Written on July 10, 2016 by Ayo Ogunde
Exactly, a hundred years ago, today, a son was born to a village headmaster, pastor and church organist and the daughter of an Ifa priest; in a village called Ososa, a few kilometres from Ijebu Ode in Ogun State.
The father of this child was Mr. Jeremiah ‘Deinbo Ogundemuren. He was amongst the first in Ososa to go to school through the C.M.S missionary which had just established a primary school in the village. By the time of his marriage, he was a teacher at the St. John’s Primary school, which was just established in 1900, and the church organist of the St. John’s church, both in Ososa. He is mentioned as a church worker in the church in 1915. As a teacher in those days, he was transferred very frequently, due mainly to the paucity of teachers. The effect of these transfers on his child, Hubert Adedeji, was to allow him to be with his pagan mother and his maternal grandfather, who was an Ifa priest. So before he started school at almost ten years of age, he was to all intents and purposes a student of Ifa priesthood! It was at this time that the young Hubert, saw and learnt a lot about the the Yoruba gods, beliefs and practises. This knowledge was to stand him in good stead, in his future profession, in the stories of his plays and the accompanying songs. Pa Jeremiah taught his child as a teacher in St. John’s school Ososa. He also taught him music and how to play the organ. He brought up his child as a Christian and converted his wife to Christianity. It must have been heart warming for Pa Jeremiah when his son, Hubert Adedeji became a teacher in the same St. John’s school and also the organist of the same church where he had served. Pa Jeremiah remained a teacher at heart, teaching his grandchildren, until he passed on in1961.
The mother of Hubert Adedeji, Mama Owotusan was born in 1888 to the family of an Ifa priest as mentioned earlier. By the time she married Pa Jeremiah she was not only a pagan but an illiterate, at least in the new western education. She was a locust bean seller by trade, but very industrious. She supplemented the merger earnings of her husband with her business. Madam Owotusan was especially a very clean, generous and a good hearted human being. Her cleanliness was legendary. Until her death in 1986, if mama eats and you decide to help her wash her plate, she will let you but will go back and wash it again as no one could wash it to her measure! She loved her only child with a passion.
The child born to Pa Jeremiah and Madam Owotusan on the 10th of July 1916 was Late Chief (Dr) Hubert Adedeji Ogunde. This is his actual date of birth, as given by Chief Ogunde himself, in his international passports! I hope we can all take this on board. His schooling ended in Standard Six in 1933. He became a self taught man after that. He read widely and was comfortable with the Queen’s English.
A lot has been written about his works, from the opera to the theatre and finally to the celluloid. This piece will centre on the man himself. Who was Hubert Ogunde himself? What were his beliefs? What circumstances shapedhis development? How did he live his life? How did he cope with life’s vicissitudes?
Let us begin with the man himself. He was a very handsome, tall, light-complexioned and gap-toothed man. He joked about how he was a frequent visitor to the police station while he was teaching at the Oke-Ona United School, Abeokuta, after organizing a band performance in 1938. Reason being that some girls fought because of him while he cannot remember knowing any of them! He said he felt proud in front of his friends but embarrassed privately.
Hubert Ogunde was a teetotaller, never drank alcohol or smoked. But he had a sweet tooth. He loved sweet things like sugar and honey. He would drink any soft drink but his favourite was Fanta! He was not ostentatious in his dressing and living. He believed inmoderation in all things except his theatre.
Hubert Ogunde had many wives. Throughout his lifetime he insisted that he had to marry many wives to keep his theatre going! He explained that in the 1940’s no one wanted his daughter to marry an ‘Alarinjo’, who were considered to be never do well, lazy rascals! Truth is, all the leaders of the Yoruba travelling theatre up and until recently had many wives. So Ogunde was not unique in this. If you want to know how many wives Ogunde had, then you have to visit the Ogunde Living History Museum in Ososa!
We have seen that he was not born with the silver spoon. However, he was properly brought up and groomed in the Yoruba culture throughout his early years with his maternal grandfather and a pastor father. Instead of being confused he seems to have had a good grasp of what really constituted a religion and that all seem to point to one God. He was therefore, a man who was comfortable with any and all religious beliefs. He was a traditionalist to the core. Although, he remained a Christian throughout his life, he was not uncomfortable with the Yoruba traditional religions and beliefs. He believed in God and that good will always triumph over evil.
