Mrs Victoria Ilonkem Okoye, popularly called VVI is a former Commissioner for Education in Anambra State and first elected Executive Chairperson of Ekwusigo Local Government Area of the state. She is a founding member of the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO). In this interview with IJEOMA EKWOWUSI, she explained how the CWO originated, why there is an increased spate in out-of-school children, particularly girls, the current difference in standard of education presently and women participation in politics, among other issues. Excerpts:
Who is Mrs VVI Okoye?
I am Mrs Victoria Ilonkem Okoye, popularly called VVI. I was born on February 29, 1936 (86 years old). My parents hailed from Nnobi in Idemili South Local Government Area but I am married to the late Chief (Sir) Clement Nwachukwu Okoye ( Nnabuenyi) ( KSM) from Ichi in Ekwusigo Local Government Area. We got married in 1958.
I have seven biological children; three males and four females, including a Reverend Father. One of my daughters is the CMD of Onitsha General Hospital, who is also a consultant gynaecologist. Two of my children are pharmacists based in the United States. Another is a pharmacist with the Anambra State Ministry of Health. I also have a barrister who is a senior lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK). I thank God for His gifts.
I was born as an Anglican but later got married to a Catholic. I started my career pursuit quite early: I attended St Monica’s College, Ogbunike. I did my NCE at Awka, then further obtained my First and Master degrees from UNIZIK, Awka.
I was appointed a Commissioner for Education by the then Executive Governor of Anambra State, Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife (Okwadike) on recommendation. I accepted the office and served to the best of my ability.
Afterwards, I was elected the first Executive Chair of Ekwusigo Local Government Area. Later on during the Ngige administration, I became member, Prerogative of Mercy and Chair, Library Board, among other appointments.I am a member of the National Council of Women Societies ( NCWS).
In the church, I hold a Papal Knight recognition from the pope. I belong to the Order of the Knights and Ladies of St Mulumba. I am the first member from Nigeria in the World Union of Catholic Women Organisation and I am a Life Member of the Catholic Women Organisation of Nigeria.
I worked with several bishops. I received a scholarship from Women African Community of African and American Institute to attend leadership training in Colombia University, New York City. On completion of my study, I came back to Nigeria and Archbishop Charles Heerey employed me in 1964.
We were 16 women that went for the training. 15 of them joined the government while I opted to work with the Catholic Church. The Archbishop employed me with the mandate to groom the women in his Archdiocese which I did from 1964 till date. I started the CWO which has grown to be the sharpest organisation in the Catholic Church today.
I have worked with other clergymen and religious leaders which include Bishop Michael Eneja, Msgr Hypolite Adigwe, Bishop Simon Okafor, Bishop Emmanuel Ottey, Bishop AK Obiefuna, Bishop SM Ezeanya, Bishop Dennis Isiuzo, the current Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese, Archbishop Valerian Okeke and all the bishops of Nigeria.
When I started the CWON, it was a local association of women but under the watchful eyes of Bishop Heerey who took it up to national level. As the pioneer who birthed the organisation, I can proudly say that I am the mother of CWO all over the country.
The setting up of the organisation is what I can proudly say I parceled to the Catholic Church in Nigeria and then thankfully, women heeded to the call. When it began, I used to sponsor candidates for elective posts like the president of the organisation. Then, the whole of Anambra State was referred to as Onitsha Archdiocese which comprises of Onitsha, Awka, Nnewi and Ekwulobia, but today, CWO is all over Nigeria.
We have tools for evangelisation in the Church and the organisation is the major agent of evangelisation in God’s vineyard. We get our household interested in the evangelisation of our Lord; be it singing competition, dancing competition, feeding the seminarians, converging for August meetings. Women were built up and trained to give spiritual talks.
Our women became motivators which Archbishop Valerian Okeke was instrumental to. Now, you will see evangelisers at every CWO meeting. The meetings became a vehicle for spiritual growth. After evangelising, then there is food for thought and then the spirited director, who is a priest gives a talk to further strengthen the women. The organisation contributed assiduously to church projects.
I am nothing without God and the Catholic Church. That is not to say that the Anglican Church didn’t contribute to my fulfilled life. My mother, a very determined woman, was an Anglican by birth. She raised me well. But the Catholic Church was liberal to groom me further.
The Church taught me how to say the Rosary and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most blessed of women. I wouldn’t have known all I knew today. One Msgr Nathaniel Obiagba once said that the CWO in Onitsha Archdiocese is a ” miracle of grace” and I concur. I want to thank the CWO in Anambra and Nigeria, Nnewi community, Ichi community and Onitsha Provincial for their love and care towards me.
I live and serve God in this house I am occupying now and it was given to me by the Archbishop for over 50 years now. Blessed with with seven children; I have six surviving biological children, 29 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. I thank God and the Catholic Church for grooming me. I also thank my supportive husband and children.
There is an increasing spate of out of school children in the state of which majority are girls. What is your view on this?
Now let me tell you, the lukewarmness, the rate of dropouts, especially the girl-child is as a result of first and foremost, the financial constraint for the poor parents.
Secondly, parents prefer to give out girls in marriage than invest in their education. Thirdly, there is a whole lot of distraction on the part of the school girls. Funny enough, some of these girls don’t mind. They are ambitious about marriage and their minds are already made up on whom to marry.
Some of these girls manage to go through the primary education, then in secondary school, they drop out and are married off while some of those that manage to go through tertiary education come out with fake certificates. They can’t even pass JAMB. After all they will say, “I will end in my husband’s house – a house without a degree; a house without a certificate; a home where you lack fundamental knowledge. Some even fake their results and present it to their husbands and when he later finds out, it becomes an issue.
