They say John Ikechukwu Okafor, aka Mr Ibu is an incurable comedian. That is not too difficult to believe knowing how hilarious he is in his movies.
What most people do not know, however, is how intense he is; and how comedy largely controls the life of John Okafor. When Jungle Journalist met him, little did they know that the man seen everyday on thescreen is the everyday John Okafor.
Trust Mr Ibu, while telling the pathetic story on his journey from suffering to stardom to Jungle Journalist, he punctuated the tale with comics to otherwise serious questions. The interview was a rib-cracker:
When did you begin your career as an entertainer?
This industry has been there. We were just waiting for an eye-opener. Great productions began in 1993 with Living in Bondage. Living in Bondage, as am talking to you still sells. It is not where I started. The entertainment industry was there even when I was in the elementary school. I was entertaining people even from elementary school days. Everything I do in entertainment I learn from my grandfather.
Your grandfather was also an entertainer?
My grandfather was one of the greatest comedians in his days. My grandfather was a better comedian than myself. It makes me happy to think about him. Whenever I think of him and remember the funny things he used to do, I am inspired to do more than I have ever done before. I love him so much. He was a replica of Charlie Chaplin. He wasn’t actually a clown but whenever he talked, people laughed. He did not know how much he made people laugh.
So, can we say comedy runs in your family?
It is only my grandfather and I. All others do their things seriously. As I talk to you now, it has been me alone in my local government in comedy. I tried to train some of my kinsmen in what I do but many could not cope. May be they are not destined to be part of it and it will be wrong to force people do what they have no talent for.
Did you foresee yourself becoming who you are today back then?
Am I a witch? How would I have known that this thing is coming to me? You should have asked if I know when am going to die. Honestly I never ever saw myself coming this way, not at all. If a soothsayer had told me, I wouldn’t have believed him. It is one of the miracles in my life. One day I saw myself going to London. Me, London? (laughs) even traveling to neighbouring countries, what am I going to do there? I was nominated alongside other comedians in the category of best comedy actors in English in Africa. That was 2003. There were 11 or 12 of us contesting, including Nkem Owoh and a whole lot of others. They came from Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Kenya and a whole lot of other nations. They were handpicked from around and only Nkem Owoh was absent, but he sent a delegate. I won the best comedy actor for the first time in my life. It was my first time I was going to London and the first time I got nominated. It was my first time of winning an award. I never knew people appreciate our stupidity here. If there is no stupidity in you, there is no comedy in you.
Do you deliberately try to make people laugh, or does it just come out?
The truth is that in everyone’s profession, there are reasons for you to be natural, if you are really serious about what you do. There should be very obvious contrasts between you and your profession. That is professionalism. Outside my acts, I think am tactical. I am a normal human being in all ramifications of life. Ironically, people mis-interpret my anger sometimes. When I try to express annoyance about an issue, they think am making fun. They will be laughing. Nonsense.
The truth of the matter is that your every action provokes laughter. How do you explain that?
That is the natural in what I do. I have been stereotyped into comedy. I don’t see it as a problem.
Stumbling, yes. I like that word stumbling. I did. I appreciate people who act on television and based on that, I normally go out to watch them shoot. I do not feel the effect of the weather because I enjoy it so much. I was watching some actors one day in Benin and there was scarcity of manpower. I was told to stand in place as a farmer. Although my face did not come out, I appreciated it so much. That was my ignition. I picked up the spirit from there in 1978.Did you stumble into professional acting?
What was growing up like?
My growing up was so rough. I remember. I lost my father in the process. I remember that we became poorer at that point. I also remember that after his death, hurricane removed our roof one night and the rain beat us, eight of us and my mother till morning. My mother was busy trying to use her wrappers to cover us, huddled there in the rain. I will never forget that incident until the end of the world. We became tenants in our own village, among our kindred. The absence of my father in the whole system contributed immensely to the mess-up that devastated us back then. I remember that I used one school uniform all through elementary school because it was so hectic for my mother to carry our burden. I also remember that there were so many of our relatives who refused to assist us. Openly, verbally, they declared there disdain for us. I also remember that during that time, no other person came into our lives to assist in our training up. We did petty things to keep us going. I also remember that no one among our kindred ever came up with any money whatsoever to say “John or anybody else in my family, go and start a trade”. I also remember that when I came into Lagos in the name of movie production, I stayed in Ajao Estate, from where I regularly trekked to Surulere. I also remember trekking once to Iyanoba, Iba town. I also remember that once, for our days running, I didn’t eat anything, just water in Lagos. I remember that the very moment I needed my friend to assist me with shelter, he ejected me. He ejected me on 18thDecember 1997. I also remember that I was walking along the street searching for a good place under a car or bridge where I will be sleeping till I get a place. I met a girl called Sandra who requested I walk her to a place. I met a friend of mine there who had initially told me to come to Lagos stay in his place. I had looked for him before but he had gone to Germany. But that day, I met him because he had returned the previous night. When I met him, my property was still lying outside. I remember what he said to me, “Anywhere you are living in this Lagos, you move your things into my house today”. That is another miracle. He brought out his car, a Honda Legend 1997 model. On the way, I lied to him I was to travel so he won’t know I was ejected. He said am not traveling and we went and moved my things to his house. He gave me a room and I went into the toilet and shed tears. I remember he set up a football team to contest for Nnewi end of year football championships. He handed the team overtop me as technical adviser and chief coach. I assembled the boys, put them into the pitch, traveled with them to Nnewi in time and we lifted the cup. I remember we lifted that cup 1997, 98. The dimension changed immediately after he went back to Germany. His younger brother was no longer happy with me. He stopped me from using anything in the house and from eating in the house. But I do not have to blame him. I was patient enough to make all sacrifices in this industry I order to lay a formidable foundation for those coming up to begin functioning in the industry.
