By Anote Ajeluorou
What special feeling does it bring being 70?
I don’t know; no difference. No difference! Well, you get a bit older, and slower in thinking. I’ll find it very difficult going into acting right now because I can’t retain any lines; an actress must be able to retain lines. I don’t think I will be able to do that. I know there are people who continue to do it till very late but they have their own issues; I have mine.
But then you stepped off the stage a long time ago?...
Oh yes, a long time ago. I became a scholar, not a practitioner. In fact, I became a scholar straight away, a pioneer teacher in Theatre Arts and appointed to the School of Drama, which is now Theatre Arts Department, University of Ibadan, in 1963. And that was when Ibadan became autonomous university. So, I can say that I’m actually a pioneer lecturer of Ibadan although I didn’t stay too long before I moved. I got married to my husband at the University of Ibadan; he was a Research Scholar at the Institute of African Studies and I was assistant lecturer in the School of Drama. And he was my neighbour upstairs; he was in Flat 6, I was in Flat 4. So, you can now see the history between us.
Now, how would you say life has treated you so far at 70?
Oh, very well; I’m grateful to God. I have no complaint; yes, I’ve had knocks, lots of knocks, especially in the academia because, for a long time, I was the only woman in so many different areas. There were only five of us female university scholars at the University of Ibadan, where we started – Auntie Alele (Prof. Grace Alele-Williams), Auntie Awe (Prof. Bolanle Awe), there was one who became the director of gender issues in UNESCO and one other.
I had quite a lot of knocks, especially from you, men, who say ‘so you want to compete with us, let’s see’. Men did not spoil me at all; I wasn’t cuddled at all. I had to fight for it. Africa is still very chauvinistic; you men are! Only that we’ve blown up a lot of mines and bombs of male chauvinism. But it’s still bad; very bad, say 70 per cent. Women still have to fight.
That’s why my own 70th birthday will not be once-for-all affair. I want to showcase achievements of women because I pioneered so much; and pioneers are never known. Only the products of pioneers get known.
Take Nollywood, for instance. Without the theatre, there will be no Nollywood. And without Village Headmaster and the early television drama or programmes, you will not have Nollywood. Without the Yoruba theatre movement, which moved to film, you will not have Nollywood. So, you find that there is always a beginning that produced these results. There’s always a cause before the effect; Nollywood is the effect of a lot of pioneer works that had been done before it now moved to this incredible television, film movement all over the world. Nollywood is now next to Bollywood, which is absolutely incredible. And I’m always stunned that this has happened from the beginning of pioneering works of teachers like me.
I went from being a practitioner in London to teaching in Ibadan very early. I was appointed to Ibadan when I was very young.
And then from Drama you went on to teach English. How did that transition happen?
Yes, I did; I’m a woman of many parts! If you’re talking about drama, it can exist in both theatre and English. I began my career as a speech person, which I am. So, I taught speech for 14 years. I think they had another woman doing it at Ibadan. All theatre departments should have a speech person, but they don’t. It’s a highly technical, highly specialised area of theatre arts and not many people are trained in it; certainly not in this country.
And I came from abroad; and I moved the speech to English, which was very easy. The interesting thing was that I taught speech for 14 years and English Literature for 14 years. It was very interesting; I didn’t arrange it. It was divinely done.
I was in Ibadan for two years teaching speech, and 12 years at the University of Lagos teaching speech. And the Head of Department in 1977 shifted me to dramatic literature to teach Shakespeare, mainly European literature. The HOD, being my husband, being an African writer, I was not very comfortable teaching him or the others. If I was too harsh teaching him, then I had criticism I was too hard; if I was lenient I was accused of being biased; if I was too glowing about Soyinka, I got criticised. So, I said to him, take me out of African literature; let me go to my European literature.
So, I did very little African literature.
And you didn’t think you missed anything?
I didn’t miss anything because my background is European literature. Like I said, I used to teach African literature but then it was terrible with students coming to me to say you were quite nasty with your husband (laughs). Or you’re biased, and that is why you did what you did. I could not be objective and a scholar must be objective; without that you can’t function. So, I put up an appeal and said, ‘no, take me off it’. And who did I come to? My Head of Department, my husband (laughs again).
I was then taken to dramatic literature - Shakespeare; mainly Shakespeare and European literature; and Renaissance literature. And it was easy for me. Apart from having a strong European, dramatic literature background in my training, both academic and professional combined, after working on Herbert Ogunde from 1971 (I’m an Ogunde specialist; I have a book on Ogunde theatre. I did my first degree on him. And I followed him from 1971 to 1978 when he shifted to film, when I parted ways with him because I didn’t know anything about films), then shifted from Ogunde to Shakespeare was very interesting. Unknown to lot of people, the Yoruba professional travelling theatre has exactly the same feature as Renaissance travelling theatre.
