BY CHUKS NWANNE
THE first time I had an encounter with the wife of Abia State governor, Chief Odochi Orji, was in 2010, she spoke passionately about the poor, especially the widows. Besides, all round the state, there were stories of how she had been touching lives through her Family Empowerment Programme (FEP) project, targeted at brining succour to the less privileged.
Donating food items, drugs, wheel chairs and clutches to the physically challenged is said to have become a way of life for the governor’s wife.
Meeting her, Odochi hinted about her plans to build homes for some widows and the less privileged people in the state, as well as complete work at the skills acquisition centre in Umuahia, where youths, who could not advance their education, would be trained in vocational skills.
The initiative sounded pleasant, but in this part of the country, where politicians, including their wives, hardly keep their promises, I wished her well, though my mind was full of doubts.
Recently, a national daily published a story about widows in Umuahia, who got houses from the Abia State governor’s wife. My mind immediately flashed back to the promise made by Odochi in 2010. Could this be true? I asked myself.
Well, in this present day, when people with money could buy space and airtime in the media to hype invisible projects, one needs to conduct some checks concerning the project. Through my contact in Umuahia, who ended up as my guide, an arrangement was made. As early as 8am that day, we set out on a mission to see the houses and possibly speak with the recipients.
LOCATING Madam Juliana Ogbuokiri’s home in Ngboko, Ndume, Umuahia, was an uphill task; we wandered for nearly an hour before we got a clue. The old woman sat by the pavement clutching her walking stick, watching as the vehicle made a final stop in front of her new home.
Initially, there was a sort of anxiety from family members. I quickly made my intentions known, with proper identification and the 90-year-old widow was more than willing to share her ordeal before a proper roof was finally put over her head.
Madam Ogbuokiri, who spoke in a typical Umuahia dialect, was full of praise for Mrs. Orji, whom she described as Godsend.
“My heart is filled with joy and I thank God for this house,” she said, lifting her hands to the sky. “I’ve been sick all this while; I could only walk with the aid of this walking stick. If I had money, I would have gone for treatment. If anybody had told me that I would own a house today, I won’t have believed it. If you move around our neighbourhood, people are happy for me because they know what I was going through,” she said.
The old woman paused as if gathering strength, then she continued: “I was living in an old building with leaking roofs here, before this house was built. I thank God for using Odochi to help me. Please, when you see her, tell her to please send me money for buying food and treatment,” she pleaded.
From Ngboko, we rolled to Umuolu, Ndume to meet with Mrs. Kate Otuoyne, who also got the house gift. Unlike our first experience, locating Mrs. Otuonye’s house was easy; this time, we got a man who knows the way.
“Ego bekee,” the man called. Few seconds, Madam Kate, who is in her mid 50s, appeared from the backyard, beaming with smiles.
“My brother, I have a house now; the governor’s wife built it for me. I’m a widow; I don’t have people to look after me. Before now, we lived in that hut,” she said, pointing at a makeshift building nearby. “I thank God for touching the heart of Odochi Orji to put a roof on our head,” she said in Igbo.
From Ndume, we headed for Umundere, Ibeku where we met Oluchi Abraham, another recipient. A jovial woman, Madam Oluchi’s joy knew no bounds, as she conducted us round the well-furnished apartment alongside some of her children, who seem to be having a swell time in their new home.
“The day I was told that the governor’s wife has decided to build a house for me on my late husband’s land, I nearly fainted out of joy,” she informed. “Three days after I showed them the land, the whole place was cleared and within a few weeks, the house was ready; and we are in it today.”
Before she moved into the new building, Oluchi and her family lived in a rented apartment after the death of her husband, but were forced to quit when paying rent became a problem.
“As a widow, I struggled to train my children and pay for the rent. Along the line, it became difficult to carry the rent. My husband didn’t build a house before he died, so, we had to move from one place to another. Today, my heart is like saccharin because I didn’t expect this to happen in my lifetime. She (Odochi) built the house and furnished it; we only moved in with our bags. May God protect her family,” she prayed.
She added, this time quoting from the Bible to back her payers: “I want to thank the governor for supporting his wife to build a house for a widow like me. Anytime the presidency of the country gets back to the Igbo, my prayer is Chief Theodore Orji would get it,” she harped excitedly, as if the power to choose a president lies in her hands.
As we were thinking of retiring for the day, my guide suggested we take a trip to Nkporo Village to see a visually impaired man, who also got a house from the governor’s wife, but warned it was going to be a long journey, about an hour 30 minutes’ drive from the town. Since we were already on it, I gladly accepted to continue with what turned into a sort of local tourism. With a cooler of chilled drinks and water in the booth, we were on the go.
IN DEED, the journey was tedious; we missed our way several times, no thanks to some of the villagers, who confused us the more by sending us in the wrong directions. Finally, we found ourselves in Mr. Eze’s compound, a blind man, who lives in Aba with his family. As it turned out, the contractor was putting finishing touches to the three-bedroom apartment when we arrived.
