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MRH JULY 2019 ISSUE: RETURNING FROM THE BRINK! – EMMA UGOLEE

There’s no possible justice in highlighting the success of Pop Culture in contemporary Nigeria without giving credit to Emmanuel Ugolee who had the first ever all Nigerian music video countdown, a TV show that placed a lot of Nigerian acts on top of their games in his hey days at the MBI. Having been in the industry for more than a decade, Ugolee has contributed to what we have today as Africa’s hub of entertainment, Nigeria. Ugolee became even more popular few years ago after he found out that he had issues with his kidneys and had to publicly source funding to enable him undergo a transplant. Since his unsuccessful first transplant which rather complicated his issues, not much has been heard directly from the media personality as there have been loads of unconfirmed reports concerning his broken marriage, with many alleging he is now doing great yet still soliciting funds unnecessarily. For these reasons and more, Azuka Ogujiuba travelled all the way to the United States where he is working on his second transplant for this no-holds-barred interview. He opened up on how he found out about his kidney failure in 2012, why his wife left him, how a hospital in India replaced a kidney donated by his sister with an unmatched one for him, battle with depression, favourite musicians and take on Tiwa and Wizkid sensual video among sundry issues.

You are one of Nigeria’s popular entertainment presenters and you’ve also got a famous program on TV, “The Gist”. Tell us how you were inspired to host the program.

We were looking for a reason to be unconventional, a way to share the problems in entertainment industry, it’s like when someone tries to open one door and everybody tries to go in through the same door. We wanted a show that stood up; we didn’t want to stand up for the sake of not being appreciated, we stood up because we wanted to have an impact. We might claim to fail in the industry but we were part of the few people who started the revolution of music video in the industry and we are very proud of where we have gotten. I was thinking in my head that if I had a program and of course the power of television, media generally is not just to entertain, I mean in the world that understands especially America knows that it is a force for change, it has the power to shape the mindset of the people. So, I was looking at a show that has the power to change some things in the entertainment industry. Like I would say, we are not there to shake the table, we are there to fix it, but in the process of fixing the table, we have the propensity to shake it. The Gist is a show that was designed to look at the problems the entertainment industry suffered. And when we said entertainment it was definitely beyond the shots of music and movie, we went into fashion, event planning, we went into everything that has to do with the business of entertainment. So we were not just looking at the people in front of the camera. We were asking questions about if the ushers got paid, questions about security, questions about why the show started 2/3 hours after the announcement that show is about to start. So we wanted to look at the problem that we had in the entertainment industry and push to the forefront. You would notice that when people talk about entertainment in Nigeria, the first thing they do is to concentrate on what is buzzing, concentrate on what is popular, concentrate on who people are talking about. But we wanted to look beyond the glitz and the glam. We wanted to look at the back story, we wanted to see the things that really didn’t make it work or not make it work. So The Gist was a show which was not just out to entertain but was out to highlight with the eventual hope to correct the problems that the industry of entertainment was suffering. That was what gave birth to ‘The Gist’ as a show. As someone directly and deeply in the industry, did you ever make any attempt to be part of Nollywood? No. I am one of those people who think that regardless of how great you are with blessing, the blessing will now be divine endowment and talent. This the idea of going into a school or going for a series of seminar or getting some degrees of academic backing to your profession. Even though I respect all the people who have just been great because they are natural actors, I would have naturally thought that if it was something I was going to do then, maybe a film academy or maybe if I had studied theater arts, I would have been easily pushed into the act as an actor. Let’s just say that was the only thing that did not make me become an actor. I crumbled into broadcasting at a point when I was still a student, but at the time when I knew it was serious business, then I knew that things like pronunciation, comportment, and contact with the camera and all that needed some technical upbringing. To answer your question about why I didn’t become an actor is because I felt like I wasn’t really trained for it. If I get a chance to be schooled by a great actor, it not something difficult for me to do, I could try it.

Who is your favorite Actor?

