She insisted she was the girl next door. The okada riders in Mazamaza, Lagos, didn’t think so. They saw through her designer sunglasses and collected N250 for leading her to the Office, a service that ordinarily cost only N50. Their rationale for charging her 500% more than everybody else was because she is now a star. They are right, aren’t they? But the journey has been long for this once troublesome girl who preferred football to dolls. Uche Jombo let us into her world: the intimate details of her hero, her father, Nelson Jombo, the man who shaped her world view of men and marriage and why we should stop blaming men for not being able to keep their zips up. In tears, she told the story of the father she loved to bits but who ‘refused’ to live beyond 57 years.
Mike Awoyinfa, Dimgba Igwe, Funke Egbemode and Sam Olatunji were there.

I was such a difficult child that my mother told me I must have at least one child to do to me what I did to her.

I was born in Enugu. Later, my dad moved back to Aba. My childhood is a huge part of where I am today. I was not an easy child. My mother used to say I must have a child like me and I would say no, what if I don’t want to have a children and she would tell me I must have one and go through what I made her go through. I did everything a teenager would do and more. I climbed trees, played football and played cowboy. I’m short-sighted and that is as a result of a clothes hanger entering my eyes. I was the only female playing football with boys.

At that point, my mum had given up because she felt I thought I was a boy. It was then that a friend told her to put me in a drama group in church. They called the group Children of the Lord. We ministered every Sunday but I was not happy because I thought my mother wanted to curtail my excesses. Later, when I heard they gave scholarship every quarter, I started competing to win. That was the only time I had acting experience. I have played every woman in the Bible (laughter). It was a very good starting point for me. When I told Fidelis Duker I still remember some of the lines I played in the church, he told me to read the last one I played. I read the lines of Ruth and he was impressed that I could still remember my lines of over six years.

My father said Abriba girls don’t act.

At a point, my dad said, ‘you are an Abiriba girl, you cannot act or disgrace the family name.’ Ten years ago when I was starting out as an actor, if you say you wanted to act, it is like you had given up on life. That is why it gives me joy when mothers stop me to say I should help their children that want to act. And now my uncles refer to me as their niece in interviews. It is a lovely feeling. I never thought that would happen.

An Abiriba girl is expected to go to school, marry and make babies but I broke the myth

An Abiriba girl just goes to school, prepares herself, gets married and stay there. Sometimes, an Abiriba man will tell you to sit at home and be a full-time housewife. He feels it is an affront if you go out and work. I sit back and hear lots of stories come out of my culture. Where I’m coming from, I’m larger than life because you have so many things in front of you telling you you cannot break out of this chain or life. But I have been able to break out.

Some say it is even unheard of for an Abiriba girl to marry from outside Abiriba.

But my mother is not Abiriba. Even my elder sister, who is the first child of a first son, did not marry an Abiriba man. That is to tell you how strong my mum is. I think she was able to give us the opportunity to be whatever we want to be irrespective of the culture.

So far, I have not dated an Abiriba man. I’m not saying I have not dated an Ogbo man but an Abiriba man, no and I cannot say who I have dated in the papers. Maybe somebody dey there dey count for me (general laughter).

Today, I’m an Abiriba girl who stood for what she believed in and is living her dream

I’m just the girl next door. What I mean by that is those close to me know me as Uche Obi and not the popular Uche Jombo that people know. I think at a point you have to surround yourself with people who know you and can tell you the truth.

The Jombo name is both a blessing and a curse. Jombo is my real name. In Abriba, the Jombo is a popular family name. It is not a nickname. Every Jombo in Abriba is related to me.

Every Abiriba person is believed to be strong in business and I am no exception.

I think I work harder because of where I come from. In the beginning, my father would not hear jack from me as per acting. He went on and on to tell me I’m an Abiriba girl because at a point Abiriba girls were seen but not heard. So, I’m proud to be an Abiriba girl who stood for what she believed in and is living her dream.

Fidelis Duker gave me my first on-screen opportunity.

It happened by accident. I had taken a letter to Fidelis Duker as one of the marketers of REEL Awards. When I got there, there were so many people; I think I was number 50 or so. When I got inside, he did not even look at me, he just pushed the script in front of me and said read. I said, ‘I’m not here to read; I’m here to give you this.’ He looked up from his table and said, ‘what’s that supposed to mean?’ He said, ‘you are not an actress and you can’t act.’ I said, no, ‘I’m not an actress but I can act.’ He asked how I knew I could act. I told him three years of my secondary school was sponsored by a scholarship from an Acting School. He asked if I had acted in front of a camera and I said no. He told me to read for him and I did. I walked away with the Linda role. Fidelis Duker was the first person to give me the on-screen opportunity. That was in Images. I don’t think he has paid me for that job (laughter). Actually, he was the first person that made me believe I could do this aside my sister.

