Today, Stephanie Okereke Linus (MFR) might not be in every movie, but she has definitely been busy fighting causes that many would consider more worthwhile. Daniel Iyam met over a plush lunch (he is still salivating by the way) with the Actress, Producer, Director, Ex-beauty queen and may we add, Philanthropist in her Ikoyi home to talk about all that she’s been up to.
“Marriage has taught me to be patient, open and most importantly, to be friends with your partner because friendship is the live wire of your marriage at the end of the day.”
In April 2012, the 33-year-old star married Linus Idahosa in what was described as a fairy tale wedding in France. It’s been close to two years and tongues won’t just stop wagging as to why she has not gotten pregnant. However, Stephanie won’t let anyone harsh the mellow she is experiencing in her marriage.
“Am I God that gives children? Children would come at God’s time. People should learn to mind their business” she said with a rather clam mien. Stephanie whose first marriage lasted 3 years declares with a broad smile when I asked about how her present marriage is faring. “I married my friend so I have no problems in my marriage. I am enjoying my marriage! Marriage has taught me to be patient, open and most importantly, to be friends with your partner because friendship is the live wire of your marriage at the end of the day” she said, adding that abusive relationships are a no no for her.
An undeniable flowery blush envelopes her when I asked how she met her husband. “Initially we didn’t have the mind-set to date. It started with a business arrangement. He said he had an idea that could help my career. Of course he got my attention and we started seeing. I think it was the third, fourth meeting we started adjusting. It was in the course of the journey that I started realising he was all I wanted in a man and I knew in my spirit. You just know these things and it just happened. He must have known earlier that I dug him, but he was just waiting for a special moment to make it happen. Maybe that was why he decided to tell me on my birthday. We dated for a year before our marriage.”
Standing Up For Women Is Worth Her While
“People make the mistake of thinking that you only find people with VVF in the North; I have been to Owerri, Aba and many other southern cities in Nigeria and have seen many women who are affected with VVF.”
In what she says fate thrust her with, Stephanie has been creating awareness on the scourge many women face as a result of VVF. “A friend of mine in the University of Calabar did tell me about some young girls who had been forced into early marriage and were suffering the negative and embarrassing effects of Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF). That was the first time I heard of VVF. Little did I know then that the desire to help those girls and also spread the awareness on the dangers of the condition would linger with me and turn into a burning passion.”
Stephanie who has been traversing the country helping women with VVF lets us know that women from all parts of the country are affected. “People make the mistake of thinking that you only find people with VVF in the North; I have been to Owerri, Aba and many other southern cities in Nigeria and I have seen women who are affected with VVF.”
Our conversation is punctuated when she reaches for her phone and taps open a video showing the peculiar story of a woman she met in Aba. The woman was said to have been suffering from VVF for over 16 years without any medical attention. In the video, the woman explains that her husband who is a Pastor had kept her away from receiving any medical help until Stephanie’s NGO, Extended Hands Foundation brought help her way.
“Receiving medical help for VVF is not as expensive as most people think. The surgeries can be carried out with as low as N50, 000,” she said wondering why the government isn’t doing enough to help these women.
A disappointing glare sets in as she continues. “The state of our healthcare in Nigeria is abysmal and walking into most of the government hospitals is like a nightmare. It was when I had an accident in 2005 that I experienced it first-hand.”
Recently, Stephanie and her team from the Extended Hands Foundation were in Ogoja, Cross River state, attending to the needs of 22 women living with VVF. The project was sponsored by SNEPCo/NNPC with the support of some dedicated doctors and nurses at the General Hospital, Ogoja. The team of doctors carried out repair surgeries on the 22 women and catered for them for 2 weeks, nursing them back to health. Aside from the surgeries, the foundation also donated surgical equipment and electrical supplies which was presented to the hospital.
Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) is an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder (or vesico) and the woman’s genitals that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault. In addition to the medical sequelae from these fistulas, they often have a profound effect on the patient's emotional well-being. Reports state that up to 800,000 women suffer from fistula in Nigeria and the World Health Organisation (WHO) had described fistula as “the single most dramatic aftermath of neglected childbirth."
It is often caused by childbirth (in which case it is known as an obstetric fistula) when a prolonged labour presses the unborn child tightly against the pelvis, cutting off blood flow to the vesico vaginal wall. The affected tissue may die, leaving a hole. Fistulas can also result from violent rape. This injury has become common in some war zones, where rape is used as a weapon against female civilians. As a result, some health centres in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo have begun to specialize in the surgical repair of fistulas. It can also be associated with hysterectomy, cancer operations, radiation therapy and cone biopsy.
“… I do not get why any right thinking man should even think about sleeping with an under aged girl. Why do we want to crush the lives of these children? It’s repulsive!”
In a bid to create a broader awareness on VVF, Stephanie has been working on the film “DRY” for close to two years now. The film is presently at its post-production stage and would soon hit the cinemas.
According to her, “The title of the movie stuck out for me and I sought to find out how it was conceived. After thinking of a title for a long while, DRY just came to me and it stuck; I was never going to change it. I mean, in reality, every woman that is affected by VVF wants to be DRY. Funny enough, when you watch the film, we have quite a number of themes so I did not make it so obvious I was talking only about VVF. We played around with quite a few themes; rape, love…,” she said, adding that every single message she wanted to pass in this film came through at the end of the day.
“The movie “DRY” journeys into the heart-wrenching details of a culture not too many films dare to explore. The issue might seem controversial, but if it will set one girl free and open the minds of the people, and also instruct different bodies and individuals to take action, then the movie would have served its purpose”.
In mid-2013, the Nigerian Senate reeled in the backlash of a sweeping outpouring of public protests. Activists and protesters rallied on streets, tweeting and hashtagging #ChildNotBride, sharing editorials in the blogosphere and signing online petitions to voice their outrage over a constitutional clause being interpreted as a sanction for child marriage. With all the brouhaha, Stephanie rightly thought that that was the time to release an unofficial trailer of the movie. True to timing, it was widely received. “I think it was just God working things out for me,” she acknowledges. Stephanie who also acted in the movie said, “It’s not been easy being a writer, actress, producer and director. Dry still remains more than just a movie as we would continue to spread the word against child marriage and VVF.”
What also stuck out for many in the trailer was the fact that the film had one of Nollywood veterans in it. The good old Liz Benson! “Liz Benson has been out of the scene for a long while and did not intend to make a comeback anytime soon. However, when she saw the script and what message I was trying to pass across, she welcomed the project with both hands. The lead character, Amina was fantastic! I think she would grow up to be a great actress.”
Stephanie’s first film Through the Glass has been considered by many as successful (it earned over 20 million Naira at the box office alone) but she thinks DRY is a much bigger project with a higher budget. “It is my belief that DRY becomes much more successful,” she enthused.
According to Stephanie, viewing centres for the film would be created in all major places that are affected by VVF when it is released.
On the child marriage bill, Stephanie did not want to mention names but had these words to say. “A woman starts knowing herself when she gets into her 30s. I am 33 and I can tell you sincerely there are things I am just finding out about myself. I do not get why any right thinking man should even think about sleeping with an under aged girl. Why do we want to crush the lives of these children? It’s repulsive!” she exclaimed.
Women and Their Bodies
“Women should learn to love their bodies and not let their bodies depress them…”
Known for always spotting a trim and fit figure, it was rather surprising to find out that her beauty regiment was nothing complex. “I just drink lots of water, engage in some exercises and watch what I eat, nothing over the top. Because of my profession, I ensure to take care of my face as well. Women should learn to love their bodies and not let their bodies depress them. I’m not saying blow up and grow out of proportion but you should always strike a balance.”
Stephanie Okereke Linus is definitely living life, loving life and cooking all things lush and beautiful.