This would slightly contradict what I said earlier because I’m one who respects getting training to back whatever you are doing. The reason why I said this is because Ramsey Noah is one person who I find very impressive. I think if you ask me from Nigeria how great an actor is, it is when how watching him makes you forget quickly that you are watching something scripted. Even some of the biggest names in Nigeria with all due respect are very stereotype. Ramsey is not a stereotyped actor; he is very believable, he was not one of those we successfully left in the box as a lover boy because he became the angry husband, he became all kinds of people. Personally, I find Ramsey Nuoah as an outstanding actor. He would be my Nigerian favorite actor. In addition to the fact that Ramsey has this very believable, Ramsey is not stereotyped in his delivery. I would also say that we would be honestly giving him his dues when we say longevity too. It’s something that has stuck me by Ramsey the first time I saw him was during Fortunes and that was pretty late in the 80s and early 90s and the same Ramsey Nuoah was in the very last movie by AY (YORUBA DEMONS). Ramsey was superb in the movie and this was done in 2018. So we are looking at the lifespan as an actor for almost twenty (20) years and in think that is another way to size up someone and enough reason to be called your favorite. So who’s been around, who’s been great and my favorite actor in Nigeria is Ramsey Nuoah. Lately, we have so many Nigerian movies going to the Cinema.

Do you think all movies should be taken to the Cinema?

Truth be told, a lot of movies taken to the cinemas don’t deserve to be there. We would all be honestly truthful to ourselves, once again it is a question of a trend they started and everybody joins the bow. There was a time a trend started for Nigerian movies was to also join the movies from Hollywood and Bollywood in the cinemas in Nigeria, but then I also think that the sieving is not done with the strict sense of quality not just the acting, the production, the technical lapses that they have or the musical score, low budget movies. Movies that are low budget movies are still real business; they take their time making the movies. When movies are made in one week, two weeks they still make it to the cinemas in Nigeria. I think the obsession is two folds: it became an open door for them to make money. The fact that there are huge sum coming from tickets being sold, you don’t blame the guy who goes to watch because the only thing he gets is a nicely cut trailer on TV that makes any movie looks good and then it gets a lot of hyping on social media where they spend more money than actually in the movies. Most people feel very disappointed after watching the movies, I’ve gone to see movies two-three times, unfortunately, it wasn’t what I paid for, not every movie made in Nigeria now should go to the cinemas, the DVD is still there. All the outlets for our movies are still functional. I mean a lot of our families still buy them and of course, in this case, you won’t blame the producer because he wants his money and the system is not structured to be quality conscious. So I would blame the censorship board of the movie houses that we have, wherever they are, whoever they are, they should also look at the marketing side of it and they see that it means more funds and you know one thing you would give to Nigerians very laudably is the fact that we love our own and it is a beautiful thing. Very fortunately right now our own fashion means the world to us which is a great thing. But then people should not begin to capitalize on it for exploitation at the detriment of the industry. It’s because you know a lot of people would love to patronize this, be conscious of quality. I keep saying that the Hollywood that we love subconsciously is because we respect it for quality. So those who approve of these movies to be in the cinemas should wake up so we can encourage our producer to get better in what they do.

Are you still on with your TV program?

Yes. Fortunately for me, I have a show that is recorded and played at my good time. I did two things to make sure that since I was coming over to the United States for a while I did two things to ensure that it was done well. First, we recorded a whole lot of episodes and in the process of recording we ensured that they were not time-based. Whatever we decided that was discussed while I was gone we made sure it still had the value, so we did record a lot. We worked for two straight months of recording.

At what point did you discover that you had health challenges?

My health story is very interesting; it’s not the nicest thing to hear but it’s one that is enlightening which is why I tell you with confidence because of the power that it does have to help people you might want to avoid what I fell into. I come from a family that’s got the history of high blood pressure and I was hypertensive at the early age of 25, but I didn’t understand the value of ensuring that it’s a religious thing to be taking all those drugs. There are two leading causes of kidney disease; the first is unfortunately if you are diabetic, secondly if you’ve got high blood pressure uncontrolled which my case was. I also have very deep pain in my ankles and I was practically living on a painkiller for a while. In 2012, I used to have all kinds of ailments and it was then I was told my kidneys were not functioning anymore. Unfortunately, that was when I realized there was a big problem. Some are fortunate enough to be told they have kidney disease and they get to the hospital for a solution, many of them cannot afford the cost of dialysis. Dialysis in Nigeria do cost about thirty-five thousand naira, which is not subsidized by the government. Before I left for the US we were pushing for the Senate to pass a bill so that the way patients of HIV enjoy a whole lot of medical services for free that they could do the same for people suffering from dialysis because a lot of them can’t afford it. How many people in Nigeria can pay 150,000 a week because it requires a lot of medication, so a lot of people die basically because they don’t have the money. For me, that was how I discovered my problem and also discovered that it was a problem we have as a massive epidemic in the country as well.

