Stephanie Okereke-Linus is a multiple award-winning actress who has excelled not just as an actress but as a producer and a movie director. She has several awards under her belt, both local and international. A mother and a wife, Stephanie talks about the industry and the societal challenges that inspired the movie ‘Dry’. Mimi Ucheagwu reports
For people who live in the certain parts of the country where it is the tradition to give out very young girls of a certain age in marriage, Vesico-vaginal Fistula, (VVF), is not a strange disease. What is strange, however, is the way victims are treated and made to believe that they have spiritual or diabolical problems and are thus divorced by their husbands and ostracized from the community.
Due to their very young age and mostly poor family background with little education, they themselves do not understand why they should suffer from VVF, neither do they have anyone to fight their cause. Thankfully, the plight of VVF victims have been highlighted by different non-for-profit groups and concerned individuals who have taken definite steps to address this issue as well as under-age marriage and child abuse.
One of such individuals is the 2016 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards winner, Stephanie Okereke-Linus. Speaking about her feelings after she won the Overall Best Movie Awards for her movie ‘Dry’, Stephanie said she was indeed happy that her movie was helping to address child-birth issues, such as VVF and other maternal-related issues.
“I feel very happy winning this award but most importantly I’m happy that people are getting to know more about the cause of the film which is centred on child-birth issue and VVF, among other issues affecting young female children, as well as other maternal-related problems we have in Nigeria. I am happy that with this platform people are getting to be more aware of the issues and hopefully, we pray that more things will be done concerning the situation that we find ourselves in this country”.
Aside from VVF, there are many other health-related issues affecting under-aged children but for Stephanie, VVF is something of a calling. It began for her when she was an undergraduate in the University of Calabar, Cross River State. As a sophomore, Stephanie launched a campaign on campus to educate fellow students on the scourge of VVF and how it could be prevented. After school and her foray into the movie world, Stephanie gave life to her long-term dream to help people with VVF. This informed the setting up of the Foundation called ‘Extended Hands’ to do just that.
According to Stephanie, “It all began in my second year at the university when a friend of mine came back from the University of Jos and told me stories I thought were strange. We are all living in the same country but having different experiences and I thought it was weird. I thought to myself that I was lucky to have access to education and was able to decide what happens to my body. Today, I am married to someone I love and I believe other people should be able to have access to those kind of rights – education, health and good shelter”.
In a country where the healthcare system, particularly in the rural area is below par, Stephanie believes that all hands should be on deck to provide succour for the less privileged who do not have access to enhanced medical facilities especially for sicknesses that can be corrected via minor surgery.
“Not until one is faced with medical challenges before one begins to understand the dearth of our medical establishments. We have heard several tales of how people have died due to either carelessness or lack of basic drugs or equipment required to save life. I had an accident some years ago and I knew the ordeal I passed through. It is something that just propels you about things that need to be done properly. You may think you are fine and nothing will hurt you but if something, especially pertaining to your health, happens to you in Nigeria, you will find out that you are also at the mercy of the rot in the medical sector”, she said.
Since its official release, Dry has piqued the interest of many stakeholders and has gone ahead to win several awards, including the Programmers Awards, at the PAN African Film Festival and recently Overall Best Movie at the AMVCA 2016 edition. This does not however end here. So far, the movie has received accolade home and abroad and has again brought the plight of VVF victims to the fore.
Her Foundation, Extended Hands, has gone a step further to sponsor the treatment of over 200 women living with VVF across the country and this, according to Stephanie, is just the beginning. With sponsorship from SNEPCo/NNPC, more women, it is believed, will benefit from the free treatment.
As a publicity tool, Dry has been invited to many more movie festivals and Stephanie says her goal is for the world to see the movie so as to better appreciate the plight of VVF victims. With the screening of Dry, public understanding has been greatly enhanced with more people having a better understanding that it is not a northern problem, but a problem that plagues women of certain age who should not be giving birth, across the country.
In Kano for instance, the acceptance of the movie was massive and the demand for it is widespread. Unlike what most people think, it is not a Northern issue. Yes, they have a majority of people coming from there but there are young teenage girls who are victims of abuse, married off to men at a tender age even right here in Lagos. ‘Extended Hands’ has treated women in Ebonyi state, Akwa Ibom, Ibadan (Oyo) and Lagos.
In order to reach out to even more people, the Foundation is always looking to partner government, government agencies or the private sector in a bid to enhance understanding of an ailment which is a national issue, and touch even more lives.
“I was very happy when the Ministry of Health wrote to request for a meeting on how to better use the movie to educate the populace. The Foundation is also partnering Ford Foundation and the MDGs, since one of the millennium development goals is to eradicate diseases”, Stephanie said.
According to her, lots of movie producers/actors get requests from different African countries, asking them to come and help their people and grow their market as well. It has happened to Ghollywood in Ghana and today, the industry is adding to the economy of Ghana with a strong thriving movie industry. Nigeria has huge potentials with millions of young and talented people whose talents and energies can be channeled towards positive growth and achievements.
In walking the talk, Stephanie together with her husband, Idahosa Linus, run DelYork International, an institution which trains budding actors and directors to be on top of their game. The institution has a partnership with the New York Film Academy, which has brought in a lot of experience to bear.
Stephanie says if her biography was to be commissioned she would want it titled “I have seen’” and she believes that one day a Nigerian movie will win an Oscar and make Nigeria proud.