Tribute to Justus Esiri: Justus was larger than life itself

By DELE OLOWU

When without any preparation, I jumped out of regular employment around 1978, it was clear I was headed for deep waters. At 29, it didn’t really matter, as I foolishly believed I could conquer the world even with my bare hands! But the reality was vastly different.

With less than five years experience in journalism, and an inchoate portfolio  of business ideas, I certainly did not look the part of a millionaire in the making. But some relief came in the shape of an Avant Garde motor company based in Benin. It offered me a consultancy!

Atari Motors owned by Theo Boyo was not merely interested in merchandising. It was also a fashion statement as it brought together a number of men and women, all of them fashionistas, and many of them, fluent in English and German.  Atari  flew the flag of exotica and Justus Esiri was one of its more expressive icons.

It was at Atari that I met Justus. But having attended Hussey College I was myself quite familiar with the legendary visibility of the Esiri family in the Warri urban spread. I had no direct links with Justus, but my late mother, Mrs Julie Ikomi, taught Justus Esiri at Township School, Warri. As my friendship grew with Justus, teacher and pupil would meet now and again, with my mum often chorusing his name in her special way Ejustusuuu! The meetings were often drenched in animation.

While serving at Atari where he was the Manager, Justus often gave the impression that he had his gaze on other things. He was a natural entertainer and regaled us with stories of his career in European theatres.

He sang songs in different languages and till date, I can’t recall anyone, living or dead, who can sing the song entitled ‘The End’ with the professional dexterity Justus Esiri would deploy. If I also recall rightly, he also told me, his wife had been a member of his theatre group in Lagos, before their sojourn in Benin.

After Atari Justus relocated to Lagos and I believe he met  Peter Igho through me. Peter it was who threw the opportunity at him, to reignite  his expressive genius. He starred in Village Headmaster and the rest is history.

He is a household name and has made a huge success of his career in Nollywood. Nollywood is one of the most enduring Nigerian triumphs, owing nothing to government and it’s stultifying influence. It is surely one of the truly unmixed blessings of the Nigerian condition. And Justus Esiri is arguably one of the great purveyors of this huge revolution.

But Justus was not just an actor. Or let us say he was an actor of many parts. He was deeply religious and his Catholic faith remained somewhere in his heart. To hear him execute the gregorian chant, was always a uniquely uplifting experience. He was free with his time and freer still with his money.

A younger friend of mine from Etsako was put through university and law school by Justus Esiri. In fact, Justus adopted him as his son. Justus was a good mixer, an enthusiastic friend, a party animal and recognized the joys which came from entertainment.

He was also a great husband and a caring father. Justus was a well-known face at Olosha Market, to which I accompanied him on ocassional Saturdays. He would chop meat with butchers, haggle with fish vendors, banter with bread sellers, and eventually haul his unwieldy harvest into his vehicle amidst singing and dancing!

As a visiting guest, I enjoyed his hospitality frequently. Omiata, his left handed wife, was the artisan in the house. No power problem was beyond her ken. And her cooking, even though closely mimicked by Justus himself, was unrivaled. The Esiris are  a cohesive family. God has blessed this family.

The goodwill left by Justus whom I saw last when my mum was interred in February 2012, is huge. Justus is truly larger than life. One of my private regrets is that again one is left feeling, it is death which often serves as the sympathetic artist, giving true dimension to the gifts of the deceased.

As we bask in the afterglow of this illustrious career, let us resolve to honour greatness more loquaciously, even when it is on its two legs! RIP Justus.

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