Opral Benson, also known as ‘Iya Oge of Lagos’, is the first woman to be awarded the title by a traditional ruler in Nigeria. She is an entrepreneur and business impresario. She studied at Morris Brown College, Atlanta, USA, for a Bachelor of Education degree and at the Atlanta University for a Masters in Educational Administration. She is a holder of many titles and awards including Commander of the Star of Africa bestowed on her by the President of Liberia which is her native country, and Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) and Order of the Niger (OON) awarded by the President of Nigeria.
I wasn’t interested in make-up while growing up. I never saw it as an issue to bother myself with. My major challenge was the desire to grow quickly and become a woman to be reckoned with, one who would make a positive contribution to the society. I wanted to acquire the necessary training required to make an impact on people’s lives. I craved to be looked upon as someone people had learnt from. That, however, did not make me overbearing or assertive against authorities. Taking to my father’s ways, I did things as I saw them and went along with whatever I had to do.
Much was passed on to me by my father in the area of behaviour. The values of gratitude, respect for elders, contentment, diligence, honesty and compassion for others were instilled in me early. They are the things that have made me who I am today. In all I do, I try to be exemplary.
I have never consciously gone out of my way to label the events of my life as most memorable or most devastating. I flow along in whatever situation I find myself, trying to do things for myself. I treasure the memories of my childhood, being with my parents, growing up, making friends, and going to parties. Those, for me, were memorable moments. I do things with passion in order to get them accomplished. I do not know anything that was or is special; everything I have done is what I have planned to do, without giving room for regrets about the past as this only causes heartaches. My dreams about education, marriage, family life and career have been realised. I know there is a God who is watching and helping me to decide, make up my mind about what to do and get things done. I also think there is a guardian angel somewhere who helps people to plan things and I feel lucky and satisfied that I have been able to execute my personal plans. Unlike many people, I do not feel that I have lost out on a lot of things. I believe in Providence, holding firm to the belief that whatever I have not achieved is not meant for me. In that way, I live a simple, happy life.
From Monrovia to the US
After my primary education, I went to Monrovia, capital of Liberia, where I lived with my sister and had my secondary education. She was also morally conscious, having undergone the same training under our parents, but she was not as stringent as they were. Being in a city, life acquired another meaning for me. There was much life and gaiety, as well as the availability of many things that were not present in the small community where I began the journey of life.
Subsequently, I travelled to the United States for my undergraduate studies and bagged a Bachelor of Education from Morris Brown College, an African Methodist Episcopal School in Atlanta. After that, I went for my Master’s in Educational Administration at Atlanta University before returning to Liberia. I studied Education because I felt I would put it to good use in the lives of music. I got a diploma in that from a university and then moved to Pittsburgh University to improve on my administrative skills. Having acquired all this formal training, I felt I needed something else.
I liked hairdressing so I took a course in it. It was my belief that I would need it someday, having always had an interest in the beauty industry and the arts. Besides, I felt that I would be able to do my hair on my own. I wanted to have as many qualifications as possible. Going to the States exposed me to many things. At that time, there were many Americans in Liberia and many Liberians went to the US to study. The relationship was the type obtainable between Great Britain and pre-independent Nigeria. The things I had read and learnt about the States became incontrovertibly real. Before then, I had only seen them represented in movies and books. However, I was not overexcited at the sight of the monuments. Somewhat introverted, I am calm and composed, not reacting to things unnecessarily. As a secondary school student, I had friends whom I visited, went to the library, visited relatives, went to parties and other social events. However, none of these made me talkative or domineering. Although people do not really agree that I am an introvert, I think I am.
While in Atlanta, I experienced racism too. Restaurants, schools, churches, buses, etc., for the blacks were different from the ones for whites. It was really a social problem. However, once the whites found out that I was not from America they changed their attitude. That notwithstanding, there were limits to the places one could go. The society was divided into two distinct classes. What I did was to be in company of my African friends, not allowing the discriminatory attitudes to bother me. The church I attended belonged to the father of Martin Luther King, Jnr, who worked to give voice to the noble struggle and underground activities of different groups and organisations. King championed the cause for civil equality. I had high esteem for him because he was all out to right the wrongs in the society. Meeting him, I saw him as a man who had brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, he was killed before his dreams were realised. Blacks dominated the schools I attended. However, I had a few white friends. On one occasion, I went to places with two of them where blacks were not accepted but because they were with me I avoided being arrested. In that way, I demonstrated that we were not supposed to be judged on the basis of our skin colour. Some of the experiences were similar to ones I had in Monrovia when I was in secondary school. I used to be very good at English. One Friday, our English teacher (who doubled as the principal) assigned us to write essays over the weekend and hand them in on Monday. However, I did not do mine. I thought that it would not be collected until Tuesday. To prove me wrong, he came to our class on Monday and I was the first person to be called out to read her essay. I rose, took my notebook and gallantly walked to the front of the class.
