At over 77, Chief Mrs. Opral Benson still radiates beauty and charm as in when she was a youth and toast of society. She came out of her consulate office with air of officialdom to usher us in. And from her carriage and the countless number of awards and other laurels that abounded the place, it was much easier to understand why the then Oba of Lagos, Oba Oyekan bestowed on her the title of The Iya Oge of Lagos in 1973, few years after she arrived Nigeria. With a privilege background, of being born into the home of Honourable Johnson Boto Mason and Lilly Melissa Mason in Monrovia, Liberia, Opral Mason as she was then known, grew up knowing how to live a charm life. And when she was through with her early education, Opral left Monrovia for United State of America. There she obtained a B.Sc. degree in Education from Morris Brown College, in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 1958, and a Master of Arts Degree in Education from Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. She obtained a Diploma in Administration from Pittsburgh University in 1961 and a Certificate in Communications from Michigan University in 1961. When she returned to Liberia, she did so as a celebrity, with a top job in government. Sooner, she met a Nigerian Minister, Theophilus Owolabi Shobowale Benson, who was attending a conference in Liberia along with the then Nigerian Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. It was love at first sight with reception held in Lagos, Monrovia and London. In this interview with Paul Ukpabio, she shares the attraction of her marriage and her new appointment as Consular of the Republic of Liberia. Enjoy
Congratulations on your recent appointment as the Consular for the Republic of Liberia. Can you tell us how you came about the appointment and how have you enjoyed it so faring the office?
Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, told me that Liberia does have an embassy in Abuja but nothing in Lagos and being that Lagos is the economic heart of Nigeria, the President said they will like to have representation here too. She thought I was the best person to play that role. So that is how I got about being the Consular.
But when it comes to how I have enjoyed it so far, I would say that I do not think it’s something for enjoyment. Actually, I think it is an appointment that calls for sitting down and making some contributions for a country like Liberia. That is why I think and believe that I was appointed. And in that regard, I think we have started, we have put up an office at least, we have that in a good location in the city, with staff to support it.
I, along with others are committed to it and our main concentration is to take advantage of the commercial aspect and centre of Lagos to see what we can develop and use to move forward both countries in the consulate assignment. We have started with making enquiries and making contacts with such needed people. Some people have also contacted us, so we are trying to see what we can do and achieve, by getting people together.
We are also trying to see to the development and growth of Nigeria and Liberia Forum, get people who are interested in that country and also get those who are interested in this country together, to rub minds, to see how best two countries like ours, can work best. That is the whole idea.
How settled will you say Liberia is presently to attract such interest and investment that you anticipate?
I think Liberia is very settled actually, we have gone through political problems like most other countries in and out of Africa, and I think we have settled down. The current president has made quite an impact on the country. We are moving forward. So I would say that Liberia is in a good position presently, to work with other countries.
What kind of businesses do you think could fit into the developmental expectations of present day Liberia?
I may not want to start here with listing out all the kind of businesses that could fit in, rather, I would leave that to the people who would want to do the business themselves. People who are here and would love to do business in Liberia, I expect, would make the necessary research and then we can give them the necessary assistance if they are truly interested. I think it should start from this side, rather than I insisting that this should be it, because that won’t be exactly, what we are trying to achieve.
With a settled Liberia, as confirmed by you, are you saying, it is okay for Liberians who have been seeking refuge in Nigeria to go back home?
Of course, I would want to encourage our people to go back home. But that also depends on the reason they are here. If they feel they have been here for some years and they want to relocate to Nigeria and they have had a good time here, it is then not my responsibility to tell them that they must go back home. But if they are passing through a hard time one way or another, and they are wishing to go back home, then I would say that Liberia is a land of opportunity for them, they should go back home. So I think going back home for them, should depend on their situation here in the first place.
With the on-going success of the present female president of Liberia, what would you say about women and leadership role in Africa?
I think we have said that over and over again in Africa. Women have an important role to play in the leadership of this continent and of other countries outside this continent. This is because there is no difference between being a man and being a woman, it just depends on who you are, what kind of training you have, what kind of orientation you have and not about your sex. So I think women have important role to play and they should not just sit down and say, I am a woman; if you are a woman, so what? You have to go further than that.
It is not out of place that any visitor coming into your office should be intimidated by your laurels that are struggling for space on your walls and on available spaces on your tables. At over 77, how do you feel when you look back?
I think I have done a lot in Nigeria, and I also think that I am being rightly rewarded by the personalities that I have worked with, along with the governments that I have worked with. I feel that I have been appreciated and I also feel that I have made the right contributions. I have two National Awards from Nigeria, Member of the Order of the Niger, and Officer of the Order of The Niger.
Even before I left Liberia, I had what they call the CSA, Commander of The South Africa, from the President of Liberia way back in those years, I am a person that likes to give the best of myself wherever I am, even at this present stage of my life. So that is what you see on the walls when you come to my office. It is a good thing to see that you have contributed and that people have appreciated you too. I feel very happy about it.
Wherever I go, I meet people who are very appreciative, they are nice to me, they are kind to me, I think this is what anyone should aspire to and expect in life. It shows that you have made some contributions and it shows that those you contributed to, have appreciated what you have done.
What motivated you to marry a Nigerian?
I married this Nigerian (points to the framed picture of Late Chief TOS Benson on the wall) 50 years ago, last December made it 50 years and when he passed on, we had been married for 46 years. I think it was a case of two people who met and fell in love and decided that they wanted to live together.
