Kechi Okwuchi, the inspirational singer and two-time finalist of America’s Got Talent, who was one of the only two survivors of the December 10, 2005 Sosoliso Airlines plane crash, that claimed over 100 lives shares her childhood memories and aspirations withTOBI AWORINDE
Your story captured the hearts of millions around the world but which areas of your childhood stand out for you?
I don’t talk much about my early childhood. I was an only child for 11 years before my sister was born and there are only two of us, so being an only child for so long, I was definitely spoilt by my parents and extended family, also because I was the first grandchild. So, I was very much doted on by my grandparents, aunt and people I’ve had in my life. We weren’t wealthy; we were a regular family, but my parents did what they could to provide as much as they could for me, so I never really felt like I was missing out on anything. We travelled out of the country whenever we could and my mum and dad did what they could to buy me the things that would make me happy – toys that I liked, movies that I wanted to watch, clothes I wanted to wear, and things like that. I also really liked my own company, even as a child. I knew how to be by myself a lot, I didn’t feel lonely and I had a small group of friends whose houses I would go to, to hang out, and they to mine as well. So, I have to say my childhood was very fulfilling.
Growing up in Nigeria is not easy for anyone and there are always going to be experiences that are different from growing up in a place that has constant electricity or access to certain things that we take for granted over here in America. Aside from that, I was a pretty happy kid, I would say. I have always been very positive and noisy, especially in primary school. I did well in school but my teachers would always say, “Yes, she does well in class, but she’s such a noisemaker. She talks too much.” So, I always had something to say, I was always talking. Aside from that, I think I was a pretty good kid if you ask my parents. I didn’t really give them a lot of stress, I just talked a lot and was very active. It was a nice childhood, I think.
Did you grow up in Lagos or another state?
I was born in Lagos, but then pretty early on, my immediate family moved to Aba (Abia State), so I grew up more in Aba/Port Harcourt (Rivers State) than Lagos, but I did spend almost all my holidays in Lagos because that was where most of my cousins, aunts and uncles were. So, I did a lot of travelling back and forth from the east to Lagos.
What is your earliest memory?
My earliest memory, I think, is in Aba. We had already moved by then and I think I may have been three years old. We used to live in an apartment complex in Aba before we moved into a flat and I remember we were on one of the topmost floors. It’s so weird and random, but I remember I was outside playing hopscotch on the premises. I had drawn on the floor with chalk or there were boxes on the floor already and I was just jumping into the boxes on the floor. That is the earliest memory I have, I’ve asked my mum about it and she said she doesn’t really know if she remembers that. She might just have been at work and it was probably one of the helpers we had at home who was downstairs with me. But I know that was something that happened and I must have been maybe three or four years old.
How were you raised and what kind of principles were instilled in you?
My parents are amazing people. I wouldn’t say it (childhood) was strict, but I also was not one to give a lot of stress. I know I remember my mum was the kind that would spank me if I did something bad until I was six years old. She also remembers that day when I was six and I think she had spanked me. Later, I went to her and said, “Mum, I will do whatever you tell me. I will be a good kid, I will listen but please, no more beating me. I don’t want that anymore.” She was so stunned but she agreed. That was really what happened and after then, I don’t remember her ever spanking or beating me. Any flogging I had from that point on was in school. My parents didn’t beat me. I just hated pain and I just couldn’t handle it, so if I had to just be a good kid to avoid it, I told myself, “So be it”.
My dad was never that kind of person. He was the kind of person that would explain things to me, so I grew up with this mentality of understanding why I was told no or scolded about something. It was never, “I told you so” or “listen because I said so.” I never got that. There was always an explanation about why I was being punished. That was my dad, and my mum kind of followed his footsteps in that way, from when I was six. I grew up with that kind of parenting, where there were conversations, listening, and communication, and I think that was a very key part of my growing up and gave me a mindset of always communicating. I learnt that things can be solved by communicating rather than using an iron fist. I think that also formulated my own way of dealing with problems for myself and in the future when I have my own children. So, I think I appreciated that. At the time, as a kid, of course, I wouldn’t want to be lectured all the time by my parents, but between spanking and being told to just do something because I was told to do it, I think I prefer the way I was raised. It also helped me not to build any kind of resentment towards my parents. Even as a teenager, I never rebelled because I never felt misunderstood.
What trouble did you get into in school that warranted getting flogged?
My teacher said I always talked too much. I remember I was a talker and they would flog me for talking too much in class. I would always be on the list of noisemakers.
Did you get into any trouble for singing?
(Laughs) No, I didn’t get into trouble for singing. I did sing a lot but only when I was told to do so at school events. It was the talking. (that put me into trouble.) I was definitely a noisy kid. That was why they used to spank me in primary school.
You have been very open about your survival and the struggles you overcame. At what point did you decide your story had to be told?
