Mum wanted to learn swimming before her death — Maria Sokenu’s daughter


Kemi Sokenu-Morris is a daughter to the late pioneer Managing Director of the defunct People’s Bank of Nigeria, Maria Sokenu. She speaks to BUKOLA BAKARE about her mother’s life

Who is Kemi Sokenu-Morris?

I am the daughter of Chief Herbert Sokenu and the late Mrs. Maria Sokenu (nee Irele). I currently head a foundation called the Oladiran Olusegun Adebutu Foundation. Prior to that, I served as the Senior Special Assistant to the Ogun State Governor on Projects and before that, I was with the USAID so I have always worked in development, in terms of poverty alleviation, economic empowerment and development of women.

Your late mother was passionate about empowerment and developmental issues. Would it be right to say you learnt them from her?

Yes she was and I never thought that I would work along that line. My mother was passionate about women empowerment and I have found myself doing just that. I attended Ohio State University where I studied Consumer Affairs and Financial Management which nowadays is about social responsibility and social enterprise. Back then, my mother would force me to come home for the holidays. I would go under the Stadium Bridge, Surulere, Lagos with her giving out food to people and carrying out medical mission. I didn’t know that I would end up doing so.

Your mother was the pioneer Managing Director of the defunct People’s Bank of Nigeria. How would you describe her tenure?

People’s Bank of Nigeria under my mother’s leadership was very innovative. The bank was birthed as a result of a gap that she saw as a banker. Also, as someone who had worked in several banks in the United Kingdom before returning to Nigeria to work for the New Nigeria Bank,Owena Bank, Ecobank and People’s Bank of Nigeria, she was a pioneer member of the banking industry for women.

These were the factors that made her eyes open to some of the gaps when it came to banking for the poor or banking for the un-bankable and vulnerable.

I always knew her as a hard worker, she became a banker when there were not many female bankers at the time and she was extremely smart and proved her mettle in the banking sector. During her tenure, she always thought outside the box.

With her background in banking and finance, did she influence your career choice and your siblings’?

There are six of us. If you ask me to describe my mother in two words, I would say that she was a banker and a philanthropist, aside from being a wife, mother, sister, etc.

Being a banker, she had to do a lot with numbers, collating ideas and finding solutions to problems and her philanthropic side was about giving back to the society. Consequently, she was able to mix both sides well. The interesting thing is that all of us have been able to divide ourselves into either one of the careers. My younger brother is into finance and private equity and has worked in some banks. I have also worked with the Bank of America and First City Monument Bank.

In the course of our lives, we have worked in finance somehow. I have another brother who is an academician. He is a dean in a university in the US.

I have a sister who is a therapist in California and another brother who does private equity in the retail industry and a sister who is an architect who manages projects on the development side of retail in real estate. I also have a younger brother who is a Director of Sports for Special Olympics in Washington DC while my father is an accountant. We have taken after our late mother in one way or the other like I earlier said.

Tell us about your fond moments with your mother.

My mother always took pride in feeding us and that was one thing that we all took from her. There is something about family coming together and breaking bread. It was at those times that we would share our fears, worries and know one another closely. I recall a time when my two older siblings were with my paternal grandmother. Then, we lived in Apapa, Lagos and my father used to work in Sapele, Delta State.

It was only my mother and I at home. One night, thieves were trying to invade our house. I vividly remember that my mother stuffed me in the bathtub, covered me with blankets and locked the door. She then went to confront the thieves alone. Her husband was not at home and there was nobody else in the compound. I was amazed at the depth of her motherly love.

From then on, I felt that I was safe. When I think of my mother, I think of safety and there is nothing that cannot be solved. Now, when things get really challenging, I always think of that period.

Your mother died in the Bellview plane crash in 2005. Where were you on that day?

It was a dark day and spooky one for the family. It was traumatic and each one of us has different experiences. There are a lot of things we wished we could have done differently. Out of six biological children and one adopted child that my mother had, I was the only one living in Nigeria at the time and I was in Cairo, Egypt where I had gone to give a speech at a colloquium on HIV/AIDS and Blood Safety. I arrived in Lagos on October, 21, 2005 and my company booked a hotel for me close to where my parents stayed in Ikoyi. My husband and children were in Abuja and I needed to get back there quickly so I remember saying I would return to Lagos the next weekend to see my parents.

You didn’t tell them that you had arrived Lagos?

Yes, they knew I was on my way back though but they didn’t know that I had arrived Lagos. I was jetlagged and I fell asleep. The next day was October 22 and a friend of mine took me to the airport. I boarded the plane and got to Abuja. My housekeeper then told me that my mother had been trying to reach me all day so I knew my parents already found out that I spent a night in Lagos without seeing them.

I was sitting at the dining table with my husband and kids eating lunch. She called again and said, “Kemi, I have been calling you all day, is it that you don’t want me to come and wear your high-heels or drive your nice car?’’ I remember asking what was she talking about since she gave me the car.

Then I said, “Mummy, where are you?’’ She said that she was on an Abuja-bound plane. I could hear noise in the background.

I asked her a second time, what was that noise and she said in Yoruba, ‘tin ba de be, ma so fun e’ (I would tell you when I arrive). I said she should have a safe trip but she didn’t answer. I could hear the flight attendant telling everyone on board to fasten their seatbelts. That was my last conversation with her.

