Gladys Otono-Atsenokhai : Conquering depression with laughter and loads of Shakara!

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Gladys Otono is a woman of purpose and a compere with a difference, she is funny and knows how to get the audience on their feet. She is also a survivor, having survived a ghastly accident as well and overcome a battle with depression, lets hear how this mother of one is touching lives with her passion.

Gladys please tell us a little about yourself? 
 In my head, I was meant to be born into the family of Bill gates but alas God answered the prayers of a beautiful young lady with two sons who was desperate to have a baby girl . So, I came wailing into the world protesting the injustice of being born as the eventual quintessential middle child in a family of 3 boys and two girls, to an engineer dad and business inclined mother. She actually ran a pub better known as beer parlour but don’t tell anybody (laughs). I attended   public primary and secondary  schools and would not trade that experience for anything. It was simply amazing! My parents were not poor but I had the privilege of living in a not so fancy neighbourhood and attending school with kids from mostly less privileged homes. I watched these families bask in love despite not having much and most times I envied them and learnt from an early age to appreciate life not for stuff but for people as there was so much love amidst  poverty. I went on to study English Language at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife to the dismay of my father who wanted a Lawyer . In fact, my father filled Law on my UME form but I changed it to English before submission , now my father will know the truth because the poor man was confused when my admission letter came but I pressured him not to pursue the matter, God forgive me! Amen.
As a child, I was never confused about what I wanted to be in future as It was television broadcasting and nothing else. So, I felt a foundation in English language was a step in the right direction and I was right. I went on then to work at African Independent Television as a Journalist. I started as an entertainment news reporter before progressing on as a business news correspondent and newscaster/producer and programme presenter. Working as a Broadcast Journalist was a dream come through and I was living my dream.
You were a star scholar from primary to University,  did you ever think you would excel in Comedy?
Comedy never ever crossed my mind as a career choice although I have always had a sense of humour. It is not even a persona I wear when convenient but who I am. It is how I am wired by God.  Creating an ambience of laughter wherever I find myself therefore comes naturally. I don’t have to plan or envisage a scenario or deliberately seek to make people laugh, it just happens. If you take humour out of me then I am no longer Gladys or Shakara but an empty shell. I am no longer living my authentic self! Laughing and spreading laughter is my brand so much there is no difference between the home me and the stage me. I am Shakara all the time except when I am sleeping but who knows. In fact, making others happy is more than a brand, it’s my God given nature and mission and a factor of Jesus in me. However, comedy as a career choice? Mbanu…Maka how?
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So how then did you end up as comedienne and compere?
Being a compere was easy as I love standing and talking before any audience size. I was never at any time or age fazed by public speaking. In fact, I bask in the attention whenever and wherever I get the chance hence the stage name “Shakara”. The compere side of me started from primary school. I remember back in JSS 3, I anchored an event and had the whole school in stitches. Both compering and comedy were even then interwoven because whenever I hold a microphone I would just get people laughing even at informal settings -you can’t just separate one from the other. However being a professional comedienne is a product of a series of events but stemmed chiefly from my knack of turning any event to a mini comedy show including my church monthly praise night. An event promoter saw me at a friend’s event and here we are. I have gone on to perform on international stages and at Dublin edition of Crack ya Ribs with Julius Agwu , Dan D’Humorous and Buchi to public acclaim.
How did your folks and siblings react when you told them about your career choice?
It did not come as a surprise to them and I’m sure they knew it was a long time coming. My father on the other hand must have wondered  why he bothered sending me to school (laughs). Seriously, I have got my family’s support in whatever I do. Moreover, I am at a stage and age where my family trust my judgement as I have never given them a reason not to.  However, Comedy is not the goal for me but a means to an end. The ultimate aim is to promote positive mental health through information and entertainment. Comedy is just a conduit to achieve that goal. Helping people dealing with every form of mental health is my passion. I battled depression for many years and having a God given sense of humour helped me survive the darkness and now I am helping others too. I view comedy as a ministry not a career.
You were involved in a ghastly accident years ago where you lost a few fingers and almost lost your life, how did that affect your life and who you are today?
That was a very traumatic experience in which over sixty people died. The mere fact that I survived such a deadly accident is enough impetus for me to live life fully and passionately. I still vividly remember regaining consciousness, seeing all the scattered bodies and hearing the tortured cries from the wounded. I remember looking at my mangled hand and grateful to be alive. All I could do was sing and right then on the ground I started making plans for my future. On the third day, in the hospital, I requested for pen and paper and started practising how to write with my left hand as I was originally right handed. I jokingly told my friends that as long as I was alive, there was money to be made and I need to perfect my handwriting so I could sign cheque. In typical Shakara manner I used humour to cushion the loss of my fingers as I considered myself lucky to be alive at all. A month after leaving the hospital, I was back at work reading the news with a bandage on my hand. Of course, I still find some simple chores difficult to handle but I have learnt to do what I can, seek help where possible and leave out what I can’t instead of becoming despondent over situations I can’t help. Most people don’t even notice my “disability” and if they do my personality sweeps it all away and it becomes a non-issue. I believe in life there is something to be joyful and thankful for even if it means stripping away the layers of pain and searching deep within. I even use my disability and some of my challenges as comic materials. That gets the crowd reeling more-and laughing with me not at me.
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After your accident you battled depression for years, how did you overcome it?
There is no magic wand to simply wave off depression. There is always a time factor in any healing, a process of time. First, don’t bottle things as it does more harm than good. A trouble shared is not necessarily trouble doubled. Tell your loved ones how you are feeling and seek professional help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Live for a cause as depression most times is self- subsuming. I got tired of simply existing and decided I wanted to LIVE for myself, my son, others and God. Instead of living mechanically, I started living purposefully by volunteering my time doing simple stuffs. For instance, following the accident, I would go visiting other patients in the ward and that took my mind off my pain. I also stopped being hard on myself. Life happens to us all and whatever happened is just a phase and phases pass. I have learnt to view every challenge as an opportunity to grow so I don’t wallow in sadness infact learn to laugh at yourself, I do always! Finally, depression is hard on the mind so watch your thoughts. In other words, “think about what you are thinking about” Start thinking healthy, positive, Godly thoughts and don’t isolate yourself as depression thrives in isolation. In all live life one day at a time and if that means taking one baby step after the other SO BE IT.
Wise words! Anything you would like to add on how you were able to get out of that dark and lonely place?
Unfortunately, there are no real 10 steps to overcoming depression as what might work for one will not necessarily work for the other. I had a masters and other recognised degrees but I still felt desolate. I was getting public applause but it didn’t fill the void so I had to reprogram my way of thinking to reconfigure what really mattered to me. I stopped being hard on myself and consciously started celebrating every little milestone no matter how small. At the end of the day its the small thing that really matter. I surrounded myself with real friends who helped me see my little achievements clearly since my minds eye was blurred. Sometimes you need others to help you see what you couldn’t see yourself. I remember, how a friend would tell me what an amazing job I was doing raising my son despite being a single mother with a physical challenge. My son became my drive. I started appreciating life and didn’t want depression to rob me anymore because that’s what it does. It steals joy and moments that most time cant be recovered.
I stopped comparing myself with others or living up to that “imaginary” standard
I also consciously cut off negative people and relationships or anything that would not enhance my life. I seriously guarded my space.
Talking helped, I was not ashamed nor afraid to share my difficulties. I made myself not care about labels. If anybody talked about me negatively it says a lot about who they are not about me. I am also blessed to live in a country where help is available but Depression just like disability or HIV or any other ailment is not stigma free but silence does more harm than good. I’d rather speak out than die in silence. I remember some nights I would call my pastor or my friends tell them how I was feeling, cried if I had to but I always talked about my feelings.
Writing also helped me processed my emotions. I kept a journal and even had a blog which helped me and helped others too.
Above all my faith helped. Reading the bible and actively speaking and engaging the word of God is the best therapy ever and its free.
 
