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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ebele Okaro - The Mama of Nollywood

THE unpretentiously friendly old girl of Santa Maria Primary School, Enugu and Queen of the Holy Rosary in Nsukka has unarguably emerged one of the industry's finest, always leaving a memorable impression each time she features in a movie.

An acting auntie to a number of young actresses,she is well married into the popular Onyiuke family. For her, acting has been a matter of childhood past time which has effortlessly become a ladder unto stardom. Ebele cut her acting teeth in primary school, did some more acting in secondary school before she gained admission to the University of Calabar to study Education. But Ebele's passion for make-believe resisted all attempts to make her not to train as a theatre artiste. To prove that her 'passion was thicker than a mere wish' Ebele, whom a critic once said possesses a textbook and clinical acting finishing, eventually pursued a Bachelor's Degree in Theatre Arts.

Star of a number of television programmes and home movies including 'Moving Fingers', 'Hostages', 'Third Eye', 'Eziza', 'Evil Thing' and '30 Days' starring the deep actress Joke Silva, Ebele, a crusader for professionalism served out her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in Lagos. That provided the platform for Ebele - who was born in London but brought up in Enugu - to do some more acting.

Along the line,there was a lull,so Ebele, star of 'Days of Rage', 'Shallow Waters' and 'Red Light', tried her hands on other things. She worked at an embassy in Lagos and then a bank which later went down. She returned to acting again, this time on full time basis and since then she has not looked elsewhere. Today, not only is Ebele popular, but she has also warmed herself into the hearts of most movie goers and her rating indicates that she is one of the most featured actresses on the home video scene.

Speaking further on her march into Theatre Arts,she said:"Actually that is my main passion - theatre arts. May be because I come from a family that has that kind of background. My mum was into television production and my father though an engineer also had passion for stuffs like singing, drama but just in the house o! But my mum did hers beyond the house. I guess it all started from there. And really I could have read theatre arts from the start. But there was a reason for my choosing education first before I now went in to read theatre arts. But you find out too that education has a little bit of drama in it. Because I remember when I went for my teacher training programme, a lot of students will leave their classes and come to my class because of the way I dramatized what I taught. Somehow education and drama has a lot in common and may be, I was just following my mother's steps. Not intentionally but somehow it worked out like that.

I have always been into acting, right from when I can remember myself. When we were in primary school we had periods, when we were always dramatizing. My self and my friends. Even at home, I will always come out to demonstrate when friends come around to see my mother. Just a little way of making money. Because the visitors get so impressed that they will end up giving you things. But it was all so funny. So somehow I have always been into it.

The break
When I was at the
University of Calabar studying theatre arts, one of my lecturers that really appreciated what I was doing introduced me to a lot of people who were involved in productions. I was introduced to a producer in NTA Calabar and two of us from school then joined their drama group and we used to do some weekly stuff together on television. So when I came out from school and because I was in the drama department in the NYSC camp, they specifically asked us where we wanted to be posted to and I opted for NTA Lagos and I ended up in NTA. When I resumed there, I didn't find it easy breaking in because they already had their actors and had a whole lot of others on the waiting list. Uunfortunately, one day they had an audition and I happened to be there. I guess it was just for formality because they already had a cast in mind. But fortunately for me, I got them impressed after I read and that landed me a lead role. The lady they took it from wasn't too happy and anytime we went on set she won't talk to me. Later, I met Rosemary Ingbi and somehow we became friends. With time, we all got used to ourselves and that was it. And I think I enjoyed myself at the NTA especially working with experienced people like Chika Onu and Cordelia Eke. There was also Antar Laniyan who played my husband in 'Moving Fingers'. But I enjoyed myself . It's just that I wish they paid more.

From NTA to the office

When I left NTA, I went to work for Australian High Commission but I was still coming out to shoot movies and that was when I shot 'Hostages' with Tade Ogidan. So somehow I have always been in the line. And because I was formerly in the system, I will hear of auditions and attend. But then with responsibilities I moved on from the Australian Commission to Royal Merchant Bank and while there, I didn't have time. In the embassy I could still go and work after close of work but in the bank it was difficult. So I couldn't really cope and because the money we got as actors was really small, I had responsibilities and so I had to stick to banking.

But even in the bank, my colleagues were all like look Ebele the day this bank goes down we know you will run back to your acting and we will laugh over it. And really one other thing that informed my decision to work outside of acting was the fact that there wasn't much happening. That was when Tade Ogidan shot 'Hostages' and that was one of the first major works apart from 'Living in Bondage' and others. Probably if there was a vibrant industry then, I would have stayed on. It was while at the bank that Nollywood started picking up. So suddenly the bank went down. I tried working in another bank but I wasn't really happy. But once in a while I will steal out to do some work. It was while in the bank that I shot 'Evil Thing' and later Don Pedro Obaseki's 'Eziza'. But it was hectic and tight. It was later that I finally decided on returning to main stream acting. So that's how I came back again.

