Nollywood actress, Rachael Oniga
Popular actress, Rachael Oniga, speaks with Olushola Ricketts about her career, regrets, decision not to remarry after a failed marriage and love for her children
When did you know that you wanted to become an actor?
It is unfortunate that a lot of people think that actors always say acting is in their blood or that they have been acting since they were in the womb. As for me, I have always had the traits since I was in primary school. I attended Princess Girls School at Abule Oja in Yaba, Lagos. In those days, we had missionary, private and Federal Government schools.
My school was like a private school even though it was a missionary school. We did not pay school fees, but the teaching standards were quite high and we used to take drama classes. I was also part of the Girls Guild and we had different sporting groups, which I joined. Despite being an only girls’ primary school, I enjoyed playing the role of a boy whenever we had dramas. I always used costumes that belonged to my younger brother. Parents used to come around to watch us perform. My late mother was particularly very proud of me. Elementary school was fun for me and I took that spirit to secondary school. After school, I became a professional computer programmer.
At what point did you leave computer programming for acting?
I worked for some years with an engineering consultancy firm. It was an European company, but the head office for the West African region was in Nigeria. I stopped working when I got married and started having children. But unfortunately, the marriage did not last. When I got separated from my children’s father (that is what I call him; I don’t call him my late husband), I took to acting again. Even though most people don’t know this, I already had my three kids before I started acting. When my marriage didn’t work out, I told myself I would not go into the street to look for any job. At a time, I was a student of the Federal School of Science, Victoria Island, Lagos. Then, Victoria Island was so small. From where we had the students’ union building, you could see the bar beach and the fresh air straight from the beach would touch you. There were very few buildings at that time.
After school, we (students) were irresistibly drawn to the Nigerian Television Authority to go and see rehearsals and the actual shooting of the Village Headmaster. From there, we got to know a few members of the cast. I was so fortunate to meet Uncle Lai Ashade of the Village Headmaster, who was interested in what I was doing at the time. I told him my situation and he asked if I needed a job. I told him that I didn’t intend working for anyone. He asked if I loved to act since a few of us had shown interest earlier. Of course, I was interested in that. He later connected me to a movie project, Memorial Hospital. The camp was situated in Badagry. He told me they needed some roles to be filled. He gave me the address and I went to meet the producer and director.
On getting there, I was given a script for the first time. I didn’t know what it looked like before then, but I had witnessed the shooting of Village Headmaster as I mentioned earlier. I read through and I told the director I was ready to go on set. They gave me a costume, did my make-up and other necessary things were put in place. After the first scene, they asked if I had ever faced the camera before. I said it was my first experience, but they found it hard to believe. The director couldn’t just believe how I didn’t show any stage fright since it was my first time. That was basically how it all started for me in 1993.
Don’t you think you would have been richer if you had focused on computer programming?
I know that could be the case, but I have never reasoned it. I thank God for my life. I believe no destiny can be changed. One’s destiny can be delayed or turned around, but what God has written down for you cannot be changed. I believe destiny has put me where I am today.
How have you been able to stay relevant for years in the movie industry?
I give God all the glory. It is not by my making, and it is not like I am the best. It is just that God has been merciful to me. In actual fact, a lot of people started before me and after me, and they are nowhere to be found again. But I thank God that I am still relevant and I plan to continue to put in my best.
As a single mother with three children, how did you manage to build your acting career?
My first born, Olamide, was four years old when I left my marriage. I had to put them all in boarding schools. That is one of the most painful things I have had to do. Whenever I talk about this, it always brings me close to tears. My children paid the price for something they knew nothing about. Children don’t beg parents to have them; we ask them to come to the world, so we should be able to take good care of them. It is not all about money, but I had no choice. I had to work; I had to be a mother and a father to them. I had to make sure that they had all they needed to have. While they were in school, they didn’t lack anything. I got them all the things rich children had. I understand all I did was not enough, but I thank God for the children He blessed me with. I think God knew I had nobody but Him. In a way, he saw us through and I thank Him for that.
