Kanayo O. Kanayo: I hawked akamu, agidi as a child

Kanayo O. Kanayo, one of the living legends of the Nollywood film industry turns 60 on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. In this interview, Kanayo, who won the 2020 The Sun Nollywood Personality of the Year, provides rare insights into his earthly sojourn in a way that he had never done before. His account which includes how he acquired his brand name, Kanayo O. Kanayo (KOK) makes his story reads like a mini-autobiography or biography. 

Taking a look back at your life in the past 60 years, what would you say have been your achievements?

Truthfully speaking, one would first of all, say, to God be the glory that one has been in good health and has enjoyed very well the practice of the trade of acting and entertainment. On that premise, I will say that one of the landmarks has been the evolution of today’s Nigerian entertainment industry popularly called Nollywood. Having been part of the industry from the beginning, history will never forget how the Kanayo Kanayos helped to bring it to its present status.

Tell us a little about your growing-up years

I was born to Mr. and Mrs. Donatus and Isabella Onyekwere of blessed memory on March 1, 1962 at a small peaceful village called Umueze Oboama Ezenihitte Mbaise, formerly of Eastern Region but in the present day Imo State. I started primary school at LA School, Central School, Obeama, Enyiogugu, Ezinihitte Mbaise, formerly of the Eastern Region, but in the present day Imo State. My father was a washerman at the Mbaise General Hospital, and also a farmer, harvesting his yams and so on. My mother was a petty trader. They all contributed their resources to keep the family going. My elder brother used to live in Enugu, John Onyekwere, popularly known and addressed as “The Boy is Good.” At a stage, I went and started living with him in Enugu. There I continued my primary school and grew up with him. I did a lot of domestic work. I sold akamu, agidi, carried box on my head. I finished primary school in Enugu, took common entrance exam, and was admitted at Secondary Technical School, Aba, in 1977. I finished secondary school in 1982.

How about your foray into acting? How did you become an actor?

I started my acting career at the NTA Enugu immediately after my secondary school. I did a lot of television plays and drama with many groups. I started honing my talent from there. I took part in NTA programmes, both the local and network ones. From there, my talent became known to the nation. At that time, NTA was operating a zonal structure. Zone A would produce drama, and they all meet at the festival of television plays. We were operating from Enugu then. So we held the Enugu sector. And, it was quite interesting. Such things are no more present. There is no competition between one NTA station and the other in terms of programming and that’s a shame. This was the era and regime under which we grew up in this trade. Then, there was no private television.

From there I came to Lagos to live with my maternal uncle who used to work with an airline. From there I was going to NTA, Victoria Island, as a guest artiste.  I was also involved in the commercial department whereby you brought adverts for the station, and you earned a certain percentage. That was how I moved over from NTA Enugu to NTA Lagos. It was at Enugu that the New Masquerade featuring Zebrudaya and others became as a national programme in 1983 or 1984. So we were taking part in Zebrudaya. One couldn’t take part in the New Village Headmaster, going to Badagry then to go act in the play, and other television programmes of the NTA. We were doing our business collectively and severally until one day Chief Kenneth Nnebuo of the NEK Video Link had an audition. Before then we were into television series like Ripples, Checkmate (1988/89/90). We were doing Checkmate for Amaka Igwe. Ripples came before Checkmate. We were showcasing our talents. We all had several programmes that Peter Igho, God bless him, instituted. He was the Director or Manager of Programmes. I can’t remember now. But the man was a thinker, a programme person. He made NTA to be in competition with each other in terms of programmes.

Then one day, somebody called us for an audition – Chief Kenneth Nnebue, and that was Living in Bondage, shot in 1991 or 1992. I can’t vividly recall whether it was 1991 he called us for audition. So we were cast in the video film. He took many of us from Checkmate – myself, Emmanuel Udokwu, late Francis Agu, etc. Like wildfire, it caught on with everybody watching the home video. Before then Nek Video Link had been producing Yoruba language movies. But why some of us describe the start of Nollywood in 1992 is because Living in Bondage became the first professionally produced home video that shook the nation in terms of quality and viewership. It attracted attention here and there. That’s the revolution that we have today. I think that is part of our story which can be told by any Nigerian, between 1992 and date. I’ve been steady, passionate, committed to this industry.

