Mrs. Taiwo Ajai Lycett, Officer Order of the Niger (OON), is a legend in the entertainment world. Her late husband, Mr. Tom Lycett mandated her to come home, so that her people could also enjoy her talent which only white audiences in United Kingdom, Europe hitherto enjoyed. She told FLORA ONWUDIWE in this interview about and other sundry issues. Excerpts.
What struck you in the play, Hear Word! When you were approached to be a participant?
To me, it is all about women, about the plight of women; Hear Word! Is all exclusively about the plight of women in our society, in the world generally but particularly in our society, where we have over 50 percent of women in the population and yet women are so downtrodden. Traditionally, we were not downtrodden as you know; our women had always been very powerful. But in modern times, there have been some aberrations and then you have certain things from the past like widowhood rites. So I was interested in the child abuse, child marriages which is still rampant in this day and age. Men of 50 marrying seven or 10 year-old-girls. Of course, I was immediately drawn to the plight of women and the girl-child.
You said the play is exclusively about women giving account of their experiences; does this movement not suggest feminism?
What is wrong with feminism? Why are people scared of feminism? I am worried also because women don’t want to be associated with feminism because they are afraid, this is what Hear Word! Is doing, that women should have intellectual freedom, emotional freedom, but that is not rejecting men. Feminism is giving power that you already have, it is ensuring the power that women already have. Feminism is not a western ideology.
If you recall, feminism movement started in the late 1800s…?
Feminism has been in Africa for a long time. In Abeokuta Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti sacked Alake of Abeokuta, it is in history, it is real. In her time the colonialists were placing taxes on women. When they went to market it was the money that they made that they used to pay school fees and everything. And the women then got together and said, ‘why aren’t our men telling them the real situation. Why aren’t they representing us properly?’ And they protested? Now, that feminism is of the highest kind, which is looking after their home fronts; feminism is not anti-men. Actually, it is helping the men. You know how we raised our children, he must not cry and once a man is born, from the beginning that child is told the responsibility he is going to shoulder. He is the one going to look after the home front, mother, father and he is going have a wife and the wife must stay at home and he has to look after the wife, all his life those burdens have been put on him. Then life moved on, the world moved on such that women are now working to help men, that’s feminism.
Mrs Ransome-Kuti was among the few women elites that were exposed to western education and that boosted her confidence and courage to succeed and did what she did at her time…
That is the responsibility of educated men and women, not just women. And the inability to use our education is what you are seeing in our political scene right now. Growth in our socio- life is contingent upon the use of that education, if you don’t use something you lose it. She was educated and she used the things that are good about that to help our society. That is the whole point of being educated; not being educated you can summarize that to mean ignorance. Somebody is a little bit well informed, it is incumbent of that person to use that external infer ration that you have in the interest of your people to elevate your people’s situation condition.
Hear Word! Advocates issues affecting women, could you explain how it differs from the earliest feminist movement?
The message you haven’t seen is that in Africa we are dealing with our problem as well, that is overwhelming message, we have with Hear word! That nobody is telling us what to do, that we are not mirroring, what they are doing. If we have 51 percent of women that are being underutilised is that not detrimental to the developmental of human race. But of course it is. So why is it? I hear it is negative for women to be championing some minority and that is what we have lacking in our body polity. The rich are not championing the poor, the politicians are not looking after the masses, but it is their responsibility to champion people who are less privileged. Women are the people who raise families; women are the people who raise the men, you have to educate women about the way to behave, the way they assert themselves. The down side of it is, what you are seeing now where our people, the followership, are not be raised to be assertive. And you are seeing it in our body polity now. The people in power are doing what they like, the masses can’t say anything, they have not been brought up to do that, where they have put that is where they should stay.
So Hear Word! Is about what?
The play is about telling women that we have a responsibility to make our society work well. If you call it a movement we need more movements like what they are doing now, raising children to think properly; women have not trained their children to know what their rights are.
Are you still saying that Hear Word! Is not a movement?
Of course it is a movement but it is a movement of ideas, I am only debunking what you are saying that it is some kind of feminist movement; it is feminist movement but a movement of ideas of how to order society, of social engineering. What we are doing is not a movement of ‘we don’t like men.’
You claimed that Hear word is an ideology movement; does the message tally with the title of the play?
Very much so. Absolutely, very apt. Hear word! Is the pidgin for “Listen,” speak the truth about your condition. A woman is abused in her marriage. And we are saying to women ‘listen speak the truth, Hear word Nigerian woman, isn’t that what our title is? That’s the true title, Hear word o! Don’t keep quiet o! Say the truth, this is the condition. If you say the truth perchance somebody can help.
You said that women involved in the play, Hear Word! Are each other’s keeper; now the suggestion is that the platform brings all women together as a family with love for one another. But it is a different ball game, when they leave the stage, how do you explain that?
When Joke Silva son’s got married everybody was there, when a member of our cast Debby Ohiri got married everybody was there, not just physically but financially. When Elvina’s father died everybody was there; you don’t know us that is why you are saying this. When I clocked 78 two weeks ago, everybody was there; we are sisters for life.
You featured in one of the most popular British comedies, Frank &Spencer, would you say it was the peak of your career?
