I STILL HAVE ADMIRERS--OPRAL BENSON
What was growing up like?
Growing up for me was very interesting. I grew up in a small town, which I think if compared with Nigeria today you will call it a village but we used to call it a city in those days. I grew up in Liberia as you probably know and I am the sixth of seven children. My parents were very strict with our upbringing to the extent that sometimes we wondered if we would ever have a life of our own. They were devout Christians and they kept us on that path so to speak. My father was what you call justice of the peace, they are the ones referred to as magistrates in this country and my mother ran a small grocery store. I remember she liked going to the store all day and interacting with her colleagues.
Can you recall any memories of Liberia before the war?
Liberia was a place to be before the war. I think that is the best way I can put it in a nutshell. A people who were very temporal, sophisticated in a way but easy to interact with. You had friends across the board; they were not a selfish group of people. They were not a people that like to play up to the gallery. If you were a president or a minister it did not mean that you could not talk to any other person and people were more or less living a simple life. There was lot of entertainment, Liberians like to relax and have a good time. I just remember it as a place that anybody will like to be and many people did come to Liberia from different parts of Africa. We all just tagged along together like one people. We were proud of being the oldest African republic. We sang songs to that effect and told people of how we had ruled ourselves and not being under any kind of colonial rule.
I did not witness the war but I was in Liberia when the first coup happened. I had gone there with my husband to attend a wedding. We arrived there the night the first coup d'etat took place. It was very surprising to us, especially me, because I had been boasting to people in Nigeria about how peace-loving Liberians are.
What fears did you entertain when the war broke out?
It is simply the same with anywhere there is war and people are fighting themselves. One of my major fears was that the country would fall apart. Disintegration of an otherwise peaceful society which everyone had been used to. It was disheartening to see brothers go up in arms against brothers and my concern was that things would fall apart and we won't have the peace, unity and prosperity we were all looking forward to.
With Ellen Sirleaf as helmsman, do you think Liberia is on the path to reclaiming its lost glory?
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a very committed person. Even before she became president she had Liberia close to her heart and had a tendency to become president before this time. She did not win as at the time Charles Taylor was in power. Her experience during the war years in Liberia when she was thrown into prison, her experience with the international community, the kind of assistance she got for Liberia when she was minister of finance as well as when she was in the US system qualifies her for the job she is holding now. I strongly believe that if anybody can bring Liberia back to what it used to be, she can.
You have been married for decades, how did your paths cross?
When Otunba came to Liberia with the late prime minister, Tafawa Balewa; and this has been published several times in all of the papers so I am repeating myself and I want you to say I am repeating myself because people might think I am continually trying to say how I and Otunba met. If I go on and on about it, it gives the impression that I want to flaunt it.
He came for a conference with the prime minister and I was participating in that conference. We were introduced and the rest is history in a nutshell.
What was it like when he proposed?
He did not propose at that time we met. We exchanged addresses and we kept in touch. He proposed after the getting-to-know-you period. We met in 1961 and we got married towards the end of 1962 so for over a year it was a correspondence kind of thing. He visited Liberia, I visited Nigeria and we visited Paris together and had a holiday to see how we would relate to each other. It was after that we decided we really wanted to get married.
Were your parents hesitant about you relocating to Nigeria?
Everybody felt somehow, not just my parents. My friends, my employers, everybody. As a matter of fact, my boss who was the minister of agriculture and commerce at the time, gave me a letter of 'come back to your job anytime'. He promised to keep it for me and the president of Liberia also hosted a send off party in my honour, but before that they kept reminding me how Liberia loved me and I could come back anytime I wanted. I can still go back if I wanted, even today but I don't want to.
Didn't the fact that he was previously married and had kids pose any threat to you?
No, I was not discouraged.
What has sustained the union till date?
First of all I think we must love one another, many people that get married these days do so for other reasons. Some want name, some want money; there is nothing wrong with all of those things if they come in addition but you must first of all see him for who he is and be able to know if you are compatible or not. You must know your reasons for wanting to start a family. You have to be honest with yourselves, be able to give and take. Both husband and wife have a responsibility to make a home.
