Of the popular three Ibru sisters, Obukome avoids attention, but she is 50 years, this year. So; she relaxed her guard and admitted Nseobong Okon-Ekong into her world for a rare glimpse
Your first fascination may be Gloria. She is the one who sings. She and her G-Notes Band have held audiences captive for years. Or you may be enthralled by Elvina who mesmerizes listeners on radio and delivers a perfect charm as a Thespian. But this reporter sought the one who is rarely seen in public; the one who likes to remain in the background. Of the three Michael Ibru daughters, Obukome deliberately avoids the limelight.
She is just happy to live true to meaning of her name, which is ‘backbone’ in Urhobo. Not quite. She struggled, even stuttering with the explanation (laughing all the while) because she neither speaks Urhobo nor any Nigerian language. “It means support system in Urhobo; it means my back… coming from the back. My grandfather named me as a support to my older sister, Gloria. My mother had four boys before she came along and her name is Omotelibe, which means ‘a girl at last’. After that I came. However, I think my name has followed me and I have become a support, not just for Gloria, but for my other sister as well; the one that is after me, Elvina.”
Not being able to speak her mother tongue is something she is not particularly proud of. She has stopped trying and comforts herself with the fact that she can grapple with the meaning of a few words in Urhobo since she started visiting her homestead frequently and began to immerse herself in other aspects of Urhobo culture. Sometimes, she is envious of friends who speak fluent Urhobo and wished she could flow with them. “Unfortunately, I can’t and I really can’t blame myself for it. It’s one of those things. I understand the culture very well. I’ve been privileged to meet people back home.”
Obukome is 50 years this year. Her golden anniversary is one of the reasons she agreed to come to the front of life’s stage by fielding questions from this reporter, at least, for once. Born in Apapa-Lagos, she has lived in the same vicinity for as many years. Her current residence is just four blocks from her birthplace. She was the first Michael Ibru child born in Apapa. The environment has changed a lot from what it used to be, she said. “The Apapa that I grew up in as a teenager was serene, quiet and very reserved. I could ride my bicycle. I can name every street here. My cousins used to live close; so it was a ritual to visit them. There was no ‘danfo’ in Apapa. What we call Waterside now is what we used to call Marine Beach and it was all white sand. I remember as a child being pushed in a perambulator by my nanny, taking a stroll there. But now, that is impossible. Elvina has a son that is eight years-old, we don’t even allow him outside the gate. We just don’t know what may happen to him. If it’s not ‘okada’, it’s ‘danfo’-accidents happen in front of this house everyday. The environment has changed in terms of cleanliness. It wasn’t a problem for Gloria and I, at age eight or nine, to take a walk on our own, so long as we let someone know that we are going to see our cousins. We don’t have an environment in which our children feel safe anymore. Most people in my age group left Apapa. Even if you see their family houses, it’s probably their old parents that live there, if they have not passed like mine.”
“I don’t think I can live anywhere else in Lagos. I’ve considered moving out of Apapa. But where am I going to? VI? It’s just as congested as Apapa. Lekki? I don’t particularly feel safe,” she responded to the question on her continued stay in Apapa. Talking from her experience of working with a dredging company, she expressed concerns about Lekki. “I can speak authoritatively on that because it’s my field. I did dredging for about 15 years.”
Not even the renaming of some streets in Apapa in honour of certain members of her family could bring back that connect with Apapa that is on the wane. However, she thinks it is honour earned. “There are not so many families that still have their roots in Apapa; whereas all of us are still here. We haven’t left Apapa because the environment is not clean or tankers have taken over everywhere. We have to come and go by boat most times because we can’t go to work by road and come back like normal people. We thank God for the resources and also for Michael Ibru who built a house by the water so that we can have a boat pick us to Ibafon or VI and come back the same way. So, if you are stuck in VI, you remain there until the next day, unless you are willing to break the law by driving against traffic. Yes, we now have ‘Michael Ibru Boulevard’. I think it is well deserved. There is ‘Oscar Ibru Way’, as well. Oscar has been here for over 60 years. Why shouldn’t it be called Oscar Ibru Way? A lot of roads in Ikoyi and VI are being changed from their original names.”
From going in search of friends or work, Obukome claims familiarity with about 90 per cent of Lagos. But whether she goes to the north or south; east or west, her home, where she lays her head is her most precious belonging. “This is where I find peace. No matter where I go in the world. It is not exactly a mansion, but it is my mansion.”
A look around the living room gave a few hints about her character. The décor pointed to her love for African art. But she gave the credit to her sister, Elvina. “Most of these are Elvina’s, just one or two things are mine. I leave most of my house decor to Elvina, it’s her love. She loves interior. She decorates my house. I try to change my house around every two or three years because it makes me happy. I love bright colours. I love antiques.”
Her sister may influence her home furnishing, but the choice to wear her natural hair was strictly hers. “I have been wearing my natural hair for five years but this particular hair style is two years. I had it as dreadlock when I first started.”
