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Mr. Oluwemimo Ogunde, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Attorney General of Ogun State, is one of the children of the late theatre maestro, Chief Hubert Ogunde. Oluwemimo takes EMMANUEL OJO down the memory lane on the life and times of his dad

Your dad was a strong force in the Nigerian theatre art space. How will you describe him?

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I will look at my father from three aspects. As a family man, he was a very compassionate husband and in-law. He took care of his in-laws, he respected them and as a result, he gained the respect of his wives. He was a polygamist but at the same time, he was able to coordinate his home and was able to show to all of us that he cared for us, particularly because his wives were linked to his business. They (his wives) were also actresses. So, they were useful to him in two respects. They were giving him children and they were also helping him make money. So as a result, he had to take care of them. In the family house, he was a very large-hearted and compassionate man.

On the professional side, he was a workaholic and when I mean workaholic, he also found time to rest and he concentrated all his energy during the time of conception of a film to be acted as a play. So, during the time of conception, he looked like a lazy man. You won’t find him waking up until 12 noon. You won’t find him beginning any activity until 1 pm or 2 pm. So, he was a very late riser but he slept very late too. At 2am or 3am, you could still be hearing his voice. He had a very loud voice, so, when he was speaking upstairs, you could clearly hear him downstairs. He slept late and he woke up late but as soon as the film was conceived and it was about to be stretched out as a play, he would change his personality. At that time, he became a very early riser and still a late sleeper. So, my father could work easily for 17 hours a day and sleep for just five hours, if not four hours sometimes and he could do that for a month and a half, even two months until the play was done.

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He was also a coordinator because at that time when it happened that there was no coordination of theatre practitioners, he gathered them together and he formed what is called the Association of National Theatre Practitioners, which today is known as ANTP. My father was the founder and it was in that group that he brought together Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo, Akin Adejobi, Akin Ogungbe. He brought all those who were at that time prominent and not-so-prominent theatre practitioners together. It was not a registered association but it was an influential association and the association had a voice and could speak. The association was not just confronting the government, but was also concerned with the welfare of theatre practitioners at that time.

How old was he when you were born?

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My father was born in 1916 and I was born in 1958, so he was 42.

Were you very close to him?

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Uhmmm….. well, there was quite a number of us and the relationship he had with his children can’t be compared with the relationship a monogamist would have with his children but he knew all of us by name, as many as we are and he gravitated towards us according to how he wanted us to develop a relationship with him. Don’t forget that he was a traditional man. His upbringing, and orientation was to be far away from his children for him to be represented as a patriarch. He was a patriarch, he was not just a father (laughs); so, it was the relationship of a king to a subject but of course a benevolent king. So, if I want to describe my relationship with my father, he loved me because he felt I was brilliant and everybody loves brilliant people. He loved me also because I was useful in the theatre. At that time I was a dancer and a drummer. So, he loved that because I was contributing to his business. During the holidays, that was what engaged me. I was always participative and I travelled with him during the holidays on tour. Through him, I was able to know many states, towns and cities in Nigeria, both in the old western region and the old mid-western region. I didn’t go with him to the eastern region but I went with him to the northern region, particularly during the national festival of arts at that time when we were always participating.

How many wives did your dad marry?

Well, he has passed on now. He didn’t want us to disclose that (laughs)……

Records hold that he had more than 10 wives?

Yes, ok, let me just confirm that he had more than 10 wives and he had more than 20 children. Let’s put it that way (laughs).

Would you say that he got married early or late?

Again, because of his engagements and because of his upbringing and the fact that he knew from onset that he was going to be a polygamist, the marriage arrangement was traditional in nature. He was a very handsome man, so ladies were flocking to him, he was not going after them and he was a shy person.

Can we say that he was a ladies’ man?

