Chief Patience Ozokwor is a veteran Nollywood actress, musician, fashion designer and gospel singer, who has won several awards. Ozokwor 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.