The septuagenarian, Segun Sofowote, is a virtuoso artiste. A veteran broadcaster, TV idol, theatre performer, musician language activist and writer, he is still champing at the bits at the twilight of his artistic career. As a schoolboy, in the 1950s, he was a celebrated whizkid winning laurels in debating competitions. No surprise that he soon found his way into the Nigerian Broadcasting Service as a teenager. He was to win renown, too, as a television star in the 1960s with Africa’s pioneer TV station, WNTV. A legendary dramatist, he featured in the pioneer production of Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forest, staged for Nigeria’s independence celebration in 1960. Radio fans at the dawn of independence would also remember him for his creation of the comic Latin American character named Fernando Martinez in the national radio programme “Life with Fernando Martinez” among other popular innovations of his on radio and television. “An average day on radio and television was exciting for me,” he spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO in his characteristic cockney accent he wants every Nigerian to emulate.
You were born in the colonial period before Nigeria’s independence. How exciting were your early days?
Everything appeared normal enough when one was a child. I must say there was no pressure, the kind that you get born into these days. Yes, there was the talk of the British ruling the country.
What period are you talking about?
I was born at the close of the 1930s, so I was growing up in the ‘40s. All looked normal enough, I am sure. Then, as we grew up, we began to be conscious of nationalism, which made it not right for white men to be ruling us. But, all together, we felt no pressure; we had to get beyond that point where it could be better –in the imagination, we should be ruling ourselves.
Did you grow up in the village or in the city?
I had the benefit of both. My father worked in the city. He was one time lecturer at Wesley College, Ibadan, which belonged to the Methodist Church. He had also worked in Abeokuta, but he ended up in Lagos. He was an educationist. In his wisdom, he wanted me raised in his hometown, Irolu, Remo, Ogun State, and I spent my holidays in Lagos. Looking back, I appreciate that a lot.
In retrospect, is there anything you are nostalgic about in those days?
Far too many things. Society, as I said, was normal: you expected the authority of the elders, and you respected them. There was absolute desire to be normal human beings: people related to one another. I don’t relate in the mechanical ways we relate to these days. [Today] you are neighbours probably because your house is next door, not because there is any particular kind of feeling. Today, all your thought is about you and your family. It wasn’t so then; it was a society.
As a young man, what were your ambitions?
I had dozens of those, because I had so many interests and so many capabilities. There was hardly anything exciting that I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be an actor, a singer, a musician, a pilot, a philosopher, a scholar, a general –so many things. If one could live one’s lifetime again, I would happily be operating in those areas.
When did it occur to you were going to be an artiste?
You could say that the road began to narrow as you grew up. First of all, you had to make choices in school; so, it could be easier for one, especially given the circumstances, for one to get into the arts. There were many artistic activities to indulge in, and one did indulge in them –you became so outstanding in many artistic areas, and it looked like the most natural thing to follow up. Right from school, I was a very well known Lagos schoolboy debater: I wrote good English and excelled in essay competitions. I featured in our school’s Founders’ Day programme. I remember in my secondary school, the Daily Service, a Lagos newspaper then, carried the picture of me reading the lesson in the church –apparently, everybody was impressed with “this” little brat. I was involved in literary and dramatic society and broadcasting in school, and the radio station got to know about me and involved me in children’s programmes, and so on. So, it became normal that I should go into arts, though the other abilities were still there. I am a very technical person. There were things that I repaired myself and things I fixed myself. I used to repair my own car often. I am a technical person, but nobody knows that.
Yes, my first two cars. I just needed to study my mechanic and, in very little time, I had my apron and mats in the car with a complete tool box, which was the envy of mechanics, and life was good. If your car broke down in the dead of the night – I liked travelling in the night in those days –I would stop and connect the lamp to the battery, put the mat under the floor, repaired it and drove on the highway. I did it several times. I was known to repair other little things in the house, like clocks. But when it came to what to do for a living, I just went into the arts –broadcasting, performing, acting, and so forth.
