By Temitope David-Adegboye
The name Esther Idowu Phillips may not ring a bell but mention Mama Rainbow and you quickly recall that woman that has graced many Yoruba Nollywood movies for decades. Idowu recently clocked 70 and her friends and colleagues were at her Ojodu-Abiodun residence to fete the ageless lady who has done so much for the movie industry. In this interview, she recounts how she got into acting, fond memories of her husband and why she did not and would not remarry many years after her husand’s death.
How does it feel to be 70?
I feel good. I feel blessed. I feel wonderfully honoured because it is an honour to be alive to see this stage in my life. My joy is full. Not all of us born the same year are still around. So, if one is privileged to be among the living, then the best I can do is thank the Almighty whom it has pleased to spare me till now. I thank Him for keeping my children safe too. Even the Church of God, which He has put me in charge is not in disarray. I am happy.
What difference does it make to attain this age?
There is a lot of difference. What I could do when I was 50, I cannot do them again…
Things like when a script specifies that I should jump off a fence; I cannot do that again. Though the bone may still be strong, one must take things easy. Attaining the age of 70 is not a child’s play. What I used to eat before, now I cannot eat again. It’s now a period of taking pap for breakfast, amala for lunch and probably repeat pap or agidi with vegetable at night because if the body is too heavy, one will not be able to carry it.
Share with us some life’s lessons that our readers could learn from
I have seen many things. Like one of the songs of a popular singer, Ebenezer Obey say, ‘Ohun oju mi ri laye, enu ko gbodo so’ (The mouth must not say all that I have seen in life). However, I’ll just say a few of it.
In my 70 years, I must say I have not enjoyed marriage at all because my husband died in 1984; that is about 28 years ago. And I have not remarried since then. Inbetween, my house got burnt. It was that year that I knew how to buy second hand clothing for my children. Prior to that time, I never wore second hand clothing for my children. In between that time, the Osumare Theatre Group that was founded by my husband before his death scattered. Only I and one Tajudeen Gbadamosi were left in the group. If I go to location, he will stay with my children. But you know anybody learning any trade would eventually graduate one day. So, he became a boss of his own. But God raised my son Femi who now revived the group. We are still on now and I believe the group will not die.
However, I am still fighting many battles. Sometimes, some people would just say they will not call me for jobs and that I am not in their caucus. At least I remember there was a time that for two to three years, we didn’t have money to eat in my house because I was not going on location. And because I don’t have any other job except this theatre work, I didn’t have anywhere to go. There are so many caucuses now in the industry, and if you do not belong to their caucus they will not call you for jobs. I’m saying it loud and clear, producers have their persons that they call for jobs. But for me, I belong to Jesus’ caucus. The few that I get, I get blessed with them.
When it happened initially, I cried. I met with Ajala Jalingo, Taiwo Hassa (Ogogo) and so many of them. I got different advices from them. While some said I should join a caucus, others said I shouldn’t. Some cited example of those people who joined, get sexually harassed and still get peanuts as payments. They even threatened that if I do anything funny, they will tell my son, Femi. I just relaxed after all. It got so bad that even marketers were not even calling us the elderly ones for jobs again. They felt we were not useful to them. If I tell anybody that I’m not getting jobs, all I’m told is that I’m not useful to them. But I thank God that even the few people that get jobs from these marketers call me on set and I do what I can. Even those who go on location frequently cannot claim to have more than I do. It’s just God that blesses one. It was when I stopped going on location that God built another house for me. That singular reason has made me believe that it is only Him that can bless us. Even if you work from morning till night, you may have nothing to show for it
How did you find yourself in theatre?
My husband founded Osumare Theatre Group. I started acting in 1965 with my husband. Although I wasn’t committed to it so much as I was still working as a nurse, my bosses liked me that they always allowed me go on location too. They knew I was very hard working so we had no issues over me combining nursing with acting. It was after I retired from nursing in 1986 that I had full time for acting. The late Hubert Ogunde told me back then that if I don’t retire to face the theatre properly, my husband’s name would get wiped out and I didn’t want that. That was why I retired to face this job properly.
How did you come about the name Mama Rainbow?
Rainbow is Osumare. I translated it to the Ibo people who could not pronounce the Yoruba version. That was how they started calling me Mama Rainbow.
So, since you started acting full time, you’ve not done any other thing?
No. (It was) Only about two years ago that I added traditional wedding engagement compere to it. Sometimes, I also do MC jobs. All these started when hunger came and there wasn’t any other way. I had to explore other means of income. I got introduced to the trade through a sister-in-law who saw the attributes of a good compere in me. She mentored me. That was how we started and I’ve not regretted it. Whatever I realize from it, I plunge into something else.
Have you ever felt like quitting?
Yes. You know there was a time we lost many of our colleagues. We lost about 12 people one year. At that point, I felt like calling it quit and going back to nursing.
What challenges do you face as an actress?
They are many; so many abuses. This is one profession that you have to pretend you don’t hear a lot of things that are being said about you. You have to pretend you didn’t see certain things even when it is right before you. If you are easily angered, you can’t go into acting. People would term you a witch or wizard. Even those of us who are patient with them, they still term us witches. For me, I just relate with everybody as sister, brother, father, mother and so on. Even at that, they still disrespect me. But I have some people who revere and respect me too. These ones even stick their neck out to fight any injustice done to me. Taiwo Hassan, that you know as Ogogo would not allow anybody insult me anyhow. If they underpay me, he will refuse taking up his own role. All I’m saying is that if you have intention to go into acting, you have to have a lot of patience and be ready to persevere. It’s not the glamour alone that is in it; there are a lot of things going on under.