You were born as Anayo Modestus Onyekwere. How did you come about the Kanayo Kanayo brand?

Kanayo Kanayo is my professional name. Well, it happened in 1980-something while we were at NTA Enugu. I answer Onyekwere. That’s the name Mbaise people, and generally, people from Imo State answer to. But at NTA Enugu then, each time, they wanted to write my name, they would write “Onyekwelu” which is the way Anambra people write and pronounce it. And, I would argue with them that that wasn’t my surname. So each time they wanted to pay me artiste fee in those days, there would be quarrel and argument. Then somebody said, ‘Please, do something about this Kanayo wahala. And, apart from Onyekwelu, they also used to misspell my name “Anayo” as Kanayo. Then somebody remarked that ‘why is it, that all the time, it is Kanayo Kanayo matter that we are dealing with here?’ That’s how everybody started calling me Kanayo Kanayo. The only thing I did was to add my surname, Onyekwere in the middle to create KOK. That was how the name stuck. But it is a brand that had opened doors for me. It is a brand that will still create more open doors for me. It is a brand that I have been associated with. I wouldn’t say that I created it but it is a brand that I have leveraged on, and I am gonna still leverage on for the things I am going to do from 60 years and above. For me, it is an untainted, un-dented brand. I have not used it maximally. But now that I am a lawyer, I am gonna to do so. 

What do you mean by other brands?

One day, in my office at Surulere, Lagos, a young man walked in. My secretary came to inform me that someone was looking for me. When he came in, he said he wanted to act.  I asked him his educational qualification, and he said Class Five or WASSCE.  I told him that he is not qualified to act. This is a true-life story. I said, go and study. Show yourself approved. The young man said he was so angry with me after he left me. The story here is this: many years later, I had something to do in Owerri. My phone was acting up. So, I walked into an office of a telecomm company, Reltel, asked for the supervisor or manager. And, then someone started shouting from inside when he saw me: my oga, my oga; oga so you are here? I was looking at him bemused, not knowing who he was. He said: ‘I know you may not remember me. Oga, I am the one managing this place, Reltel South East.’ He said: ‘Although you cannot remember me, you made me go to school. I came to your office and you told me that I was not qualified to act, that I should go to school. Although I was angry at that time, I took your advice. Oga, today, I am the engineer managing this place.’ How would you feel if you were the one, to receive such testimony from a young man?

So, I have mentored people. One boy met me in Akwa Ibom some years ago, and he said to me, Oga, God will continue to bless you. I said thank you. He said he was not just praying for me as a general prayer. He said that one day when Akpabio was the governor, he tried to meet me in the crowd. And he told me that he didn’t have the money or a sponsor to register for WAEC, and registration was gonna to close in two, three days time. He was asking for about N60, 000.  He said that although I didn’t know him in person I put my hand in my pocket and gave him that money. He said he had finished schooling and he owes his education to me. I don’t advertise what I do for people. I have always said if God be God, let Him pay me back. So, in my years between 20 and 60, I have been a mentor to younger people from across Nigerian ethnic groups. When you become so popular, your age mate will even seek advice from you. And, that’s what has happened to me. I have been celebrated not just by friends and well wishers. I had also drunk from the fountain of knowledge of most people. That’s my story.

Could you share with us some values you learnt from your parents and which have kept you going all these years?

Be content with what you have. Learn to listen to others.  One day, my father was coming back from work. I told you that he was in charge of the laundry at the General Hospital. And he saw a crowd gathered. And when he enquired and look, he saw a man hanging on a tree. He had taken his life. My father said to me the next day, after waking me up at 3am and narrating the incident to me, he said nothing will ever make him take his life. He said to me life is sacrosanct. He said if you owe people, own up. Tell them when the money will come. Before that day, if you haven’t got the money, explain to them. Don’t live beyond your means. It is the idea of living beyond our means that is causing the whole brouhaha in Nigeria. People want to belong. And that is the detriment of the youths of Nigeria. You want to wear the same hat that John won. But is the shape of John’s head and yours the same? You want to ride a Range Rover. But what is in your hand? Didn’t God in the Bible ask Moses, ‘what do you have in your hand?’ He can only bless you through the works of your hand.