Being an Igbo girl does not guarantee success in Nollywood

After Images, I started working with people that were on the same set. I did My Visa To Hell and Adure, which was my first lead. People always thought it was my first film. It wasn’t; it was just that it came out before My Visa To Hell.

Being an Igbo girl does not give you an edge in this business. I don’t think so. If anybody should know I think I should because I don’t think I saw success like this five years ago. I don’t think there is any tribal sentiment. People that say that are just too lazy to go out there to look for job or package themselves for the job.

The famed sex-for-role does not exist

Anybody coming into the industry must first believe in himself. It starts with believing in yourself. Trust me, the disappointment will come but your belief in yourself will keep you going. As for the sex-for-role thing, it doesn’t exist. If it does I would have been a star long before now.

My father, my hero and why I think men are dogs

My father is dead but he was my first hero. He is the reason I think there is love and I also think men are dogs. The truth of the matter is, it is not their fault. It is the way they are built. It is not possible for a man to be faithful no matter how much he loves a woman. Remove religion out of it; it is not just possible. My dad is an Abiriba man, He was the first son and he was married to someone from Mbaise. You can imagine that. I watched my parents’ drama unfold in front of me. I sometimes blackmailed him at a point when I caught him with a woman (laughter) but I never squealed to my mum. Why should I tell when I was busy collecting money from the man? (laughter) . I cannot tell you how many times I caught him with girlfriends because I’m only running my mouth now that he is dead.

My mum was strict. She was always cancelling stuff from the list we brought from school. It was what she approved that my dad would buy. I would wait and just go and meet my dad in his office. I would tell him I wanted to collect money for the stuff my mother cancelled from the list and he would give me. I have not seen any man who loves a woman the way he loved my mum but if he could do that, it means love does not guarantee faithfulness. There was pressure on him to marry an Abriba woman when they were giving him a chieftaincy title but he refused. That still did not stop him from having girlfriends.

Every woman deserves a man who loves her more than she loves him

It is not the men’s fault; it is just the way they were made. Trust me, my dad is everything I want in a husband if I eventually see one. I want a man who could root for me; who could trust me when everybody is against me. I think every woman deserves a man who loves her more than she loves him. Because of the animalistic thing in man, they have tendencies to take a walk. But a woman, especially an African woman, cannot take a walk because when you are divorced whether you like it or not you are a tokunbo. Even the men that come to you feel you should be happy they are coming.

I wish my father had lived long enough to see where I am today

He had family values. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know a better Abiriba man than my dad. He always spoke his language to you whether you understood it or not. He was proud of his heritage. My only regret is that he is not here. I would have loved to tell him I told you so, see where I am. He didn’t believe I was strong enough for this.

I’m a combination of both my parents. I want to believe I took after their strength but I don’t know whom I took the stubborn thing from.

Here’s the point she broke down and cried. We switched off our recorders in memory of Chief Nelson Jombo.

My dad died at 57 but he smoked actively for 35 years

My father’s death is something I don’t want to talk about (sobbing). My dad is the reason I can never smoke or marry somebody who smokes. I don’t want to talk about my dad (crying). My dad didn’t die by accident. He died of bronchitis. That is what you get when you smoke for too long. He lungs were infected.

In this industry, most people feel they have to smoke to be hip.

I was shocked when someone called me to say they wrote that I smoke. I had a good laugh. I could do any other thing but smoking is something I will never do because it killed my dad. Those close to me that smoke don’t feel comfortable doing it around me. Smoking is not something people can give up for you. My dad was still smoking while undergoing treatment because it was an addiction. My dad died at 57 but he smoked actively for 35 years. The man smoked a major part of his life. I always argued with him not to smoke. If you presented your reasons against smoking, he would tell you he had been smoking before you were born.

I cannot accommodate a cheating husband

I can’t. My dad is the reason I see that that is the way men are created. But that does not mean I will accommodate it. I take pride in being an African woman. I can’t take the fact that someone should tell me there is nothing I can do about a cheating husband because I’m an African woman. I don’t think that should be the case. To whom much is given much is expected. I demand as much as I give. When I give you so much in a relationship, it is only logical that I demand as much.

I don’t know if I can accept a man who is unfaithful. I don’t think I can accept a man who doesn’t have family values or who thinks I should be happy that he is in my life. He should be the one that is happy I’m in his life. Anybody who is going to end up with me is the winner. There is nothing saying I must get married as an African woman. I have not seen the right man. Someone can be a perfect boyfriend and not be a perfect husband.

