Veteran Nollywood actress, musician, fashion designer and gospel singer, Patience Ozokwor has revealed her major regret in life is not marrying the man of her choice.
Mama Gee as she is fondly called, was among the 100 Nigerians honoured by the Federal Government of Nigeria to celebrate the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 2014.
In this interview with Ogbonna Casmir, she talks about her journey in life
At 60, what are the things you are grateful to God for?
How can you ask me such a question? If I am not grateful to God for anything then I will be grateful to him for life. The greatest miracle one can have is to be alive, more especially when one is healthy too and not begging for food. There are so many other reasons why we need to give God praise and it can never be enough. I can never thank Him enough.
You started acting on stage while you were in secondary school. What attracted you to the craft?
Passion! I enjoy it. Once you enjoy what you do every day, it will be like it is coming from the inside. I remember in those days when we were young, I would always gather children around me and we would stroll to the nearest market, picking (Egusi) melon where they were grinding it and coming home to cook and eat. Sometimes we go to a tailor's shop to pick pieces of cloth and bring them home. There was always needle and thread at home and we would make dresses - tiny dresses - and hang them. And people would see them and say wow. I didn't even learn how to make dresses but I make beautiful wedding gowns. I can show you the dress I am working on. I had a workshop and the National Directorate of Employment used to send me students to teach the craft. Then, I was lucky to be one of the 30 Nigerian women that were sent to Cameroon for small scale entrepreneurship course which lasted for nine weeks. It was just to help us as they saw that we had passion to use our hands to do things for ourselves. It was the International Labour Organisation that sent us for the training at the University of Buea in Cameroon and we went to the villages to study how women groups were doing businesses. I didn't quite see the men; it was only the women that I saw. They always formed groups and they were empowered by their government or NGOs. That was how they started businesses that exist now in Cameroon. We were sent to go and understudy them and we came back after nine weeks. I had a workshop after that where I was training young girls to produce handicrafts and the things that I learnt during the training. There we saw them using raffia to make chairs; it was beautiful. They would transform raffia into ropes and use them to make beautiful things. So, these are the other things I did apart from acting but I see all of them as acting because anything that can keep you active is an act and I enjoy seeing the fruit of my labour immediately.
At a time, you were working at Radio Nigeria. How did you get the job at such a young age?
I wasn't quite young when I got the job. I was already married with children but I got married quite early. I had a cousin who was working with Radio Nigeria and she came to the school where I was teaching - WTC Enugu. We were having our school debate. It was a programme for kids and when she saw me, she said you are here and I said yes. She asked, 'What are you doing here?' I said I was a teacher there. She said fine, you will one or two things for me. She was upset; she said why are you teaching, you shouldn't be here, you should be doing something with us. So I told her I didn't even know about her job and that 'gentle teaching' was okay for me. She laughed. So what she did was to trick me into doing it. She got me to anchor a children's programme and it was fine. After that, Radio Nigeria asked me to write an official application letter, I wrote it and I was employed. So that was how I joined Radio Nigeria; first as a producer of children's programme and then when my official letter came, they made me an announcer/newscaster. I started from there but eventually we were retrenched. They shut down the medium wave radio and then left us unattended to. But it was at a time when the Federal Government created a lot of states - Anambra, Imo and so on. So those from Imo and Anambra states were employed by the radio stations owned by their states of origin.
But those of us from Enugu were left without jobs. Then shortly after, they employed people again. I wondered why they actually laid us off when they actually needed workers but we discovered that it was about the 'Nigerian factor'. Some of the directors and managers in the different departments were getting ready for retirement and they wanted their children to take over from them. So they had to shut the place down and get us out of the way so that they could employ their children. So that was what happened and we were the victims in Radio Nigeria. I cried because I was like a baby whose mouth had just been removed from its mother's breast. I was enjoying my job; it was like I was in heaven. In short, I was working there with my whole being, so I went back and pleaded and pleaded. One particular man, Ossy Ayia, insisted that I must be brought back but what is one voice against many. So he said to me - Patience, if I were a director, I would have employed you. In fact, the director at the time called them (others) and said since they had already trained me as I had been trained at FRCN Training School, it was better to retain me since I was very good but a woman said I only had Ordinary National Diploma certificate apart from TCII (Grade II Teachers' Certificate). She said there were other people who were graduates who could be employed first. That was what she said in my presence. I felt it was a challenge; if one door does not close, another door will not open. I took the bull by the horns and when they started seeing me doing well in movies, they asked me to come back and I rejected the offer. So that was how I left Radio Nigeria.
How did your journey to Nollywood begin?
