I’VE MADE MONEY, BUT POVERTY STILL HAUNTS ME
Comedy fans appreciate the wit of Francis Agoda aka I Go Dye, but few know that he was a victim of cruel poverty. The comedian, who became a known face about eight years ago, reveals his life experiences in this interview with 'NONYE IWUAGWU
Many people know you as I Go Die, what other thing is there to know about you?
Let me start by telling you a story. When I was growing up, I had five friends – Preye, Rukevwe, Temi, Onriode and Wemi. We always sat down to discuss what we wanted to become in the future. We were very close. We all had our dreams, beautiful dreams. Some wanted to be doctors. Some said they would be engineers and all that.
Preye's dream was to travel abroad. As for me, because I loved Michael Jackson, I wanted to be famous. But suddenly, in 1999, during the Ijaw/Itshekiri crisis, violence took over and my friends lost their lives. One of them joined the militants and his members betrayed him. He was shot dead. I watched all my friends get killed. All of them were shot, even their families. I was shot too, and I thought I was dead. But in the midst of the crisis, a stranger gave me a ride to Warri. That was where I began a new life. That was how I Go Die came into be.
We learnt you have documented the story.
Oh yes. I needed to tell the younger ones that life is not all about carrying guns. I needed to tell people that they have to dream. You can achieve your dreams if you want to. I wanted to be famous and I achieved it. In fact, it was just Preye and I who succeeded in fulfilling our dreams.
Preye used to tell me when we were growing up that he wanted to travel abroad. I told him I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be known all over the world. When I saw Preye in the US last year, I was shocked that he had finally fulfilled his dream of going to America. I also feel that I have fulfilled my dreams. Like I said, I wanted to be popular. So, when I started seeing people coming around me, wanting to take photographs with me and wanting to get my autographs, I felt I had fulfilled my dreams.
But as popular as I am now, most people do not know my story. They don't even know the stories of the most popular people in Nigeria or even in the world. Many people may think I never had it rough. But I tell you, I am a living example of somebody who had it very rough while growing up. Still, I was able to fulfill my destiny.
So I feel this is the time to tell my people that if they believe in their dreams, they can make it.
Why did you want to be famous?
I had a very poor upbringing. I come from a very wretched background. But then, my dad was a bank manager.
That sounds contradictory. How could you have come from a wretched home when you had a bank manager for a father?
I was denied access to my father. I come from a polygamous home. After my mum and dad were divorced, she tried her best possible to see how she could train me and my three siblings.
Did your mother remarry?
Yes, she did. In fact, I never knew her husband as my stepfather. I thought he was my father until he passed on in 2002. It was during his burial that I got to know. I felt so sad.
When did your mother remarry?
I don't know. I was in the village. I didn't know what was going on. I thought my grandmother was my mother until my mother came and took me away to the city.
So how was life while you lived with your mother?
Hmm…. My mum really struggled. She owned a restaurant. At least, that made me to know how to cook very well. I would wake up as early as 4 a.m. and start cooking. But one day, I told my mum it was time I moved on with my own life. I love my mother so much. I had to tell her she had tried for me.
That means you could not further your education?
Ha! Where was the money? But I was a brilliant chap in primary and secondary schools. In my secondary school days, I was the zonal project manager of the Junior Engineering Technician Society. I constructed many items when I was in secondary school, including an hair dryer. But there was no money for me to further my education. Things were really difficult.
How come you didn't think of raising money by foul means?
I didn't think the only way I could become successful was to become an armed robber. I didn't believe the solution was in becoming a militant. Gun is very easy to operate. It is not because I am from the Niger Delta. Anybody can operate a gun. It is just a matter of pulling the trigger. But if I had resorted to carrying arms, I would have been dead by now. What if someone turned around to use the same gun against me? What you need to fight for is your life.
Tell us more about life while you were growing up.
We lived in one room. My parents never had the privacy to share their love. I can proudly tell you that I have made money, but till date, poverty still affects me. If you give me a king size bed to sleep on, I would fold myself like a crayfish. When I was growing up, there was no space for us to stretch out when we slept. It was just one room that accommodated close to nine people. The room contained two chairs and I was sleeping in one of the chairs. I had to adjust myself to the space the chair provided. I slept in the chair for almost 20 years. So, you don't expect me to change overnight.
You earlier said a stranger took you to Benin during the crisis in Warri. What did you do when you got to Benin?
The owner of Prest Hotel, Tony Prest, adopted me. He saw the talent in me, so he said I should be an in-house comedian.
I didn't have a place to lay my head. There was no shelter. I didn't have anybody. There was no uncle or aunty I could live with. I was on my own. After each performance at the hotel, I wouldn't have anywhere to go. I would hang around the hotel. I would pretend as if I wanted to swim. I would roam around, and when night came, I would enter the club and start grooving.
In the early hours, I would sleep under the staircase of the hotel. I slept there for a long time.
