Justus Esiri, a veteran actor, engineer, businessman and Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), did not become an artiste by accident as some of his contemporaries, he decided to be one after graduating in engineering.
Justus Esiri is perhaps one of the most detribalised Nigerians alive today, which is not surprising considering his background. The engineer-turned artiste, who achieved fame as the Village Headmaster in the rested soap of the same name, has spent almost all his life outside his place of origin.
An Urhobo from Orhia-Abraka, Ethiope Local Government Area of Delta State, the same village as Pastor Chris Okotie, founder of Household of God church ('Yes; Chris Okotie's mother comes from the same street as my mum in Orhia,' he says. 'It is called Owodo Street,') - Esiri grew up in Warri. 'My father lived in Warri,' he said. 'My grandfather lived in Warri; everybody who wanted to work in those days came to Warri; Warri was the place to be in those days.'
What it was like growing up?
'I grew up as a child in Delta not knowing that somebody is an Itsekiri man or an Ibo man. I grew up knowing everyone as a Warri boy or a Warri girl. In those days we had the Government Reservation Area (GRA) Warri, and the rest of Warri. I grew up in Robert Road, which was the end of GRA and the beginning of the other part of Warri. It was exciting because so many people who were in foreign service in Nigeria in those days came out of there; Robert Road produced the deputy governor of Midwestern state in those days. Warri was very exciting.
'Growing up in Warri was quite a different thing entirely; Warri was so cosmopolitan. We went to schools that had no distinction between Itsekiri school or Urhobo School. The formative years of anybody is a very funny world indeed; you fight with anyone you don't call your friend, and you call your friends to support you anytime you're fighting. You fight today; tomorrow you're playing football together. That was the nature of the place I grew up.'
Urhuapele, later called Sapele by the colonial masters alongside the sailors that traded with the natives of that time, is credited with 'inventing' Pidgin English in Nigeria. Neighbouring Warri, the oil city that is famed as delta's economic capital, has since come to be known for its peculiar kind of Pidgin English. I remarked that the dialectics of the language is so progressively dynamic that you really have to be a Warri or Sapele boy to flow. Justus nodded in agreement, saying:
'The pidgin language of now was there at that time; majority of the people who grew up in Warri didn't know how to speak their native languages; whether you were Ibo, Ijaw, Itsekiri, or Urhobo, etc, nobody grew up in his language, everybody spoke Pidgin English or English, and it was exciting.
'The history of Pidgin English has not been written down, but I think it's the easiest means of communication. If you didn't go to school you spoke Pidgin English; even if you couldn't write Pidgin English you spoke Pidgin English. It was an exciting language to speak.
'I know a meeting that if you had to attend you would have to learn to speak Pidgin English; if you're a Warri boy because you had to speak Pidgin English at the meeting. That tells you that if somebody wanted to write the minutes of those meeting it had to be written in Pidgin English and you could get a dictionary for it because, of course, some of the vocabularies of the Pidgin English cannot be found in the conventional English dictionary."
He also reminisced on the popular foods that remind him of good old Warri.
'Staple food is synonymous with the ethnic communities of people that live there. We have the Urhobos who had starch and gari, we have the Itsekiris who also like starch and gari; we have the Ijaws who had starch and plantain; Igbo people who had akpu, etc. Any food you wanted was there,' he says. 'We had banga soup, owho soup, egusi soup, but predominantly people lived on starch and gari.'
The Itsekiri and Urhobo feud
'In those days, politics was between Action Group (AG), National Council of Nigeria and the Camerouns (NCNC) and Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). While AG dominated the West, Warri fell into part of the West then known as Middle West or Midwest, NCNC was predominant across the Niger throughout the East then known as Eastern Nigeria or East Central State while the NPC spread across the North; that was the structure.
'In those days it was parliamentary elections. I don't know where it started from, but for one reason or the other, politically, the Urhobos had always confronted the Itsekiris and the Itsekiris had always confronted the Urhobos, and they're not politically aligned.
