EVEN WITH MY POPULARITY, I GO TO MARKET TO BUY MEAT
For those who had savoured the theatrics of Village Headmaster, the name Dejumo Lewis would instantly ring a bell. It's difficult to forget those memorable and refreshing episodes in the popular television soap of the 1970s.
The soap had made instant stars of those who took lead roles then and they have continued to straddle the Nigerian movie industry like colossus.
Saturday Sun spoke to Lewis recently and talked about a wide range of issues, including why he abandoned his priesthood ambition.
You are 66 years old. Could you tell us about your education?
I was born here in Lagos some 66 years ago. I started my primary school education in Holy Cross Primary, a Catholic school and one of the earliest missionary schools in Lagos. I was admitted to St Gladys College, but early in life I had wanted to be a Catholic priest. That may be an offshoot of my background in a Catholic Primary School. Then I went to the junior seminary. I went there and was given an oral interview. I passed the interview. From the seminary, I went to the University of Ibadan to read Philosophy. After my degree in the university, I went into broadcasting for some very serious reasons. But drama was the area that was most attractive to me. I took a job in broadcasting. After some time, I went back to the same university for a master's in Communication and Language Arts.
You were at the seminary. Why didn't you become a priest?
Studying Philosophy really broadened my mind. It is not just a course of study. It is, to me, a way of life. It tasks you to probe deep into the meaning of life. It makes you to reason deep as a rational human being. It challenges you to use your intelligence to find some answers and solutions to puzzles of life. So studying it made me to begin to ask and probe myself; to begin to screen certain religious ideas that I have gullibly accepted. Then I began to question things and surprisingly the more the questions came, the more the answers became elusive.
An aspect of Philosophy that really touched me and made me make up my mind was existentialism, which holds that you don't go ahead when you are not sure of the direction you are doing. That is what we have been doing in Nigeria from the beginning; we have been moving in some direction already defined by the colonialists and we don't have an idea of where it will lead us. Unfortunately, the colonialists are still in charge today. Just like Fela sang, we are just zombies, moving in a direction we don't have a control of. The greater zombies are our leaders; those in the National Assembly. We are just going in such direction. The principles of existentialism do not hold that way. It allows you to stop and think and re-strategise in order to take a better step. So I had to change my mind because I was not really convinced I wanted to go ahead being a priest.
Would you say you are fulfilled?
I am fulfilled, in all steps I have taken in life. I am fulfilled because I don't just join the bandwagon. I know who I am. I know where I am going. I have my vision and mission. And I have been achieving them one by one and from time to time. There could be delay or drawbacks. I am always focused. The denials and attacks one has early in life are enough to make one to give up, but I am one person who never gives up on a noble, reasonable and socially relevant cause; even on my personal pursuits.
In Village Headmaster, you played the role of Oloja in village. How did this come about?
It started as the Baale of Oja, that is a junior chief to the Obaship. But as time went on, the character became more powerful, as a result of the expansion of his territory. The traditional Baale became a first class Oba. It became generally acceptable, more popular, not only among writers, but among film makers, and others, and then it became more prominent than even the title Village Headmaster itself. So we had to rename it the Oloja of Oja, Oba Adelende 11.
What is the relevance of Obaship today?
It remains relevant even till today to the Nigerian socio-political system. In fact, the Obaship itself means governance. Being an Oba in Yoruba land means you are second to God; that is Olodumare, being the supreme being. He is also called the Kabiesi, which means no one questions him. It is a taboo to question him. And that has a parallel to the Nigerian situation.
What message did Village Headmaster have?
