I have Mon... without EY
Chief Chika Okpala is easily one of Nigeria's greatest comedians. The veteran actor who is famous for deliberately using incorrect English in his role as Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo (alias 4.30) in the now rested comic soap, Masquerade and New Masquerade respectively holds two national merit awards of Member of the Order of the Niger, (MON) and Commander of the Federal Republic,(CFR).
A multi-talented artiste, Okpala is presently engaged in a health care programme, Ahuike di mkpa (Health is Important) on radio even as he patiently awaits the return of the New Masquerade which used to be popular among television viewers in the mid 70s through the 1980s.
The health programme, which is aimed at stemming the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the society, is primarily targeted at sex workers. Interestingly, the programme, according to the initiator, is achieving its set objectives as some of the sex workers are already abandoning the dirty job.
Also, some of the People Living With AIDS (PLWA) have been receiving major attention since the inception of the programme. The programme which is at the instance of Family Health International (FHI), considering its popularity, has become the toast of radio listeners who are now eager to have its television version.
Meanwhile, as a loyalist to the profession that made him, the artiste is not pretentious about attributing the success of the radio programme to the experiences he's been able to garner as a comedian. He told Daily Sun about his career and the TV programme:
I am Chika Okpala, a Member of the Order of the Niger, (MON) without EY. You know that when the Federal Government gives this award with financial backing, it drives the recipient to look for more money. I was also conferred with Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR). Another name by which I am known is Chief, His Royal Palmwine Powerless, the honourable Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo,s Alias 4.30. a native of Nnobi in Anambra State.
I lived with my father's friend who was a driver in Ahoada, Rivers State. I was a houseboy to this man. When I completed Standard Six, I moved to Onitsha for my secondary education. It was while there that the civil war broke out. I attempted to join the Biafran army at the age of nine because I wanted to prove my strength. But I was chased away with a gun because they believed that I was too small to join the army.
How I started
We had a theatre group called Two Cities, because we were taking drama from Nnobi to Awka-Etiti. We brought relief to the soldiers at the war front by entertaining them with our plays. Even as a little boy, I was made to play the role of a chief or an old man. When the war ended, I returned to Enugu and I joined another theatre group called Hilltop Arts Theatre. The group was formed by some of the big producers in the Federal Radio Nigeria. We were providing entertainment for the State Governor and other politicians then.
There was a 15-minute programme on radio, In a Lighter Mood, produced by James Iroha. He gave me a role after watching me in other performances. Then, I was made to play the role of Joseph Okoroigwe Nwogbo. James Iroha took up the role of Gringory while Davies Offor played Clarus. Later we formed a group and started entertaining people. We became popular. As television was reactivated in 1974, the programme was introduced to the TV and was renamed Masquerade. Two years later, we moved to Aba. I had to travel to Jos for Cock Crow At Dawn. On my arrival, I was appointed the producer of the programme and we called it the New Masquerade. In fact, the change of name gave the show a new outlook.
Ahu ike di mkpa
This means health is important. It is a programme I conceptualised when I attended a workshop organised by Family Health International, FHI in Awka, three years ago. Many Non-Governmental Organisations that attend to health problems were in attendance. Some of them pay attentions to children, some to youths, while others concentrate on the elders. There are some of the NGO's that are only interested in market women and even in the healthcare of the prostitutes.
They go to them to counsel them on why they should stop the sex trade. All these things were highlighted in the workshop and at the end, I collated all the ideas. As a media man who uses the medium to inform, educate and teach, FHI asked me to design a programme so that the messages can get across to the rural communities.
I thought of a magazine programme on radio and television that would be all-encompassing on health matters. So, I carried out a research and discovered that this idea that I want to sell has not been explored before. You are aware that New Masquerade has been rested. But arrangement is in top gear for us to return it. In fact, I have always been in touch with Peter Igho, the Executive Director of Programmes, NTA, over our plans to be back on air. At least you know I always want to have one thing or the other doing at every particular time. I have to get involved in this programme which is humanitarian in nature.
The programme structure
The radio introduces the music, then the topic of the project is introduced as well as the discussants. There is a vox pop through which we sample the views of the NGOs, their work, and we interview them to find out whether they implement what they were taught during the workshops in the communities. It is important to know that it would be wrong to organise such a workshop with such a huge sum and at the end, people go home without gaining anything or fail to spread the message to those who need the services. In fact, issues on health care concern not only the community but the entire nation and the rest of the whole world.
