It would not be out of place if Madam Mary Ugele is referred to as the living Mother Theresa of our time.
Her story is extraordinary in many ways. Stories abound of women who are passionate about taking care of abandoned children and with time, get a place and register it as an NGO or business of some sort.
It would eventually evolve into motherless babies homes where good spirited people as well as organizations pay visits oftentimes with gifts and food items but the case of Ugele is different.
From the age of nine when she began taking care of her siblings, being the only surviving female out of 12 children after the demise of her mother, she knew she was born to render selfless service to mankind. In fact, she did not only take care of her siblings, but also their children and grandchildren and that is besides the numerous ones she took care of outside her family fold.
Without a registered NGO or help from anybody or organization, Ugele explained how it began for her in Port Harcourt. At 69, she is partially blind and helpless. Her story:
â€œI started taking care of children in 1960, then my own friends would get pregnant and they would come to me because they were scared to go home to their parents. I would persuade them to keep the pregnancy because it wasnâ€™t good to kill an unborn child. I would beg these ladies to keep these pregnancies and promise to take care of their children when they put to bed. I was able to take care of these children because I had taken care of my own siblings.
I guess the gift was birthed all those years l took care of my siblings after my mother died. I was a child myself, only 9 years old. But l was more knowledgeable than my siblings who were all boys. Today, I am the only surviving child of my mother and father, but I took care of my siblings till they were grown. l have taken care of some of their children and grand children.â€
Without assistance of any sort from anywhere, how she was able to feed, clothe and generally take care of these children who were increasing by the day would certainly baffle anyone, but mama Ugele explained how she coped at the early stage.
â€œI took care of these children like they were mine. I didnâ€™t register any company or got help from anywhere. At some point in my life, l hawked food and snacks to feed them. Eventually, l was able to establish a restaurant in Portharcourt close to Sea-shell Primary School. Along the line, l lost that business and sold fried yam, plantain and all sorts of snacks in front of my house in Bundu waterside.â€
Her story certainly should elicit tears but she is not done yet with her situation as she made a startling revelation concerning her personal life when asked how she was able to cope with these children alongside her biological children.
â€œI do not have any biological child as l didnâ€™t marry. I didnâ€™t marry because I knew that marriage may not help me achieve the goal of taking care of my siblings. I was the strong one in my motherâ€™s house and a bread winner at that time. My brothers were not so assertive, hence they couldnâ€™t keep any job. I would be the one to get work for us. I guess taking care of my siblings and their children eventually prepared me to take care of other children who were not my blood.â€
Looking frail due to old age, she recalled how many kids she has raised since she came to Port-Harcourt on October 22nd, 1960.
â€œl have raised more than 40 children and I would raise more if l am opportuned. I believe that by taking care of these children who are helpless, l am doing my share of the work of God. The work of God is not only evangelism; you can work for God by taking care of people in need. God instructed us to do that also.â€
However in 1987, an incident happened that got the attention of the media. It had to do with a boy called Moses and how he found a place in her life and home. She narrates the episode.
â€œIn 1987, Moses was named by a Port-Harcourt based television station. His biological mother abandoned him with with an aged woman who was 90 years old. Alice, the aged woman was a member of Assemblies of God Church, formerly at 109a Aggrey Road but now at 107 Aggrey Road, Port-Harcourt, Rivers state. When this young woman walked by and gave her the child to hold for some minutes, she waited in vain for her to return and pick her child.
The young woman simply disappeared into thin air. The aged woman who couldnâ€™t understand what happened to the boyâ€™s mother started crying as the child cried. This attracted a crowd of people.
â€œI was at home that evening lying down on my bed when my spirit told me to go to the church. I wondered why l was asked to go to church on a Friday. I didnâ€™t have any business in the church that evening as l wasnâ€™t a teacher of Sunday school and there was preparatory class that evening.
I wasnâ€™t also in the choir, but l obeyed. When I got close to the church, l saw a huge crowd and went closer to see what was happening. I heard what was said and saw madam Alice in tears trying to explain to the crowd.
I seized the situation and promised to take care of the child. The next day, a Rivers based television station visited my home for a statement and asked whether l wanted help from the government. I told them that l wouldnâ€™t be needing any help from the government, that Pharaohâ€™s daughter didnâ€™t need any help from anyone to take care of Moses in the Bible.â€
Despite her failing health, Ugele is not showing any sign of slowing down. She talks of how she has been managing financially including accusing some of her children of abandoning her.
