Breaking the silence on modern-day slavery
An Interview with Tina Okpara, author of ‘My Life Has a Price’
Tina Okpara’s memoir, now translated into English, talks about her five-year journey from a loving yet poor childhood in Nigeria to the ordeal of modern day slavery in wealthy, suburban Paris. She was only 13 when celebrity footballer, Godwin Okpara and his wife Linda, lured her father into giving her up for a supposedly better life in Europe.
Tina endured sexual, physical and mental abuse from her new adoptive parents until she turned 18, old enough and smart enough to escape and no longer be considered a child who would be returned to her adoptive family as a runaway.
The Godwin Okpara and his wife Linda were sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison by a French court in 2007 for their horrendous cruelty to Tina.
ZIALLO GOGUI: It has been five years since the trial of your adoptive parents, how has your life changed since then?
TINA OKPARA: I can say that there is a lot of difference now because after what I have been through with the people who adopted me I was placed in a centre for children. There, they took care of me and because I was already mature I didn’t go to school. Instead I went to learn French.
After learning French I studied a bit to decide what I was going to do. Nursing is something I always wanted to do since I was a little girl. It was my dream. I couldn’t go straight into nursing because I didn’t have the qualifications. I had to become a carer and after three years of that, get a certificate to become an aide nurse then after three other years finally become a nurse. That is what I’m trying to do at the moment.
I am at the end of the three years as a carer and I am putting the necessary paperwork to appear in front of a board for the eight modules left to validate and become an aide nurse.
It’s very long, I know. One thing I know about myself is that when I decide to do something I don’t give up. If you don’t fall, you can’t rise up. That is why I’m trying, I keep trying and I won’t give up.
ZIALLO GOGUI: In your book, ‘My Life Has a Price’, you said you wanted to be like any other girl your age. Would you say you’ve managed that so far?
TINA OKPARA: Yes. It’s true that through that time I would ask myself when I would be like other girls. I wanted to live my life like other girls my age. Today I can say that I’ve managed to do that. I know there is something that will always pull me back, that is holding me, but despite that I can say that today I am living the life I wish to have because when I want to do something I do it. I didn’t have the freedom before to do all that I wanted so now I do and I live my life to the fullest.
ZIALLO GOGUI: You endured the worst at a very sensitive time of your life and it is not easy going through what you have been through. Where did the strength to move forward come from?
TINA OKPARA: I think it is the fact that I want to make it in life. The fact that at the beginning when I left the people that adopted me, the first thing I thought was that I needed to fight, I needed to win a battle, I needed to move on for my father.
So I was doing everything to make up for the time lost, to make my father proud but after his death I still didn’t fight for myself. The only people I can fight for are my brothers.
To prove to those people that think that I’m worth nothing. I want to show them that I can make it without them. And for myself, it is something that I have to do. To prove to people that went through the same thing or are still going through it that they can make it, that they have to be strong. They must not give up. It is to show that you can go through hell and still survive.
ZIALLO GOGUI: What motivated you to write the memoir of your struggles?
TINA OKPARA: At the beginning I had some propositions of writing a book but I refused because during the year after the trial all I needed was to rebuild myself, to get myself ready to live life like a young girl of my age. So I hid for a few years. Even when I met people who asked about my name and asked me if I knew Godwin Okpara the Nigerian footballer I would deny it. I always told them that I didn’t know a footballer called Okpara.
So they would tell me what happened with him; that he did this and that and that he was in prison. I would pretend not to know a thing about it to see their stance on the matter and at the same time hide myself. At the end I decided to share my experience because I would help. It is like a therapy to relieve my pain. It is also a testimony for the people that went through what I went through.
It’s also a message for parents in Africa that think that giving their children to someone is okay. It is wrong; their children are not really safe. People you trust are not exactly what you think they are. Our parents have to understand that. I am very glad that the novel is translated in English because it would make people, especially from Nigeria, and my family back home understand my experience. I explained some things, a little but not everything so now they would be able to know the whole story.
ZIALLO GOGUI: Do you know any other person who has been through the same thing from Nigeria? Or any other African?
