Ola Balogun: scholar, polyglot, poet, composer, diplomat, teacher, writer, activist and film maker remains a puzzle. To some, he is controversial, cantankerous and arrogant. But there are also many who can attest to his good nature and the fact that he is compassionate, creative, self-effacing, intellectual and detribalised. The truth however is that even at 71; Balogun is still evolving, creating new things, surviving unimaginable tragedies, mixing freely with people across race, tribe and tongue, moving from place to place and working tirelessly, day and night, on new ideas.
Born in Aba, Abia State in 1945, where he attended primary school, Balogun subsequently received his secondary education at King’s College, Lagos before proceeding to University of Dakar, Senegal, University of Caen, France and University of Paris-Nanterre where he obtained a Masters and PhD Degrees. He has written extensively and contributed several articles in various Nigerian and international newspapers over the years, on a variety of subjects, ranging from contemporary political issues to historical and cultural themes.
He spoke with Sylvester Asoya of Crystal News Online on Tuesday August 2, 2016 on his childhood in Aba, his eventful life, his never-ending journeys, the lull in creativity in Nigeria and the disturbing drift among young Nigerians.
Q: In few words, could you describe your life at 71?
A: I have had an interesting life, with many ups and downs. I have suffered but I have also enjoyed. I have loved and lost. I loved a few women, some broke my heart but it is still better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. So I have enjoyed my life! I have no regrets. If death comes now, I am ready to go.
Q: You’ve made enormous contributions in the areas of culture, education and even foreign affairs in Nigeria. Like some Nigerian senior citizens who feel ignored, are you dissatisfied in any way?
A: Nigeria does not owe me anything. That is my view. I think it is good to have had to face the challenges that came my way all through my life, including last year’s tragedy. To be honest with you, that experience was stimulating. After that fire incident which took away everything I had, I was rendered destitute and homeless. I had to start life afresh at 70. I started life from ground zero, with nothing. I enjoyed the process because in the end, I discovered some of my hidden strengths. I discovered that I was stronger than I thought. Honestly, I didn’t know I could cope with adversity to such an extent. Now, I appreciate the fact that once things get very bad, they cannot get worse, so there is no way forward but up!
Secondly, I discovered also that anything that does not kill or destroy you makes you stronger. The difficulty or hardship that does not destroy you makes you stronger. That is my experience of life.
Personally, I don’t think we should expect Nigeria to do anything for anybody. Perhaps those of us who have worked in the arts deserve a bit more recognition than we have been given even though no genuine artist works for public acclaim. An artist works principally to transmit a message that he has. So whether people recognise him or not, the real artiste does not care. That is my position!
Q: Does that suggest that you are satisfied with government’s attitude on issues of arts and culture?
A: It is a pity that Nigeria has not exploited the contributions of those who are artistically gifted. You will be surprised if I mention how many outstanding artists have been virtually ignored by Nigeria.
Ask young Nigerians today who Ben Enwonwu is and I am sure they won’t know. Many of them have never heard about him. The same goes for Bruce Onobrakpeya and other major plastic artists. These are people whose works are admired and celebrated all over the world, but the present generation of Nigerians don’t even know who they are.
Then the musicians: Osita Osadebe, I.K Dairo, Victor Olaiya, Celestine Ukwu, Bobby Benson and others remain mostly unknown and unsung in present day Nigeria. The young generation of Nigerians only know the names of Manchester United and Barcelona footballers. They are also familiar with the names of a number of vastly over-hyped karaoke-type singers who pose as musicians in the Nigeria of today.
Even though Nigerian youths have heard of Fela because of the supposedly scandalous aspect of his life, they have never really listened to his music, apart from the vocals.
It is a pity that Fela was vastly misunderstood, both during his lifetime and in present times.
For my part, I can testify that Fela was the hardest working man I ever met. I am proud to have been friends with Fela. I am sure his musical creations will endure for centuries to come.
In creative terms, Fela was absolutely a genius! He was also a man who often worked as much 16 hours every day.
If you were close to Fela, you would be fed up with him: Once out of bed, he would start rehearsing with his instruments while at the same time working on some notes and planning the next composition. The whole day was work. He would rehearse the band, plan the next show and manage the crowd around him. That man was simply a workaholic. But because people are ignorant, they saw only his women.
How about Cyprian Ekwensi? That name, I am very sure rings no bell among the young.
