Okechukwu ĎOkeí Iweala is the last child of Professor Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, but his mien, personality and dispositions belie his elite pedigree. He is amiable, articulate, artistic, and interesting. After his education at Havard, he came to serve Nigeria in the compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), but his unbridled drive to positively impact his fellow humans pushed him to go the extra mile in his service. He started a pet project with a view to adding that fundamental grid to the development of young Nigerians. He was at The GARKI GAZETTE office for a courtesy call, but in a brief chat opened up a vista of dreams he nursed for the development of his beloved country Nigeria.
Can we meet you?
My name is Okechukwu Warigbo Iweala. Many people around the whole world know me as Oke (pronounced same way as Oak).
Was it NYSC that brought you to Nigeria or have you been visiting the country before NYSC?
I have been coming to Nigeria my whole life, though I was born in Washington DC and grew up there because my family was resident there. I used to travel to Nigeria at least once a year or once in every one and a half year with my family. Before my NYSC started in 2012, I was last in Nigeria when my grandfather, Rev Dr Warigbo Iweala (who I was named after) was buried in March 2012, after he passed away in January of 2012. Then when I came to Nigeria I stayed in the country for the whole year, spent a lot of time with my family, my grandmother and folks in my local community learning a lot about the ways, history and traditions of my people. It was at the end of 2012 that I joined the National Youth Service, which I just finished.
Can you tell us a little about your education background?
Knowledge is life; and my life is about learning, education and building the spirit through knowledge. I am an artist, I am a poet; I express myself always through Hip Hop and writing, and giving of knowledge. I graduated from Havard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2008 with a Degree in Social Studies which in that university is a combined degree programme that comprises philosophy, history, economics and creative arts, and each individualís own interwoven contribution. Right now, I am interested in everything from archaeology, to astro-physics to religion. I just love learning.
From your personal experience, what is your assessment of the NYSC programme?
I think NYSC is a great and beautiful concept: people coming together from different cultures and geographical areas from around the country. But I think the way we are running it now needs to be improved upon because it is deviating from the original motive of the programme. The paramilitary concept of the orientation camp is stifling to the free-flow of inter-cultural exchanges and youthful sharing of ideas. But this is not to condemn the order and discipline the military brings to bear in the orientation stage; itís just that as youths at the threshold of life careers, experimentation should be encouraged. Imagine what it would be if professionals Ė doctors, lawyers, engineers etc Ė are allowed to come to the camp daily sharing with the youths what challenges are out there in the world. It will engender a kind of live atmosphere that is positive and impactful in a team-work kind of way.
How did you come up with your pet project at your school of primary assignment?
You see, wherever I go, I am used to working with young people. That is my drive, my nature, I am known for this. I teach about leadership, about love, about human development; teaching the students to express themselves. The school where I worked gave me the opportunity to bring personalities from outside to come and share their experiences with the students. I had a good time. I also worked a lot with the local communities in the Airport area, the village Tunga Zamani, and other surrounding villages in the Airport. Sometimes I sponsored sports competitions like football, also community building activities. I would be doing it anywhere whether I am in the NYSC or not. You can catch me doing it in Los Angeles, in Ukraine, in any part of the world; that is my life.
Your NYSC is over now?
Sure, I am through.
What inspired you to initiate the ongoing Basketball Court project?
Government Secondary School, Airport, where I served, is symptomatic of everything Nigerian, not only in its beauty and location as a school that is at the gateway to Nigeria Ė that is, airport. But it signifies the things we need to transform in Nigeria. First of all, if you are landing in Abuja, capital of Nigeria, from the outside world, the first school you will see is GSS, Airport. In the road from the airport to the school, the road is not tarred, and there is no pipe-borne water in the school. You see children working 8 kilometers to the school because there are no school buses to convey them to school. So I say, wow!
So the Basketball Project I am doing in conjunction with the National Basketball Association of the United States, the ExxonMobil, and some other stakeholders, is a symbol to help the country do the right things; show love to our young generation, and show love to the people that are caring for that young generation Ė that is the teachers and other care givers.
So you are in conjunction with NBA; how did this collaboration happen?
When I came to GSS, Airport, as a lover of basketball and someone that plays the game a bit, though I am not a professional, I saw that there was no basketball court in the school. I had the vision of setting up this basic facility for the school. So I thought, ďAkeem Olajuwon, one of the most popular Nigerian players in America, must hear this!Ē I was making some moves to help the school on my own, but I then wrote the NBA officially via e-mail, about the school in Nigeria and their situation. So I was happy when the NBA delegation came to Nigeria around July 2013. You see, NBA had been looking at Nigeria as a place to put some things on ground in a way to help sports development in the country. When they came to Abuja, they visited some schools including my school GSS Airport. They came up with the project called ĎPOWER FORWARDí designed to develop sports and learning in the FCT by choosing ten schools, including GSS Airport, in the FCT and empowering them with sports and education infrastructure. Basically, what I did as an individual was to link my school, GSSA, to those great individuals who had similar visions to my own.
