- WHAT KEEPS ME AWAKE AT NIGHT
Her luscious full lips, gorgeous looks and enchanting figure have endured years of triumphs and travails. When she left the Queen of Rosary College to study Acting and Speech at the Department of Dramatic Arts of Obafemi Awolowo University, she was prepping to take over Nigeria’s film industry –the third largest in the world. Her beauty and brains turned heads –both men’s and women’s. By 1982, she had become the biggest actress on the African continent after being adjudged the Best Actress in Burkina Faso at the Panafrican Film and Television Festival. Like a rising sun from the east, she wormed her way into the hearts of millions of Nigerians as she dazzled with brilliance in the soap opera, Mirror in the Sun. Nollywood matriarch and screen diva, Clarion Chukwura-Byod, has not reached her twilight yet. Back in Nigeria after three years’ sojourn in the United States of America, she is already charting a new course for Nigerian youths and her film project on slave trade, writes Funke Olaode following an interview with the silver screen goddess
Few actresses in Africa rock like her. Dressed in beautiful blue dress, with glistening glassy eyes, supple body and delectable voice, Clarion Chukwura-Byod exudes timelessness and elegance. Refined by scandals and embellished by successes, she glows like stars in Saturn. As a United Nations Special Peace Ambassador – Nigeria and Kenya Peace Corps – she remains one of Nollywood’s enduring flamboyant legends. This is largely due to her humanitarian passion and phenomenal achievements as an actress in Nigeria’s film industry – past and present. She reprised the role of an Amazon in various movies she has starred in – whether as a villain or a victor – especially in movies like Midnight Love (2003), Money Power (1984) and Abuja Connection (2003). She is loved by many and admired by many more in Nigeria. Like many Nigerian celebrities who grace the silver screen, her life is like an open book in a public library. She has been there, done that. From broken relationships to broken marriages – leaving juicy trails for gossipy tabloids and newspapers to feast on – she has risen above career-damaging scandals. Undaunted, Clarion Chukwura, as she is fondly called, has often shrugged off distractions and turned stumbling blocks into stepping stones. A beautiful mind, she always has good stories to tell. Her son – Clarence Peters – the seed of her relationship with the music legend, Sir Shina Peters, is one of the most successful video directors on the African continent.
But beyond fame as a diva, Clarion has been championing a better life for the black race on a global scale as an activist. Her passion for humanitarian causes and human rights through her foundation, Clarion Chukwura Foundation has earned her UN’s peace ambassadorial role which was bestowed on her in 2007. “It has to do with my work with women and children in Nigeria, Cameroon and Kenya. If you Google it on Facebook you will see Clarion Chukwura Initiatives exhibiting all the works I have been doing in that area since 1999,” she said.
Her prolonged absence from her childhood love – acting – was received with mixed feelings with many critics assuming she must have bidden farewell to the film industry. To the insinuation that the Nollywood which she had helped to nurtured must have seen the last of her, it was hard for her to imagine that some people thought that she had left acting for good during her hiatus overseas. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone think Nollywood has seen the last of me? I didn’t say that. And I don’t have an answer to a question like that. Everyone knows that I am an actress – that is what I do. I did two Nollywood movies in the United States. Why would anybody say that? I am a Nollywood actress with an enduring legacy, spanning over three decades. I am a professional. My strength lies in my children, my family and my God,” she seemed to reassure her fans and those who thought she had left acting for good.
Clarion has been away from the country for about three years. But she is back in the country. One reason is to promote civic education for youths in Nigeria in preparation for leadership roles in the future. However, that purpose is not for a talk show or photo-op. What more can be driving towards youths’ development and empowerment? Her reason is not far-fetched. “There is mass unemployment in the country and the issue of employment is not being addressed in the way it ought to. You have young people leave school and don’t have a specific place as a school leaver where they can go to, put down their names and particulars and say they need a job. And you can’t get a call back when there is a job opportunity for them. Here in Nigeria, people finish school and just sleep at home or they have to depend on somebody else’s connection to connect them for a job on the basis of who you know. It shouldn’t be who you know to get employment. So every senatorial constituency ought to have a job hub or agency,” she stated.