Memorable Works
Yes, 'Eziza' will count as one of my most challenging works considering the circumstances. I mean, now people are being paid very well. I don't want to talk about 'Eziza' and payment. The movie was shot in
Benin. Finances were very tight and so you also expect that other aspects of production like movements and welfare will be tight too. And to know that we shot the movie in the bush. Real bush. There were some places where I was the only lady on set. There was one place I totally refused to go into. I think it was a shrine and I was told they had a python in there and I said if this python comes he will go for me because I am the fattest among you all. So it was challenging. Apart from the environment and the circumstances, the role too. I had to carry a lot of babies. It was really stressful and tough. And it was during the raining season. It kept raining and we kept working because we had to finish and leave Benin. But I totally enjoyed it. In fact those are the kind of roles someone will always recall and say hey, I did something nice here. The story too was good. You know at that initial time, we had tight stories. It was one off kind of thing. Not this rush for three parts and even four parts. It's more of money making thing now than actually promoting the arts.

I enjoyed 'Evil Thing', 'Faces on Fire' where I played a priestess. I had to use part of the songs my father taught us to interprete that role because I had to chant. It was hectic. We had to even pray and pray on a set we were to use as shrine before we rolled camera because it turned out so scary for even the fellow that built the set. But I enjoyed it. There is also 'Family Battle' and then 'Rings on Fire' which I saw recently and had to actually shed tears because of the story. It was so deep. Then there is 'Concubine' an epic that has not been released. It was directed by Andy Amenechi. There is also 'Egg of Life', and then 'Ola'. Then there is 'Tumuni Song' which Dove Media produced. I love the role I played in the movie. I got a lot of compliments and I felt like them after watching the movie.

Gains of acting

It has put food on my table to an extent, but not as much as it could. I don't think I deserve what I am earning now. I think I deserve more than what I am getting now. But honestly I don't know how to play politics and I don't know how to go around begging people. I can only say yes and no. And I think some of them take advantage of the fact that I am soft. There are situation where even friends are shooting and they call you only for you to realise later that they indeed had a fat budget. I don't begrudge anyone because for me it is not all about the money. But the passion for the job. But then if your passion for the job can earn you money why not. I expect people to know what I am worth. But it is a bit difficult because we don't have agents and managers who would do the negotiation. So the considerations here most times is just to hop on location because you like the story or do the job because you need the money or may be you have not worked for a long time and your fans want to see you.

The risk
Well, we do a lot of travelling. The risk involved. Having also to leave your family and having to spend so much on call cards because once you are not around your home, your mind would not be at rest. You have to keep calling to make sure every body and every thing is all right. But I am lucky that I have an understanding husband and a mummy too. Most times when I am in
Enugu to shoot, I stay with her and if I have to be on location, she gets them to prepare and bring meals to me so that I can be a bit comfortable. I am sensitive about what I eat outside home. If I don't feel comfortable with what I have been served, I simply don't eat because I don't want to fall ill on set. That's the worst thing you can do to yourself.

Fans must be fans 
Yes, I have had fans walk up to me to complain or commend me about roles I have played on set. And because I cannot judge myself, I try to be down to earth. Am just myself. First of all I am a friendly person. When I see people walk up to me in recognition, I wave even before they say anything. Then some people walk up to you and complain about a role you played. I remember my role in 'Third Eye'. I played a character that poisoned someone and a man was so pissed off with me. In fact he begged me not to play such kind of roles again because I look to him as if I am nice in real life. Some people call me to say that they want me to be their mummy because of how well they say I play the character of a mother in movies. So it's here and there but basically I think people appreciate what you are doing. And that is basically what I gain from this job.

Nollywood is a baby. It's still a baby if you ask me. We have a long way to go but we are trying. The only thing is that sometimes you find out that, may be because we are churning out too many movies, we have not taking time to stop and correct aspects we would or should have corrected. Every body is in the rush to hit the market. If only we can sit back and carry out some review and may be concentrate on just a few jobs in stead of flooding the market with works. If we put the money together and concentrate, I think we will have better jobs. And I wish too that all these companies sponsoring foreign soaps will put down their monies for us to do movies. It will help a great deal. We will have better jobs. But again we must be ready to invest in training and personal development. There are quite a number of people here who are not trained. Even those that are trained need to go for periodic refresher courses to update their knowledge about the profession.


Growing Up
Growing up was lovely. I was born in
London but I grew up in Enugu. I came to serve in Lagos and since then I have been in Lagos. Growing up was fun. I had happy parents and somehow, it rubbed off on all of us. Sometimes I see my friends when they are with their fathers, they are so scared. But when we were growing up we could roll on the floor with my father. That was the kind of person that he is. He was even more playful than my mum. We would joke and do hide and seek. That's the kind of person he was. I think that rub off. We are all very friendly people in my family. I have a sister who is a lawyer. I have a brother who is in the industry, on and off. My sister Chichi is more into presentation even though she is a very good actress. My mum used to act. She was in the cast of the television adaptation of Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart'. So it is in the family.

