By Chris Onuoha
A walk into her modest domain in Aja, Lekki-Epe Expressway that houses all of TV production studio, corporate office, church and living house would have you first greeted with an infectious smile and warm welcome. The unassuming youthful demeanor and incurable laughter that characterized her down-to-earth carriage will diminish and even melt a heavy heart.
How best can you describe an amazing woman whose heart touching story of a turbulent childhood experience that has spiraled to an epistle of faith, hope and resilience than as an unbecoming heroine of destiny and achievements.
Dr. Violet Arene is a social counselor, Minister of the Lord, Management Consultant and Trainer of Business Executives, Television Producer, Presenter and founder of TV programme, ‘Voice of Eve’, Seasoned Author, Conference Speaker, Leader of women per excellence and the Global Youth Matron of African Women in Leadership Organisation (AWLO). Speaking to Vanguard Weekend Woman recently, she undauntedly described every chapter of her life with broad laughter, saying, ‘I was born to laugh’.
In your days, girl-child disadvantage stories were common. How did you survive it and even stand out?
I was born during the Second World War at a time when opportunities were very minimal for girls. In fact, the greatest and highest purpose for a girl-child’s reason for existence was to marry and settle as a housewife. Marriage, having children and being accepted to a man and his people was the in thing. It was a disaster not to be married.
It was a stigma. My generation from the eastern part of the country where I come from found it difficult to get education. Mine was a struggle and circumstances did not stop me. Money for school fees was not there but I still went to school. Then of course, early marriage, I escaped it. After everything was done to marry me off at a tender of age of 15, I resisted it with all vigour and told the unfortunate man, ‘I am sorry I am not entering your house’.
The early marriage story:
My family members counseled among themselves to take money from a suitor behind my parents’ back because they found it idiotic for my father at that time to send me to secondary school when other girls are getting married and settling down. To them it was very incomprehensible. Family members, especially elder ones do have superior opinion in homes as it was a culture then. I was already meant to be trafficked for money for them to solve their own problems.
My father found himself in a quandary. I was made a sacrificial lamb because a contract was made behind my back with somebody I did not know. It was terrible and I had to be pulled out of class. I was a very brilliant student in my class then.
You resisted it. How emotionally strong where you then to withstand that kind of situation?
I fought like a tigress to liberate myself because my father also reluctantly consented to their wish. Although, two women were behind me in this cause – my grandmother from my father’s side and my mother. I was supposed to go to my village from Port Harcourt where we lived to meet the father of the man who will take me to him in the North where he lived.
In the course of my refusal, I was sent out of the house for being a stubborn girl. My mother who was eight months pregnant then was emotionally disturbed and quietly persuaded me to comply. I eventually travelled to meet him but it did not work. To me everything was nonsensical. Here I was in school diligently topping my class, pulled me out to go get married because I am a girl, everybody wanted to see me get married because it was my destination. I was just only 15 years old then and I wondered if I could stay in such a marriage.
It was mercy deliverance for the man and me because it couldn’t have worked. Unfortunately, the man in question is educated, highly placed, a manager in a colonial company in the north. I was supposed to be highly well married in their eyes but it didn’t make any sense to me. His position was meaningless because I wasn’t there at all.
This happened in 1958 before independence. I felt sorry for him at some point because both of us were victims of a marriage that would never be. I was very immature and did not know how to handle it. I became as obnoxious as possible. I wanted my education and I did not care what anybody thought. I was implacable. It didn’t matter what happened to me. I wanted to go home immediately.
It is quite amazing to imaginable the confidence that propelled such action.
The Lord kept me. To recall back, during the journey that lasted for three days, it was broken at Jos and I was put in a room with another lady who was equally travelling to meet her own husband to be. As we start talking, I asked her if she was willing to go and get married, she said yes because she had no choice either. Unfortunately, I met this same woman years later. By then, she looked worn out like a 60 year old woman.
