Her real name is Nnenna Nwabueze–Okonta but she is fondly called Merit, following the visible role she played in that pioneering Igbo movie, ‘Living in Bondage’.
This beautiful mother of six children disappeared from the screen immediately after the film was released into the market in 1992. She was married off, and her heartthrob, Chief Okonta, who died few days to their 22nd wedding anniversary, on March 15, 2016, wouldn’t want to lose her to another man. Hence, she disappeared from the screen to solidify her marriage, and, after 20 years of building her marriage, the husband allowed her to stage a comeback to her first love- acting, in 2014.
In this encounter, ‘Merit’ recounts the sweet-bitter story of her journey into marriage; the challenges of being a widow and what the future holds for her and her children.
How the journey started
I met my husband for the first time on February 28, 1994. But on March 12, we had our introduction party in Lagos, and on the 26th of the same month, we did our traditional marriage in my village. The popularity of the pioneering film, “Living in Bondage”, was all over the place and people from all walks of life attended our traditional marriage ceremony.
Between ‘Living in Bondage’ and my marriage
I got married after starring in ‘Living in Bondage’ which was produced in 1992. But it wasn’t the film that actually opened the door for many suitors to come after me. I was 23 years then, and I felt it was time to get married. If I had not acted in the film, I would still have gotten married because I was a beautiful woman. Honestly, I was not crazy about those big guys who were coming for me after starring in the movie.
Attraction to late husband
There was something about him I liked so much. He was a very strong man with an imposing personality. He didn’t come to date me, rather he came for marriage. I met him on the 28th of February, 1994. There was no courtship. We just ran into each other, and he told me, ‘You are my wife.’ Before I knew it, he was already in my village and the rest is history. He was not after sleeping with me.
After he proposed
Of course, after he proposed to me, I had a second thought. But something kept telling me he was the one that was meant for me. Then some people were opposed to the marriage because he was not an Igboman. They wanted me to marry an Igbo man, and I think my stubbornness was part of the reasons I married him. I don’t regret it. I was dating somebody then, but he wasn’t strong enough for me. I needed a man that would have total control over me. The fear of hurting him would deter me from doing certain things. I couldn’t have spend the rest of my life with a “push over” or a man who is weak.
Being a tough woman
In our industry, we have had so many ‘big boys’ who are ready to mess around with you. But if you are not careful and tough as a young lady, you end up being a disgrace to yourself.
22 years after
We had our challenges. But the good times as well as the bad times we had together made our marriage worthwhile. When we got married, we faced a lot of challenges: cultural,emotional and personality differences. But we were determined to make the marriage work. I miss him so much.
Sacrificing acting career for marriage
Like I told you earlier, there was no courtship. So, after we got married, I needed to know him better. That was when I realized he was a very jealous and possessive person. He wanted me all to himself all the time and, if I had not valued my relationship with my husband, I would have had a broken home. As demanding as my job was then, I made a decision to sacrifice it in order to build my marriage and I am not regretting it. I would say I abandoned acting to solidify my marriage.
Returning to acting
When we were 20 years in marriage, he called me and said, ‘I know you have this acting bug in you and, despite everything I have done for you, you still want to go back to acting. Will it make you happy?’ I said yes, and he replied, ‘You have my blessing…you can go back to acting’.
While he was a well- to-do man, he took care of my children and I. He showered love on me and I felt secured in his arms.
Life without my husband
It has been very difficult. I miss him everyday, I cry every day. Each time I attend a friend’s birthday, I remember how I used to celebrate mine. I would cry endlessly. Whenever he was around, I dared not stay outside anything after 6pm. He was sick for about six years and finally gave up the ghost in March, this year.
Challenges of widowhood
My six children have their different ways of dealing with their father’s demise, just as I have my own way of easing the pains of his departure. I play the role of a father and a mother to them now. It has not been easy for me.
What marriage has taught for
Marriage has taught me how to be patient and decent. It has also taught me not to be selfish. It has equally taught me what it means to be a wife, a daughter-in-law and a mother to my children. Marriage has taught me how to be a good cook among others.
I DON’T KNOW. I CAN’T SAY YES OR NO. I AM OKAY WITH MY LIFE AND I AM NOT SEARCHING. FOR NOW, I AM NOT THINKING IN THAT DIRECTION.