His life was like a movie. Down with stroke, lost a son at the twilight of life, shattered dreams, aspirations, hope…. Elder Emma Edokpayi of the popular Hotel De Jordan soap opera on NTA took TAYO ADELAJA through the story of his life which could have been a great hit if shot as a Nollywood film.
The man on the hand-woven cane seat with velvet covered deep cushions looks frail. His grey beard juts out of his bespectacled face but his eyes still stares out brilliantly under the colourless lenses. At the side table close to the threesitter lie copies of the Holy Bible and some other books with GSM handset. Is he the one or not, I wonder as I approach him. His smile, however, gives him away. Yes, he is the one.
He is Emma Edokpayi of the Hotel De Jordan, Things Fall Apart and Third Eye fame. Television viewers of the late 70’s through 80’s reading this are wont to smile as they recollect fond memories of the soaps which ruled the air waves then. What could have altered his appearance this way? I ask myself. Age? But Edokpayi has the answer himself when he says that life is no longer about milestones but moments.
One of such lifechanging moments albeit a sad one, occurred in 2004 when he suffered a stroke. For the veteran actor whose career has spanned more than 30 years and producer of the classic soaps, Hotel De Jordan, Things Fall Apart and Third Eye, it was as if life had come to an end.
It was obvious that things would never be the same again following the partial paralysis which he suffered. As a result of the paralysis, movie roles ceased as producers and directors ignored him for more physically fit actors. He was at a vulnerable moment in his life. Meeting him was a great pleasure because he was an enigma in those days.
He recounted how in August 2004, he suffered a stroke while shooting a documentary on an oil field. He was down and out of circulation for years on account of the ugly incident.
Recounting his ordeal during that period, he said: “I came to realise that the stroke affected me not only physically but mentally. It affected my mind. I lost almost every memory. I was brought back to Lagos, because the ugly incident happened at a location outside Lagos and I remained in my house. I could not remember my friends. I could not remember any phone number. People came to see me but I could not recall their faces.
“I was more or less hiding from people. I was a different person from what I used to be. Before then, if you gave me a script, I didn’t need to spend hours studying it. All I needed to do was to read a line and I would get the whole picture and I’m ready. I stopped seeing people. I didn’t want anybody to pity me. At the time I had stroke, I had N6 million. I told my wife that by the time we finished this money, I would bounce back.
At the end of six months, the money had been exhausted but I was still battling with the paralysis.” At the height of his predicament, he dwelt in self-pity and he became impatient with people. Discussion with people became a problem due to the paralysis.
“In an attempt to correct it, I messed up. I was avoiding people. People felt my wife was hiding me, whereas I was the one that did not want to see people, because when people were talking, I would not be able to talk, my contribution would be useless. I could not talk articulately.
I could not piece two sentences together so that at the end, everybody would just keep quiet. It was a sad period. I don’t think you would have loved to see me then,” he said.
He confessed that when he regained a little strength, as an agile person, he knew to be fully back he had to take some steps. He decided that the best thing to do then was to go back to school.
He continued, “I told my wife I wanted to go back to school. I needed to regain some of the memories I lost. I did some courses and from there, my memory started coming back. Many people were against my decision to go back to school but I insisted because I hate idleness. I needed to do something and at that time, that was what came to my mind.” He enrolled for a leadership course at Daystar Church in order to regain lost memory. “In the school, everybody knew me.
They would see me and say good morning sir. I would sit at the back. I could not write, so I would just sit and listen. And immediately I left there, I would not remember anyone neither what I was taught. But I kept going to school. After a while, my brain was now trying to take in things gradually.
I was not talking to anybody. The lecturer would think I was assimilating the lectures the way I concentrated in class.” He remembered the day he drove himself to school for the first time while a part of his body was still paralysed. Explaining why he had to do so, he said: “I had a driver but he left suddenly. I entered my car and everybody started shouting. That day, I left home around 5am so that I could get to Daystar on time.
Also, if you came late thrice for the course, you might not graduate. When my driver did not come, I entered my car and drove to Daystar. I also drove back home and the second day, I drove too. That was how I started driving. The amnesia lasted one year and one month”.
He said that he realised that when you had stroke, the mental danger was even more severe than the physical. By the time you realised that you could no longer talk and no longer active like before, you would more likely become a recluse and that may worsen your case.
On the popular soap opera, Hotel De Jordan, he said, “Hotel De Jordan is a slot that unveils the widening gap between the rich, the poor and the wretched in Jordan City (Nigeria). At its inception and throughout its duration on NTA, the slot never had sponsorship before it went off the station’s chart.
The lessons the slot generate, qualifies it to enjoy a permanent screening if only because of its rib-cracking scripts which equally send messages to the corrupt and rich ones at all levels –government and the private sectors”.
Edokpayi reflected on how he came into the acting world when he quipped that, “Acting is my passion. To me, it is part of my life. I have been acting since I was six years old. I loved mimicking people.
When I was in primary school, I was part of the drama group up till my secondary school days. Because of my passion for acting, I carried on after my secondary school education but my parents naturally did not like it. Then, acting was seen as a profession for the never-do-well. I was urged to go and look for a better job and stop wasting my time on acting.”
He recalled how the perception changed when he became a popular face on TV in Benin with a smile on his face. He said, “After my secondary school, I taught for a while before I joined NTA. I was into drama and that made me popular in Benin City.
