In a world where women are constantly bombarded with messages about how to look younger and more attractive by society’s standards, maintaining the fountain of youth is a never-ending battle. However, this is different for the beautiful Sonia Chikelu, a lawyer by profession and daughter of Chief Gilbert Chikelu, the Owelle of Ichida, who recently turned 60. The last time I caught up with her was exactly ten years ago when she turned 50. And even though nothing much had changed, it was comforting to hear her say she has found her way of reconciling herself to this progression and seeing her do amazing at it. ”It’s a privilege to get older; there are many benefits. One of them is that, in most cases, you can truly say, ‘been there, done that’. That is the benefit of your life journey, your experiences.”, she says. Also intact was her happy-go-lucky and effervescent nature. Like the last time, I left her feeling like I had known her all my life. Which really is the same experience for everyone who comes in contact with her. “I love to be with good people, genuine friendships, and nice and happy people. I love positive-minded people. My favourite hobby is being happy and putting a smile on people’s faces.” This time we spoke about the ten years between turning 60 and the taboo surrounding ageing for women.
Interview by Konye Chelsea Nwabogor
Congratulations on your 60th birthday; the last time we spoke, you had just turned 50. What have you been up to since then?
Goodness, time really does fly! Ten years since we spoke? It has been ten very eventful years of God’s amazing goodness and mercy. Without a doubt, the most significant event in my life during that period was the illness and eventual passing away of my dear mother, Ifeatu Irene Chikelu. Her illness gave the family an opportunity to demonstrate our love for her and, in a way, do a little to pay back her unquestionable love and sacrifice for all of us. My Mom was an incredible woman. As a family, we came together to give her all the love, attention and comfort she required. She was our matriarch of strong character and a God-fearing woman. We shuttled between London and Lagos for some years until she passed peacefully in Lagos at the Reddington Hospital. It was a devastating period for our family and, of course, my Dad. That year 2018, was a very difficult time for the family. The burial preparations and the necessary arrangements took us to the end of the year and into the following year. We had to stand strong together as a family and also support my Dad during the grieving period. It was a tough time. We all had different ways of grieving for different personalities.
Subsequently, we had the Covid-19 pandemic that stopped the whole world in its tracks for nearly two years. These were two very significant things that happened in the last ten years.
On the brighter side of life, we also had the opportunity to celebrate my Dad’s 90th birthday in 2020. Owelle Gilbert Chikelu, our patriarch, our Dad strong with full mental capacity to the glory of God, turned 90. We had a lovely intimate online celebration for him with some family and friends. It was really a privilege for which we are very grateful to God. He just celebrated his 92nd birthday and is strong, healthy and happy to the Glory of God. I really cannot complain but give glory to the almighty for life and good health. And, of course, here I am, just having celebrated my 60th birthday, it was an emotional one without my mum, but I had my siblings, children, loved ones and friends with me. Also, with my children, my first daughter Nikky is now 28 years old; she is very happy and doing well to the glory of God, in control of her environment. My second daughter Renee completed her law degree at the LSE, finished her Law School and is now working in one of the best-known law firms in the UK.
For those meeting you for the first time, please tell us a bit about yourself.?
Well, what do I say? The answer to that question can be from many perspectives, but in summary, I am Sonia, the first child of Owelle Gilbert and Ifeatu Irene Chikelu. I am a lawyer by training, though I have worked in an international oil firm and also in a Nigerian bank. I think I am a very simple human being, and a lot of my friends can testify to that. I detest complications, ha! Ha! And I run from it. Firstly. I love people who have the fear of God in them; that is the foundation of life. In everything we do. I love to be with good people, genuine friendships, and nice and happy people. I love positive-minded people. My favourite hobby is being happy and putting a smile on people’s faces. Touching the lives of people is beyond material things; it could be that, but it could also be many other ways, such as making yourself available to encourage, to listen, to guide or share burdens, to be there at good times and when it’s not so good, to be willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary for the people God has caused your paths to cross with in one way or the other. Generally, I enjoy giving of myself in any situation where I can be of assistance. I love children and have a very soft spot for children with special needs. I come from a very close-knit family, so I have developed a very strong kindred spirit which I share with my close friends too. My family means everything to me; they are the centre of my life because they have been with me all through life’s journey and challenges. I would have been a completely different person if it wasn’t for the support from my parents and siblings all through my life.
