Oyenike Michael Ibru: I Hawked ‘Tin Tomatoes’ for Michael Ibru

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Unfazed by age, the octogenarian sits quietly in her couch. Her dim but graceful eyes light up with memories. She is a woman who has been there, done that. Her lips curl solemnly and fondly as she let out the first few words about her life with her parents. And the nostalgia that flickered in her eyeballs when she left home at a tender age of eight to live with another family – a famous family: the Bank-Anthony’s. Calmly, she shares some personal stories about love, friendship, motherhood and doing business. Quiet but quintessential and queenly, Mrs. Oyenike Fatungase Michael Ibru is a study in simplicity, serenity and serendipity. Her story is at once dramatic, comedic, and epic. As she narrates the episodes of her sojourn on earth, she makes the most challenging moment of life appears ordinary. The matriarch, left with a child, after the cold hands of death snatched one of her children at a tender age, is a paragon of resilience and intelligence. Born on June 12, 1934, she tells Funke Olaode how she met Olorogun Michael Ibru at Kingsway Store on February 1953. She was just 19 years old. Their union was consummated on December 26, 1954, a month after the birth of her son, Onome. The doctor of divinity also discusses her journey into a spiritual rebirth

A privileged beginning
I was born in Lagos on June 12, 1934. By the time I was born my father was working for UAC, while my mother was a trader – selling clothing materials at Ereko Market on Lagos Island. My father was also the treasurer of the African Bethel Church on Broad Street, Lagos. My parents hailed from Ijebu Ayepe, Ogun State. This is about three miles after Ikenne. My father came to Lagos as a young man. He stayed with Archbishop James Johnson before he started work at UAC. In a way, I had a privileged beginning because I had parents who were well-to-do and could take care of my needs. But when I was growing up Nigeria was going through economic crisis (recession) and there was no food. I remember we had to wake up very early in the morning to go and queue to get foodstuffs. One day, we went around 3 am. When I got there one man saw a spot on my head and asked me to go home. It was chicken pox. I was restricted to the private sitting room and my father was looking after me. After I got better, my father asked me to go and live with my godmother, Lady Mobolaji Bank-Anthony. I was about eight years old when I left home. Everybody thought I was Bank-Anthony’s daughter. But I used to tell them I am Fatungase’s. Having a father who was educated gave me leverage in acquiring good education early in life. And of course, the Bank-Anthonys, my guardians, also were influential figures in Lagos. When I left the Bank-Anthonys, my father was still alive. I was I enrolled at Breadfruit School and later Christ Church Cathedral. I also attended Girls Modern Academy and Lucas Collegiate, where I took my Senior Cambridge Examinations. After secondary school, I started work as an artiste at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) with a programme called, ‘Nike Fatungase Sings.’ I was singing native songs on radio.

Meeting Michael Ibru in February 1953
I met Michael Ibru at the defunct Kingsway Store on Broad Street in February 1953. At that time, the store used to organise programme every February. And that particular February of 1953 was a turning point for me. It was the day I met my husband Michael Ibru (now late). He came to the store with one of our ‘area’ brothers, Kole. I said jokingly to my ‘area’ brother, ‘What do you intend to buy for me here?’ Then, I saw Michael whispering into his ears making enquiry whether I was one of his sisters. And he said yes and even mentioned my name. That was how my path crossed with Michael Ibru. I remember before he left that store that day, he gave me one of his photographs. I was about 19 years old then.