She never got any further. She just sank into the trap of early marriage, retired in the village while I was then blossoming in NNPC as a General Manger because I finished my education. I went to higher school, obtained my first degree, postgraduate diploma, master’s degree in USA and PhD also. In all these I could say apparently the woman did not have any fire in her but for me, I was God’s amazing grace.
It was a miracle as how I stood up to the village because it then became a village feud – the man’s village versus my village. They accused my father of deceiving them and collecting money which he did not eventually take but my auntie did. The heat generated to banishing my mother and I. God kept her as she started picking here and there until I finished my school at St Catherine’s Girls Secondary school, Nkwerre, Imo State.
How much effort did your mother make to influence your decision?
My mother was just a married woman. She did not have much say, especially with her sister in-law being there. She was just under the mercy of her in-laws as the custom permitted then. Although, she was helpless in their eyes but secretly, she and my grandmother were my heroes, my confidence and bulwark I had at that time.
My father drove her and myself out asking her to persuade me to go – that I am bringing an embarrassment to him. She cried and cried and eventually left the house with me. We took a long walk and when her tummy pains became severe; she pleaded with me and asked me to accept the journey but never to consent to that marriage if I got there. That was one of the confidence I had to travel and did what I did. When I got home, my grandmother was there to receive me and that was the last time I saw her before she passed on. On narrating the whole story to her, she drew me closer and whispered in my ear, “if you don’t want to get married, don’t do it but look around your fathers compound, you will take care of it”. And that’s what I am doing till today.
After that, she started mentoring me, saying, “You will be going into the world.” This was in 1958, she said, “A bended knee is what a cub uses to sucks the mother’s milk” – meaning with all diligent and humility, I shall overcome. She also repeated that with a smooth tongue, a snail walks in the dark over thorns, pestles and broken bottles.
I have used these two proverbs to teach hundreds and thousands of managers I coach. Even when I was with IGI executive board, the late vice chairman said that I was the most humble executive he had ever seen. My grandmother had died over many years ago and her words are still working in me.
Did this mar your relationship with father?
To point out here, my father was my greatest fan despite the fact that his family members coerced him to consent to early marriage syndrome. He suffered a little disappointment because I was not a boy as a first child. In those days there was no scanning. He expected a boy and got disappointed when I came out a girl but he comforted himself and gave me the name ‘Nwakaego’ – child is greater than money.
He consoled himself with that name and took special interest and attention over me. He monitored my education then. During one time I was playing in the sand as a minor. He came to me and asked me to write ‘laughter’ on the sand. I got it right. He saw what I did, picked and threw me up and was highly excited for getting it right. From then, I became his best friend.
Your real marriage and the Nigerian civil war experience
The Nigeria Biafra war affected me directly. I met my husband in the University of Ibadan – a young lecturer who came back from Oxford University, London. I met him in a difficult circumstance. The very first day he visited my house, I was beaten black and blue by my father. I was just 18 years old and had finished secondary school. He came a few minutes to six and I told him it was a wrong time because my father would kill me if he found out that a man came to look for me after 6pm.
As I hurriedly escorted him out and rushed back to house, I didn’t notice that my father had seen me, armed with a cane at his back. The rest is the story. With all the intimidations about men, I kind of hated men the more because I was worried over why I should be beaten for escorting a man I didn’t know much about.
Although, after the aborted early marriage at age 15, with my subsequent refusal to associate with men, I became obnoxious and decide that I must read and get education to the highest level. I made this decision because I suffered a lot in the hands of men and that was my own little childish thinking then. But the irony of it all is that my father took it for a little while and came after me saying ‘why did you say you are not getting married’, that I must as a woman. After much persuasion, I consented. Thereafter, referrals and match-making appointments came surging, even clashing with each other. Every young man who came from abroad was referred to me and it became a tough competition among the men then. By the time I was to consent to my real husband, I was naïve and made some miscalculations which could have cost the marriage thinking he wouldn’t let me continue my education after marriage, but fortunately he encouraged it.