It was fine. I actually didn't have a job and I became a confectioner because I did Home Economics in school and in our own time, we were very lucky; what they teach now at the catering school was what they taught us in secondary schools. That was where I did a bit of needlework. I learnt how to cut patterns and things like that, so anything I could do with my hands was pleasing to me. So I learnt how to make wedding cakes, popcorn and so on. And because of the kind of training I had, I made them so well that you could not get another type in the market that would be better than my own. That brought me so much money and I didn't have any issues when I was raising my children. The only thing that bothered me was that I had to be up till late in the night making those things for the following day.
But I didn't go borrowing or begging people for money. It was hard but I was able to weather the storm. All these things that people do now like offering catering services and decorating event venues, I believe I started it in Enugu.
I don't know how the thought came to me because before then, anytime someone died, we would be carrying blocks to make bed and things like that. But because I could make dresses, I started preparing things like the bed itself so that you would not need to carry any blocks again. It was a struggle but life itself is all about struggle and you are even lucky if you are able to find something that will fetch you money. With that, the struggle is little. Some people will struggle and not get anything from it, but I was struggling and getting something from it. But I was encouraged to go ahead with it. However, it affected my sleeping habit and up till now, I can't sleep in the afternoon.
When did you get your major breakthrough in the industry?
It wasn't long after I came into the industry that I had a breakthrough. There was a movie we did titled 'Amina' and there was another one titled 'Odum'. When a marketer was looking for somebody to play another role in a movie titled 'Authority', one of the production managers told the marketer to look for a woman that acted in 'Amina' and 'Odum', that she could play the role very well. That was me. So they came to me but they were looking for cheap labour because at that time, I didn't have a price. I was still trying to be known in the industry. I was building my fan base; you know, that determines who you are in the industry. When you have so many fans, it means that so many people are watching your movies and will be buying them. That is what matters to the marketers. So after the film was shot, my name became 'Authority'. So, that 'Authority' brought another one - 'Apology'. Then there was 'Submission'; it just started like that and there was no dull moment.
So why did you allow movie producers to typecast you as someone who is wicked or does evil in movies?
I do good movies too but you know acting like an evil person is very difficult and that is the kind of movies people like to watch. People like to be real, sometimes they think that the person that is doing good things is faking it but when you show that evil aspect, that is where the action is. I once fought till the end in a movie and it came out fine. If you know what it means to be fighting, quarelling and so on, you will know how difficult it is for you to do it. Those vibrant things are the things that people want to see, not the ones where two people will be sitting down and talking. Anybody can sit down and talk but those hard roles are what people actually want to see. People will think: what does she want to do again, let me see it. It keeps people glued to the television. When producers discovered it, they started writing movies that had to do with 'blood money' and things like that. Such roles made me famous. So I don't regret it; as long as it is bringing money to me, I will continue to do it. Moreover, I see it as a means of exposing the ills in the society because if I ask you now, you will tell me how good you are but there are things that you do that are hurting other people and you wouldn't say those ones. So that is why people like to watch those aspects of people's lives and people actually thought that was the kind of life I was living. In short, some people became scared such that they didn't want to come close to me thinking that I was like that. But it didn't matter because I told myself that once they got to meet me, they would know that I was different from the person they were seeing on TV.
After all, what is acting? I have been in the midst of people who will be speaking for me, telling people that she is that kind of person, I know her.
When I was working with Radio Nigeria, if anybody was transferred to another place or if they left, I was always the one that would be going round to tell people that somebody was leaving and that we needed to have a get-together. I would collect money, cook and bring everybody together to enjoy. When I left, no one else could do it. I was so active that being overactive was killing me. I was always looking for what to do. I would open my salon (for hairdressing), work there before leaving for work proper. When I was on morning duty, I was the one that would open the station and before 4am, the bus was already there to pick you up as they would still need to get other workers. There was no time to sleep but I was enjoying myself. I was doing what I liked to do and acting also crowned it all. As I am leaving one movie set, I am going to another one and it continues like that.
You got married early in life following your parents' bidding. Was it that you were betrothed to him?
No, I wasn't betrothed to him, but my mother was a kind of woman that always liked to punish any child that misbehaved publicly. You know all those Christian mothers that would be in the disciplinary section to punish children. So, she didn't want her child to come out of secondary school and not get married because she was afraid you could bring her to where she had been punishing people. So she insisted I must get married. I said okay but I had a suitor. But she said no. I didn't know what to do because I had put all my eggs in one basket; he was in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I was waiting to go to school so that I would marry him but my mother wouldn't wait. So I had to obey her. There was a big fight but in our days, you would not be the one to say I will marry this person; it was your parents that would have the final say in your marriage, so I had to give up.
Despite that, you have been married for many years whereas divorce is very common now, especially among entertainers. Do you have any advice for them?
