Radiant as Ever
At 60, Edith Okowa looks as radiant as ever and could easily be the envy of women decades younger. With a natural quiet mien, she radiates inner strength which emits when you talk to her. A lady of few words, she gives much thoughts to her utterances before she answers questions which shows her depth of character. A mother and a wife, Edith has her hands full with running the home and her various charitable causes under her 05 Initiative which she says she founded under the a scripture in the Bible that says to take care of the sick, take care of the hungry, feed the poor and cloth the naked. She has not rest her oats as she continues to diligently follow these commandments with her position of First Lady of Delta state.
Edith started as a teacher who taught English, social studies and history until she grew to the position of a Permanent Secretary in 2013. She graduated from University in 1985 and got married to her sweetheart, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa in 1986. She started working in1988 starting from level 8 until she got to level 16.
Now that she has turned 60, she has decided to retire and go into evangelism fully. She spent some time with Executive Style Editor, RUTH OSIME talking about her plans after retirement and also her various charities, not to mention her unshakable love for God which she says has carried her through her own personal trials and tribulations. To Edith, God’s grace and her dedication to Him has been the unwavering pillar in her life.
Tell us a bit about your childhood.
Though my parents lived all their lives in Lagos, but I was born in General hospital here in Agbor. I was taken back to Lagos but after a year and six months, we returned to Agbor as my mother had to stay longer at the hospital to have my younger twin siblings. As there was one to take care of me whilst she was in the hospital, I stayed with my grandmother through to secondary school before I began to go on vacation to Lagos to see my family. My grandmother actually brought me up, I lived most of my youthful years with her.
What did you enjoy about your youth that you wished still existed in today’s times?
So much, we enjoyed security; we could go to my grandfather’s farm alone with no escort not even an adult. We went to school and came back on our own. We could go to our neighbour’s homes eat without the fear of been poisoned. On Christmas Day, usually the day of liberty, we could go from house to house to eat and not because we didn’t have food at home. Now, I can’t even allow my grandkids out of my sight let alone eat from outside. There was love and a communal living where if you didn’t have pepper, you can ask your neighbour. Even while in secondary school we were so free, we didn’t know evil, we went to prep classes alone. Even in my university days, I schooled in university of Ibadan, I was in Idia hall and for you to get to the hall, you needed to pass through Zik and Independence hall. At night, whenever we are coming back from prep, any guy that sees you on the way, will escort you to your hostel gate and go back with no problem. But these are not what we experience now. We went to the markets at any time My grandmother was a trader. After the day’s trade, she would cover up the goods with something and continue trade the next day and everything remained safe. Whenever we visit my grandfather’s farm after eating in the farm, we will leave the leftover food there and the next day you will come back to meet the food exactly as we left it. Morals are eroded now; I remember when I was teaching in St Patrick’s and a case of a boy been gay was brought to me. It sounded so odd to me when the boy himself confirmed it. I was so scared when I got home. Those days in secondary school, we could walk naked from our bathroom to our room without been harassed and even the thought of having a boyfriend was not possible. And now students in JSS 1&2 already have boyfriends!
Are some parents partly to blame for this upsurge of moral decadence?
Yes, there is no parental care anymore. Parents are pursuing shadows now. Before I became the First Lady, I was a teacher and during those times when parents visit to see their kids, they didn’t even know the class their kids belong to So tell me how such parents can care about their kids’ performance in school?In our time, whenever we come back from school, our parents will tell us to date our work so they can check what we have done for that day and if there is any absence in any subject, they will make sure to know why we were not in class. Some parents today don’t even know when their children come back home from school because they don’t get back home until night time.
So, do you think parents in this kind of situation have over spoilt their kids to compensate for the lack of time they spend with their offsprings?
I wouldn’t use the word spoilt. It is true that the times are hard because of the pursuit of money, but at the end of the day, that money you have worked for is been mismanaged by the same children. In our time, things were not too easy either but I made sure I did my school runs myself. Even though I had drivers, I took my kids to school myself before doing what else I needed to do. Whenever I preach this to mothers, they say the world of today requires double income parents but the forget I also worked as a teacher all my life until I was made a Permanent Secretary. There must be something that should be more important to you; your children are more important than your assets. If you have succeeded and have no successor, you have failed.