One statement the play tried to make was that the popular system of governance, democracy, is not exclusive to the white men. Africa has democracy. The Oba in Yorubaland is chosen by the people. The Oyomesi, a traditional cult of king makers, does that, even they are also chosen as people's representatives by the people as they represent the seven provinces that make up the Yoruba empire. I give the example of my late brother, the late Oba Funsho Adeolu. He was not the initial choice of the kingmakers. He became the Oba because the people clamoured for him to be enthroned their Oba. That is what is called a well-guided democracy. So we have our own democracy. As the Oba, you are considered second to God. But this does not mean you are not subject to the people. That is why the Oba's powers could be checked by asking him to open the sacred calabash if he gravely misrules. And if he does that, he dies. So democracy is not anything new the whites have taught us. Our problem is following the steps of the whites in governance.
In the Village Headmaster, there is the symbolic backward steps of the Oloja in the play. Why that style?
You will discover that in Village Headmaster it was characteristic for the Oloja to take several steps backwards before climbing the platform of the seat to the throne. That was symbolic in that it was making a metaphorical statement about the backward situation of governance in Nigeria. It was making a statement that one of our problems is to make decisions that take us backwards, before we finally reach a conclusion. That was very popular with the audience. They had a lot of excitement from it. But you see I was saying that because of the kind of system of governance we've been having, because we have relegated our traditional institutions to the background; we have been taking several steps backwards, to take a single step forward. And that means that for you to take four steps forward, you have already taken nine steps backwards.
The Obaship has been bastardized now and the so-called western political system is just nonsense, absolute nonsense. They say they have democracy: one man, one vote. That is nonsense because it is not practised any where in the world. If you studied democracy very well, you will discover that in European countries, it is based on genuine party formation, from the grassroots, that takes into consideration all adults. Compare the number of registered voters and that of the eligible adults in the country. You will see all the lopsidedness, and how disproportional it is. What we have as democracy in this country is government of the masses by the few. It is the few that vote, and that is if their votes count. In Nigeria, up till today, our votes have never counted. Except, of course, that of June 12. The British rigged the first election in 1966.
They taught us how to rig. And till today, it has been difficult for Nigeria to have a free and fair election. The June 12 election was unique because it used the indigenous electoral system, the Option A4, that is the African way. You are to stand behind the person you are voting. It is very inexpensive; does not involve use of voting machine or voter's cards. Everyone sees you as you stand behind your candidate. It was fun, as the voters were even counting the votes with the officers on that day. It is a most transparent, as everyone knew the result before it was announced. That is why it is not possible to wish away June 12.
What is your take on the crisis rocking the Actors Guild of Nigeria?
It is all a reflection of the ruder-less, purposeless and unpatriotic leadership we have in the country. Today, they talk about Nollywood as an umbrella name for Nigerian movie industry. Whatever that means. I don't know how relevant that is to the practice of movie making in Nigeria. I really need somebody to explain to me. But all I can see is that they are just copying the West. I think is high time we changed that. You see it is even sectional. The Nollywood thing is especially the English speaking and the Igbo extraction of the Nigerian movie industry. We have suggested that it should be called Niger movie, and that encompasses all. The biggest problem is the role of professionalism. It is actually determining the objectives of movie making. Today, what most of them, event the so-called icons, do is galmour, celebrity and fame. They have forgotten that movie is, in fact, the most effective means of education, enlightenment and entertainment. All other thing on glamour are by-products.
But they are reflecting glamour in a country where almost 100 percent citizens is wallowing in poverty. They present the world with flashy cars, beautiful houses, which they themselves do not have in reality. We've got it wrong. They've lost it. The ladies want to look beautiful. The latest thing is that they are setting up philanthropic NGOs for the motherless, less-privilege and disables when that should be the statement you should be making to your audience.
How would you compare the standard of broadcasting at your time and now?
We would have developed, but people are so ignorant. Where the focus should have been on our culture, they have a myopic view of culture. They do not know that culture is all encompassing. All other social sectors, as education, technology, governance, among others, are culture-based. By the time I joined broadcasting in 1968, there was a standard broadcasting system, in terms of television and radio. There were big professionals who really knew what broadcasting was, which is all about informing, enlightenment and entertaining. Then, we had the like of Christopher Kolade, Vincent Maduka, Segun Olusola, Bishop Bako, among others.
