Allure Cover: Williams Uchemba – The Nollywood Philanthropist
By Rita Okoye
He needs no introduction in the Nigerian movie industry. The child actor we once knew, has become an accomplished movie producer, model, comedian, philanthropist, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and an actor with bias for comedy.
The multiple award-winning entertainer who has starred in such great movies as Sugar Rush and Merry Men 2, became more popular with his “Give Challenge,” that inspires people around the world to give alms to the poor and physically challenged. This he does through his NGO, the Williams Uchemba Foundation.
Through this organisation, he has successfully fed, clothed and housed hundreds of Nigerians, lifting them from misery and despondency.
As Christians celebrate Easter today and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the sake of humanity, Allure spoke with William Uchemba who is not unfamiliar with the act of giving.
This was what the International Relations graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) said.
You started out as a child actor and grew before our very eyes. How has that journey been for you?
It has been amazing. I got into the industry at the age of 8. It’s my 22nd year in the industry. At a point, I took a break, travelled out of the country to focus on my academics. Yeah, it has been a great journey so far.
Were there older actors who took you under their wings?
I wouldn’t say I was personally mentored by anyone, but their various works inspired me to do more. I remember the first movie I did with Pete Edochie, who is a great, living legend of our time, I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm. He inspired me quite a lot along with others on that production set; Clems Ohameze, Hilda Dokubo and others.
How did you cope with acting and schooling at that time?
It wasn’t easy, it really affected so much of my Junior and Senior secondary level. That was why I cut down production during my time at UNN. I believe anything worth doing is worth doing well, so I decided to give it my all.
How did you find your niche in the comedy industry?
It wasn’t planned, as a matter of fact, I have always been funny to the best of my knowledge. We are just a funny family. My dad, siblings, I never for once thought of taking it out of comfort zone outside. Because of my ‘status’, I thought when I go out there, I need to be cool as an actor. But when I realized the power of being yourself, it changed everything.
I started comedy when I was in California. I just tried out a video and people loved it and kept reposting. It got a lot of views.
One day, I received a message in my DM (Direct Message) from a woman who requested to speak with me. When she called, she was crying, saying ‘Thank you so much, you don’t know what you have done for us’.
She said her dear mother has been sick with cancer for over 6 months and she has not seen any reason to smile not until she came across my comedy and she has been laughing all through. That it got everyone emotional and they thought they should call and thank me. That was when I realized that this is not just what I do for Art but a ministry, especially in Nigeria where you have a lot of people who are going through so much. The least I can do is to release stress by humour. They say laughter is a good medicine. People call me a comedian but I prefer to be called an actor, because an actor can make you cry, make you laugh, can play around and that is what I consider myself to be.
You have touched so many lives with your philanthropy. What inspired this?
I have always been a compassionate person. But the “Give Challenge” project which brought me to the limelight, started in 2017 when I came back to Nigeria from the US. I was driving home from the airport and while I was on the Lekki express road, I saw a man in his mid 60s. I could tell his age because he was like my father’s age. He was selling this N50 ice cream and there was a traffic. So, I saw him chasing this particular car to sell to them but the traffic started moving and the vehicle started moving faster. Suddenly, he missed a step and fell into a car lane and an incoming bus who I believe wasn’t paying attention, hit and crushed him. He was killed on the spot and his blood spilled on his Ice scream. it was a sight I never thought I would see in my entire life. What really broke my heart was that this man didn’t die because he was caught stealing, or doing anything contrary to the law. He died trying to make ends meet for his family; and the thought that his wife and kids were probably waiting at home for daddy to bring back money for food, not knowing that daddy had died was something I couldn’t get over. When I got home, I couldn’t eat or sleep. The picture was on my mind. The next day, I went out and saw a lot of people in the market because it was Christmas period. The thought of that dead man was still in my head. I saw another man selling Christmas lights, I had dollars with me then, I haven’t changed to Naira. I gave the man $60 dollars or so. I said to him, you can take the money, I don’t want to buy lights just leave the road. He was like, “oga God bless you”. What was on my mind at that point, was that I didn’t want another vehicle to hit him.
At that time, I had about 1.2 million followers and obviously, I’m not that rich to help everybody. So, I decided to do what I now call “A Give Challenge Project and Tour”. I said, if I can give one person and post on my page, and encourage people to do same, if 10 percent of 1.2 million do same, I’m not only getting one person but about a 120 thousand people off the street. That was what started the “Give Challenge Project”. At that time, I gave to the extent that I almost gave out my flight ticket to go back to the US. I just realized something else happened when you start giving in that capacity. I was giving and I wasn’t getting broke. That was what inspired my giving.