Well, what I meant by that is not the way that it is used now. I want to use it in the sense that someone who was very handsome, loved women but of course, women were the ones coming to him. He was not the one chasing them, particularly because he was a show-biz man. Ladies love show-biz people. So, if we want to look at his marriage, he got married in the traditional way to most of his wives. He introduced himself through his mother and father to the family of the person he wanted to marry and then the woman would come to our house. I didn’t witness the ones that happened before I was born; of course, I couldn’t have witnessed that of my mum but I can remember, I witnessed one; that was a woman my father got married to in 1968. So, the tradition at that time was that one would go to the woman’s family, pay the bride price, give the traditional gifts and thereafter the woman would come to the man’s house. The tradition was that when the woman was coming home, her husband must not be at home.

Why was it so?

I wouldn’t know but she wouldn’t see her husband when she comes into the home.

How old was he when he married the first wife?

Well, I can calculate. We never witnessed but we were told that my father’s first wife delivered a baby but died at childbirth together with her child. So, I want to believe that the union with the other wife that died was around 1943 or so, my dad would be around 27 years then or so. He was in the police force then. In addition, my dad never married a Lagos girl. All his wives came Ijebu.

Was there a reason for that?

He actually sang a song that he referred to a Lagos girl that he encountered. That song is called ‘Sisi Oni Garawa’. ‘Sisi Oni Garawa’ actually described the ugly encounter he had with a Lagos girl. Probably that discouraged him and that was why my dad was not flirtatious and there was no single child born out of our home. Every single one of us was born inside of wedlock. So, we know one another. Well, he died in 1990, if there was anyone born outside, we should have known by now. So, there was no single incident of anyone saying that our father had a child here or there. He usually brought his women in and they gave birth. I think he had a Benin woman, just one. No Hausa, no Igbo.

What position are you among the children?

I am the fifteenth or sixteenth or thereabouts.

What was the educational level he attained?

Primary six school certificate.

Record has it that his dad was a pastor and his maternal grandfather, who he stayed with for a while, was an Ifa priest. Which of them would you say influenced him most in religious practices?

His father (my grandfather) was an Anglican Lay priest, a teacher and the first organist of our church, St. Johns Anglican Church, Ososa. He became the church organist in 1921. He was an accomplished organist. Yes, my dad’s maternal grandfather was an Ifa priest and that was where he got all the knowledge of all the things he displayed on stage.

What religion would you say he practised?

Uhmmm….. let me say it this way, I don’t want to mention names, but I want to let you know that the founder of the Ogboni confraternity was also an Anglican bishop. So that should tell you the mentality of that time that they really did not see any conflict between practising their tradition and also going to church. Don’t forget that what we now call African church today was established as a result of the protest of the African Anglican priest in the Anglican Communion against the fact that one cannot be an Anglican priest if he’s a polygamist. So, many of those who actually believed in that are the ones that established what is now called the African church today. We had an Ogun shrine in our house but we also had a chapel upstairs.

Earlier records also have it that he was a choir master and organist of the church at some point…..

Exactly!

How did he blend in on all that at once?

He didn’t see any conflict in them all (laughs)…. and that’s the point I’m trying to make. You have to, first of all, persuade him that there’s a conflict between the two. He didn’t see any conflict between the two. His belief was always the fact that God is so great that He is actually the creator of all religions, the only thing is that that religion must not propagate the devil. If the religion propagates the devil, then it’s definitely against God. God can permit, but it’s actually a creation of the devil. But if that religion also promotes good, promotes holiness, promotes righteousness and good deeds instead of evil deeds, then there shouldn’t be a contradiction between the two.

To a large extent, if you look at old testament Christianity, you will see people always testifying to the fact that Solomon was a polygamist, David was a polygamist and so on and they use that to justify polygamy but there are some of us, and I am one of them, who believe in evangelical Christianity; the Christianity that is rooted in Jesus Christ. Maybe some who fall into that don’t see how we can combine Ogun worship with Christianity but I still want to tell you that it’s still not the universal view even among Christians. It is still a view that is confined to some Christians, not to all. There are those who believe that they are Christians, who see no reason why they shouldn’t have more than one wife, or drink beer or wine. They don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. The thing is that my father fell into that category. He didn’t see any conflict between the two. Like I said, he was a good man, a very good man. At the time my father died, you wouldn’t see anyone who said that my father did harm to them and he taught us his way of life.

