Felicia Henderson has a strong passion for her career, acting. So when she was called few years ago to a location for a documentary, she hurried to the venue in high spirit. But a strange and shocking discovery by the American Nollywood actress dampened her spirit. She wept uncontrollably when the true reality of what she had been fed with in form of fairytales dawned on her. She is one of the few black Americans who have been able to trace their roots and discovered the appalling condition under which their ancestors were shipped to the white man’s land.
More than her career, the widow and mother of five also reveals her passion for people because of her belief that they must come first in every aspect of human life. This is the rationale behind the setting up of her foundation.
Henderson had a unique upbringing which many, particularly the privileged class, will find challenging. And having benefitted greatly from this, she has decided to give her children a similar training, which according to her, has been gratifying.
Though an American, Henderson choses Nigeria as her home. And she is determined to establish herself as a force to reckon with in the nation’s film industry, Nollywood. The graduate of Allied Health and Business Management shares the story of her love for her new home, the people, her career and how she has been able to instill entrepreneurial skills in her children at tender age.
What was your growing up like?
As a child I was very curious; always asking questions, which sometimes got me into a lot of troubles because I asked questions which a kid was not expected to ask. I think I was a normal kid in a normal family. I remember myself as being very curious and always wanted to know why things happened. I remember when I was about five or six years old, there was a neighbour who had a dog. The dog was pregnant and I wanted to know how the puppies would come out, because I really wanted one of the puppies. Then I used to play with the dog. So I thought if I squeezed the dog the puppies would come out. I eventually squeezed the dog and she bit me very hard on my cheek. That was how I got this scar by my cheek. I don’t know how many stitches they gave me but I remember they had to put a lot of needles inside to sew everything up. Those needles pricked as if bees were stinging me. All that happened just because I wanted to know how the puppies would come out.
Someone once told me that Americans like to find out about their origin. Have you ever attempted to find out about your genealogy?
I think it is a kind of trend that people are now doing DNA testing. Most people are trying to know their genealogy because of things like child support or if you perhaps commit a certain crime and certain tests have to be done on you. But I actually decided to do the DNA test just because I wanted to know where I come from. I know where I come from in the sense that I know that my mum and dad are both African-Americans. My grandfather was like three generations out of slavery. I remember that my mother told that as a child they all had to go to work on the plantation but she did it as a character builder and you got paid $20. But by the time it was my generation’s turn to do it, we were paid 20 bucks everyday that we went. We had fun on the plantation, and discovered the field where we chopped cottons. We didn’t really know how to chop the cotton but what we were doing was weeding the rows so that the cottons wouldn’t get smothered. With a hoe, we would carry the weeds around, and that was a hard work even for $20. With this I could imagine what the life of slavery was because they didn’t have the luxury to choose whether to go or not to go to the field. By the time it was my generation’s turn we only did it during the summer probably for one or two weeks, we would have to go to the field, get on the back of the truck and go to the field. My family is very unique. My parents believe that you don’t value anything unless you work for it; so that is exactly what I teach my children. I make them realize that anything they need in life, they need to work for it, because if you don’t work for it then you won’t appreciate it. I try to give my children the best I can give them but in giving them the best I can give them, I also make them work for it. They have blackberries, they have laptops. My son, I’m so proud of him, just gave me his very first business proposal. My eldest daughter is nineteen, I established my company in her name and my son is seventeen and they have the company together. And they gave me their very first business proposal and it is a very strong one. I believe it is that strong because of the exposure I have given them. They are very active in everything I do and engage in every aspect of my business outside of media, outside of me being an actress. They help develop my training programme, they give me ideas or concepts on things that we need to do for the young people in the country. They give me unique perspectives on the new trends, things that are still happening. Because they are young people so they are always having views that are different from mine. I was impressed by the proposal he gave to me and I took it to my friend who actually agreed to support him.
What would you say interests you most about Nigeria?