How do you cope with the deep emotions that go with the individuals you help?
I always say to myself that it could be me. These are people who work harder than myself in Nigeria that are still living in horrible state. I always put myself in people’s situation; when I don’t like what I see, then I do something about it and get this person off such predicament. The smiles on their faces does it all for me. That’s why one of the foundation slogans is ‘Put a smile on someone’s face’. When I see those smiles, it means that my mission is accomplished.
In spite of the good work you are doing, some people have criticized your efforts as being exhibitionist because you film them. How do you deal with that?
There’s actually nothing you do that people won’t talk about. It would shock you to know that the people I help off camera, are more than 90% of what you see me do on camera. It is my lifestyle. I wake up every morning, say a prayer, asking God to let my path cross with people who really need money. I hold up to N100 – 200,000 in my pocket not that I’m going to buy anything but because I know I would meet people who would need it. I have learnt not to think of what people would say. As long as my mind and My God is pleased with it, I’m okay. Besides, if people don’t don’t talk about you, then you are not doing something right. How to know if you are doing something right is when you get criticism.
Does it weigh you down?
As a matter of fact it does not, but it can be overwhelming. What I am doing is an instruction from God. I have never seen myself lacking, or not being able to help people. But now, there is need for collaboration. What I do now is, if I put a project out there, I ask people if they want to partner with me or supply. Like right now, in this COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I am sending food to people who were not able to stock up their houses. I am trying to get food for 1,000 people. If I have other people who want to add something, then there’s now a need for me to collaborate and partner with them.
How do you get funds to push your philanthropic projects?
All you see me do, is from my projects, business, film. I believe that when God gives you money, he doesn’t expect you to spend the whole 100%. Yes, 10% goes to him, you can keep 25%, but the rest is not for you. You need to look for a channel to do God’s work. People are praying but God can’t come down to give people money. He needs human beings to give the money. But humans are greedy, when he gives you the money, you think it’s for you to consume. I have a written covenant with God that as long as funds keep coming in, I know the work I’m going to do with it, not just charity but Kingdom investment; building churches, National projects, International projects, going to places that need basic amenities to supply things for them. This is why we are human beings. People don’t care how much money you have or what you posses, but they want to know how you make their lives better. That’s why when a person dies, they only talk about the good works he had done. That’s the real reason we should live and exist.
Easter season is here, a time to give, what are your plans for the poor and needy?
I think it’s a time to remember what Jesus did for us on the cross- Love and love is giving. I don’t really have anything in mind but if I’m in a good place to do something, I would. Most times situation presents itself and I just flow with it. Like this Covid-19, nobody saw it coming. It is costing me millions to feed people.
You are quite close to AY? How does he inspire you and what made you buy him a phone?
AY is not only a friend but a big brother. I am the first son and he’s the first son. His parents passed on when he was young, mine are still alive, but I never had any elder brother to look up to just like him. Aside that, we have a lot in common, we think alike. We don’t like too much attention, our morals are straight. We don’t like vulgar words. There are so much, we just connect, work ethics etc. He’s a great guy. He is amazing. He could empty his pocket to help you not minding how he would get home.
Having a good spirit and a clean spirit is also one of the things that attracted me to him. AY is a brother and a friend. I appreciate him.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the entertainment industry?
It’s not only the Entertainment industry, it’s affecting everything. But musicians and comedians are using the internet platforms, to reach out to people and make them laugh. My prayer is for everything to be over, then we become stronger and better people after this pandemic.
How do you keep body, mind and spirit going staying at home?
The good thing is, I have electricity, I have my phone. So it’s not really too difficult. I pray, I read, exercise and, challenge myself do some puzzles, tease the brain, it’s been good for me.
How do you cope with female attention, ever had a weird experience with a female fan?
I love my fans. But some people can be insensitive. Sometimes, they see you in a very serious place, they just come in and interrupt you. I’m used to it now.
How do you relax?
I like to worship. I put on a worship song or piano instrumental that can play for 3 hours. I just sit there and take it all in. Also, I like to see movies, go on Netflix, look for the ones that are interesting, get a snack, sit in front of my TV and relax.
Best holiday destination?
The thing about my work is that I get to travel a lot. After, I tour a little and that travel becomes a holiday.
What are your plans for the rest part of the year?
Honestly speaking, my greatest desire is for this COVID -19 to go away because if it’s still here, all our plans wouldn’t be achieved.