Values from my parents are very critical to me. I tell you another story. When I was growing up, I used to be a very fine, young guy. It was those days where you wear pants of seven colours and you show it above your trouser. Like I told you, I was brought up with my elder brother in Enugu. So whenever I came to the village, I became like the champion. The girls used to like me a lot. They tried to seduce me, lure me and approach me through my sisters. They always saw me as that Enugu Boy. One girl was so courageous that she made moves at me, and she was beautiful. I fell for it because she said to me: ‘let’s go to our house and then you come back.’ I didn’t know that she had the intention of making me sleep over. I had never slept outside before. And, my father had a routine of going to every person’s room at 7.30/8 pm and flashing his torch to make sure we are there. At that time, by 6/6.30 pm, you’ve had your supper; it is not like these days that children watch cartoons up till 12 midnight. By 10 o’clock, he would go round again, and flash his touch and make sure everywhere is locked. That time, there was nothing like kidnapping or ritual killing. That time if a thief stole something, you would hear shouts of “don’t let him escape” and people would rush out. But today, it is the thief that is shouting, ‘don’t let him escape; ‘don’t let him escape.’

So the girl lured me and I slept over. But by the time I woke up, of course, I didn’t have a wristwatch and wouldn’t know what time it was, there was no cock crow, and everywhere was dark, maybe have another round of sex, I again slept off. But around 3-4am, I started going back home. It’s a distance of 200 to 300 metres from my house. And, my parents had never seen me not back home by 6pm. But on this day, I was not in my room; I was not in any of my cousin’s house. So, everybody, including my uncle, was awake. My father sat at the gate and this prodigal son was coming back at that kind time.  The next thing I heard on my neck was whoosh. He used a cane made of achara tree to flog me and I ran into the house. That was the first day I saw my mother cry. And she said: ‘Dede’, my mother used to call me Dede, ‘at least, you would have told me where you are going so that when your father talks I will know what to say.’ After my father hit me, at about 6.30am, I prepared and went to school. But the joy of everybody was that I was back because nobody knew where I was.  Throughout that day, my father never spoke about it. I avoided him and he avoided me. But the following night, he woke me up, and this is the story. He gave me a shot of brandy. And I took. Then he now said to me: ‘Whoever dies in a woman’s house just wasted his life. No matter your relationship with a woman, don’t sleep in her house because the shame and curse it brings if you die there, the stigma cannot go for ever.’ 

That word has never left me. So, it’s one thing that I learnt from my father. Young people talk about live-in lover, and all those stuff. But if anything happens to you, people will continue to say, ‘is it not these people that their father died in a woman’s house?’ I learnt from my parents values of hard work, contentment, brotherliness, love for people. There was something that my mother taught me, and it became a big value to me. She said when you visit a person, to show them love, when they bring their meal, eat it and finish it even when it is not sweet. When Oyibo people come to your house even when the meal is not sweet, they would say, ‘what a wonderful salad of ugba; I never had such a meal in my life.’ But if they go outside, they say quite another thing and talk about the meal being spicy, and all that stuff. I learnt that from my mum. If you say you are not hungry, she insists that you must eat your food. So such values, such conducts are the things that I grew up with and made me to be who I am.

You have something to do with an education trust fund which you set up. What were you out to achieve with that? 