Staying power

First, it is the grace of God. Then, the passion for the job and thirdly, the family encouragement. There are also the gains of the profession like the money and the fact people say that you are good and that you should keep it up. But I think that acting is just a part of me. I think I will keep acting until I die. And I also want to help younger people who want to act. There are quite a number of young girls who want to act but who are faced with so many challenges. People find them attractive and they want to sleep with them or want them to part with money before they can be given a chance to exhibit their God-given talent. And it happens in every industry. Iam not saying that it is peculiar to movies alone. So if I can, I want to help such people. I want to be able to bring them in and protect them to a certain level. If they now want to do it, then it is entirely their business but they should not be forced into it. I was lucky. I never had that problem. Not that people did not make moves, but I was hardened and that's probably because I was good in what I was doing and so I had no reason to be desperate. Nobody told me 'give me this and give me that'. So my staying power has been God, the passion and my fans. I love it when people tell me that they love what I am doing.

Role Models
I do have role models. I love Whopi Goldberg. She is natural. She doesn't care how she looks and what she wears. She is her self. That's the kind of person I like. People who don't do things to impress alone. I am not out there to impress any body. I just want to be myself and I want people to like me for what I am and not what they want me to be. It is too much wahala actually trying to be what you are not. So Whopi is my role model. I admire Liz Benson a lot. She is one of the best. She has the ability to play different roles. That's what I admire in her. Then the younger ones. I think I admire Genevieve Nnaji a lot. She is good. I knew she was going to make it and I do admire her as one of the younger actresses. I also like Bimbo Akintola, I like Stella Damascus Aboderin. I also admire Uche Jombo. She is one person I would love to work with. I have not done much work with her but she is someone you will love working with. She is a give and take actress. She has the right attitude to work. Another person I love working with is Kanayo Kanayo and then Joke Silva. Then there is Uncle Olu. And for directors, there a number of them but I like Andy Amenechi. He is very good. But Whopi is my role model

Career Ambition
I will like to be involved in productions. But I will act in my productions. I don't want to stop acting but I want to be able to combine it with producing. But my greatest ambition is to do a
Hollywood movie. Even if it is to play in three scenes.

I like being happy. I like good people. Honest people. I like working hard for my money. I have always worked for everything I have had. I also like being nice to people. If I had money I would like to help a lot of people. I would like to leave a positive impact on people lives, no matter how small. Those are the kind of things I would like to do. I like Rice and then I like White Soup with fresh chicken. I like African music a lot.

After watching Big Brother Nigeria, I fell in love with music by our younger artistes. I love slow music....blues and oldies. I love dancing and I always try to learn the latest steps. I hate lies. Trying to be what you are not. Back biting. Jealousy and al that. I don't like such things. I don't like publicity. And truly I run away from the press. You never know what you would say and what they will write and some how they too have left me. And I am not really the going out type. I stay in my little home and do things by the side. I like to dress well but I don't have that kind of money to throw around on fashion. I buy them if I can afford them but I don't go over the top to buy them. My own is that does it fit me. Does it look nice on me? I am just not extravagant.

Enter Mr. Onyiuke

My husband walked into my house and that was it. Honestly I don't know what the attraction was for him then but I know then that he said I had a good figure. I think he came with his cousin to see my flatmate and that was it. I was struck by his beautiful voice. And he was very kind too. From the very first day I saw him I noticed that he was a very kind person. Even though that his kindness em can cause trouble o, sometimes. My husband's own is too much. And he doesn't have a problem with my acting. He doesn't. I had made a name and that explains why I still keep the Ebele Okaro name and I added Onyiuke to it. I asked him and he said he doesn't have any problem with it.


Ebele Okaro Onyuike has been in acting long before the movie industry got the Nollywood tag. The theatre arts graduate of the University of Calabar, has, however, remained consistent in her career, which has spanned over 20 years. In this interview with Reporter Patrick Uwalaka, she confessed that the arts run deep in her family.

How did you get into acting?
It has always been a part of me, right from primary school through my secondary school and up till my university days. I also come from a family of entertainers. My parents were entertainers so it is something that runs in the family.

What are the achievements you have had in Nollywood?
I don’t know if I have achieved anything since I started acting other than make many people happy. I have done one or two works that people have come to appreciate. I have inspired the young who look up to people like me and I wish I could do more because I have so much to contribute.

