At 77, Mrs. Irmgard Williams, a widow to a pharmacist from Ogun State, has spent more than 50 years in Nigeria. She tells KUNLE FALAYI what she loves most about Nigeria
You married a Nigerian, did you meet him here?
Yes, I was a guest student at the time at the University of Ibadan. I did Education in Germany and I decided to come here for an attachment at the university. On Sundays, I went to an English speaking church very near the campus. That was where I met him. He came from a Muslim family. His father was Chief Somoreni from Abeokuta with many wives. He had become a Christian when he was sent to school.
When you arrived in Nigeria about 50 years ago, did you ever imagine that you would be marrying a Nigerian?
By that time? Not at all. But in my heart, the possibility was there because since my early childhood, I had always been interested in African people.
What was your first impression of your husband the first time you saw him?
After church, he came to me and introduced himself. He said, ‘Oh, I heard you just came from Germany, can I show you around? I will show you my hometown, Abeokuta.’ By that time, he was a qualified pharmacist working at the UCH.
It must have been surprising for your family back home when you decided to marry him. What was their reaction?
They told me to come back home immediately. They did not like it.
But how did you convince them to accept him?
Well, I was here. I had to go back any way because of the expiration of my visa. So, my husband said to make things easier since I had already said yes to him, we should get married before I went to Germany. And we got married at the registry in Ibadan in 1965. My parents did not know. Nobody knew.
That must have been shocking for your family.
Yes, it was. By the time I was to go back to Germany, it was getting to Christmas and I was not feeling fine. I went to our family doctor and she diagnosed that I was pregnant. She did not know that I was married. She said, ‘Miss…do you know that you are pregnant?’ and I said, ‘Oh that’s very nice.’ She said, ‘What is very nice about it?’ because she knew my family as a doctor. I then told her that I was no longer a ‘Miss’, but a ‘Mrs.’ She asked who the father of my child was and I told her a Nigerian. She said, ‘You have courage.’ She said when I got back finally, I should see her so she could give me lots of advice since it was my first child.
Why did you choose to come to Nigeria as a student guest?
Actually, I was interested in Africa generally especially South Africa. But when I was in Germany, I was still a student then and met one Dr. Okonjo. He was a student of Mathematics at the Columbia University and he gave a speech in my town. After the speech, I walked up to him and said, ‘I like what you said and I would like to come to Africa one day when I finish my studies’ and he asked where I would like to go to and I said I liked South Africa. He said, ‘South Africa? Don’t go there. We cannot even talk like we are talking now over there because of apartheid. We can’t even shake hands. You will go to prison if you shake hands with me, come to Nigeria.’ I asked what I would do in Nigeria and he said many nurses, doctors and teachers were needed there and I said, if it is teaching, yes. I wanted to become a teacher.
Is the Dr. Okonjo by any chance related to Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?
That’s her father.
Really? You mean Okonjo-Iweala’s father brought you to Nigeria?
Oh yes. Dr. Okonjo convinced me to come to Nigeria. He helped me to arrange all formalities to come here. He put me up in University of Ibadan.
What was your first impression of the country when you landed in Nigeria?
When I stepped out of the old airport in Lagos very early that July morning, it was cool with blue sky, gentle breeze, palm trees swaying and I heard the soft sounds of Yoruba language. I heard people laughing and saw colourful life around me. And I loved it while I waited for Dr. Okonjo to come and pick me up and take me to Ibadan.
You have lived through the military regimes of Nigeria. You saw everything including the violent episodes. It must have been frightening for you as a foreigner.
I was not frightened actually. I knew when I married my husband, it was for better or worse. We stayed through the good times and not so good times together until he died in 1998. When I married him, I knew I was just not marrying him but also his country and his people. That is why I am still here.
You must have faced the challenge of learning your husband’s language, Yoruba. How did that go?
Yes, it was challenging. Whenever I opened my mouth and said a few words in Yoruba, people laughed at me. It was hard learning it.
But did you have help from him and people around him?
Not at all, English was the language around me. I should have gone to his village and stayed there with his people. Maybe then, I would have been able to learn it properly.
You introduced yourself as ‘Folorunso’, how did you come about that name?
My German name is Irmgard. The exact translation of Irmgard into Yoruba is Folorunso – protected by God. It was as if my parents knew at the time they gave me my name that one day I would live in Nigeria under God’s protection.
