Goodnight our Village Headmaster!

By BENJAMIN NJOKU

IT’S bound to be ‘good night’ as  the remains of legendary Nollywood actor, Justus Esiri who died nearly two months ago,  will be  laid to rest this morning in his home town, Abraka, in Delta State.

Esiri began his final journey home last Tuesday with a candlelight procession/night of tribute organised in his honour by the Actors Guild of Nigeria, AGN. The star-studded event was held at the celebrity hangout, O’Jez, at the National Stadium, Lagos. It was  followed by a service of songs held in honour of the departed actor at Catholic Church of the Ascension, Airport Road, Lagos.

According to the deceased’s second son, Sidney Esiri popularly known as Dr. Sid, there will be a requiem mass this morning before interment.

At the night of tribute, Dr. Sid who spoke on behalf of the Esiri family thanked Nollywood practitioners for honouring his father.

“On behalf of the Esiri family, we say thank you to Nollywood for honouring our father.  Justus Esiri was a legend and can never be forgotten because he played a vital role for everybody around him,”  Dr. Sid said.

He added: “From now till the end of time, my dad’s name would be remembered for excellence and quality. He was a perfectionist and he showed it in everything he did while he was alive.  My dad told me something while he was alive. He  said to me, I  may not have all the money in this world but I have a name. I am a testament to that name.”

Late Justus

Late Justus

A galaxy of Nollywood stars who came out in their numbers to pay their last respects to the departed actor described Esiri as “the pillar of the industry.”

Leading the night of tribute was AGN president, Ibinabo Fibeesima who was represented at the event by actress, Ini Edo. She described Justus Esiri as a respected actor who lived a fulfilled life and also made AGN what it is today.

In her words: “Late Justus Esiri lived a fulfilled life. He made AGN what it is today because he wanted a positive change for the industry which he achieved before his death,” Ibinabo said.

Also,paying tribute to the late actor, Ernest Obi said  that “Justus Esiri wasn’t just an actor or filmmaker; he was there for me when most people weren’t there. He was an enigma. One of the few people I invited to my marriage via text message and he came. He played the role of my father that day. He made that day the greatest of my life.”

In her tribute, Kate Henshaw who led a chorus at the event said, Nollywood was not mourning Esiri, but celebrating his life because he left a legacy worthy of emulation behind. Uncle Justus lived a  fulfilled life. Many could not live to see their children’s children. Many died before they turned 40. But Uncle Justus left a legacy that is worth of emulation and his life is worth celebrating.

Prince Ifeanyi Dike, the Chairman, Board of Trustees of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, AGN, led a prayer session during the event. He urged guests to pray that God should ward off death among entertainers.

Other stars who paid glowing tribute to the late actor, Olu Jacobs, Kanayo O. Kanayo,  Segun Arinze, Fidelis Duke, Julius Agwu, Okey Bakassi, Monalisa Chinda and Emem Isong.

The late Esiri died of complications from diabetes in a Lagos hospital on the 19th of February.

Esiri, Member of the Order of the Niger, MON, was famous for his role as the Village Headmaster in the now rested popular television series of Village Headmaster.

Born on 20 November, 1942 in Oria-Abraka, Delta State, Esiri attended Urhobo College, Effurun in the then Bendel State. He was at the Maximillan University, Munich, German, 1964, Professor. Weners Institute of Engineering, West Berlin, 1967 and the Ahrens School of Performing Arts, 1968.

Esiri started his acting career in Germany. He was the only Nigerian male artiste performing on stage between 1968 and 1969. He also worked for Voice of Nigeria, German Service as a translator. He was performing on stage in Germany when a delegation from Nigeria invited him home to perform in a government sponsored programme.

The veteran actor was a recipient of many awards including, THEMA Awards, NTA Honours awards and AMAA awards. He was also the star actor in acclaimed Nollywood productions such as Wasted Years, Forever, The Prize, Six Demons, Corridors of Power, Last Night, The Tyrant, The Investigation and The Ghost. He was also reputed to have performed more on TV drama programmes than any other Nigerian actor.

Late Esiri was last seen few weeks before his demise, at a close-door parley when a delegation of the Federal Government led by Secretary to the Federal Government, Chief Anyim Pius Anyim, met some major stakeholders in the entertainment industry in Lagos,where he informed them about their expected role in the forthcoming centenary celebration.

With no fond pictures together, it would be quite difficult to prove that I met Sir Justus Esiri, twice. But when I tell you of my brief encounter with him; those close to him will recognize the grace, the smile, and a rare gentlemanliness.

It was my first official assignment on the entertainment desk, Enebeli Elebuwa’s candle light outing a few months back. It was a lot to take in; all those celebrities I had admired, some I had fairly liked, from afar, all in real life at once!  Then came the interviews.

Some were nice, some were a bit dramatic, and some had experienced terrible things in the hands of some of my colleagues that talking to the press was not an option. I did not get to interview this veteran actor that night but I remember when he came on stage.

His eulogy for his friend was my most memorable. The second most memorable has already made headlines — Stephanie Okereke’s prayers.

Although it was obvious that he was battling an illness, the Village headmaster walked up the stage at the OJ Stadium with a weathered grace that spoke of years of wisdom that only experience could bring. There was a pain in his eyes, yet a peace on his face, and the entire auditorium stood still as he sang, “Has anyone seen my good friend Enebeli?”

I’m sure it was not only Enebeli that Justus Esiri sang for…I will not pretend to know his relationship with the late Sam Loco Efe or Pete Ene. But there was something in his voice that made an outsider seem like he had them in mind too. It was a bitter-sweet-dirge-celebration, a complex feeling genuinely portrayed by someone who had so much to be thankful for, but a painful reminder that these memories would only remain as such, and that his own time was near. There was no acting there.

Pa Esiri showed up the next day at the requiem mass held in his friend’s honour. Feeling out of place in a new environment — me, not him — I shuffled nervously from one feet to the other at the back of the church, doodling, scribbling unnecessary notes that would find no place in my story.

Then I noticed a familiar figure walking towards me. There was an excitement on my inside that I couldn’t explain. It was not the same thing that the screaming fits of Justin Bieber fans or the fainting spells by Michael Jackson’s followers. It was different; respectfully so. The icon took one step after the other till he got to door where I stood. “Migwo sir” I greeted. He answered with a smile, and continued his ‘majestic walk.’

Some of us got to speak to him after the ceremony, but there were two reasons I did not ask any questions: One, he was standing under the sun, and the second, more truthfully, I was in awe. Some braver journalists did ask, but I wasn’t listening to them. I only heard the response of the man whom I had respected from my childhood. He said: “Those who have the opportunity to emulate Enebeli should do so.

“What I would miss the most is the fact that he is not here again.” Many people would say the latter about Justus Esiri. I only had a brief encounter with him, so I do not have the right to miss him as much as his close friends and family. But the former is well within my rights, a piece of advice for me and for you. It is only wise to emulate someone who makes such a great impression during a brief encounter. I remember Sir Esiri for that.

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