Though, the phrase domestic tourism had existed even before she was born, it is in her time as Director General of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) that development of domestic tourism became the corner-piece of the nation's tourism sector. Dr Sally Mbanefo's friends recently converged in Lagos to celebrate her 50th birthday and pour encomiums on her. Correspondent, Bamidele Ogunwusi, was there.
Everything about the event, which took place on Sunday February 22, 2015, was packaged in appreciation of God almighty and in accordance with His command on birthday celebration which should be a time of reflection, a time for one to examine, edit and critically review one's mission on earth and time for rededication to those godly values which add value to the society.
The setting of the Banquet Hall was a reflection of Mrs Mbanefo's simple, modest and down to earth posture despite having a robust background of an aristocratic life style and cosmopolitan exposition, unlike other occasion of its nature, it was devoid of high table as noted by Mr Patrick Oke.
"This is because Sally believes everyone here today are not only special, but distinguished personality who deserves to be on the high table hence all of us are on the high table today in her life."
The Banquet Hall was circled with stands which hosted the 150 art works of Sally as a painter and artists, which was revealed to many that day, while the cake was an artist handiwork per excellence made beautiful by the creation of sunflowers made of flour, but so real that it attracted commendation for the maker.
Not even with a high profile musician or artiste to make noise and sing praises of Sally and guests to high heavens save a soloist who sang beautiful hymns of praise, rendered soulful songs of love and waltzed inspirational tunes which tickled the humanitarian instinct in the guests.
Monsignor Paschal Nwaeezeapu prayed solemnly the Catholic mode and committed the life of Sally unto the hands of God, called for peace to reign in Nigeria particularly during and after the election and also supplicated for for guests.
On hand to support Sally were her father, Chief George Uwechue, SAN, the Owelle of Ogwasiku and her three lovely children who displayed high sense of being thoroughly bred by their conduct, interaction, gesture with the guests and for taking up the role of thanking and exchanging pleasantries with everyone for being their mother's guest.
The three children visited each table with message of love. The children, Solange, Chantal and Yannick participated fully at ensuring that no guest went home unsatisfied and with humble submission.
"We appreciate your love. We thank you for being part of our joy today. God will bless you. We appreciate. We love you all."
The Master-of-Ceremony, Mr Oke ensured equitable allocation of time which ensured a smooth flow of the programme with efficiency and effect.
He exposed Mrs Mbanefo's love for the poor and her untiring habit of giving back to the society which commanded a wide applause and acknowledgement from the guests.
"Sally Mbanefo is a young lady with burning passion to spread joy and put smiles on faces of many. Her philanthropic gestures, though carried out without roof top announcements, are legendary. This lady has in the past five years ensured the sourcing of one million naira every month into the account of Youth Education Fund in Lagos Island to support the educational advancements of students in primary, secondary and university in over 20 schools while in Benue State, she also supported Our Lady of Fatima Primary School, Markurdi, Aokpe Garden Nursery School, St Patrick International College, and a small charity home in Oturkpo."
Oke also informed that for over eight years, in Delta State, Mrs Mbanefo has been lending monthly support to two charities in building refuge homes for widows, rehabilitation homes for the mentally ill and empowering the youth while she spread her tentacles of support to small charities in Odogbolu, Ogun Water side, Ijebu Ode all in Ogun State two others in Ibadan, a charity outlet in Ikere, Ekiti State, eight other institutions and churches with charitable aspirations in Lagos, Abuja, Rivers State and another in Abatete, Anambra State."
Giving glory to God almighty for creating and imbibing in her wonderful virtues , talents and opportunities at 50, Mrs Mbanefo said: I have nothing than to give glory to God and give back to the society.
"I will be an ingrate if I refused to mark this day when I was born. The Lord almighty has been generous to me. Hence, I have decided to mark this day by exhibiting the talents, which God has deposited in me, increase my velocity of giving back to the society and set in motion my desire to build a vocational school for the very poor indigent students in the South West.
