About 90 million people – roughly half Nigeria’s population – live in extreme poverty, according to estimates from the World Data Lab’s Poverty Clock. Nigeria is home to over 10 million out-of-school children, around half of whom are girls – and it is hardly coincidental that the country with the world’s highest number of out-of-school children is home to the highest number of people living in extreme poverty. Therefore, it is therefore inspiring to find a woman who is contributing significantly in this drive to defeat extreme poverty. Helen Oritsejafor, a leading philanthropist and social entrepreneur has devoted most of her life to reaching out to the needy, hopeless, homeless, and poor in the society; touching lives the world over through support for child education, women empowerment, and poverty alleviation.
Mrs Oritsejafor is the co-pastor of Word of Life Bible Church International Gospel Centre, headquartered in Warri, Delta State, Nigeria. Over the years, as a social entrepreneur and philanthropist, runs several companies, including the Eagle Flight Micro Finance Bank Limited, African Broadcasting Network TV Station, and Eagle Height International School, among others.
In this exclusive interview, Oritsejafor shares some of the challenges and accomplishments of being a Pastor’s wife, an entrepreneur, a mentor, and a philanthropist. Excerpts:
Please tell us about your background and some of your experiences growing up as a girl.
My name is Helen Aduola Oritsejafor. I am a Pastor and I am mostly called Mama Helen. I actually came from Addo-Ekiti. My father is from Addo-Ekiti and my mom is from Ondo State. The journey started several years ago. My mother was a great woman; she was an educationist, and so also, was my father. My father had a school assisted by my mother and the school turned out to be one of the best schools at that time. My mom had five of us and she passed on after the fifth child. So, my father had to remarry. And being a typical African man, he had other women coming as well even while my mother was alive. So, you can say officially that I am from a polygamous home.
Growing up without a mother was quite challenging. Evidently, every child would love to have the love of a mother. That I didn’t have because my mom was not there. My father had to play the duo role of being a father and a mother. He was a wonderful man; he loved people. I would always reference the fact that I learnt so many things from him, especially when it has to do with being a philanthropist. He would walk through the road and pick children that he didn’t even know, who were just hawking; he would wonder why the child is not in school, take the child home, meet the parents and try to convince them over to allow him train the child.
I could say that my home then was probably a dormitory because we had a lot of people, who weren’t related to us, but they grew up with us and they had equal treatment from my dad. He was such a great man in that sense.
When I was eight years old, I had an experience that was incredible. I, my siblings and cousins were invited to a ceremony. It was quite customary for the Yorubas; when you have just given birth, they would call for a party and people would be invited over. So when I was just about to enter the house, the woman of the house approached me and said I have “beautiful” rice for you with a big chicken. As a child of 8, it was quite exciting to be singled out among my siblings. So by the time I got to where the food was set out, just trying to pick the plate, a hand pushed my hand over and led me to picking another plate. I couldn’t resist the hand. I heard this voice: “don’t”. My cousin who was by me ate the food. But by the time we got home, she started convulsing. It was a dramatic moment. I am sad to say she died. She took my death. Anytime I think about it, I feel teary because it was such an experience for an 8-year old girl. As a little girl, I would put myself on a fast, and my father would ask me ‘what’s wrong with you?’ How could you be fasting at this age?
So you have a Christian background?
Yes. It is a Christian background. The condition of having to just look for God, even though, He wasn’t missing, and just trust him and have every bit of experiencing him was just there. My father couldn’t just understand why I was that driven and sometimes they would go to him and say “she refused to eat”.
Was this before the incidence?
It was even before then and then it continued. With the innocence of just been a child longing for God, I could just be in a corner crying, repeating the same words, “Lord I love you, I want to serve you”. So, I went to school and later ended up in the United Kingdom. I spent most of my life there. I went through the university and got my Masters degree; and then, I started business as well, doing marvelously well. I was really living large.
We understand that you dropped all your ambition, wealth, and political status to support your husband, the renowned Rev. (Papa) Ayo Oritsejafor in Ministry. Kindly tell us more about some of the aspects of your life you gave up to be with Papa Ayo.