It was in my father’s house where we were worshipping Ogun that I knew that Ogun frowns on fornication, for instance. You don’t mess with someone you have not married. Don’t touch her. That’s where I learnt it. It wasn’t like I didn’t fornicate but even when I was doing it, it went into my conscience that what I was doing was wrong, even though I wasn’t a Christian then. What I want to say is that in the case of good deeds, it is wrong for one to say that just because you are an Ogun worshipper, you wouldn’t live a lifestyle that many Christians claim they live today. You still find Christians who cheat their bosses and they go to church, not seeing any contradiction between the two. You still find those who sit down, calculate and say that they are leaving a job at the end of the month and they will calculate that they will collect their salary on the 28th of the month, then will drop their resignation letter on the 30th and vanish without any notice to their employer and on Sunday, they will rejoice in church and give glory to God for getting another job. Ogun won’t teach you that. Ogun will tell you that that’s wrong.

The thing is that my father was on that view that that was the tradition of his fathers and that’s what he learnt. He still saw Christianity as the introduction of the white man. He couldn’t divorce his mind from the fact that these people who brought Christianity to us were white missionaries. That was why he didn’t see any contradiction between the two, so, we had a chapel in our house and we had an Ogun shrine but my father was really not an Anglican. He belonged to the church of the Lord (Aladura) founded by Reverend Ositelu. So he was an Aladura man with their headquarters in Ogere.

Knowing that your dad had that large family, did you all live under the same roof?

Yes, we lived under the same roof.

How was he able to manage conflicts and competition between wives and children?

Oh, that’s a very good question; let me tell you how. I’m sure you will find it very strange when I tell you. Each time my father wanted a new wife, he called his older wives and told them that he wanted a new wife, then, they would volunteer to bring the wife for him. My mother, for instance, I know the person she brought. So, when the senior wife brings a wife home, that junior wife is under that senior wife in authority. My dad didn’t really interact with the junior wives. It is stratified, it’s hierarchical. My dad didn’t talk to these junior wives; the senior wives had their own time with their husband. They rotated daily through the week. The junior wives only get time with their husband by the senior wife surrendering their slots to them. So, the junior wife has that protection because she knows that on the day that her own mentor, guardian or leader would have her day, the day would be surrendered to her or she would be given the opportunity.

There were no days assigned to the junior wives because there are only seven days in a week (laughs)…. So, it took the higher wives to surrender. So, you can see the level of selflessness and cooperation. That prevented any form of hassle. There’s no way you wouldn’t respect an elderly wife that gives you her slot to meet with your husband. The arrangement was even known to us as children, so you can see the cooperation in our home.

How was the cooperation between the children?

On the children’s side, the eldest wife had authority over all the children. There is a way we ate then. Your mother must not be the one to prepare your food. Food comes from a general pot. Food would be cooked for all the children, then trays would be served and four meals were served on each tray, so, we all ate together under the control of the eldest wife. Although we had our quarrels as siblings would, we grew up together. Have you ever heard of Hubert Ogunde’s children going to court to fight for property? It won’t happen.

Did any of the children toe his path?

Yes, in career, we have George Ogunde troupe, which functioned for many years and I tell you, Jide Kosoko was his product, also two or three others.

I have another brother, Adelaja Ogunde, who has also shot his own films; he also toed that line. Another brother, Kunle Ogunde, is about to release his own film now – The Snare. He is a Christian, so, it’s a Christian movie but he is toeing that path. He is also a software engineer but he does it as a hobby. He’s also written some plays which were staged in the mid-70s. He was also an active theatre practitioner.

What about the aspect of polygamy. Did anyone toe that path?

Yes, many. Many of my brothers had children from more than one wife and you should expect that (laughs), because that was how they grew up.