Even though many Nigerians take delight in shouting Wole Soyinka’s name, 90 per cent of them have not read any of his works. They only heard that some Oyibo people gave him Nobel Prize for Literature. What is Nobel? They don’t even know. Their argument is that the man has been recognised outside, so he deserves some attention.
If you ask Nigerian youths to name the capital of Togo or Cameroun, they can’t answer without going to Google.
If you go further and ask them what language or languages someone from Kogi State would likely speak, they wouldn’t know. And people from Cross River State, if they are not Efik, what are they likely to be? I can assure you that they won’t know.
They wouldn’t know there are towns and settlements like Ogoja, Obubra and Ugep.
If you tell me you’re from Arochukwu for instance, I will tell you that there are 17 villages in Arochukwu, that the oracle there is called Ibin Ukpabi and that the British called it ‘Long Juju’.
Talk to me about the Ikwerre in Rivers State and I will tell you that they live near Port Harcourt, and that they speak an Igbo dialect.
Or is it the Anioma people in Delta State where that fine diplomat, Ralph Uwaechue hailed from? I know all these and more about Nigeria but the young generation of Nigerians hardly know anything about their own country or about Africa as a whole and they simply don’t care. What they mostly appear to be interested in is the English football league: It’s totally ridiculous!
Q: What are the consequences of this unbridled ignorance?
A: We have lost our young people as result of failing to ground them properly in our culture!
The heart-rending part is that those in government are not bothered about the fact that we have lost our youths because they are culturally extraverted. As far as the young generation of Nigerians are concerned, Nigeria or Africa is hell, while paradise is out there in Europe and America.
And yet, contrary to what our youths appear to believe, there is a lot of misery in those preferred countries and continents. They have some of the worst slums I’ve ever seen in my entire life, like in Washington D.C., which is supposed to be the capital of the United States of America.
You go to London and Paris and you wouldn’t find paradise! So where is the paradise that our children believe exists there? It is pure fiction!
What we have in Africa is ten times better! The only problem is that we have not organised ourselves well enough. In Nigeria, we have fabulous resources, beautiful landscapes, wonderful people, great cultures, brilliant intellectuals and highly enterprising and hugely intelligent people, including our roadside mechanics.
Remember the Civil War? We all witnessed how Biafra became resilient, manufacturing weapons and refining crude oil in a war situation. Necessity is the mother of invention! Now we are facing a huge economic crisis but we are not organised to face it squarely. This is a time of emergency, so the whole country should be mobilised on a war footing.
If we wish to be realistic, we have to recognize that we are currently at war. Our opponents are poverty, hunger, ignorance, mediocrity, nepotism, maladministration and disease!
Q: There is this belief in some quarters that you are arrogant and controversial, do you agree?
A: There is freedom of speech, or have you forgotten? I believe anybody who criticizes me is only expressing himself. It is his or her democratic right!
However, whoever wishes to criticize me unfairly can also jump into the lagoon if he hates my guts. I simply don’t care! I will remain consistent. If I see that something is green, I will not call it by another name to please anybody. If I also see blue, I will call it blue. I am not afraid of anything or anybody. By the way, what can anybody do to me now? I am old enough to die, so anybody who comes to kill me now is only helping me because such a person will release me from all my arthritis and backache. I have lived a good life, I am happy and contented. So I am ready to go now. I am not afraid!
Q: But it is incorrect to say that you became fearless with old age. I know courage is one of your virtues, or is it a vice? What actually gave you bravery, gene or environment?
A: My parents.
Q: Let’s talk about them, who were they?
A: I was so lucky that the day I was born, it was as if I won a lottery because I was born into the hands of very loving and caring parents. My father was a lawyer. He was not just a lawyer but a widely read and travelled man. In fact, I was born into a house full of books and I could read and write even before I went to school. I didn’t just read anything; I read complex books at home. So when I got to primary school, I knew more than the teacher. I only played because the teacher couldn’t really teach me much.
And my mother was an extraordinary woman; she was a journalist at some point in her life. My mother was a very caring woman. Once we left for school, she knew exactly when we were supposed to come back and she would stand outside and be watching out for us. If we were ten minutes late, she would begin to search for us.