So, I was able to understand the two perfectly, and have a much deeper penetration of Shakespeare’s works because of that highly upgrading knowledge I had of Yoruba travelling theatre of seven years of just following Ogunde’s theatre. My colleague, the late Prof. Adedeji, did his PhD on Alarinjo, the professional travelling theatre; their main job was to entertain. But I told myself the story did not end there. There is a contemporary development of this ancient art, and the person who shifted that development was Ogunde. But I shifted from Ogunde since 1978 when he went into film.
But you were also involved in your husband’s theatre productions, weren’t you?
I was still with the University of Lagos as director of the Centre for Culture Studies. So, I could only do so little, help him to set up PEC Repertoire Theatre; what I did, of course, was to share my own professional experience. I only gave him my own knowledge of theatre management.
Take the Ogunde theatre, he made his money through travelling because the volume of theatre-goers is not there, is not enough for the kind of money Ogunde made; he was a rich man. Then I thought up the subscription idea for the Nigerian theatre; that if people subscribed and paid ahead, there will be money.
No theatre in this country can exist on box office takings alone. Take it from me; it’s not possible; not with my knowledge of it, and also my knowledge of European theatre box office. Most of the repertory theatres are based on grants from the government or the councils; even in America.
So, theatre cannot just exist on box office alone because theatre really is something of the privileged. And to make it worse in Nigeria, it’s English-speaking theatre, which is not really understood by the masses. Although the number of theatre-goers is growing every year.
As you just mentioned, theatre groups get grants to bring theatre to the people. But it’s not so here, is it?
It’s not so here. Government itself is competing with the people they should be giving grants because they have states’ arts councils. They have arts council, but they are not grant-giving arts council. It should not be a company with its own programmes at all; its programme is to give out money. It’s a fund-granting organisation.
In this country and from inception, it was wrongly done by the colonial or immediate post-colonial government (one has to find out about that whether colonial or post-colonial). So, the arts council movement started from the Nigerian Festival of Culture, which predates independence. The arts council was set up immediately to be able to carry out its own programmes.
So, it’s very difficult to change it now. They should be giving out grants. People like my husband - well, he’s old now - but people now doing all sorts of arts matters – theatre, music, literature, name it – should benefit from grant-giving arts councils, and not arts councils competing with practitioners. Each state has its own theatre artists, troupe, drummers, dancers culminating in the National Theatre itself; National Theatre is all right. Arts councils fund National Theatre; and, Lottery also funds National Theatre and other charities.
There has been so much talk about falling standards of education. As a pioneer scholar in the academia, what do you make of such talk?
Well, it’s an issue. When I retired, I became a banker for three years. Very interesting, but I didn’t retire to become a banker. I had no idea what I was going to become when I retired. I just knew that I had to leave the university because I didn’t like the environment anymore. I felt that the falling standard you’re talking about had already started at that time. It was a time all universities, not just University of Lagos, were having a lot of armed robbery activities by students.
And there were other factors; I felt that students were becoming far too young. I was having 15, 16-year olds who tell me to slow down, that I was going too fast. Why do I have to slow down? Are you writing down what I’m saying? You do not know how to write notes? You go to tutorial class then. And then in 1991, I also returned from a fellowship at Cambridge, England. A friend advised me that if the standard wasn’t up to anything I was used to, especially after coming back from Cambridge, I shouldn’t hesitate to resign.
Then something happened five months later that finally decided for me. Also, the library wasn’t what it should be anymore to support true scholarship, even at Ibadan. I told myself, in 1991, I couldn’t continue to write a paper with 1971 notes; you have to be current. And to be current, you have to go abroad, and I didn’t have the money.
Then I wrote that letter. But I didn’t hear anything for two months. Then the vice chancellor called me and said they received a strange letter from me, which they hadn’t responded to. He said he had the right to say no; but I said no; he couldn’t refuse. I had cleverly given them six months’ notice. At that time I hadn’t even done 35 years. And I had to look for a job. So, I went to an uncle, and got a job in a bank. So, I brain-drained in, and not out, because I didn’t go abroad. I was pioneer head of human capital at Magnum Trust Bank. Then I left after the three years’ contract to set up Lagos School of English and Mathematics (LASEM). We’re like a nomadic school. I deal with big organisations and coach the staff for three days.
So, that leads up to your question, which I’m very well positioned to answer. I don’t just teach undergraduates; I also teach graduates and post-graduates from all disciplines. I have students from all over the country and outside. Now, to the complaints about standards, I say no!
Not quite; not quite. Spoken and written English is very bad; that’s why I’m there. I cannot change everything overnight, but I can sensitise you to what you should do.