In the UK, I was doing well. I had my office. I was an evangelist. That was an experience in itself.
I was invited over to a church and the servant of God who was to minister was just about to open his bible and start speaking when he stopped and said: “There is someone here the Lord is leading me to”. So, he left the Alter and walked to where I was. People were wondering; what might this be? Perhaps he had a word from the Lord. The next thing, he just handed me his microphone and told me the Lord said I will be preaching today. And I said: “that cannot be true. What am I going to be preaching?” I didn’t even plan for this. I walked down to where the pulpit was, opened the scriptures and by the time I was done, it was over two hours. That was the beginning of my Ministry. But, I wasn’t even planning to marry a Pastor. I just loved and wanted to serve God.
But one day, there was this extreme urge to go back home. And it was really strong me. I was well situated in the UK and wasn’t planning to go back to Nigeria, except to visit my father. But then, it kept coming and it was really strong: “Get back home”. You know that in Africa when you hear such voice, there is this tendency to think that it is an evil stuff. But I kept praying and I knew that was the voice of the Lord.
So, I came back to Nigeria and I started my business. I started a construction company, rural electricity and I started a bank with some of my friends. I have always been a passionate person and I am very self-driven.
And then, the aspect of creating Ekiti from Ondo came about. I had some friends in Government then and speaking with them. And my father back home, speaking about the state creation said ”won’t you like to speak with some of your friends and let us see how you will be able to help?” So, I became very involved in the drive for Ekiti State creation. Finally, we had it created. And to honor my participation and with all my wealth of experience, they said I would be one of the first female commissioners. I was really gearing towards running home and running my office. I was putting things in place to ensure that my business sides still function while I will go serve my people at home.
Then, one day, it was a festive period, the Muslim festive period, because I have always been a workaholic, I left my apartment and went to the office. I instructed my manager to come over. Whilst in the office I got a call from a friend that said there was this Man of God in town and because they knew I loved prayers: “wont it be nice if you just come over?”. So I said that would be lovely. But I missed it because as at that time when we were having a little bit of difficulty setting up for the things we needed to do in the office, I had to take the materials to India to a friend of mine who lives there. I left a word with my manager though to let me know that when next the Man of God was in town, I should be informed.
Much later, when my friend asked if I still wanted to come and see the Man of God, I agreed. So, we went. We went to Ikeja at Sheraton Hotel. We were all at the Lounge, waiting for the man of God. I had no clue who this very man of God was. I mean I have never meant him. I have never been under his ministry. I have never watched or seen him preach before. When he walked in, with my British sense when a woman walks into a room, it is expected that the men should stand and but when it is a man that walks in, the women there sits and the men could decide to stand or not. But when this man showed up, I stood on my feet. It was spontaneous for me.
We got into conversation. We were all blabbing. Then, very business minded I told him: “excuse me sir, we actually came here for prayers”. But as he started to pray, we bowed our heads, and before I knew it, I found myself positioned by him and I heard a voice: “This is your husband”. Yes, that was the experience I had. And It was very hard for me because I wasn’t planning to marry a pastor. My first reaction was that it wasn’t going to happen. So, I decided to wait on the Lord. I took a fast and all that. And on the seventh day, just as I was about to round up, my phone rang. Lo and behold, it was him. And I just heard on the other side: “My name is Ayo Oritsejafor, may I speak with Helen”. It is still as powerful and strong as ever.
How challenging was it to be married to a Man of God?
It was challenging and the reason I will say this is because my desire was not to end up with a pastor. That was not part of my prayer budget for a man. So, even though I had fasted and all that I was still struggling. When I was leaving the UK for Nigeria, my first conclusion was that I would stay in Lagos. I was never going to live anywhere else other than Lagos. I have never been to Warri. I never knew where Warri was situated, besides seeing it in maps. I was really struggling with this. I was practically saying no within me, until one day; my driver didn’t come on time to pick me so I had to drive down to the office, and as I was driving, I was negotiating a bend somewhere along the way to my office, and I heard a voice that said to me: “The way up is the way down”. Then, I started literally wailing in the car, wondering why God would want to bring me down. What have I done? It was very confusing and sad. When I got to the office, I started praying and asking God: “What is Your will for my life?” at the end of the day, I was broken down, not my will but His will. So, I decided to marry this man and at that moment peace engulfed me, a wonderful peace. It was a great experience. I knew I was now in God’s plan for my life. Right there, I said some powerful things to God. I said: “You have to go with me”.