You have a handsome son, how are you able to juggle raising him and working especially since you are so far from “home”?
I am a full time mum but lucky to be building a career that occupies me mostly at weekend so he’s got mummy to himself during the week. I am also blessed to have a good support network of friends who help when needed. In all, I have been able to carve a home away from home.
What advice do you have for young women who have unrealised dreams and want to follow their passion?
Nothing compares to having a passion and better still a passion that pays. By nature, I am a very cautious person so would advise proceed with caution. If possible gently test the waters before upping and leaving your job. If you can start part time, then give it a shot. From most success stories that I have read about, following ones’ passion is a risk wort taking. It always pays at the end though rough at the start. For instance my first professional act as a stand up was an epic fail and I cried myself to sleep for days. I was tempted to give up but I found reasons not to. I learnt from that experience, encouraged myself in the Lord and went on to my next show which was bigger. I got a standing ovation at the second show and “MCShakara” became a growing brand. So whatever you do, don’t be carried away by the lack of applause rather let it spur you to do better as even perceived failure can be used as a building block.
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How do you find a way to relax, rejuvenate and  unwind?
I love watching television, you can call me T.V addict especially cartoons, I guess that’s why I am young at heart despite the seven strands of grey hair on my head. I love to travel as well but hate long flights so I can nott wait for teleportation machines to be invented so I can travel wherever and whenever. Guess, I don’t have a specific way of relaxing. Chai, I’m such a bore.
Tell us about the recently held Laugh out Loud comedy show.
Laugh Out Loud is a non-profit comedy night I organise annually to promote positive mental well-being and LOL 3 was an absolute success. I am so happy just recalling the event of the night. The turnout was amazing and everyone had a great time. I had a swell time organising this year’s edition and my hard-work fuelled by the grace of God paid off.  People are already geared for LOL 4 and plans are in the works. My greatest joy was being able to raise funds for the two designated charities which was one of the purpose of the night. People are still sending in donations weeks after the actual event ended. I feel blessed and grateful to God and everyone who believe in the vision.
Awesome! well done MCShakara and keep up the awesome work.
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13 Comments

    1. Thanks for your comment Esosa, I have taken note and will make sure I ask mor specific questions on how she battled depression.

  1. Interesting one. Depression is an issue these days. Its good that survivors can come out to talk about it so others can learn how they survived it.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Very true its refreshing that people can talk about it as depression has been ignored for too long.

  2. There is no magic wand to simply wave off depression. There is always a time factor in any healing, a process of time…… very true unfortunately our society tends to blame those suffering it. It really wld be good to know steps she took to overcome it.

    1. Thanks for your comment there is truly no magic wand and Nigerians have swept depression under the carpet for too long. Gladys has shared with us a bit of what she did to overcome depression.

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