One of my favourite stories goes like this: One day, I was beaten in primary school. I can’t remember what I actually did wrong at the time. I was about eight or nine years old. I know somebody caned me but I can no longer remember why. You know, I was a comedian in those days, so before I got home, about 50 yards to the house, I began to wail. When my mother saw me weeping, she was angered after I had narrated my ordeal. Immediately, she summoned the driver and took me straight to the school. When we got to the school, my mother demanded to know the person who beat her child. Everybody went to hide, including the headmaster himself. In fact, some teachers took to their heels and those who could not run denied. In the confusion, a teacher told my mother that the teacher who caned me probably came from another school!
From that day onward, I did anything I wanted and got away with it because all the teachers were scared of punishing me. I jumped on tables and played freely without any fear. I enjoyed my life as a pupil. My mother was a wonderful fighter for us her children, as well as for all those living with us. You wouldn’t dare touch us, but she was also a disciplinarian. In a big house like ours with servants, everybody, including her own children had their duties defined. Her presence was felt by all of us and she made sure that we were responsible. We all knew our tasks, and you must attend to them or risk serious sanctions.
She was also unusually liberal because if you came to that house, you would see about eight or ten children dressed the same way and playing together. Any person observing wouldn’t know who the actual child of the owner of the house was, the child of the cook, the steward or the ones my parents took from the streets and adopted. They sent all of us to school the same way and treated all of us the same way.
That is why I am very proficient in Igbo language because all my childhood friends were of Igbo origin and I mixed freely with the local boys. I remember, as a child, I was interested in a masquerade called Ulaga. My parents bought my own Ulaga for me and we used to go round town dancing at Christmas and Easter. After the Ulaga performance which usually attracted monetary gifts, I gave all the money to my colleagues because I didn’t need money. I already had pocket money from home. In fact, my parents always encouraged me to mix with other less fortunate children so that I can understand life.
You see, I was born with a golden spoon. My father was a very rich and successful lawyer in the 1950s. He had a big American limousine named Pontiac. We were sometimes taken to school and various other places in that big car. However, if my father was around, he would often stop the car and ask us to come down and walk to school like other children.
That was how he trained us, and it paid off because not too long after, he passed away. My father died when I was 12 and everything changed. Since the day my father died in 1958, nobody has ever come round to ask about the widow or the children!
Fortunately, I was very lucky because at that time, I was already at King’s College, Lagos. As soon as the school authorities heard that my father had passed away, they gave me a scholarship. That was how I was able to complete my secondary education.
Q: How then did you continue with your education after the loss of your father?
A: Again, I was lucky. I got a scholarship to go to the University of Dakar. When I got there, I realised I couldn’t succeed in Senegal so I arranged by myself to go to France. I registered for the University there with my savings and paid for a boat ticket to travel third class to France.
However, I had no money once I got to France, so I was initially obliged to work as a labourer while attending University.
I suffered! I really suffered! Incidentally, something happened that I will never forget. It was a very big lesson in my life. After a few months at the university, I had money to pay the tuition but I couldn’t pay for the accommodation. One day I was summoned by the school authority to come and see them. I thought I was going to be sanctioned for not paying for my room, so I immediately packed out of the campus because I never wait for problems to overwhelm me. I always confront danger and difficulty head on!
Since I had no accommodation, I went to live among some homeless people at a railway station. It was there that I received some wonderful lessons about life!
First of all, I discovered that poor people help one another, quite unlike the rich, who will mostly never give anything to anybody.
It was there that I discovered how poor people share the little they have with each other. On arrival at the station, I was given my own cardboard that would serve as my bed. You know, we used discarded cardboards as beds and pillows. But the defining experience for me was with one of the chaps there, I would call him my neighbour. One night, this good neighbour, who was really dirty and scruffy brought a grubby piece of bread out of his bag, broke it into two and gave me half.
I knew the bread was dirty and unfit for consumption because we grew up learning a great deal about hygiene from my mother, who was President of the Nigerian Red Cross Society in Aba during our formative years.
Let me tell you something: I took that piece of bread and ate it because I was hungry!
Let me also tell you that even though in later life, I have been privileged to eat with Presidents and a variety of highly placed individuals in some of the best of restaurants in different parts of the world, I have never eaten anything as good and satisfying as that piece of bread! This is so because the bread in question was given to me by somebody who had virtually nothing, but who was generous enough to share the little he had with a poor lonely boy from a totally different part of the world.
Surprisingly enough, when I eventually went to answer the summons from the university authorities, it turned out that they were not looking for me to drive me away but to give me a scholarship!