How often do you find traders attempting to deceive you using the local language whenever you go to the market?
It happens sometimes. I listen very well to what they say especially when they are speaking Yoruba and I smile at them. Then I say a few words in Pidgin English because I would not want to give myself away as not being able to speak Yoruba well. Then, their faces register shock. But since I take such things with a sense of humour, it leads to questions and answers and we laugh together about it.
What do you love most about Nigeria?
I love Nigerian people; the way they manage their lives. Nigerians never lose hope. The way they get on despite the difficult situation, I just love that about them. It is just marvelous. Then, the smile of Nigerians is catching. The smile of a Nigerian can warm up a very cold heart.
You have spent at least 50 years in Nigeria, do you feel more Nigerian now or German?
I feel very much at home with Nigerian people but I come from Germany and that is where I have my roots. So, I feel at home there as well. But if you ask me where I want to stay till the end, it is Nigeria.
What are your favourite local meals?
I like Moinmoin. I even know how to make it with leaves. I like Amala and Ewedu and I like fish pepper soup.
Where do you go to when you want to relax in Nigeria?
I like the Lagos beaches and there are some islands that you can go to by boats around Lagos. They are very nice. I also like Jos. I had to go there every year over a nine-year period. I just loved the place.
How often do you still go to Germany?
I travel a lot. I belong to the Lufthansa family. I travel very cheap. I have grandchildren in Germany, UK, and Switzerland and in Nigeria. Many times, they invite me for graduations.
What was it like working for an airline in Nigeria like Lufthansa in those days?
It was the most challenging times of my life. It was also the most rewarding time of my life that I would not like to have missed. Sometimes, when if there were passengers coming and wanting to check in and there was no space, they could become angry, walk up to you and slap you. But it was rewarding. At the time, they did not even have computers. The manifest was a large paper and we called passengers by mouth and checked them in. It was actually nicer than today. You had an opportunity to make eye contact with passengers and you had better relation with them. There were situations when one would see a young man who would shakily hand over his passport. I would look at it and know that it was fake. Rather than hand them over to the police, I would just advise them to go back home and get their money back. Very often, I advised people that way. Some listened and some did not.
Was Lufthansa the first place you worked in Nigeria after you left the University of Ibadan?
No, I was working as a teacher in Ibadan. I was living in Ibadan with my husband at the time. Later we came to Lagos, where I was teaching first before I got a job at Lufthansa.
Do you still meet some of your old students?
It happens at times in the supermarket or at the airport. Somebody would walk up to me and ask if I was Mrs. Williams and they would introduce themselves as one of the children I taught. I would look into their faces and see the little naughty boys of those days. Even while I was with Lufthansa, I chose to work night shifts so that I could have time to teach during the day.
You must have loved teaching.
Oh yes, that is why I have not been able to stop working. That is why I love the orphanage because I love working with children.
What else do you do these days?
I have been involved in an orphanage in an active capacity in the last 20 years even though I am not the founder. I was coming from Abeokuta one day in 1995 and I was passing through Ota. There was traffic and I spotted a signpost, the Ijamido Children’s Home. The door was half open and I saw some children sitting on the ground. I just felt that I needed to see them. So, I entered the compound and I was greeted by the children and the matron, who herself was the first child brought up in the home. From that day onwards, so many wonderful things happened. The children make me very happy. The children are very organised. Now two of them are lecturers in universities.
Apart from this, I have another project, school children in the Island of Iba in the Lekki Lagoon. You can only get there by boat. In fact, I am going there this month because some good people have sponsored the procurement of school uniforms which we will be distributing to them.
I am very busy. I am also in the oil business.
I have an ‘oil company’ where I produce cold-pressed coconut oil. I get fresh nuts from the beaches and make the oil myself. I learnt about it from a book and bought the machines. It is on a small scale actually; more for friends and family.
Did you ever feel discouraged about coming to Nigeria during the political crisis in the country?
Actually no, I could have gone back but I did not. I felt that this is where I should live.
Looking back at what Nigeria was like when you came, what is your opinion of infrastructure?
When I came, Nigeria was almost like Europe; the schools were very okay. Children who left Nigeria to study in the UK were taken without hassle. The medical system was very good. Then everything went down. It made me sad. But that is what I have learnt from my Nigerian brothers and sisters; we will not lose hope and it is going to be better.