A lot of people think that you are in the US for your transplant, so tell us about it.

I haven’t done the transplant yet. The US journey started from the fact that I had one transplant that went bad. When this happened in 2011; I had saved enough for my transplant. So in 2012, it just summed up to every single thing I had saved and I got myself and my younger sister, fortunately, had a kidney which perfectly fit mine and she didn’t have any problems with her blood pressure. So we asked for the cost of doing a surgery. It came down to about 25,000 dollars in India and that was for one of the best hospitals they have in India. I went to India with my sister and I had the transplant on September 22, which was supposed to be the best day of my life but it turned out to be the saddest day ever. The reason has been that I owe no apologies to anybody, I am not a racist, when they say terrible things about Nigerians generally being money conscious and fraudulent I just laugh and say that’s because you haven’t met an Indian actually when you say this about Nigerians. I know India is one of the places in the world that poverty hits the hardest, a lot of the people that I met have become almost soulless and from personal experience. In the US if you insist that your family have to be inside the theater they would let them in, but if it’s so delicate that you wouldn’t be allowed; your family will seat in the next lounge and watch the video of what is happening to your loved ones. But this wasn’t the case in India, it was just my sister and me, everybody else that was with us couldn’t go pass the reception, they took us into the theater. When we came out, we didn’t understand what happened to us that day until 6months later when I woke up and I realized that the same feelings I had before my transplant have begun to return. So I thought it was really weird and I obeyed every instruction the Doctor introduced in taking medication, so I went back to my doctor and I said this is what’s going on and he said it’s strange that 6 months is too short to have problems after transplant. I did a few scans, that was when we discovered that the size of the kidney that was in me, there was no way in the world it would have been the same kidney with my sister’s. I understand that there is a semblance of the world-class treatment when you go to India for treatment but the truth is if you go to the wrong ones, the degree of medical malpractice and you are just a number to Indians. The emotional attachment for the propensity to feel for you is not there, you are just a number and the money is great. And then because we can’t go to the UK, I’ve been there for one year and I’ve not had my transplant because the way the system is structured you can’t walk into it like you walk into India and have a transplant. So because it is logistically not a nightmare to go to India, it is financially sometimes half the price. Everybody rushes to India, the price you eventually pay for going to India right now for the treatment 10 times the price, so that was the problem I had in 2012 and I was so depressed. I was so hurt, I wasn’t just hurt because I was back to square one, I was hurt because of my sister. It was a nightmare to me, the pain I saw her go through, and the hopes that she had that she was saving her brother’s life. So I gave up on transplant and started doing dialysis, the truth about dialysis in Nigeria is that it is risky, the chances of survival are very slim. In 2016, I said to myself that I have to get around doing this again and now India is not an option and since India, I discourage everybody from going there. The only two places I could go were to go to Germany, the United Kingdom or come to America to do my transplant. So I had to sit down and make that very hard decision about where I was going to go to save my life. So we chose to come to the US, in early 2017 we came to America. The hardest part about coming to America was when we discovered the cost of the transplant in the United States of America; we thought it was a hundred thousand dollars because that was what we were told. We started establishing communication with the medical institutions in America; transplant for me would cost almost four hundred thousand dollars, my case was peculiar because apart from the fact that was for me alone, if you are going to get your kidney from the fridge, in other words, you are going to be on a queue for those who are for those waiting for transplant. But in America, if you have a life donor which I’m unfortunate to have, someone who will come out again to say I’m willing to let this man live from having my kidney, but the American system has stated clearly that when you take two people into the surgery room, we do not have one set of a medical team. My surgery is like paying for two sets, so if I’m going into the theater for surgery, I would pay almost four hundred thousand dollars in two places. The only way out of that because of cost is medical insurance, but that is difficult to get because the way the system is structured. So the last one year for me has been trying to get into the levels to which I’m now qualified to get medical insurance which I fortunately just managed to get from open enrollment that happened in November. I was totally excited because I’ve finally gotten to a place that I can get insurance, so with insurance you have a company that could be your spokesperson, so I’m yet to get my transplant done. There was a time you posted a picture of you with a big scar on your arm, what actually happened to you? Like I said, I’ve had a few procedures which are pre-transplant procedures. The scar on my arm that got a lot of attention, as I told you earlier about how they draw blood out of you when you are doing dialysis, they have to get your arteries and your veins and join them together in a way that it forces the flow of blood to be more than the normal flow. The whole idea for this is that when the needle touches you, it is ready to push blood out and that thing that is out in your arm is referred to as the fistula. The fistula is the safest which is when they take you into the theater, they cut you open and they have to look for peculiar places where you have big veins and a lot of blood, in this case, the best place they found was my arm, they cut the arm from the elbow almost down to the shoulder and they spent four hours trying to get the right artery and the right kidney to be put together to form a fistula and that’s what they did and it started giving me some mad troubles. So, they had to open it again. So if you put your hand on my palm right now, you will actually feel blood moving, like I said it creates a new stream for blood to move. That’s why you’re warned when you have a fistula, you don’t make the mistake of going close to any sharp object in that neighborhood because if it cuts you, nobody is going to stop you from bleeding to death. I sold practically everything I had worked for my whole life when I went for surgery in India, so when it was time to do it again in America, a lot of my friends tried, it was Innocent Idibia that said if I decide not to go public about the fundraising, people will talk, if you die because you don’t want to go out there and raise money, people will still talk. So he said ‘choose what you want to do while they are talking but the talking will not stop and that hit me so hard. So that was when we decided to raise the little money we could raise before I came down to the US.

