‘Dad’s Pidgin English dictionary selling more than The gods Are Not to Blame’
was a university lecturer in African Art and Music. The play “Hopes of The living Dead,” for example, was based on her research into Ikoli Harcourt Whyte’s music. It amazed him that a man with leprosy would compose such wonderful music, praising God, that his efforts led to the creation of a self-sustaining leper colony where the cure for leprosy was discovered and its benefit to those suffering from the disease across the globe. One of the untold stories of Nigeria’s contribution to the world is the cure for leprosy.
Where did your father do most of his creative works; home or office?
An idea could come to him anywhere; during a conversation, while driving or while taking a long walk, something he did often. In his study at home was his writing desk we children called the “long Table.” Everything looks big to a child. It was on the “long Table” he wrote every play, symposium, lecture notes and newspaper article. It was also where he thought us maths, history, science and everything else.
How did he relax?
He liked taking long walks alone. Sometimes the dog went with him. He also farmed for exercise. He didn’t like jogging. Why should he run when nobody was chasing him? He would rather do something that also yielded benefits like agricultural produce.
What were his favourite food and drink?
Pounded yam with okra soup – Nembe style. His mother was Nembe/ Ijaw and Ijaw okra soup has everything in the Atlantic Ocean in it – fish, periwinkle, crab etc. He also liked fresh fish pepper soup from Peninsular – a joint by the Okrika Riverside. If he liked you as a colleague or an acquaintance and he wanted to take you to a fancy restaurant, then he would take you to Peninsular where they caught fish in the river straight into the pot. And if he considered you a good friend, then he would cook the okra for you himself – Nembe style. I have not met anyone who cooked okra soup better than him. As per drink, (he loved) palm wine. you would notice it was a common feature in his plays. He was also the patron of the Palm Wine Drinkers Club. He never got drunk.
How did he like to dress?
It depended on the occasion. Most of the time it was buba (yoruba) or donny/iwoko (Ijaw) (that he wore).
What kind of music did he love?
Traditional music, highlife from the 1950s to the 1970s and choral music. Bongos Ikwue and Harcourt White.
Who were his close friends and associates?
If I start calling their names, I will be listing until next week. Noteworthy, all the writers and poets from his era (were his friends).
Many of his contemporaries, including Prof Wole Soyinka, were quite political. Was he political too?
yes, however, his politics was more like my grandfather’s – use politics to resolve a specific problem; and not politics as an end in itself or to seek office. Once the problem was resolved, he would go back to focus on his real passion – theatre and teaching. He turned down an opportunity to become federal minister because he believed that the regime wanted to use his reputation to legitimise itself and buy his voice at the same time. He rejected it.
Soyinka wrote in his memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, about your dad’s encounter with power-drunk soldiers of the military era on Ikorodu road. Apart from that episode, was there any other time he suffered in the hands of government or its agents?
The encounter Prof Soyinka spoke about was during the civil war. A war he and Soyinka were totally against – one of many areas of overlapping interest between both writers. On the personal level, Ola Rotimi’s father, whom he loved, was yoruba (Nigeria) while his mother, whom he was very close to, was Ijaw (Biafra). As you would expect, being her lastborn son, they had a special relationship. you would notice he gave his children both yoruba and Ijaw names. What do you do when your father’s side is fighting your mother’s people and you love them both? Before the war, people of the South-south were marginalised as minorities while their ports and oil enriched others. In the violent massacre of easterners leading up to the war, the murderous hordes did not differentiate between Ijaw, Ibo, Ibibio, Efik or any person from the minority tribes east of the Niger. Official reports said 30,000 Ibos were killed, while the deaths of Ijaws and other tribes went unreported and no one has been held accountable for this over 50 years. During the war, his mother’s people fell within the boundaries of Biafra not by choice but by geographical location and the oil wealth beneath their feet. Again, they were being brutalised in a war that they did not ask for and were bound to suffer regardless of whichever side won. Would they merely be replacing one dominant tribe/oppressor with another one while their farmlands, fishing waters get polluted and their ports and oil enrich the dominant tribe of the victorious side? While his relatives bled, those who could stop it pointed accusing fingers, blaming everyone else. They pointed at Britain for encouraging Gowon to renege on the Aburi Accord. They blamed France for seeking to exploit the oil reserves within the newly formed Biafra. They blamed northerners for slaughtering easterners. They blamed Ibos for the Nzeogwu coup despite the fact that officers from other tribes were involved. Out of this blame game came the title of the play: The gods Are Not To Blame, in which young Odewale kills a man for insulting his tribe and later marries Queen Ojuola, only to find out that the man he killed for insulting his tribe was actually his father and the queen he married was his mother.
As per other military encounters, he criticised several military regimes without reprisal until he criticized Abacha on several fronts: june 12, the plight of the people of the Niger Delta whose land generates the nation’s wealth while the indigenes lack basic amenities and their source of livelihood destroyed with oil pollution. Abacha’s economic policies causing artificial scarcity of essential commodities then his henchmen profit from the sale of these essential commodities at ridiculous prices; non-payment of civil servants’ salaries, etc. Word got back to him via former students working within the SSS that Abacha wanted to lock him up and try him in a Kangaroo court by Abacha-appointed judges and sycophants. If the kangaroo court failed to convict him of being a NADECO member, he would die in prison under unknown
circumstances. So, he left Nigeria on exile. While on exile he wrote the play: “When the Criminals Become judges.”
What will you describe as your father’s biggest influence on you; and perhaps on your siblings?
We all have his work ethic, fairness and creativity.
