By Christy Anyanwu
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett is a renowned international actor with over 50 years experience. Born in Lagos on February 3 1941, she made her debut in 1967 at the UK’s avant-garde Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London. She subsequently trained at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, City Literary Institute, The Dance Centre, and the Actors’ Studio, London. She is a member of the British Actors Equity Union, an experienced communications consultant, an educationist, broadcaster, author, social commentator, columnist and the recipient of several professional and national honours, including an Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 2006; a Fellow of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists (SONTA); and a Fellow of the University of the Third Age (FUTA). Full of life and energy, the octogenarian spoke with Saturday Sun about her life and times.
At 80, what has changed in you?
Nothing. I still do my walk. I do my exercises and I clean up my house.
Does your gene play a role in the way you look?
Evidently, it is the genes. A lot of it is the genes.
Your compound is spacious. Is that why you prefer sitting in the open space?
I like fresh air. I will rather have fresh air than the AC. You noticed that people who are dying mostly of COVID-19 are people who are moving from their AC bedroom to their AC sitting room, AC car to their AC office and back to the AC car. They never see the sun and they think its privilege and wealth and position. But it is death because you are rejecting all the goodness that nature is giving you.
Do you still cook?
Yes. I cook. I have always looked after myself. It’s not a question of I cannot afford to get a domestic staff; it’s a question of commonsense because what you don’t use. you lose. I cook, I clean my house. Am I not the one who came to open the gate for you? All that is no mean fit; it is looking after yourself.
Looking at you from afar, you look hard and unfriendly. What would you say to that?
This is the reason why you should be very careful about what people think of you. What do you think of yourself; who are you? So that you can surprise people when they then move close. You cannot be responsible for what other people think. You can’t know what I’m thinking; I can’t know what you are thinking. So, I can’t take responsibility for your thoughts. They say don’t judge the book by its cover. Never, judge the book by its cover. You might get it wrong. A lot of people get it wrong about me. They don’t know the first thing about me. That is okay.
What does it feels like to be 80?
Just another day. Just another period. As you can see, you slow down a bit. You can’t run as fast as you used to. Look at all the things I have gained in 40 years: knowledge, wisdom, patience, perseverance, wisdom, experience. I did not have all these attributes when I was 40. I am not going to exchange that for being able to run around or for being able to have bum bum that is waving about. No. The older you get, you have an idea of the things that really matter in your life. Yes, physically, maybe you are a bit tired, quicker than when you were younger, but I still do the things I was doing when I was 40. I still do my exercises every day. I’m a much disciplined person and that discipline is the secret of everything that people are saying. I do my exercises every day, I don’t need a gym. I don’t need to be pulling weight. There are exercises that I would do – exercises of the mind, exercises of having sharp memory and alertness. It is the mind that looks after the body. I do all those exercises and I try to help tone the muscles because if you are frail, if your skeletal system is not strong, you can’t move on it. You have to continue to strengthen your muscles. Yes, you don’t have as much tone as you had at 30 or 40 or 50. As long as you are fit, you are eating well, you are sleeping well, you are thinking well, then you know what you have to do. I do my exercises every day. Not because I’m joining the Olympics but for fitness because if your heart is not working properly, if your circulation isn’t going very well, it is a living dead. What is the point of complaining of wrist and knee pains all the time and yet there are antidotes to all that?
So you don’t feel all that pain?
If I feel them, I know what to do. Age means that some things will not be working properly but exercises are there for us to cause the circulation to keep going and get blood into where it is aching. I have arthritis like any other old person, but would you know that I have arthritis? These are caused by wear and tear of life, ligaments worn out. You stood on your knees and your feet for so long, and eventually things wear out. But there are ways in which you can keep them going so that they don’t inconvenience you. That is why I bless God for pushing me into my profession, where it pushed me abroad, where you have training. I knew that the training was a lifelong gift, which is what I’m still enjoying. I still train my voice every day; I still train my body every day. I’m an Olympic athlete of the arts. If you don’t do that, it goes into pieces. Nature hates a vacuum. I don’t sit back on my oars. I don’t say that I’m 80; I shouldn’t do exercises. I do it consistently and will continue throughout my life because the other person who is not doing it would have a tightening up joints and flabby muscles.
Talking about your career, what are some of the memorable moments?