TINA OKPARA: No, but I can remember that when I was doing the promotion for the book in France I met a journalist who was promoting a novel as well about a girl with a similar story as mine. Sadly she passed away. She didn’t have the luck I had. When I heard about her it gave me goose bumps. I thought I could have had the same fate if I stayed longer with them. I am giving the glory to God for being alive today.
ZIALLO GOGUI: What do you intend to achieve with this book?
TINA OKPARA: As I said before, it is to share my pain, to give hope to those who don’t have hope anymore. It is to tell them that we can survive without being happy or being loved. We have the love in ourselves to share. What makes me want to be a nurse later is that to have a job like that you have to give love, to love someone. The fact that I was not loved made me want to share with people the love that I have in me that I can’t share with my parents. There is this and to beg our parents in Africa to keep their children. It is not about what they will bring you later, it is about their happiness and love.
ZIALLO GOGUI: How would society respond to the series of events you had to go through were they to happen in Nigeria instead of France?
TINA OKPARA: I can say that I am lucky that I am in France. In Africa there is a lot of corruption. People say that Godwin is a good man because he and with his wife brought me to Europe to have a better life. They maybe did but it is not the best life I had. I know that if it happened in Africa they wouldn’t be in Jail. I would be the one in jail because the rich pay for everything. They buy judges and they can buy everything while in Europe the rich can’t. You have to pay for what you’ve done. I am sorry for those going through the same ordeal in Africa because they probably won’t survive and they won’t have anyone to listen to them.
ZIALLO GOGUI: During the trial you said that you didn’t want your adoptive father to go to prison because of you. It is hard to imagine your reaction when it was revenge time and you were in position of power then. Why such compassion?
TINA OKPARA: First, I think about my family back home. I don’t want them to suffer because of me. I don’t want people to point at them because of me. I don’t want my parents to get hurt. I don’t want anything to happen to them. For me what I went through is in the past and I need to move on. Putting them in jail would not remove all the pain that I had. According to the justice system they are going to pay for what they did but that doesn’t remove the pain, the suffering, the humiliation that I went through. That cannot remove it all so I think all I need and all I want is to just get out of their way and go forward, restart my life. I don’t want anything to happen to my family.
ZIALLO GOGUI: Apart from the sheer evilness and cruelty, why do you think Linda Okpara acted in such inhumane and degrading manner?
TINA OKPARA: I have no idea but I think she was so cruel. A man doesn’t know the pain of a woman giving birth but she’s a lady, she has children, she has four children, she knows the pain she went through to give birth. She couldn’t even think about that. How would my mum, my late mum, how she felt when giving birth to me? She doesn’t have the compassion of – I don’t know- a mother. All I needed was love. Instead of that she treated me like a slave. Maybe she was making me pay for her own experience. I don’t know why she did it. I’m just saying it was just cruel.
I’m trying to move forward today. Sometimes I think about how my life could have been if she had treated me differently. It’s something that I can’t erase and the only thing I can do is to try to move on.
ZIALLO GOGUI: While reading your story there is a nagging question that keeps coming back. Where were all those people who magically appeared to save her when just minutes before it seemed like no one could? Do you think it was luck? Do you believe in the invisible hand of fate?
TINA OKPARA: It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the second time I ran away from the house looking for help. I can remember the first time I ran away, I was tired. In every country there is danger everywhere. I ran away despite the fact that I knew I could get myself killed. You know in life there is a stage you reach when you say to yourself, I don’t care whether I die or not. You say, let me try and if it happens that I get saved, good! If it doesn’t work, that’s the end. So the first time I ran away at the police station where they took me I explained to them what I went through. They asked my name and when I said it the first thing they did was asking if it was Okpara the footballer. They totally forgot about me. All they were talking about was the footballer. They were talking about football. They didn’t care. Then they said they were going to help and get people to take care of me. But they lied to me. They called home and asked them to come and take me back. My adoptive parents went to the police to report me missing and saying that would have put them out of trouble. They wanted proof for my parents back in Nigeria that I had been reported missing. When I was at the police station the person that came to take me back home was a friend of his and the auntie called grandma. They came and when she saw me she started pretending she was worried for me; playing the comedy as if they really cared.
So after they took me back home I was shaking, I didn’t know what to do. I thought that would be the end but it wasn’t. I think it wasn’t my time. When my time came that was when I was saved.