It meant that I was not going to be a commissioner anymore. It means that I was leaving Lagos. It meant that I was not going to do some of the construction work and some of the things I was already doing, even if I still run my business in a skeletal way. So, I still remember on my wedding day, a friend walked up to me and said: “what a waste? So you mean you will leave these for something that you don’t even know. I mean this is a complete waste?” I have had a lot of opportunities in my life. So it was a rude shock in my life.
Finally I got to Warri. It wasn’t a joke. It was a completely different world entirely. I got to church. The church wasn’t as built as it is now. I mean it was a complete dark world for me. At some point I would say: “What have I done God to deserve this?” But I knew I was a woman on a mission. I promised that I will do my husband good for the rest of my life. And that is the oil, the tonic that keeps driving me; and it
is a great honor to stand by his side.
What are some of your roles in the ministry that has led to the growth of the church in reaching out to so many people all around the world?
Okay. To start with, as a wife, that is very important, men are not like women. A man can only function when he is at peace with himself; and it is the peace that a woman gives a man at home that can enable him to think out whatever vision that God has given to him. So I think, to a large extent, I have tried my very best to be very submissive and ensure peace at home. That’s very important.
When you look at our megachurch structure, I also participated knowing that my background is also into construction. I had to work with some of our people. I had to work with some of our engineers. There would be times when I had to send some of my staff in Lagos to help with the pricing and some few other things. So, I was practically involved with the building along with all the people. So the structure is there.
Then, the aspect of building the human capital, and as a pastor’s wife, I am the President of the women wing of the Church, I nurture them and teach them what it is to be married. I encourage them in the aspect of letting them know that life does not end up in the kitchen and having children. And that you can go out there and be everything you desire to be on earth. So, I build capacity.
And yes, of course, I do soul winning. I go out there in the market to actually do crusades, community crusades, market crusades- soul winning practically. In fact, through that media I have been able to raise hundreds of children, indigent students that I have given scholarships to. I do a lot of that to build the ministry.
There has been an ongoing debate on the assertion that religion has a role to play in national development. The continent of Africa faces underdevelopment and Nigeria is not left out as evident in her educational, social and economic landscape. What are your thoughts on this, and do you think the Church is doing enough today to help address some of the prevalent challenges in the country?
Let’s put it this way, when you talk about decadence, It is all over the world anyway, very prevalent in Africa and in Nigeria. I think the church community has done quite a lot.
Let me take you back, over 20 years ago in Warri, the condition of this place was so bad. We had inter-tribal wars. It was horrible; companies were practically leaving at that time. But my husband took a role that is very endearing. When others were running away, he stood and he was able to dialogue with some of the youths out there that had one problem or the other, who felt they were marginalized and felt that they should be empowered. So, they took to arms and it was terrible, but he did everything, he became an advocate for peace. And through our outreaches, peace returned. The Church is a salt. The Bible calls us the salt of the earth. If there hasn’t been church participation in the governance of this country, I think by now maybe this country would have been extinct. So, church has done a lot for the economy of this country, for the peace, meaningful peace that we enjoy now; and not to mention the aspect of literarily participating in the lives of people.
You cannot take church out of governance, because if you do so, be ready for anything else.
What inspired you to set up the Eagle Hands International foundation?
