At a time many Nigerians in the Diaspora are shunning the homeland in the belief that the country is beyond remedy, Dr.Michael Obamwonyi is demonstrating, through practical examples, how much the diaspora can contribute to lifting Nigeria from the doldrums. He speaks to Chuks Oluigbo on what his ministry has been doing in Edo, Niger and Nasarawa States in the past three years and the plans ahead.
Let’s start by asking you to introduce yourself. Who is Dr. Michael Obamwonyi?
Well, I am originally from Benin, Edo State. I am an indigene of the Benin tribe but I currently live in the United States of America. I have been in the US for about forty-three/forty-four years. For the forty-something years I have been there, I was privileged because I went to school there and from school I ended up joining the US Navy, retired from the US Navy, and from there I went into practice for a little bit. After practice, I have been in the ministry and the ministry has taken over everything that I have been doing for the past two to two-and-a-half decades now. The ministry work has expanded all the way to Asia, in India, the United States, and for the past year and a couple of months, to Nigeria.
When you say ministry, what exactly do you mean?
The work of God. What God allowed me to do is to also take my secular profession and all of my academia and everything to incorporate it into a care ministry and by calling, because by virtue of that, I have been privileged to be on an apostolic calling to where I am today. I’m an apostle and I have been able to plant several churches and I have several pastors under me in those three countries – United States, Asia, and here in Nigeria.
Tell us more about this care apostolate. What exactly do you do?
I would not fail but to introduce Luke 4:18-19, which said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was something that was given to me years ago from a young age when I was in Benin City and attending Church of God Mission – “You will go into ministry”. But it became very pronounced years and decades down the line that this is the calling that God has given. So when we talk about the care ministry, the arm of the care is not only about the spiritual but also the physical which Christ did when he was on the face of this earth; he was concerned about the spiritual being but also concerned about the physical being. When he said, ‘Feed my flock’, it is not only just feed physically but also to make sure that they are not neglected because he said, ‘The poor will always be amongst you’; then he made mention of the orphans, the widows. So that apostolic care ministry became where he wanted me to be and we have taken it into the dimension of having orphanage homes, taking care of the widows, and taking care of the orphans as well, and to also be in the hospitality, where we have what we call the Barnabas Compassion Ministry, after the Bible, where we take on the burden of all those. If you are hungry, I don’t think I should let you be hungry when I know I can help you in that area. So we have been doing that, we started that in the United States, and from the United States we expanded to India, and we have been in India for about 12 years plus now, then it expanded to Nigeria to where currently we have orphanages. In Benin, it’s almost complete, maybe in the next couple of months that will be completed. We are building guests houses in Benin to be able to help support the widows who need help. We have also in Benin area, the outskirts of Benin, we have plots and hectares of agricultural land where we have planted crops which the first harvest came out few months ago and we have since disseminated them through our food banks to help the poor and the needy.
The same replica is what we took to the North. We have that in Niger State, and we have also a sister affiliate in Nasarawa State as well that we have taken on. That one has already started and we already have about a hundred and twenty-five orphans there that we’ve been taking care of. In India we have the same as well. In Niger State we just commissioned the orphanage to be able to house about fifteen to twenty children. It is finalized, built completely and already staffed.
These children in the orphanage, where do they come from?
The children so far from the North, we have be able to liaise with the communities and they have been able to lead us to children whom are homeless, desolate and all of that. In Nasarawa we’ve had children being dropped off at the gate – newborn dropped off at the gate, nobody knows who their parents are. And also, we do understand that through the agency in various states they will be sending kids to us as well, hence we went through the certification and the permitting process.
I ask because quite often some orphanages around are thrown up as baby factories, police raid them and then discover that there are young women who are kept there to just conceive and produce babies…
To be honest, you have raised a big concern. That was the first thing that I read about when I heard of orphanages in Nigeria. I saw articles and I read, especially in Lagos, I saw doors and opening where they were doing those kind of trafficking. In other words, they were bringing them into the factory to have babies. There was even a movie that I watched, they were bringing them in to produce these children for them and they were now trafficking or selling them. In some cases they were even killing these children and selling their organs. It burnt my heart so much because, one, that is not the heartbeat of God at all. So, I figured that we could be an agent of change. If you would come to any of our orphanage buildings, you would even find out that there is no orphanage in Nigeria today, based on what we have seen, that looks like our orphanage. Our orphanage is so equipped and the training and the process in place is so geared towards really the needy.
