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Rachel Oniga: As queen mother of moviedom bows out

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Moviedom quacked last week when news filtered out that the acclaimed queen mother of Nolly Silver Screen had passed on. In fact, it sent dark cloud over the Nigerian motion picture industry where Chief Rachel Tabuno Oniga was a major and significant player.

“Veteran Actress Rachel Oniga is dead” was how a foremost entertainment journalist broke the news on Saturday morning on facebook. The native of Eku in Delta State and holder of the traditional title of Yeye Amuludun of Ile-Ife reportedly died at 10pm on Friday night. Her son Tunji Oniga was to later confirm that the veteran actress of vast credits died “at about 10pm” last Friday, of heart related complication.

There were insinuations by some online news media that the actress of Onome and Take Me To Mama fame died as “result of COVID-19.”

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“No, she didn’t die of COVID,” Tunji asserted, noting that his mum has been battling with a heart related issue for a while before her eventual demise.

Tributes poured in from home and abroad and it has continued to rain for the actress and mother who will be laid to rest in Lagos on August 27, after a wake keep and artiste night at her residence in Magodo scheduled for August 26.

An accomplished actress, Oniga never knew about 25 years ago that she would become a choice actress in the Nigerian television and movie scene. Indeed, as she revealed in an earlier interview with this reporter, she would probably have dismissed whoever predicted that she would emerge a beloved actress as a wishful thinker and or “a fake soothsayer who merely wanted to patronize her.”

Her childhood desires was to become something of an entrepreneur or a top rated working class lady. A career in acting did not cross her mind at all, nor did it ever feature on the list of her career choices.

But fate, which lurked around whilst she decided later on a career in computer programming and was to later work for some years in a Dutch consultancy firm as personal assistant to the managing director, was soon to have its way. It was also at that time that she and the father of her three children agreed they should live separately. Not only did her marriage of several years turned sour, she lost her job in the process and was left to take care of the family as a single parent from then on.

As if fate was suggesting that her days of emotional trauma were over, Oniga had gone to Yaba, Lagos, to do some shopping when she ran into the veteran actor of the Village Headmaster fame, Lai Ashadele. That encounter with the bearded actor was to later turn the dice positively for Oniga, who till date considers that encounter one of the most memorable experience of her life. It indeed marked a turning point in her life and choice of her career.

Auntie Rachel, as younger colleagues call her, recalled with nostalgia that encounter with the gray-bearded actor that has today turned her into an actress who is rightly eulogised for her terrific acting talents.

“When I met Ashadele, he told me of a television soap- Memorial Hospital a Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) programme they were shooting at Badagry under the direction of Chris Obi Rapu. So, when he said I could come over and try my hands at acting, I agreed. And when I got to Badagry, Rapu asked if I really wanted to act, because they needed someone to play the role of the Matron and then Mrs. Bright. I was eventually selected to play Mrs. Bright. It was my first time of having to face the camera, but the entire production crew was stunned that I could be that composed on my first day on set. That was how it all began,” she reminisced.

Indeed, it was on that programme that her terrific talent was first noticed. From there, the motherly actress got other television roles. Soon, home video producers, who too felt she possessed the acting strut, started looking her direction.

Late Chico Ejiro was the first to offer her an opportunity to prove her acting mettle on home video as a lead character in the emotive movie titled Onome. Oniga’s effort as ‘Mama Onome’ caused tremendous stir. After that, she featured in quite a number of other home video productions and instantly became one of the sectors recognizable and most sought after actresses.

Her movie credits, which include a remarkable appearance in House Girl and Thorns of Love swelled by the weeks, months and years. However, it took an appearance in the Yoruba language movie Owo Blow, for the producers in that circle to acknowledge that she could act too in that language. Straight away, invitations to feature in Yoruba language flicks mounted.

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Born to an Urhobo father and an Isoko mother, Oniga who has won several awards, including the award of Best Yoruba Actress by the organizers of the THEMA awards in 1998 had her early education in Lagos and in Uromi in Edo State. She returned to Lagos afterwards and was enrolled into Rimax Computer College, where she bagged a qualification in computer programming. It was about this time that she got married and secured a comfortable paid employment. The marriage, which was later not to be for reasons she would not want to divulge, was blessed with three children.

Hailed as a cross over actress because of her ability to act both in the Yoruba and English language movies, Oniga’s multi-lingual acting ability has served her well as an actress and she has on that account done more movies that she can even recollect. “I cannot count the number of movies I have done, both English and Yoruba. But the English, I am sure I have done over 150, including Big Time Chick and Lady in the Forest.”

Asked when she clocked 60 whether she would retire anytime soon, Oniga interjected swiftly: “No retirement for me o! By God’s grace, I would continue to do this until when I am 80. Even when I am 80, I will still act and that time, there will be no more make up. I will act naturally.”

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