When I left their house, I opened a place in Agboyin, that hotel called Ecowas Hotel- I single-handedly powered the awareness of the place to artistes and they diverted from Winnies Hotel to Ecowas. I remember I was paying N100 unlike the normal room fee of N500 and N800. They were taking that because they didn’t want it to look like I was staying there for free. Water and electricity was always available but the only problem is that the hotel is not the best place to live.
From that moment, God answered my prayers. I did a couple of movies which were hot in the market- Agony, Jealousy, Uncle Wayward- they cliqued into the market. They gradually began to ask for my services in the system. Whenever am acting, I put in everything. Finally, I did some stuff, Bora.As the producer, I gained not a kobo but it bought me into awareness. I really enjoyed the company of those I worked with on that set. They all became my friends. As I was finishing that work, another one came and people began to rely on me to get work. Sometimes, I helped but sometimes I told them it was not easy. I was actually like a father to so many of them who relied on me, like Jim Iyke. I took so many from Lagos to Jos. I know that I contributed over 70% to his presence in the industry. Then for Genevieve Nnaji, I contributed 80 to 90 % to her presence in the industry. Georginia Onuoha, I contributed positively about 75% to her being inthe industry. Muona Obiekwe, I contributed 90 to 95% to his presence in the industry. These are just a few. Why I brag about it is that, if I had treated them badly, it would have boomeranged on me by now. But I try to do what is right. I increased my ideas of creativity in the area of football. I became a players’ agent and was taking them across the country. I coach and take people across to play abroad. Then somebody discouraged me. I took a player out after signing an agreement with him. After he got hired, he refused to pay me. But the funny part of it was that I had not desired to take that money from him. I did not do anything and he played very well that year. One time he sneaked into the country and went to train somewhere. During that training, he broke his leg into two. Well, I did not deserve that kind of treatment and I feel he was getting his reward. I never cursed him but when I get angry, it extends to so many areas. In my house, the moment my mother notices am angry, she does all in her power to placate me because something usually goes wrong if it persists. I try to avoid getting angry against anybody.
You mentioned doing odd jobs. Can you tell us some of these odd jobs you did?
I was a hairdresser, a stylist. I was very good at it and I did perfectly well. I did it so well that my customers relied so much on me. Whenever they came around and I am not there, they will wait. I had also worked in a crate industry. I assembled crates in those days when crates were made with wood. I also did photography. I went to inter-house sports, convocations, parties. I was always going to cover occasions at schools. I was once a butcher too. All these added up to my training.
Why did you keep moving from one trade to another?
I did not rally leave any. I allotted time to them. I went for the crates in the mornings of Tuesdays and Thursdays, and went to the saloon in the evenings. Then weekends, I went to the saloon too. I also did photography at weekends. I segmented my time so there were no clashes.
What about your education?
It was really hectic. Whatever I was toiling for was mainly for my education, my mother and younger ones. My elementary school- I did not attend primary school, then it was elementary- ended in 1974. The headmaster then died in early 1975 to motor accident.
That means you were in school during the Biafran war?
Yes. I started school 7th January 1966 and the announcement of war came on 15thJanuary. My school was Community Central School Isiokwe Amuri. We were in school then until My 11 1966. We were at the assembly- Mr Ngene was my headmaster and he said that if the distant explosions that kept coming does not stop in the next one week, then we would stop coming to school. We said okay but so many children were happy. That day we all left and never returned the next day. Shortly, the war came. The first attack came and stopped and we were called back to school. We stayed about two weeks or thereabouts then the main war came and everybody absconded. We came back 1970. I was supposed to start from two then but I don’t know what happened as I got registered as a primary three boy. I left school in 74. I remembered that in 1973, naira and kobo were introduced. Primary four, five and six took one test in which those who passed were to get the calendar and pamphlets with the new currency. First to tenth would pass while the rest would fail. In my class five, I took third and in the whole overall exam I took sixth and I was honoured along with the other nine in front of the whole school. My father was very happy and he said that the honor brought to the family would be a standing legacy. And then he died in 1976.After that, it was a big problem. Five of my kindred died alongside my father the same year.