What is the long-term plan for these orphans?
From when we pick them up through university level is our responsibility, just as we have done in India, where we have about seven hundred of them. When they finish school and feel they don’t want to leave, they want to come work there, they can. We have several of them in India who graduated and they just felt they wanted to be part of it because they enjoyed the love they experienced, which is what we do, we practice love based on the love of Christ. In other words, you were left out to die, there was no hope for you, but we found a place of succour that I believe that they should come and partake of. We also have the counselling section because we have children who have been abused. Our job is to make sure that the totality of that child is catered to. So there is no limit, it’s all the way to university. Some of them might not want to go to university but might want to go to trade school, that’s also acceptable.
You talked about your farms in Benin, in Nasarawa, and in Niger State. What crops do you cultivate?
In Benin, for example, we started out with maize, and we also have cassava. We harvested the first set of maize and that went to the community. Cassava takes a year process, so we are looking at the cassava to be ready around March, and that will go to the community as well. We harvested some in Niger as well, and we do rotational cropping. We are even looking at expanding that now to include a poultry. There is a young entrepreneur who has a poultry but is kind of struggling, so he has been wanting to have us acquire that. That way we can also have meat (protein) to hand out as well.
Is the farm commercial?
No, there is nothing commercial about it, it’s give-back. When we harvest them, we process them. We have what we call a food bank. A food bank is a place where folks, if there are hungry, they go there to get food. I have an administrative office in Niger State where centrally it takes care of everybody in Nigeria. There, they actually find out what’s the people’s situation and all that. We might take an obligation and say for the next three months we would provide you this staple once a week or something of that nature, then after that is over with we will look at, if it still continues, maybe we will look at a way to help people get something started or employment or something of that nature. But that food bank right there is always going to get stocked with protein and all other needs.
The hospitality wing of the care ministry, how does it work?
The hospital wing of MOGO is the one that actually looks at, for example, we have some family members who might be experiencing some medical issues but are not able to afford the bill, many of them have been brought to us and we, maybe, send them to a doctor that we know, take care of them and also make sure they are medically taken care of. And also, we visit them to make sure that, maybe they are at home, we pay their rent for about six months. Some of them are good bright students looking at their grades but they are just struggling, so maybe we might provide few things that will aid them at home to become better students.
Where does the funding for all of this come from?
All wealth comes from above. He said, ‘I give you the power to make wealth’. I will give you a story about a man. He has always been in a business, he has always been in a practice, but a few years back, he was in a capacity where he couldn’t practice what he had to do anymore so he was forced to go into agriculture. So this man now going into agriculture, he started with about twenty to thirty chickens, a few goats and few cows here and there. He had a little bit savings and some few credit cards. This man did not consult with anybody because, one, he could have gone into other areas, but he knew that maybe if he had spoken to his family or maybe his mates, they probably would have discouraged him, like, ‘Why are you stupid? Why would you do that? But this man was driving out in the countryside of Alabama in the United States at about 2 o’clock in the morning when he had this first special visitation from Our Lord and Savior that said, ‘It’s time to do this now’. He opened that farm, he started and he poured in everything that he had into it at the detriment of almost losing his home, his cars, everything that he had and he started from there. People mocked him, people laughed at him. ‘What is wrong with this man? How are the mighty fallen! From military service you are now a farmer?’ But mark it, the people that laughed at him were people from his local language national area, not from the West. The West saw it and said, ‘This is doing something good here’. So he went into that and from there he wanted to get it commercialized and start supplying meat to people. Then one day while he was doing that, it was laid on his heart, ‘Why are you doing it this way? Do it in a bigger scale. Why don’t you get permit to open up a meat processing plant or slaughterhouse?’ He applied for grant but was denied because they said he already had facility, land and everything paid for, so he couldn’t qualify for any grant. So he has to sell some more property that he owned just so that he could go ahead and facilitate that. He got that one started, and then another day he was sitting and something told him, ‘You have all these goats and all of these animals right here, why don’t you use them to go eat grass in other people’s places?’ He saw that as a good idea – goat landscapers. He didn’t tell anybody. He went and advertised and said, ‘I have goats that can eat your grass and all you do is just pay me X amount of money every week’. People loved it, and before you knew it cities were now consulting him and he was moving goats from one city to another, to airports, and he did it so well that he was featured on the national news and he was on TV, on camera everywhere. He didn’t stop there. He said, ‘Maybe I can use these baby goats for yoga because yoga is becoming everything now’. So he created another ad again and people started renting the goats. He would rent the goats to them for two hours to go do yoga and before you knew it everybody was renting the goats. He said, ‘That’s interesting. Maybe I should just start doing parties because people like to play with animals’. So he decided to place another ad. ‘We bring it to you, you play with the animals and you pay us. For bringing it you pay for the feed and you feed them, you take pictures, whatever you want to do’. Before you knew it, everybody liked that idea. They were like, ‘What is this guy doing?’ It got to a point that he was so popular by God’s intervention that he was selected to appear in the Super Bowl, which is the national football game that is played once a year in the United States. Here is this Oba Farms. Who is Oba Farms? Before you knew it, everybody now wanted to consult with him. They were asking, ‘How did you do this?’ He is now processing meat and supplying it all over the US and he is now known as a household. He went from almost losing his home to where he was able to acquire more, and he saw grace. The grace that he saw was such that in the United States, if you don’t pay your mortgage in your house in three months you will lose it; 12 months he did not pay one mortgage and the people called him and apologized for not paying mortgage and they actually worked a plan and said, ‘Forget that one, we will start all over again’. He went from losing all his cars – from five cars he had only one left – to getting seven more cars, trucks. He is now moving with trailers, crews are going to the spelling zoo. Grace found him. God’s favour found him. The Lord revealed to him at that time, ‘The way you took care of these animals and you’ve used it to bless people’s lives, because of that, I want to take you to go bless others with what I have given you’. What he was making before he is now making four/five times. But he still did not care so much about himself, it was all about others. That’s what that person did. And again, being modest, I refer to that person today as me. So the funding that you see in everything that we do worldwide comes from that vision, that grace that God found me in years ago.
In setting up any kind of venture in Nigeria, one issue that people have to deal with is government, from licensing to permits and all of that. What has your experience been like?
I had a perception for decades before I came back to this country that that is what this country was all about, nothing works. But when grace found me, and grace propelled me, ever since I came here, grace has paved way. Where it seemed that it had been difficult getting approvals, we go speedy approvals. Even there were circumstances where processes were bypassed.
What are the plans going forward?
Man proposes, God disposes. I did not plan on coming here, I always considered myself an American, but God sent me here and I have been here since. Today, I love this nation. We started this project September 12 and we are in the month of September and I have been here four times. So the plans going forward. As of today we are already into our year three here, we are already into our seven locations that we will be building more orphanages and we have fellowship halls which are branches of our ministry which is an avenue of reaching every community. So a year from now we plan on, to all glory and honour to God, at least fifty to a hundred workers. Three years from now, by the grace of God, we should have at least another fifty workers added to that. But you see, we don’t just add workers, we add workers and train them and equip them to be lovers of others so they can be a blessing to other people.
What’s your message to the diaspora?
To be honest with you, I was part of the problem of Nigeria in the sense that I labelled Nigeria as being nothing but an epitome of failure, where nothing good could come out of – until I got here. I realised that in addition to that mistake, there is another one. We are always pointing to the government, but the government is not the only problem; the diaspora is highly needed back home in rebuilding this land. We are highly needed to rebuild this land. We have the potential to make changes faster than any government could. So there is an urgent cry: Diaspora come home – not come home to show off, come home to show out.