Rev. Moses Iloh has been many things in his lifetime. The octogenarian, who will be celebrating his 85th birthday in about three months time, was a labour leader, footballer, boxer and sports administrator. He is today the Presiding Steward of the Soul Winning Ministries Inc., social critic and philanthropist. In this interview, he shares his life experience and his love for his wife, Edith, with NONYE BEN-NWANKWO and GBENRO ADEOYE

You will be 85 in another three months. We were expecting to see you with a walking stick, but you’re still very agile. What’s your secret?

Well, it’s God. One, I found God very early. I was born again at the age of 10. I was picked up by American missionaries and they led me to the Lord. Two, although my parents were very comfortable, my father was very much interested in the poor. So that gave us a background of humility. As I was growing up, I discovered that there are four things in life that are so inexpensive, honesty, integrity, dignity and humility. The poor have these four things but don’t know how to make the best use of them. So, we grew like that. I was born on a mines field. I was born in 1930. And because my father loved the poor, every Saturday, he would take two chairs to the market, a bowl, forceps, a scalpel and a bottle of carbolic. What did he do? You see, where we were born in the north, poor children didn’t wear shoes in those days and they played in the dust. There was an insect called Jigger (parasitic bug), which would get into their toes, itching them and multiplying. So they couldn’t walk and he didn’t know what else to do for them, so he would go there and remove the bugs one by one and cleanse their feet with the carbolic. That was what he did every Saturday. Nobody went with him, so we learnt to go with him, we would watch and help him. We were very comfortable people but we learnt that. As far as we knew, the VIP was the poor man. That’s why I say to myself, if I’m ever going to give any government a pass mark, it won’t be because it built bridges, airports, roads. Governments are obligated to do that. When a poor person gets up in the morning and shouts ‘thank God for this government’, then for me, that government has done well. That’s what I expect to see in Nigeria.

How was growing up for you?

I grew up with that background and I used to have so many problems and I was very tough. I was a boxer, I did a lot of running, I played top football in this country. I’ve always loved the poor, they mean so much to me. The upbringing of a child is very important. Money was important because then when we were going out, our father would give us one shilling, which was good money. So we would put it in our right pockets. We could buy what we liked and he encouraged us to give part of it out. Our parents were very generous so people gave us gifts when they heard that we were Iloh’s sons (my brother and I). We put the gifts in the left pockets and wouldn’t touch them. All we were entitled to was the money in the right pockets. We grew up like that. So the most important thing is the background. Right now, the churches cannot do so much, schools cannot do so much. It was expected that what you couldn’t get from your home, you would get it from your school. As a school boy then, our teachers were fire. When your mother told you she would report you to your teacher, you were half dead or when your teacher passed your area, you would be shivering. They were the beginning and the end and there was discipline.

You once had a confrontation with the government as a trade union leader. What was it about?

I was a trade union leader, a very tough one. I was with the Red Cross as a volunteer in Jos, Plateau State. I like to help people. Where I was working, I was a part-time Red Cross officer then. I was working for the Amalgamated Tin Mines of Nigeria when amazingly, because I was vocal and tough, I was made the president. And that took me higher to become the President of the Nigeria African Mines’ Workers Union. So I was very tough and smart but polite. The British government didn’t like my toughness but they knew I would never abuse anybody. In my time as a young boy, Nigeria was not like this. Hospitals were divided between Africans and Europeans. Even the churches and clubs were like that. There was a Mr. Hansen, a British, who was helping us (the union). He stayed at a hill station in Jos. We were to have a meeting and had been waiting for him to join us. So I sent someone to get a car and get Mr. Hansen where he was staying to come and give us a lecture. When he went there, the white man who was a receptionist asked what he wanted there. He said ‘get out you monkey.’ What? The fellow came back and told me that he couldn’t even get Mr. Hansen. I said I wouldn’t ask whether he truly told you so or not, I believe you. So at the executive meeting there, we gave them 21 days notice to send the receptionist away and it was at a time when the Queen of England was visiting Nigeria. We had just discovered a new mineral, columbite. We were principally mining tin then. Columbite was good for making jet plane. So the Queen wanted to come and see it. They thought we were joking and at the time, the Inspector of Police was oyinbo (white man), the superintendent was oyinbo, governor was oyinbo. They were all whites. They said look we will send you to jail. I said no problem but this strike would take effect if you don’t send that receptionist away. The Queen would not come here. I drew my courage from the man that was called Pa Michael Imoudu. He was the Secretary-General of the (Nigerian) Railway. He called a strike that shook Nigeria. I said I was going to do like Imoudu. They accused me of being a communist and trailed me. When my letters came to my box, they would open them and put censored on them. I would see them but I didn’t care. I said I was not a communist but this oyinbo receptionist must go, so they had to remove the guy.

