Courtship: Sickle cell issue...In my time, we knew nothing about genotype –Julie Coker
Modernity, education and the growing awareness among people not to unduly tempt God, is making fiancés want t to find out the genotype of the proposed spouse. Unlike the female character in a certain episode of Clinic Matters, a popular Nigerian soap opera that treats medical issues in a humane manner, who refused to quit a relationship when informed by the doctor that the man she was engaged to had the same AS genotype like her, most intending couples these days let wisdom prevail and back out when they discover that the person they want to marry has AS genotype.
Decades ago, wanting to know a fiance's genotype was not the practice. Ignorance about genotype was the primary reason. And this had produced unpleasant outcomes for such couples if both spouses were AS and probably had children who turned out to be sicklers.
This was the unfortunate case of Julie Coker, who in her earlier years was a popular TV personality. Her son died five years ago as a result of complications related to sickle cell disease. The pain of losing her son made her set up a foundation that would serve as a platform from which to educate other people. Since retiring from active broadcasting she has been running the foundation. In this interview, Julie Coker looks back and says: “In my time fiancés knew nothing about genotype.”
Since retiring, you have been living in England. Is there any particular reason for this?
Well, moving over to England was so convenient for me because I have family members over there, particularly, children that I brought up, grandchildren children that are growing, and I wanted to be there to supervise their upbringing and ensure that they learn about their culture from me.
I think that is the best way you can impart knowledge to some of our children, you can bring your grandchildren to Nigeria and send them to school, but it is more convenient if they are in school over there and you are also there to monitor their activities. And then I had my late son who was in and out of the hospital. I used to shuttle. When they were in school I was also shuttling back and forth, so I got used to the life in England and after a while I was made the minister of the Eucharist, which entails working and being in the church everyday. I think that is an assignment by God, which is superior to all other assignments one could possibly take on.
Besides the position you hold in the Catholic Church, what other projects are you engaged in?
Since the death of my son five years ago I have been running a foundation. It is affiliated to the Sickle Cell Society of the United Kingdom. I am also an associate member of one or two other organizations. I am a world peace ambassador.
I work very closely with a friend of mine, a professor who is the president of Blues Print International Society, and we work with school children. We take children to the House of Parliament and for various discussions and issues that affect youth. You cannot bite more than you can chew, so I only take things in my stride. Whatever I can do with these organizations I participate as much as I can.
What is the name of this foundation?
Richard Coker foundation
What are the objectives of the foundation?
The foundation was set up to create awareness about sickle cell anaemia and to raise funds for research work. And in various places where they are needed sometimes we organize shows in Nigeria and abroad. And we have a few sponsors who assist us. Research work is capital intensive.
The work they are actually doing needs a lot of funding, so if there is any organization, we can get in touch with them so that they can donate directly to the hospital or they can donate through us, they can give us funds with which we organize shows and through those shows the funds donated are channeled back to the hospital.
What really motivated you to establish the foundation?
Before then, Richard in his own way was very eager to educate people about sickle cell disease. He was writing books and producing films. There was a time Shell Petroleum raised some funds through the present Obi of Onitsha, when Richard wanted to launch the film. But by the time we were ready for the launching he was admitted again in the hospital.
In fact, His Royal Highness, the Obi of Onitsha was gracious enough to come into the hospital to make that donation and we called all the members of the unit to come into the hospital ward because sometimes you can have the ward to yourself, that is private room, and we conducted the exercise there and the cheque was written directly to the hospital so it didn't go through Richard. Like I said earlier, donations can be given directly to the hospital. You know that would bring some kind of solace to people, you can donate blood, you can do other things and you can also raise funds to assist the research work in the department.
Nowadays, fiancés usually find out the genotype of the person they want to marry. Being an enlightened person one wonders whether you didn't discover your genotype?
Wanting to know a fiance's genotype is a recent thing. Genotype is something that has just been discovered. Maybe in the past 20 years. And as a result of the ailment itself, people now look back and ask what is the root cause? It is just like malaria; of course, you can prevent malaria, you can have a mosquito net placed right round your house and not be bitten by mosquitoes.