The wedding day:
We were to get married on October 1 1966 in the University of Ibadan but the civil war caused it. We had to flee Ibadan at the heat of the war drums to the East. Secondly, every arrangement made to conduct the wedding in Ibadan was dashed, abandoned but we eventually had the wedding on October 1, 1966 in Enugu. At last my father was very happy that I finally got married, had my education and was full of life.
Did all these experience rob off on your children?
My children had a brilliant father and they had no issues with upbringing. I always tell people, ‘don’t call me brilliant’ because my children and husband are more brilliant and academically favoured than me. I attended St. Catharine’s Girls School, Nkwerre, in the former Eastern region and Queens College, Lagos for my higher Certificate, University of Ibadan for my first degree, Arizona State University, USA for masters and University of Lagos for my PhD. My first son was the overall best when he took Jamb before entering the university.
All my 3 children, one boy and two girls are medical doctors and doing well. Even when we wanted to prevail on the last girl to study Law, she refused and said she wants to tow her siblings’ line. She is a psychiatrist today. My first daughter was in John Hopkins University, US as an Assistant Professor for seven years before establishing her own firm in the US today.
Having gone through all this in life and attained heights, you seem not tired. What are current projects driving you on?
I have been in the church ministry for some time now. I am a pastor in the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG as an elder pastor. I think if a man or woman have not found God, the person is in jeopardy. There is no way you can be complete without connecting with your maker. I found myself in him by divine appointment
My book tells more about how I came to Christ while I was in the heart of the oil and gas industry. I went to Bible College while I was in NNPC and started pastoring. I have pastored for over 20 years now before I became an elder pastor in the ministry. I had the privilege to be in Jesus ministry which I call my number one project.
Secondly, I am a believer in human development. I am a builder and it is a talent in me. Although I didn’t discover it in time but it is not a waste as I am utilizing the opportunity now. I like venturing into virgin territories. For, instance, I am the first settler in my area here at Aja Lekki. I like to make something out of nothing. I have never been given any job someone has done. I was always given pioneering projects and I never fail. Wherever the Lord takes me to, I will develop there and leave a legacy. Legacies punctuate my life all over – In NNPC, the chief officers’ programme is still there for me. Also in Federal Ministry of Education, we started the counseling projects that were inculcated into the curriculum. I was one of the pioneer counseling members.
In IGI Insurance Company, I am their first training coordinator among numerous duties all over. And now, because of my predilection for development, it follows me everywhere. Whatever I do, by the way teaching counseling and developing people, it wins prizes. That is where the anointing is. You may think that having done 36 years in Public service, I should retire. But having retired formally and not in reality, I was sent to African Women in Leadership Organisation AWLO for development and that’s my favourite subject because if you believe in human development, you should believe in leadership. And the Lord, in keeping with his consistent faithfulness, assigned me to be AWLO’s Global Youth Matron.
I have written about 18 books and still going to write more – mainly on social critics, Christian books, women that have issues with life and leadership. I also anchor a television programme called ‘Daughters of Eve’. I have tried to say, after this year, I will not labour myself again, but the way I am seeing it, God hearing my prayer when the time comes, I will retire for good.
Looking at your ordeal back then, how can you compare parenting to this day?
If you read my book, ‘Amazing Grace’, you will see that parenting in those days is so strict which is not so now. In fact, I don’t even know that such things like romance, sex and socializing with boys were supposed to be enjoyed from the way we were been cautioned and taught. Interaction with a boy alone could cause you pregnancy not to talk of getting closer or being seen alone in a quiet place. You are not supposed to talk to a boy until you get married. Parenting was extraordinary – you are taught how to behave at home, outside home, and other things, so that when they are looking for a potential wife, it must be you.
I can humble myself to any level. My knees are flexible; I can answer ‘Yes sir, Yes ma’ to anybody at any time. I can genuflect to any anybody and it is easy for me because I was brought up that way. Above all, I am a very stubborn and difficult someone. If I believe in something, I must pursue it, unless I see a danger of death in it. That is how my life has been. I value my humility and it is the driving force of my success today.