What is the most remarkable reaction you have got from people on learning that you are Ola Rotimi’s son?
They usually express admiration of his works and tell me of their personal interaction with him.
Can you recall one of the times that his name has stood you in good stead?
I remember encountering an Immigration officer on one of my trips from the us to Nigeria. Initially he looked at me in a weird way because most people mistake me for an Egyptian. Then he got suspicious when he looked at my passport and it had names from three different tribes: yoruba, Ijaw and Hebrew. He got even more curious when I started speaking Pidgin English to him. He asked me how come? I said, “No be my fault; my papa write the Pidgin English Dictionary, na im make I dey talk like dis.” He started to laugh and said, “Who go write Pidgin English Dictionary and who go read am?” And then I pulled out my smartphone and googled “Nigerian Pidgin English Dictionary.” The green book came up. He was shocked, then shouted, “Ola Rotimi write Pidging English Dictionary!! No be him write The gods Are Not to Blame? Na your papa?” I said, “yes and as per your other question, that dictionary sells more copies overseas than The gods Are Not to Blame in the past three years.” He himself didn’t think it would do that well. The officer stayed with me throughout the check-in process, through Customs and all the way to the front of the airport to ensure nobody harassed me or tried to extort bribes from me.
Are there other creative writers, like him, in the family?
While we all took on different professions, we all have the gift. I have written two books, and a third one in his honour will be released in August, the anniversary of his death. It is titled: Stories untold. If the saying is true that we get most of our genes from our grandparents, then Ola and Hazel Mae, Rotimi’s grandchildren, are a living proof of it. Amiah Mae Rotimi, their first granddaughter, has combined the fine artist talent of our mother (Hazel Mae Rotimi) and theatrical talents of Prof (Ola Rotimi), as a make-up artist for several music videos, and TV shows in the us. Kola Heywood Rotimi, second grandchild, has won several literary related awards between 2018 and 2020, prior to graduating from the university, just like his grandfather did as a yale student. These awards include: the Mellon Mays undergraduate Fellowship, Elizabeth Bruss Prize, james Charlton Knox Prize, Pitch Wars and the Francischia Fellowship. It’s too early to tell if the other grandchildren will take after one or both of their grandparents as they are still in high school and primary school.
Apart from his very popular works like The gods Are Not
to Blame; and Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, what are some of his other works?
Kurunmi; Hopes of the living Dead; Holding Talks; Grip Am; If; Akassa youmi; Ovoranwen Nogbaisi; A Dictionary of Nigerian Pidgin English; Man Talk Woman Talk; When Criminals Become judges. Which of these works is your favorite and why is that?
I don’t have a particular favourite. I have used the insight and wisdom gained from them in handling issues encountered in daily life. For example, during the war on terror, I was the first regional IT coordinator of the Bio Terrorism programme responsible for the New york City metro area and 150 mile radius of the city; I took a lot of insight from Kurunmi who had to take decisive but unpopular decisions in the middle of a war.
‘The gods Are Not to Blame;’ and ‘Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again’ became educational materials for literature students in Nigeria. Is the family getting due returns from these works?
Prof himself didn’t make much money from his plays when they were required reading materials for WASSCE because of piracy. lots of fake copies were selling for less than the original. Not just him, all Nigerian writers and artists suffered the same loss. Soyinka, Baba Sala, Achebe, Ekwensi, Sofola etc. That was back when naira had value: One naira to $1.50. Imagine now that it’s no longer a required reading material and naira is worthless.
Where were you when he passed away and how did you receive the news?
I was in the us when someone called from Bermuda to express his condolences. I asked, “What are you talking about? My dad and I talked two days ago about him meeting with my future in-laws to discuss wedding plans.” The caller from Bermuda informed me that he was reading Nigerian newspapers online and read that Prof had died of a heart attack. I went online and checked The Guardian and it was true. Then certain things came back to me from the last time we saw him in the us when we were planning our mom’s funeral. He changed the subject and started telling us how he wanted to be buried, the sharing of his property and will. That discussion was abruptly stopped when Oruene said. “Are you planning to die and leave us too?” It’s typical of her to say what everyone else is thinking but reluctant to say. “My mama,” he responded as he always called her because she was named after his mother. He said a few things to her in Ijaw then ended in English. “I am not planning to die soon, however, it’s an inevitability for all of us and if my time comes, then I don’t want fighting or confusion at my burial or over who inherits what, so I might as well tell you now.”
What was his burial programme like and where were his remains interred?
It was much bigger than he himself planned. He wanted a quick and small funeral, stating that once he had accomplished his mission on earth and passed away, we, the living, should not go into debt trying to “impress the Joneses” with a flamboyant funeral. Life goes on and we should keep it simple and move on with our own mission on earth; and not handicap ourselves with debt or depression. (He believed that) doing good to people while they are alive is more important than going broke to do a massive fanfare after they die. However, other events came into play and we could not do the small burial that he planned. lots of support and finances came from friends, family, OAU and the University of Port Harcourt, multiple organisations, within and outside Nigeria. The programme took on a life of its own like it was a stage play with a large cast directed by a master director from above. Thousands of people from all over came to Oduduwa Hall in OAU. Dignitaries, friends, press, TV, radio, former students, Nollywood actors, kings and representatives of kings and governors were present. He was buried on the grounds of the Dream House, where he and my mom hoped to spend their old age.
What is the family doing to keep Ola Rotimi’s memories alive?
We are publishing his unpublished works and turning some of the published works into movies through the Ola Rotimi Foundation, starting with Akassa youmi. Several of his former students who are now lecturers, directors and producers perform his plays at home and abroad.