Obi Emelonye shocker – Why I gave one kidney away
By SAMUEL OLATUNJI
Nothing will give one a clue that the man most Nollywood’s stakeholders have come to love and respect, survives on one kidney. Nobody would even believe it since he exercises and plays football regularly. But then, the reality is that popular filmmaker and winner of The Sun’s Creative Man of the Year award, Obi Emelonye is living with one kidney instead of two. In an exclusive interview with Entertainer, the producer of ‘Mirror Boy’ sheds light on how giving away his kidney to his sibling has altered the course of his life. Excerpts:
How does it feel to win The Sun’s Creative Man of the Year award, the first of its kind, after just a year of coming into the public consciousness?
We are all God’s creatures and I believe He guides our path, and He directs our affairs in this journey of life. So, it is not really our choice, and in the popular Nigerian parlance, “God’s time is the best”. Actually, it is not something that I chose to happen or something that I fought for to happen, it is something that has happened and I give God the glory. There’s no prematureness about it, it cannot be too early or too late because if you say it is happening at the early stages of my career, then it’s what I call renaissance as a film maker. It means it’s the beginning of greater things to come, and if you put it at the end of my career, it means it is the highlight of my career in which case it is not so encouraging. So, if it is happening at the beginning, winning The Sun Creative Man of the Year is my beginning, which I look at as God’s providence, and I am very humble and very grateful to The Sun for, first of all, carving out this award because a lot of mainstream awards have refused to recognise creativity. So, it is a hugely commendable initiative by The Sun to get a category for creative people and recognize the amount of work we are doing for Nigeria. I feel very honoured and privileged to be the first winner of the award.
‘Mirror Boy’ made over N18 million at the box office, is that the end of the story for you?
No. ‘Mirror Boy’ did very well in the cinemas. I am not sure what the final figures are, but it did extremely well and I am grateful for the support of people, the media, most especially, The Sun, Africa Magic, Cool FM and Wazobia FM which made it possible for us to get the success we had. ‘Mirror Boy’ just came back from Canada where it was adapted by Canadian Immigration authorities as a cultural awareness tool. I also have an invitation to come to Holland with the movie. The Durban Film Festival in South Africa has just requested for ‘Mirror Boy’. I have another request from Ireland for the screening of the movie, and a proposition from an American agency for the review of the movie. So, ‘Mirror Boy’ has still got life in it and even the DVD is yet to be done. My career is more than just a film, I had to go and make a new film called, “Last Flight to Abuja”. In the movie are Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, Jim Iyke, and a host of other established names in the industry who are taking their games to the next level. ‘Mirror Boy’ has done great things for me and it will continue to do, and it will always be a film in my career that announced the new Obi Emelonye. I am trying to transcend and move on to greater things as a film maker.
What’s the big deal about your new film, ‘Last Flight to Abuja?’
There is no big deal about it. I think it’s an attempt by us to tell our story. This particular story is a type that Nollywood shies away from, maybe because of the technical demands of telling that kind of story. Maybe because of the financial implications of telling that kind of story, but it is one that we haven’t attempted before and to find the confidence to approach this kind of narrative, it is what the big deal is. It is about the confidence, the assurance to approach this type of story and tell it with the kind of technical and visual details it demands. ‘Last Flight to Abuja’ is a simple story about something that happened in Nigeria in 2006, and that is told in an entertaining and sensitive manner.
Why did you cast Celine Loader in the film?
There was a strategic thinking behind me casting Celine Loader. It wasn’t just simply a case of somebody that will play the role, and we filmmakers have to start thinking that way, it was along the business line. Celine Loader’s part in the film goes way beyond acting. She wasn’t an executive producer from the scratch, she was an actress. It was when we had difficulties with finance that she came in as an executive producer, and because she believed in the project she decided to put her money where her mouth is. So, she was first and foremost an actress before becoming an executive producer.
You are a lawyer and once a footballer, what are you doing with movies?
I have always known that my destiny lies in show business. I actually don’t mention it often but I was also a musician, I was the lead singer of a band called, Jacky’s Family in the early 80s and Charly Boy was our producer. We were supposed to be signed onto his label when he came back from America. This was when I was sixteen. I have touched every aspect of what I wanted to do and have enjoyed it and I feel everything I have done in my life is in preparation for what I am doing now. It makes me a complete man and it has broadened my horizon. So, all the experiences I gained in playing football and going for trials in Europe, and practicing as a lawyer in the UK are now part and parcel of my life. But first and foremost, my first degree was in drama from University of Nigeria, Nsukka where I was also a director and writer. Even when I left and was playing football, including when I was practicing law, I was still writing scripts.
One of my most important films before ‘Mirror Boy’ was ‘Echoes of War’. I actually took time off my Bar exams to direct ‘Echoes of War’ in 2003. So, it has always been in my blood, I have always known that things would fall in place when the time was right.
And in 2007, I made that leap and today, I have been vindicated. Like they say, fortune favours the brave and I have been brave about it, and I think fortune is beginning to smile on me.
