By Agatha Emeadi
At 77, Dr (Mrs) Helen Alex- Ekwueme appears to be as smart as she was when she graduated from the medical school many years ago.
Mrs Ekwueme is a reporter’s delight as she gives rich explanations of issues in well composed grammatical constructions and error-free remarks.
In this encounter, she went down memory lane to talk about her 43-year-old relationship with the former late vice president.
She told Sunday Sun about her passion for the medical profession, her roles as a consultant pathologist with special emphasis on cancer and female genital mutilation, among others.
Who is Dr (Mrs) Helen Alex-Ekwueme (Ojemba enweghi ilo)?
I was born here in Lagos to well-educated parents. My father was Mr Thomas Boyo, an Itshekiri man from Delta State while my mother was Eleanora Ayodele Boyo (Nee) Hughes, a Lagosian/Brazilian descent. My father lived, worked, met and married my mother here in Lagos as she was trained by Rev. Sisters in the Convent and worked as a welfare officer. My mother made sure she imbibed good morals in us. While growing up, there was no difference between a boy and a girl. We all got the same doses of domestic chores and education was for all and at its best. My mother used to tell us that once one gets a certain level of education, one would be very okay in life which is the most important thing as she was a champion of girl-education and female empowerment. I am the sixth child out of the seven of us. My eldest sister was a nurse who married Mr Ejuechi, a seasoned administrator who later became secretary to Yakubu Gowon’s government. The second was my older brother, JTL Boyo who trained as an engineer, but became an administrator and head of service in the old Bendel State. I attended Our Lady of Apostles schools, Yaba and finished with a Grade One, I made 7A’s in all the subjects. The Rev. Sisters offered to send me to Ireland to be trained as an administrator, I rejected the offer because I wanted to be a medical doctor. I gained admission into University of Lagos where I studied Medicine and Surgery and qualified in 1973 with an MBBs Hons. I was the only honours graduate for that year from the College of Medicine because I met a certain criterion with three distinctions and would not have failed in any of the professional examinations. The first professional exam after two years, second professional after three years, and the third after the fifth year. So, I had two distinctions in Microbiology and Pathology and never failed any of the professional examinations. I was the only student with a distinction out of 40 of us even though there were not many students in the university because of the effect of the civil war, especially the Easterners. After my graduation, I travelled out and was in Royal Post Graduate Medical College where I did my Pathology in different modules. I came back and worked with Lagos State as a Consultant Pathologist because it is the final diagnosis of Medicine where results give the final answer until I retired in year 2000.
Now that you are retired in the last 11years, what next?
My late husband was an Architect, so I went into real estate. I am also an administrator and my husband was the adviser. The training I had is to be self-sufficient even at old age, never to be idle. I do a lot in the church as a matron of two societies.
How did you meet and marry the late Dr Alex Ekwueme (Ide of Oko Kingdom) and former vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria?
Dr Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme came from the East at the age of 11 to complete his secondary school in Kings College, Lagos. He worked with the Railways here in Lagos and my father was his boss. As a young man, my father found him a worthy bright boy whose parents weren’t living in Lagos, but he was focused living with many of his cousins in a small apartment, trying to put himself together. From the railways, my father liked him and brought him home. He became part of the family and a big brother to me. My mother looked after him like she did for my older brothers before he travelled to the states. When he returned from his American trip, he still came back to us, that was how we met.
Were there some hide and seek game/love while he was living within your household?
I was still very young then and he was 16-17 years. He was 10 years older than I. If he was eyeing me from such a tender stage, I did not notice and can’t tell.
So, when did he make the moves?
The moves came when I was about rounding up in medical school in 1973, you can see that I have also grown. He came around on August 8th to see my family and asked for my hand in marriage. At least I was a medical student who is grown up. My family told him, we are sure you would look after her very well, and again you are an educated man.
Why do you bear double-barrel name?
I qualified as a medical doctor with my father’s name Dr. Helen Boyo, but professionally I am Dr. Helen Boyo-Ekwueme, and I am Mrs. Ekwueme. My husband would say, I don’t mind you adding your father’s name as long as myself is not addressed as Mr Boyo-Ekwueme. Personally, I am proud of my family name; when people see that name, they know I am an Itshekiri woman married to an Igbo man from Oko, in Anambra State. I do not forget in a hurry when I had my son in 1977 in London, my husband insisted that the christening would take place in his hometown Oko, Anambra State, not Lagos or London; and in December of that year, we all travelled to Oko for the christening and a big reception was held in his honour. Some of his friends then used to jokingly say, Ide, you married a doctor that would look after you, and true to their words, I looked after him medically especially in his last moments. We lived together for 43 years.
Being together for 43 years, how was it?
We lived well, even though there were ups and downs with a lot of ups. I was with him throughout the time he was the vice president of Nigeria. I continued working even when my husband was the vice president until I retired in year 2000. I was going to work from the State House before the coup d’etat, which brought about change of government.
Why did you continue your job as a wife of the vice president, not minding the office your husband occupied?
Yes, I was wife of a vice president, but do not forget I have a medical professional calling until I retired in year 2000. One of the ups was when my husband was no longer the vice, we moved out of the State House, and there was accommodation problem. I applied to Lagos State government and as a level 15 officer, I was entitled to a home in Ikoyi. As God planned it, during that coup when my husband was in all manners of prisons before he was finally kept on house arrest; the place he was kept was number 15 while my house was on number 19 on the same street in Ikoyi. It was a stone throw; we were going there to visit him as often as we wanted. He was there for over a year, before he was taken to the East to continue his house arrest until his release. He went through all that for a man that did nothing.
How did you manage his movement in the East, with a job in Lagos State emotionally?