I see so much value in forging undeniable long-term bonds, so it’s no surprise that I have very strong relationships with my friends, most of whom I have known and been close to for many years. They are, in fact, family and my sisters. I do not like proud people; life is a stage and only temporary. We definitely cannot get out of it alive. We need to love and be loved, have a good vibe and be happy, celebrate with those celebrating and mourn with those mourning. I can be very shy and will run away from being put on the spot. I tear up easily and still avoid finding myself in a position that will lead to me expressing myself openly.
I have heard someone say 60 is the new 40, and at that age, It can feel like you get an automatic software upgrade. Does it feel the same for you?
Honestly, I am one of those that believe that age is just a number. You are as old as you think, feel and act. Some people are 60 but think and act 80, and you have some who are 80 but think and act 40 or even less. By their poise, engagements with society, and physical and mental activities, you can see that they are living their lives to the fullest. The most important thing for me is that you own your reality and not put yourself under any pressure to look or act in any way that is not you, be true to yourself.
Beauty exists at every age; it’s not about youth and perfection. I am becoming a classic; we get better with age, just like old wine; my life must control my age. I have a general feeling of exhaling, an absolute right to be myself without apologies.
What’s your favourite part of growing older?
Hmmm… It’s a privilege to get older; there are many benefits. One of them is that, in most cases, you can truly say, “been there, done that”. That is the benefit of your life journey, your experiences. Not much can awe you because you have seen most things, the good, the bad and the ugly. You have made your mistakes and hopefully learnt that the good people around you are worth much more than silver or Gold. You cherish those you have and are in a better position to counsel others. You are also able to make the incontrovertible statement to value those that have been good to you, people with positive energy and good vibes, people who bring out the best in you, people who make you laugh, happy and relaxed, and most of all, people with the fear of God who have given you a hand up in this journey.
Do you think about your purpose in life differently approaching 60 as opposed to when you were approaching 50?
No, I have always been consistent in my life-driven purpose. I have always seen my purpose as being a force for good. A vehicle to touch lives, and I have strived to be a better person each day, to reach out more, to give of myself and deny myself at times for the benefit of another, to be fair and always testify of the goodness of the almighty in my life and to remain at the centre of God’s will for me.
With every step we take in life, we pray for God’s guidance. At what point did you begin to understand and appreciate the value of prayer that has carried you thus far?
Ah, my parents are devout Christians. From a very early age, we attended church every Sunday at what was then known as St. Saviour’s Church, Tafawa Square, Lagos. My mother also took all her children to a weekday home fellowship that contributed to our firm faith today. I attended Holy Child College Lagos, which was started as a faith-based school too, so from decades ago and through life’s many experiences, I have come to understand and appreciate the power of prayers.
Also, on charity and giving, have you become more involved in that?
Ahh…giving is a gift from God because it has many blessings that follow it. It requires understanding that we are nothing, we came with nothing, all we are blessed with was given to us, and we will leave with nothing. Giving is one of the most important tenets of my life, near numero uno. Apart from my personal angle, I have for very many years served as the head of the benevolence department in my church, Guiding Light Assembly, London. I am very grateful to God for the privilege and opportunity to be a blessing.
Why do you think there’s a taboo concerning ageing? And what is your advice to women that are scared of ageing?[laughs]… There is no taboo for me concerning ageing, oh! It is a reality and a blessing. We will all age someday for sure; it is life’s cycle. The important thing is to age gracefully and carry yourself with the respect and dignity that age confers. Each person must find what they are comfortable with and try to accept the inevitable.
