Henry is the son of Chika Okpala, popularly known as Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo, alias 4.30 for his role in the New Masquerade, a comedy that aired in the 80s and early 90s. Henry tells ALEXANDER OKERE about his dad as a family man and an actor.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
My name is Henry Okpala. I am 37 years old. I am married with a daughter and a very beautiful wife. I live and work in Nigeria.
What do you do for a living?
I am a civil servant, an IT engineer by profession. I am also into real estate in Abuja and Enugu. I attended Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, for my first degree in Engineering and obtained master’s of science degree at a Russian university, where I studied Information Security and Cyber Security.
Do you have siblings?
I just had two lovely sisters but we lost my elder sister years back. So now we are just two.
What was her profession?
She was a civil servant also, married with two kids.
Your dad starred as Zebrudaya in the New Masquerade, a sitcom that was popular in the 80s and early 90s. Did you watch him on TV?
Yes, we always could not wait for the time (the show aired). With my neighbours and friends coming around our home in Aba (Abia State), we were eager to watch. Although we were children, we found the programme very entertaining.
How old were you at that time?
I was about seven or eight years old. I watched till I was a full-grown adult, because even when it stopped, we had the old videotapes.
How did you feel when you saw him acting in a costume that portrayed him as an elderly man?
Well, it was a bit funny and we always laughed over it. When we watched him on TV, he looked different due to his big tummy, grey hair, and eyebrows, but when he came home, he was a totally different person.
Can you describe the kind of family setting you grew up in, with your dad being the popular Chief Zebrudaya?
Well, growing up with my father, Chief Chika Okpala, was amazing, though he lived in Enugu while we lived with our mum in Aba, Abia State, because of the nature of their jobs. My mum was a banker and dad was always on the move from one location to another for shows and the production of the New Masquerade (soap opera). My dad used to return home at the weekend and leave every Monday morning, so we were so used to that process at that time. But during the week, we always waited for his episodes (of New Masquerade) every Tuesday night from 8.30pm to 9pm. And most times, during our holidays, we travelled to Enugu to spend the holidays. Above all, he is an amazing and lovely father.
Many were amazed by his choices of words and how he used the English language comically. Did you also find it hilarious or were you already used to it as his son?
Yes, it was funny to us as well, but as time went on, we got used to it because most times, he made use of the strange language at home.
Does he speak in the same way while interacting with family at home?
Oh yes, in fact, up to this moment, he still tells jokes and stories. Most times, when any of us is angry and has a little chat with him, he turns the whole situation around and we can’t help but laugh.
Does he have nicknames for his children?
He always calls my younger sister Oge Tutu because her name is Ogechi. But I don’t have a nickname.
How did he spend time with his family during his active years with the New Masquerade cast and crew?
During that period, we went out to visit his friends and had some fun, though it was always very short, it was worth it at that time. However, we stayed at home and he told us lots of stories and jokes most of the time.
Did he sometimes take you along to his rehearsals?
Most of the rehearsals we witnessed were not during the production of the New Masquerade but mostly adverts. At the time the New Masquerade was produced, we were little and the location was always filled with visitors. We stayed indoors.
What do you find unique about your father’s personality that many don’t know about?
The very unique thing about his personality is his humility and selflessness in whatever he does. He is very transparent and hard-working. When I asked him why he did not become a politician or contest to become a governor based on his attributes and the fact that people love him, he said, “Afam, I don’t know how to tell lies.”
Was he strict father while you were growing up?
Oh, partially, not 100 per cent strict. He is a disciplinarian. He is not totally strict in the sense that he is not the type of dad that would always push you to do things. We lived with our aunties so we did not really experience that strict side of him. Each time he returned at the weekend, we behaved ourselves because he disciplined us. Not by flogging or slapping, rather he would advise us and deprive us of some toys.
How did he instill discipline in you and your siblings when you were younger to express his disapproval?
He denied us some nice toys until we realised our wrongdoings and showed remorse.
Can you remember a time he did that that you will never forget?
I can remember a certain time I wanted a particular toy but because of what I did wrong, he refused to buy it. Also, when we did not perform up to his expectation in our schoolwork, we did not get toys. He expected us to concentrate at school. So, we learnt how to comfort ourselves and get our toys.
As a popular Nigerian, has his name brought you favour in society?
His name has always opened doors to the family. We had free access at that time to visit government houses, and sit and dine with governors, senators, and prominent persons in society. Sitting and dining with them was a great privilege.
Can you recall a particular incident in which your dad’s name paved the way for you and how did that make you feel?