This is very important in the Ahu ike di mkpa. It is where we tell a true life story relating to the issues of the day. In the story, we mention where a particular event happened, what and how it happened. The story may be farmiliar to the listener to the extent that it might have either happened to him or somebody he knew. In the course of a show, we would play a popular traditional music that is related to health.
This is a group of donors from United States of America.They are part of the United States Agency for International Development, USAID. They come into Africa to initiate and assist our people in solving some prevalent problems.
I initiated research method that I call Talk-it-out. Through this, I send researchers into rural communities and the public to hear what the people have to say themselves. We even work with professional bodies and trade unions, like the National Union of Road Transport Workers, the Nigerian Union of Teachers among others.
Wherever these unions cover, we leave there and face other areas because eventually the reports would be collated. We map out questionaires sometimes, and also most times when we get to the field, we introduce ourselves and tell them our mission. But there are times we stay in a cluster of the people, initiate health related topics, discuss and listen to them and then observe what they do. From this, we can pick the information from which a story can emerge for the fact file segment of the programme. I can say confidently that we have presented true life stories from which people have learnt.
Impact of the programme
For instance, an anonymous sex worker once disclosed that the programme has made a tremendous impact on her life. She told us, "I was a prostitute in Onitsha before, but now I have left Onitsha for Enugu after carrying out HIV/AIDS test to which I tested negative. What really pushed me into going for the test was what I heard in the programme, Ahu ike di mkpa. All the warnings I have received about AIDS have not touched me the way the programme did. I listen to the programme on Wednesdays and the repeat broadcast on Saturdays. I even go to hotels to talk to my former friends on the need for them to quit the dirty job. In fact, what I would have loved for the programme is for it to go on television. Apart from listening to it on radio, they will equally see some of the ugly pictures of what the disease makes of its victims".
Actually, I am aware that people are responding to the programme. They even send in letters of commendation or letters telling us how the programme has affected them. A lot of them are even calling for the television version. According to them, they would like to see the pictures of some of the things they hear on radio. I would have loved to do that but for lack of fund. I wish the sponsors would listen to the requests of the people, so that the moment it goes on television, it would make those who have not heard it on radio to see it on television. You know when some stories are heard, the imagination it ignites in the listener would make him want to see the action.
Our aim is to do everything possible to clear out Human Immuno-deficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, HIV/AIDS. We intend to do this by driving the message to the grassroots level as well as the urban areas. The truth is that HIV/AIDS is real. The various causes we let people know in Health is important. We let people know how they can manage their sex lives.
People living with AIDS
We reach them; most of our stories from fact file come from them. They do not feel so bad because we counsel them that their death would not occur as such, as long as they keep the rules. We reach people at home not to segregate them, but rather to receive them and give them a sense of belonging. The truth is that they are unfortunate they tested positive, there are so many people who move about and do not know that they have HIV/AIDS. They still mix up in the society. We let them know that they should not feel inferior, but they should take precaution. We reassure them that they have hope in life.
In this programme we are in touch with the nurses, doctors and other health workers. They are very useful in the sense that they participate in the programme as discussants and they too offer their professional advice.
The airtime is 15 minutes on Anambra Broadcasting Service FM. I must say that the time is not enough. We appeal to people to take interest in the sponsorship. If we have up to 30 minutes or a repeat programme within the week, it would make it penetrate the grass. Before this programme, I had done another one called Ogonogo ndu, meaning Long life for John Hopkins . So I am interested in health matters.
I must saythat the fertile ideas I put in this programme are part of what I have acquired over the years as a dramatist. Again most people see me as a comedian and I cannot deny being that. But one thing is that most of my fans think I am a stock character. I want to say it loud and clear that there is no role I cannot play. My challenge to the movie producers is to give me any role under the sun and see how I can play it, instead of looking at me as a stereotyped actor. My venture into drama was very simple. Formerly I was into accounting, but the moment I found out that I am cut out for acting, I did not hesitate to follow that line of growth.
Part of what gingered me was after hearing about how Bill Cosby made money and fame through acting. I gave myself a challenge that I must make it in the profession. Today I cannot say that I am doing badly. At least I can feed my family, clothe my children, my wife and myself.
To name the works I have done would be difficult. Unless I get the file I use in recording all. One thing about me is that I record all the productions I have taken part in. I can tell you that they are more than 1000; Cock Crow At Dawn, Sons and Daughters, etc. My joy is that although one is playing all these roles to entertain, there had been thorough education and message being put across.