I know of a young woman who came out of school with fake results. Now tell me, how can such a woman produce a child that will lead Nigeria. The fact is that when you see a productive child, you will see a productive parent. Don’t be surprised that majority of the out of school children are girls.
There are too many fake school certificate holders in the country. See our sister country, Ghana, when you compare their system of education with that of Nigeria, you will see that the former has fared better than the latter in education. The reason being that the Ghanaians sat down and channeled all their energy towards the development of education both vertically and horizontally but here, some of them in public service are more money driven instead of service driven.
Soludo has come with the solution to put an end to all these. I must thank God for the gift of Soludo as the governor of Anambra State. I have worked with him closely before now and God made it possible for him to win the seat this time around. God’s time is the best. CC Soludo, Nwa Mgbafor with a good wife, Nonyenwam, I am sure that he will take over from where his predecessors left.
This lacuna was caused by lack of practical knowledge by those who tutor children. For instance, the World Bank in 2015 to 2017 gave a grant to Anambra State to improve their teaching skills and shared materials all over the schools. When I was the Commissioner for Education, I started an Education Centre at Okpuno. I procured land and put everything in place. Go there, the centre is still there till date but it is not fully utilised.
Years back, God sent a man called Hon Raymond Uchebo, who invented a mathematical set called the geotrigmetric set that can solve over 20 mathematical problems. The equipment is used by some schools all over the nation. It was a way of getting teachers interested in teaching the subject, motivating and aiding them in teaching the subject and as well as making the scary ‘mathematics’ a lot easier and more acceptable to the pupils.
Then teachers were being praised for doing well and they did well. If you encourage teachers, if you make them know they are important, then they will do more but if teachers are not encouraged, will they do well in mathematics? Will they do well in their field of study? They need to be taught on how to use these mathematical equipment and impact it on the students. These days, children no longer take mathematics seriously and these children are endowed with intelligence.
Both teachers and pupils should be motivated in mathematical skills. The era of awarding scholarship to school children should be revived. Scholarships to school children should not be done by the government alone but private individuals doing well in their respective enterprises. There are people who don’t know how to spend their money; they should be approached to spend their money on education. Industries can also help sponsor education as well. Education is not an individual affair. I believe in think home policy.
What has changed about education during your time and now?
In my time, it was better in the sense that women had time for their education, had time for their husbands, had time for their children but now, it’s money syndrome. Do you know that a year old baby now goes to school today; a child still enjoying the mother’s warmth is going to school.
Nowadays, I don’t know what parents enjoy in taking their infants to school and they brag about it. Sometimes, I don’t want to speak and when I do so, these young ones will tag me ‘archaic’. I tell you, the happiest family now; I believe is the family that spends quality time together – the father and mother each helping to nurture the infant till the child becomes independent.
Another thing is the emergence of smartphone. A primary 6 pupil owns a smartphone bought for him by his parents. Now teachers are not free to train the children because they are afraid of their rich parents. As an expert in education, I am telling you that children lack motivation. Before now, children struggle to get 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions but these days, every child pass with 1st position. No more motivation. Some parents even pay teachers to pass their children. What decadence! Yet there are still good leaders and good students.
In our days, parents had time to come to school to know how their children were performing in their classes. Even in the developed world like America, you will see a woman who is a graduate or a professor after marriage, she manages the home while the husband pays the school fees. He brings his pay check home and both parents agree on how to share the upkeep of their children. The mother takes her children to school and observes the performance of each child but in Nigeria, we don’t have time for our children. We buy our children’s love. We are at the mercy of maids. However, I thank those parents that care.
Most modern women over feed their children with snacks or patronise food vendors. They don’t have time to cook; everyone seems to be in a hurry. Some mothers go to work very early and by the time they are back, the children had already gone to bed. And you think that such children will do well in school? Doing well is an all-round development.
But the ideal thing is if you show concern for your wards, he or she will reciprocate. If you pray, play and eat together with your child, you will know when he or she is under the influence of ‘mkpurumili’.
Are Nigerian women given a fair slot in governance?
I won’t say it’s fair enough but they are trying. We are not Oliver Twist but we still want more political positions for our women. In our state, I know the Soludo government will give us our share. He will care for us and Nonye will be fair to women. She is a woman with a listening ear. But these are serious challenging times for our governor. He needs our prayers for good health and for better mobilisation.
If we pray for him, we will have our slots. Let nobody try and deceive him with presents, with money or with anything. It’s better he works with his team and achieve as usual. He has been an achiever and he will achieve this time. I thank God because he has no time to discriminate and no time to talk about past history that will not pay any dividend. His eyes are fixed on the future. So if we pray for him, we will have our slots. He will remember us. There is no divide and rule for him. There is no time for intimidation. I am not afraid whether women will be given slots in Anambra State. We have lots of women professionals in the state. They would be encouraged to participate in the development of our state. Soludo will not only work with the learned but will also work with illiterates where he will tap their pool of ideas. He will succeed in carrying everyone along.
What is your message for ndi Anambra?
First and foremost, we should go back to our knees in prayer. Secondly, we should be united towards a progressive Anambra State. This is not time for discrimination or back biting. Money is nothing now our lives are more important. But most important is having the fear of God in our daily lives.
Let’s pray for our country in distress; let the state government declare a day of prayer for the state in particular and Nigeria in general. Let’s come together devoid of our social positions and tap brain from old, young, literates, illiterates and God will hear our prayers.