How did you become a prominent Red Cross member?

Months after, I was promoted to the senior service. It meant what they gave the white man, I also got. I called my executives and they said I had done my best, that I should accept the promotion. So, I accepted the promotion with all the comforts. The British people were not sure that I would not be communicating with the union in the night, so after a while, they created an office in Lagos and asked me to move there to represent the mines field. How do you represent the miners in Lagos? We didn’t mine or do anything, but they gave me a nice house, a steward, a car and a driver. I was very comfortable. But I was an active person, so it was going to kill me. Even the people where I was living thought I was a money doubler. I was comfortable and I was doing nothing. So the Red Cross in Plateau wrote Lagos that I was a very active member. So they came for me. So I went there as a volunteer. It was in 1960 and they were planning to take over from the British Red Cross at independence. Then they asked me to work full time with them so they could prepare properly for the takeover from the British. So I took a job that was giving me one-third of my salary, no facilities, no contract, no future, although, they told me by mouth that if things got rough, they would get me a job with Shell. One, I was glad Nigeria was going to get independence and two, I was going to play a role. So I moved. At the Tafawa Balewa Square, I took the parade and brought down the British Red Cross flag and hoisted the Nigerian Red Cross flag. Oh, it was something for me. I still have the photograph somewhere. But it was tough for me. I left the house the British gave me and moved to the Red Cross house at Makoko, Lagos; a small house. When I moved into the house, I saw snakes all over waiting for me.

How did you meet your wife?

In 1954, I was in the senior service and had a car, and was comfortable. So whenever my driver was driving me, I always prayed to God that I would like to have a tall, slim beautiful wife sitting next to me. In the Red Cross, I worked myself like I was going to die. I could go to eight schools in one day teaching. It was tough but I was very strong. Remember, I had been doing nothing for years, so I had accumulated so much energy and it was time to burn it. We had a course at Ijero Baptist Church and there was a teacher there, slim girl, very dedicated and hardworking. When they came to my place to help me, she was the only one who would ask me about the snakes. How did you cope yesterday? I would say I did my best. Because I worked very hard, I was not eating very well. For over 50 years of my life, I ate once a day. And I used to eat very small meals. It’s now that I take a light breakfast. If I don’t eat, I’m very smart, but the moment I eat, I get dull. So she was so dedicated that all the other officials respected her. In our yearly Red Cross programme, we used to have a big show to celebrate the World Red Cross Day. One particular year, the Red Cross Day in Nigeria was going to be celebrated with a beauty contest. They had the preliminaries and on the night of the final, one of the ladies for the finals was not there and there was no GSM at that time. And the judges said no, it would not be right to have it that way. So the secretary of the Red Cross, Mrs. Doherty, asked people to tell Edith (that’s her name) to join them to complete the number. She said no, she wasn’t prepared for it and she was a shy girl. They called me and said you’re the boss, tell her. It’s just to stand in there, finish. I persuaded her and she agreed. She came second. The second prize included training in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Britain. As time went on, I decided that I would get married to her because she was a well-behaved girl. She said okay but that I should come and see her parents. So I used to visit their house at Apapa Road. I noticed that her parents were not so warm, but I would greet them and go my way. But I kept wondering how I would talk to them about getting married to this girl. So I spoke to the mentor of Junior Red Cross, Mrs. Ogunmuyiwa. She said ‘good, she’s a good girl, we will support you.’ She agreed to follow me to meet with the parents. So we went there and greeted them nicely. She told them our intention. When we left, the father called Edith to say ‘you say that man is an Igbo man,’ she said yes. He said then he must be a useless Igbo man. Where do you hear that a woman goes to marry a woman? How can he bring a woman to come to marry a woman? So they hated me. They said all kinds of terrible things about me and didn’t want to know what kind of person I was. And they believed that only poor people were in the Red Cross. They didn’t want to know who I was and how I got there. I faced antagonism when I went to their house. It was looking like who brought this animal here? You know, you could see the attitude. I became sick of going there. But I had a strong feeling that what I had prayed for in 1954, I would get it.

