She has not struck the gold or carted away that huge number of medals yet but she is on her way. When you encounter her, you encounter a bundle of potentials in one person. She is a sports queen and campaigner for social transformation through sports. But she is also a soldier of Christ. That is how Michael Apochi, the Catholic Bishop of Otukpo Diocese awarded her scholarship to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree from Veritas University, Abuja. And she is no pushover in Idoma traditional dance. To the list must be added her planned transliteration project, (of English and Idoma) which is an intersection of the cultural and the academic.
Intervention asked her how she got into sporting, for example. It is an interesting story. Part of the cultural ethos is that girls cannot stay outside into the night, accompanied or not. But this was not going to apply to this Maria who was seeing her senior brothers being allowed to do exactly that. And not just to stay out well into the night, but do so doing what she too would have wanted to do – sporting. So, she looked around, thought about it and decided that she had to challenge the culture of domesticating the girl child. She revolted and began to hang out with the senior brothers. The sense of revolt was, paradoxically, instigated by the family. Her own father as well as her uncle, the late Col. Anthony Aboki Ochefu, was into sporting, particularly Javelin stuff. She had been seeing the uncle at it and had been thinking that, with her height which is a replica of her father’s, she too could replicate what the senior Ochefus were doing. “So, I broke the custom”, she told Intervention.
Anyway, the family could not crush the rebellion. In any case, it would have been a limited success. For, when she went to the secondary school at Federal Government College, Otobi in Otukpo Local Government Area of Benue State, the coach spotted her and argued that, with her body structure and her hands and height, she was a potential discovery in athletics. She saw that as additional impetus but when she went into it, it did not flow. It was stuff such as Shot-put that flowed with her. She settled on that, playing volleyball only to exercise her hands.
As at the last count, she won the Best in Shot-put and Javelin in the 2017 All Nigeria Private Universities Game, (NPUGA), at Nile University, Abuja, came 4th position in Long Jump. For all these, she got a medal. 2017 was not her first outing. She was at Eko 2010 in Badagry, Lagos State representing Federal Government College, Otobi in the competition for those schools. That is why she would say she has been throwing.
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, preparations were on for another edition of the NPUGA scheduled to hold in Covenant University. Well, now, she is no longer an undergraduate. So, even if Covid-19 were to disappear anytime soon, she cannot participate in that competition anymore. But if she goes into a Masters programme, she would resume active sporting life.
It is when you ask her why all the fuss about sporting that you scratch the big idea lurking in her. It is that, as Ambassador of Peace from her alma mater’s Centre for Gender Studies, she plans to set up a Foundation. The yet to be set up Foundation would concern itself with spotting sporting potentials, pick such boys and girls and prepare them for friendly competition, especially between communities.
Her argument is that if you catch ‘em young, have a hostel for athletes so that the coach can monitor them especially in terms of what they eat, give them scholarship, sports would grow beyond a hobby into a career for many. She already has a sketch of what she wants but yet to go through the process. She is not scared that wealthy Nigerians do not fancy funding Foundations. Her lead appears to be that where there is the will, there would be the way.
But what is her assessment of the state of sporting in the country, based on what she has seen so far? She thinks it is shaky but that the gaps can easily be filled. Filling the gap is what she sees her Foundation doing, among other options.
The seemingly involving sporting plans will constitute no roadblocks for her educational plans. A Masters Degree is in the works. If she gets scholarship outside the country, she would go. If there is no scholarship, she would do it in Nigeria where she can when the time comes. In the mean time, two items are on the card. One is to expand the sporting space for the girl child. Everyone should be allowed into the arena, she says, brushing aside the point most parents make for preventing daughters from such participation. As far as she is concerned, “if you train your daughter to have strong will, I don’t think they will be tossed around by anybody”. In any case, her belief is that, with a good coach monitoring people on the pitch, no such thing would happen. She rates the society as still being very patriarchal as to warrant the support of parents for their daughters for equal sporting opportunity to be realizable.
The second item on her agenda is transliteration by which she would capture some expressions in English that are not there in the Idoma language. “Where the word you want to use does not exist in the foreign language, you would be forced to code mix or code switch” was how she put it. She has all those ideas, the last one coming straight from her degree programme in English in the university. She read that course because Law which was her original choice was not available in Veritas University, Abuja at the time. She is not sure if she would not go back to read Law. Asked why, she responds by saying “if I read Law, I would not need a lawyer in my organisation”. So, a ‘third world war’ internal to her is unfolding between Literature/literary cum cultural production on the one hand and Law on the other hand. Only God may know which one wins!
She speaks Idoma language very well and good command of mother tongue is always the key condition for ground breaking in cultural production and perhaps in every other things. So, some people might be in the position to predict the outcome of the ‘third world war’.
A little skirmish occurred between her and Intervention. Into naming local stuff briefly, the interviewer picked on Ogbono among a few others. That earned a quick interjection to the effect that Ogbono is not Idoma name for the soup from bush mangoes. Rather, it is Igbo name for the master soup. What?
Anyway, all said and done, what is she getting from sports as for that to be taking a huge chunk of her contemplation? It is nothing other than healthy life style. Sporting, she says, trains her mind and body. She realises she is rarely sick. And it can go on for more than two years without even Panadol. You can earn a living from it too, she argues, by establishing a recreation center where people who have talents can go to train and be spotted early enough.
Otukpo town, the cultural and administrative headquarters of the Idoma nationality has worn a red coat of dust ever before and since Lord Lugard left this shores. No amount of military governors and Senate presidents from Idomaland has changed that. Next time you see a new urban portrait of Otukpo, it might not be outlandish to connecting to the weaponisation of sports as a development strategy on a mini-scale by this emerging Amazon.
If that happens, then it could be argued that it is precisely what Joe Akatu, the unbeatable Idoma lyricist, says Idoma girls are capable of in his metaphor of the spectacle of young girls from Igbano-nmaje taking the floor. Akatu was not talking about the dance floor alone. He was also celebrating the pitch that girls bred in the Idoma ways could take things. Things are changing or have changed so much but the Idoma ways are still there. Maria Omaido Ochefu might be one of that. Saying so would be no Idoma essentialism!