Everyone was so impressed by my reading that I received thunderous applause. The teacher then requested that I hand in my notebook and discovered that I hadn’t written anything. For that, I was nicknamed Sister Fox. From then on, I was taken for somebody who could do things without planning to do so previously. Till today, there are still those who refer to me as Sister Fox.
A Humble Beginning
My grandfatherwas one of the immigrants who came from the US to settle in Liberia. He came there as a boy, grew up there and continued there as an adult. He built a house in South Carolina Road, a street on Masor Hill, so named because most of the immigrants who came during that era of Liberia’s history came from South Carolina. Unlike my grandfather, however, my parents were born in Liberia and grew up there. They, a paternal uncle, and my grandfather formed a little community on the hill, each having one of the three houses that were on it. It was a place generally called Hartington and it was there I emerged the sixth of seven children on 7 February, 1935.
My parents were strong disciplinarians, holding firm to the principles of the Christian faith that they had embraced. Growing up was interesting for me because there were many people in the house and we were given the opportunity to learn a lot of things. My parents, in spite of our having some house helps, tolerated no idleness of any form. Household chores were shared among us and we enjoyed doing our work, playing together, with occasional moments of disagreements and quarrelling.
There was no pipe-borne water or electricity, luxuries of a modern age that no one would expect in such a remote settlement at that time. We fetched water in buckets from a stream down the hill, not far from our house. With buckets balanced on our heads, we hurried up the hill. In the evenings we usually went out to sing, dance, and play together. We were happy although we knew nothing about modern amenities.
There was only one primary school in the area. It was owned by an aunt of mine. It was called African Methodist Day School. My aunt was assisted by only one lady. She ensured that everyone who came paid their fees early enough, the relationship between them notwithstanding. It was there I had my elementary education, subjected to the rigorous training and discipline of a woman who disregarded the relationship between her and my father to do her work the way it should be done.
One thing she particularly attached importance to was homework. She never cared whose ox was gored when it came to this. She frequently made reference to her son, Valentine, on whom her rod was not spared when he did not conform to her required standards. Their house was across the street from us and very early in the morning we would hear him crying, running around the compound without books. Having a strict aunt for a teacher, I got beaten several times for either failing to master my rhymes or not doing my homework. That, coupled with the training I received at home, instilled in me a high sense of discipline which has endured till date.
Growing up, I had a cordial relationship with my elder and younger siblings. Benedict was the eldest, followed by Myrtle. The others are Agnes, Melvin, Lilly-Mac and Demosthenes, the last. None of us was born in a maternity centre or hospital. There was a midwife in the community through whose services pregnant women put to bed in their houses. Father, Mr. Johnson Boto Mason, wielded much influence on me. He was what one might call a Justice of the Peace who settled problems within the community. He was calm and confident, not allowing anything to bother him. He was not a man who got distressed or weighed down by problems. However, my mother, Mrs. Lilly Melissa Mason, was the type who was ready to push anything to happen. She was decisive and active.
Although I cannot say I was closer to my father, I took to his ways more, especially in dealing with issues. As a girl, any day I was not active enough, I would say, ‘I am playing my father today.’ I also learnt from the diligence of my mother; she always found something to do. There was a very good relationship between us and their joint efforts in instilling discipline in us have yielded lasting results.
What is in a Name?
It was my aunt, the proprietor of African Methodist Day School, who named all of us. Educated at Wilberforce University, Ohio in the US, she was the first degree-holder in Hartington. On completing her education, she came back to establish the primary school as an expression of her passion for the development of the community.
She named me Opal after the precious stone. However, as I grew up, I was not comfortable with it. To start with, I felt that I was not precious to anyone since I was the sixth of seven children. Besides, I felt I was too tender in nature, and not as hard as a stone. So, I asked, ‘What can I do with this name?’ I discarded the idea of changing it. Instead, I decided to add an ‘r’ between the ‘p’ and the ‘a’ and the result sounded pleasant to my ears. Many, especially in Nigeria, mistake that name for Oprah, taking the famous American lady, Oprah Winfrey, for a namesake. But their calling me Oprah does not change my name – we are two different ladies: she is wealthy while I am not; she is a renowned international figure while I am a humble African woman. However, I admire her self-confidence; her excellence in everything she does, her comportment and the respect accorded to her worldwide.
A Teacher of Teachers
My first work experience was teaching in Liberia. However, I did not teach for long because my employer, the Ministry of Education, made me a supervisor teacher a year after. My duty was to inspect elementary schools in Monrovia and assess teachers based on their teaching methods and aids, and then teach them the latest methods most relevant to the profession.