He was particular about what is right and good. To him there were no gray areas between good and evil. This belief was his guiding principle in life and it runs throughout his plays. It is this belief which prompted him to produce such plays like, Tiger’s Empire ( against the colonial masters in 1945), Strike and Hunger ( in support of the unions which went on strike in 1945), Bread and Bullet (to protest the killing of 18 miners in the Enugu Colliery who were protesting for higher wages in 1949). Although these plays projected him to national limelight, he never meant them to be. He insisted he was only using his theatre for the good of the people. This view he expressed over and over to those around him. He used the popular ‘Yoruba Ronu’, which was commissioned by the Egbe Omo Olofin, the cultural arm of the N.N.D.P, the government in power in the Western Region of Nigeria in 1964, to express his view of right and wrong. It is important to note that the play was actually against those who commissioned it!
That is the depth of his belief in the rightness or wrongness of a cause, no matter the consequences. And, oh did he pay? He almost went bankrupt after he was banned from the Western Region, his main area for revenue generation! Even after this debacle Ogunde continued to express his views on any current political or social issues with his plays. Plays like Keep Nigeria One During the civil war), Mama Eko (social commentary on materialism) , Kehin S’okun ( about rise of armed robbery and death by firing squad), Muritala Mohammed (killing of Nigeria’s head of state), Igba T’o De (social commentary about the abandoning of our culture and copying of foreign and ill digested ones) and so on and so forth.
He was generous to a fault. His acceptance as the father of the Yoruba travelling theatre was in part due to his large heart and assistance he was ready to give to anybody in the theatre. When he was still struggling to get back to his feet after the death of one of his wives in 1970, he still assisted the Duro Ladipo Theatre in 1973, when the troupe went on a tour of Europe and needed help. His assistance to Kola Ogunmola’s theatre to return to the stage after a long illness was well attested to by all who knew him. In fact he assisted all theatre practitioners of his time no matter whom.
When you remember that these groups were competing with his theatre then you will appreciate the largeness of his heart!
He never ever kept a grudge. He forgave generously. One example will suffice here. One of his competitors, around the late 60’s, ‘snatched’ one of his wives. This particular wife was amongst Ogunde’s best dancers and entertainers at that time. This competitor immediately put her talent to use in his own theatre and prospered! Ogunde not only forgave him but they later worked together to form the Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners! Hubert Ogunde forgave easily and permanently.
Another major belief he had was that the theatre was a mission from God and that all around him were there to make his mission successful. He was ready to give his all for the success of his theatre! He was ready to adapt and even change if necessary for the success of his theatre. All his wives were all in the theatre and the children were all at one point or the other a member of the troupe, even while still going to school! He was particularly successful in making his wives believe in his mission, so much so, they all lived the mission. Let me give a little known story about the sacrifices his wives made. While performing on stage in the Glover Memorial Hall in the early 60’s, the sick child of one of the wives – Madam Ibisomi - died in the dressing room. Still in shock and mourning of her child, she had to return to the stage to laugh and continue her role! She only collapsed after the play. That is the extent of the commitment that some of his wives who believed in his mission had to demonstrate.
We will skip the normal agonies and the unpredictability of a new venture in a society which holds firm to tradition and culture. Ogunde had to compose all the plays, write all the songs and accompanying music as well as choreograph all the dance steps! Up and until the late 60’s he was called the ‘Composer’ by all his wives and artists. He was everything and even the lorry driver, at least in the 1950’s!
Professionally he had many great challenges from competitors. The first one he never forgot was that challenge from Bobby Benson and Cassandra Show in 1949. Prior to this, the Ogunde theatre was mainly about the play, the songs and the music related to the play. However, when Bobby came with his ‘Congo – Samba to Jazz Variety show’ in 1949, a new dimension in theatre was introduced. Ogunde had to do something. He introduced the Opening Glee to all his plays. The Opening glee is essentially the latest dances from the western world accompanied with western music (with trumpets, western drums etc). He taught his wives to play the saxophones and to dance to samba or to any latest western craze. These changes were only additions to his usual plays, but it served him well.
