“Naturally, music therapy was my ultimate escape; my ultimate distraction from the pain and itching that came with burn treatments…”
Twelve years after the Sosoliso plane crash that claimed the lives of prominent Nigerians including over 60 students of Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja, the sole survivor, Kechi Okwuchi has emerged stronger, even going as far as competing in the America Got Talent reality show.
In this chat, she shares the journey of the past years, how she found her musical voice and how the plane crash experience has shaped her life. It’s an interesting read.
On that fateful day of the crash, did you have a premonition that something untoward was about to happen?
Not in the least. It was a normal Saturday, like any other day.
Twelve years after the Sosoliso plane crash, you have emerged stronger and found your voice. How did you pull it off?
When I think back, I find that all I have tried to do is to take each day at a time and make constant efforts to insert God into every facet of my life. Music became a major part of my treatment and therapy when those close to me saw the noticeable change in my voice, which happened after the plane crash. At that time, all the plans my parents and I had for my future were completely derailed, understandably. As my recovery journey began, my new plan was no plan at all: take each day as it comes and live as much as you can in the present. Because of this new mindset, I had no grand plan for my future for a while and my main priority was to get better and gain back as much of my independence as I could. After each surgery, I was able to do more and more by myself, and it was in this way that I was able to finish secondary school, graduate with a BA in Economics and begin my MBA. In all honesty, all I ever wanted was for God to enforce His will over my life, and whenever I look back, I feel that He did exactly that. Even when it seemed like I was encountering obstacles everywhere I turned, I really believed He has been there all along.
In 2015, you graduated from University of Saint Thomas in Texas, USA with a first class, and you also got invited into six honour societies including International Economics Honour Society, how did this make you feel?
Hard work will always yield results; it has no choice. Those were the words my mother said to me as I cried over my first ever college midterm score: a C in first level Philosophy. I cleaned my tears and decided to make those words my college motto. If I wanted A, I had to put in the work for that A and it was a wonderful, satisfying feeling to see my mother’s words play out in my reality as a college student. Graduating in the top 10 of my year was a fulfillment of the truth of my motto, and I was so humbled to receive the additional honour of being student commencement speaker for my graduating class. More than anything else, my academic achievements were my ultimate tribute to the 60 angels of the plane crash. My motivation was their loved ones left behind. I needed to show them that this life that had been saved that day had not been saved in vain, that it was excelling, living well and making them proud. I am happy I was able to give them that much, at least.
Was there anytime during the last 12 years that you felt like quitting and just letting go? And do you sometimes blame God for what you went through?
Once, yes. This was four months into my treatment in South Africa, after I had been told the truth about the accident and how no other student from my school had survived. It was a horrible, helpless feeling of deep grief, knowing that I had lost so many close friends, and while I didn’t blame God for anything, I couldn’t see how I would be able to move forward from the crippling pain. My mom and grandmother prayed for me and comforted me, and they told me that ‘no one knows why these things happen’. And I thought to myself that’s so true. Why ask why? As far as I was concerned, no reason would ever justify the loss of so many lives. Instead of spiraling into ‘whys’ and ‘if onlys’, it would serve me better to try to draw strength from the memories of the departed, to live my life in a way that would make them and the loved ones they left behind proud. This was how I decided to face life henceforth, how I decided to move forward. It did not happen as simply and quickly as the way I’ve written it out; rather it was, and is, a very gradual healing process.
Today, you’ve emerged as a strong woman and an inspiration to people going through very challenging times. What lessons did you learn from the experience and what advice do you have for people going through tough challenges?
‘If you got this far, you can go even farther’. Unfortunately, life likes to test our boundaries, pushing at them until they are stretched to a breaking point. Oftentimes, it’s only in retrospect that we realise just how much we can – and have – endured. But this only proves my point. What this means to me is that, we human beings are much more resilient than we realise. There are so many obstacles many of us have had to overcome to get to today, to get to this present moment. This means that we have it in us to go even farther on our individual journeys. In fact, we owe it to ourselves, to all our hardships, to keep going until we reach the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel. If we don’t, we have suffered this long for nothing.
You were on America Got Talent where you made Nigeria proud. Has it always been your dream to sing? Tell us about how you discovered music?
Like it is for most people, music has always been a constant in my life. My first memories are of me singing along to Madonna and Spice Girls, belting out lyrics I had no business knowing at age three, much to my father’s playful indignation. My father is a huge patron of the arts, so his tastes were my tastes for a while growing up. Like him, I have always been attracted to melody, but as I got older and developed my own taste, I started to focus more on lyrics. As a teenager, I loved to sing and I frequently did so for close friends and family. My voice was nice enough but after the accident happened, it definitely changed and became more like what it is today. Naturally, music therapy was my ultimate escape; my ultimate distraction from the pain and itching that came with burn treatments. But never did I once believe or dare to hope that music would become more than me singing for fun on my karaoke machine or singing in church. America Got Talent took me completely by surprise!
You lost 61 classmates in that crash. Do you see them in your dreams and what do you discuss with them?
This is interesting; I have never been asked this question before. Yes, I saw them in my dreams in the beginning, and it was always the same scenario but in different locations all over my secondary school campus, Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja. Sometimes we would be in front of the junior classroom block, sometimes the dining hall, but interestingly enough, most times we would be around the school clinic. In the dreams, I saw a lot of close friends that passed away, mixed with some friends who are alive and well. At the time, though, I hadn’t been told that any one of them had passed away. Anyway, I would always be in a hospital gown and my friends would surround me, talking and laughing with me as they walked at my slow pace. I remember always feeling so exhausted and numb and my laugh would be so weak, but I also remember feeling content having them around. Then, suddenly, they would be waving goodbye to me, and there would be a nurse leading me back to a hospital bed, and then I would wake up in my actual hospital bed. These strange dreams continued for the first couple of months right after the accident, and then never again since. I didn’t know what to make of them then, and I could never remember what my friends and I talked about in the dreams. But after I received the news of their passing, I came to believe that perhaps, the dreams had been a goodbye of sort that I hadn’t known I needed at the time of their occurrence.
Tell us about your love life. Are you in a relationship now and can you tell us about the guy in your life?
Nothing to tell…yet!
Could you describe your ideal man?
It changes frequently (laughter). However, two consistent things are that he loves the Lord and that we have a similar sense of humour.
Where would we see Kechi Okwuchi in the next five years and what are your dreams?
I never plan that far ahead (laughter). Let us just pray that the Kechi Okwuchi five years from now is a happy Christian woman, whether she has chosen to apply her MBA into her dream job as a United Nations ambassador, whether she has decided to pursue music and inspirational speaking full-time, or whether she decided to build a career in a completely unrelated field! I just want to find true happiness.