You made a name in broadcasting quite early in life. What was the interest for the microphone?
Right from my schooldays, I was into broadcasting. One day, staff of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service came to the school look for me. I think it was my reputation as a schoolboy debater in Lagos. I think it was easy to hear about me.
In the 60s?
No, late 50s. I won debates all over the place, and there was that publicity that attended my triumphs in the newspapers. I was doing many things. So, radio came after me and got me involved. It was rare in those days. People were hearing about me in national programmes and children’s programmes. Drama also came after me, because the head of drama, Yemi Lijadu, a great artiste, came to me, too, and got me involved in drama outside radio. I would take part in radio drama. So, there was nowhere else I could go except in the direction of the arts. That’s how I got into broadcasting and, as soon as I left school, the head of Women and Children section, Eno Etuk (then) Irukwu, created a drama series for me, something on young school leavers searching for jobs. It was written by Sam Ebele, one of the foremost Nigerian literary writers and also a journalist. It was based on the experience of a job hunter. I was the main character in the radio play. From there, Wole Soyinka came along.
When was that?
In 1960. He wanted to establish The 1960 Mask, a profession theatre group he initiated to begin the English theatre drama. He wanted to produce his epic play, A Dance of the Forest, for Nigeria’s independence celebration. Since he was going through the English Drama group at NBS, headed by Lijadu, of course, he got to know about me. So, I was the pioneer actors of the 1960 Mask. We did that production and others. It was him, in fact, who took me to Ibadan –although we worked in Lagos, it was to be based at the University of Ibadan. He was using a Landrover SUV given to him by the Ford Foundation. But, as soon as I got to Ibadan, and there wasn’t much happening, I went to radio. I was quite well grounded on radio, and I was hired by late Segun Olusola. He was there as the first Nigerian television producer, and we were there on radio (we were colleagues in the 1960 Mask). So, I went there and showed up at Television House, Agodi, Ibadan. He called Australian experts, because the station was opened with foreign experts, with Nigerians working, of course but the foreigners running it. It was later that I went into television WNTV, Africa’s first television house
Among the vast experiences you have had on air and on screen, which is the most memorable?
(laughs) That will be difficult to single out. An average day in the Television House, Ibadan, or Radio House, Ikoyi, was exciting and fulfilling. Broadcasting is life. It is not working on some cold metal somewhere or writing on papers somewhere. You were getting ideas, turning them in your mind and you were communicating, and so on. There were many exciting days for me, because each day was a very exciting day for me, and it was no surprise that I soon came up with national programmes that featured prominently.
There was something called “Life with Fernando Martinez”. Fernando was a Latin American character that I created for the radio. I just conceived him as a Latin American gentleman, a man about town, in Nigeria, not speaking very good English but a mixture of English and Spanish, a demon chaser, womaniser, a socialite who got into trouble, because he didn’t understand English well or because he carried his womanising too far. He was such an exciting character, and people enjoyed it all over the country in the ‘60s. I created it at Ibadan, but when I crossed over to back to Lagos, NBC wanted it. Soon, what used to be “The Variety Show” and later “Olu Sowande Show” became “Life with Fernando Martinez” because he decided that was the main item in the show. It had become a brand. There was also, for example, “Vox Pop”. That is a common word today, but it was a fresh coinage when Ishola Folurunsho, the legendary sports broadcaster, who had then become the Controller of Programmes at Radio Nigeria national programme, Ikoyi.