Before now, has there been a time when you felt depressed?

Of course yes, but very fortunate I didn’t commit suicide because anybody who suffered from kidney disease has thought about cutting life short. The pain is not just physical; nobody can explain the physical difficulty of kidney disease to you until you deal with it yourself; there is also the emotional pain; there is also the financial burden. There is really nowhere you go that is easy dealing with kidney disease. I had the roughest of times in 2015 and this was because of I worked for a company for twelve years, with a company I had a flawless record and they had the policy of very little tolerance for prolonging illness and so it was a company where people were complaining about not been treated nicely because we were sick, so the company was having issues with me being popularly sick, but still having my job and then I was also dealing with a spouse because I had also gotten married to one who didn’t understand the difficulties connected to my health until she got married to me and was living with me 24/7 and was probably a little too young to deal with that. So that period when I was dealing with uncertainty with work, then only divine mercy can explain the fact that I was mentally stable. I discovered that loneliness can actually drive people crazy; loneliness is something not to take for granted. Please if you know people who are lonely, it’s very important to check up on them. I was weak enough to think that suicide was an option to end the pains, though I was not stupid enough to think of attempting it.

Are you in any relationship right now?

I posted a picture of me touching my chest with the caption ‘I love like a fool’, but I was joking but there is some truth in it. I learned something from my marriage that lasted for a year and 3 months, unfortunately, it was a mutual decision that we made to attend to having kids after I had done my transplant which we were about to do then. My ex-wife used to go on social media to talk about how much she loved her husband and I was doing the same. When it didn’t go too well, the first thing that happened was great regret about being that open about it because there was a lot of talks going on. I’m not the kind any more to talk about what my personal romantic life is like publicly that is because I have learned some lessons from the last one that I had. If I wasn’t running a kidney foundation another thing I would stand against is domestic violence. I keep saying that the two weakest forms of a man are when he doesn’t understand that he cannot physically hit a woman and when a man thinks the best way for him to live is to make money through being “gigolo”. I heard that my wife left because I beat her, it was so painful when I heard that. I had to do a conference call between a popular friend of mine and the young woman because I wanted my friend to listen and she said she doesn’t know where that came from that she said she’s suspecting one of her friends. It was very painful but then I would say to myself that this was partly caused by me because I had a relationship that was everywhere. I always use Chioma Akpotha as an example, if Chioma’s husband walks in here, would you know who he is? I have seen Chioma’s husband but on very rare occasions particular exclusive family but if I wasn’t that close to her, I would never have met the man and I thought that it was brilliant. It was okay to learn how to separate who you are. If this was me three years ago I would have told you about her but right now it’s not something I ask my friends to talk about because it’s not something I would want to talk about. I have learned the hard way to keep my romantic life private. But for the record, I am happy we are talking about this now. I have never hit a woman in my life, I think that men who do that are deranged. There is a terrible penalty but you will suffer from being uncultured to raise your hands to strike a woman, I wasn’t trained that way. My sister suffered it once and it tore my heart into pieces because I literally thought I could strangle the young man myself. So it’s not something I would do to anybody’s child, I have never and will never hit a woman. The most interesting part is when the association of Ex -girlfriends came out to say this is the fattest lie they have heard about this young man. That story is very untrue unfortunately it was only one blog that carried it because it never happened.