Your dad was multitalented. He was a playwright, an actor, a dancer and a musician. Is there any of his children that is as talented as he was?

Hubert Ogunde was a unique phenomenon. They don’t come too often in any generation. It’s like looking for a Pele again or a Fela. They come once in a generation. You can find those that are close to them but not exactly like them. It was going to be possible for Hubert Ogunde at that height because he had many brilliant children. God would have also arranged it too but he was blessed with many brilliant children who are also successful in their own rites.

In the theatre field, my father stands tall as a giant. Nobody can compare to him. None of his children can get to his level. Even if you look around, who can you compare to Hubert Ogunde? You are going to search very far. There are many outstanding theatre practitioners in their own rights and outstanding filmmakers but without being partial, because he is my father, it is well acknowledged that he is the doyen of the Nigerian theatre and he has no equal. There is no doubt about that and that has been recognised. He is the pioneer artistic director of the national troupe. When Nigeria got independence in 1960 and he had done movies already for 16 years at that time, he was the one selected by the Federal Government to actually stage an independence play. What else is expected?

In 1967, my father’s troupe also represented the Federal Government and Nigeria in a competition in Canada, in which Nigeria came first. There are many things I can point to, to say that he is respected as the leader of theatre practice in Nigeria.

He started a film village in his hometown at Ososa. What’s the situation there now?

The film village is not running. We had some challenges in trying to keep it going but we have the Hubert Ogunde Museum, which is running in Ososa. The Hubert Ogunde Museum is set up to show his works and there you have his costumes from 1945 all on display there. Then, you have his family tree going back to his father and mother. We couldn’t get a photograph of his grandparents but we have that of his parents, his children and then his wives. We have his family tree and then the display of all his works in the museum. People are visiting the museum. The museum is being run as a private family concern. We have the film village there but we are yet to work on it.

Are the children upholding the legacies he left behind?

Yes, to a large extent. Well, we are upholding it in different ways. The most important way for me first is that we have done nothing to tarnish the name. We are not in court. You can’t find any Ogunde that has been arrested somewhere and that’s the starting point.

We have endeavoured to stay out of trouble, so there is peace at home and of course, thereafter, we have the museum.

Did you have a family movie theatre?

There was Ogunde theatre group, of course, but not consisting of his family members alone. His wives were there, there were also some who were recruited from outside. He trained many good hands who have since gone on to be great people.

He also made stage plays with political undertones and commentaries. To what extent did that resonate in the Nigerian political space?

Well, my father was an activist and he knew from the beginning, which was fortunately in the colonial era, that he could not but play a role in the struggle for independence in Nigeria and the way with which he did that was to actually highlight the deficiencies of the colonial era as at that time and to bring it to national consciousness. So, the theatre was used by him as an instrument of struggle against colonialism, not just a means of making money. In 1949 for instance, when there was a problem with minimum wage, when the colonial government was actually offering one penny as minimum wage, he staged a play called Strike and Hunger where he backed up the Michael Imoudu struggle at that time. The play was actually to support the late Pa Michael Imoudu, who was struggling for the railway workers to be well remunerated at that time. So, that play was banned by the then colonial government; he (Hubert Ogunde) was arrested with his team but he was later released because there was a lot of noise all over the place and then the great Zik (Nnamdi Azikiwe) was the one campaigning for his release at that time before it eventually happened.

The other one which came to national prominence was ‘Yoruba Ronu’, which has now been given all sorts of misinterpretation by so many people. But at that time, Yoruba Ronu was actually to castigate Yoruba and those who are not Yoruba. It was to let all Yoruba to understand that the destruction of the Yoruba nationalism would be from the inside not from the outside. The play was to highlight and to show that it appears that we are divided and as long as we are divided, other ethnic groups will be taking advantage of that division, so, we won’t have them to blame but we will have our own internal wrangling to blame. The play now has been misused to actually show that my father wrote against other national ethnic groups, that’s not correct. The play had nothing to do with other ethnic nationality. It was to ensure the Yoruba unity. I can’t deny the fact that it was to promote Chief (Obafemi) Awolowo because my dad was a fanatical ‘Awoist’. I don’t have any comments about his political views but he was a fan of Awolowo. The play was to promote Awolowo but much more than that, there was disunity in Yoruba land and it wasn’t going to help us.

