Bishop Peace Nwabogor Okonkwo, who turns 60 tomorrow, speaks with FUNKE OLAODE on losing her father at a rather early age, the
challenges it created for the large family he left behind and how it brought out hidden strengths in her young mother
Losing my father so early
I was born in Yola in the then Northern Region and now in Adamawa State on June 10, 1952. But my parents hailed from Obosi in Anambra State and I later married to an Ogbunike man from Anambra State. I was still very young when my father died and my mother had to relocate back to the East. My father was in a managerial position in a company before he died. It was traumatic losing my father early because my mother had to shoulder a lot of responsibilities. She worked so hard and that is why I don’t mind spending all on her now. She is still alive at 83. It was so tough raising the children. I could count the number of clothes she had as a widow.
We were eight children and I am the number one. But my maternal grand-mother was a successful business woman. And when the going was getting tough for her daughter, she came to her aid. My mother’s younger sister who resided in England also waded in and helped us. That was how we survived that era.
The assistance we got from relations actually bailed us from the shackles of poverty. Her influence on us was enormous. Like I said earlier, my mother worked so hard to train us. As a matter of fact, we called her prophetess because of her prayerful nature. In fact, this has really helped me to depend absolutely on God no matter the situation.
There was electricity in Enugu where I grew up but there was none in the village. We used to go to the farm to assist our mum. And this actually helped me to be focused and determined. It wasn’t rosy but I held on to God as the only solution to all problems. There was no time to engage in truancy as all eyes were on me as the first child. So I have been calm and responsible from my childhood because of my humble background. I am somebody that would come back from school to help my mother. I was always very close to my mother to help her in house chores. In those days, there was no grinding machine around and I had to use mortar.
I started my primary education at St. Bartholomew’s Primary School in Enugu. It wasn’t easy too because even as a student, I was working. During holidays, I would look out for any work to enable us pay for my sister’s school fees. You know I had a lot of siblings. I didn’t enjoy my childhood like others who used to go to friends’ house to play. It was work all through to be able to sustain myself and my seven siblings. Being the first I had to immerse myself in work to be able to assist. With modesty, this has really helped me in my humanitarian endeavours to impact humanity because having suffered as a child I wouldn’t want others to experience what I passed through.
After my primary education, I moved to Lagos where I had a brief stint at a school in Yaba. My aunt left for England and after a while I joined her and completed my O and A Levels there. I came back from England and joined Fincom Nigeria Limited owned by the late Dankaro. I was attached to the managing director who was a white man.
I studied secretarial studies at West London College. I actually decided to study secretarial studies, which I believe was quick so that I can take care of my sibling. Although while growing up, my ambition was to be an administrator. But as I grew in the ministry later on, I went to Morris Cerullo School of Ministry and Rhema Bible Training Centre, Tulsa, Oklahoma. I have also attended many Christian Leadership Conferences both home and abroad.
Going into the ministry
I gave my life to Christ in 1974. Again, because of our humble upbringing, our hope and aspirations was on God. And after the civil war that ravaged the country for about three years, everybody was looking onto God. I was in the village when the war broke out. Immediately they (the authority) declared one Nigeria, everybody was happy. We all lost everything and the only abode that people rushed to on regular basis was church. Everybody was looking and seeking for God. If you came to the East then everybody was looking for the church, both the young and the old. And that was when I became grounded in the work of God and I never looked back.
In a way, the Nigerian crisis drew me to God and that was where I met my future husband, Bishop Mike Okonkwo. He was in that church. He was commissioned to go into the battle field when the war was over. So, I have known him for a long time before we got married in 1982.
We met at a church called UCC. Although, it sounds like a ‘white garment church’ but the members weren’t compelled to put on white garment. It was only the Pastor who did. What I liked about the church was the music. We would praise God and dance away our sorrows. My husband used to be a drummer then. Ironically, we didn’t agree because I also opposed him. You know he is from a wealthy family. His father was okay and he had siblings living abroad.
I always saw him as a very arrogant person. So if he spoke at the church’s youth fellowship, I would oppose him. I later left for England but we were still communicating. After a while, his father told him that he could not continue living as a bachelor and who does he have in mind to marry. He told the father about me and he later wrote and talked about marriage. Later on, the chemistry jelled and we got married in 1982.
My husband is a firm person. I remember when he received the call to go into full time ministry his parents opposed him because he is the first son. He was determined. I like somebody who knows what he wants and goes for what he believes in. He is also a caring man. I remember when we got married people said my husband was so strong-faced. I said it wasn’t true because he is softer in his heart than me.
Me and charity…
Going to charity was borne out of passion to serve humanity. I have told you about my background and how people came to my aid. My number one priority is the cervical cancer campaign, screening and treatment. Cervical cancer has been known to kill thousand of women who are ignorant of its existence and so could take advantage of the various preventive measures available. It is so important because it involves their reproductive organ and the disease is treatable. I have this prayer that no woman should leave this world without a child. I went to the North, Akure in Ondo State and Ogbunike in Anambra State. This month, in commemoration of my sixtieth birthday, about 10,000 women have been penciled down for screening. A PEACE Concert was held at the Eko Hotel and Suites to raise fund.
Another area I’ve devoted my passion is the Rehoboth Homes and Skills Acquisition Centre. This is a fall-out of the vision God gave to me to provide a residential apartment and vocational empowerment for stranded ladies. Not only are these ladies taken off and given shelter free of charge, they are also trained in any vocation of their choice. And for those who are still waiting to go through the formal education system, they are given scholarship. The home currently has a three-storey building of its own. We hope to duplicate this home in all the six geo-political zones of the country and we also look forward to raising homes in countries like Liberia, Uganda, and other war-torn and troubled countries. On educational support, there is an education support programme that gives scholarship to brilliant but financially challenged children.
The programme gives a grant of N60, 000 per annum to children to sponsor their university education. Rather than setting up a fresh orphanage and in view of the rising number of abandoned children, the visionaries of Women Global Impact Initiative send a monthly support to the Strong Tower Orphanage. We also provide social security net for the needy women who have lost their breadwinners through death, divorce. The initiative helps out by donating money and essential material gifts to widows without discrimination. This is my passion and I pray that God will continue to assist me and my committed team to serve the humanity.
I am glad that all the works we are doing are recognized both locally and internationally. This is not my doing, but by His grace. In 2005, I was bestowed with Nigerian Woman of the Year Award, SUMA Humanitarian Support Award in 2006, International Aids Candlelight Memorial Award in 2007, Humanitarian Honorary Award from Institute for Humanitarian Studies and Social Development in 2010, First Hope, Mother in Israel Award in 2011 in Berlin, Germany, amongst others.
I have played my role well over my only daughter. I am her mentor. I remember two years ago, Uche was around and we went to minister at a Youth Camp Meeting. When we came back, she knelt at my feet and said ‘Mum, I want you to mentor me’. We are very close and she is my friend. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the United States.
I don’t feel any difference. Age is just a number but there are certain things that I used to do but can’t do it anymore. For instance, I like walking but I have slowed down.
Well, I am fulfilled and I thank God for taking me this far. But I still want to see more children go to school. I still want to empower more widows and build more Rehoboth Homes.