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Ben Okafor: from child soldier to troubadour

Nigerian musician Ben Okafor's life has brought plenty of challenges, as he tells George Luke ...

From child soldier to troubadour, Nigerian musician Ben Okafor’s life has brought plenty of challenges, as he tells GEORGE LUKE

“My faith has been fantastic for me. But it’s also given me a lot of stress and pain.”

The sort of honesty and willingness to admit to such a thing is what has made Ben Okafor’s songs memorable to so many people over many years. Family commitments have kept the Nigerian-born singer from the stage for nearly a decade, but he’s now ready to make a return.

“I took some time off when my twins were born 10 years ago,” Ben explains, “and again when my son was born six years later. He’s now four and we’ve got proper childcare sorted, so it’s time to hit the road again!”

During his time off stage, Ben has been busy working with Amaka (beautiful child) – the charity he set up 10 years ago.

“What we do is take sociological and spiritual issues to kids,” he says. “That could be in schools, colleges, universities, community centres, churches … wherever an invitation comes from. We do workshops with children over three or four days, and create some artistic work with them, which they present on the last day. It’s a way of enabling people to find their creative voices.”

Amaka is currently participating in the Global Education project, aimed at making primary education free globally (one of the Millennium Development Goals set for 2015).

“There are 17 million kids across the world who don’t have access to primary education. Most of them are girls,” says Ben. “As a world, we’re losing a lot by denying these girls access to education. We need to give the same opportunities, facilities and everything we can afford to girls as well as boys.”

Ben has also been involved in the campaign to end the use of child soldiers – an issue close to his heart, as he was once one himself. Ben was 12 when war erupted in his homeland. “I am from the side that was known as Biafra,” he says. “Our city was taken over by the Nigerian troops, and my family and I became refugees. About four or five months into the war, I enlisted into the army. I was about 13.

“We were trained to go into enemy territory as spies. And to be able to do that, you can’t look like a soldier, so we weren’t  allowed to carry guns. My parents had no idea that I’d enlisted. I only told them about it on the day my commanding officer told me that we were going to be shipped out the following day! I used to go to the training camp in the morning, go back home in the afternoon and do my chores. The elders of the village tried their best to discourage me, but my dad said, ‘Look – he’s made his mind up; let him go.’ He gave me a five pound note and said, ‘If you change your mind, use this to buy a bus ticket and come back.’

“The next day, I was supposed to rendezvous with my platoon. I was trying to console my mother, who was completely devastated; I looked at the clock and realised I had about an hour to do a journey that would normally take two and a half hours on foot. I pegged it all the way, but just missed them. My commanding officer had left me a note saying that there was going to be another shipment the next day, and I should be there at noon. Unfortunately, my platoon were captured by the Nigerian troops. They were maimed and sent back to Biafra. Because of that, the Biafran government completely demobilised the Boys’ Company. If you were old enough to join the regular army, you did. If not – and I wasn’t – you were sent home.”

Back at home, Ben sought solace in music.

“Stevie Wonder, James Brown, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were all constantly played in my house, alongside Nigerian artists,” he says. “But it was the Wailers who nailed the spiritual connection for me. They showed me that you could be authentic as a spiritual person, and still play really good music. And that’s what I set myself as a goal from then on.

“Ordinarily, I’d say that God’s been on my side; God has been with me all along, and I’d always believed that God was there for me. But in terms of what upholds me professionally, it’s actually the frustration that I feel; that God, who loves every human being unconditionally, is the same God we’re using as an excuse to annihilate each other. There’s nothing I’ve ever experienced that frustrates me as much as that.”

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