Michael shaped my life
I want to give glory to the Almighty Father for sending Michael Ibru to shape my life. I was very rascally having been raised at Olowoogbowo in Lagos. If you abused me the day before I would not say anything but I would reserve the fight till the following day. And after Morning Prayer I would come to your house and beat you up. When I started dating Michael, these people would go to Michael’s office to report me. Of course, he would ask them to come to my place in the evening. He would call me out and say, ‘Don’t you want to fight again.’ I would be sober and he would start counselling me that I am a lady and ladies don’t fight. When I had my first pregnancy in 1953 I went for a funeral. It was the day the then Action Group Chieftain, Chief Bode Thomas was being buried. And because he was a member of our church we had to trek from Broad Street to Ikoyi. And when I got back home I had complications and in the process I lost the pregnancy. The following year, 1954 to be precise, I had my first son, Onome. I had my daughter in 1956 and another son, Marcus in 1958. I lost him at about 14 months old. It was then that I came back to Lagos to stay in my father’s house because another lady was living with my husband. I never remarried or divorced. I just decided to stay on my own when he was busy marrying women.

Consummating my marriage
I had Onome in November 17, 1954 and on the December 26, 1954 (the Boxing Day) he paid my dowry. My husband married only one woman legally. Her name is Mercy, an Ibo lady from the East. They later divorced but there was no child between them. After that he didn’t get married to any woman legally he only paid their dowries. We were living in Shomolu. He was still working with the UAC but was later transferred to Benin. It was in Benin that we celebrated Onome’s one-year birthday. I relocated to Lagos in 1956 when my husband was going to England to resign from the UAC because the management didn’t accept his resignation letter here in Nigeria. When he came back from London in 1956 he established his own company. When the fish trawler was stationed at Ijora and he would go there in the evening and used to come back in the morning. He was the first to sell ‘tin tomatoes’ in Lagos. Prior to that time nobody in Nigeria knew about ‘tin tomatoes.’ To create awareness and support for his business, I started hawking ‘tin tomatoes’ at Ereko Market. Later, he got a space at Ofin on Thompson Warehouse where he was selling cement. There was a day it rained heavily and I had to use big towel to dry the cement warehouse.

Working as a banker
After some time, I worked as a lady machinist at Banque Dela Frique Occidental which later became Afribank Plc. The office was at Creek Road in Apapa. My cousin had a shop at Tinubu where he was selling dresses and I bought a lot of office dresses. I didn’t tell my husband that I was working. I didn’t know who told him and he trailed me to the place. I hid myself under the table. He drove in and said, ‘Omobinrin ti won lo n sise nibiyi da?’ meaning, ‘where is the lady that is working here?’ I had to come out. He just looked at me and said, ‘You too are wearing gown. You are showing your legs.’ But I didn’t leave the bank immediately. But the day I decided to leave was the day the President of Ethiopia Halle Selassie visited Nigeria. This man did not land because his son had taken over his government. The rain on that day was so heavy that we all remained in the banking hall. Our manager ordered everybody out of the banking hall and after that I didn’t go back again. After quitting the banking job I worked at the Sales Department of the NBC at 45 Martins Street, Lagos under the supervision of Sales Manager, Mr. Emmanuel Bello Fadaka (now late). He was my husband’s very good friend. When Mr. Fadaka was about to be transferred to Benin, he advised me to start an advertising agency.

Setting up advertising agency in 1968
Mr. Fadaka helped me to set up an advertising agency which was named NICKY FAT Agencies in 1968. It was situated at No. 46 Balogun Street. I happened to be the first female to start an advertising agency in Nigeria. The agency prospered because God favoured me through some people. The father of former Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Fashola, who was at Daily Times then, Ted Mukoro of Lintas Advertising Agency, Kehinde Adeosun and Olu Falomo, all helped me. Later, I left advertising business when given a licence by the then Lagos State Governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande to start pilgrimage tours under NICKY FAT TOURS. I was taking people to Jerusalem including military personnel. My daughter, Christie later set up Elf petrol station, which is now Total petrol station at Ilupeju. When I turned 70 years old, I retired from active service. Total manages the station now with my cooperation.

