Passion for the Less Privileged
Struck by his mother's uncommon exhibition of compassion for others, especially the less privileged, Wisdom Okowa, without counting the cost, has taken up the gauntlet in caring for the underserved, Omon-Julius Onabu reports
Like one bitten by the bug of his late mother's benevolence, Widsom Okowa is passionate about caring for less privileged and helpless in the society without counting the cost. The energetic and youthful Wisdom Okowa explained while philathropy has stolen his heart away. "I believe when you get to certain stage in life - even though I am still young - you take certain decisions. I have friends who would say, Arrrh .... You should be in politics. But I tell them, everybody cannot be in politics. My brother (Dr Ifeanyi Okowa) is a big-time politician. My father too was a politician, though he is late now. Even my sister is into politics. I'd simply say that my brother is playing enough politics for the whole family. So, that's good enough!
"As for me, I have an agreement with my God, that my interest right now in life is to impact people's lives, especially the less privileged. And, I have a foundation that I am running. It is called Okowa Victory Foundation. My foundation used to be called Wise Okowa Victory Foundation. The Okowa stands for my father, Victory was my mom's name - she too is late - and, of course Wise, which is me. I decided to change the name of the foundation to Okowa Victory Foundation after the passing of my father." At a very early stage in his life, he had been silently and inperceptably 'indoctrinated' by his own mother in a manner comparable to professional mentoring. His being the last of her children, Wisdom because inseparable from his mother, a nurse and midwife by profession. Before her transition to the great beyond, when little Wisdom was barely nine, he was struck by his mother's uncommon exhibition of compassion for others, especially the less privileged. So, when asked by THISDAY where he got the inspiration to devote so much of his energy and resources to regularly put smiles on the faces of a truly helpless segment of society - the lame and the blind - the founder of Victory Okowa Foundation remembered his mother who had established the first private maternity home and clinic in the quite town of Abowo in the present Ika South Local Government Area of Delta State.
"As a key, you find my mom's name there, Victory, in the registration, because my mom inspired me. I am the lastborn of the family, and my mom.died when I was I was about nine years old old; when I was hardly 10.
"My mom was a lovely person. People would come (to her maternity/clinic) give birth. (That I know because I was very close to my mom as the lastborn.) They do not have money to pay and she would say, 'Ok, go home.' And, I'd just watch her. Then, we had a whole lot of people living with us who were not even related to us.
"So, my mom.was a very kind person. And, I watched her. Now I'm grown, I thought about it and said, God, this woman was really nice. Looking at the world today, where people don't help peope. And, this woman was doing this back in the days with the little you blessed her with. It was a motivation for me.
He explained the foundation started pretty small from his hometown of Owa, in his own local government area of Ika North-East, then added Agbor in Ika South to its catchment area. Later, Ogwashi-Uku, headquarters of Aniocha South, and later Issele-Uku in Aniocha North were added.
Thus, the list of beneficiaries have grown steadily from less than ten persons initially to over 400 beneficiaries today. With plans to enter Asaba in Oshimili South in no distant future, the list of beneficiaries are bound to increase with the steady expansion of the foundation's area of coverage in Delta North. Revealing to THISDAY exactly what the foundation is engaged in Wisdom Okowa said, "What we do basically is, every month-end, the ones (recipients) in these areas gather in the palace every first Saturday of the month. The ones in Aniocha South, for instance, gather at the palace in Ogwashi-Uku; those in Aniocha gather at the palace in Issele-Uku and we give them what we call feeding allowance. Each of them earns N10,000 (ten thousand naira) every month.
"We had to merge, in my area, Ika North-East and Ika South, because Owa and Agbor is the same. There is a building that my dad had to donate for this purpose, and that's where they gather.
"When we started, we were giving them N20,000 (thewnty thousand naira) each. Then it grew from
about five persons to over 20 persons, but we're giving them N20,000 still as monthly feeding allowance. We got to a stage, we felt the need to reduce the money to N10,000, because we were having more and more population. And, I was just one man powering it!"
