My first knowledge of the amazing woman by the name Gladys Otono Atsenokhai was when her sister, Victoria A. Otono tagged our Instagram page – @elsieisyblog to a heart-warming birthday piece she had written in celebration of her.
Widely known as MC Shakara, reading eulogies written by Victoria and others about a woman I rather call a strong purpose filled warrior gave me the rush and I told Samuel Oluwatobi Olatunji we had to speak to her in order to share her inspiring experience with the world.
Gladys Otono is a comedienne and compere. She is also a survivor who lost 3 fingers in an accident but has never let her situation get the better part of her nor control her life’s journey. In this interview with Samuel Oluwatobi Olatunji, she shares her experience growing up, battling depression, inspiration, her source of happiness and what keeps her going.
Tell us about your childhood. How was growing up like for you?
Childhood was amazing! I was not born with the proverbial silver spoon but my family were not poor either. I tell my friends that in my head I was meant to be born as Bill Gate’s daughter or into any of the world’s richest families but alas I found myself in down town United States of Abule-Ijesha, a Lagos suburb as the quintessential middle child in a family of five. I did not attend any fancy primary or secondary school but would not trade the experience of attending a public school for anything. I remember every Friday at primary level my school would get into an epic fight with another school after hours in a street battle for supremacy. It was hilarious to watch and no adult would dare intervene. I was all mouth and no action so would watch from afar and cheer my school champions. lol. By the time I finished secondary school, half my school building had fallen apart and if you came early, you would see monkeys jumping from tree to tree in the nearby forest. Believe me the school was in the city. The students had to be spread across Oyingbo and Sabo while some remained in Akoka during renovations. Imagine!
On the home front, my mum ran a pub better known as beer parlour and I can regale you with the antics of the customers that visited her shop. Seriously, Nollywood has not scripted any comic movie that would spur the kind of joy I experienced as a child. There was so much love and laughter amidst the poverty around me. I watched these families bask in love despite not having much and most times I envied them and learnt from an early age to appreciate life for people and not for stuff. So, with all the joy and laughter, we were never truly poor as there is more to poverty than the absence of stuff.
You got involved in a ghastly accident in 2003… Can you remember what happened exactly? And how did you feel at the moment of the accident and while at the hospital?
That is the most traumatic experience of my life and 2003 is forever etched on my mind. I was working as a reporter with AIT when my colleagues and I were involved in an accident in which over sixty people died including my cameraman. We were returning to Lagos after monitoring the elections in Plateau state. When I regained consciousness, and saw my mangled hand, all I could do was sing praises to God in the light of the horrors around me. I can still vividly recall the scattered mangled bodies and hear the tormented cries of the wounded especially the cries of a man begging for his hand to be amputated as the pain was unbearable. Right there I started making plans for the future.
I told myself I could still present the news and would set up a non- profit organisation to help accident victims. That night I experienced the humane side of Nigerians as both rescue agencies and ordinary people helped in the rescue operations. While at the hospital I barely cried, or wallowed in self-pity even after being told my fingers will be amputated. In fact, three days after the accident I requested for pen and paper and started practicing how to write with my right hand. I jokingly told my friends that as long as I was alive, there was money to be made and I needed to perfect my signature so I would not have problems with bank cheques. It was also not unusual to see me visiting other wards and making other patients laugh while encouraging them. My faith and having a sense of humour really helped me in those moments. I would joke about my hand to the dismay of everybody. A month or so after the accident I was back at work reading the news with a bandage on my hand
Losing a part of the body often gives one a sense of unwholesome, a feeling of not being complete. Did you ever have that feeling? If yes, how did you handle it?
I never felt unwholesome not for a day. Moreover because of my boisterous personality people barely noticed my hand except to wonder how I am able to laugh and make others laugh despite my seeming disability.
Do you ever get the ‘I cannot do this’ feeling because of your fingers?
I lost some appendage not my mind, never minding the trauma. Thankfully I had a job, an education and a good support network which really helped. I could still report and present news. Though I learnt to drive and adjusted to life as a “disabled” person, I was limited in some physical activities. Sometimes the simplest chore becomes herculean. However, I have learnt to do what I can, seek help when necessary and leave out what I can’t. Abi?
How has the result of the accident affected your choices in life and career?
Not that much in career as my first love would always be broadcast journalism. I was born for the microphone and camera although I am not actively in mainstream media now. Luckily, my career has been a seamless flow with presentation and entertainment morphing into one.
Generally accidents tend to be traumatic. How were you able to endure and rise above the trauma of the accident?
My faith and humour helped me greatly. My ability to see life through the lens of humour and the word of God helped cushion the blow of being suddenly “disabled”. I also had the support of friends, colleagues and family who supported me through the journey of recovery. Of course, sometimes I worried about whether any man would find me attractive but such thoughts disappeared as quickly as they came.
You also battled with depression. Did it start before or after the accident? How was the experience like? And how were you able to overcome it?
Depression was after the accident. Life just knocked me out but thank God I got back on my feet. There is no apt word to describe depression. It is just an endless void rife with hopelessness and helplessness and lack of self- worth. My son sort of gave me the purpose to live again. One day, I realised that I had missed out on his key formative years and that spurred my healing. I reprogrammed my way of thinking to reconfigure what really mattered to me and my faith really helped. I constantly read the bible and engaged the word of God. I surrounded myself with real friends who helped me see and appreciate every little achievement as my mind’s eye was blurred. Talking also helped and I learnt to share my challenges with close friends. I did not care about labels. Depression just like disability, HIV or any other ailment is not stigma free but silence is damaging. Writing also helped me processed my emotions. I kept a journal and even had a blog which helped me and helped others too.
How did your career as a comedienne and compere begin?
I have always had a sense of humour and never shied away from public speaking from an early age hence the name Shakara (show off). However, career as a professional comedienne started after an event promoter “discovered” me at a wedding and the rest they say is history.
Did you encounter any opposition or challenge as a result of your career choice?
Never! Not one day rather the support was huge. People are constantly amazed by the fact that I could find humour in seemingly humourless situation. That further endeared me to people.
To what extent have your family and friends been supportive of you?
I have never encountered any opposition from family at any point in my life. I’m at a point and age when everybody respects and trusts my judgement. Moreover, making others laugh helped me out of the strangled hold of depression. Everyone is simply glad I’m now bugging others with my jokes and not them.lol.
Despite everything you have gone through, you still stand strong. What have been your motivations so far?
Having experienced a near death situation and survived depression by the grace of God I decided to live life purposefully and passionately and I believe that’s the only life worth living. It’s about impacting lives positively and what better way than to help others smile.
How have you been able to manage your career with the demands of motherhood?
I am a full time mum most of the time yet privileged to have a budding career that occupies mostly my weekends. So, my son is lucky to have mummy most week days.
Is there something you wished you had done that you regret not doing?
Sometimes I wish I could take back the years’ depression stole from me but my experience from the “pits” is helping others today. I organise an annual non-profit comedy event called Laugh Out Loud to promote positive mental well-being. LOL is in its 3rd year now and all proceeds from inception goes to charity. In all, my experience as a survivor fueled the vision.
You are a very cheerful person. What’s the secret behind your constant cheerfulness?
Any advice for people, particularly women, living with any form of disability or going through tough times?
You are not defined or limited by your disabilities. You don’t need much to make a difference sometimes a smile is what the world needs to be a better place. Your very presence on planet earth is a blessing and never let anybody label you or tell you otherwise.