A lot of career women try to find a balance but the kind of job they have might not afford them the luxury of daily school runs. So how do they draw the line?
I agree some jobs don’t permit it but you must find time for your kids. Assuming you are a banker and can’t do school runs, whenever you come back home from work, find time for your kids. Some mothers of today, their interest is social media 24/7. If your job is so demanding that you can’t take your kids to school when you come back what happens? For the wealthy parents that send their children abroad, how many times have they visited their children’s schools to find out about their performance? We are not God to look but let’s do our bit.
Tell us about your 05 initiative program.
It is something I started even before now but my position has provided a larger platform to reach out to more people. When I became the First Lady, I asked God what he wanted me to do and I was directed to a scripture; Mathew 25:35-36, the Lord said visit the sick, take care of the hungry, feed the poor, cloth the naked. In same scripture He gave six commands “I was hungry you gave me food; I was thirsty you gave me water; I was sick you visited me, I was in prison you came to see me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter.” And the scripture went on to ask when do I do that and the Lord answered, “In as much as you do this for my people, that, you do unto me”. Looking at the six commands I joined two of the commandment together, water and food making it five commandments in total. Five, is the number of grace. On that note, I stand on five legs. The first is visiting the sick. I focused on sickle cell anaemia. I choose sickle cell because I believe that whatever you suffer from is what you are born to take care of. When I got married, we didn’t check our genotype. I had twins first (Michelle & Mildred) and a year and five months after their birth, my first daughter Michelle, fell ill. We rushed to the clinic, they began blood transmission. A few hours later, her blood was taken for test and she passed on. She was SS, initially I was shocked although I knew I was AS but never knew my husband was AS too. Thankfully, God gave me two of the from the onset so I was not left empty. From that very moment, I began to look into books about sickle cell anaemia and the key things to know and avoid when you are marrying your partner.
After this experience, how apprehensive were you about having more children?
I wouldn’t say I wasn’t apprehensive; but it drew me closer to God and made me read deeper about sickle cell anaemia. It gave me a passion for those that suffer from it and I also made friends with mothers in that situation. So, when I had the opportunity to enlarge my platform on this, I immediately jumped at it. I started visiting schools advocating for young guys and girls to know their genotype before going into a relationship.
What about other aspects of the 05 initiative, how have those been going?
Concerning the health sector, I went into eye treatment. So far, at a very light scale we went round the whole of the state doing surgeries. We began with one local government and realized so many people had problems with their eyes, some even without knowing. So, we covered the 25 local governments. Every World Charity Day, I go to any hospital of my choice and settle bills. Same thing on every January 1st. During my husband’s campaign, we visited an orphanage and the state of their living was very poor. Once our tenure started, the first thing I did was to relocate those children to a better living quarters. Now we have 48 registered homes in Delta state although we still have some orphanages that are not registered. Occasionally, during festive periods, I visit them and share food to them, check out their surroundings and if there is anything I can do, I do it.
My 05 initiatives are visiting the sick, taking care of orphans, visiting prisons, providing shelter, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. Every 1st day of June, which is my birthday, we go to the five correctional centres in Delta state providing their needs like sinking bole holes in all the prisons. I also go to settling camps where people from different states like Ebonyi, Benue states etc come for shelter to give out clothes I have gathered from individuals. These camp settlers are in their thousands and some have lived there over 50 years in mud houses, they speak their languages and look very happy in their community. When I visited mile 5 two years ago I sank a bole hole for them and through the help of Ministry of Education, I built a school for them too.