When I showed up in Lagos, he was so excited about it, and he said that was the idea he had hatched for years and was looking for somebody to realise it in practical programming; and said I had just walked into that. I took it up. Now, “Vox Pop” is an old concept these days. Now, with many radio stations doing it, but the difference is that “Vox Pop” was well thought out those days. As a person who did it, I was supposed to take a theme and expand it, do an in-depth intro on it –it must be a matter of public interest –and I would go to town and collect opinions in the streets of Lagos –that sounds easy –but it wasn’t easy like that in those days; it wasn’t the days of telephone. There was telephone, but it was a rarity. The machines we used to record in those days were not handy things as you now have. They were heavy machines. They were meant to be portable, that was only how portable they could make them. You carried them strapped on your shoulders and you went about the streets of Lagos in the evenings and return to the office to edit all the inserts, mix them, did the intro and so forth, and I did them thrice a week. It wasn’t only mentally tasking but physically tasking. I still meet one or two people now who remember “Vox Pop”. It had a standard intro, which people had memorized and say it back at me once in a while. I did other things, for example, there was “Big Beats”. It wasn’t created by me, but I was asked to take it over, and it prospered. I don’t know how it was done, but I get regular fan mail, even from Ghana. The ones from Ghana came regularly weekly by airmail.
They were receiving it from there?
Yes, they were receiving it. I still don’t know how it happened. I was looking through the house the other day, and I came across one of those mails from Kumasi, Ghana, from a fan who made sure his name was mentioned every week in that programme. Altogether it was a period of romping on radio and also on TV.
Why didn’t you feature in popular sitcom, “The Village Headmaster”?
I didn’t feature in “The Village Headmaster” for good reasons. I chose not to. I could have picked my part from the beginning, because Segun Olusola who created the programme was very close to me. I was living in his house when I first came back to Lagos, and that was when the “Village Headmaster” was being created.
And that was when?
In the 1960s. It lasted for so long. That’s why it is known as the longest running Nigeria sitcom on Nigeria television. I chose not to. Olusola knew me well and always respected my peculiarities. He understood my reasons. I told him I didn’t want any more of such part again.
He was creating different roles and asked me which I could fit into. Well, I couldn’t have been the Headmaster himself, because that needed different person with a different built from me. And Ted Umukoro was a natural choice. I could have been anything else, but I chose not to participate, because my career depended on broadcasting and theatre, and I found that at a time in the past when I had taken a regular role in drama, it had always gotten in the way of my theatre career. The same happened with “Life with Fernando Martinez”. It was my creation and Martinez himself was my alter ego. The way it happens particularly in this part of the world is that when you are good in a role, they don’t forgive you.
You mean stereotypes?
Yeah, exactly. They don’t want to see you in any other role or how good you are in another role. That’s not good for an actor. I was Fernando Martinez. What kind of character? I succeeded in that, and everybody bought into it, but I found when I got onstage –and this happened to me when I was part of the three-man “Theatre Express” programme conceived by Segun Olusola and Uli Beier…
The German art aficionado?
Yes. We were all friends. They got such idea, because there was I sitting duck for such crazy idea. There was Wole Amele and Segun Akinbola (now an oba somewhere on Idanre hills), Ondo State. We were assembled here in Lagos, with different roles. I was an independent broadcaster –I didn’t want to take up a government job anymore; I was doing my own programmes. Wole was in government television, NTS, so was Segun Akinbola. So, we got this idea that if three of us got into theatre, we could do things. So, we began and ran “Theatre Express” for a number of years. What I am saying is how playing on a role successively got in your way. I was Fernando Martinez for many years, and I was also Girigiri, another character in a drama series that was created by Wole Soyinka and Segun Olusola. It was at Ibadan –it was our answer to “Safe Journey”, which belonged to National Radio in Lagos. The answer to that was “Broke Time Bar”, a drinking bar. I was Girigiri in that series, a slang cutting American, muscular man, who would throw you out of the bar if you failed to pay your bills –you could only get away with that on radio. Nobody could imagine me playing that role on television (because of my light built). I did it convincingly on radio, and people thought I was an American playing that role. So, people knew Segun Sofowote as Girigiri and as Fernando Martinez, and, then, when I had serious moments on stage, in drama, somebody from the audience would call out “Girigiri” or “Fernando” or “Amego”, and that spoilt the whole thing for me. It happened severally, and I vowed never to play a constant, regular role again on radio or television again. That was when “The Village Headmaster” was conceived; I said I won’t play another regular role again, so I kept away. Otherwise, anything was there for me to pick. But I contributed ideas to the conceptualization of “The Village Headmaster”.