But there was a day Tony Prest saw me and asked me if I was sleeping under the staircase. I said yes. The man couldn't believe it. He told me that I was too talented to be sleeping under the staircase. He gave me money and I went and rented a one-room apartment. I took some of the money home to my family. I told my mum not to worry, that things would get better. Today, this is I Go Die.
Life is not about opportunity. It is not about chance or luck. It is about knowing what you want to do and going all out to achieve it.
Were you ever a militant?
I was never a militant. It was just that I was a part of the crisis in Warri as at that time. Everybody in the Niger Delta was a part of that crisis as well. That did not make me a militant.
What gave you the impression that comedy would give you the fame you desired?
People always saw me as a funny person, probably because I was a village boy. When I left my grandmother's house and came to the city, I couldn't even speak Pidgin English well. I was a real village boy. People felt I was easing their stress. I then realised that if I could improve on the act, people would always want me around them. That was how I started reading mock news on Delta TV. I was doing it with one of my friends, Osas, now known as I Go Save.
I found that immediately I started doing the programme, I became popular. People were coming to my house even though it was a one-room apartment. They wanted to see me. They wanted to touch me and be with me. That was when I decided to expand. That was when I said I wanted to be more popular than Michael Jackson.
What is your relationship with your biological father now?
We have a very good relationship. He is my father; I cannot deny him. He is human. He had his reasons for acting the way he acted. I thank God he denied me when I was a kid. If I had stayed with him, I don't think I would have achieved all that I have achieved today. Everything has reasons for happing the way it does.
Do you still give him money?
Oh yes. I give him money. We see every minute. He is my dad and he will always be my dad. I am not in the position to ask him why he behaved that way to my mother. We have moved on with life. Like I said earlier, if things hadn't happened that way, I wouldn't be where I am today.
What of your stepbrothers and stepsisters?
I don't know what you mean by step brothers and stepsisters. As far as I am concerned, they are my sisters and my brothers. We share our dreams together. They profer advice whenever they can and I help them whenever I can. We are all together as a family.
Don't you fear that your name, I Go Die, could spell evil for you? What if you dropped dead?
I don't really believe in names. There are some people who were called 'Goodluck' and 'Success', yet they never experienced good luck or success till they died. A name is no more than a label. I Go Die is a name I carved from my surname, Agoda. I needed a stage name that would be very catchy. I decided to call myself I Go Die. I don't believe the name can bring any negative thing. The name has opened many doors. A lot of people say when one door closes, another one opens. But I don't believe that. I use one open door to open other doors. If I try coming back to a closed door, I may not have the key to open it again.
When did the big break come?
The big break has not come yet. But then in 2000, Opa Williams wanted me to perform at his Night of a Thousand Laughs. That was after the Ijaw/Itshekiri crisis. He said people had been disturbing him to allow me to perform. Then, they were doing pre-selection for the main event. After that, Azuh Arinze, the editor of Encomium magazine took me to the main award. I think I performed very well, because I started getting invitations. Night of a Thousand Laughs made me to become a household name. That was when the break came.
It is really amazing that you have overtaken many comedians who started before you...
I believe that in whatever you do, some people are still better than you. It is now left for you to get serious. I think it was my seriousness that brought me to this level. I took this job as serious business. I didn't want to joke with it.
What inspires your jokes?
Day-to-day happenings. If anything happens in the society, I try to see how I can turn it into a joke.
Has any of your jokes put you in trouble?
None of my jokes has put me in trouble. I am not praying for that. Before I crack a joke, I try to get the picture of where I am. I try to put myself in that position and think of how the person would feel after I had cracked the joke.
Now that comedy has brought you into the limelight, are you likely to leave it?
No way. It is part of me. I am addicted to it.
How did you feel when you made your first good money?
My dear, nobody is poor. My mum ensured that we had three square meals. Since she had a restaurant, we could afford to feed well. Poverty is a thing of the mind. If you believe you are poor, then you are poor. I always believed I was not poor. I always had it in mind that I was eating what others were eating. The only difference was that we were living in one room. But even if you lived in a duplex, you would also sleep in one room. Poverty really didn't stop me from achieving what I wanted to achieve in life. When I was growing up, I already knew how to make money. I was a shoemaker.
There was this man my mother introduced me to when I came to the city. He was the one teaching me the alphabet. He was also a shoemaker. I was always watching what he was doing. One day, I needed money badly. I brought out a table in front of the house and became a shoemaker. It was not everything I would ask my mother to give me. I needed money to buy my school books. I needed money to move on with my life. I tell you, money cannot make you to be what you want to be. What makes you to be somebody is your ability to think and know what you are doing.
Do you still hope to further your education?
Of course, I am not an illiterate. Thank God I went to primary and secondary schools. One day, I will further my studies.
When are you getting married?
Very soon. But I guess you know that I am married to my microphone for now. I have children that I take care of. These are people who have lives. They just need somebody to support them. If I can buy a dog and show the dog love, what stops me from showing love to a human being?