So I said well, I won’t give up. Amazingly, my brother knew Igbo custom. I don’t know any up till tomorrow, so when people come to marry my children, I just give them. I don’t take anything. If the girl says she wants you, finish. I’m willing to pay the bill. I told my brother. He said what I did was wrong, that if I had told him, he would have told me what to do. Also her father was a chief and according to their tradition, a chief’s daughter does not go far away. They are from Anambra and I’m from Imo, so they said never. When my brother came, he took a bottle of wine and all kinds of things and he went and he saw them. They were nice to him but didn’t change their minds. Then somebody advised me to see the archbishop of a cathedral church that the parents were attending at that time. I went and spoke to him, told him my story. He said I should attend the Bible class and be confirmed. But my job was such that in the evenings, I was very busy. I started going for evening classes. I went and did the exam, passed and was confirmed. Then I went and told her parents. They said no, that the confirmation was in my own interest. Then they said there was one uncle they had in Enugu that I had to see to hear what he would say. I went to Enugu and I think the man must have been briefed. I greeted him and told him who I was and that I had come from Lagos. He said I should kneel down before I spoke to him. Where I come from, kneeling down for a human being is wrong and I was brought up as Christian. I’d tell you one interesting story. I used to play football for Plateau. So we played in Kaduna and won a match and the Premier was the Sardauna. He liked football too so they said we must go to see him to pay our respect. So we went to his lodge, and all my teammates sat on the floor. I refused, I remained standing. They were saying ‘sit down’. I said what for? Look at the nice chairs, what are they for? Then he came out; he was a very big man with his beard. He was a fierce looking man. He sat and looked at me so badly that I began to wonder what was going to happen to me. Then he said ‘yes, mister-mister, sit down’. That means, I should sit on the chair. I refused to sit on the chair and I didn’t sit on the floor. I knew he hated me. Then everybody was blaming me when we left, I said I was not used to sitting on the floor. What were those chairs for? So when that uncle told me to kneel down, I remembered that incident. I looked at him, I felt like getting out of the place and leaving but I loved the girl, so I knelt but I felt so bitter in my spirit. After everything, his answer was no. So I left and returned to Lagos. About three weeks later, I went to the girl. I said listen, I love you but I’ve had enough. And because of what I’ve been asking the Lord since 1954, I have a witness that you’re my wife but now I’ve gone the long mile. So forgive me, but I’m through with this. I won’t step in your house again. I’m gone. She looked at me and made a statement which frightened me. She said to me ‘okay, but if the Lord says you’re my husband, you will come back. If the Lord says you’re not my husband, no problem.’ Then I left and went my way. I never thought or prayed about it again. Inside me I hated the Igbo man because I hated the whole nonsense. You didn’t even ask me who I was, you just shut the door. So I didn’t bother about them anymore. So after one year, I was sleeping one night and I was restless. I said ‘how can I be defeated? I said I had never been defeated by anybody. And the Bible says the Kingdom of God suffereth violence and the violence taketh it by force. So I said I wouldn’t give up. So I called her and said I would marry her. So I began to show her extra love, and we became so friendly. So we went on. I didn’t go to the house and her parents didn’t know that we were together. We were so wise and we kept it with respect. Then one year, 49 years ago, we decided to go to the registry quietly to get married. We had our friends- the European, Mr. Hansen; Mr. Seidu Mohammed, who was the Secretary General of Red Cross; and a few other friends, respectable people, with us. My wife brought her things little by little. Then one day, she told the mother that she was going to her husband’s house. Her mother said who and she said Iloh. She was very close to the mother. It was a big shock and she came and we were waiting to see what would happen. And because her father was a chief, a big man in church and the society, he couldn’t be rough. So they kept quiet but they kept us out.

