Princess Genevieve Nwabiani Ikenchukwu is the second of four daughters of the late Obi of Agbor, Obi Ikenchukwu, and his wife, Queen Grace Ikenchukwu. At age 8, she was already an orphan along with her siblings as her mother died in a car accident in 1977 while her father followed suit two years after in 1979.
Left without the pecks of palace life, Princess Genevieve was raised by her paternal aunt until she finished secondary school. The lawyer, who qualified as a solicitor in England and holds a Masters degree in International Commercial Law two years ago, set up the Obi Ikenchukwu Foundation (OIF) in memory of her parents whose love story was dealt cultural blows that impacted negatively on the rights of their children.
Activities of OIF include educating people on the impact of negative cultural practices that are repugnant to equity and justice. The foundation also embarks on cancer awareness walks in memory of Princess Patricia Ikenchukwu who died of cancer earlier this year.
As the world marks Cancer Awareness Month this October, it was a natural place to begin this interview you’d find very enlightening. Enjoy!
One is curious to know why you are involved in creating awareness about cancer.
Cancer has become a global problem. Every family, I believe,would have lost one member or friend to cancer. Unfortunately for me, this year, I lost my younger sister, Princess Patricia Ikenchukwu. She would have been 41 last August.
Having experienced it first hand, it is more real to me now and I can sympathise with people a lot more. That is why I am doing what I am doing to honour her memory and other victims and to celebrate survivors by creating awareness about cancer.
From what you went through as a family, where cancer occurs, what counsel would you give to family and caregivers?
Where cancer occurs and you find out it is terminal, the best you can do is to be there for the person. Unfortunately, for my sister, we didn’t know she was in that situation. When my sister came back to Nigeria, she stopped her treatment – believing she was going to be healed. She started to attend a church where she was told she was going to be healed. But while here, she started a charity with afocus on cancer. They believed in holistic treatment using natural sources of treatment. She felt that worked for her for a while. She didn’t talk because she knew we might not agree with her on that. So, we need to communicate effectively. So,besides praying for the person, we need to be there for him or her.
Sometimes, they just need people to encourage them, especially when it is terminal. You make life as easy and as bearable (as possible) while they are alive. For those going through treatment, be there for them so that they don’t feel alone in the battle. Cancer is a battle: psychological, physical, spiritual and even financial.
What plans does the foundation have this year?
The foundation took off in 2015. The aim is two-fold: on one hand, we promote the welfare of orphaned kids and female victims of violence and, on the other hand, we promote arts and culture. Understandably so because, the foundation was set up in honour of my parents – the late Monarch of Agbor, Obi Ikenchkwu, and his late wife, Queen Grace Ikenchkwu. They both died one after the other in 1977and 1979 respectively.
Every year, we have a seminar or workshop we call: “Our Voice, the Change”. In the last two years, our humanitarian work has been on the (late) king and his culture and what he stood for. But behind every successful man is a womanand, for my father, it was his queen, Grace Ikenchkwu. This year will mark the 40th year of her death. There is need not just to honour and celebrate her but to also celebrate other women who have played major roles in our society, using culture as their base for playing such roles because that was what Grace Ikenchkwu stood for.
Your mother, the late Queen of Agbor, was themother of four girls. How did that play out in your culture?
That is a very good question because that is one of the reasons why we started the foundation. Yes, my mother had four daughters and in my culture, the right to kingship passed from father to son. So, if a king bore ten daughters before a male child, on the death of the king, the son becomes the new king no matter his age. This was the problem at the time of my father and my mother.
They were very much in love; there was no doubt about that. If they were not royals, there wouldn’t be any problem at all but he was the king. And here was my mother, a young girl married to the king who kept getting pregnant but having girls. That did not go down well with the culture of my people as much as they claimed to love her because she was not giving them what they needed, which was a son!
My father subsequently had other children including the current monarch. The impact of her inability to have a male is better imagined. In retrospect, I can safely say that that reasoning and aspect of our culture is repugnant to natural justice and growth. Following the death of my parents, therefore, some people took interest in us and our welfare but there was a lot more attention on the male child; simply because he was the heir to the throne.
Did she feel that sense of loss?
Yes, she did. Only recently, I came across her diary and the things that she had written down and how her marriage changed into a nightmare. The only way to describe what she went through was total isolation and neglect, at some point. And, she wasn’t just anybody; she was the daughter of a renowned member of the House of Assembly at the time, Honourable Evans Isede.
On her mother’s side, she was from the prominent Alagoa family; that was royalty from the Nembe Kingdom. So, mum was born into royalty and married into royalty. So, this happened to her because culture infiltrated her marriage. As much as the king loved her, he was almost powerless against the culture. It was a helpless situation for them at that point. But shortly before her death, they were able to reconcile their differences but it was a bit late.
Your mother was not alone in this kind of situation; neither are you her daughters isolated from this cultural practice. Do you think it will change anytime soon?
I think it will change but what time is what I don’t know. But I believe people like us are here, at this point in our history, to make that change. I don’t mind seeing it to fruition but I don’t mind starting it. I feel there is need for modification of some aspects of our customs and culture and, if possible, certain aspects should be abolished. Those aspects that are repugnant to peace, equity and justice and (which) discriminate against a child based on sex should be looked into and abolished.
