemaechi Obi; a caterer, both of Akpo in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State, she was deputy chairman, Council for Arts and Culture in Old Anambra State, and the first female Councillor in Aguata Local Government. In this interview with EFFECT, she talks about how she read and obtained law degree at 55, life as a teenager, her family life, collapse of moral values in contemporary Nigeria and why she founded the Umuada Igbo association. Excerpt:
What was it like growing up?
I was born in Jebba, Niger State and grew up in Lagos. At some point, we lived in Bida, Niger State, before our parents relocated to Lagos. I schooled at Our Lady of the Apostle elementary and secondary schools, Yaba, Lagos and also Queen of the Rosary College, Onitsha. I read law at ESUT (Enugu State University of Technology) and also went to the Law School. Before going for higher education, I was a businesswoman. I told myself that I would go to the university to read law. And, when my last child, Chinwe, gained admission into secondary school, Holy Rosary College, that was when I gained admission to read law.
You got your first degree at about 55. How did it happen?
I went to see the man in charge of admission for law at UNN (University of Nigeria, Nsukka) and showed him my certificate. I sat for WASSCE (West African Secondary Schools Certificate Education) in 1966. He asked me, what course I had studied after WASSCE. I said none, but that I had been in business. I am the MD/CEO of Lynkate Nigeria Limited that deals in frozen fish and chicken. I had a cold room; it’s still there. The Professor told me that I can’t just read law, that I had to retake the WASSCE. The information was like a real blow to me; I never knew that certificate does expire or get obsolete. I didn’t know I was carrying an expired certificate. When I told my husband, he said, why not forget this thing? But I said no that I had promised my children, my God and myself that I was going to study law. So, what did I do? I got teachers and they were coming to my house to coach me. That was how I read literature and other subjects combination because you must have credit in literature before you can study law.
I went to the Federal Government College, Enugu, to sit for the GCE (General Certificate in Education). It was a very tough exam. I had four credits and I knew that without five credits, no university would admit me to read law. One of my teachers then told me about a secondary school at Udi Abia which was registering students for the WAEC as internal candidates. I told him that I would be there and he was shocked. He asked. He asked what would I do to my hair. I said I was going to pack it to look as if I cut it. When got there, the Principal looked at me and said: what did you say you came to do? I told him that I want to write the exams to enable me study law. He asked me whether I was ready to wear the school uniform. That was how I went and sewed the school uniform and sat for the GCE. My surname begins with the letter ‘E’, so I sat in front. When invigilators come, they would ask me to stand up. And, they would ask: ‘what are you doing here?’ And, I would tell them that I was sitting for the exam. They would ask: are you sitting for your child because I was quite old. And, I would say no, I am sitting for myself; I want to read law. It wasn’t easy for me. Any day I had exams I must stand up to explain myself to invigilators and supervisors. On the third day, one of the invigilators asked me to stand up when he came into the hall. But all the students protested and asked him to leave me alone. The man was embarrassed and left the hall. But at the end of that particular paper, the invigilators sent for me. I didn’t know how the students got wind of what was happening; they all trooped to the place and said: ‘she wants to read law; why not allow her?’ At that time, my son, Afam, had just finished his WASSCE and was waiting to gain admission into the university. He was the one that always took me in my car to the school for the exams. They asked: why are the students all there and I said maybe they had seen grandma writing exams and they don’t want her to be messed up. I cleared all my papers in the exams. I sat for JAMB and passed and was admitted to read law at ESUT in 1994. In fact, I was in ESUT from 1994 to 1999. Thereafter I went to the Law School from 2000 to 2001. By that time, my first son had already became a lawyer; he was called to bar in 1992.
Tell us about your life in Bida as a young Igbo girl in the midst of other Nigerians.
From Jebba, we moved to Bida where I started school. Life was really beautiful then. My father was close to the Emir of Bida. So, during Sallah, the Emir would bring us ram and food. And during the Christmas, my father would send him ram and food. It was very enjoyable; nobody cared where you came from. The important thing was that you’re a human being and a Nigerian. In Bida then, if you did something that an elderly person didn’t like, he would go inside the bush, pluck a branch and flog you thoroughly. And when your parents see the person, they would thank him for correcting you. Nobody cared whether you were Igbo or Hausa, Nupe or Yoruba. Immediately you see a child misbehaving, you pick a stick. So, when you see grown-ups then, you dare not mess up. The place was very interesting. All the tribes then loved themselves. And my father then as a contractor, when he saw children not going to school, he was ready to sponsor them. He didn’t bother where they came from: whether they were Igbo, Nupe or Hausa. My mother was a baker in Bida; so, when we came back from school, you just drop your tinker box at the factory and start doing something. My parents were disciplinarians; my mother in particular told me: ‘if you don’t work hard, you won’t achieve anything in life.’ After that, we went to Lagos where I attended Our Lady of Apostles elementary and secondary schools. And when the war was approaching in 1966, our parents came back to the East and I had to go to Queen of the Rosary College Onitsha, where I sat for my WASSCE in 1966.
As a child in Jebba, Bida and Lagos then, looking at the situation in Nigeria today, how do you assess the two eras?