â€œWe have coped! God is taking care of the family. HE saw us through in the past and HE is still seeing us through. Moses is 26 years old already and he is almost through with schooling. And since Moses, other children have joined the family. I am not as industrious as I was in those days. I am getting old, but God is still seeing us through with the help of some good Nigerians and some of my foster children who are now on their own abroad.
When asked if the amount of love and care given to all these children by her has been appreciated by these children by way of maintaining her in her old age, she has this to say: â€œWell I did all for God and Iâ€™m still doing all for God. God remembers! I didnâ€™t do this to be remembered or to be paid back by the children. Some of them remember to send things to us while others donâ€™t and we havenâ€™t heard any word from others. But the long and short of the matter is that I do not have any regretsâ€.
Madam Ugele also let us in into her background.
â€œMy father is from Ogoja in Cross Rivers state while my mother is from Igede in Benue state. My father was a traditional chief in those days, so he had 13 wives. My mother was the 13th wife.
She gave birth to 12 children, six boys and six girls. My fatherâ€™s first wives couldnâ€™t bear him children like he wanted. l guess that was why he married up to 13 wives. He had only a boy and a girl by one of his wives, only my mother was able to give him a lot of children, but only five survived eventually.
The fifth surviving child died also after my motherâ€™s death. He was only three months old. I cannot actually tell my age but my father told me that l was about six months old when Nigeria experienced her first eclipse. He kept sticks to represent my age and in 1964 when my father died, I had 19 sticks in my possession.â€
What some of her children said about her
According to Moses, the boy she found in 1987, now known as David :
â€˜â€™I was told that my biological mother abandoned me when I was only eight days old. l was 15 years old when mama told me this sad tale. Perhaps, l would have died if mama didnâ€™t pick me up. But l am very happy someone found me and loved me like l am hers. I really wondered what my life would have been if nobody took me into their home and showed me love.
â€œToday, I know that it is not only your biological parents that can take care of you. God can send someone to take care of you when you do not have anyone. I am grateful to God that HE sent someone to me. My advice to people is to show love to anyone you meet. And my advice to mothers is that they should take care of their children. It is not the childâ€™s fault, so you do not have to abandon the child. I know that it is not easy to take care of a child but with faith , God will see you through.
â€œMy prayer to God is that; HE gives me the strength and the will to take care of mama who is my mother today; that God will keep her so that l grow up to take care of her in her old age when she cannot take care of herself. My advice to Nigerians is that they should locate their gifts and calling and work for God like mama is doing. There is a reward for everything we doâ€.
Sarah Lawrence Ugbeji:
Sarah came into mamaâ€™s home when she was only a year and seven months old. Today, she is 12 years old and in secondary school. She said that mama has been everything to her; both her mother and her father all rolled into one. She said it was Madam Ugele who put her in school, feeds and clothes her.
â€œI donâ€™t know of any other mother than mama and my prayer is that mama lives long so I would also take care of her in future. I am so happy to be one of her children.â€
Moses Omoregbe, another beneficiary of madam Ugeleâ€™s love said he is the proprietor of Mosiac Primary and Secondary School, Bundu Waterside, Port-Harcourt, Rivers State.
â€œMama told me that she took me from my biological mother when l was only seven months old and she nurtured and cared for me until l became a man and l am on my own with my wife and children. She taught me all l know and gave me the reason to appreciate having a family to take care of. No wonder, l am doing school business where l take care of children and impact knowledge.
â€œI know her too well, she was a mother to me. As she kept advancing in age, l know a lot of challenges and factors also must have turned her here and there, but above all, she is still good. I do not regret growing through mama because l am who l am because of her. My siblings didnâ€™t stay long with her like l did because some of them travelled to hustle in other cities. I grew up under mama and l have grown to love her with passion.
The distance l want to go with educating children and the youths is still far as l want to run a university of my own. To me, true Christianity is loving selflessly and mama birthed this passion in me. From my childhood till now, mama has trained several children.
I have several siblings who are not my biological siblings. Nigerians do not have the spirit of investment and the best investment is in lives. These children are our future; the best investment we can make is training the younger ones for tomorrow. We havenâ€™t taken care of our future and that is why we have political thugs, Boko Haram and militants all around because we have refused to invest in our futureâ€.