I wanted to join a club to boost my business contacts but I was told that I would not be admitted because I did not have the requirement but that I could watch them. But at one point, there was a discussion about old actors in the industry, and my father’s name was mentioned. When I told them that I am his son, everybody was shocked. They hugged and shook hands with me and made me a full member just because of that.
Do people identify you and your sibling more as Zebrudaya’s children than with his real name?
Yes, many people who know him always identify us as Nwa ZB and stuff like that, but we kept it a secret too. For example, most of my friends don’t have any idea that he is my father. There was a time I felt it was cool for me, but at the time, people no longer called me by my name, just Nwa ZB.
How involved was your dad in your education and that of your siblings?
My dad was very active in our education. He encouraged us in all aspects. He still rings it in our ears to study for a PhD.
He was said to have earned his first degree in 1996, three years after the New Masquerade stopped airing, and he was over 30 as of that time. Did this influence his role in your education?
Yes, because even after that, he enrolled for his master’s degree at the time when he was over 50. That was a massive boost for us.
Did he play any role in your career choices?
Well, he did play an important role by accepting and supporting our choices of courses of study at the university and not preventing us from studying them. Many parents would have wanted their kids to take after them but he did not.
Why do you think your dad left you to make your choice personally, considering his strong interest in the education of his children?
He did not leave us to become wild. There was Mass Communication, which is his area but he allowed us to explore, study hard, and graduate with good results.
What values does your dad cherish and taught his children?
He teaches us about accountability, curiosity, respect, empathy, determination, open communication, and honesty.
What did he teach you about each of these values?
He tells us that we have to prove ourselves by being hard-working. He always wanted me to become his personal assistant but because I had to travel abroad for my master’s, it did not work out. He needed someone trustworthy. I learnt a lot from him before I travelled.
What are the important pieces of advice he gave you that have been helpful in the choices you have made in life?
He tells me to always take education seriously and be a problem solver and self-dependent no matter where I find myself in life.
Did your dad encourage any of his kids to become an actor?
Not really, he left us to make our choices personally.
How concerned was he about the type of friends you and your siblings kept?
He has always advised us to keep good company.
Did your dad tell you how he managed the attention and pressure he got from women during the years he spent playing Zebrudaya?
Sure, he did, and (he told us) how he brought 99 different ladies home to present to his father when he was trying to pick a wife (laughs).
Did he really take 99 ladies home to his father while searching for a wife?
He usually talks about it, so I believe it happened. I used to wonder how he did it but he said he did it. He said he brought each one to show to his dad and counted 99 before he brought my mum. A lot of ladies liked him because of his position (in society); he liked many of them but his parents, his dad especially, rejected them.
Did he tell you how he met your mum and chose her among his many admirers?
He told me how he met my mum but I can’t remember it now. He had a lot of stories about the places he lived in when he travelled and he met many people.
A few months back it was reported that Romanus Amuta, also known as Natty, passed away following an illness, thus, reducing the number of the original cast of the New Masquerade cast.
Has your dad ever expressed sadness that most of the cast did not enjoy the financial rewards that come with fame in the Nigerian entertainment industry as it is now?
Oh, yes. He expressed much sadness most of the time that most of the benefits and rewards that those currently in Nollywood enjoy didn’t come to them (cast of the New Masquerade). He always tells me the story of how they started with the like of Pete Edochie, Nkem Owoh, and other top veterans, including the (New) Masquerade team. He always feels they should get a form of royalty from the industry and the government as living legends who made comedy in Nigeria amazing and built the Nollywood industry.
Does your dad have any regrets about his career in the entertainment industry?
He has never had any form of regret.
It has been fun for him and he has enjoyed every bit of it.
Did he tell you what he would have loved to become if he was not an actor?
No, he never discussed that.
What is the most surprising thing you, your sibling, and your mum have done for your dad?
On his last birthday in June, we organised a surprise celebration. He was surprised and liked it. We usually buy gifts he is not aware of.
What are your dad’s likes and dislikes?
He doesn’t like dishonesty and lazy people. He likes intelligent people and trustworthy individuals.
What are his hobbies?
He loves lawn tennis, reading, and travelling.
How does he love to relax?
He loves watching the news.
What is his favourite meal?
His favourite meal is afang soup. When we travel together, he requests afang soup. He eats amala when he travels to Lagos but he doesn’t joke with afang soup. As time went on, his doctors told him what to eat and what not to eat.
Does he have a favourite drink?
He loves red non-alcoholic wine but before that, palm wine had been his favourite. He calls it tombo liquor.