I had so many. When I first started and appeared at the Dublin International Film Festival. I was playing the part of Pauline Mulumba, the wife of Patrice Mulumba of the Republic of Congo. In the play, they came to tell me my husband died. I was a young actress and I did a dirge in Yoruba for my husband. I was the talk of town. People didn’t understand what I was saying but that part of the world they know what wake keeping is; it’s a tradition that they understand. So, when I did that, I think I catapulted myself into the limelight. That was very significant. On the last night, there was a party, the playwright who was the Asst. Secretary General of United Nations gave me a massive bouquet flowers. He commended and paid tribute to me for adding colour to the scripts than the writer did for that part. It is significant; it is on record. That was the first pivotal part of my career and it was wonderful. In the whole city, I became a celebrity, going to visit motherless baby’s homes, opening pubs, doing the rounds of a celebrity in town .I started my career on that note and then, I went to Edinburgh International Festival, also some 47 years ago. That was an amazing starting. There are so many peaks in my career because they gave me challenging roles and I supposed I went with it with such passion and naivety, and enthusiasm which I hope I never lose till I die about my work. Every point of my work is significant. So, it’s difficult for me to say this was most memorable. If you are a theatre person in the western world and you haven’t appeared in Edinburgh International Film Festival, you have not arrived. I did that 47 years ago. That was in 1972.
What does being in entertainment sector mean to you?
It means everything. It puts you on the mountaintop where you can see life in all its diversity and it stands you apart as an observer to see the world. Don’t forget my business is to represent what is going on in the world. I’m a keen observer of people and I work with intuition.
Why did you come back home after staying so long abroad as an actor?
Home is where the heart is. Yoruba say: ‘Ile la bo simi oko’. Meaning: you go out to the farm and you must come back home. However messy your harvest is in the farm, you are not going to stay in the farm; you come back home. Why did I come home? I came home principally because the husband I married saw how I was doing, and he said, specifically, in answer to that question, your people don’t know what you are doing here; don’t waste this on England. Go home. Go and show your people what you do. Your people must know what you are doing; they must know who you are. Those were my husband’s words. He was an English man. Lycett said: ‘Go Home.’ He thought my success in Nigeria is more important than my success abroad. “Let your people know who you are, what you are doing, let them know you are representing them very well abroad. Go home and show them who you are; inspire young people.” He was right. He’s been dead now close to 30 years, and you are here having an interview with me. He said fame and success is nothing abroad if you don’t give that success to your people.
What would you want to be remembered for?
My service to the people, that I served my people, that I loved my people, that I loved my country. I think service to one another is the ultimate. I think consideration and tolerance for one another is important. I think love is everything. Do to others as you wish them to do unto you. That is the lifestyle I live. Respect to everybody. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t think that you are better than anybody. Everybody is special. I like to think that when I die, people will miss me but know that I lived, that I made an impact, and those who met me that I made a difference to their lives. If we go according to how the world lives, I would be in Los Angeles or in my house in the UK and think what a big woman I am. But here, this is where I hold responsibility. If there’s no NEPA, let us suffer the NEPA together. No water? Let’s try and do something about it. Let’s agitate to make life better for everybody. I would like to be remembered that I was loyal. I stood by my people; I stood by my Africanness, Nigerianness, and my people. I stood for progress.
What has life taught you?
I have learnt that if I want my life to end well I must give to life. And life will give to me. Whatever you do is going to come back to you. There is a law of karma and retribution. Karma plays both ways: you do good you will get good; you do bad, you will get bad undoubtedly. What you send out comes back to you. Be careful how you deal with other people. Respect begets respect; if you don’t give respect you are not going to get respect.
How did you fare during the COVID-19 lockdown? What were the challenges?
I think COVID-19 period was the biggest blessing we had. It gave us time to think. It enabled us to know that our running around, the noise we make, we don’t have control over anything. It was a period of reflection for me. I’m not a very social person. If you are not used to being by yourself that might be a problem. Significantly, COVID-19 showed me how I am loved by my children. I didn’t have to worry about what I was going to eat. I didn’t have to worry about whether I have money or I don’t have money because my people would come with food for the freezer, come and dump everything at the door. They brought fruits and assorted foods, even soup. Before they announced the lockdown, they had time to shop. They supplied me with fruits, vegetables, ginger, garlic, turmeric, oranges, lime. All the people I mentored are all my family. They all rallied round. They made sure petrol is in the generator. I didn’t have to spend a kobo last year. My children rallied round. That’s how significant COVID-19 was to me. It showed me that people cared about me. The Lagos State Government was supposed to give palliatives to old people; they sent me a note on my phone that palliatives were coming. I’m still waiting. My heart goes to the old people that didn’t have the kind of network that I have and thinking that government would take care of them. The system didn’t work but my children looked after me during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m very proud of all of them.