Fond memories of Michael Ibru
When I met him he wasn’t rich. He was just an average civil servant. But he was a very handsome, quiet, humble and nice man who God used to change my life of rascality. Since we knew each other in 1953, he never raised his hand against me. The only time we had a mis-understanding that almost resulted into physical fight was the day the Ibo boys living in our compound in Shomolu sang an Ibo song ‘N ike n ke ka anyi ji alu oluu, na alu oluu n ike nke.’ You know I used to help these boys to cook in the kitchen. He thought they were praise-singing me. He had a change of heart one night when Art Alade started ‘Saturday Night Out’ on radio. The first music he played that very night was that particular Igbo song. My husband looked at me and apologised. He was a very caring man. When I had the fire accident at my petrol station he wanted to take me to the hospital I refused that I would cure it with water of life. Within two weeks the leg dried up. He said ‘Madam, you know everything now.’ I said it is only God that knows everything. When I was given the honorary doctorate degree, he gave me money to entertain my guests and instructed Olorogun Oscar Ibru to represent him because he was travelling out of the country. He was always attending my birthdays. The relationship was cordial till he died.

Losing my first son Onome in 1973
Life is not a bed of roses and I have had my fair share. It was a dark moment in my life when I lost my first child, Onome Oyebolaji Michael Ibru, in a motor accident on his way to the University of Ife, to collect his certificate in June 1973. He was 19 years old. If he hadn’t died he would have been 62 this November. He attended secondary school abroad and came to Nigeria for his university education. All the universities in Nigeria gave him a befitting burial (he was a student union activist). He was buried like a king. I am now left with a daughter, Christie, who is the eldest of Michael’s children.

Answering a divine call
By a divine call I founded a spiritual church in 1975 named, God’s Glory Shining Star Church Cherubim and Seraphim (Ijo Irawo Ogo Olorun Ntan). I was licensed and became a lay reader and Preacher in the African Church in 1978 – the first female to hold such a position. I am also a trustee of the African Church Arch Cathedral Bethel. It was because of my religious activities that I was given a doctorate degree, Doctor of Divinity, by an American university in 1998. One Prophet Adeoye who had a school in Victoria Island once told me that I am a messenger of God. When I became a lay reader, I took the form to my husband. He encouraged me and he signed the form for me. But the spirit of God said I should establish a spiritual church. I started it in my sitting room. There was a day I prayed for his (Michael’s) senior driver whose wife was expecting a baby. He now told my husband to thank me for praying for his wife. He was surprised and said, ‘Nike, o jamo olorun lo fe sin nisin yi. A maa ran e lowo;’meaning, ‘Nike, you don’t want to fight people again and now you want to serve God. I will help you.’ My husband built the first church for me at the back of my house in Surulere and also built a bigger one for me at Itire next door to O.K. Plastics. The churches are still there and functioning till today. So if there was to be another world I would still like to marry my husband because he was a gentle man. Like all men he had his weaker side. But I pray when he comes next time he would be a messenger of God and I will marry him because a minister of God doesn’t marry two wives.

I am fulfilled
Considering my journey through life, I can say that all my aspirations have been fulfilled. Jesus Christ gave us two commandments: serve your God with your whole heart and love thy neighbour as thy self. I have adhered to those two commandments and I know God will help me at my night. At 82, I am in my night. I will not do evil, think no evil and speak no evil to anybody. I believe in what the Bible says at Galatians 6:7: ‘be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, thou shall he also reap.’ The last book of the bible in Revelation also says, ‘whoever that is doing good should continue and whoever that is doing bad should continue. God is coming quickly to pay everybody according to his or her doings.’ For me, I don’t pay evil with evil because vengeance belongs to him. Romans 12: 17 says, ‘Recompense to no man evil for evil and provide things honest in the sight of all men.’ I thank God Almighty for making me His daughter. I have been doing what He called me to do and I will continue till He calls me home. And that is why if I die today, I will like to be remembered for my faithfulness because I have been consistent with God all my life.

Life of lessons
What I have learnt in this life is that one shouldn’t think of oneself alone because in the midst of life we are nothing. Think of others and what you can do to help and please others. I am not doing anything to please myself. And as a human being always do the right thing to the low and mighty. We are here today and nobody knows tomorrow. As Psalm 34: 14 says, ‘Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.’