Further indicator towards her affection for the arts was apparent in a string of beads on her ankle, but she flatly denied it had anything to do with innate artistic trait, although a piano occupied a prominent position in the room. “I love music. I don’t write music or play any musical instrument. I was encouraged as a child to play the piano and guitar. I joined the choir when I was six and was there till I left for university in America to study Economics and International Relations. My mother encouraged me but somewhere along the line, I stopped. Now, I encourage my children to play.”
Of his two sons, one plays the drums very well. He started taking it seriously at age three. He still plays, but not as much as he used to because he is an adult and has other things to do. The older one, however, has lost interest completely. Like many daughters, Obukome had a special relationship with her father; who she fondly called ‘Broda’ like everyone else in the family. While she described him in very meek terms, she had a healthy reverence for her mother, Elsie. ”My father was a very humble fisherman. I never saw my father talk down on anyone. My father had the ultimate respect for everyone. I grew up learning that. But with my mother…, the fear of Elsie was the beginning of wisdom. My mother would not have any of it. You were not to disrespect anybody, not even your age mate or people younger than you. It was hammered into my brain. You are not better than anyone. Everyone’s situation is different. You are to respect every single person because we all deserve respect. I grew up calling my nannies ‘aunty’, my house-help ‘uncle’. Till today, I have the utmost respect for two persons: Uncle Udoh and Uncle Okon. They both still work in the Ibru Group. Uncle Udoh still does my laundry and Uncle Okon still cooks ‘Ekpan-nkwukwo for me when I want it. Uncle Udoh started working here when Elvina was one. She is going to be 45 years this month and Uncle Okon came a year or two years later; which means I was seven or eight years old. These persons have been with us for over 40 years and I grew up calling them ‘uncle’ and till tomorrow I still call them ‘uncle’. Both of them have come to recognise me as a boss and call me ‘aunty Obuks’.
Even with the influences of people around her while growing up, she could still not speak Nigerian languages. “My mother was born in Calabar. If I had an ear for languages, I would speak Efik in totality. But I’m language deaf. My mother spoke Yoruba, Igbo, Efik and Hausa fluently and she tried to speak Efik to us. Most of my nannies and house-helps were ‘Calabar’. There was actually no reason why I shouldn’t speak Efik. I only know ‘sosongo’, meaning, ‘thank you’ in Efik.”
To Obukome, her father was a handsome man. She grew up listening to comments on his striking resemblance to the famous American boxer, Mohammed Ali. This made her very proud as she also looks like her
father, with whom she shared a very special bond, so much that if he didn’t see her in three months, he will not speak with her for two days when she went visiting. He wouldn’t want her to leave him. “It was sweet to have a father to relate with. My mother who has passed for 27 years and I’m still not used to it. I still think of her particularly when some things happen. It’s not nice to be an orphan, no matter the age.”
Perhaps, it was this sense of nostalgia towards her parents that has discouraged her from moving to her husband’s house. She explained her continued stay in her family house. “My husband, Eme Mukoro, is a politician. He’s always in Delta. He feels that I’m more secure here than anywhere else. Wherever he goes, at least, he’s sure that when he returns, his family is intact. My mum approved of our marriage before she died. She blessed our marriage. She was like don’t take her away, you come and be with us. Thank God, my brothers have accepted him as a brother, not as an in-law. My mother, I don’t call her my mother-in-law, Mrs Eunice Mukoro, is in Benin. She is a most precious mother. If I ever have to go to another family, I will go to hers.” Coming from one of Nigeria’s wealthiest families, with everything at her beck and call, does an Ibru have to work?
Obukome was generous with her answer: “Off the top of my head, ‘no!’. I think the generation of Michael did all the work. Their children can sit down and cross their legs. If we don’t want to work, all we have to do is enjoy ourselves and party. But it is not in our nature. We were actually not brought up like that. I don’t think there is any Ibru that needs to work, but I think that every Ibru has to work because that’s the lesson we were taught while growing up. You have to be responsible to yourself, family and society. My mother will say, one million times ‘Michael money no be your own o’. I heard it every single day. My mother provided what her children needed, not what they wanted. She said, when you grow up and start making your money, go and buy what you want. For now, you will get what you need. She will tell you at the age of 14, you will wear what 14 year-olds are supposed to wear. If you wear those designer things now, you will be a thief at 40. That’s what my mum used to tell me.
“If I wanted an expensive wear, it was my mum’s dress I would wear. I was about the same size with my mum; so I was lucky. I could wear her clothes, steal it from the wardrobe, wear it and return it before she noticed. She used to dress us very well. My mum was a dresser. Everybody knew that. She was a fashionista. She dressed us her daughters in the same vein. But she was simple, her favourite quote was ‘expensive simplicity’. The older you get, the more your appreciation for valuable things become. When you are young, you don’t understand the value of things, because you get them easy. Of course, we got the best education. We got the best of life.”
Denying the rumoured fight among her siblings over her father’s estate, she said, “It’s just a misunderstanding on the part of some of Michael’s children. I will leave it at that. We no dey fight for our house.”