After your marriage failed, you’ve remained single for more than two decades. Why haven’t you remarried?
The factor (her late husband married another woman) that led to the end of my marriage made me determined to prove to him (ex-husband) that I could stand without any man. I was not ready to give any other man the chance to be a hindrance to my children and me. I also made up my mind that I would dedicate my life totally to my children. I toughened my heart and blocked every opportunity to go into any relationship. I saw myself as equal to any man, regardless of how much money he might have. I give God the glory because I can pay my bills. I dedicated all my life to my job and my children. I became so busy and I was not ready to take any nonsense from men.
Apart from sexual intercourse, don’t you miss the companionship you share with a man?
I understand where you are going, but sometimes when a woman closes her heart, she will not give any relationship a chance. I was always on the defensive. I didn’t want any man to treat my children badly. I was working for my money and I put my kids in good schools. So, what do I need a man for? I felt all men just wanted was to see the beauty of a woman and walk away. With what my ex-husband did to me, you expect me to trust men again? Before we got separated, he was a good and ideal man. But he married another woman and I moved on. I do not regret leaving him because I sacrificed my life for my children, which makes me fulfilled and happy. But I miss the whole union thing, friendship and sharing things together. I have missed it all. My advice to young ladies is to keep and fight for their marriages. Perhaps, I was naïve; I never fought for what was mine, but I still thank God. We are in Africa, you fight for your life and that of your children first. Maybe that is why God has been merciful to me and my children.
Did your late husband make attempts to settle things?
There were many failed attempts. He knew the type of person I am; that when I say no, it is no. I tell people that I am like a coin with two faces. I could be stupid and forgiving. In fact, I don’t think there is anyone who forgives as much as I do; I am yet to meet such person. I could forgive or ignore anything, but once I turn my back, I would not go back there. Before death took him (ex-husband) away, he called many times and he came to the house to see his children. Once he arrived, I would pick up my bag and head to movie sets. I didn’t stop him from seeing his children though.
Why didn’t you fight for your marriage when you had the chance?
It was my mistake. I should have fought for it. Any young lady must try her best and fight for her marriage. My decision at that time might not have been the best, but I still thank God. I have my regrets too as a human being.
After death, did you wish you had taken him back?
When I make up my mind, I don’t regret it. Even if I am meeting a person for the first time, I would be so open. I am very sincere. You may betray my trust many times and I will ignore all. But once my mind is made up about you, there is nothing anyone can do to convince me otherwise.
Did you attend his burial?
I participated in his burial with all I had. I spent my money, energy and I even invited artistes. When he passed on, I was in America for holidays, so, I couldn’t attend the eighth-day prayers (fidau). But the children did and my late elder sister was there too. For the next 40 days, I was supportive. Though he married another wife, his family still sees me as the legal wife. I was still legally married to him as of the time he died. I gave him a befitting burial. I did all that because of my children, especially my son. Later in life, people may ask him how they buried his father. He had to bury his father well and that was exactly what I did for him. I played the part my son would have played if he was an adult. That is my joy. Sometimes, I do things and people wonder what is wrong with me, but I always have my reasons.
Was your mother in support of your decision to become an actor?
She was so happy. When I was very young, they told me people used to call me ‘alajota’ (someone who likes dancing). They said I was always dancing even without music. My little granddaughter loves dancing too. At times, her parents get surprised whenever she is dancing. I just laugh at them because I know she got it from me.
How about your siblings?
My elder sister is late. I have an immediate younger brother, who lives in Belgium with his family. There is also my mother’s last born and we’ve lost one other person.
What are those things you miss about your mother?
My mother was like a friend sent by God to me. If you treasure your mother and honour her, God will bless you. I miss her so much. In those days, whenever I fell ill and I was yet to talk to her, I felt the sickness would not go. For people whose parents are still alive, especially mothers, they should value them.
It seems you were not close to your father?