Most of us did not know our genotype. Even after pregnancy they were asking me in England if I was aware that I was AS. I didn't even know what they were talking about – you see, it was very strange to us at the time and we have an insight about what could be done. Now, the medical authorities, even the churches are going into it. They make sure you are properly screened. If you are AS, they discourage you from getting married to someone who is also AS, but it is a matter of choice. Y
ou still have people who are AS, who marry someone who is also AS knowing fully well that if the woman gets pregnant, she runs the risk of losing her life during childbirth. How long can you do the work of nature? We can't ask so many questions, when it happens it happens. Thank God that we are not as ignorant as we were in our own days. We are more enlightened now and undergo blood tests to know whether somebody has AS genotype. What are you going to do in the villages where medical laboratories are not available and people would still get married, people would still have children and it may be people who are very well educated?
It is believed that sicklers die prematurely. Is this wholly true?
That's what we have been told, but that is not the reality of the case. I have met sicklers who are 52 or 60 years old. I know some sicklers who don't really have any crises even in three years. And I know some chronic sicklers as we are talking now suffering in hospitals. That is just the way it is. We are working now to alleviate the suffering of these people so that they can get blood transfusion at the right time. Richard was getting blood transfusion every six weeks and it went on for two weeks, and sometimes when they are on admission every other day somebody comes with blood.
Are the siblings also sicklers?
No. Richard was the only sickler we had in the family.
Considering your years at NTA, what impact did you make on the younger generation?
First of all you must have a flare for it. You cannot impart knowledge on how to speak well in front of the camera, how to compose yourself. You ought to have an innate thing that is God-given; you can be role model and show them by the way you perform your own duty. Also, you can be a lecturer in the training school. Before television college was established, they used have a training school and when it came to the spoken word people like us were invited to draw up a kind of special training programme for presenters/announcers. I did that for many years.
The training school, is it the television college in Jos?
I taught at the training school before the television college was established and the principal of the TV College at a time took a proper assessment of how things were being run in the station. So when I became chief presenter, he was gracious enough to write me to be one of the lecturers and I did that until I retired. I was always going to Jos.
At the end, he drew up programme and my name came up to be one of the lecturers. I studied TV production techniques in Anglia Television in England, not just the spoken word. I could assist in other aspects of production, teaching production techniques. And if one had ideas about what kind of programmes if it was time to change all the programmes that we had, I was in charge of drawing up a schedule.
We put our heads together and get new ideas from time to time, especially if we thought some programmes were no longer interesting to viewers. It came to a stage where I was known as an programme ideas woman because I was always coming up with different ideas, different titles of programmes and various angles at which to project them to the public.
In your time, was broadcasting a male dominated affair?
A lot of women have been working on radio. We had people like Toun Adedoyin, Irukwu, Marie Irikefe, Aina Asolo, to mention a few. In fact they were reading news on radio when I was in Form One in school and that was actually what got me interested in going into broadcasting because we didn't know what TV was at the time. We used to read to ourselves when I was in school; we used to perform poetry reading at Saint Mary's Convent school.
In fact at Holy Child College, I only took part in one drama production called, “The Times of Norman Day” but when I was in standard four at Saint Mary's, we were taking part in little concerts both at Easter and Christmas which served as a training ground, and our school being a Catholic missionary school, we were always having one activity or the other to do in school. Like now that the primary schools are all doing it; whether missionary or not, everybody now does drama and poetry reading.
In our own time, it was only the Catholic schools that did things like that and that was why many parents wanted to send their children to Catholic schools. Then the festival of arts was run by the colonial masters. When you go to the festival of Arts, it was a competition and most of the time our school came first. We may be competing against colonial schools themselves like Corona school or Our Saviours; and sometimes we will even beat them, because in our school we had Irish nuns, who taught us how to speak well.
So from a very early stage, it was like God was preparing one for that kind of assignment. I did not know that eventually I will find myself sitting in front of a TV camera and be speaking to the public the way we did for so many years. But at the initial stage, I did not have a formal training, but I would like to recommend that before anybody comes to work in broadcasting there should be a kind of formal training. Where people would now go and source for talents to come and work in television and not the other way round.2 Now what is happening is that people now come from the deep end; it's like throwing somebody who cannot swim into the river and then trying to teach the person what to do.
It is going to be very difficult for somebody who does not know how to swim and you throw the person inside the river and you say he is not doing well, in that case you are not being fair to the person, to the organization and to the public, so that is what we have now. But I have noticed over the last few years that things are being streamlined and you have people who are trained in the school abroad and they come here to work in broadcast houses.
