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I Had A Lonely Childhood – Marie Dan Suleiman

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Mrs Marie Patricia Dan Suleiman was born to a Lebanese father and a Fulani mother. She was an International model and the first black Miss Lux Soap model in Africa, she modeled for top designers like Christian Dior and Chanel among others. The septuagenarian reveals more in this interview with JULIET KUYET BULUS

When and where were you born?

I was born to Hassan Hallowi and Hajiya Halima Abubakar on the 30 June, 1944.

How are you able to tell the exact year?

My father was a business tycoon and he wrote it down when I was taken to a convent. I was later baptized and confirmed.

Which institutions and or schools did you attend?

I attended our Lady’s High School in Kaduna State, run by Catholic nuns for my nursery and primary. For secondary education, Queen of Apostles College now Queen Amina College, Kaduna. After secondary school, I left for London, Bradford Royal Infirmary to study Nursing in 1960 and after four years, I qualified as a registered nurse. From there, I proceeded to Charing Cross Hospital also in London, where I studied for two years and qualified as a casualty nurse. 

How was life growing up and what challenges did you face?

I did not have a good childhood. My grandfather was also here in Nigeria and was married to a Fulani lady and had children. My father joined him and I found out my mother was very young when she got married. My mother was from the Emirate in Jigawa, Mallam Mai Dauri before it was cut off and placed under Jigawa State which was former Kano State. My mother had me at a young age and there were so many traditions that I do not think are being upheld today. I was told my mother could not even bathe me when I was born.  For me, this interview is more like a testimony and I give God the glory for seeing me through this stage of my life because when I look back and forward, I knew He was always there. Growing up, I was so loved by my grandparents and father. At a point I was thrown into the well out of jealousy but we had servants that picked me up from there. My mother went to her father and since he was influential he said, the marriage would not take place. When she refused, Emir Sanusi’s father who was a very good friend of my father and others went to see him to find a way out. But my father insisted he would not leave me with my mother since they married at a young age. My mother also did not want to leave me with my father because she knew he would send me to Beirut and she would not see me again. All these were done in the gathering of great people. Then our Lady’s High School was run by missionaries and they had a special place for children like me and those whose mother was dead. The parents left such children there. They paid their school fees and until they get to certain age no visitors. But mine had a condition, that I cannot have visitors until I was about 12/13years old but my school fees were always paid. The nuns were very good. I was about the age of three when I was taken there. I slept with nuns. There was a nun called Sister Oliver, the Reverend Mother gave me to her, to look after me. We had senior girls. At that time we had high school and elementary school. The nuns looked after me very well. When I grew up to start primary, I was sent down to the dormitory where other students were and it was not easy as I was bullied, they said I had no father, no mother and all sorts. At some point it became too much to handle because they beat me up. Other students who wanted to associate with me, could not because they were scared of being beaten. I would go and tell the nuns what was going on and they told me to be patient. When I was of age, my parents began to visit me, I would look at them and feel nothing because I could not connect with them, no feelings whatsoever for them. My father would visit, carry me on his back, bring cloths and all. My mother visited too, she would sit down and with all these I felt nothing. I do not know if this tradition is being kept by the Fulanis but when they have a first child, they do not call the child by name. They would say ‘you’. I think this tradition has been abandoned. There were times I cried but my mother would just watch as I cry. I felt she never loved me but she really did and I did not know. After elementary school I left for Kakuri. Throughout those challenging days, I have come to know God was with me. It got to a stage where I withdrew and kept to myself. The worst was during holidays since I could not go home to my father or mother till I was about 17 or 18 years old. I had two friends who were like me but they were older than I and they left earlier than I did. One of them ran away. The children there made things worse. They also called me yellow banana. A nun would take me to my mother’s place to ensure I got back. So I would sit under a tree and watch as they left for the holidays, wishing I was them. I would seat and cry, go back to the dormitory where the nuns stayed and when the holidays was over they would come back with boxes of food stuffs. I had no food stuff or anything but God really saw me through. Before now, I have never given an interview. I would love to write a book and a friend in London wants to do a film on it. I used to cry asking where my parents were, why other children were happy and came back to school with so many things while I stayed there and had my father pay my school fees. I was so eager to start secondary school and when I did, I began going to see my father. I could not understand my own mother who was calling me ‘ke’ which meant ‘you’ in Hausa Language until I got married and had my daughter Daniella, then she called me Mama Daniella. At a point, when she could not understand me, she cried and went to call some elderly Fulani women and they sat me down to tell me it was the tradition not to call ones first child by name and anyone who did would be abused for breaking tradition. A mother could also not hug or hold her first child and all I ever wanted was a hug from my mother, parents which I did not get. And that made me feel so lonely. What was strange during those trying moments was the feeling I had of someone telling me ‘I am here’ but I never knew what it was. I did not even have a toilet roll, I would look for leaves and sometimes my hands. Thank God I did not contact cholera through all these. There was an instance where I was sick and a senior girl forced me to fetch water for her before going to complain at the clinic, I fell down and was later admitted. When I got to secondary school and in my final year I told my father, I wanted to study nursing because I had gone through pains and could see the pains in people. While writing my finals I also told him I wanted to leave the country because I was old enough and no one could restrict me. He agreed and told me visa and money was no problem. I went to see the nuns to let them know I was leaving and they told me to look after myself. I did not even know where Bradford was, I just took the flight and was told I would have to change a trip when I get to London. I did not know where I got the bravery to leave the country but I know better now. I arrived London and they were very nice unlike what we have today. They took me to the train station, I sat down. I told them at the station to let me know when the train for Bradford arrived and they did. For the first time in my life, I had a bed, money my father gave me. I looked up and down, felt relieved and said God, this is what the outside world looks like. I did not get to understand my mother on time but when I did we became best of friends. She had to call her aunty and others to explain to me and I wept. While abroad I took time out to visit her when I could.