How long did you practice as a lawyer?
Just three years, between 2003 and 2006. I worked with some solicitors in South East London. I was seconded to a college where I was legal adviser at Lambert College in South East London. I was working especially in the area of law of conveyance. It was a short period of practice but it opened my eyes to the life that I wanted to live; that I didn’t want to go to work everyday. I wanted to work and enjoy it. It is like a professional footballer who is getting paid doing what he enjoys. And the more I practice law, the more I realize that the job is not for me.
In the first place, why did you relocate to the UK?
I am a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s when the hippest thing was to go abroad. I graduated in 1990 from UNN, served the next year and played football immediately afterwards. I played for Rangers International of Enugu, Julius Berger of Lagos, and Premier of Onitsha, which I think is defunct now.
Where did you meet your wife?
This is a true story. In 2001, I was going with someone to shoot a movie, “Fire Dancer”. He was using my equipment and I was the director of photography. There is a part of my history in the UK which involves a white woman and which I have to do as they say to get to where I am. It was a necessary journey that I had to embark upon but with respect to my wife, it is something I don’t want to talk about it. She is my wife and the mother of my children and anything that happened before then should not be made public.
When did you come back to Nigeria?
I came back to Nigeria in 2000 to join the film industry. I left in 1993 and spent seven years in the UK. In 2000, I came back with my equipment and a bit of money and shot films like ‘Who’s Next’, and ‘Voodoo’ with Jim Iyke, Ramsey Noah, Steph Nora Okereke and Chioma Chukwuka. I put Chioma on her first poster. Jim Iyke was my boy; I put him in every film that I shot at that time which made a strong impact in the industry. They called me “oyinbo” filmmaker because at the early stage of Nollywood, I was trying to do things right. What we are doing now is what we were doing then but I think it was a bit too early and so, it wasn’t greatly received. I promoted my films so well that I had billboards in the stadium for “Who’s Next” and it was there for over a year. I built and got permission for the billboard to be put there. All these things we are doing for “Mirror Boy”, have always been there, it was just a case of getting the circumstances right. I came back in 2000 to join the film industry and I was frustrated by the marketers who released my film and never gave me a kobo.
I am still being owed millions of naira as we speak by some of these people. They released the film and never gave me a penny in return. Marketers are very important but the problem was that they were a monopoly and monopoly will naturally exploit. And that was what they were doing, they were exploiting the situation. I’ve not finished the story of my wife. I came back from the UK to Nigeria and I was director of photography on a film called, ‘Fire Dancer’ starring Genevieve Nnaji. We were shooting in Omole and I had a Jaguar.
So, how did it happen?
I gave her my business card at a time when mobile phone wasn’t available in Nigeria. I was sharing an office with someone in Surulere, Lagos and she decided to phone me but didn’t get through so, she threw away the business card. But what God says will be, will be. Eventually, we met again.
In the same place, of course. I believe what God says will be, will be. Eventually, we met again and our relationship blossomed. About five months after we connected, I went back to the UK, and a few months later, she joined me. We met on the 12th of February, and February 12 was also the day we got married in the UK. It was the day we had our traditional wedding, so February 12 is a very special day for me and my wife.
I don’t know. I was sitting in a car somewhere and someone opened the gate and immediately I saw her I said ‘that’s my wife’. I think it was a spiritual connection and with due respect to all the ladies I have been with in the past, I think I am the best judge of character than women. I am just lucky with women. Whoever I have had something to do with in the past have been the ones you can take home to mummy.
If they were women you could take home to mummy, why didn’t you take them?
There were more things to consider; was I ready to take them to mummy at that time? Was I ready to get married at that time? I didn’t take them to mummy at that time because I was probably too young or not ready financially or mentally, and probably they were not ready. But I have had a knack for dating ladies who are very beautiful and responsible.
Is it true that you donated one of your kidneys to somebody?
In 2007, my younger brother was diagnosed with a kidney condition; we thought it was something that could be managed by just taking drugs but increasingly it became an issue. We went abroad where we were told that it’s in a bad state and cannot be corrected by just taking drugs, and the only option was to do a kidney transplant. In March 2010, his condition became more critical, he started undergoing dialysis and there was need to act very fast. At that point, we were torn between staying in the US where we were at that time or going to the UK where it was very expensive to carry out that kind of procedure. Then we considered Indian and my sister had a good relationship with the Indian High Commissioner, who recommended a hospital in India. We sent blood to India for interpretation; all my brothers were willing to make donations including my sister, who was married. She too was willing to donate her kidney, and it came down to who was available the most and whose kidney matches that of my brother. At this time, I was in post-production for ‘Mirror Boy’, I was in the studio editing the film, and it became a vote between myself and my immediate elder brother, who is executive producer of ‘Last Flight to Abuja’, to go to India with the patient. My brother is older than me by five years and he had a business to run with INEC but I was much freer. I was in post-production of the film, the reason why I’m saying this is not because I am holier than my brothers, no, but circumstances led me to being the only person that was singled out.