Now, let me address the question. That time, people were focused; they knew what broadcasting was about and they were focused on it. And when we came on board, we had to fall in line. But today, in all areas of the mass media, we have compromised our position. All aspects of the mass media are politicized and corrupted. The so-called great critics have done so. The same papers that criticise the government, advertise government's propaganda programmes and activities. So, it appears that what they actually ask for when they criticise are those adverts. And they say it is to survive, but do you identify with what you criticise? Even most of these critics are now employees of the government they criticise.
We understand you are writing a book. What is it about?
I am writing a book, entitled, Project Africa. It is basically on culture; it is charting the way forward for individual and corporate development for Africa and I am trying to call attention to what we have to do to tackle the socio-political problems we have. I am trying to say that all calls and cries for the sack ministers and all that are genuine, but they are just the scratches on the surface. The fundamental thing is for the leaders themselves to start the crusade. The book is an offshoot of a research. It is being released to mark 50 years of television and Nigeria's independence.
How would you rate Nollywood in the re-branding Nigeria project?
I am uncomfortable with the word Nollywood. I would rather prefer Niger movie or the Nigerian movie industry. I do not accept Nollywood as a title for the Nigerian movie industry simply because it is sectional and colonial. It has a colonial mentality that whatever has been done in the West, we must fashion ours after it. But as for the Niger movie, it has done all the re-branding and branding for Nigeria. It is the Niger movie that led to rating Nigeria as the second largest movie producing country in the world. That, to me, is the best thing that has happened to Nigeria in recent times. I had proposed in a paper on Nollywood that all the money released for the Dora Akunyili re-branding exercise should have gone into developing the Nigerian movie industry. Though, they may say it has portrayed a lot of negative things about the country, a movie can only be a reflection of its society. It is about a contemporary reflection of the society.
Again, they would always tell you, go on , do something that is positive, but we ask, is the government doing anything positive?
There are divorce and prostitution cases in the industry? Why is this?
My reaction has always been, physician cure thyself. There is no sector of the society that you would not see scandal. Check out education, media, banking, politics and all that. All these happen elsewhere. Do you not hear of divorce and free-for-all sex in the academia? Let people stop being hypocritical. My reaction is that as long as it does not affect the job and you maintain professionalism, ride on.
What is your most embarrassing moment?
I am a free person. I do not allow this celebrity issue to restrict my movement and interaction with people. I go to the market, buy foodstuff and soup ingredients. I had learnt to do this from age 10. My mother taught me that. But one day I was really embarrassed doing this. It happened at Sabo market, Lagos. People have always been seeing me go there to buy things. I even bargain with meat sellers on price of meat. As usual, I was argueingt with a trader about the price of what I wanted to buy when a lady walked up to me, looked at me so keenly and said: 'What are you doing here? Why are you coming here? Don't you have a wife? I replied and said: 'You too, don't you have a husband? Does your hubby not help you to go to market? If he doesn't, well, I do that for my wife.'
Another very embarrassing moment was in the '70s when I went to a school. I was there to do a shooting of a certain film. On getting to the school, the students saw me. They jumped out of the classroom and ran out to see me. There was uproar all over the place. All the workers and everyone came out. The whole academic work was disrupted. All the children were shouting 'Kabiesi! Kabiesi!!.' The proprietress came to me and said, 'Mr. Lewis, see what you have caused.'
What is your happiest moment?
As an actor, it is being a part of the Village Headmaster. But privately, my wedding day was not really a happy moment for me. Obviously, my happiest moment remains the day it became a reality that I was going to be a Catholic priest. It was the day I got into the minor seminary.
What do you think about religion?
I am not the type that would accept to be so pious or religious. I believe people should be held responsible for whatever they have done; whether good or bad. You have a leader who rigs himself into an office and says that it was God who puts him there. And the people gullibly accept that. So-called men of God would say because the Bible says all leaders are enthroned by God, so we should accept our leaders even though we know they put themselves there. All that is nonsense.