Every month, holiday, any available opportunity we would pack ourselves and travel to the East to see him. We did that until he was able to move around again. It was very traumatic, emotional and that was why I said, there were ups and downs. Nigerians know he was a very kind and focused man.
You were with him as a former vice president and a politician, what were Nigerian issues he hammered on before he passed unto glory?
All have seen where we are in Nigeria today. When I listen to news, comments, reviews and interviews on all the communication channels, everybody has seen what the former vice president told them. These six regions that is being canvassed today; my late husband was part of a constitutional review committee set up by the late General Sani Abacha. People were being nominated from their constituencies, Ekwueme was also nominated from the Eastern region to be in Abuja where they deliberated on topical issues. Alex Ekwueme was the first that said, let us have six regions modelled against the three regions – East, West and North; then Mid-West came about, and there was a referendum where some people said, we want to be out of the West and have our own region. He opined that there should be six regions, three in the North, and three in the South namely, Southeast, South-south and Southwest then Northeast, North-central and Northwest. Then, he followed it up and it was a minority report. Abacha decided to pick what my husband said and submitted. Though it was not included in the constitution, but he started operating regional type of government. Six regions were synonymous with Alex Ekweme’s name. But lately, during my husband’s 70th birthday, about 17 years ago when he had some conferences, he put it down and canvassed for one president with six serving vice presidents from the various regions to serve for single five years only. What he meant was that at the end of the first five years, power shifts to another region whose vice president is already in waiting. So, in 30 years, every region would have produced a president. Now people are talking about rotational presidency. He was a man that lived before his time. He put it down in his book titled ‘Whither Nigeria, extending on this, he said, let there be rotation on presidency. Is that not where we are today? He gave this solution years ago and it is happening in Singapore now.
Where and how did you receive the news of his death?
He died in my hand a day after my birthday, my birthday is on 18th of November, he died on the 19th. We travelled to Singapore for his 85th birthday on 21st of October, he was strong all through our time together. He later came back to the country to attend to other issues and felt a bit down and was taken to a nearby hospital; we later flew him to England and after some days, he passed unto glory.
At various memorable events, fingers are pointed to politicians who wrecked this country even though the country is blessed, where does your husband stand in this statement?
Well, Nigerians would always say, Ekwueme went into politics a rich man and came out as a poor man. He had one of the biggest Architectural firms that was working in the whole of Nigeria. He put his money in building the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), then People’s Democratic Party (PDP) where he was a godfather. After the coup that ousted him from office, they looked at his declaration of assets before he went into politics and when he came out; it was less.
His office as vice president would have attracted other women, how did you handle that?
Let us not talk about all that. The important thing is that my relationship with him was with him alone. If there is any issue, I discuss with him and no other person. It was just for two of us, we talk and handle issues between us; and that was it, he was a very good man.
Now, as a medical doctor, what was the price you paid to achieve success?
One of the reasons for our success then was because we had very good teachers and good schools. My school, Our Lady of Apostles secondary schools was managed by Reverend Sisters. The morals are there and from the home, a student is admonished if he or she did not excel and the fellow will not get a good job. My mother would draw me to a corner and say, if you did not do well and marry, you will depend on your husband for everything you need. My mother was the early canvassers of girl-child education, moral discipline and empowerment. In our days, we sourced the books from the library. I encourage the young ones to be focused, do not take no for an answer and persevere and it will show.
Work, marriage, professionalism and medical associations?
As I qualified in 1973/74, medical women association was formed when I was in LUTH. It actually started in Uyo, Akwa-Ibom State before Lagos. It was called ‘You care with the love of a woman and their main game is to look after women and children because of women’s peculiarity. As a pathologist, I championed fight against the two deadly cancers in women, cervical and breast. A lot of them could be preventable while they are not cured. There is no cure for cancer. Something just happens and the cells decides to develop in another way and take over the normal functions of the cells. Example of the liver as an organ which is made up of cells, so if the cells trigger, it shows different configuration of the organ and take over the cells. It is the same with the lungs and others. With the cancer of the cervix, the neck of the womb that adjusts into the vagina through where a child comes forth; that area can change and become cancerous, but there is the test called Pap-smear which we set up, advocated and encourage women to do. For the breast, a woman must be taught how to palpate to detect any lump so it could be taken out before it spreads. Once these tests are done, it helps for early detection. I am also a strong advocate and very passionate about female genital mutilation, otherwise known as female circumcision. Women should not be circumcised. It is cultural, not only in Nigeria, but other African countries. Some of the reasons then was to avoid promiscuity in women. By mutilation, it is just leaving that part of the body with a scar when it finally heals. It rather aids Vaginal Vesico Fistula (VVF). We talk to conservators of culture to know the effect of their actions because repairing it is not an easy task. The other one is the silent work called Gender Based Violence (GBV) which comes mostly as rape cases. Women should be mindful of their safety, do not be in a place where you can be over powered. It is not just at parties, but also in homes. A lot of rape cases happen in the homes, we have cases where mothers cover up rape cases from relatives. As doctors, we organize a lot of seminars for both boys and girls to create awareness with such dangers.
As a passionate campaigner against social vices, how would you handle social stigma attached to rape?
Well, prevention is the most important thing. But when it happens, one has to be able to offer all the psychological support, we work hand-in-hand with lawyers for prosecutions. We also get the victim properly examined, psychologically and mentally treated. It is a whole collaboration and advocacy. There are so many Non-Governmnetal Organizations (NGOs) also working in that regard. In foreign countries, victims are relocated from the environment to a new life. In England, if a child is raped at home, government takes that child away from that same home and prosecute the parents.