Now, let’s get something clear. My generation was taught directly by the colonial office. I keep imagining my husband and myself; my education was British because I schooled abroad. But my husband’s education was one step down to the one I had. And we now have only Nigerians as speakers and teachers of English. So, you cannot expect the standards to be same as before. We don’t have the native speech or environment. I had both. Although the Nigerian environment has influenced me; I don’t regard myself as a native speaker anymore as I used to be. I was once winner of the 1960 gold medal of Britain and Ireland. I was nine when I left to complete primary school, and then on to attend secondary and university abroad.
We’re not totally gone; no, we’re not. I think we do too much self-beating in this country. We do; we’re too negative. We criticise too much. And when you say we’re bad, we’re bad; of course, we’re going to be bad. If you say it all the time, yeah, you’re going to be just that. A lot of us are what we are because of what we have turned ourselves to be. That is not to say that we do not have faults; I do not mean to say that.
I think the new, private universities - they are not as good as they should be. One, because they don’t have enough teachers; we cannot continue to pioneer. And those who are going are retirees. If you ask me to teach now, I’ll knock my head around to do research, write my paper. If you ask me to come teach, I’ll tell you, ‘no; I don’t have a head to carry anything’.
AFTER my time as director at Centre for Cultural Studies, which became Creative Arts Department, I had to go and teach after six years. My first day in class, students had no books. I said I was not going to teach; go and buy your books. They were looking at me as if to say, ‘where had this woman been’? Second day, no books; I said go and buy your books. Then the class governor came to me and said they had no books; that they photocopy. I said, how can that be?
When universities were just three – Ibadan, Lagos and Ahmadu Bello – there was complaint that there were no teachers. Now we have over 30 universities with states’ and private universities; where do you find the teachers, the personnel, human resource to manage them? Where are the libraries? They are not there the way they used to be to do research. They are too old for research; they need to be brought up to date. So many reasons why I left; the system I helped to pioneer isn’t there anymore.
My work at LASEM has also brought me into contact with graduate and post-graduate students from other West African countries. So, for instance, I can say the standard in Ghana is still very good; they speak better English than we do. It didn’t used to be; we were on par. You couldn’t say one country was better than the other. But when you look at the number of educated professionals around, we’re still good. We’re mixed because of the population. And the very good ones try to go out.
So, I brain-drained in. I couldn’t say it was my own making but my husband’s; he will not leave this country. I can’t leave either; he is like the Femi Osofisans, who are here.
Although I could have gone, and tell him, I’ll see you in six months (laughs). He was responsible for my moving from Ibadan to Lagos; he got a job in Lagos and I had just been promoted in Ibadan to full lectureship. We had a one-year child. And I said, ‘what am I going to do, commute?’ I had to come to keep the famous Lagos women away (laughs).
Meeting my husband, J.P Clark…
‘First he was loud… then I met him quiet and alone...’
How have you coped being married to a famous, iconic African writer and the first African to be appointed professor of English?
How do I cope? Well, first of all, remember that I married him as a lecturer myself. That’s number one; we were in the premier university together. He was already famous, by the way; he was very well known, particularly because of his plays, Song of A Goat (for which I did an annotation for an edition) and The Raft. When I met him, he was writing America, Their America, and he was doing his research on Ozidi. However, in this house, he is not the big writer; he is just the husband and father that he is.
In fact, a little digression will be good here to complete the story. When I was given my appointment, I was also given accommodation. But when I arrived, I was told my accommodation had been given to an expatriate and was asked to stay with my father. But I didn’t actually want to stay with my father; he was so protective. He literally drove me to work. If he didn’t drive, he would be in the car that followed me. So, I shared a flat before I got my own flat.
I was at a colleague’s place when I suddenly heard this yell outside. I looked out of the window; I had met him before. And the noise was too much. And I said, ‘who is this guy?’ What is this obnoxious, loud-mouth character doing here? She said, ‘you don’t know?’ I said, ‘what don’t I know?’ She said, ‘Clark’. And I said, what? Well, I wasn’t amused. Anyway, fortunately, there was no more noise. Probably he was more out than in; I didn’t know. And I forgot about him, and went about my own life.
Then a colleague at the Institute of African Studies came to me and said, ‘sign’. And I said, ‘sign what?’ Then she said, ‘Miss Odutola, do you realise that our rent is higher than a similar flat at Nnamdi Azikiwe Flat by one pound?’ I said, ‘that is outrageous; we must do something about it’. She took the petition one way and I went the other way to get those in the block to sign it. My colleague’s flat was number two, I was four, so I skipped mine and went up to six, Clark’s and eight, Auntie Alele’s flat. I knocked on his door; he said, ‘come in’, and I went in. There was this man sitting down alone. Totally alone, and quiet! I said, my goodness, he is not so loud after all; he is very quiet, probably shy.