He had competitors after the Bobby challenge but none forced him to change his approach or vision of his theatre.
His other major professional challenge was in the 70’s when Nigerians started producing films. He agonized for a long time over this particular change. He never wanted to leave the theatre. He was eventually convinced by Late Ade Love to at least shoot a film and still continue with theatre. His answer was his first film on celluloid, ‘Aiye’ in 1979. He, however still continued with the theatre. His last film, ‘Ayanmo’ was first put on stage before it went into celluloid! This shows clearly that his first love was the theatre while the celluloid was just another expression of the theatre to him.
Late Chief Hubert Ogunde had many personal challenges which would have blown many men off course! The first was from his father and mother who wanted more, at least from their view, for their son.
Remember, a pastor and a teacher whose son now wants to be an ‘Alarinjo’, as public entertainers were called in those days. It took the success of his plays and the fame they brought to the name of the family (especially when the ‘Lagos Newspapers’ of the late 1940’s were raving about Hubert Ogunde) before his father gave him his approval, albeit grudging at first. he next was the ban from the Western region, which was an economic disaster and it lasted for two good years (1964-1966). Remember, he had many wives, children and artists to feed and pay. He later said that it was only through God’s mercies that he and his theatre survived.
Unfortunately a greater blow was to come. It came on the 2nd of September 1970 with the death of his wife Madam Adesewa (popularly called Mama Eko) from a motor accident, a few kilometres to Sagamu on their way to perform at Ilesha. She was at the time the manageress of the theatre company. The loss was sudden and brutal. As if to magnify the loss, it happened a few months after returning from a very successful tour of England and Italy in 1969 with the play ‘Oh Ogunde’ where this woman was the centre of the shows! Losing a wife and a key component of your theatre, all at once, was pure disaster. Everything from top to bottom had to be rearranged and reorganized! Somehow, Ogunde found the inner strength from his belief that the theater was his mission from God. He returned to the stage again after some months! The ability to rise after such a loss made the Late Hubert Ogunde great.
In June 1984, about 14 years after he lost a wife, Ogunde lost another wife! Madam Ibisomi who took over from Madam Adesewa as the Manageress of Ogunde Theater died after a brief illness.Again, this woman was the central character – Iya Dudu- in his play and film ‘Aiye’. Another blow to his theatre and another re-ordering of things! This time because of the financial success of Ogunde’s films ‘Aiye’ and ‘Jaiyesimi’, the impact on the family was slightly less than the 1970 disaster. The loss though was not less painful in any way.
Almost exactly 5years after the death of Madam Ibisomi, Ogunde lost yet another wife! Madam Risikat Ogunde died in March 1989. She was, also, one of his best actresses. She managed the rehearsals during the ‘Ososa Experiment’ with the group that later became the National Troupe of Nigeria. This was a woman who just played a leading role in Ogunde’s last film ‘Ayanmo’. A great actress, theater worker and a believer in her husband’s ‘mission’! Again, Ogunde did not allow this loss to dampen his belief in his mission. Luckily for him, he did not lose a wife after Madam Risi until he died in April 1990.
The most difficult part to understand is that all the wives Ogunde lost were those who were particularly prominent in his theatre at the times of their death! The deaths of his wives were his personal and most traumatic tests. We can only agree with him that the theatre was his mission in life. No doubt, he fulfilled his mission as we still write, talk and refer to Hubert Ogunde and his works, even over 25 years after his death.
We have tried to show you the real Hubert Ogunde and the beliefs that made him what he was. A lot has been rumoured about Ogunde being an ‘Ogboni’, a wizard, an occultist and so on and so forth. Could being any of these keep his memory alive for this long? He was a Christian and a traditionalist, pure and simple. If we still remember him for good, after 25 years in his grave, then he must have been a man with a pure heart. As he believed, with all his heart and sang --“Iwa ni yio gbe o o, l’aiye l’orun’ (Good character will help/support you on earth and in the heavens), let us remember Ogunde as a man of good character.