Having served in a secondary school, do you think the amenities we have in our schools are enough to give the students quality education?
Before I answer that question I must give a big kudos to Nigerian teachers. They are great people, having to work under so much crazy conditions and still giving their best to their students. I give them nothing but love and respect, and I believe Nigeria needs to give them that, too.
To answer your question, we need to improve a lot in our libraries and knowledge data centres. We also need buildings; beautiful buildings. It will make the students have a sense of excitement to learn. Architectural beauty can do a lot to help make people feel that the school is a place they should be and that they are ready to learn. If we are talking about the infrastructure; we canít have schools without water, itís not acceptable, you cannot ask a thousand children to meet in a place where water is not available, we canít have schools without medical facilities and I say this as a challenge we can step it up, I guarantee you that. Do you know that within one year literarily, we can say that between January 1st 2014 and December 31st 2014 we will change the basic structure of Nigerian schools and we can do it but I wonder why we donít, thatís not to criticize anybody; we are all included in this. I commend all those in the education sector for all their hard work but we should have beautiful football fields, basketball courts and other sporting facilities in every school in the nation because thatís what itís like round the world and investing in our schools will make sure that the future is not just bright but perpetually bright.
We are blessed at the Global Distance Learning Institute led by Dr. Emmanuel Aniegbona who came to the school and lectured about technology, computer literacy, learning and electronic advancement of knowledge. He also donated computers, he invited the school to the center for a visit and he has been a great advocate for the school and thatís the energy that we need. So imagine how beautiful it would all turn out if there are more reinforcements.
Nigeria would be celebrating her Centenary by January and going by its achievements as a nation; do you think Nigeria is where it ought to be and whatís your dream for a new Nigeria?
Think about this. Nigeria, the largest black nation in the world; think about the beauty of being a representative of Africaís great diversity and think about where we are right now. We all know we have done a lot, thereís been too many countless Nigerians who have made sacrifices like supporting the blacks in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, serving as a cultural home with events like FESTACí 97, like producing some of the greatest writers, educators, artistes, the list is endless. I tell you we are great, the energy in Nigeria is unmatched anywhere but we know that we are not even floating at ten percent of what we are.
This next hundred years is a chance for us to move on the principles of love, peace, knowledge, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, earth consciousness and the power of the Pan-African ideal, to demonstrate to the world what it truly means to be an interconnected human being and I say that because we should use the next hundred years to re-infuse Nigeria with this energetic unique combination of traditionalism and futurism. What other nation in the world has this type of collectivity? Itís a great blessing for us to even move beyond nation, itís not even about Nigeria, itís about Africa, itís about the whole world, itís about stepping up and being the leaders of something that is a universalist Ė one love movement because all the ground roots for that are here in Nigeria.
Five hundred different ethnicities collected together, letís show the world what it means to multi culturally live together in peace, to multi religiously live in peace; letís show the world what itís like to place value on ancient tradition. People talk about ancient Egypt, we have all the same stuff over here in fact there used to be connection between ancient Egypt and ancient Nigeria when the Sahara was not even a desert. We need to go deep into our archaeology and relive that sense of wonder that comes when people talk about the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, etc. Nigeria has things that are of equal magnitude; we need to resurrect that and demonstrate to the world that we value our own history and show the world why they need to value it as well and that would also serve as an inspiration for the future.
Think of Dr. Nnambi Azikiwe and what he did in the 1920s carrying himself to the United States in pursuit of education and combining sports and history, journalism. And think about that example and duplicating it now in these modern times. Nigerians are one of the most dynamic and diversely talented people I have ever come across. Honestly, Nigeria has something super special but we are not using it. We are spending too much time fighting ourselves and chasing money, we need to abandon materialism and focus on brotherhood and sisterhood, spiritualism, intellectuality and creativity. Things like the Super Eagles are worth demonstrating what can happen when that energy starts pulsating but even our Super Eagles and Football Federation would admit that we have not even come close to being what we can be and thatís the myth of Nigeria. So, this is that itís time for us to start talking about our potentials and manifest their actualization.
When you talk about the walk for peace, is it a movement you are planning?
What Iím saying here is that my life is my movement, itís about one love movement thatís what I will call it, OKE: Original Knowledge Expanse Movement. This movement is about encouraging all people on earth to realize that we are all brothers and sisters, abandon materialism, come together and celebrate knowledge and life with community, thatís what this movement is about specifically in Nigeria walking for peace, letís stop bombing, fighting and killing each other and place value on our lives, letís stop the negativity we have in our actions with each other, why can Nigerians be the same way you see them at their place of worship? Why canít we smile when greeting each other? Let the love we see on TV circulate round Nigeria?