I believe Nigeria is the place God has ordained as my home. I didn’t choose it. It was a part of me, maybe even before I was born. I recall as a child telling my mom that when I grow up I will live in Africa. At that time, I never even knew there was such a place called Nigeria. All we were exposed to was Africa as a continent, so I assumed that countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania were all a part of one place. But the first time I came here I fell in love with the country. I guess it is the people; I am touched by their resilience, drive, and faith. There’s so much potential here and I believe if we key into the development of our small and medium enterprises, so much could be accomplished. There’s vast potential within hospitality and tourism sectors if properly focused and packaged. Sports too hold huge potential as Nigerians are naturally endowed as sportsmen and women. I believe Nigeria will regain her crown and glory with the proper support. It may take a bit of time, but it will surely come.
How has your experience in Nigeria affected your view about Africans?
What I try to portray to most black people in America that are my friends is that we are all Africans, whether they like it or not. We are not Americans. I’m an American because my forefathers were indigenes of that country. So, what I can say is that everyone who came to that country came by choice except the vast majority of the black people who were forced because they were sold. Someone thought they were less than human beings. They were sold and brought over, chained and commandeered there. Some survived, other didn’t. Those who didn’t were thrown from the ship into the ocean. I didn’t find out the story until I came to Nigeria. During my very first production, which I did in this country, I was asked to come to Banditry. They took me to the place called point of no return, where I saw the relics of slavery and for the first time ever, I cried on television. It wasn’t acting, I shed tears because I have never seen where my forefathers came from, I never understood what they went through. Yeah, I heard stories about what slaves had gone through but they were beautiful stories because of where we were. Then it was like a fairytale, some people were brought over into our country but when I went to Badagry and actually saw what it was like before they went into the ship, when I saw how they were packed on the ship like sardines, I asked myself how people could have survived that. When I saw that they were shackled, they had shackles on their neck and their legs and were dragging themselves: if one person couldn’t make it or was too weak everyone else had to suffer. I felt something inside me that I never knew that my own great grandfather or great, great grandfather would have gone through something like that. And how strong would they have been to survive that long journey? I still feel many black American would understand and think they need to come so that they can know.
What role did you play in that film that took you to Badagry?
It wasn’t a film; it was what we call a travelogue. It was more like a documentary. We did it for one telecommunication company and while doing it, I was travelling around Lagos and its environs showing what this telecommunication gadget could do but in the cause of this I also discovered that Lagos has a rich environment. I was able to see the first storey building where the first bible was transcribed into Yoruba. But nothing touched me like the point of no return.
How did you find your way into the Nigerian film industry?
I came into Nollywood through friends. I have many friends who encouraged me and believed in my talent. It turns out that they are correct. The camera likes me, and l love it. I was also into the industry somewhat in America in the sense that I modeled and did some vocal jobs and so forth.
Tell us about your first work.
My first work was a travelogue called News for Nokia that was done with Apreel Venture. It served as my baptism into the Nigerian film industry. After that, I did Tinsel. It was a story of an African-American who fell in love with one of the characters he met online. The character was actually using someone else’s photograph, it was a difficult story of, I won’t say mistaken identity, but that leaves everything to identity. But because I was so Afro-centric already in America, I came all the way to Nigeria only to find out that he wasn’t the guy in the picture, but it was someone else.
Besides these films, what are the other films you have taken part in?
I took part in Spider, a television show, where I played Sashay with my real life son, Tevon, playing Alex. My husband in that show was Femi Branch. I think I did about two seasons, I’ m not sure. I was also in Troubled Waters. I played Aunty Violet, a househelp. Aunty Violet was not a Nigerian. I think she was a Trinidadian but she had lived in Nigeria and was married to a Nigerian but something happened and they were separated. So, she was now living with a friend. Because she was living with a friend and helping them around the house, she became Aunty Violet instead of househelp. Then, there is Two Sides of the Coin, where I played a lead character. My husband is Akin Lewis. The story is about our family and the family of our driver. The story shows that because you have money doesn’t mean you have the best thing in life. All the while, I think I was giving my children the best of everything and my husband thought he was giving them the best of everything. But they are actually not giving us what we want because we give them everything. And there is this family, which barely has enough, but have responsible children. But for me, I can’t see that and there is a problem because my daughter was in love with their son, so there was always shouting going on (laughs).