Talking about her new film project –which explores the mass suicide of Igbo slaves in 1803 – she believes it will deepen Nigeria-US relations. The movie centres on Nigeria and the US and the possible deeper bilateral partnership it could engender between the Africa and its descendants scattered all over the world as a result of slave trade. As interesting as the project is, it even gets more thrilling she confirmed that she is collaborating with her son –Clarence – to produce the film.
“It is a movie I spent time doing a lot of research on. Well, I will say two of them really. I did the research for the first one in the US; the second one some couple of years ago in Kenya. The one in the US is coming first because of its historical importance and relevance to this country, Nigeria, and how it can bring us together, Nigeria and the U.S. It is a story of some 75 Igbo men, women, and children, who were taken as slaves from the place known as new Caliber, which is Port Harcourt. The ships sailed from there and landed in my husband’s hometown, Anthony Boyd, in Savannah-Chatham County, Georgia, and they were sold to two masters, who were from another country. And sailing from Savannah County to Saint Simon’s Island, an hour’s drive; but back then in 1803, it took more than that.
Between Chatham County waters and their destination, they overpowered the overseers, killed them and wrecked the boat’ on the marshes of Samba Creeks. And they all got down into the water; they didn’t have ships to go back home. They didn’t know how to do so. What they just did was that they held each other by the hand and waded into the water and they were singing: ‘The water brought us; the water will take us back!’ And they drowned; they committed mass suicide,” she recalled.
Continuing, she added: “It is a very important history in the history of America that is taught in schools, which African-Americans are so proud of, and it makes them consider themselves as Nigerians. Every African-American from Virginia to North Carolina to South Carolina and to Georgia, they will tell you ‘we are Nigerians and Igbo because of that story.’ It is a project that I want to do with collaboration with other professional film makers and office of the Diaspora. So my movie is drawing a parallel in what happened in 1803 with the present agitation of the Igbo man for Biafra.”
How exactly does she feel that she will explore the theme of her new film with the help of her son? She said, “My son is a separate individual. He is an entrepreneur. But on this Igbo historic project we would be working together. I would feel fulfilled but when I get to that I will know how I feel.”
Until now men took the front seat when it comes to directing and acting but she feels women have come a long way too. According to her, it has to do with growth and the Nigerian spirit “because we are not back benchers, we are hard-working, very creative and talented people worldwide.”
Commenting on Nollywood’s foray into international film industry with its sophistication in storytelling and film production, she admitted that the Nigerian film industry still has many grounds to cover before accomplishing bigger feats. “We are still many years away from winning an Oscar because we are still a country that lacks quality equipment. We have to be a country that believes in big budgeting, ready to invest in necessary in movie-making before we can talk about winning an Oscar,” Clarion pointed out.
There are moments in life that she thinks keep her awake in the night. “The state of my country Nigeria gives me headache because one really has to be a fighter, very optimistic and really have faith and strength in God to believe in Nigeria. It is very frustrating the way you have senators who have allowances they collect annually towards their constituencies but they pocket the money and spend it on buying cars instead of spending the money to provide employment in their districts to alleviate poverty. You know in a century that technology is what every country is talking about. “They don’t have town hall meetings by representatives who listen to their constituencies and do the right thing. It is very worrisome. In this day and age the people on this continent are expecting everything from the Presidency forgetting that their legislators owe them. I am worried about Nigeria – worried about a lawmaker buying shoe-shinning kits for 5,000 youths as a form of empowerment. What is he projecting into their future?” she mused.
Having lived a terrific life – phenomenal in success and scandalous in missteps – her view on whether she would have lived her life differently if she had the opportunity is revealing. Clarion noted: “I will say to you that life is a journey and every human being has a path that that life journey has to take. You can’t change anything.”
She comes across as a tough – no-nonsense – woman but Clarion definitely knows how to get the frill and thrill after the drill by delving into activism and criminology. She also enjoys “road relaxing in RV, a mobile car.”
Every attempt to probe further into her private life, her sojourn in the US and new husband was met with: “I wouldn’t want to talk about that, please.”
Is the silver screen goddess back in the country? “I am staying temporarily. I’m back to Nigeria to do some movies. In fact, I will leave for Owerri after this interview to shoot a movie and then come back to Lagos to shoot another series. I’m looking forward to the premiere of ‘Amina’ later in the year. I missed my constituency in the three years I have been away. I can’t wait to get back into it. I can’t!”