MY GRANDMOTHER TOLD ME NOT TO FIGHT A MAN IF HE TAKES MY WIFE, BUT TO LOOK FOR ANOTHER WIFE â€“ ARTHUR MBANEFO
Protocol at the gate wasn't tedious. He was actually expecting me this Saturday afternoon. It was a block of flats in the removed, aristocratic area of Lagos. Ikoyi, they call it. I almost ran up the stairs because I gave in to bad manners that day. I was a bit late for the appointment. And for the reason that I knew a bit of the man I was going to meet, a film of sweat hung on my face. Even from afar, I knew this man to be fastidious about some of these little social misdemeanours like coming late for an appointment. I thumped the doorbell. In seconds, the door cricked and there stood the man, Chief Arthur Mbanefo. His face had no expression, I muttered greetings to him and he responded with such civility that brought down my blood pressure.
I stepped into his living room and I swooned. I knew he was an arts lover, but what I beheld around the room beat my estimation and dimension of his collections. True, it was like a museum, only that his pieces were contemporary, but like a museum, nonetheless. But at least one thing: He confirmed my impression of him. He is pedantic. Every piece of item in his house has its own space and that space must be respected. 'Eh, eh, eh, be careful, be careful the way you move around,' he once cautioned Biodun, my photo editor, who was trying to find the perfect angle for his shots, 'those things are very expensive and you can't replace any.'
I didn't adjust so much in the chair I sat so he wouldn't take offence. I was careful, that is. However, far into the interview, I began to relax when he offered to put on the air-conditioner. 'I see you are uncomfortable,' he was telling me, 'let me switch on the A/C.' It was evident, I was dripping and he made me relaxed, indeed.
Chief Mbanefo, the Odu of Onitsha and Oluwo Adimula of Ife is a man schooled and practised in propriety. He is not frivolous; he is not loud. He is serious yet urbane; an aristocrat, yet compassionate. He reveals so much in this chat. Find out:
You are an arts collector. We thought we would see a preponderance of African arts in your home, but it seems your picks are global and looking around again, it looks as though there is more of oriental forms.
(Pointing to and showing various art pieces around the leaving room) You just sit here and you are looking at something that is in front of you (laughs). You haven't even looked back; when you look back…have you seen that one? Do you know where that is from? That large painting is Ibadan, it was done by a lawyer…
He's a cousin of the late Gani (Fawehinmi), who was also a very brilliant lawyer… That is from Nigeria. That one there is from Iran; this is from Bulgaria, no, not Bulgaria, it's from Kosovo. This is American, Chinese, that is…South African, very original. Over there you can see some Benin arts… So, I do have quite a collection and they are from all over the world. Art collection is something I have been engaged with most of my life and the art collection now belongs to Mbanefo Foundation, which is a global organisation based in the United States. My son is also an avid collector …and he is currently the chairman of the African Centre Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian Institute.
You have a foundation. Why locate it abroad and not in Nigeria?
My son is in New York. We are promoting Nigerian culture and most of the works are going to be used in the 50th celebration of Nigeria's independence. So, we are doing some silent promotions (laughs).
This is amazing. How did it begin?
Collection of arts?
Yes, how did it all start and how the interest develop?
I think everyone of us is endowed with certain talents, certain gifts of appreciation; I am not an artist. I cannot draw a straight line. But I have interest in appreciating nature. You know, I spend most of my time here (where he sits) just looking at the vegetation out there, for example. I appreciate arts and I do collect quite a lot of pieces. When we were small, there was always a place in your CV where they say 'your hobby:' for me, it's like a hobby, and the two major hobbies I have had growing up were international affairs, lives of great men and African artifacts, which has extended to picking up arts from most of my journeys. Wherever I go, I pick up something small there to remind me of those places.
Let's go back to your beginnings; your childhood, your youth. How was it?
When you talk of my youth, I had interesting life growing up, but one thing: I did not grow up with my parents. I grew up in the era when parents felt that they needed to pass their children to a relation that would be unsympathetic to bringing them up, particularly with imparting discipline and values to them. So, at the age of six, in 1936, I joined my father's immediate brother who was then an interpreter to the District Officer, in charge of what is now Delta State, the Igbo-speaking Delta State and he was based in Ogwashi-Ukwu. Then there was a government school in Ogwashi-Ukwu and I was there with him until the war (WW 11) started in 1939. When the war started in 1939, my uncle was transferred to Bamenda in the Cameroun. There were no access roads. So, all the children were left back in Nigeria.