If you can get 70% on the list of what you want in a man, then you have gotten your perfect man.

In a relationship, there are things you can take in a marriage and there are things you wouldn’t. The transition from being single is drastic. Most men still prefer women to sit at home and not work and I wonder why. Yet they are still attracted to women who are working. That goes a long way to tell you about men. There is no perfect man. All those people who say they are waiting for a perfect man are deceiving themselves. If there is a perfect man, there won’t be God. If you can get 70% on the list of what you want in a man, then you have gotten your perfect man.

The media and Nollywood marriages

It is the same press that say Nollywood marriages don’t last that always ask when we will get married. The fact that somebody is on the screen does not mean the person is not human. The only difference is that everything you do is under scrutiny. It annoys me sometimes when people look at you as different from other human beings. I guess it is just one of the curses of this job. It is just that the blessings are more.
People who don’t know jack about you talk about you. The junk journalists supply them with stories that are not true except the correct spelling of your name. Sometimes they get mine wrong. They spell Jombo with a ‘u’. So, you have to defend yourself to people who really know you and you wonder what you have to do with people who don’t know you.

The media can only speculate about my relationships. They can never hear it from me. I know that if you want your relationship to grow, you have to keep it out of the press.

Life is one big stage and we are all actors

What you become in life is not about what you read in school; it is all about talent. I think all of us are actors. It is just that some of us have decided to make money with our talents. If you check out life, who you are in the presence of our kids is different from who you are in the presence of visitors. We all act at different levels of our lives. It is just that we don’t realise it.

I have no regrets dumping statistics. Luckily, my dad is not alive to hear that. I don’t have regrets at all. Two of my classmates are in my employment now. One is actually my primary school classmate while the other was my classmate in secondary school. It is just about them knowing who I am from when I was born.
So, it is about what you do with what you have acquired. I don’t think any knowledge gained is wasted.

My first script, Ordained, was produced eight years ago

I started writing when I started acting. It was just that people did not know. My first script that was produced, Ordained, was about eight years ago. It is just that I’m mostly known as an actress. But I will not tell you how much I earn.

I am a success story

I am as successful as I can get. I think my career speaks for itself. Success is being fulfilled at what you do and in all modesty, I am a success story. As for failure, I think you cannot know success if you had not known failure. I have known failure in every area of my life. For me to get here, I must have known failure. For you to say you are successful, you must have known failure.
There had been times I felt like quitting. when my career wasn’t going the way I wanted. People were telling me to go and get (another) job. There was a point I felt I was tired but I never stopped believing in myself.

I cut my dreadlocks to repackage myself for new roles

It’s showbiz. At a time I was always getting a particular role and I needed to prove that I can act other roles. So, I cut my hair because I had dreadlocks and I totally repackaged myself. And you won’t believe it, I started playing other roles. The truth is, if producers see you in a particular role, you have to do something drastic to convince them that you can play other roles. You have to be able to look at your jobs and learn. That is why I find it funny when people say they don’t watch their own films. You must not get to a stage where you stop learning. I never stop learning. Every day is a learning process. I watch my films to learn more.

Kissing on screen

I don’t think kiss on screen is real kiss. I have not really played kissing on the screen.

I’m a sucker for good dialogue

I’m a sucker for good dialogue. When I see good dialogue I sink into it. Being an actor is a privilege because you are able to live another life and come out of it and still be you. I had to first of all fall in love with the script.

The characters I play do not affect me. Rather they teach me. When you play the role of a drug addict, you know the evil of drugs. I learn from the character I have played.

My rating of actresses

Mercy Johnson is drama queen, Ini Edo is charismatic, Omotola is lucky. It is not easy to be having kids and still remain on the A-list. Ramsey is a cross-breed. Emeka Ike, that is my bros now. Bimbo Akintola, she is just Bimbo. And yes, there is rivalry in the industry. It might not be on the surface but it is there.

Ini Edo and I

She is my friend and still my friend.
That is the press trying to find something out of nothing. They said all kinds of things about why I was not at her wedding but the truth is i didn’t because I was working. I wasn’t released and she understands. Ini is my friend and she is still my friend. As far as friendship is concerned, you hear things about each other. I saw it in the paper and we spoke about it.

Journalists make up all kinds of stories about how there is so much in-fighting in the industry. They need to make some people scapegoats. For instance that one actor ended up playing a role originally cast for another person is nothing new or unusual. I don’t think there is any actor alive who has not played somebody’s role.