Looking at the roles you have played so far in all the movies you have taken part in, would you say you have had at least one instance where you find yourself playing similar role to what you are in real life?
I think that all of my characters are similar to me in one way or another. The wonderful thing about acting is that it is the actor’s or the actress’ job to make sure that they do appear natural. And for me, the way I work am when I read a character I have to make that character work for me.
Stories of sexual harassments have always been told about the film Industry. Have you been a victim of sexual harassment since joining the industry?
No, because I’m a no nonsense person, I don’t leave room for such. I know it exists but because of the people I’ve worked with, I have been fortunate enough not to come across such.
Among various productions you have taken part in, which one would you say was the most challenging?
I think it is Two Sides of the Coin. My character is a bit difficult, as I have to explore emotions I don’t normally encounter. She is a bit troublesome this season. I am normally very cool and rational. I don’t get angry easily so it is hard to key into that emotion. Her name’s Teresa by the way.
What other things do you do apart from acting?
I have a business of my own and I just happen to be in the media; the camera likes me and I like the camera. I don’t consider myself as celebrity. I am just a woman who has a career in that particular area, I never studied Theatre Arts. Some of the other things I do? I’m a humanitarian, I have an NGO and I do a lot of things trying to develop Nigeria on humanitarian needs; kind of giving back to the society. In Nigeria, we have become so lost in the everyday struggle of life, we’ve forgotten about people because we only think about money. That is the only solution we see to our problems, while in fact, it is the people that will solve our problems. We forget that money is made by people. You can’t do anything without people, you can’t survive without people. People are your company, people are your staff, they are your target audience. But because of hunger and frustration, everything we see is money. We don’t realize that sometimes you have to plant a seed before you can harvest. It is the people that you plant the seed in that would now bring the money. They could be your staff who you employ or your customers whom you give value for what they purchase from you.
What is your view about Nigeria considering the current situation in the country?
Well, it is my dream to help develop this country; I want to see a better Nigeria for future generations. Because I believe this country belong to my children and my grandchildren and my great grand children, I have to create a legacy for them to come back to. Right now, my children are actually in the state. Though things are not perfect in Nigeria, every country has had a time like this. And with time Nigeria is going to grow and will surely be better. There will be a better Nigeria but only if we make tough choices, we make hard decisions. And we accept that it is not always the easy out.
How do you think the youth can help in the quest to take Nigeria to the next level?
First of all, it doesn’t start with the youth; it starts with people like me. You say I am a youth but I think because of my age and my level and what I have seen in my life, I can’t be categorized as a youth. It is for me to take the younger people under me who have not seen what I have seen and educate them, talk to them, mentor them, give them something to believe in and look forward to and that’s actually what I do. I have two television shows- one is all about empowering and inspiring our young people; I create a platform for them. The platform I’m creating for them is one level; the other level is self-regulatory. When they see and learn, they will now communicate it to those who are younger than them. It is a cycle.
Many have expressed the view that the Nigerian woman is marginalized. What is your view?
What I think is that everywhere in the world women are the same. I don’t believe that women are being marginalized. Religion tells us that the man is the head of the home and that the woman is his helpmate. Religiously, men are no stronger than women nor women stronger than men; we are to complement each other. Some religions even say that a woman has certain amount of knowledge and a man has certain amount of level; it is only until you marry that you are complete. It is the same as saying the man is the head and the woman is the body. You can’t have a head without the body and the head cannot survive without the body.