No, it wasn’t, but it was the first time Nigeria noticed me in something, that is why it is a peak for them because it was a very popular programme. It won an international movie award, Montreaux Film Festival. It was a good programme. I did various things in Edinburgh International Festival, Dublin international festival. I had been to Yugoslavia, Mexico, I had been all over. I had done General Hospital, that particular comedy is very popular even in England. Just as the people are raving here about it, they are raving in Europe, and that one is always on international flights all over the world. I am still receiving recognition for it till today. So it was a good programme for me, it gives me attention here in Nigeria, it is not a peak of my career, the peak of my career is yet to come. I would even say working at the level I am working at 78 that I’m coming close to the peak of my career.
How did you cope with racism?
Do you know that in the world nobody can stop you? What that should tell you is that, in this world when you have the spirit, the talent, competence, nothing can stop you. Because over there meritocracy reigns. If you are good they go for you, they don’t care about the colour of your skin. It is the sort of things we are talking about in our politics, if you are good, it should not matter whether you are Igbo or Yoruba or whatever. But we are practicing ethnicity, we don’t put the right people in the right job. But over there if you are intelligent, that is it; they want their shows to be successful. They audition, they look for people who have talents; I never suffered from that. I never said it existed but what I took from that was that if you are authentic, there is nobody that can compete with you. You will notice in those days 40 to 50 years ago I was as African as anybody else, I was physically as African as you can be. So we are the people who think they think we are ‘bush’ so we have to buy somebody’s hair, you notice how all of you are wearing long European hair. They don’t care what you look like, in fact they respect you more, if you look yourself because you bring diversity into the world, but everybody is looking the same now. Long hair is not ours; if God wanted to give us long hair He would have done so. But we don’t like our own hair. Ideologically, I detest that kind of self-living that we parade around, now those are the things you should be attacking because unless we do all that the world wouldn’t pay attention to us, wouldn’t respect us. Yes, 40, 50 years ago I was an African working in Europe. If you know your job and you do it well people would want to know you.
Your late husband Mr. Tom Lycett discovered that your name was making waves in UK, Europe and advised that you should go home; if he had not brought this to your attention, did you intend to stay put?
It was not like that. My husband was so proud of the waves I was making in Europe. Although, Nigerians were hearing about what I was doing, they were hearing about it second hand. He was telling me ‘that your people don’t know of the impact you are making in Europe, you must let them know what you are doing and how you are representing them.’ That’s what he meant, didn’t ask me to return home. When I came to Nigeria he came to live with me here; he’s buried at Atan Cemetery. He just felt that why should both of us be letting Europe enjoy my talent, that I should be contributing that talent to Nigeria. His feeling was ‘your people don’t really know the impact you are making here. Go home and share your talent with your people.’ And I returned home, so when I had to stay back, he said ‘find me a job and I would come with you because I can’t run a marriage where I’m in Europe and you are here.’ So he joined me here.
What you intended studying abroad was not what you ended up with?
I am a very spiritual person, my career as an actor was ordained. I was not planning to be an actor and somehow I didn’t have the faintest idea, I wanted to be a lawyer. I enjoyed watching films and enjoyed going to watch Ogunde in Glory Memorial Hall in Nigeria when we were growing up. Obviously, it was meant to be, that is how I became that. When I came it was supposed to be one off, but the reaction of people to my debut was stunning. People started asking who my agent was. In fact an agent signed me on there and then and I started working, so I have to conclude that it was ordained. My thinking was, I am not an actor but people were hailing me as an actor and giving me job so I moved forward. But I also thought what if they found out that I was not even an actor, so I elected to find out about acting. I started training and most of my earnings went into training myself and that is what you see. In other words, once I saw that was the way acting was chosen for me, I decided to train myself. I went to drama school, dance school, voice classes; I did everything.
You lost two husbands, do you sometimes ascribe the circumstances to spiritual forces as Africans are wont to?
I am not at all one to be superstitious; it is stupid to be superstitious. People are born, people die and nobody knows when anybody is going to die and when you marry somebody, they will die sometimes and if they die, what‘s that got to do with you? It’s got nothing to do with you, it is their journey. Each of us has a journey and what it means is that the person’s journey is finished. Like the widow rites we are talking about in the play, Hear Word through which people think wives who lost their husbands must have killed them. That is the Nigerian thinking, that oh you have been married twice, oko ti kun le lori leme ji (that you have buried two husbands). That is stupid, they had their own journeys, they died, it’s got nothing to do with me; their deaths have nothing to do with them marrying me. People die for all manner of reasons, it could be an illness. How can you blame an illness on the spouse, which is what we are projecting with the widowhood rites in Hear Word! The woman who is already brokenhearted is the one you now accuse of murder!
At 78, it is expected you would have slowed down but you are still energetic and full of strength. Do you think of retirement at all?
Why should I retire? You don’t retire from life. I think what most people should pick from that is that life is a continuum and life is what you make of it and if you are 50, 60, you think you are old you are old. Your mind is the engine of your life and if you work on yourself and work with yourself, you can live forever. Well, that is what the Bible teaches us, yes we die but when you are living you must continue to live. You must obey the law of nature, I do obey the law of nature, I obey natural laws and of course I work very hard. I don’t give myself excuses because I am 60, 70, therefore there is something that I cannot do. Nothing impossible.
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