SHE EARNED ONLY PRIMARY SCHOOL CERTIFICATE. TODAY, US VARSITIES ARE BEGGING HER TO BE ARTS PROFESSOR
The best way to have a good grasp of the special tale and life/travails of Mrs. Nike Davis-Okundaye, owner of Nike Art Gallery, Lagos, is to allow her tell the story herself. She overcame all the hitches and barriers of life, from a motherless tender age, a pauper father and so many other travails, to own a centre for arts and culture research in Abuja, Osogbo and Ogidi-Ijumu, Kogi State. Her arts centres are valued in hundreds of millions of naira. She got all these because she laboured, persisted and her stars shone brighter and brighter to a day of full daylight.
Indeed, ther story is as fascinating as it is unbelievable. She said of her early days: 'After my mother died, when I was six years, I got enrolled into primary school. But because there was no money for my school fees, I did menial jobs at such tender age to make a living and pay my fees. I would fetch firewood for people to buy at two pence per load (bundle). Sometimes I would fetch about 10 and they would give me three pence. Then my school fees was only 150 pence.'
What about her father? She said: 'My father was a Catholic and in the Catholic school then, the 150 pence school fees elsewhere was 15 shillings.
So, one day I went to the Reverend Father for help because I was always out of class to work and make money to sustain me, like carrying bricks. Sometimes they would give me a drum to fill with water. In a whole day I would fill about six drums, from a distance of about two to three kilometers, where the stream was. I would get about three pence for six drums of water. Because of the loads I carried, a greater part of my head bare of hair. So, any day I went to school, I would fast because there was no food. When I returned from school, I would go to the farm to bring firewood, to cook for my father because he did not marry another wife after my mum's death, and we were only two siblings. My only brother was two years younger; so I had to look after him. After staying with my great grandmother for five years, she sent me to my father's village. She had only my grandmother, also late, as an only child; so she had nobody living with her.'
Still struggling to survive, little Nike did other labour to survive. She said: 'Sometimes I would go to the farm and pick all the leaves that fell from cocoa trees; take them to a distance of about eight kilometers to sell. It became a daily affair for me. It was so bad that I never ate meat until I started living with an Indian as a baby-sitter. There I ate the head of chicken for the first time. I never wore slippers until I turned 13. My slippers were always the mud around my feet, gathered from the track to the stream or to the farm. Sometimes I would be woken up before 5am to go to the farm.'
Even as she suffered, she did not know that circumstnces were preparing her for greater things. According to her, 'as I did these things, I thought they were punishments on me. I was suffering without knowing that nature was preparing me for the future. When I was through with primary education, I went to plead with the Reverend Father to permit me pay the 15 shillings I owed as soon as I started work.'
Respite, however, came her way. She said: 'One Sunday, in the church, there was an announcement that an Indian lady resident in Kabba, Kogi State needed a baby-sitter. The condition for qualification was that the applicant must be able to clean the home, cut the grass, carry a baby and cook. I said I could do all those. When I went there, the lady looked at me and wondered aloud if I could do the job because I was very lean and skinny. I said I could do it and persuaded her to try me. I started the work. There was no rest.
'I learnt so much from her. I would clean the house and when the children were off to school, I would cut the grass, then wash clothes, iron them before they came back, after which I would prepare food. My salary at the beginning was 10 shillings and when she saw that I could work very hard she increased it to 15 shillings.'
However, Davis-Okundaye's joy was almost killed when her father came with the idea that she should get married.
She said: 'When I turned 13, my father came for me, with the intention to marry me out to a minister. I reminded him that I was still paying my debt of school fees at the Catholic School, but he insisted I should join him at home. He took me to my village and gave me to the minister. When I looked at the minister, I wondered how I would cope with marriage. I had no mother and had learnt nothing about life. Then the minister looked at me and said, 'Aha this one will be ready in another three years.' I made up my mind then not to marry him. That was how I ran away from home.'
She started building up again, after her father's failed attempt to marry her off. What did she do? 'I later joined a travelling theatre that moved from one village to another performing. That was how I learnt to dance, sing and perform live on stage. We were really mobile, fending for ourselves, from Iwaraja to Ijedda, to anywhere. Every village we got to, we put up notices about our show and people would attend. I did this for a year before I returned to Osogbo.'
At that point, Davis-Okundaye's encounter with the Indian helped her chart a course for herself. 'The Indian lady had taken me to Osogbo to see Madam Susan Wenger. We went to visit the shrine. After that, I said if a white woman could do what she was doing there I could do better. The prompting made me ask Wenger if I could live with her and understudy her. She agreed, but said she was not a teacher and could not teach me art. She said I could come and see what I could learn from her artistic designs.
Then I was already doing adire with paste because I was living with my aunt in Osogbo, who taught me how to design adire manually.'
That was the beginning of her venture into big business, which has now given her fame. However, the beginning was not easy. She told the story of those early days: 'There was no electricity in Osogbo town then. But I discovered that when I used candle drops on the adire the result was brighter than usual. So I thought of switching over to candle technology. To get my supply of candles, I would go to the Catholic Church and collect burnt candle wax used for mass. They usually threw away the candle from the altar, after mass. I would gather, clean it out, melt it, cut pawpaw pipes into shape, use cotton from the farm, put it on a broom stick and use it to do the cloth, which they call kampala. Actually, our own type of batik is called adire alabella. The process was faster than the eleko, easier to dye than the other designs.'
And the breakthrough eventually came. 'Immediately, I made any cloth, the whites would come and pick it up. That was how I started making fabrics in small quantities until 1974 when the government wanted to send people to America. A certain teacher came from the US and saw me working and was impressed. In fact, I am the type who does so many things and designs – art, adire, carving and painting. So seeing me at work fascinated him. He said he was looking for art instructors to teach in the US. He told me he had already found some male instructors but the government needed at least a female. He had previously gone to other African countries but could find none. With what he saw I did, he was convinced I would fit into what he wanted. He therefore, asked if I would travel to the US for the job, an offer I accepted. But there was a proviso that I should improve my English usage, as mine was poor.'
Owing to the fact that she could not speak good English, she could only demonstrate what she knew about bata drumming and adire making. Revealing what happened, she said: 'For instance instead of saying 'egg' I would say 'heggle,' which sounded horrible. Yet, he never minded the language barrier and still took me to the US. When I got there, the students helped me to improve on my language because I always told them that my English was not good enough. That was how I trained myself. And my formal education actually stopped at Primary Six. But I have an offer at Harvard University to be a professor, to teach arts, an offer in Houston Texas, Ohio, Milwaukee to become art professor also. They want me to come and teach. Having seen what I could do, they want to work with my experience.'
She added: 'It is not the paper qualification that they want. They want to tap my practical knowledge. The way parents pass knowledge to their children in our society is what interests them. I remain grateful to the man who discovered my skills and sent me to the US. I appreciate the extraordinary opportunity the outing exposed me to. I am also the type of person who has always waited for and grabbed every opportunity that came my way.
'The US group extends grant to us to travel round and also helps to sell our work. They encourage us to bring anything that would be useful in the USA for arts instruction. And also while there, we take pictures of designs and motifs and when we return, we see how to adapt them locally into our designs.'
After her American discover, Davis-Okundaye opened her outlets in Nigeria. 'On return from my initial trip, I opened an arts workshop, at my level, knowing I can't operate it at the level I saw in the US. So I had to make do with what I had. Little by little, I started making in-road into America and that is how the business grew to the level it is operating today,' she said happily.