In the city of Lagos, some years back, the Lord stirred it up in my heart on the need for me to start visiting orphanage homes. And there was a particular one, not so far away from where my office was, and I would go there every Thursday, buy some things that they could eat; and once I showed up at the place the children will be all over me. I almost took in some of them but being single I was advised not to. Then I married my husband. There was a day, this woman came all the way from the United States of America to minister and after that meeting she said: “God would want you to start an orphanage”. The moment she said this it resonated. That was one thing God started with me for years. I have been doing this. So, I went home and told my husband and he said yes and said he too has been doing something for the less privileged in the neighborhood. So, that was how we started. When you talk about the poor in the society, we have the actively poor and those who just decide to be poor. The actively poor are literarily looking for somebody to give them a lift and when they see the opportunity they will grow; while the others have decided to remain poor, even when you give them a push they will still end up being poor.
There are media reports that you empowered over 100 women through the Eagle Hands International Foundation. Would you see yourself accomplished in that regards?
No. There is so much to be done though. We thank God for the opportunity of being of immense benefit to few, because the poverty rate in Nigeria is enormous. People are practically suffering. So when you look at that you see that it is a just a little drop in the ocean. This is my passion. This is my life. This is what I love to do. And I thank God for putting me in such a position to be able to help.
I have always been wired through service, providing services to people and adding value. And of course, if I have to trace my life back to seeing my father, an industrialist per excellence and a politician; I mean, in his twenties, he started a school. When I look at my father then, I was really motivated. I felt there was no room for laziness.
There was a particular woman who came to our head office to meet with me. I was just staring at her from the hall. I heard her going on and on saying she didn’t have any money but if people will just assist her, that would be her joy. She didn’t have N2,000 to open an account. I was so moved by that. So I invited her over and by the time we had a conversation, I discovered that she was a woman who would do everything on earth to be successful if anyone would just believe in her. Then, I told her we will support her. Few years later, she walked into my office, and said: “Mama, I want to surprise. Just so you know, few years ago, you took a risk on me, investing in me, but today, I can literarily sign off N50 million. That is true empowerment. Now, she has houses all over the place. So, I believe in service to people.
How involved are you in the running of the bank?
I am the chairman of the Bank. I have a board. There is due diligence in making sure that things are running well in all our establishments. A lot of people have asked me how I have been able to manage my time. Over the years, I have learnt to prioritize. I know when I am supposed to be at the bank; I know when I am supposed to be in the school. I know when I am supposed to be a wife. I know when I am supposed to be a mother. And I also know when to have time for myself. I have a husband who is a great encouragement to me.
In Nigeria, women and girls constitute 60 per cent of the illiterate population and their literacy rate remains around eight points lower than that of their male counterpart. What are your thoughts and efforts towards stepping up and encouraging girl-child education in the country?
Traditionally, it is expected that if you train a girl-child for example, it is the husband that she gets married to that will finally benefit from it. Traditionally, it wasn’t encouraged. But now, people are getting to understand that when you have a girl-child, in fact it is the girl-child that will still remember that there is daddy and mummy. Training the girl-child is the wisest thing to do and that is being propagated. We have to change that through reorientation. We have to get to the grassroots. We need to go to villages and get people to know the importance of education. Education is not just about the four walls of being in a classroom. It is creating awareness. It is informing your mind. It is giving you options in life. It is directing your choices and helping you to be able to realize your person; so that you can headlong confront the world at large and make yourself meaningful to mankind.
Young African leaders and innovate minds believe that improving access to mentorship and incubators will help them become successful business owners. As a successful entrepreneur, what is your take on this and what are some of the ways you provide mentorship for the youths, particularly young African women?
Firstly, I started what I call, The CEO’s Company. And through The CEO’s Company, I do not even charge a dime. I train them. I build their capacity. I try to build structures. I look at what is obtainable in developed countries around the world and of course, what we have in Africa and Nigeria, some companies do not exist for more that fifty years. So what is lacking? So, what I have been doing in The CEO’s Company is to build structures to teach them how they can organize their organizations; how they can ensure sustainability; how they can ensure succession planning. That is our greatest challenge. So I have devoted my energy to see to the building of organizations. When I went to Abuja, I ran into a young lady and she said: “Oh, I watched The CEO’s Company, the last one, I was hoping that it will not end; why did you stop?” I said we have to work with time. So that gives me a lot of joy. I have a lot of mentees and I am so glad to be a mentor.