ZIALLO GOGUI: I understand that Godwin Okpara is now released from prison and was deported to Nigeria. How do you feel about that?
TINA OKPARA: I don’t think he was released but I’ve heard the rumours. I can remember asking my lawyer and she told me that it is possible. I asked how is it possible that he should be released without me knowing? She said it was because sometimes when people get released, if the other party is aware they could go to the prison and shoot them. That’s why they don’t tell the victims that the person is released. I tried to find out my own way because I’m in contact with one of their daughters. I don’t know, she told me her father is still in prison so I don’t think he’s released.
ZIALLO GOGUI: How do you feel about seeing them both again?
TINA OKPARA: I don’t wish to see them again. But if it happens one day, because the world is small, I’ll pass through, I’ll choose my way and I won’t even look.
ZIALLO GOGUI: Is there a specific message in the book that you want the readers to grasp?
TINA OKPARA: The message is to give courage to people that went through the same thing. To give hope. Even though you fell once you can still rise up and keep trying and never give up. And to our parents please, please, please, take care of your children.
ZIALLO GOGUI: You are a strong woman today, a survivor. What is the meaning of the word freedom for you?
TINA OKPARA: Knowing that I’m the leader of my life: wake up when you want, eat what you want, do what you want, you know, live the life you wish to live. That’s what they call freedom and that is what I’m feeling. Sometimes I think back about those things when I’m home. I have a ritual when I think about my past. I stay at home and I put some on music, tissue on the side and I cry listening to the music. I wipe off my tears after and when I finish I open the door, I go out and smile like someone that never had a hard life. That is how I live my life. And at work or anywhere I go nobody realises that what I went through is true. I don’t give the impression of someone that went through something that is so sad. I don’t want anyone to have pity on me.
ZIALLO GOGUI: The Ivorian writer Amadou Kourouma wrote ‘Allah is not obliged’, a book about a child soldier who after much pain and suffering came to the conclusion that God is not obliged to be fair to all his creatures here on earth. Your faith has been shaken by your experience of pain. Have you come to a conclusion too?
TINA OKPARA: It’s true that I lost my faith but that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe anymore. I still believe but what I think is where God was when I went through that? Through all those sad times, where was God when I lost my parents? Where was God when things were bad and I couldn’t be saved? When I go to see my family they pray, they go to church every day. They’re all pushing me. I said I believe in my heart. Believing is in the heart, the way you live your life, the way you love your neighbour as yourself. That’s what I believe today. I don’t mean that one day I won’t go back to church; I will go back to church. I’m not ready yet. I won’t do it now because it would be like pretending. So you have to do things when they come from your heart. You don’t do it because people want you to do it, do it because you are feeling it in your heart.
ZIALLO GOGUI: How far was Cyril Guinet involved in writing the book?
TINA OKPARA: You know Cyril Guinet is a nice guy, a very intelligent guy. He attended the trial. He tried to get in contact with me then. But I told my lawyer that I didn’t want to have any contact with journalists. I told her that I wasn’t ready. So he had the patience to wait until I was ready and he tried again. My lawyer thought I was ready and called to tell me there was a journalist that wanted to know if I wanted to share my story. I told him yes. I gave him my number and said there was no problem. He contacted me and we saw each other. After the book came out I sent him a big thank-you because he’s the one who helped me. He helped reveal things inside of me that I thought non-existent.
He asked me questions and I answered. I recounted stories of my ordeal. This is how we did it. After narrating everything he sent me a copy before the novel came out. They sent me the manuscript. I read through everything to be sure that nothing was removed. In some parts there were words not written the way I wanted. So I made some notes in it to say this is the way it should be. I did that twice, before and after the novel went back to the proofreaders. I had to read it again before it went to print.
ZIALLO GOGUI: Why have you kept your name Okpara?
TINA OKPARA: I’m ashamed to still have that name. But I have no choice. On all my papers it says Okpara. Today I wish to change my name to use my blood parents’ name but sadly because I’m not French yet I can’t change my name. When I have the French nationality I can ask to change my name. Things are not moving like I wish so I don’t really have a choice.
Ziallo Gogui is an Ivorian living in London. She is a Spanish/Business major at Hull University, seeking a career in book publishing.