I was never close to him. I felt he didn’t gave me the support I needed. He removed me from central Lagos and took me to Edo State for my post-elementary education. When you do things to a child and you think they’ve forgotten, they don’t forget things easily. At the end of the day, you may discover that a move you made in life could go a long way to affect that child’s progress in life. When I took an entrance examination, schools I didn’t apply to in Lagos and other neighbouring states called me for interviews. It meant that I was among the top three in the nation or so. But my father refused all the offers I got. I did interviews at Queens College and Holy Child School too, but he refused to let me go.
Did you tell him how you really felt before he died?
Yes, I told him all. But my late sister told him before I did. When he was alive, anytime he needed money and reached out to me, I didn’t hesitate to send to him. But we were never friends. My late sister told me that when he got to know my feelings about him, he cried bitterly and regretted his action.
What is the major lesson you’ve learnt in the movie industry?
When you are in this kind of industry, you are in the midst of enemies. It takes the grace of God for you to be somebody in the movie industry. Whether you are good at your job or not, many people would want to bring you down. However, if you have God on your side and you are good at your work, you would always sail through anywhere you are. In every profession, there are issues. Among the white people too, there are always people who are not happy for others. It is left for you to be prayerful and to be closer to your God. You should know what you want from life so that you can stand firm in whatever you do.
Do you have a cordial relationship with your colleagues?
In my own case, I don’t have enemies and I don’t have friends. I also advise younger actors not to have enemies and friends. Once you are called for a job, get it done and go back to your house.
Does that mean you don’t unwind with friends?
With friends, why not? But I don’t do that with industry people or my colleagues. When you get too comfortable with such life, you would meet people who want to bring you down. They would pretend to be your friends and stab you in the back. I’ve seen many cases like that; so, I prefer to stay away from that.
Do you still intend to produce movies?
I am not a producer, I am an actor. But I have produced four movies in the past. I did that because of the desire to tell stories that were dear to my heart and I wanted people to benefit from them. You could also say I went into production because I had the money and I was looking for how to spend it.
Did you make money from the films you produced?
It was a good experience and people still remember some of the movies such as True or False. I didn’t really make money because of pirates. That is the major problem producers are facing in Nigeria and no one seems to be doing anything about it.
Does any of your children take after you in acting?
No, none of them is into acting. It’s their choice and I don’t force anything on them. If you read my chats with them, you would see that we relate with one another very well. When there are misunderstandings, we settle them and apologise to one another. I have never stopped them from doing whatever they want to do. All I do is to encourage them. When they have problems, no matter how grave it could be, I always tell them to come to their mother and it will be settled. My first child is into information technology, the second is a banker and the little one is into health insurance. I have two grandchildren – a boy and a girl.
How do you relax?
When I am not working, you would find me sleeping. I love music, but I hardly go out. I am very choosy about the events I attend. But anytime I decide to go out, I ensure I enjoy myself. I love comedy shows. I love to laugh, I love life.
Do you do other things apart from acting?
I was once making shoes and sandals, but debts pushed me out of the business. I was not making the shoes myself though, but I contributed to the designs. People were buying them, but it became difficult to get money from them. And because of who I am, I couldn’t chase them about for money. Also, my first daughter has an online store where she sells children’s stuff. I advise her on things she can buy.
Do you still make money from acting as before?
You know there are days we don’t get to work and there are days we are everywhere. Sometimes, work comes regularly and one gets excited. But sometimes, it comes slowly. For a very busy actor, once you stay at home for two weeks, you would think the world has forgotten you. If it gets to three months, something must be wrong. Once that happens, I pick up my rosary and talk to God.
Since your late husband was a Muslim and you are from a Christian background, were there no objections to your marriage by your parents?
My parents were not like that. Whatever we wanted to do, they allowed us to do it. They gave us free hands. Yes, the father of my children was a Muslim, but he was never a practising one. The agreement was that I would not leave my religion. We agreed that we could practise our different religions. But we had a mixed wedding because I wanted to receive Holy Communion. He agreed and we went for marriage counselling. Before the church’s blessing too, he had to sign an undertaken that he would not stop the children from following me to church. It was stated that when they clocked 18, they would take decisions on religion for themselves.