One day while my father was still doing his work, I came home from secondary school. I was either in Class 1 or 2, and that day was the day he was paid his salary. In the 80s, salaries were given in envelopes. The time I arrived home was also the time he came back from work. I told him that I was going back to school the following day. He handed over the envelope to me, and his words were “Nnaa, o gwula” (My friend, it is finished). It was his salary that he gave me as  school fees. For a person who wasn’t educated to give you his salary, it means he shows an interest in your education. Anything that has to do with education, I don’t joke with it. In fact, you can defraud me by claiming that you’ve not paid your school fees even if it is no so. And, many people had defrauded me that way. On this note, I want to tell you that there are many people from my place, Mbaise, and outside Mbaise that I pay their school fees but I never talk about it. These days, for most people everything they do is on the social media. So when you don’t make noise, on the social media, about the things you do, they think they are doing more than you. But for me, the chicks will definitely come home to roost one day when people would say, this man paid my school fees. I am not from Mbaise, but he encouraged me.  The educational trust fund is to further establish and institute a fund that will cater for the education of persons of those who would want to drink from my fountain of knowledge.

And those who would want to follow the path that I followed. And those who are interested in education but are from poor homes. It might interest you to know that I made sure my two younger sisters, Cordelia and Chinasa all became graduates before me. I know that in Africa, especially in Nigeria, the female gender is disadvantaged. Immediately they get married, that’s the end of their lives. So, I made sure they all graduated. And that shows you how much interest I have for education. I do not believe that your father died when you are in primary or secondary school should make you not to finish school. The interest must be there. And, if that interest is there, you wouldn’t mind cracking palm kernels in order to go school; you will dig a pit toilet, you will carry cement and do all sorts of odd jobs. All these young boys and girls who work in factories and fast foods joints, most of them are in school. They would have gone into prostitution if they wanted. So, I encourage young men to do menial jobs. We did menial jobs to help our parents. We did menial jobs to pay our school fees. Why would a young man wake up and think that it is by defrauding others that he will be successful in life? Any cursed money you earned through Yahoo and all that stuff will definitely come back to haunt you; it’s just a matter of time.  So hard work pays and God knows who to reward. Pity those who make N20 million in a particular season and become hungry all their lives. God is not stupid. Deep inside me, denying a child education is like denying him his fundamental human right. Churches and other organisations should invest more in education. At least, let those who worship in those churches have their children educated. It is a clarion call that I make always.

Sometime ago, you posted a video in which you appealed to youths, especially those in the South East to desist from using mkpuru mmiri because of its destructive effect. What is the situation now?

Well, it is the situation I hope goes because the menace of mkpuru mmiri is catastrophic. But I’ve since stopped being judgmental. A lot of people in Nigeria are depressed. Some youths go into it by sheer group influence or pressure. For some, it is due to hunger. Sometimes young men get into bad gangs because of being ill-advised, because of the socio-economic realities of Nigeria. Nigeria should be a Course 101 to be studied in other countries. It is a miracle to live here where there is so much pressure, without any social security provision for those who left school and so on. Everybody is in the same boat. A situation whereby a young man who had lived on parents’ earnings while in school graduates and still can’t get a job is not developmental. It is not a thing of joy. Your parents are also expected to benefit from you in some way after you had graduated. You are supposed to give them some respite. But you find out these days that the structure of our government does not encourage skill acquisition in a university. We are so much particular about acquisition of certificates. I have called severally that people who acquire certificates in school should also acquire skills. That way, we will take a lot of people out of the job market.  To be honest with you, to defraud somebody is not easy. Yahoo is not easy. But we must find a way to channel the energies of these youths into more positive platforms. And, it should take the efforts of government and private sectors combined. We must have faith in governments which are not ready to kill 419 guys but bring them from where they are and turn their negative energies into positive energies. And those who are into crime tap into how and why they are doing it.  You heard that some days ago, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed was quick to act when he said the Federal Government has banned ritual killings in Nollywood movies. That was too quick. There was no call on stakeholders in the entertainment industry, at the National Orientation Agency, parents, religious leaders, the media before he uttered such statements. So, he is wrong. It is against the fundamental rights of creative artistes, actors, producers and directors. Honestly speaking, it is not possible. As a matter of public policy, it may be possible. But then, this is where we are. The Sun

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