What are the challenges you have encountered while rising to the top?
I wouldn’t want to blow my trumpet; I only know that I am still working hard to get to the top. In any case, there have been a lot of challenges. First of all, there are certain roles that they give you which are not really you and having to leave your family to travel long distances for a movie role; being on the set of a movie and thinking about how they are coping. Sometimes the challenges come from the people you work with who might not have the same background in terms of discipline. You see, some people are just there to have fun and are not concentrating on what they are doing; they get carried away with stardom; they are not ready to sit down and make the best of what is on ground and that tends to affect the production. Challenges also come from scripts that are not well written.

And the role you are expected to play might be quite physical, even when you are in pain or you are not feeling well, you are still expected to smile and carry out your role in the movie.

Apart from the fee, what are those things that have really kept you going on?
First of all, it is God, second is self-discipline and the last one is my love for the arts and what I do. 

What was life like before you ventured into acting?
Actually, like I said before, I have been acting from my primary school days. I have always done one form of television production or the other. During my secondary school days, I also did television and stage acting and in my university days, I studied theatre arts . I did my youth service with the NTA; so that has been my life. Except if you are referring to what people term Nollywood then I would say I had a hiatus which saw me work in a bank but had to quit for full time acting. Acting has been my life even before Nollywood came into being.

Which do you prefer, epics, romance or comedy?
I love all of them because they are challenging in different ways. Someone said he sees me in a lot of epics playing the wife of a king. To be honest with you, I am not crazy about playing the role of a queen every now and then, because you find out that when you play that kind of role over time, it becomes a stock character. I play it well but I would still prefer roles that are challenging and will show other sides of you.

What are those happy moments that you would want to relive again as an actress?
Moments I spend with fellow actors and crew members when we are like one family. These are people who are not related to you but there is this bond that holds us together because we have a common goal, we all strive to achieve.

One of the best moments is when we are together in the bush roasting either yam or plantain and eating it with so much love and happiness, those kind of treasured moments are worth preserving forever.

How many movies have you done in Nollywood?

Please save me from the agony of counting; I don’t know, you see the way movies are released in Nigeria, sometimes you don’t even know the titles of these movies and it’s someone that will tell you, oh! I saw you in that movie and all that. I know I have done quite a lot and you should know it is not really the number that matters, but how well the few you have done were able to impact lives.

Do you have any memorable day on set?
Yes, I have a couple but I think one will be on the set of Ola (The Morning Sun: I interpreted my lines so well that the director, Andy Amenechi, told everyone on set to give me a standing ovation and I felt so happy. 

Would you say you have given your best in Nollywood?
Yes, I have to an extent especially with my initial productions like Ajani, Evil Pain. Those are the movies for which I feel I have really given my best and I know I still have so much to give to Nollywood in years to come.

Have you produced any movie?
I have not but very soon my works will start coming out. I am just taking my time.

Where did your love for African fabrics come from?
I don’t know; I just love African fabrics. I love Africa as a continent and all the core values, which Africa stands for; and most importantly, I think it fits me better, except when I have to wear my jeans, which must go with a top made from African fabrics.

Have you ever had bad press?
No; I have not. I run away from anything that will make me a topic for journalists to write about.

How do you run away from controversies in Nollywood?
I am not a loud person and I have not gotten myself into any thing that will make headlines. When I finish my work, I go home to take care of my family; I don’t go out often. I like my quiet lifestyle and I will continue to live my life that way.

What Nollywood movie gave you your break?
I really don’t know. I have been there for so long that I can’t even remember when I played my first major Nollywood movie role. I think my first major job in Nollywood apart from Ezzia and Evil Thing was Egg of Life and then it has been like that ever since.

Are you from the well-known Onyuike family?
I don’t know which one is the well-known Onyuike family, but I am married into the Onyuike family.

People say you are a workaholic, do you find time to unwind at all?
I try to rest when I can and that’s why when I finish a job, I try to stay at home with my family. The little opportunity I have, I use it to rest my tired self with my family around me.

What is your philosophy of life?
To be good to people, be nice to people because you never know who might help you in life as this world is a small place.

So what does friendship mean to you?
It’s being kind, sharing, honest and its all about trust.

Nollywood is said to be on a journey. Where do you hope to see it in a few year’s time?
We are going very far. The trend now is that Hollywood is coming down to Africa to do movies and those are the new movies that are selling, the likes of Blood Diamonds, Hotel Rwanda; the time will come when Nigerian stars will feature in top rated Hollywood films shot in Africa and indeed Nigeria.

As a stakeholder, do you think the government of the day has done enough to uplift the industry?
No, they have not; we expect them to do more. Get involved with equipment, which will be used to shoot high quality films in Nollywood and uplift the standard in Nigeria. 



  1. u are just a role mdel for ppl like me.a woman with honour.May God continue to be ur strenght.

  2. Do you have kids? If yes how many?


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Dedicated to the memory of Teslim Olamilekan Suleiman (1992 - 2005) [Click Image to read about him]