I am ashamed because I read the Bible a lot. I know that God does not like divorce, but I have discovered that it is not the problem of the actresses. Some of them come to marry us (actresses), thinking that we have money; they don't know that our industry here in Nigeria does not have too much money. Yes, it can take you to different places and you can meet people that will bless your life but the problem is that they expect too much. Now, a lady who is a star, if she doesn't get a job in two or three months, she would have spent her savings and you know the kind of life we live. We like to buy the best of dresses; we like to buy the best of shoes and live in the best of houses, even if it is rented. Some of us would like to live in houses where we will be paying N3m annually and they will be struggling to save money to pay at the end of the year. Meanwhile, jobs are not coming because it is when you are called for jobs that you are paid. They don't pay us monthly. In my own time, I was like going from one job to another and people were enjoying what I was doing. They would be waiting for me to finish one job so that they could give me another. They would be fighting over who I would work for first; so the money was coming but some people don't have that kind of opportunity. They have to wait for some time before they will get another one but because they are stars, men see them as moneybags. But when they come in and the money is not coming the way they thought, they will say what is all that for and then they just take a walk. Sometimes, it is not the fault of the ladies and sometimes too because of the nature of our job, we are always on locations. A job could take you to Enugu and instead of going home after that job, another person will call from Aba and because of the money, you go and your husband starts messing around with women because he does not see you around. Even when you are keeping yourself for him, some of them cannot stay calm; they will feel that you have left or that you are also messing around with men where you are because you need to give a dog a bad name and hang him. So these are the things that break our marriages but most of them are not from us but as a result of circumstances. And for the men too, girls fall from hills to marry them because they think they have money and when they get in and don't see the money, it will become a case of - is this marriage? I thought there would be money everywhere. But the issue is that when the money comes, it comes in big and if another one does not come immediately, that one will finish before another one comes. But one thing is certain, we are not going to wait for a long time before another one comes because if we don't act, we can attend functions and they will pay us. Money will be coming in through various means but people don't have patience; that is why our marriages fail. For me, my parents wouldn't even want to hear that you quit your marriage. I didn't even have it in mind to leave my marriage because as soon as I got married, I started having children. So I didn't believe that anybody could take care of my children more than me. I decided to ignore everything that came my way and stay with my children. I might not stay for everybody but I stayed for my children no matter what; that was why we could achieve this. My husband did not have a house, he didn't have this, he didn't have that. Down the hill is Colliery Quarters where we lived; I was the one that told the woman living there now that we were moving out and that she should come and stay there. If I had known that the following month or in two months time, they would say we could buy the house if we wanted, I would have stayed and paid with his gratuity, but we gave it out to someone else.
How would you describe your childhood? Were you stubborn?
I was not stubborn and I was not quiet. It was all play, play, play. But I was loved by so many people around.
At the time you ventured into acting, what were your parents' reactions?
Only my father was still around and he was excited seeing me in a movie. Like my husband too, he would say (to our children), come and play your mother's film for us to watch. They enjoy my movies. My immediate younger brother, who is in the US, will say that I have found my talent and that is why it has swallowed me.
If you were not an actor, what else would you have been in life?
I would be cooking. I still cook till today.
Do you think there is a conflict between your faith and your profession?
No, there is no conflict. You know, we do drama in the church. It is like I am preaching; I say that the movie industry preaches to the whole world. A pastor can be in his church and be preaching to the people there, but the movies go very far with their stories. It is part of what I am doing.
You hardly act romantic movies and it was like that even during the earlier part of your career, why is that?
They never give me that role to play but I did one that came out fine - Love after Love. It was with the late Justus Esiri.
Have you ever kissed in a movie?
People see you as wicked because of the roles you have played in movies, so would you describe yourself as a romantic person?
I am highly romantic o! If I am in love with you, you will know; I can't hide it. Everybody around will know I am in love with you. So I don't go jumping from one man to the other but if I have feelings for you, everybody around will know that you are the man. All the same, because I don't kiss in movies doesn't mean that if such occasions come up, I wouldn't have done something like that but God just shut that side for me and I never had any reason to kiss somebody. You know, I am always on the cantankerous side. Such people don't kiss and they don't do romance. The kind of roles I play actually help me not to get to all that.
Since the death of your husband, have you ever considered remarrying?
Yes. There was a time I wanted to remarry but my children said no. They are all grown now. They said if they were young, they wouldn't have objected. Now that they are grown, they say they will be my husband and they have been trying. The only thing they don't do is go to bed with me (laughs). They said that their friends would laugh at them that their mother abandoned them, but I didn't see it that way. It really brought problems. I wanted to remarry but my sister and other relations came and said that I should concede to them and I accepted but with the condition that they would also listen to me anytime I tell them to stop being friends with any of their friends that I don't like and they agreed. So we have been managing one another.
Do you have any regrets in life?
The only regret I have in life is that I wasn't allowed to marry the man of my choice. That is it but I was able to cope. I had suitors, I was going to choose one among them but my parents said that I would marry their choice. If they had allowed me, I would have loved to make my choice.