Poison. One-person was busy killing them. My father revealed the killer after he died…
What was your war experience during the Biafran era?
I was seeing it as fun, running in the bush. There was no hunger because my father was actually there for everybody. Even my village people, most of them ran to my house and my father found good places where to hide them in the bush. We were providing food for them and I remember that we were eating all kinds of meat – lizard, crocodile, chicken was an essential commodity. We had plenty of chickens then and once in a long while, we would kill one and everybody would share.
That means you never had the misfortune of being forced to flee?
No, no, no. We had enough bushes in our place which we have been sharing with snakes, bush dogs and lizards (laughs).Even some snakes sympathized with us. Sometimes snakes will just come into the room where we are sleeping and lie down. Only God knows whether that snake was once a human being to turned to snake. Then there were some strange dogs, they probably were semi-human beings. You cannot tell. I sympathized with them too (by now, he and the reporter are laughing their heads off while he continues). Strange animals, my mind was telling meback then that they were all humans and something forced them into animal forms. There were so many of them coming around then, you know. All that period, nobody ever complained of a snake-bite or anything like that. We finally discovered we could eat them and that was when they began to hide. They even hide pass oke(rat). We ate a lot of oke o, ebe odudu ya anunwa, o na ato ka eke ogwugwu (the tail area is very tasty). We hunt ngwere (lizards), we hunt ngwere to every point, gbuo ya, bunata ya (we kill it and take it home). If youopen our bags they are full of ngweres. You will hear all those elderly people commending us very genuinely.
So how did you prepare the ngwere for eating?
Funny enough, up till this moment I don’t know how to cook. There was one of my brothers then who was an expert in preparing it. He is late now. He uses scent-leaves and plenty of pepper. We avoid the head, whether red or brown. People usually say that if you prepare the lizard along with the head, when you open the pot, it will be full of snakes. (We are still laughing)
So you never tried it?
I dey crase?
You believed it?
Ah, ngwere has a lot of meanings. Even snakes. As dangerous as snakes are, we nearly began to understand their language. Okwa, this bush okuko (goose) will come out and be asking us for help. Nobody hears the language, but you could see that they need your help. The war affected everyone. The very animals knew there was no chance for anybody.
Do you remember losing any close relative to the war?
I did not really see the war as anything then. I saw it as fun. I know somebody died but it was not because of bullets. The only son of my grandfather died during the war. The man that killed him is dead now. He killed him through diabolical means because of land.
People refer to you as Mr Ibu, a stage name. How do you feel bearing the name you earned from the stage?
Ibu is not a stage name. It has been my name from childhood. I bear all my grandfather’s names. I had that name long before the script for Mr Ibu was written. Because they wanted me to play the role, they decided to use my real name, Mr Ibu.
So it was maybe his (grandfather’s) surname?
No. It was one of his aliases. They called him so many good names- Hinhinhin, a proverb meaning that you can only grumble behind a great man; Agbata-nkpu-onwu-asaa-aka-na-abo, means that no matter the alarm at the deathof a loved one, you can’t really do anything about it; Ogodo-dibia-karu-onye-ajo-chi-egochie-ya, meaning that when a sorcerers clothesgrow old, an unfortunate man buys him a new one; Ekee-nwanyi-ibuo-ewerum-ngbada, meaning that if you cut a female into two halves, I will chose the lower half. What am I going to do with the upper half than press and press? One outgrows that. You take the main thing from the lower half. My grandfather allows life to flow even when things are tough with his jokes. No matter how much he makes the joke, you will never see laughter on his face. His was a more professional thing than what I am doing.
What do you do apart from acting?
Singing. I have my first and second LPs, This Girl 1 and 2 in the market. The third is coming. When am not acting I stay with my family, I play with my friends or I go and play draughts. I like laughing.
What are your expectations for the future of Nollywood?
I am not a soothsayer. God in heaven knows what is the future. But I know that all things are possible, with Him. We need a better government, production houses. Nollywood as I talk to you now is hot all over the world. The film production is an alien to us but we will get there. We are far off from others but we will get there. I just shot a movie in Berlin where I was supposed to act with Jackie Chan. But he monitored the stunts which we did, from which I sustained injuries. I did it and I failed. As I talk to you now, I still feel the pains. Jackie Chan? He is an animal, a monkey. That guy is a jumper. His hands and legs gum to the walls as if he is a spider.
Was he in the movie?
He was supposed to play the part I played but he came late. He came with a karate team and taught us stunt tricks.
So it is an international movie?
It is. It is a movie that has to do with the best comedy actors from each continent. Only Iwas picked from Africa. They picked Jackie Chan from Asia. There is also the Nigerian part and Mama Gee is involved.
When are we expecting the movie in the market?
It is for the big screen, the cinema and that is all. It was not meant for the market.
Dats life 4 U̶̲̥̅̊!