You have schooled outside Nigeria and spent most of your life outside it, what image do you think Nigeria has been able to portray about itself to the rest of the world and how do you feel about it?
Well, myself personally I always try to represent Nigeria and Africa with love and strength because we have to be honest, a lot of people in the world are extremely ignorant about Nigeria and Africa in general; a lot of the world still have gigantic misconceptions as if there is nothing happening in Africa, that people are still backwards or living in a confused fashion that they canít do anything for themselves or that we are the continent of poverty. But I have never felt that way even as a child and I always try to represent and let people know that Africa and Nigeria specifically is the home of greatness.
There is a lot of negativity outside when it comes to the understanding of Nigeria. Yes most definitely the whole Boko Haram thing, kidnapping, fraud, internet scam and corruption those are all negativity perceptions of Nigeria and are being projected outwards but definitely we still have a lot of positive perceptions at the same time. The whole world knows about the Super Eagles and their great strength in football, the world is hearing about great Nigerian writers; I can name my older brother Uzodinma Iweala as one of them; Chimamanda, Ben Okri and many others, the great works of Nigerian artistes, mathematicians, scientists, Nigerians have their representation in the world for being supremely brilliant and intelligent alongside the image of negativity and so what we need to do, is to keep being positive all the way.
You spoke about those who have influenced your growing into an individual, can you please tell us about those who have also influenced you as an artiste.
Honestly I can say number one, being born in the United States of America is one of the greatest things that happened to me not because it is America but because it put me in touch with the Black-American spiritual musical tradition. There is a wonderful book written by Vincent Harding ďThere is a RiverĒ which talks about the whole black-America experience being this beautiful river that still goes all the way back to Africa. I say that because all the gospel artistes, the black spiritual music, Christian energy has been a beautiful bed rocking foundation for me and Iím even thinking of a song ďHe Saw the Best in meĒ, a beautiful gospel song. Through all the great people like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Michael Jackson these are all legends, down to hip hop people like NAS, 2Pac, Scarface, Talib Kweli, KRS1, Rakim, I learn from every artiste that tries to put something out sincerely both from the oldies and new generation. Jamaican artistes like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and great Nigerian artistes too like the Fela Family, Sonny Okosuns.
For me when people ask me about inspiration, look at The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, one of the most beautiful albums ever created, itís like this web of history and spirituality and it spares the universe. Outcast; Andre Benjamin and Big Boy and the synergy they had, I donít endorse everything these artistes say but I just try to learn from the good in their creativity and then try to infuse that into my songs.
If you had the opportunity to rule Nigeria, what would you like to change immediately?
Thatís a deep question; Iíll quote a lyric from one of my mix tapes. I said if I ruled the world then I wouldnít really rule it, love would reign in our actions and movements. Iím the type of person that believes we should just close down all militaries and letís really move on the principles of peace and not violence if itís possible, I know some people might call that a dream or being to idealistic but I think thatís what we really need to move on.
If you really want to speak on a more practical basic level, the one thing I think we can quite simply do is a proper road network just the same way that Eisenhower did in the US post World War II and I think that a tangible thing that everyone would appreciate, we can make sure that this country is mapped out with beautiful roads top quality roads, the same level with the German autobahn and the US interstate system so that all our congestion, traffic energy dissipates and we really know we are connected; plus all the people dying on our roads everyday in Nigeria would stop.
I will summarize this whole country and end this whole electricity thing, this is 2013 everybody should have access to water, these are three basic things that we need and I feel that if we can change these things then the positive energy that people would be feeling would be so great. And the trash as well, we doing this clean up campaigns in schools, Iím using it as a symbol and we can do it for the whole Nigeria, letís clean the whole Nigeria, we need big dumpsters and a big recycling program and the letís end this whole refuse thing, itís embarrassing.
When you talk about education, itís about bringing out the light thatís in every person and honestly this whole concept of looking down on people for being illiterate or for not having a degree has to change, one has to know that to bring out the light in a person is a great task and thatís the task that is for education, whether itís in the building or outside the building. So first we need to change this concept of status class consciousness thatís also tied to our present way of looking at education.
Is there anything else you would like to add that we did not talk about?
I just want to say thanks to you and your colleague for opening the floor for us to shine like this, for me this is this Hip Hop. Hip Hop is about knowledge and communication, life and inspiration, and you donít have to write to be Hip Hop. So I just want to commend you all for opening this front and encourage everyone, thereís too many thing other things I would say, we need to solidify Western frame work with tradition.
And I just want to use this opportunity to thank my family for being there to love, support and encourage me and to encourage ourselves, my entire family. Thank you.