Let’s talk a bit about fashion. How has your approach to style changed, if it has?
It hasn’t changed. I love fashion, and we all look at it differently; your sense of style is simply an expression of your inner being. I dress and look how I feel. What I find delightful is that over the years, the fashion options available to us have broadened tremendously to now have a very strong presence of truly talented Nigerians making a mark at home and worldwide.
I can see that you have maintained a gorgeous body frame with excellent and beautiful skin. Can you let us in on your beauty and fitness secrets?
There are no secrets o. I try to make a few healthy lifestyle choices. Avoiding anything in excess. Moderation is key. Regular exercise that is sustainable. Very simple things. I walk a lot in London, where I live, almost everywhere that is walkable: grocery runs, post office, dry cleaners, etc. There are lots of parks for walking and exercising, and gyms are also easily accessible to all, so, as they say, “when in Rome, do like the Romans”. It has become a part of me. In Lagos, I regularly walk with all safety arrangements, and in Abuja, I also walk. One time, I went for a long walk in Abuja, and I didn’t hear my Dad’s phone calls; by the time I got back, he was livid, so this is not London!!!
What would be your top tips for making the most of your 50s and 60s?
Faith first, strengthen your relationship with God. The second is to make healthy choices in your diet and exercise, whatever you are comfortable with, either a gym, walking or exercise in any form. Maintain strong family bonds and enjoy your friends. Avoid toxic relationships; never forget to be grateful for what you have. Laugh without ceasing and love without measure.
If there was a headline for your life journey during this period, what would it be?
She walked with God, family and friends and lived her life to its fullest.
What are some of the principles that define your life?
I think that the most important tenets that define my life can be encapsulated in the “3 F’s” of Faith, Family and Friends. Respect, love, fairness and justice. Then comes good manners, charity, integrity and loyalty.
Now that you have turned 60, how best will you describe your life so far?
My life so far can be described as that of a blessed and grateful child of God, handed to Owelle G. P.O Chikelu and Ifeatu to nurture and raise. As one of my favourite pastors said, “I have made some mistakes; God alone is perfect. I have also enjoyed the Grace, mercy and favour of God.
What’s a day like in the life of Sonia Chikelu?
I am now 60, so I have earned and enjoy the reality of a slower-paced life. A typical day for me now begins with my morning devotion which includes my prayers and Bible reading. Depending on how I feel, I will have a cup of tea or coffee, then drop off my daughter at a skills centre. I go through my messages and emails to reply to the urgent ones, and I also send off important messages and discharge with the tasks I had set for the day. After that, I run off to the gym, return to shower and get ready for the day, then back to my paperwork which could include legal matters, financial and investment management issues etc. After this, I can do the runs for groceries, the post office and any other stop I need to make. I pick up my daughter myself, we have lunch together, and I am typically at home after that till we go for our evening walk.
What is your ultimate life goal, and what would you like to be remembered for?
My ultimate life goal is to do my best to fulfil all that God purposed for my life. To be there for my family, particularly my father and the children in our family, that are growing every day and need guidance, support and direction. I want to support my siblings and my dear friends and help those I have the good fortune to come across. I would like to stay true to my promises to my mum and ensure my Dad stays happy and strong.
Looking back, what’s the greatest lesson you have learnt from life?
This life we live is very complex and challenging. Everyone has their story, their strengths and their vulnerabilities. Do not judge a book by its cover, be kind, be charitable, stay on your lane and focus on those things that mean the most to you. With God on your side, you have every chance. Also, beware of friendly foes.
Any last words?
Well, nothing but gratitude to Almighty God and to all those who, in one way or another, have been a help and a blessing to my life. I thank you all so much from the bottom of my heart. I do not take you for granted; I hope I have somehow been a blessing too. In this life, we will all go home someday, alone without a pin, keep calm, laugh a lot, love without measure and make the best of the now because tomorrow is promised to nobody.