He wrote the play,    ‘Keep Nigeria One’ and he sang a song also for that, which was good. He was also part of the movement that brought the death of Murtala Muhammed to national consciousness. He also did two or three plays in the fight against corruption in Nigeria, emphasising moral and political corruption, showing clearly that bribery and corruption were endemic in the entire Nigerian system.

Did he have anything at any point or maybe stage performance to do with Fela?

No, my father was not in Fela’s era. Fela emerged in the 70s and at that time, my father was already almost closing. They weren’t in the same era at all.

Did he play any role in FESTAC ’77?

No, he did not. At that time, (ex-President Olusegun) Obasanjo set up the FESTAC ’77 committee and invited my father to be a member. My father declined to be a member because he said Nigeria had sufficient theatre groups and there was no reason why Ibitome from South Africa would be brought to open the FESTAC ’77 ceremony. So, as a result, he didn’t participate. He had other reasons but that was the major reason why he refused.

How often did his plays take him abroad?

Like I told you, the Ogunde theatre group represented Nigeria in the Apollo ’67 in Canada. Before then, in 1947, my father and mother went abroad, when he actually applied for visas, the application was refused by the British Colonial Government because he staged a play in 1945. It was the great politicians at that time like great Zik and the rest that protested against the colonial government before he was permitted to travel to England with my mother. That was the time my mother learnt how to play the saxophone and it’s on record today and I stand to be challenged that my mother is the first female saxophonist in the whole of Africa in 1947. If not in the whole of Africa, at least in Nigeria. There was no woman who had played the saxophone before 1947 when my mother did. So, that was his first encounter. The next was in 1967, the third was in ’68 when he then did a tour in the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He was there for one year; from August 1968 to August 1969. It wasn’t a play, it was an opera put together at that time called O! Ogunde. So, that showed all through Great Britain in that period before he came back to Nigeria. I think that was the major attempt that he made to popularise the Nigerian theatre abroad. He also did much in the West Coast – Ghana, Togo, Benin Republic and so on. There was a large Yoruba community in those regions.

Were his movies exclusively in Yoruba language?

Yes, but they had subtitles for those who didn’t understand Yoruba.

Did he express any form of regrets before his death?

If I am to look at regret, the one that he couldn’t hide was that he didn’t do enough to promote his children to other endeavours of life apart from the theatre. The theatre was his life and he didn’t see beyond that. My father didn’t see his children becoming doctors, engineers and so on even though he had very intelligent children, so all of us were trained to gravitate towards the theatre. To think that that was his regret, it was possibly his only regret. The only one I can see as his son is that he would have loved a situation where the children would have been involved in other endeavours of life.

You are an accomplished lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria. How were you able to break out of the theatre as the path your dad set you on?

Interestingly, as I always tell people, it was my father who encouraged me to study law and I wouldn’t know why he did. I was admitted to study psychology at the University of Lagos but he told me that he thought I would be a good lawyer and that was how I switched to Law in 1979 and I graduated in 1982. I have siblings who have also moved to other areas of endeavour. He probably would have loved to see that more of us got into some other endeavours.

What’s your fondest memory of him?

What I love to remember most about my father is that he left a good name. Even when I say today that my name is Oluwemimo Ogunde, it is the Ogunde part that is known. He died 32 years ago and if people can still hold one in admiration in this cynical Nigeria where nobody trusts anyone, even 32 years after his death, then certainly it’s something we, his children, must be proud of and that’s the kind of legacy I want to leave myself, that years after I have gone, people will hold my children in admiration on account of my name.

Punch


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