Can you imagine that my parents who objected to my taking acting as profession began to use my name whenever they introduce themselves? My mother especially who objected strongly initially would now tell people I am Emma Edokpayi’s mum and she would be accorded respect immediately because of my name.” He smiled broadly again and continued, “In Benin City, I had been known as far back as the 70s.
Though there was no Nollywood then, we had some popular soap operas on TV. People got to know me more then when Hotel De Jordan came on TV. In 1983, I did Things Fall Apart where I played a major role”. He became quiet when asked about the death of his son. He said, “the Lord giveth and He also taketh, as we are all instruments in the hands of the Lord.”
Observing his mien and seeing him with a Bible, I asked if he is a pastor or just a Christian. He smiled again and said, “In my neighbourhood in Akute, I’m known as both an artiste and a pastor.”
Speaking further, he narrated that he was brought up by strictly religious parents, especially his mother. Fortunately or unfortunately for him, his mind was tilted towards the theatre. He said although he was not leading his class as a student, he was one of the best.
“My mother would send me to the market to go and buy something. On the way, I would watch Ajasco. Those things attracted me to the theatre. At the time I told them that I wanted to do drama, they asked me if it was a job, because nobody saw drama as a job then,” he recalled.
He said he embraced Christianity because his mother was a fervent Christian. He was taught Bible stories and he still knows them very well, and that is why it is convenient for him to preach.
“Even when I was following women, drinking and walking round the town, I didn’t forget my God, though I was not as deep as now, we are controlled by the Spirit of God no matter how intelligent you may think you are,” he said. Twice he gave his cars out because God instructed him to do so.
The first was a Mercedes 230 he gave to a pastor who had just got married. “God told me to give it to the pastor. He was not my friend. God told me to give it to him but I did as if I didn’t hear.
I refused to give the car to the man. But my ear was pricking me until I gave the car”. The second car he gave was a Pathfinder Sport Utility Vehicle. “I drove to my church in a Pathfinder and went home in a taxi. Since then, I have been here, no car. They were contributing money to the church and I had no money to give, so I gave that car,” he said.
Edokpayi compared what the industry used to be in his days as an actor with what it is now. He said that the society has now come to terms with acting. “There is so much glamour in it now. Then, acting was purely born out of interest. These days, parents encourage their children to be part of the movie industry. It was not like that in those days. Today, you can see someone boldly telling you he is an actor, it wasn’t like that then,” he added.
He takes a critical look at the industry in respect to glamour and fame. He was once like some of the wealthy ones among them: comfortable and rich. At a time that many of today’s A-list artistes were still struggling, he could boast of more than four state-of-the-art cars like Mercedes Benz Concorde and SUVs.
He recalled that more than a decade ago, he had started earning between N100,000 and N300,000 per week as he was involved with documentaries apart from acting.
“When the money comes, you want to go high to the top. You go partying and drinking. And because it is a thing of glamour, you want people to see you at your best, even when it is not the best of times for you. You always want to show yourself in the best form and mood so that people would not see you as not living quality life.
“Most times, even the little money we made, instead of using it to build the future for ourselves, we prefer to live in glamour. Even the business itself is glamour. You drive in the best car, you live in the best house that is not yours and in the end, if you go to the innermost recesses of people who live this kind of life, you will find out that they are just living a fake live.
“At a time, I was at my peak and suddenly it crumbled. Events will overtake you and you begin to see that you are not the kind of hot kid you used to be. You find that the flow is not there and you had not prepared anything for yourself. You had not built anything that would sustain you.
So, you begin to die. I’m not saying clinical death, I mean spiritually. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” he asked. He said that he is forever grateful to his friend for the house he lives in today which was built in error, as he never wanted it.
He said that then, his friend cajoled him to build it because he never saw himself as one that would live in such an area. For me then, I would prefer Ikeja and some choice area in Lagos. But fate has put me in Akute and I thank God for that and my friend.
“I lived like many of the present crop of artistes. The luck I had was a very wonderful friend named Dayo Ojo. He was working at Mobil. He used to tell me: ‘Emma, go and buy a piece of land.
But I was always looking at land as a problem,” he said. He recalled that it was even his friend that made money available to buy the land. The land, valued at about N10 million today, was bought for about N550, 000.
He said he did not want to have anything to do with the house until the reality of life forced him to live where he would not have lived. “When you are blindfolded by glamour and the worldly pleasures that accompany stardom, a life of idolism or idolatry, it takes you away from reality, which is the path to God, the road that leads you to everlasting peace.
Before I knew it, I bought a 35KV generator. I did suspended borehole.
Everything was in the house, but I still didn’t want to come to the house,” he noted. After his experience, Edokpayi now speaks like a preacher. And he believes that although he can no longer carry the camera the way he used to do, this is the time he is more useful to the society because he can teach drama and language as a graduate of English and Literary Studies.
Right now, jazzing up Christian drama is uppermost in his mind as he plans to replicate what he is doing in the church outside of it. “I foresee an explosion of this type of production,” he said with confidence.
However, he has regrets. Speaking in a low tone, he said, “It is painful that I was not able to accomplish all the things I had wanted to. I had a lot of ideas. I am creative. I have so much in me but I regret not been able to achieve them but the most important thing is that I am still alive. I am sure that I will still achieve more because I am alive.”