At this point, I was once again sent to another uncle of mine, a much younger brother of my father, not the same mother, the first one was the same mother with my father. This one, the same father, not the same mother with my father. He was a young man, too; he was not married, and then I went to Port Harcourt. He was a stenographer, and a secretary to the General Motors European manager at the time in Port Harcourt. And then I was in Port Harcourt, 1940-41, and in 1942 he was transferred to Aba. I went with him to Aba. Then in 1943, my uncle came back from the Cameroun and transferred to Uyo. I went to Uyo. I joined him again, because his children, his first son, was my age group and so it was easy. I joined him again.
And from there, I followed him to Afikpo; from Afikpo to Ogoja. Then I went to secondary school in Calabar. So, you can imagine, I didn't have much time with my own parents at all. From Calabar, I came back to Onitsha and that was the first time in my growing-up life that I lived in Onitsha. And for two years I was teaching in CKC (Christ the King College), Onitsha. I taught Maths and Science and, of course, it was after my higher school certificate. And then in November 1955, I went to England to train as a chartered accountant and I came back in February 1962.
You moved quite a lot as a youth, living in different towns and cities. What did it teach you?
Two major things. In hindsight, it formed my character, because, particularly, for my uncle who was a bachelor at the time and got married eventually, I was playing the role of a houseboy. I went to the market, fetched water and things like that. So, there was lot of discipline, a lot of character building and values, because in those days, it is not like today, the way people spoke to you or tried to correct you was by hitting you. The slipper was one of the greatest instruments of discipline. Particularly, that uncle of mine, once he spoke to you, the next thing, he would take off his slipper and hit your head, body and soul (laughs).
There were a lot of things one learnt in housekeeping, independence, more than any other thing, and respect for elders. Otherwise, it made me a better person, particularly, the fact that I was not able to associate that as a hate for my uncle with whom I lived till I went to secondary schooI. I valued them, and as a matter of fact, when I came back, I turned round to support their family more than any other thing and they took the greatest pride in my success.
You were parceled off to your uncles at different times. Was it because your parents couldn't manage you or that they couldn't go as far as your uncles did in the area of discipline?
No, no, no, no. That was the tradition then. We are 17 children from my father, three wives. The first one lived and grew up with my father; the second one lived and grew up with my father, until when he was in secondary school. Four years in CKC, he lived with Sir Luis Mbanefo, my uncle, and then after that, he went to England. And since then has been on his own. I was the only one who stayed out most. I thought that was done to spite me; only my father knew why he took that decision to send me away from home, from him. But by the time I came back, I became the closest to my father. It was an incredible thing. We became so close that at the end of the day, I ended up being the sole administrator of his estate and yet, virtually all of us are still alive, with the exception of two.
Your father had three wives.
How did he manage it?
Very effectively; very well. We didn't know the difference.
There was no rivalry among the wives?
There was no rivalry. His parents were there too; my grandmother and my grandfather were still around and their houses were close. So, we had very close relationship when I was growing up until my grandfather died when I was doing School Certificate in 1951. I was 21 when my grandfather died. So, I knew him very, very well. But my grandmother died about eight months after I went to England in 1955.
How close were you?
To my grandparents?
Oh my God! Too close. Sometimes when I look back, I laugh. When I was teaching in CKC, my grandmother, for example, wouldn't eat and you know we ate usually in the morning and then in the evening. She wouldn't eat without me and so wherever I was, I made sure I was home in the evening to eat with her. That was the kind of relationship. I remember the morning I was going to England; by then, she was a little weak, she was over 80 - a little weak and not feeling very well. That morning she engaged me in a very close conversation, just before I entered my father's car to be taken to the Waterside to pick a ferry to Asaba, and then the lorry…She told me point blank: 'You are leaving me, I am sure I won't see you again. I am sure I would be gone by the time you come back from England, but I want to leave you with two important thoughts. The first: men in our part of the world despise women, and look upon women as chattels and for some reasons, they do not appreciate that women have their own minds just as much as men do.
So, whatever you do, never, never in your life quarrel with a man over a woman, because even if your dearest wife wants to leave you, or makes up her mind she is going through this wall, then she is going to go through this wall, irrespective of what you do. Never you quarrel with a woman, if she makes up her mind she wants to leave, let her go. If she makes up her mind she wants to do anything, advise her if you can, but don't fight. If a man takes your wife, look for another wife, don't fight the man.' And those have been some of my guiding principles.
The second one she said, 'If you lend money to anybody, and he refuses to pay, let him take it; don't you fight with anybody because of money…' Those have been my guiding principles in life.
When she told you that you were leaving and that you were not likely to see her again, how did you feel?