That takes me to the recent judgement of the Supreme Court earlier in July. Before this, in Igbo land and some parts of Nigeria, the girl child has no right to anything especially when you are talking about inheritance from her father, husband or any male. But in a landmark judgment in July, the Supreme Court held that that is discriminatory as it goes against the law and the spirit of the provisions of the 1999 Constitution that governs our nation. So, where there is a clear discrimination and contradiction of the law, the Supreme Court says ‘no’. The position now is that girls have rights; rights that we didn’t have before 2017.
Do you see people going to court to seek redress?
I would be surprised if anybody knows about this case and sits down. You now have a law and right to exercise it. Because of my family background, I am very careful about the things I do and how I do them. Otherwise, I would have loved to look into the rights of the girl child; especially, the first four children of Obi Iknchukwu who appear to be neglected, to some extent, because of culture and tradition.
I wouldn’t want to bring the honour of my family to disrepute. Otherwise, this is a case I would love to pursue as a lawyer. How do you explain it that the children of a king do not have certain rights?
But do you have a sense of belonging?
The sense of belonging comes naturally to me but there are times when I feel like I don’t come from where I come from. That’s why I am doing this for posterity and in memory of my mother and other women who went through this. Her life was cut short at only 25 years with four children. So many women are still going through this and culture does not allow them tospeak. These are the aspects I am talking about that needs to be reviewed so that everyone has equal rights to basic things in life, regardless of gender.
What are your plans for the awards?
This year, in honouring my mother, the foundation has decided to give awards to certain women that we believe have played significant roles in our society using culture as their platform. We have identified nine women; three of them were queens too who have been gone for years.
We have Queen Idia who fought for Benin on behalf of her son, the Esigie. There is Queen Amina of Zaria, another warrior and very stunning just like my mother and, of course, Queen Moremi, another amazon. The current Ooni is doing a lot to honour Moremi. Then, of course, we had a woman like Mrs .Funmilayo Ransome–Kuti. All these womenare dead.
But we have those still living – like Mrs. Folake Solanke,the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria. We have another lady in Agbor; not known nationally but popular in Agbor. She is the first and only female chief we have in Agbor, Chief Mrs. Margaret Amechi. The chieftaincy title was given to her by my late father because in the Mid-Western Region, she was the only woman whowas appointedto a political position. And she brought a lot of development to the area. People like that should be recognised.
This is for posterity so that when I’m gone too, people would remember me and what I stood for. We have others like Mrs.Ighodalo, first female permanent secretary;Mrs.BisoyeTejuosho, first female industrialist we had in this nation.
We’ve contacted all of them and members of their families and governments.They will be coming and they are happy that their mothers and forebears are being recognised.
In addition to the award, we are also unveiling a scholarship scheme for girls. Again, it’s called the Grace Ikenchukwu Scholarship Scheme for Girls; that is because my mother died at the point when she just gained admission to study Law – after she had had all the four girls and her marriage was failing. My parents tried to make-up but she had made up her mind that before she comes back to the palace, she must go and study Law. So when she got her result, she went to the palace to show the king her admission result.According to the Obi of Owa, she stopped over to see the Obi and but didn’t meet him but left a message; a letter which he still keeps.
Her family members had warned her not to go to the palace. But she went, all the same, to show him her result. He was very happy and proud and threw an impromptu party for her. He was very good at throwing impromptu parties. So they had that and sent her on her way to Benin. As soon as she left the palace, she had an accident and died.
She was just beginning to live her life. So I am doing this in her honour. We have identified two girls; one ina polytechnic and the other in the university.
The project is laudable but how do you fund all these?
When I started, I did not doubt that people would support it because it’s a community development thing. But I am not getting the kind of support I expected. This is a project that would better the lives of people. Losing a parent at the age of 20 or 30 is not the same as losing your parents as a child. I grew up as a girl-orphan; that is why I’m very passionate about this.
Is the palace supporting this?
The palace is aware of the foundation. My brother, the Dein is aware, and has always been one of my strongest supporters. But I think that the palace can do better and, in fact, the entire Kingdom of Agbor can do better in supporting the Obi Ikenchukwu Foundation.
What special thing should peoplelook forward to?
It will be a special night because we are going to be looking into the life of Queen GraceIkenchukwu. I am excited about what we can do with her story and how that will impact on the lives of other children, especially girls. We have invited a couple of schools so that they can know what culture is and how it can play out in the life of the girl-child. I want them to take part in a short debate on culture. There is going to be ahighlight on the impact of culture on our girls because my mother went through it. I am hoping that other women (will) learn from this and (for) girls to learn and see that there are aspects of our culture that they can stand up and speak against.
The theme for the event is “Black Gold”;gold, for the strength of our culture and black for the aspect that is not good.
When you are not working, what do you do?
I sleep a lot. I read and sleep. I enjoy reading.
How would you describe your style?
When I was working in London, in my office, they used to call me the style queen. I love to dress up. I think my style is simple but classic. I like glamour but there has to be a level of simplicity to it.Since I came to Nigeria, when I go back now, they call me ‘the African queen’. I guess my style has changed.
Where is your travel destination?
I’ve been to Dubai twice and loved it. But I’m planning to go to Qatar. I have never been there.
Creative Director: Nelly Mesik
Photography: Bamiyo Emina
Stylist: Rhoda Ebun for Roses and Thorns
Makeup: Debrene Beauty