He explained that though there were no immediate plans to introduce some form of training or skill acqusition into its activities, the nature of the handicap of the beneficiaries has made the foundation to concentrate on people who are helpless in the true sense of the term, people who could barely do anything for themselves.
"When you get over there, you will see all sorts of people with disability", Okiwa said. "But we pay people who are completely blind and those who cannot walk at all. People who have no legs! When you have one leg and you are still able to walk with the aid of a stick, we don't pay you. But we are getting to a point where we have to pay something to other categories of persons. I told them recently to start paying N5,000 to certain people who don't qualify for N10,000. For you to get N10,000 every month, it has to be someone who can't walk or who can't see.
"Yes, I know blind people can still do something. In an organised system, blind people work to earn decent living, but our system in Nigeria you are often rejected. You know, overseas in USA, a blind man can travel from here (Asaba) to Lagos all by himself. And, he arrives Ojota and he is going to FESTAC; and he will able to get there himself in a public transport. Because they have got the structures in place; but in Nigeria we don't have provision for such.
"Maybe in future we'll get to a position where we will be able to train some of them, to be able to do something for themselves. You really need to go out there and see some of these people, then you'll know that they are helpless."
Yet, Wisdom Okowa does not see his passion for being so compassionate as a divine calling of sorts, considering the fact that many people today are quite impatient with others that they see as helpless individuals.
"For me, I wouldn't agree that it is a calling; it is a decision that I made. A friend of mine once told me that he has a calling to impact people's live by preaching to them, talking to people to inspire them; that it was his calling. He said 'you, my friend, your calling is to give'. And, I said no, you're absolutely wrong. Giving is not a calling, giving us a decision that you made, between you and your God. You could decide not to give, so it's not a calling.
"So, I have been doing this long before my brother became governor; some of my family members don't even know what I do for people. I mean, we are spending over N50 million on a yearly basis, assisting the poor. I said to someone that we spend over N50 million on a yearly basis and he said, 'how can! You are exaggerating'.
"Presently, we have up to 400 people on our payroll. Multiply 10,000 by 400; that's four million naira a month. Multiply N4million by 12, that's already close to N50millon. We're not talking about those we are paying school fees for, or about the people we're paying hospital fees for. What about the logistics and all of that? So, we're spending over N50 million on yearly basis. Then he said, Wow! God will bless you. And, I said, God has blessed me."
Considering the relatively huge financial demand of his philanthropic engagement with his foundation, he said he had sometimes had to resort to what many would not contemplate, or would simply regard as crazy. "You know, the funny part is, when I started this foundation and getting more and more people to register for benefits, at the end of the month I was so committed to it, thank
God, by His grace.
"Some month-end we don't have money to pay and I will go to my bank. I have taken temporary overdraft severally, just to pay these people. Sometimes, I do not even have money in my pocket, and I will go get a loan to pay. I make sure about that, because I can understand when you don't have food on your table.
"There was a time we had a delay in payment and these people had assembled; and the coordinator had to go tell them, 'please come back next Saturday'. Some of them were in tears. They had nothing to eat. Some of them were in tears and I told God, and I said, if you are actually behind me in this then I shouldn't borrow money to do your work. And, to God be the glory, we don't have to borrow anymore to do this work that we are doing. So, it's God we're doing it for; I am only a messenger.
"When we do what we do, those that we are affecting their lives pray for us. Moreover, they pray for the state and they pray for the Governor. And, I am happy, being part of the governor's family and that I am able to do something to make them pray for my brother. It is not that I'm doing it on behalf of my the family. A lot of these people do not even know me; they just know that money comes at the end of every month, but they don't know where it's coming from.
"Sometimes, I go there like every quarter, I'd go with the coordinator. I used to sit in there car and just watch them; they don't know me. These days I don't sit in the car and watch them. I come down; I help the coordinator sharing the money in an envelope and all that. And, they probably just see me as another coordinator or worker. They don't know where this is coming from; and, I like it that way. It gives me great joy, because everytime I go there and see these people, I get inspired. To God be the glory!"