Then there was the Biafra war. It was tough so everybody was running. I moved all my family to my village in Imo. My wife’s grandmother eventually became my mother’s very good friend. Everything now worked out well. When the marriage was 25 years, we had to marry again and had a big ceremony and her family members were there. Next year, it will be our 50th anniversary, we will marry again.

Why are you repeating the process again and again?

To show the love I have for her. The Bible says he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favour. She is a blessing to me. Oh my God! When I talk about her, I get into some kind of ecstasy. I call her mummy. I love her so much. You know when she left for the UK recently, I was talking to myself in the car and had forgotten that she had left the car. I was talking and nobody was there.

What has been the secret because most people find it hard to keep their marriages these days?

You see, I’m very tough. People were scared that I could beat a wife. When I married her, I told my parents and my brother, if ever you come to my house and there is a quarrel, jump on me, never you ask her a question. Know that I’m the guilty one. She was scared of me when we got married, so I said to her ‘I only ask you to do one favour for me. When you hear me say a thing that is not right, or deal with somebody roughly, have the courage to tell me I’m wrong. She was so shy and calm while I was like a tyrant. Today she can look me in the eye and say sit down there, you are not standing properly. And then when there is a problem between us, I make sure that I take the guilt even when she’s the one at fault. I would reverse the situation and say that she’s not wrong but that the way I approached her or the issue was what was wrong. So we would talk about the way I approached her and not what happened.

Doesn’t she take advantage of that?

Oh no! She was well brought up. I’m going to marry her again the third time to show her my love and appreciation.

Are you saying that in the last 49 or 50 years, you’ve not looked at another woman?

There is no problem, you look at them and you see what you have which is superior. And whenever I travel out, whatever is the best I see there, I would bring home to my wife. Sometime in my life, I smoked cigarettes and I tried to make her smoke, she wouldn’t. I went to Paris once for a business and I discovered perfumed cigarettes. I bought them and brought them back and lit them. I said you see, these are perfumed cigarettes, but she wouldn’t touch them. She’s too good. I’m a very stubborn fellow, you know. So when I make a decision that nobody could stop, to make her feel good, I talk to her and try to pass the decision to be her own so that she will agree with me. I talk and talk and if she says okay I will say you have said so o. You have to keep yourself happy in your life. The Bible says you leave your father, mother and live with your wife and the Bible says you should love your wife in a way that you can lay down your life for her. What are you a pastor for if you cannot show examples from your marriage and your home? If you go on the pulpit to talk, but you shout on your wife and abuse her, then what kind of man are you? When people come here for counselling and the wife says the husband beats her, I will say go to the motor park if you want to beat somebody. If your wife is a child of God, when you beat her you beat your business. Your business will go down. If you want to go up, respect and lift her up. The Bible says you alone can bind 1,000 and together, you can bind 10,000, so why should you lose a thing like that or beat her? Why did you get married then? To me, marriage is a serious thing o. I don’t joke with it. I said to you, in 1954, I imagined I would find a girl. So I found her, married her, then why would I now beat her? Then I need to go to the asylum.

We heard you and your wife bathe together. Is this the case?

Oh yes, glory be to God. We have our bath together. And you look at the pretty woman, blessed be the name of the Lord. I look at her, so beautiful. We have our bath together, sleep on the same bed. All the things I knew, because I was so exposed, I would teach her. But cigarette, she did not smoke. And then she gives me food, I’m a very poor eater and she makes sure that the small one is very good. She’s a good person. It is in your interest to be happy in your home.

People often say as the woman grows older, her sex drive reduces, but that a man remains sexually active for a longer time. So how do you cope now that you’re both old?

It gets to a level where sex is not everything. You look at your wife, you kiss her, you hold her. The important thing is in your eyes; let the beauty you saw before never vanish. In the office, my wife and I have disagreements. She says something, I say something. But the moment we get into our baths, the anger is over, you know. I say it in my mind, the devil must be crazy, he wants me to fight with my wife. No! I want her to scrub my body and when I travel out, the best of cologne, perfume, nail polish, lipstick, which are good, I buy for her. She’s my wife. What you don’t have, she knows you don’t have. What you have, give her.