My wife obviously had her worries. What risks would I be exposed to? I could die in the operation. How difficult is it and what would happen afterwards? Would I be on medication? Will it affect my quality of life, and by extension, their quality of life? I understand that a woman would want to say that ‘your life is for us now and not for anybody on the outside’ but I said to her that, ‘what if it’s me that needs this help, how would you feel?’ In life it is better to be the giver than the receiver, so if I died trying to give my little brother a kidney, then I would have died a noble death. Some people die on the road while going to visit their girlfriends. Some people do silly things and die. Seeing my conviction on the matter, my wife said ‘let’s go and do it’. It didn’t hit me hard until the day I was going to India. My brother went from Ghana where he lives, and I went from the UK. As I said goodbye to my kids, it just dawned on me that I may not be seeing them again, it was very emotional.
Did you prepare your will?
Yeah, I had a reasonable life assurance and I had a will. I contacted my life insurance company to say this is what I was going to do. I told my kids that I would be back soon that they shouldn’t worry. I arrived in India and I thought the whole process shouldn’t take more than two weeks but it was very bureaucratic, very bureaucratic in the sense that a lot of Indians were selling their kidneys for money and so the Indian government had a very stringent law in place, including requirements before you can do a kidney donation. It’s very easy to take a kidney from a dead person but taking from someone who is alive like me was a very difficult one. My brother went two weeks before me and started running tests. When I came, I also started mine and it was a very thorough one. It took a lot of time, and two and a half months after, the operation took place. By this time, the work on ‘Mirror Boy’ was waiting. If we had released the film when we wanted to release it, we would not have been where we are today, but God said ‘don’t worry about the film, I will look after you’.
How did the family react and cope with all these challenges?
My family did their best, my brother-in-law tried for us; he contributed immensely to the funds to make this possible. He paid the hospital bills; I was responsible for mine. After all this, it showed that I was a suitable and fit-enough donor and by God’s grace, I passed all the tests needed. The operation was scheduled for the first week of October; I was having issues calling home because of the time difference, about five hours. The night before the operation, I called my wife but didn’t tell her the operation was the next day because I knew she won’t sleep, but somehow she knew because I told her I would be going for a test the next day and my phone would be switched off. During the operation, the camera broke and they had to go to another hospital to bring another, it’s a microscopic camera to see what’s going on. The operation lasted over 10 hours, something that shouldn’t take more than four hours. It was like coming back from hell and by His grace, I woke up. And as soon as they finished mine, they started on my brother, cut him wide, because his was a more detailed procedure. They cut him wider than they cut me, few days later, I left the hospital, went back to our hotel, continued to visit my brother who was now in intensive care.
When did you leave India?
A week after the operation, I left India for the UK. As God would have it, a week after I came back from India, my phone rang and it was CNN. They heard about the ‘Mirror Boy’ and wanted an interview. Since that time, my life as a filmmaker has never been the same. God healed my brother; he was in India for another month, now he is back in Ghana, and his kidneys are probably better than yours. The only thing is that he is on medication to control his immune system but he is working perfectly. So, I went back to the UK, saw my doctor in the process, I told him I just got back from India, he said ‘oh, that’s nice, so what took you there?’ I told him I just donated a kidney to my brother. He literally fell off his chair, saying he has been hearing about kidney transplant but it’s the first time he would come in contact with a donor. This is a medical doctor saying this and he knows that I wasn’t paid to do it and that I even paid all my bills while in India. The blessing that I got from my mum alone would last me a lifetime, the kind of goodwill I enjoy from people is amazing. Some people told me not to do it that I should think about my family first, others thought I was going crazy. They look at me now and say I inspire them. After a while, there was a rumour that my kidney failed and that I was in India for an operation because I was dying. I felt I needed to manage the story so, I started writing an internet blog, it attracted traffic at the time, many people would visit the blog and write all sorts of comments but I didn’t let it deter me. In the end, they realised I was serious about it. Right now, I feel lighter with one kidney; I am not on medication, I still play football, I am in perfect health and will continue to be by God’s grace. It’s one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done as a human being.
Are you sure there are no health implications?
There are no health implications; the body can function very well with one kidney. I would say ‘good health’ is my middle name. Going through what I went through in India was serious because the government wanted to be sure I wasn’t forced to do the operation, which I found very frustrating. Now, I understand why they did what they did at that time. My brother had to go back to India for a review, I did my review in the UK and the tests showed nothing was wrong. Absolutely, I’m in perfect health. My mum said my life has been prepared for this because I had always lived a healthy lifestyle since I was a small boy. I didn’t use to take beer, wine, champagne or anything alcoholic, even when I am celebrating, I don’t take any alcohol.
Did the kidney transplant affect your sexual performance?
Absolutely no, it doesn’t affect any aspect of my life. Like I said earlier, I still play football.