And that is what marriage is all about. We met in Liberia. Before then, I had never thought of coming to live in Nigeria. He was in Liberia with the Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa for a conference. I met him at that conference. I had just returned from the United State of America where I had gone to get education. I was in the conference where he saw me and proposed. We went on like that for a year until we finally decided to get married. So it wasn’t because he was from Nigeria that we got married. It was because the two of us believed in each other and we made a go of it.
Prior to meeting him, had marriage been on your mind?
At that time I had not given a thought to who I would marry. I was not thinking about marriage at that time as a matter of fact. Like I said, I had just been trained and returned from the United State of America and started working. I wasn’t thinking whether I would marry a Nigerian, French, Liberian, Polish, Danish or English. I was just doing a job and when the issue of marriage came up, it was a case of I see you, I like you and I want to marry you. So at that time, I wasn’t sitting down to think and bother about who I would marry and where he would be from.
What was your first impression of Nigeria when you got to Lagos?
I was very impressed with the people of Nigeria and the size of the country and the idea of deciding where to live. My husband happened to have been a member of the cabinet at the time so of course working in the cabinet in Nigeria meant that you had lots of respect, I think a lot of people respected me and I was impressed when I arrived Nigeria, I stayed (laughs).
You were honored as the Iya Oge of Lagos which meant you were in the eye of celebrity, style, fashion, in the country’s capital city, which was the heart of the country. What did that mean to you?
I was made the Iya Oge of Lagos by the Late Oba Oyekan of Lagos in 1973. I think it was because of my love for beauty and fashion. First of all, when I came to Nigeria, I worked at the University of Lagos for many years. I was appointed Registrar for Students Affairs. I worked there for ten years with staff and students, and I’m proud to say that many of the students I worked with are today the daddy’s and mamas of Nigeria.
They are now in big positions, but I knew them way back in the school then. But throughout the time I worked at the University of Lagos, I was all the time thinking of the beauty industry because; it is something I like and something that I appreciate. So after those years in the University, I decided to leave to open a beauty spa for facials and all other types of beauty care.
It was at that time that the Oba of Lagos at the time, considered it fit to honor me with a chieftaincy title. They called me and told me that is what the Oba wants to do. I didn’t know much about it at the time, and I didn’t know that being an Iya Oge of Lagos would be something that I would merit.
But later I found that everybody seemed to like it and feel that it suits me. I have been in the beauty industry since then, giving beauty care to many women and advising them too. I also decided to start a beauty school. This is the eight year we have had that, and we have graduated many students from The Opral Benson Beauty Training Institute, some of them are all over this country, while some are working outside this country.
I think that it has been a way of making my contributions towards the development of the industry and to also say to the Oba that I appreciate that honor he gave to me way back 1973. It was after I got that honor that I decided I should make it worth it, instead of just sitting down on it. Since the honor was for that industry, I thought that I also ought to work in that industry.
Between fashion and beauty, which one do you tilt more towards?
I don’t tilt at all. I keep fashion and beauty together because I think that the two go hand in hand. I don’t tilt at all. I have a beauty school but I think that fashion and beauty are two brothers or two sisters. I don’t stay in their middle; I put the two together because I think that both are very essential.
Simply said, what is beauty to you?
Beauty is making people feel nice and happy about themselves, look nice, the kind of things you do to yourself and to others. It is putting on something that says much about you because there is something that comes from within, it is something from the outside and something that is general.
It should not be confused however, because there is something that is inner beauty and another outward beauty. I appreciate beauty and many Nigerians that I have met in and outside the industry appreciate beauty. That also means that it is something that is important because, when I started, many people thought that this was not a place for educated people. People then thought that it was a place for those who didn’t have education. But I told them that beauty has to do with how you feel to yourself and for others.
When is a woman fashionable and when should she be fashionable?
I guess that is for the individual to decide. When a woman is fashionable depends on what she wears, how she carries herself, what her outfit looks like, how she impresses herself, how she impresses others and how she feels about it. A fashionable woman is what others see and how she feels. It is very difficult to say just like that, that a woman is fashionable until all these are in place.
What is your style?
My style is how I feel like presenting myself. Its difficult for me to pick one word and say this is my style. Style is how you carry yourself. It is how you feel and present yourself. You are how you make yourself from the inside and how people see you outwardly and appreciate you. So my style is presentable to myself and to others.
I wear all kinds of attires, African, English and so on. It depends on where I am going, what I am doing and how I feel about myself. I appreciate all kinds of attires, fabrics, foreign and local. In saying local, I mean traditional attires.
What would you say about our society events against the background that people are criticizing the growing cost of having simple celebrations?
I cannot speak for what people are spending, I don’t know, but I think everybody should spend according to their pocket and what they can afford. I am not one who insists that this is the amount you must spend on yourself. I think it should be about what you have to spend, how you feel and how you want to dispose of it.
Having had a successful marriage to a Nigerian, would you advise women from foreign countries to marry Nigerian men?
I have no problem with foreign marriages or marrying a foreigner. I think everybody should marry according to their heart desires and what they want to do because, whether it is a foreigner or not, it is still about two people that have met and coming to live together, and how they feel about each other.
I also don’t think that anyone should tell the other that he or she should not marry this person because he or she is a foreigner. It should be about individual feeling, how you feel about that person and how the person feels about you and whether the person wants you too. And also whether he wants to live with you and marry you.
The same goes for marrying into other tribes within a country, whether, Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba, Kanuri and so on, all that does not follow, it is still about the two individuals that are going to come together to live with each other. I don’t think barriers such as this should be in the way of two people who like each other, who want to live with each other and have agreed and decided on what their future should be together. Anyway, I say all this because I didn’t follow or allow a barrier come between my husband and I.
What does wealth means to you?
When I get wealthy, I will find out! Right now, I’m still trying to find out what wealth means (laughs).