At that point, did you think anything was going to go wrong?

I could feel the excitement in her voice and was confident that she was going to give me good news so I was anticipating her arrival. I told my husband that I had made dinner for her and I went to bed. Then, I got a phone call from a friend who knew I was going to Abuja from Lagos while I was asleep.

I sat up and he said, “KSoks (My nickname), are you in Abuja?’’ I said yes. Then he asked me if I had heard what happened to Bellview and that was how I knew that something had happened to the plane my mother was flying in. Someone I had spoken to like an hour ago, and as I was putting the phone down, my husband walked in with tears in his eyes. It’s been a nightmare ever since but she left a great legacy.

How has the family been coping with her death almost 11 years after?

If you had asked me this question a year after my mother passed on, I probably would have said that I don’t know because she was the glue that held all of us together, even though we didn’t realise it then. She was the one that worried about our worries and was the one who told each other’s secrets to one another. When you have so many kids, you are like the centre point for them. My parents were the centre point of our existence. When my mother was alive, we shared everything with her; bad, naughty and nice. I think I felt sorry for my father the most because he is an only child and my mother was his best friend. They had been friends since age 11 and my mother died at 59, seven months short of her 60th birthday so it was quite traumatic.

Since then, a lot of things have happened that made us realise that we do not have a mother anymore. I work with orphans and vulnerable children who have somehow been affected by HIV/AIDS. The look in their eyes say it all. When one loses a mother, especially through sudden death, one will grow up overnight and there is a feeling of nakedness that one is hanging by a chord but my father has filled my mother’s shoes exceptionally well.

Together with my siblings, we have really been there for one another. It would be 11 years since her untimely demise in October and it is still fresh in our memories because of the way she died. I am not trying to rate anybody’s loss but I think sudden death does something to one. We try to bridge that gap. My father is in his early 70s.

What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt from her death?

I have learnt to cherish every day because it is very important.

During her lifetime, your mother had an NGO known as the Institute for Poverty Eradication that focused on taking care of miscreants. What has become of it?

The NGO is still in existence, in the sense that there are still activities that we carry out. IPE is about 20 years old now and we still carry out economic empowerment and training for the vulnerable. My mother was one of the first people who mooted the idea of micro-credit schemes in Nigeria.

How did your mother feel about the inability of many indigent Nigerians to get loans from the People’s Bank of Nigeria which was the main reason for its establishment?

The People’s Bank of Nigeria was basically designed to follow the likes of Grameen Bank’s banking for the poor system. The idea came because some of her customers, as a banker, were not able to payback their loans. They were being harassed on their way to the bank and she realised that these traders needed support, even though they didn’t have collateral.

Secondly, it was the miscreants who were disturbing customers from coming to the bank. My mother therefore decided to get them off the streets and that was how the idea of IPE came about that she used to help indigent Nigerians.

There were also some scandals that rocked the bank while she was there.

My mother was a seasoned banker and there were other things that happened in banking throughout her career, just like it is applicable to any other profession. One has to be sure that one knows what one is doing and has documents to back all up because things will come up.

What I know for sure is that the commitment and support that she got from Nigerians and the leadership of the country at the time was unwavering. Since then, have we been able to do anything like that in this country? It is a bit challenging. There is no career or organisation that is not fraught with scandals, whether true or false. My mother was keen on proving her innocence and showing the records but maybe those on the other side felt it would expose them. I am not sure.

How does the family remember her yearly?

We remember her every day because there were so many things that she put in place as a wife and mother before she died. The tradition still continues. Everywhere we go to, once people hear the name Sokenu, we are reminded because somebody always has success story or testimony to say about what my mother did for them.

Do you think she regretted taking up the appointment to head the bank?

I don’t think so because I think she was proud of what happened. The bank was her brainchild and she had a lot of support from her mentors. She had a vision and was able to achieve most of the goals. On a template, she had a much bigger dream for the bank and it’s just that she wasn’t able to continue. I also know that she was very happy to handover to the next woman who became the managing director.

What were some of her unfulfilled dreams?

She wanted to learn how to swim. Nobody knew that my mother could not swim and that was because as a child, she almost drowned at bar beach hence her phobia for water.

I remember when my friend called me to say that Bellview plane crashed, the first thing I said was, ‘‘Oh God, my mother cannot swim.’ My mother also wanted all her six children to be very close because the eldest two were raised by my grandmother. I am very proud to say that today, we are interwoven in each other’s lives and are very close.

What were some of her likes and dislikes?

My mother didn’t like people who were not straightforward. She loved music and liked dancing. She liked dogs so we always had them in the house. She was good at giving people a second chance. She didn’t like heights and she loved to eat fresh fish and crabs. She loved children and people around her. She was very funny too and loved to study.

Your mother also contested for Senate, albeit unsuccessfully. Do you think she should have joined politics?

It is difficult to say because I think that one can either be elected or appointed into an office but personally, I think she should have left it at the level of the appointment. I would rather go for being appointed but my mother had enough merit and I guess that was why she wanted to do more.

What do you think your mother wanted to be remembered for?

She wanted to be remembered for helping people and she loved Mother Theresa who was recently declared a saint by the Pope.

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