When did you start work?

I started work in 1965. I worked for two years as a nurse before going into modelling.

Where did you work?

Charing Cross Hospital in London and subsequently became an international model.

How did you get into modelling?

I was walking out and did not even know they were scouting for models. I noticed a particular car would always pass by me as I walked. He was a top photographer called David, he was looking out for photogenic ladies and those for catwalks. Then I was very slim and tall though I think with age I have shrunk. They came to me, told me they had been watching me and wanted coloured models. Back then we had only white models and they wanted to start using coloured models in Paris. They also got an agent from the school of modelling and her name was Lucy. That is how it started. Modelling is not an easy job. It is not easy when you see models walk. They broke us in and it was a success. Rose was a top designer whom we worked it and till this day. There is a picture of me in her house. I would have shown you some of the pictures but my children have taken most of them. It was hectic but I loved it. Modelling life was good, the agent handled everything down to what shoe and cloths to be worn and also gave details of who I would be working for. Then Drum came to me and Vogue, I was the first Miss Lux in Africa. Adverts of me were usually shown after movies. I was also featured in the Lux Calendar and I did many commercials including Rolo Chocolate in London and got paid each time it was aired on television. I modelled for top designers like Christian Dior and Chanel. I travelled to Australia, London and other places. I was a commonwealth model of Shade Thomas, a top Nigerian designer and it was all over the papers. My son told me of a gallery in London where they showcase models from the 60s. He said four or five of my pictures are there.  I am praying they find them. We had places like Canada, Holland and others to visit. I acted a role in a series called “The Adventure” and did two scenes. All these and more were made possible by my agent. I made friends. It was a period of temptation as we had rich men even from Saudi Arabia interested in us. They tried to pick cloths for their wives and modelled us in these outfits. One of them even wanted to marry me but I declined his offer because of my Christian faith. He went as far as telling me his wife was in Paris and I could be his wife and reside in London. Even in the midst of fame God was there and He kept me. At a point, I told my agents and friends that I wanted to go see my mother and get back before we started a major journey from Paris down to London, then America, Australia and Canada. Therefore, I took a ticket and went through Ghana as it was, back in the days. When I arrived Ghana, to board the next plane I heard people calling my name and I was overwhelmed wondering who would know me in Ghana. In the plane, they wanted knowing who I was because of the attention I got but I kept quiet. At that time my husband was in charge of the Ikeja airport and he knew anyone that came in and out . I arrived Nigeria, and stayed with my cousin Leila Dogonyaro.

How were you able to handle the fame that came with it?

The funny thing about me is that I was not distracted by the glitz and glamour. I kept my nursing friends and when I decided to get married I did not look back. God helped me that as I got married, I took in immediately and I continued having my children one after the other.

When did you get married?

We got married 15 March, 1969.

How did you meet your spouse?

It was during my trip to Nigeria. I stayed with my cousin who wanted me to accompany her with some friends to play tennis though I was reluctant she eventually convinced me. We were also accompanied by the Governor of Adamawa State at the time, Bashir Ibrahim and Dimka were there. Coincidentally my husband was just passing by and he noticed the governor was around the area and he wanted to exchange pleasantries. Our eyes met. We all had a good time there and we went back home and while I was lying, down, Leila said, the guy I saw with the glasses was a man ladies were drooling over. He visited the house and wanted taking me out. She wanted us to go play tennis and the head of state (Gowon) would be there and he said, you are going out with me instead. I told Leyla and we left. I also visited my mother to tell her of my travel arrangement for work which would keep me busy and away from her for some time. My visit to Nigeria was over and I left. I did not know that my husband had found out from Leila where my parents reside. The war had started then, so I took a flight back and as I was getting to my room, I opened the door and heard the phone ringing, I rushed to pick it up and it was my husband singing for me and the lines of the song had the words ‘whisper to me do you really love me too?’ and from there everything fell in place. My mother was so happy about the news. After completing my trip, I came back to Nigeria and stayed for three months and within that period we got married. Lagos girls never left me alone as they abused me speaking of how I came and took him away (she laughs) all that did not matter anyway.