There was really no defining moment when I said I had to tell my story. Things just developed in that direction; it turned out that the more I told the story, the more people that listened felt inspired, felt there was something to take away from that, and it just ended up being something I did. Even before America’s Got Talent happened, I would speak at churches and burn survivor events. Sharing my story in those capacities always seemed to have a positive impact. I guess from that time, I just felt there was something there; maybe this is something that I’m supposed to be doing, maybe this is part of what I’m supposed to do with my life: share my story in a way that would inspire people to just see that overcoming trauma and the things that life throws at you is possible. If I can use my life to show people that it’s possible, then why not? That’s just how it developed. From the moment I opened my eyes, while I was going through my healing journey in South Africa and after moving to America, it just happened that the more I shared it, the more people asked me about it; people wanted to hear even more. And then, before I knew it, it became this thing that became a part of my reason for being here.
You’ve also been open about your faith. What do you say when people express doubts that a loving God would not let such a thing have happened to you?
First of all, I was a person who shared those exact same doubts. I asked those questions too – I struggled with that part of faith as well because I was still very much a new believer at the time the accident happened. The idea of developing a personal relationship with God was something that was brand new to me and not easy at all to even start doing. My parents and family were the ones that really championed that in my life at that time and I was learning just how important it was to have this being that I could talk to about certain things and brought me a kind of peace that no medication really could give to me. But when I learnt the truth about the accident, I struggled a lot with everything I had been learning about God – about how He was such a good God, how He was my refuge, and then, I hear that He let 107 people, including 60 kids, die. It made no sense to me. It was contradictory to everything I was learning about him.
But I remember everything my mum said to me at that time. She said, “Being a Christian does not exempt you from bad things happening to you. That’s not how it works; you’re still a human being, even as a Christian. As a matter of fact, bad things happen to both good and bad people all the time.” For me, hearing this was extremely eye-opening because I realised being a believer doesn’t stop bad things from happening because at the end of the day, we are human beings living in a world that is flawed. We are going to experience bad things, no matter what we believe. However, what God can be to us is a place that we go to when those bad things happen. So, even though we cannot control bad things from happening to us, what we have control over is how we react to those things. Now, I can choose to decide that after this horrible thing has happened, I don’t want to have anything to do with Him anymore. But if I don’t have that place of refuge to go to, which is what He had become to me, who can really provide that for me in my life? Even my mum who was probably the number one source of strength for me at the time, in human terms, has to get her strength from somewhere; she’s also a human being, she’s limited as well. She got her strength from God.
There was this endless source of comfort and peace, which is what I understood Him to be. I couldn’t deny myself that because I was angry about what happened, so I decided that if I wanted to be able to overcome what had happened and the depression, then I had to decide that God would be the place I went to when I sought comfort when things happened. I learnt to draw even closer to Him, hold on even tighter to Him, and cling to Him in my moments of vulnerability, whenever I’m in my deepest, darkest place, because it’s not something that happens overnight. It’s something that you have to learn, just like faith is a muscle that you have to build. That’s the same way you have to respond to trauma. When it happens to you, you’re going to want to withdraw; that’s just a natural human reaction. But you have to teach yourself that the place to go to when bad things happen is not that dark place inside you but into the light where God is. He can offer you a kind of comfort that you know you cannot get from another human being on this earth. That was a very hard lesson for me to learn. I’m still in the process of learning how to do that. The faith walk is not one that has an ending. We continue until the end of our lives.
Do you have any plans in the works to promote your music in Nigeria or work with any Nigerian artiste?
I would love the opportunity to collaborate with Nigerian and African artistes because the kind of music I release is very Western and not really what Nigerians listen to, quite frankly. So, it’s my dream to work with a lot of these artistes I really admire, look up to and listen to – Yemi Alade, Waje, Tiwa Savage, Simi and Adekunle Gold. Falz would be really cool to work with as well. I listen to a lot of Nigerian artistes and these are the specific ones whose style I enjoy. I would really love the opportunity to work on something more Nigerian-style with them if given the chance. So, I follow them and I do what I can to show my interest in that. If I get the chance to promote music in Nigeria, it would have to be Nigerian music. If it’s not Nigerian (music), then Christian contemporary music, which is another genre that I really enjoy. I’m actively working on a Christian contemporary album and I think that is also the kind of music that Nigerians would appreciate. Honestly, any opportunity to work with any of these artistes would be a blessing, would be great exposure for me and show people that my interest in music is very eclectic and not specific to one genre. That’s really the hope.
You have accomplished a lot at just 31. What else is on your bucket list?
Thank you. I’m just grateful that that’s how it is perceived. I still feel like I have so much I haven’t done and want to do. My life seems to be full of things I want to do. But I’m trying my best to lay foundations for a lot of them right now. For instance, my book that’s coming out is something I had no idea I would ever do, even though writing is something I love to do. That’s something I’ve always done, (I’ve) written fiction a lot. I wrote a lot of stories even in secondary school that people really loved to read. But did I think writing would be something that I would do as a career like publishing a book? I never thought that far, but it was the same thing with music. I didn’t think that I would try to be a musician. I didn’t think I would ever be a speaker, but here we are. My book, ‘More than My Scars,’ comes out in March 2022 and it is a memoir. It gives more detailed insight into different parts of my life, especially the most difficult part of my life, when I was getting better as a burn survivor and more things in the future that came after the accident. I really hope that people read it, I want the book to have the same effect when I speak at different events and people feel they are inspired by the things that I say.