Would you consider yourself a romantic person?

Absolutely, at the age of 43 I still believe strongly in love. I don’t care what the world has painted it to be. I still think love is a beautiful thing and it is one of the best thing that can happen to anybody. I don’t understand doing it for a reason whether it is money, I don’t understand how people get emotionally involved with someone because of a selfish reason. In the words of my friend D’banj, don’t get it twisted, love is beautiful thing. What have you been up to since you moved to the United States.

Are you working presently?

Like I said earlier, you need to have a work to survive here, but fortunately for me I have a few things funding me in Nigeria. I have one or two car doing Uber in the market. I’m not presently, but somehow I’m able to cope with my funds but once you sort out the hinge that Americans want, I can get a proper permit to a full time job, you know I am not a lazy person.

Can you correct the notion out there that you are financially okay here in America?

The notion that I am lounging and doing super good because the medical system here has been fantastic. I have very large percentage of my health restored in the sense that I am strong enough to be going for my dialysis today and with all the things I have been through, I look better physically; I think that was what gave people that impression. But it is false to think that it’s all good, truth be told. It has been tough from all angles; materially, emotionally and physically I have had more procedures in America in the last year than I’ve had my whole life. I have been in the theater six times since I came to America which cost a whole lot of money. I heard that my sickness was a scam, it was very painful when I hear I was only trying to raise money so I can live large, that is not true because I have been through a whole lot of difficulties with my health, painfully in America and I am waiting to get to that point that the system will permit me to get it all right and done completely. So it’s not all good, it’s just me trying to stay strong. When you lose a battle in your head, you have lost it completely. I will never stop fighting, it doesn’t matter what is happening to me physically. I will do the things I need to do to look as happy as I can. If sometimes a man’s strength to fight regardless of what he is dealing with translates to you that he is doing great, well thanks for the compliments. But those who know me too well know that it is far from the reality which is that I am still dealing with the last stage of this disease.

What is your take on Wizkid and Tiwa Savage’s controversial music video?

First of all, I thought it was an amazing marketing strategy, I was happy because I said whoever thought about pushing this out did a great job because the video got a lot of attention and it got everybody talking. With due respect, Tiwa Savage is a great singer; she has a lot of history behind her and she’s exposed as a singer and she has global background that she can be accepted in any country. That is not to say other ladies are not doing great too. I love Seyi Shay, I think that Waje is superb, Omawunmi is wonderful and of course Yemi Alade is a great singer too. But if you notice Tiwa seems to be a notch ahead of others, it is not because Tiwa sings better than other girls, but because of the likes of what that video did to her, it brought a lot of public commentary around her. Why do we have a problem with the woman being older than a man? There are some people who learn and some people who don’t. It is not about age, it’s about what is happening in the mind of the individual, it’s about the degree of maturity. There are a lot of young men out there who had been through things that have made men out of them before their ages declare them men in the eyes of the society.

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