The first world was great in the sense that there was no discrimination; everybody was his brother’s keeper. We loved one another. And I told you that my parents were disciplinarians; so, children were actually brought up with sound morals. When I started having my children, I borrowed a leaf from my parents. I used almost the same yardstick to bring up my children. But this time around, people don’t care about their children anymore; they are after money, positions, everything. They forget that the children are our dividends; if you train them very well, you have trained a good society and a good world. I went one day to buy something around 6.30am at the artisans market, Enugu. And, there I met a woman. I went again around 7pm and discovered that the same woman was still there. I asked her, ‘you have children at home. When do you train them? How do you know when they misbehave? How do you even know whether they went to school?’ This time around; we don’t train our children and the worst is that everybody wants to speak English; even those that didn’t go to school want to speak English. When we were growing up, they closed the gate in the evening at Ogulana Drive, Surulere Lagos. You dared not speak any other language except Igbo. And from there, I learnt to speak our own dialect. When I went to our village then, I would be speaking the dialect. So, in our house, my father talked to us in our own dialect and central Igbo. You have to know the two to be able to talk to everybody. But now, people no longer care. You would see an Igbo child born in Enugu, Abakaliki, Onitsha, name it, he can’t even speak Igbo. When you ask him ‘how are you in Igbo’, he would respond in English. It’s a shame to the parents. A professor told me that the best thing is to train a child in their mother tongue because it has an inexhaustible vocabulary. He has four children. Irrespective of whatever courses they studied, they all wrote Igbo in WAEC and scored ‘A’s.
So, where are your six children now?
The first one, Jideofor, was a magistrate but he is now a fashion designer. When he was a magistrate, we were getting good reports about him but he came one day and told us: “I like to design, that’s my calling”. Though he goes to court as a lawyer he can design from 1am to 6am. He’s known as Zeof; that’s his business name. He designs for big people, including governors and senators. The second one is my daughter; Ifeoma Emilia. She died of cancer, June 2, last year. The third one is Emeka; he read law but he’s also a designer and farmer. The fourth is Afam; a designer too and the last boy; Tochukwu, he designs. Chinwe is my last child; she’s a lawyer. She read law and human resource management and works in UK. They are all graduates. Then you ask; why are they all designers? They feel comfortable designing because I was a designer; they got it from me. I designed all my dresses. What I used to do in those days was to get materials, give to a tailor and give her the design. She would say, you will get your dress in two weeks.’ After making the dress, she would put it outside and anybody passing by would admire it and say, ‘make this style for me.’ And when my boy, Jideofor, was growing up, I looked for my sewing machine one day and I didn’t find it. When I asked who took my machine, he said he was learning how to sew in a tailor’s workshop. When he was at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, we usually gave him the school fees a month before resumption of school. He would use the money, buy materials and sew clothes. He would sell them in school and make profits. Sometimes, he would even sell his own wears.
Was there any striking thing that you can remember about growing up?
One remarkable thing then was that the Igbo were all over the federation and they had great respect because they were united and didn’t even mind; some of them trained Hausa children. When they saw that a child was brilliant, they went out of their way to train such person. There was unity and as an Igbo child, you walked the street very happy. Then, you now ask me; why did I form Umuada Igbo Nigeria and in Diaspora? I remember as a growing child, how the Igbo were respected; how we moved about freely, not molested. Then after the war; the reverse was the case. The Igbo now stopped that friendship for themselves and the whole country, because anywhere you go and you don’t see an Igbo man, run away from there. The Igbo can squeeze out water from stone. They are determined to succeed. While I go to bed, I ask myself, what has happened to the Igbo. Some even decided to give themselves foreign names so that you don’t know they are Igbo.
My father was also an active member of Igbo Union, so, I didn’t understand it and I said to myself: what can I do? I was restless. My husband would ask me: are you the only Igbo, why are you worrying yourself or, you want to kill yourself for the Igbo? And my children also; then one night, something touched me and said: why don’t you form a women organisation and unite the Igbo women? I wouldn’t say that I was sleeping; it was like a vision. So, in the morning, I told my husband, see what I’ve been asked to do and he said if you have the determination, form it. ‘Trust me, I am behind you; I will do my best to make sure that it works.’ I now called few women and told them and we decided to go to the local government and get permission from the umuada in all Igbo-speaking states. We told them that the umuada are very powerful; would they permit us to form an organisation of umuada of the seven Igbo-speaking states both in Nigeria and abroad, so that umuada can have an umbrella. They all accepted. We then went to the North, East and West to inform the men. They also accepted us. Then we decided to launch it at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu. We went to the bishops and others and we launched it on February 28, 2000. We actually started the tour in 1998.
What were your challenges in the formation and running of Umuada Igbo?
I think what I would do first is to tell you the little things we do and then the challenges. One, we went about inaugurating the state chapters of Umuada Igbo. Then in 2009, I took Umuada Igbo Nigeria and in Diaspora to Washington DC where we got Grace Agude to be the coordinator for the US. We’ve been inaugurating chapters in Nigeria, UK and other places. Right now, we have ECOSOC status, which means we are an NGO with the United Nations. By this reason, we are invited every year for the meeting of CSW at the United Nations. At the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, we are allowed to host parallel event; we call it CSW/Umuada Igbo Nigeria parallel event. There we talk about Nigeria: problems, issues and challenges. We now have 7.7 hectatres of land donated to us by Omogho community in Orumba North LGA where we plan to build international cancer and diagnostic centre. We now see that many people are dying of cancer and we just need a place where people can be diagnosed and treated of the ailment. We are mobilising to see how people can help us actualize the project. Even in England and America, our people are prepared to work there but we’re working to raise fund from public-spirited individuals and organisations.
On the challenges, most of our governments and politicians are not ready to assist. My husband gave us this office free of charge and we’ve been operating from here. We’ve not been getting what we expected to get but I tell you, if this organisation were in Yoruba or Hausa land, they would give it all the support. But we are not giving up; we hope that things would change with time. One thing is, if you form an Igbo organization, some people will not like to bring in their expertise; they would rather want to be at the head as President or Chairma. So, their interest would be to pull you down. It’s a pity because my father said that if you’re not a good follower, you can’t be a good leader and I believe him.