Emotion went up and tears started coming down my eyes and my father, you know in the traditional way, started shouting, 'Come out from there and enter the car. If she doesn't want you to go again, just go and unpack your things… enter the car.' You know how old men (laughs) behave with children. And, of course, we drove from my father's house to the ferry in Asaba, I mean on the Onitsha side. It was a very silent journey for me. And I was still reflecting on what she told me. When I was teaching, for example, she bought me a bicycle. She was a very wealthy woman. The relationship was so close, and if I came to see her sometimes, if I needed something, all I needed to do was to come in and say, 'Let me count your money for you.' She had a big old Cream Cracker tin where she put all the cash she had, and counted them and put them in pounds and I would count the coins and tell her, 'This is the amount of money you have.' Invariably, I counted them as how many pounds, how many pence, how many half-pennies, and now organised them very well, wrapped them up and put them back in this tin, and for that little service, I got sometimes, one pound, and yet I was thinking I was working and earning money. You know the old people. That type of love, you don't find it today. The closeness was so intense with her. And living as a student in England for years and even now, I continue to see her in my dreams; if I have a problem, I see her in my dreams; it was a very incredible relationship.
You see her in dreams? Even now?
I still see her in dreams. I see my grandfather in dreams. I was equally close to my grandfather and my father, we became very good friends.
Do you discuss with them in these dreams?
Oh yes, of course, they come on and…especially when I have a problem…and they come back …it's a very peculiar situation and relationship that still exist.
So if you have some difficulties, some confusion, you can discuss with them?
No, no, no. I don't invite them (laughs), but I mean, when you are going through certain tribulations and you are in a quandary, occasionally, in your sleep, they come up and flittingly offer advice to you and then they move on.
Do those pieces of advice work for you?
Oh yes, they do work for me. I reflect on them and they guide my ultimate decisions.
You were in England when she died. How did you feel when you heard it?
It was very traumatic; I was still very young. I had barely spent eight months in England. That day I took time out, I didn't go to school when I got my father's telegram; there was no telephone communication at that time, it was telegram and then letters followed…But having those kinds of experiences in one way or the other fortify you or dishearten you. In my own case, I will say that they fortified me. And the spirit of contentment that I have - contented with what I have - is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to me. I admire my friends for their own achievements, I support them for their own achievements and then what is most important for me is the appreciation of others developing.
And so, with this type of thing, it has given me the benefit of turning round to people and saying, 'Look, you go and do this because I know you are capable of it.' For example, when I left Akintola Williams and Co in 1986, people would come to me, they wanted (me to do something for them)… (I would tell them): 'I am no longer doing this kind of work. But I can pass this young man to you.' That has been of greater reward to me than just being there hugging myself and hugging everything. And that's why you people (the press) don't see me; I avoid you, because I don't want this recycling of people. We must know when to move on and give a chance to the others. Some of these things have happened in the way I have been brought up. And most importantly, are my values, which I don't compromise. People who have dealt with me or heads of state who have dealt with me directly, know that I am principled; that I will obey your rules, but I will have my say. I'll make sure that you understand my position and that if I am now doing what you want, I am doing it as an obedient servant.
You put emphasis on your values. What really are your value propositions?
When we talk of value proposition, it becomes difficult, because my understanding of proposition is much complex. But when we were growing up, civic duties and responsibilities, respect and honesty were the issues. We were concerned with principled life. In fact, principled life doesn't mean reading the Bible or something, but inculcation of respect for individuals, respect for property, which is something that is very, very unfortunate today, because we have no respect for property. We build bridges today and in few days, people, before the law enforcement officers, are dismembering it and taking it up in parts, forgetting that the safety of the majority is greater than the safety of an individual.
Today, people knock down electricity poles and move on; people would dig holes in the middle of the road, not fill it back and then, of course, the road deteriorates and becomes full of holes. And also respect for elders, respect for human beings, respect for life, is one of the things that we lost to the civil war and the inability of government of those days to really take us back to the position ante of employing the moral thinking. They started killing people on the Bar Beach and life became so cheap. All those things come down to our values. If you have respect for your neighbour, you are more considerate in the treatment of your neighbour. Many of these little things are no longer there. Time was when you saw somebody destroying public property, you reported the person and you were sure that somebody must be punished. Just think about those days, one sanitary inspector just going round made a huge difference. But put one today, people will not take him seriously; they will even fight him; people will beat him to death and so on.
In those days when people woke up in the morning, they swept their surroundings, collected their refuse and burnt them. Some people had incinerators in their compounds; they put the rubbish there and they burnt them. That was very common and they were really more in the villages, whether a Yoruba village or Hausa village. In the morning, you passed through a Nigerian village, as I told my landlady and landlord as a student in England, I said: 'Look, Madame or Mister, there is something you can teach me, which is technical, but two things which you cannot teach me, hygiene and cleanliness. You cannot tell me when to have a bath because I need to have a bath twice a day. You can't teach me hygiene and cleanliness, because we are basically brought up to be very clean.' So, those are the kinds of values I am talking about. We have neglected those things and we have neglected good quality education.