What endeared you to him?

It was love at first sight for me because despite having so many people as suitors, my heart went for him.

How many children do you have?

God blessed us with six children. We are neither rich or poor. I am also a mother to many who look up to me and sometimes when I receive a call and hear mummy, I wonder which of my child is calling (she laughs).

Do you have any regrets?

Yes, I have regrets. If I had known God the way, I know him now I would have understood earlier in life why I went through all I did as a child. But then, God knows everything and I also thank Him for my destiny and will continue to.

How would you compare life during your time with the present day?

The present day parents push their children to marry older men for money. The institution of marriage in the country is threatened as the rich marry themselves, not for love and before we know it they are divorced. It was not that way in the past. Respect for elders is gradually fading, you see a young girl carry a bag that costs so much money and you wonder where she got it from. Contentment no longer exists. I believe what God has promised, He surely gives. I share my life experience whenever I have the opportunity, so people can draw strength from it. I usually tell them not to be dismayed because growing up, I never had food stuffs. There were times I ate from the dustbin when hungry while other students had all the provisions they needed. But look at who I turned out to be. People often look at me and say they want to be like me but do not know what I went through to get here. When I see our girls, all I see is they rush into things, and lack respect for their parents as well. Though we have few who are well cultured.  They need to take it easy in life. For those who have rebelled and gone the wrong path, I believe like the Bible says that though their sins are like scarlet He will wash them white as snow.

How is life in your 70s?

I thank God for my life and the husband he gave me as well as my children and the missionaries. My strength since clocking 70 has been and will continue to be attributed to God. He is my everything. Recently, my movements have been limited due to pains in my legs and when I am home I rest. In the past, I did not have the faith I have now and will advise everyone to. I am a private person who does not make friends easily because of my background and when I discover a friend is not real, I withdraw though not totally.

How has your marriage been?

I realise God has been with me all through the years giving me strength, courage, without defeat. How my marriage survived 50years and even now these last years are the beautiful years. If only people can be patient, they will have a beautiful home that will stand the test of time. But this marriage has also been possible because we made Jesus the head of our marriage. I always advise couples to make him the head of their home because when I took my wedding vow, I meant every word knowing I was in God’s presence. Most people make marriage vows but take them for granted. It is no joke. Marriage has ups and downs, God did not promise bliss all through as He said, we would go through trial and tribulation. Every time I go through trials, I call on Him to see me through the temptation, depression and all sorts because I cannot do it on my own. I surrender my mind, heart and soul to him for cleansing and I have learnt so much in my relationship with God. The devil is doing all he can to destroy homes and marriages, that is also the reason I do not just go from one Church to the next because some Churches are not free from this reality.

These days misplacement of priority seems to have taken over, our children should desist from marrying a man because he has money or is from a wealthy home because that is a disaster waiting to happen but with God at the centre of everything; no matter the storm that a couple will be faced with, God will be there.

What is the reaction of people who have come across you?

Some say I am from Paris, a French woman, Holland and other places but I kept wondering, since my cousin Leila was not labelled same. I was born with brown curly hair which is God’s gift.

What presently occupies your day?

When I wake up I like to listen to gospel music, especially when I am stressed and sometimes I get carried away just singing. Good music makes my day bright. This is how I am able to sing all songs sang in Church. My husband and I do not go to parties anymore. Sometimes when my husband is busy with work, I visit my children and spend quality time with them after which I go back home.

I watch television to keep updated on happenings within and outside the country. I am a patron in an orphanage home called The Poor of the Poorest. They visit my place of worship from time to time during my birthdays. In the orphanage we have people who do not have a home to go back to because their parents kicked them out after discovering they were pregnant though some parents take them back after delivery. We have children whose parents are dead. We are able to educate them, train them in a skill and they get to go as far as the university. All these are made possible with donations from good people. My Pastor also contributes, he is a good man. I am not as healthy as I used to be, so with the limitation of my legs I am unable to engage in more activities than I do. I also take care of my husband. He helps me and I do same. My husband is always aware of what I do and where I go.

Where were you during the country’s independence in 1960?

I was abroad.

Have your hopes at independence been met?

I do not get involved in politics but my husband does. I only give advice when necessary but people tend to think I have an influence over my husband. The truth is, I do not. We talk things together and put them in prayers which before we never used to. My husband is a member of the Board of Trustee in PDP and people usually seek his counsel because of the great respect they have for him.

As the wife of an Air Commodore, how has life been?

Life has had its up and down. There was a time we left the country on exile, it was a tough time and friends all left because they were scared of (Gen Sani) Abacha. I had a boutique which had won the best boutique when we moved to Kaduna but agents of Abacha were sent to destroy it. While on exile my husband was the chairman of NADECO Abroad. In the midst of all the difficulties, we survived. My husband was not born again at the time but he became born again. We depended on God and He saw us through. Time passed, Abacha died, we came back to the country and later on, my husband became an Ambassador in Obasanjo’s administration.



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