Tuesday, 23 July

Mr Ibu - the man who made Africa laugh

Feature Article
Despite his ability to make others laugh, John Okafor did not enjoy domestic happiness

Such was the comic genius of Nigerian actor John Okafor, popularly known as Mr Ibu, that he often didn't even need to open his mouth to make people laugh.

"I was chosen to play a doctor in a film one time and when I came to the set dressed as one, even without saying anything, all the crew just burst out laughing," he recalled.

His death at the age of 62 has left family, friends and fans of Nigeria's film industry Nollywood across Africa in mourning.

He burst onto the scene in 2004 with the movie Mr Ibu, which tells the story of the eponymous single father and his son as they journey through life, getting into a series of tricky, and hilarious, predicaments."His facial expressions and his body were his biggest selling points," film director Babangida Bangis told the BBC, contrasting him to most comic actors who use words to make people laugh.

 

"Mr Ibu was different as he doesn't even have to talk to elicit laughter, as his face just like Mr Bean [Rowan Atkinson] will do the trick," he said.

Indeed, one of Mr Ibu's most iconic scenes and the one which introduced him to African audiences, was one in which he hardly said a word.

 

In the film Mr Ibu, he and his son were returning home from a farm where they worked and they had a single bicycle.

At first, the father let his son ride the bicycle while he walked.

But passers-by stopped them to ask why the son didn't show respect to his aged father by letting him ride.

So they switched places.

Then another passer-by said the father was wicked for allowing his young son to walk while he was taking it easy.

So they both decided to walk.

 

Then people called them senseless for walking while they had a bicycle.

The film was so successful that there have been four sequels and Okafor has simply been known as Mr Ibu ever since.

Bridging Nigeria's divides

He will also be fondly remembered in northern Nigeria, as he was one of the few Nollywood actors to cross over into the film industry based in the northern city of Kano, known as Kannywood, which is generally looked down on by those from the south.

His best known Kannywood film was the Hausa language comedy Hajiya Babba about two lost sons from southern Nigeria who traced their father in the north and began a new life with him.

"He was one of those who helped bridge the gap and bring unity between Kannywood and Nollywood by going to the north to act," Bangis noted.

Born on 17 October 1961, the actor hailed from the south-eastern Enugu state, which has produced a long list of Nollywood stars.

 

Okafor didn't have an easy childhood, moving to another town early on in his life to live with his brother, and doing menial jobs to survive and support his family.

After trying his hands in professions from hair styling to photography, he went to a film audition where he was spotted by legendary actor Pete Edochie who saw his talent and opened the doors of Nollywood to him.

'This is my worst marriage'

Since the announcement of his death, tributes have been pouring in.

Popular Nigerian comedian Bovi described Mr Ibu as one of the greats.

"The passing of John Okafor aka Mr. Ibu is a sad chapter in Nigerian entertainment history. Let's take solace in the fact that his works will live on and will inspire generations unborn. RIP to one of the greats" Bovi posted on X.

Nigeria's Culture Minister Hannatu Musawa described him as a household name who had made families smile throughout his career.

The actor's ill-health first came to public attention last year. One of his legs was amputated in November after fans donated to a crowd-funding scheme to pay his medical bills.

It is believed that the actor suffered from diabetes, but no cause of death has been announced by his family.

Despite bringing such joy to so many people, he never found happiness on the domestic front.

He was married five times, most of which ended in bitter divorces.

He recently described his fifth marriage as being even less happy than his previous ones.

"This is my final marriage. If this one falls apart, I won't marry again. This is my fifth and the worst marriage," he told Nigeria's Daily Post news site earlier this year.

Local media say he is survived by 13 children but some of these have also been a cause of concern.

After his fans donated money for his operation, his son Daniel Okafor and adopted daughter Jasmine Chioma were arrested on suspicion of hacking into his phone and taking $60,700 (£47,800) for themselves. They have denied the charges.

Although he hasn't starred in a new film for some time, he remained active until ill-health stopped him.

In October 2020, he released two singles, titled This Girl and Do You Know, which were believed to be his last projects.

However his venture into music was not a success and he will always be remembered as the man who brought laughter to homes across Africa.

Fan Aminu Hamisu says he'll be paying his tributes to the actor by re-watching some of his old movies on YouTube.

He is unlikely to be the only one.

 

Source: BBC