So, I explained to him what I had come for. Then he said something very bad. And I gave it back to him very bad, and he was very shocked. I was a little girl that could not take that kind of verbal assault; and I gave it back to him well and good (laughs).
So, we talked for a while, and I told him I was a professional verse speaker; that I read poetry - I don’t write it but I read it. I was preparing actually for a kind of freelancing job in England. I wanted to freelance with poets and read their works because they had to listen to the sound, the rhythm and cadence of their works. I had been doing this since I was about nine to reach that level of gold medalist in Britain and Ireland, which was pre-professional training. I got to the top of the amateur and then went professional.
So, one of the things I wanted to do was freelance and read for poets because poets are terrible readers; they are not trained. You should listen to my husband (laughs). So I said, ‘oh I read’. That was the error I made, telling him I read poetry. I know you’re a poet, I read poetry. I didn’t say I’d like to read his. So, I got his signature.
Then, I went to Auntie Alele; well, she was quite a character herself. She was Dr. then. There was a time when she thrust a piece of paper before me and said, sign it. I said, what am I to sign? She said, ‘did you know that your husband and mine, and all husbands, are paid our leave allowances?’ I said, ‘what?’ Then, she said, ‘you didn’t know?’ I said I didn’t know. My 60 pounds that I would have at the end of the year, that I was looking forward to, is going to my husband because I am married? She said, ‘if they pay it to them this year, we’re going on strike!’ We were just five of us women. So, I signed and she took it to the bursar and it was put right.
That was how Alele stopped that practice in the civil service in 1964. I had just got married, and didn’t know about it; she had been long at it
Coming back, I went back to my flat, and what did I hear? Knock, knock, knock. There was my husband with a sheet of poems. Then he said, ‘start reading’. I said, ‘no; you haven’t got an appointment! Take your things back and have an appointment’. I was busy writing a paper.
Up till now, he would say that I have always seen my wife work with papers all over the place.
That was how I met him. Now, we’ve been married for 48 years.
He has his problems, no doubt about it - because there were a lot of in-fighting; there were good friends; as the same group, they were jostling to see who was going to make it or not make it. And they all made it.
“Writers and critics are too close here…”
The only thing that I would like to re-evaluate is the relationship between writers and critics in this country. The critics and the writers are too close. They know each other; they hardly know each other abroad.
I came back to this country with that tradition. Whether writers, visual artists, musicians, they do not necessarily know the people who are doing the critique of their works either in the university or in the press. Whereas here, they know each other very well; to make matters worse, they even started together. Both the scholar and the artists were together. And if they have a quarrel, it will show in the work. I find that very sad.
It was another reason why I checked out of African literature and went to European. I found that too incestuous; I hope I’m not shocking you. It was too incestuous; they knew each other too much; and it can make or destroy. There is no objectivity whatsoever in the whole game. That is what I think is the sad part of African literature culture and its growth; and I have seen it from the inception of modern African literature. It wasn’t only national literature, even in cross-national literature, it was there.
At the University of Lagos, I could go to class and come back and find Koffi Awonoor, and the others and they’re going to a workshop in Ibadan or Ife, and they’d say, ‘let’s check in with J.P. Clark’. At one time, I had about eight or nine writers in my sitting room. Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o would stay for several days; I would just spread a mattress on the floor for them to sleep on.
It’s not so bad now, but it’s still there.
And I think that when you take a stand that others don’t like, it will affect you. My husband’s stance during the Nigerian Civil War affected both us. But you knew what he stood for; there are people who admire him enormously for that. And I think it’s my grand-children or great grand-children who will be able to objectively look at the works of my husband’s generation.
“Why we eloped to Cotonou to marry”
One would have thought that living with a great writer for over four decades, you would have been infested with the writing bug beyond critical works…
WELL, I’m writing my autobiography; it’s coming little by little. I have an interesting story to tell… One has gone through a lot of pain, essentially because of the civil war, the lies that had been told about my husband. A lot of things have passed under the bridge. Like my marriage to my husband; I didn’t go to his village until six years later. I didn’t know the place; I had no idea. When I told my father I wanted to marry, he said, ‘yes, but to who?’ I said his name; he said, ‘where?’ I told him it’s Ijaw; he said never!
And we eloped to Cotonou to get married. And we eloped; that’s another story. I had six people in my wedding. My father didn’t know I was married until three months. So two years ago, I told my husband I’m an Anglican and because I married you in the registry office and not in the church, I’m not allowed to be a member of the mothers’ union until I got to church, which we did it two years ago.
Yes! But that inter-marriage was something else in our days. You don’t understand it now. It was a big issue back then. I was cut off from my people.