At over 70 you have seen it all, what can you say has gotten you this far?
I think I am one person that has a lot of staying power. I am a strong willed person. I like to plan my life, I know from both my parents and from going through life, the things that one should expect. I have been able to sort out what will be an asset and one should try in life to be relevant to oneself and your community. The society is not just there for us, we should give whatever we have by way of contribution. I also believe that if you keep your life fully occupied, there are a lot of things we can do in life that will keep us focused.
I know that life anywhere is not a bed of roses. There are ups and downs and we must be able to accept the downs just like the ups and put it together as a package.
Have you achieved all you set out to do?
Well I don't have any regrets as at now. I know that the more you live, the more you can achieve. I won't say I have achieved all because all is a big word but I think I have achieved something though I know there is more out there that one can achieve. I will continue to work at it.
One can't talk about Opral Benson and not talk about style, how did you cultivate your good taste in clothes?
That is your opinion. I did not cultivate it, my style is just me. I think a person's style is part and parcel of that individual. I don't go out of my way to make any special appearance. It comes to me naturally.
Back then you must have had a lot of admirers…
When you were much younger.
I still have admirers.
You sure must have had a long line of suitors.
I did not see the line.
Okay, why did you decide to marry TOS?
Because I think he is a great man. He is a very nice man, I love him. He comes to you with a good personality and it starts from there.
You have not lost it.
Your figure, how do you manage to keep in shape?
I go upstairs in my house and come back down.
Just that, I imagined you would take advantage of the pool in your house?
I don't get into it. I attribute that to laziness. I encourage others to but I don't bother. I am always too busy and by the time I am done with work, I am tired and nothing happens.
Do you still experience the normal husband / wife quarrel?
What is there to quarrel about? We don't have to quarrel and I will say quarrel is not the word to use. Husband and wife can have misunderstanding but by the time they reach our age, the question won't arise anymore.
What were some of the sore moments in your life?
None I can remember. I have not reached that point. One can be down but not to the point of wishing it never happened. I am someone that when I make up my mind to do something, I stand by it whatever the outcome, good or bad. What is there in wishing when something has already happened?
What special names have you and your husband reserved for yourselves?
He used call me OPD. O-P-E-E-D-E-E like my father used to call me but now he calls me Mama and I call him Papa.
How did you spend the last valentine?
In the house here.
Did you exchange gifts?
No, I received nothing from him and vice versa. He believes as a matter of fact that valentine is 'oyinbo'; he does not think it is a Nigerian thing and we are trying to build it up into our society.
What's your favourite Nigerian dish?
. I know how to prepare Nigerian dishes because African dishes are similar and I do prepare myself sometimes. It's no big deal.
If and when Papa passes away, would you remain here?
I would not want to jump the gun. I think I am part and parcel of Nigeria; I have spent more years here than I have spent in Liberia and America where I went to school. So I don't see myself distancing myself from Nigeria because of Papa passing away. Let's not jump to conclusion because how do we know Papa will pass away before me. How do we know I will not go and leave him here, after all many people have gone and left people who are much younger than them behind? Let us not jump to conclusion because he is 90.
Do you think the beauticians that are being churned out in Nigeria can compete favourably with their foreign counterparts?
In my school, I would say yes. We are going to be 22 years old in December. We have done all we are supposed to do to make it a first class institution and the people that finish from that school can compete with their kind from any western nation. As a matter of fact, some of them are already working in other parts of Africa; I have seen them in America, Liberia and its gladdening to know they are amply qualified for what they are doing. We hope to expand the school because I know that there are some places in the United States where they have beauty schools that have gone beyond the level of what we have now to the point that they have universities; my ambition is to attain that height.
You are a role model to many out there, are there people you look up to?
I don't think I have role models. I used to have my mother as my role model and then she has passed away. I think my role models would be individuals generally who try to set examples for young people. I don't need to pick out a particular person but those who relate to young people because I like young people
What more do you want from God?
To give me good health as he has always done. Give me the strength to continue to work in that order and his continuous blessing upon me. I am not asking for silver or gold.