'The NCNC, having realised this, concentrated on cajoling or wooing the Urhobo man to vote for the NCNC. Obafemi Awolowo, who was the Western Region's Premier, wooed the Itsekiris to vote for the Action Group. Festus Okotie-Eboh of the NCNC was voted in as a member of the House of Representatives. The people who voted for him must have been the majority, that is the Urhobos, as compared to the Itsekiris although Okotie-Eboh represented more the Itsekiris. I can't say clearly whether he was an Itsekiri or Urhobo but his last name was Eda, so he was actually Festus Okotie-Eboh Eda.
'What I think happened was, Awolowo, as a way of appreciating the Itsekiris said: "You Itsekiri people who voted for me, I will do something for you, I will take the title of Ode-Itsekiri and I will make it Ode-Warri." When Awolowo did it, he made the title the Olu of Warri. I think that must have been a political decision, which led to the feud between the Itsekiris and the Urhobos. It still exists till today. It's very sad; it doesn't make either of the people move forward. I think the Urhobos have enough kings, the Itsekiris have enough kings, so let us bury the hatchet; we should all accept ourselves.
'The ownership of Warri is a different matter entirely. I'm not a lawyer but I know there have been many cases about Warri, people have written history books about Warri, and what is history book? It's a story that you take up and write upon; how the writer formulates his story doesn't matter anymore, so I would rather not go into all that.'
His life of art:
Unknown to most people, Esiri did not set out to be an artiste. After his secondary education, he had proceeded to Germany, where he studied engineering. However, upon graduation, he followed his passion after some filmmakers spotted his zeal and talent and offered him an opportunity, he made the most of it. Esiri has never looked back since. And the honours have come in torrents for the man who was the first to produce and direct a musical event in the National Theatre, Lagos. Sitting beside a standing glass shelf filled with plaques, he said: 'If you look there you'll see all the awards I've gotten; they're so many I don't even know some of them. That is the extent to which people appreciate what I am doing.'
Among his biggest honours is the OON conferred on him by late President Umaru Musa Yar'adua. Just yesterday, Esiri was one of the prominent Delta indigenes honoured by the State Governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, as part of activities marking the 20th anniversary of the creation of the state.
The Moment On Sunday asked the father of four (two men and two ladies) why his generation has not laid the foundation that would take young people off the streets and make them less crazy about the dancing and singing competitions that are so common today. His reply:
'Because of the charm of the entertainment industry, a lot of people want to be involved; it endears you to the populace faster and makes you feel a sense of belonging if you endear yourself to the people. So there is a catchment area for people who believe they are better than others, and entertainment has so many fields; and if you train in the various fields of entertainment you can still make your mark and be known by a larger group of people, not only to your state or to your country.
'In Delta State where the people are multitalented, for example, how you galvanise the talents of these people becomes a problem. If you galvanise their talents, you give them jobs, which take them off the streets. If they are good, they become role models; they get married and take care of their families and so on.
'I was in the industry in Germany and it was because I knew how powerful the industry was that I joined it. I took part in several stage theatres and musicals in Germany. The Federal Government invited me to this country when they staged the Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC in 1977. I was the first person to produce and direct a musical in the National Theatre. I know what theatre can do in the upliftment of this nation.
'Therefore, I would like to go to my state and engage the youths, get them out of the streets and make them role models, make them better citizens, but I don't have the funds for it. It costs so much money getting where I am, getting awards and for being a role model for my children, but what does getting a role of excellence mean when you can't impart this knowledge on upcoming people? I have very meagre resources and I won't use the very meagre resources that I have to do that.
His perception of life:
'My perception is that you should take everybody as a friend till he is proved different, but even if that friend proves different it is for you to correct that friend.
On the degree of corruption in high places:
'This is a country where the more corrupt you are the freer you become. The more money you embezzle from government the more relevant you are to the same government. I think we should do something about it.'