Can you compare your early days in acting with those who are just going into the trade? Are they as hard working as you people were then?
They are not. Back then, when we had stage plays. It took us three months to rehearsal for a play. In those three months, nobody will give you a kobo. You may go with garri and sugar to the National Theatre where we used to do rehearsals and a senior colleague would collect it and drink. Even at that, we still did not feel offended. We were happy doing it and there was unity. If you do that to actors and actresses of these days, they will not take it from you. It’s true there was no much money in the profession then, but we were united. We were free with each other. People like Bello, Yinka Quadri and many others like that related with us well. Bello was close to my late husband so when my husband passed on, he stood by me. I remember a day at the National Theatre when I felt like eating rice and chicken. I was lost in thought when Bello came from behind and tapped me. I was startled. He then asked what the problem was. I told him I wanted to eat rice and chicken but there was no money. He then gave me money to go buy chicken and cook. But I couldn’t because there were so many mouths to be fed. We were eight living in a room then. When things were so tough for me, there was a day I stood in a bus to beg for monetary assistance from passengers because there was nothing to feed the children with. Back then, if I got paid N50 for appearing in a film or play, it’s only then we can eat whatever we liked. But now, if you call any of these young ones to be a part of your production, they tell you straight that they won’t come unless you pay N250,000. Then you start bargaining.
All I’m saying is that there is no basis for comparison. The difference is clear. We worked with almost everything that we had. But the ones that are just coming up don’t want to do that much. They just want money. The first time I took a flight with my children, I didn’t know I could ease myself in the plane. My husband exposed me to that.
You speak so profoundly of your husband. Was she sick before his death?
Well, yes. I was told he was poisoned. I warned him before he left home on that fateful day. I told him he didn’t have friends but he wouldn’t listen. He went somewhere in Abeokuta with this same so-called friends and someone poisoned his drink. He was sick for two and half years. I used to carry him on my back from one place to another. I didn’t want him to die in Lagos, so I took him back to his village in Awe. After all the treatments he received, one day he passed on. But I am happy he did not run mad.
How much has his death affected you? How are you managing?
One cannot manage. I still remember him every day. You know, there is a kind of respect they give to you when you go out and people see your husband beside you. Because I am single now, there are people who just look at me and say, ‘Idowu, come.’ Ordinarily, if my husband were with me, they dare not call me by my name.
He’s been dead for years now. Why didn’t you re-marry?
I cannot remarry. Men are liars and there is no one that can treat me like my husband did. You may ask me how? For some women, whenever they get pregnant, they always prayed that they would not get pregnant again. But for me, it’s different. He treats me like a king when I’m pregnant. I always prayed to get pregnant because whenever I was pregnant, he would go to the market, do the shopping and come home to cook. He pampered me a lot and it used to annoy his friends. If any of his friends came in and met him cooking, he would pretend he just went to pick something for himself so that they will not have him as the topic for the day. He always begged me to eat whenever I said I didn’t feel like eating even after he had finished cooking. So, tell me the man that can do all that for me? Men of nowadays just want to come in, remove and hang their agbada, eat their food and eat the other and then say I’ll see you tomorrow. That hurts!
After my husband’s demise, men approached me, but when they saw the number of mouths to feed, they bolted. One even came one day and met my children with the pot of food in their midst. He asked why I had so many people in my house and I told him that was my life and how much I used in feeding them. I told him any amount that we get, we manage. Since then, we didn’t see him again.
So how did you cope raising the children?
I will say God and my mother helped me, because back then, I always dropped them to go on locations. My mother was the one who took care of them. But my children knew they had a mother in me. I am wicked. If I am scolding any of them, he or she must not move. I was very strict. However, they knew I loved them. I took care of them so well with all I could afford.
Can we comfortably say you’ve made it in acting?
I can tell you that I made it doing free jobs. I told you earlier that it is only God that blesses one. It was when I was doing free jobs that I built my house. I always knew that God will raise helpers for me. Do you see me in films these days? They don’t call me on location but I am building a house.
Why don’t you get called for jobs again?
They said I don’t have tattoo on my breast and I cannot sag. If you take a look at the films they are doing these days, you’d understand what I am talking about. Even where they are supposed to use an elderly person for a role, they prefer to transform a young girl using make-up. My experience in the last three years is enough for me to peddle drugs. But I will not. God is my sufficiency
What has acting brought you?
Acting has brought me fame but sometimes when these street urchins beseech me, I sometimes wish I’m not this famous. If only they will accept whatever one gives them as what you have and allow you be, then this job would be interesting. They don’t want to know if you have money or not. You just must drop. There was a day they blocked my way that they would not allow me pass because they felt the money I gave them was too small. Sometimes, our male colleagues have had to fight them physically before they are allowed to pass through certain places. But I cannot fight anybody. I just look at them until God puts it in their heart to allow me be. I do not regret being an actress.
How easy is it relating with young actresses?
Very easy. Once you respect yourself, they have no choice than respect you. And even where you find one or two who want to misbehave, you find some others who puts them in check. They are all my friends. They call me mama.
What are you doing to help discover more talents in the industry and what advice do you have for youths who want to take up this as a career?
I just tell them they have to be patient, know that you are meeting some people in the trade already and you have to take your time to learn. If you are patient, you will go places. Don’t gossip or peddle rumours. Face what you are doing.