"I purposely designed this day to honour God and used my very handiwork through the talent God has deposited in me to exhibit and raised fund to build a vocational school. This is because, given my limited resources, I am unable to make enough of a meaningful impact on the lives of those youth that are unable to take advantage of a formal education system."
She pointed out, "I thus decided to write three coffee table books to unveil them today, exhibit my art works and launch them here, the proceed of which will be used to build a vocational skill acquisition school starting with Lagos. It is my intention that the school will be run from proceeds of the annual auction of my paintings and sculpture."
Mrs Mbanefo informed that, she is particular about building the first school in the South West because "the time has come for me to take a bold step and say thank you to the South West for a 28-year career of amazing grace in Lagos State. The people of the South West are renowned for their warmth and hospitality. It has been an enduring pleasure of mine to experience both in full measure all these long years and I now feel an irrepressible urge to give back in a more meaningful way than we have been doing from my personal resources."
Though modest, the 50th birthday ceremony of Mrs Mbanefo attracted distinguished Nigerians from different backgrounds with Chief Nike Akande, former Minister of Industry, Mr Jimi Agbaje, the People Democratic Party Governorship candidate in Lagos State who was the Special Guest of Honour, Otunba Gani Adams, National Coordinator, Oodua Peoples 'Congress, (OPC) and Convener, Oodua Progressive Union, (OPU), Mr Atedo Peterside, Mr Tonye Cole, Chief Mike and Mary Inegbese ABC Ojiakor, Oscar Onyeama, Chief Executive Officer(CEO), NSE, Mrs Stella Okoli, CEO, Emzor Paracetamol, Mr JK Randle, Mrs Lanre Ojora, Otunba Gbolade Osibodu, Chief and Mrs O Ekesi, Mr and Mrs Ayo Olumoko, the Ondo State Governor, sent a powerful delegation led by Ambassador Wanle Akinboboye, his Special Adviser on Culture and Tourism which include Dr Modupe Akenroye, Permanent Secretary, Ondo State Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Mrs Remi Duyile, Special Assistant to the Governor of Ondo State on Diaspora Matters and others.
Mr Jimi Agbaje said, "I have to be a witness and partaker at this event marking the 50th birthday of a wonderful lady of purpose who has been doing the country proud as the Director-General, NTDC, Sally is focused and she always set a target for herself in any post of responsibility she occupies. I am here to felicitate and share the joy of today with her. I wish her more prosperous years on the face of the Earth."
Mrs Akenroye, the Permanent Secretary, Ondo State ministry of tourism and Culture said, "We have to travel all the way from Akure to show and express the love of our Governor, Dr Olusegun Mimiko and the entire people of our state to this tourism lady of hope who does not only know her onions as a tourism promoter and marketer, but who does all with patriotic fervour, un alloyed zeal and laced with rare humility. I must confess that this is the best Director-General of NTDC who is determined to enhance and promote domestic tourism."
Otunba Gani Adams described Mrs Mbanefo as a tourism Amazon who has been able to do what her predecessors could and failed to do within a space of time. She has shown all that tourism is beyond making noise on the pages of newspapers or on the television or junketing all over the world without developing domestic tourism. This is why I have to identify with her and share her vision. She is a goal getter who has never allowed the diversionary tactics by haters of her good works distract her attention from her goal. She will live long in God's name."
For Reverend Father Okoro Onyewuchi Basil, Proprietor, St Paul's School, Sally Mbanefo is Mother Theresa of our day. "Sally, your power of love is contagious. Your Christ-likeness is Eucharistic! Your Christianity is practical! Let me borrow the word of the Psalmist 'He wiped away our tears and taken our sorrows away. You have literally whipped away our tears and taken away our sorrows. Ride on daughter of Zion! Ride on. Ada -dima 1 Ada ora! Omepuru-umu-ogbenye! Mother Theresa of our day! Your likes are rare, happy birthday".
The three coffee books written by Mrs Mbanefo: Life and Work; The portrait of an Artist and Introducing Solange, the Architect, the photographer were unveiled, the prayers offered and an Indian guy mounted the stage and sang the happy birthday songs in impeccable pidgin before the cake was cut.