When I started, I was referred to as JJC (Johnny just come)! Because they were much older than me, they claimed that they had been in the profession before I was born. They felt that I was using my American education to intimidate them. It was challenging because I had to teach teachers and not pupils. I made them understand that it was not my intention to lord it over them simply because I studied overseas. I made friends with them and in my interaction with them explained the changes in the educational system and the effective modern methods and aids of teaching. Subsequent to that, I was appointed an Administrator (a position similar to that of a Permanent Secretary in Nigeria) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce and Labour. The three ministries (separate now) were like departments then, and it was my responsibility to coordinate their activities and report directly to the Minister. Through me, he got detailed information of what was going on in each department. He was the one who actually invited me because he felt I was good and had bright ideas, having been educated overseas.
My experience in the ministry working directly with the Minister, Steven Tolbert, opened my eyes to a lot of things. In those days, government functionaries were not preoccupied with thoughts of how they could amass wealth for their selfish ends. There was no corruption. Everybody was concerned about how they could contribute their best to move the country forward.
Meeting my Love
Before I met my husband, I had been looking for my Mr Right, just as he was searching for his ideal lady. In 1961, he came to Liberia with the then Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, for a conference. He said he found the ideal he wanted in a woman in me and I also fell in love with him.
We courted for a time and in 1962 we wedded. We were together for forty-five years and he cherished family life, although he had experiences in other marriages before we met. Unlike me, he was not a disciplinarian. He was kind, friendly and forgiving. He had a long career in government, politics and law, his profession. The slight differences between us notwithstanding, we shared mutual love, understanding and respect. We had regard for each other’s individuality and values. I have one daughter and a few stepchildren my husband had before our union and were brought up by me. They are all grown up and doing well. My husband is a Yoruba and, as it is generally said, one does not count another man’s children for him. Precious, my daughter, is a journalist and is also into information technology. At the moment she is preparing an information brochure about West Africa.
She has established a magazine and more or less works for herself. There is a very good relationship between us, just as there is with the other children.
After Home in Nigeria
About two and half years of work experience in Liberia, I came to Nigeria. I found it bigger and much more developed. My first appointment was as the Registrar at the University of Lagos. I worked there for about ten years. I saw to the problems of accommodation, feeding, extracurricular activities, scholarships and the like. After the stated period, I worked with the staff department before becoming the secretary to the council and senate of the university. After ten years I decided to retire and go into private business. I established Chic Afrique. I had a boutique and a beauty salon at Yaba and another boutique at Falomo Shopping Centre, which I later turned into a private agency.
The beauty salon is now a beauty school, Chic Afrique Beauty Company. I was also into beauty consulting for some time, trying to promote beauty products and educating people on which ones to use and how to use them. I bought into a cosmetics manufacturing firm called Johnson’s Products. The vision behind Chic Afrique was to share with others what I like personally, special clothing and beauty on the whole. I like things that lift one’s spirits. At the moment, for instance, we are promoting Africanism through our dresses and what we make. We are conscious of our values in our designs and it is our intention to portray a beautiful image of Africa to the world.
The fashion industry has made a big impact on the Nigerian public. Because of their distinct dressing, they are easily identified in places. However, there is a problem the African woman has in her dressing and adornment. In her effort to be gorgeous, she goes excessive sometimes, being altogether flamboyant. At other times she under-dresses.
I started a travel agency named Bits International Travels and Tours, and added an NGO called Outreach Foundation to my entrepreneurial concerns. Its main purpose is to give scholarships and loans to women in rural areas in order to get them economically empowered. The idea struck me when I attended a conference for women in 1995 and discovered that many Asian women were involved in micro-credit schemes. With a passion to reach out to women, I have been very much involved with lots of NGO activities. Some years ago, a foundation in New York asked me to set up something for them in Nigeria. It was supposed to be an environmental NGO because they were interested in the environment. It was called Foundation for Environmental Developmental Education in Nigeria. We conducted lots of training on environmental matters with participants from different countries. It is now an associate of an organisation called LEAD International. It is affiliated to several other African groups which do the same thing.
We organised different seminars that border on the environment, both nationally and internationally. I am an ex-President of Zonta, an international body of women in businesses and different professions working together to improve the lives of others. It is a selfless organisation. It is not meant for the elite but for business and professional women who want to contribute to the lives of others. If a woman has reached an executive level in whatever she does, she is invited. Membership is strictly by invitation – people cannot join at will.
I am also the current President of African Refugee Foundation established by Ambassador Olusola. I am interested in the welfare of refugees because they are not in any sense subhuman. We hold workshops and organise different kinds of fora for their welfare. In conjunction with UNHCR, I have been actively involved in helping refugees over the years. I have also served on some international peace committees. Although there have been challenges to get things done over the years, I have a sense of accomplishment. I am retiring from the beauty institute bit by bit and I do not nurture fresh dreams about the future. I am done and I think I deserve some rest.
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Opral Benson is described as a dazzling fashion icon and socialite. She runs one of the biggest fashion houses in Nigeria. She continues to run The Opral Benson Fashion Institute, a platform which has trained young beauticians, fashion designers for over 35 years.