As we have now quite a number of TV stations, you have to fill them with that, you can have the same person doing the same thing. In our own time we had one or two stations, and it could not get everybody to join, but now it is a free-for-all, once you know the right connection you can get a job anywhere.
Is this affecting the industry professionally?
In a way, I think it is. There are a lot of media graduates you can make use of but whether they are going to fit into the right positions is a different matter. You could read media studies and be stable for working behind the camera, but if you think because you already had that certificate and you are going to be sitting in front of the camera that is another matter altogether.
So you discovered your talent whilst in missionary school?
I was discovered by the nuns, because they would go round the schools asking you to read, so if they find that you are suitable fine. And then I won Miss Western Nigeria Beauty contest and I came to Lagos and became second at the Miss Nigeria Beauty contest, first runner up to Helen Anyam Helona who won in 1958. It was a kind of credential and that was when my uncle took me to the station in Ibadan. It was Justice Ighodaro who actually was responsible for my getting the job, he felt that I had the talent and I was already Miss Western Nigeria that I was best suited for the job.
How did you feel when you were the first runner up in the Miss Nigeria pageant?
It was a big surprise of course everybody wants to go into the competition and win but that was the last thing on my mind because there were prettier girls around.
What where those qualities that gave you advantage over other contestants?
I really don't know, we have to go and look for the judges but they asked questions on current affairs they watched the way you dressed.
Most female presenters seem to have problems in their marriages. As a mother what is your view on that?
Sometimes maybe the men cannot take the attention that is paid to their spouses. Even at the best of times, men find it very difficult to tolerate any woman in the limelight. Some people, if their wives are doctors want them to stay at home and do nothing not to talk of appearing in this glamorous world.
I think that is one of the reasons why you have conflict at home, sometimes conflict of interest. Some women have to spend longer hours at work and men would think that they are doing some other things, so I cannot hold brief for every marriage. But Mike Enahoro and I were in the same profession, still whenever we went out because people saw us as a couple, he felt that anybody who pays you a compliment, of course you solicited for it.
And what kind of man should be a life partner to female presenters?
I can not proffer an answer but you have seen Bimbo and Tunde Oloyede. Mike and I used to appear on the same programme, Lagoscope. We did Bar Beach show together and we read the news together. A lot of people thought that it was a marriage made in heaven, that we were going to live forever. Some of my programmes and onstage activities - if I was the compere at any event, even after marriage, he will still write scripts and send to me.
He didn't mind me being on the same job, he never stopped me from doing anything; the only problem we had was that whenever we went out, people wanted to spend more time talking to me; maybe he felt that we should ignore people and just walk around like robots. It wasn't easy at all because I am an amiable person, people say hello to me and I will wait to say hello to them. In my own case, I went to take part in a film called 'Dinner with the Devil', which required us to be on locations for very long hours, sometimes till the following day. I was one of the principal characters. So when you talk about film actresses I think I am number one. Apart from just being a television presenter I did so many other things, I recorded three albums, my first was with EMI Records.
Why did you stop singing?
Don't worry there will be a come back when I am 70
Apart from broadcasting, what other things do you have passion for?
Singing. I paid tributes to old friends when they died. I feel that I cannot give them anything; after that I will sing a song in the church. At somebody's birthday I can also sing and I generally sing in the church all the time.
How would you describe Julie Coker?
First as God's child, well endowed by God with various talents like as I said – singing and reading I do read in church. And I read that people even stopped in the Cathedral Church in London to wait for me to say, 'oh how could you read that'; even when I read on good Friday, some kept saying, there are three readers that dramatized the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There was a part where I said, “Are you really a king” and a Briton person said he had never heard it delivered that way and he didn't know that I was a professional reader; it was just one line and a Briton could just single out something like that and even the nun who was giving out rosary to people for the assignment will tell me that the people always requested that I do it because they liked the way I did it.
They said if I had gone into films, perhaps I would have made millions. So I believe that if God did not endow me with that kind of talent I would not have been able to start at the very early age. People always request for me to come and be the compere, like the wedding of the daughter of the President in January, I paired with Ikenna Ndaguba, even though, I am not on the circuit anymore. And I think at this age, I am almost 69, I still get requests to be the compere at events. So, I just give the glory to God.