We also go to schools. There are some children who lack good uniforms, books and school sandals and we provide these things for them. We also reach out to indigent women not just widows. Every December, I give out food stuff and cash to 100 women in each 25 local governments. I have also been able to open small scale businesses for few women in Ogbogonogo market and it gladdens my heart to know that they are doing well. We visit the sick with special interest in sickle cell anaemia. Sickle cell patients are people who can not go to the hospital and sit down waiting, they need prompt attention. I established sickle cell clinics in all Central hospitals in Delta state and to God be the glory we have done 15 so far. We have three referral centers in Nigeria, Lagos, Benin and Asaba.
With every step we take in life, we pray for God’s guidance. At what age did you begin to understand and appreciate the value of prayer that has carried you thus far?
Somehow, I am a woman of the spirit. Though my parents were not fetish or strong born agains, we were church goers. As a young child I used to tell my mother my dreams which she would write down. And these dreams came to pass so she advised me to nurture the gift. In secondary school I gravitated towards people that love the things of God and l grew up loving Him. After I had my first and second delivery, during the third, I went deeper to God.
Why was this?
After about a year and three months, my third child started showing symptoms of sickle cell but thankfully with God, she is doing very well. I will say I really have loved God all my years but I got closer to God between 1990 when I had Marylane my second daughter and 1992 with my third daughter. The battle line was already drawn but I knew what I wanted so then it was all God prayers. I left all social gathering/activities and dug deep. I did things that gladdened my heart and even went to school of evangelism to learn more about God. My scripture then was ‘That I will know Christ for who He is’, love him not because of what I want from him but for who he is, the Alpha, my creator.
Politics is a very slippery terrain to explore and not for the faint hearted. How have you been able to cope?
Thank God I got to know Christ before my husband got into politics, anytime I am worried, I go to God. He has been the One directing my steps.
During the campaign process especially vying for the position of Governor, the chances of winning is maybe 1/10. Did you at any given time, have doubts about your husband’s outcome?
Hearing from God is my answer, He had spoken to me and I want to believe my husband heard from Him too. If it is about money we didn’t have the money nor connections, we were not the best but it was God’s Grace. Once He has chosen, He always leads you to the end even when obstacles come.
What you believe in will be your drive, I am not falseful over anything. Once God has spoken, I just keep calm, while my husband is on the field working I am on my knees praying for him. I am not the very outing type where you see me everywhere, every person has his own position.
Has this position of First Lady made you more reserved, are you more careful with your surroundings and people around you?
Definitely I am more careful now because all that glitters isn’t gold. The Lord said they will surely gather, everyone can’t love you but it doesn’t matter. What matters is where you are going to not where you are coming from.
I keep saying that my report card is in heaven. Whatever I am doing, I will always tell God not to allow me deliberately hurt anyone, and if I hurt anyone, I apologize and that is why I am very mindful. I am not not a politician and I don’t hide it, I don’t know how to do politics because I don’t have double mouth. I say things the way it is and most people wouldn’t like it.
I think most people have come to understand the kind of person I am. I am not fully staying away but I am not into it. I am more like an observer and whenever anyone needs my opinion about something, I say it the way it is even if it might be offensive.
You daughter said the friends you had while growing are still intact till date, so that means you intentionally narrowed your friends for longevity and trust.
Yes that’s very correct.
Doesn’t your role as First Lady automatically inherit certain people that play certain roles?
There is a difference between associates and friends. I have a lot of women around me, I deal with so many and I want to believe that I deal with them right. I give them their respect, I don’t look down at anyone as they all have their role but that doesn’t make them my very close friends. My friends have known from childhood will always be there for me at any given time, not fairweather friends. One day I will leave this position, if I abandon the people that were my friends, it makes no sense because whether you like it or not, most of the new people you have met while on seat will leave you once you exit.
How do you find time to meet with these friends. Do you make time out to see them or they come to visit?
Not too much but we always make out time. We have a prayer meeting we started when my husband was SLG and till date, we are still doing it.
Now that you have turned 60, how best will you describe your life so far?
I will say my life is Grace. Whenever I look at my self, I am not the best but there are women my age that don’t have a husband nor children so my life is Grace. Whatever I am today is just Grace not because I am good or because I pray.