Explaining why he is not involved in party politics in Nigeria despite being surrounded by big-time politicians in his immediate family, including Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, he said such decision to stay away from partisan or party politics is not necessarily because he considers politics a repulsive pastime or profession or, as some would say, because politics is a 'dirty game'.
For Okowa, despite coming from a background in which politics appears to be a second life, everyone cannot be in politics; there are yet nobler endeavours one could undertake. Indeed, he has long been captivated by a life devoted to selfless service of others especially the less privileged who are too handicapped to repay any gesture of kindness beyond expression of verbal appreciation. Thus, aside his primary private business ventures, philanthropy has been the preoccupation of the comely young man. Nevertheless, he explained that he does not dislike nor despise politics because is a form of service to the people hence he had played politics in the entertainment sphere in the past. Having risen to the position of President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN), a prestigious office that had seen the likes of Tony Okoroji, the late Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Charly Boy (Charles Oputa) and T-Mac, it is clear that Wisdom Okowa has not really shied away from politics all of the time.
Therefore, he thinks politics and the entertainment industry in Nigeria are not strange bedfellows.
Politics is a commonplace phenomenon, he reckons. "Even as a kid, I got to know my father as a politician - may his soul rest in peace. Back then, he was in the UPN (Unity Party of Nigeria), the Awolowo party. I believe too that my brother took after him. Even my older sister is a politician! It might just be in the blood.
"I like politics but I guess, with my business commitment, I have never thought of paying
much attention to politics. The only time I'd say I have played active politics was during my days at PMAN; because you have to actually campaign and go through an election to come into office.
"So, I was able to play it successfully then. I guess politics is politics; it doesn't matter the level it's played. However, I've never given serious thought to being part of the political terrain in Nigeria today."
In retrospect, considering the hey days of PMAN, Okowa expressed reservations, nay, dissatisfaction with trends in the entertainment industry especially in the country. He simply thought that talents are today in short supply to effectively service the growing industry.
"In today's world unfortunately - well I'll say fortunately for them - because you have to earn money to survive in Nigeria. Nigeria is not a country that is so developed that you really don't have to do much. Even when you are doing something, you can't depend on only one thing to really make any headway. So, you see a lot of people diversifying into different things. Thus, it's all about money pursuit!
"As for musicians, back in the days, people used to do music for the fun of it, for the love of it. Then, it wasn't all about money. If you have a talent, there's this joy in you; you just want people to hear or share in what you have rather than hide your talent. Today's world is all about money for every young person, and I don't blame them.
"So, people who are going into music they want to get into the studio, and a lot of times they don't even do thorough work anymore. Music right now is highly computerised. The talents exhibited out there, I am not fully satisfied with it because you don't get the real talents anymore. Anybody can become a musician in today's world. It doesn't matter if they can sing or not.
They have it all figured out in the studio. If a sound engineer and your producer know what they are doing, they can make someone with the worst voice sound so good.
"Well, the good thing is Nigeria today has actually made an impact in the world, because around the world they accept music. Back in the days, you could identify reggae music with Jamaicans, and then hip-hop you'd say ok, the Americans."
Looking back also, he doesn't think that the seeming international mark made by exponents of Afrobeat and Juju music went far enough.
"Yes, but they didn't really make the impact our boys are making now. I lived in the US for a long time; I used to go into blockbuster music shops to search for music. And, the only African artistes that I had seen, that I ran into their albums back in the days inn the US, would be Lucky Dube, Alfa Blonde. And, narrowing down to Nigeria, you find Fela and Sunny Ade. However, you find out that their music was just out there in the store, being purchased by Nigerians mostly, maybe 90 per cent".
He lamented that Nigerian music did not really gain wide acceptance at the global stage, for instance among most Americans and other foreigners as only a handful of them would go into the music stores "and manage to buy the music" because they either have a Nigerian friend or someone would have told them about it. "So, that isn't the kind of publicity or impact you want to make. But with the Internet being part of us today, Nigerian musicians are known over, even when they don't have the money to push their music further. Anybody in China, in Japan, in South Korea or even Brazil, can just get into the internet, have access to Nigerian music. And, if you go out to the clubs.