For Mr. Eze, his joy knew no limits. Though visually impaired, he knows his way around the house, as he moves from one room to another, continuously speaking with his wife on phone.
“I still can’t believe I have my own house today. As you can see, I lost my sight; I went for an operation when the eye was damaged. Since then, life has not been easy for my family and myself. But I thank God that Mrs. Odochi Orji remembered me. May God always remember her and her family,” he prayed.
On our way back to Umuahia, we stopped briefly at the Ultra Modern Skills Acquisition Centre, where young Abia state natives were being trained in different vocations. But as the sun gradually began to set, we retired; everyone was exhausted.
As I tuned to the BCA TV (Broadcasting Corporation of Abia), there was a report on a three-day free screening and treatment of non-communicable diseases going on in the state. According to the presenter, the programme, which kicked off at the Amachara Specialist Hospital, Umuahia, was an initiative from the office of the state governor’s wife, in partnership with the state Ministry of Health and a United States-based Imaging Consultants headed by Mr. Chima Chukwu.
Based on the report, about 10,0000 persons were expected to benefit from the exercise that went round the three senatorial districts of the state (Abia Central, Abia South and Abia North).
THE next morning, I made effort to speak with Odochi Orji, who offered to squeeze out time from her busy schedule for a brief chat.
From the front building to the passage, down to her meeting room, the place was filled with cartons of noodles, tissue papers, foodstuffs and all sorts of provisions. In my mind, I wondered what those items were doing there, and then I voiced it out, as we sat face to face.
“We intend to share them to the poor; some of them we bought, others were donated. My brother, we have to do the little we could and leave the rest to God. When you take out time to visit these poor people and see the level of suffering among them, you would cry out your eyeballs. But crying will not solve the problem; little gifts such as these can change lives,” she explained.
I reminded Her Excellency about our first meeting and all her promises to the less privileged, before revealing my fact-finding mission.
“Oh, you doubted me before,” she said, surprise boldly written on her face. “And you had the strength and time to go round,” she quizzed rhetorically.
“Well, the biggest thing you can give to a human being is shelter; when you have a roof over your head, other things follow,” she retorted. “I built those houses for the widows and less privileged because of my passion for the downtrodden. You know that in this part of the country, widows and the blind suffer a lot.”
While reeling out names of other beneficiaries in the housing project, Odochi recalled the encounter that spurred her into taking up the initiative.
“There was this promising boy who died in a motor accident and I was in the family for the burial. Suddenly, I looked around and saw this old woman under tarpaulin with children; one part of it was open and the other part closed. I asked people if she’s all right and I was told she’s a widow and had nowhere to stay.”
With those words, tears rolled down Odochi’s chic. “I started crying; people actually thought I was crying for the dead boy, but I was crying for the old woman and her condition. So, when we left, I told my team we must put a roof over the old woman and her family,” she recalled.
Though a blind man and a blind woman were the first beneficiaries in the housing project, it appears the initiative is geared toward widows, especially the old.
“Most times, you discover that widows suffer a lot after the demise of their husbands; some of them even lose their properties to their husbands’ people. So, for widows, life could be very difficult. In fact, let me tell you, if you suffered in your life and end up becoming somebody, you must realise you started somewhere. Whenever I see these indigent kids and the less-privileged, it really affects me.”
According to Mrs. Orji, the aim of the initiative is to put smiles on the faces of these people and possibly help them live longer.
“For instance, one of those women you spoke with was mentally ill; she lived in a makeshift house with leaking roofs. I started by sending food and money to her; sometimes you give her money, the next minute, she won’t even know where she kept it.
“So, along the line, we decided to include her among people to get a house. We are not stopping here, others are still coming, but we are taking things one after the other depending on the case we have,” she said.
ON the free medical treatment, Odochi informed that the initiative was a continuation of a series of public private health initiatives embarked upon by the state government in line with its commitment to optimal health policy of ensuring good health for all Abia residents.
“The campaign is with one of our brothers in the Diaspora. He has been sending us hypertension drugs and kits for testing sugar level. I’ve been keeping them; so, now that he visited the country, we decided to organise a free medical treatment, where we gave out drugs and conducted free test and treatments.
“Last week, we had a programme on HIV/AIDS Awareness campaign. In all we are doing, we ensure people get treated free; this is the only way we can touch the lives of our people, especially the poor, who might not be able to afford the treatment.”
As for the Skills Acquisition Centre, Umuahia, Madam Odochi informed that the second batch of students would soon commence training.
“The first batch of about 250 students is waiting for graduation and we are already getting set for the second batch. It will interest you to know that all the 17 local government councils in the state have skills acquisition centres. So, when I’m talking about skills acquisition centres, I’m talking of a fully equipped facility. No matter your location in the state, you can access one of the centres. This is our own little way of alleviating poverty and curbing unemployment.”
To the governor’s wife, public office holders must seek to touch the lives of the people positively.
“If anybody is moving to any office, you must have something in mind you want to actualise before leaving. Before we came into office, I had this skills acquisition project in mind. You need to search the mind of your people and know exactly what they want; something that will benefit them,” she said.