It was an extraordinary experience because I never applied for that scholarship. I believe it was because those people were civilised and perceptive. They probably realised that there was this small boy who appeared not to be coping well because of accommodation problems and lack of funding. That was how my miracle came.
However, the whole experience taught me to be self reliant. Every summer, my mates and I got jobs to help ourselves.
I had a particular experience one summer. I got a job as a salesman in a company that sold lawn mowers. We were not on salary; it was strictly on commission basis. I was a disaster as a salesman. I was very shy, too shy to succeed as a salesman.
It so happened that my poor performance adversely affected sales and the rating of the head of that section. One day, the manager called me and told me bluntly that I was the worst salesman he had ever met in his entire life.!
Q: Obviously, you would have had a good laugh or how did you respond?
A: I didn’t laugh. It was a serious matter because I was hungry!
The money I depended on to survive had disappeared, so I was completely down and out.
However, the combination of hunger and the challenge from that man immediately transformed me into a good salesman! Today, I can sell ice to Eskimos.
I also had a similar experience at King’s College. We had this carpentry class but I was a disaster at carpentry. There was this British teacher who used to wear shorts. One day, he entered the class with my piece of carpentry. He held my work up in the air and showed everybody in the class while loudly drawing attention to it.
I was excited, believing that I had performed excellently. But to my utmost surprise, the teacher told the entire class that my work was the worst piece of carpentry he had ever seen!
I had a big laugh on that occasion, because I have always enjoyed laughing at myself.
Even when the fire incident that destroyed all my belongings a year and a half ago occurred, I kept laughing out aloud as I watched the raging fire.
As I was standing outside that fateful night watching fire destroy all my books and everything of value I had in Nigeria, I occasionally broke out into laughter, so some people must have thought that I had lost my mind.
What actually happened was that I had been lying on my bed fully dressed surfing the internet on my ipad when I suddenly noticed that the ceiling was glowing red!
So I came out with my torch, holding my phone. That was how I calmly walked out of that inferno that would have taken my life.
While I was standing outside in the street, I started laughing and saying to myself: “Suppose I had been lying in bed naked, I would have run out naked and people would have assumed that I had gone mad!” It was an incredibly hilarious thought!
Despite all that was happening at the time, I was not worried because once there is life, there will always be hope.
I walked out of that misfortune without a backward glance even though I lost everything.
Today, I am back on my feet again and I am happy that I am still alive to tell the story. The truth is that the challenges of life are interesting and I learnt many useful lessons.
Some of the people I know, my so-called friends stopped taking my calls after they heard of my ordeal because they were afraid that I might ask them for money. That is Nigeria for you!
Miraculously, somebody I had never actually met, a friend of one of my close friends who heard about my plight asked for my bank account and sent some money to me. I also received some help from my sister and one or two family friends, and that was the saving grace. That was how I was able to go and resettle in the Republic of Benin.
I actually arrived in that country penniless but in a way, the fire incident saved my life because the tragedy put me in a new realm of life: I think I was stagnating at that point in time.
Now, faced with the challenge of having to cope with a totally unexpected calamity, I have reinvented myself and found new strength.
I am more energetic and creative now, and I have discovered the good in that disaster. I have started a Language Institute in the Republic of Benin and I am also currently in the process of setting up a film and music studio in Cotonou.
However, I must say that I learnt one useful lesson about coping with adversity in present-day Nigeria: I would definitely not advise any Nigerian who is going through difficult times to ask for help from anybody because the average Nigerian believes that poverty is a kind of contagious disease! If you manifest signs of being down and out, they will avoid you. And if you make the mistake of relying on their promises, you will be in serious trouble because they will disappoint you. More so, it is even more dangerous to tell them that you’re in difficulty because they will start a whispering campaign about you.
My sincere advice to anyone who has the misfortune of having fallen on hard times is to rely only on his or her own efforts while trying as much as possible to hide the extent of the misfortune that may have befallen one from the society at large. Nigerians are hardly ever inclined to help each other in times of difficulty, even though they love showing off in church by dancing to the altar every Sunday to drop offerings, or standing outside the mosque to distribute alms ostentatiously on Fridays.
It’s all hypocrisy!
The truth is that the vast majority of Nigerians are actually very selfish, deeply cynical and absolutely hard-hearted.