You run a language clinic in Lagos. Why has it become imperative now?
I guess I embody many contrasts, and I enjoy that. And one thing that explains the contrasting element is that I like purity and excellence in whatever I undertake. When I speak, I do with a very high level of excellence in any language I speak.
Aside English and Yoruba?
Yes, in any language that I am operating in. I don’t claim to know too many languages. I speak quite a few but not at the same level of competence. The funny thing is that when I speak Igbo language, for instance, my friends say I speak better Igbo than they do, though I have a little knowledge of it. It is the same with English language such that, if you hear me speak Yoruba, you would wonder that I had ever been to school. For English, I cannot just accept the Nigerian accent. English is not a Nigerian language. So, speak it purely. It is our official language, but here we are speaking English in such a way that only ourselves can make out what we are saying. We have reached a stage where we are even throwing it away; it is only nominally our official language. Our official language in Nigeria now is pidgin English, and radio is not helping; it is establishing pidgin English in our consciousness, and the more they do that, the more students fail English in school certificate exams. Pidgin English is the language undergraduates now speak in the universities, and only use English to write and pass exams. So, anybody now wonders why you don’t get enough passes in school certificate English? No matter what anybody thinks about it, English is the foremost international language. As nationalistic as I am, if I want to use it, I want to use it as the highest level of competence. The same goes for the international languages I speak, whether it is Spanish or French. I don’t enjoy hearing or speaking English with a Nigerian accent. It is our permissiveness in how we use English that makes the Nigerian English the worst English accent spoken in the world today.
You are a latecomer to creative writing, I mean published works…
That’s exactly the case, though I started writing quite earlier. In my fourth year in school, I became the first student in the 80 years of the Methodist Boys High School, Lagos, history to be the editor of the school magazine and write the editorial. Before then, the editorial was written by the masters, usually the English nationals teaching there. I had been contributing before then. I had been writing for long, but I had not been published until the time that you know . I had been published in and edited several magazines, like The Magnet, Lagos Life, etcetera. Well, I wrote a play in my “Theatre Express” days, but it was only a little thing; I don’t even mention it anywhere.
What are your regrets as an artiste?
I have regrets, first and foremost, as a Nigerian. It is not the picture of Nigeria we had on the mind years back. This is peculiar to me, because I have been a nationalist and Africanist activist. There was a period in Nigerian politics when there was a charismatic character called Mbonu Ojike, known as the boycott king. But it means nothing to the present generation of Nigerians. He made “Boycott all the boycottables” a mantra: he wanted Nigerians to be their own beings and reject imports that could be validly rejected. In this regard, I want to commend Nigerian politicians for being nationalistic in their attires. In contrast, two-three years ago, a Kenyan parliamentarian went to the House with Nigerian attire, and he was walked out and disciplined for turning up in an un-parliamentary dressing, in a Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya, in Africa! I am happy that President Goodluck Jonathan has made popular the Bayelsa man’s attire. The agbada and danshiki are known across the world.
As an Africanist, I was dreaming of a country where we are going to institutionalise our indigenous languages. That’s why I take my mother tongue seriously, and I want other Africans to be like that so that our literature should be written in our mother tongue. Each time you get laurels for writing English beautifully, it is just an individual accomplishment. I want African language to survive. We are losing our heritage. Today, if you go to your village, you hear everybody talking about Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, AC Milan; I am not proud. No wonder we are so poor; we are consumers, we don’t create. I am not proud of us. I have never seen a more unserious people than Nigerians; I am not proud of us. Individuals are filthy rich, while the rest of us are begging; I am not proud of us. The mannequins I see of Caucasians and Chinese in our boutiques make me sick; I am not proud of us.