Within the Nigerian community in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, there is one name that strikes an instant chord in every ear. It is a name that has become a constant refrain on many lips.
The name is Okey Paulicap Okeke, a Nigerian-born writer, theatre artist, clinical social worker and entrepreneur who has been domiciled in the North American country for close to two decades.
But his stay in Canada isn’t what makes the name and its owner the major theme in many conversations across that country. It’s not even about his book, Biribamba The Lonely Elephant, a children’s storybook published in the United States and over which he is in court with Macmillan Nigeria, a firm that allegedly published the book here without the writer’s authorisation.
Okeke, an Igbo man whose parents hail from Enugu State, is the president of Ijesa Progressive Association of Canada (IPAC), the umbrella association for sons and daughters of Ijesaland in Osun State living and working in that country.
An Igbo man as leader of an association comprising only Yoruba men and women? That is not only impracticable in Nigeria, it is absolutely inconceivable. Indeed, anyone harbouring such an implausible, far-fetched notion would be seen as suffering from the after-effects of excessive alcoholism, or having been untimely roused from a nightmare-riddled slumber!
But what many would have considered impossible in these shores became a reality in Canada. The Ijesa men and women in that North American country taught millions of their countrymen and women at home some great lessons when, in January 2017, Okeke was sworn in as president of Ijesa Progressive Association of Canada. And since then, he has been steering the ship of that association, alongside his executives.
On Saturday, September 16 last year, IPAC, under Okeke, held its annual “Ijesa Night” celebrations at the Manhyia Palace Convention Centre on Eddystone Avenue, Toronto. The event, which was chaired by Chief Isaac Ige, Odofin of Atorinland, was attended by many Nigerians, a number of who were there simply to confirm the rumour that the leader of Ijesa people in Canada wasn’t a Yoruba man.
Okeke said, right from his childhood, he had been well tutored by his parents that all men were the same, and that there was no difference between a Yoruba boy and an Igbo boy, between a Christian and a Muslim.
“They taught me that relationship is very important to life. And you would admit that it has been my guiding principle, even at the University of Ibadan, where the three of us here were classmates and friends. So, right from my childhood days, it comes to me naturally. I see you and relate with you first as a human being, before any ethnic or religious considerations. I don’t look down on people. I respect everyone.”
After his primary and secondary education, Okeke proceeded to the University of Ibadan where he studied English and Theatre Arts. He later relocated to Canada.
For him, becoming a member of the umbrella group for Ijesa indigenes in Canada was just natural. Since he was born and raised in Ilesa, most of the friends and playmates that he grew up with were Ijesa indigenes. Many of those friends were already living in Canada before he relocated and, naturally, he stayed with one or two for some time before he found his feet.
He said, “I lived with Yemi Fashakin and Ayo Ojuwusi. These were my childhood friends and they were already living in Canada. There were other friends too. And I see myself also as an Ijesaman. My mum is a prominent community leader in Ilesha. Naturally, immediately I got to Canada, they took me to the IPAC meeting, and I registered as a member. I started attending IPAC meetings. My name wasn’t an issue, because these were the people I grew up with. And anywhere I am, I will be involved. I can’t be a passive member in an organisation.
“Again, I was born in Ilesa. I can speak the Ijesa dialect very fluently, better than many native Ijesa people, because many of them were even born outside Ijesaland. I can write the language very well. So, I’m never going to be a stranger in Ilesa or among Ijesa people. And even if anyone is talking about me being Okeke or whatever, it doesn’t get into my skin because I know who I am. So, whether you like it or not, I am Igbo and I am Yoruba. I am Igbo by blood and I am Yoruba by birth. I am Ijesa, in spite of my name. That is the way I see myself and that is the way the Ijesa people in Ilesa and in Canada see me. If anyone makes fun of me, I would be stupid to allow it to get at me.”
Within IPAC, Okeke was a very active member for many years. He was involved in a number of committees and did each task creditably. When it was time for election into the association’s leadership positions, some members told Okeke to run for president.
“I resisted it initially,” he recalled, slipping a chunk of barbecued cat fish in his mouth. “But everyone was saying, ‘we want you as president. You will do a lot for the association.’ So I contested and Ijesa people in Canada made me their president.”
Okeke admitted that some people couldn’t conceal their incredulity at his emergence as IPAC president: “I was getting calls all over. Some didn’t even believe it was real until they attended our Ijesa Night in September last year. I had a lot of journalists interviewing me, asking how I did it, and I was wondering why they were that surprised. To me, it’s nothing serious. Many of these people have been my friends since I was born.”
According to Okeke, the honour on his emergence as president of a Yoruba association in Canada should actually go to members of IPAC who decided to have an Okeke as their president.
“They should be getting all the accolades, because what it means is that they have attained an uncommon level of maturity and sophistication that enabled them to shun all forms of bigotry and unproductive ethnocentricism, sentimentalism. Ijesa people, especially those in Canada, should be applauded,” he said.
Okeke asserted that Nigerians are usually more united whenever they leave the shores of the country. He urged Nigerians living at home to do away with tribal and religious bigotry and join hands to build the nation.
Besides acting as the rallying point for Ijesa people in Canada, IPAC, Okeke averred, would bring succour to the lives of many Ijesa people back home during his tenure. Aside from providing some amenities for some rural communities in Ijesaland, IPAC was already working to grant scholarships to young people across Ijesaland, he said.
One of Okeke’s wishes is that, someday soon, an Adegoke would be elected a National Assembly member representing a constituency in Imo or Enugu State, while an Okoro would be governor in a South-West or northern state.