Sunday, February 23, 2020 9:13 am
Mabel Segun wears many distinguished hats. She is a multiple award-winning writer, poet, broadcaster, teacher, table-tennis champion, dress maker and sports personality. She received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for lifetime achievements in 2009. In 2007, she was awarded the NLG Nigeria Prize for Literature. Famous for her children’s book, My Father’s Daughter, which later became a recommended text in schools across the world and other notable books, Bola Ige once named her the Matriarch of Nigerian Literature. She was in the second set of University College Ibadan, where she was classmates with Chinua Achebe, Grace Alele-Williams and Christopher Okigbo. She turned 90 on Tuesday, 18 February, 2020. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, to whom she had presented a poetry prize in memory of Christopher Okigbo at the University of Ibadan in 1990, she speaks about her life, her writing, her sporting life and how it feels to be 90.
How does it feel to be 90 in a country where the average lifespan is 50 years?
Until I fell ill (I had this diarrhea) I didn’t think there was much to it. The only classmate I remember who I still have left, who is alive, is Grace Alele Williams. I don’t know of anybody else. So it is not easy to be 90. But I have never thought in terms of numbers – how many years you spent on earth. I just decided I would carry on with what I could. Usually in this whole compound here, including that house, I am the first person that wakes up in the morning. When I go to the kitchen, I wash the plates and so on. So I didn’t think much of age.
What are your greatest moments?
My greatest moments are many. I like doing and achieving things. If I write a book and achieve what I wanted to do that is a great moment for me. If my child does well in whatever he or she is doing, I feel happy, very, very happy. I don’t like lazy people. I can’t stand them at all. I make dresses. You wouldn’t believe it that somebody who is an academic, and all that, makes dresses. I can show you two books, one is on embroidery. I don’t do too much embroidery these days, but I do my own sewing. Up to the age of 70 I sewed my own clothes. I also made my own dresses in university.
What are your lowest moments?
I really don’t dwell on things. If anything not so good happens to me, I just pass it by and focus on something else. I have so many interests. I have sports. I did broadcasting, dressmaking, cooking, so many things. I even collect dolls wearing national colours of different countries. I have travelled to the Far East. I have travelled to many parts of the world, places you wouldn’t believe I have been.
You were a very great table tennis player. Can you compare those times with the present? Do you think government is doing enough to encourage the game?
This is why I don’t feel happy with our people who take over. They behave as if they were the ones who invented table tennis. Well, as we started many years ago we made sacrifices, men and women. Before we had cars, we would hire taxis and go and fetch the young girls to come and train. We were doing all that because government did not sponsor us, didn’t help us; unlike in Ghana where they had everything that was good; everything that they needed they were given. But we the players had to go and encourage other players, especially the girls because we were playing in an age where there were taboos. In my time, they said if you played games you couldn’t have children etc. And some people believed that. So we would go to their houses and drag them out. When we had cars, we used them to ferry them all over the place. In other countries, people like us, who were pioneers, were usually still respected in the game, when other people had taken over. But In Nigeria when people take over a game they act as if nobody ever played it before them. And some were even in lawn tennis. Before they came to control table tennis, they never played table tennis. My house is not far away from Rowe Park where we were playing, and yet nobody ever invited me. People had veterans games even till now in lawn tennis. I watched a lot of lawn tennis. I watched a lot of sports. Now you find they invite Martina Navratilova. They invite Chris Evert. They invite all those old people to come and play veterans game. I used to beat men.
Given your passion for sports, do you think government is doing enough to encourage sports?
I don’t know what they are doing. All I know is that there was a time when we used to send people to Wimbledon. Have you heard of any Nigerian in Wimbledon? Never. These days they don’t know us there. We don’t go there. This country is just going backwards, backwards, backwards. I don’t remember which of those politicians used to say “Forward ever, Backward never”. He was one of those who used to have slogans.
You were very close to your dad. Could you describe the relationship between you and your dad?
Actually, I was going to put his photograph there. He was my role model. He was a great man, a real great man. The church is full of sin these days. I don’t go to church. I have to speak the truth because I don’t like what goes on there. My father, he composed this Yoruba song: Iwe Kiko:
Ise Agbe ni’se ile wa
Eni ko si’se,
A ma j’ale
Koi pe o
Koi pe o
This means that book learning is not enough; you should also complement it with manual labour, like farming. He had two farms, one nearby, the other far away. I used to go with him to the farm nearby. He took me. He loved me so much. And my elder sister was sent to school in Kudeti, Ibadan. So she was not around. She only came home on holidays. I was with him. He took me everywhere, especially his Scout meetings and so one. There were no women guides then. No such thing at that time. We were very close, my father and I. And he was not one of these people. The more there are church people, the more there are sinners. People say this and that. But I say I don’t do wicked things, I don’t steal. That is why I am poor. That is why I am going to offer people only jollof rice today.
Are you not a Christian, given that your father was a highly respected clergyman? Why don’t you go to church?
My father was a number one Christian. I don’t go to church, not because I don’t believe in the tenets of the church but because there are more criminals in the church than elsewhere. To speak the truth, there are more criminals in the church than elsewhere. You can quote me. My daughter won’t like it. She likes me to keep quite on that. But we believe the same thing.
You were all into the arts in your family. Was that how you were brought up?
No. We love reading. They don’t do much reading in science. And some people who don’t like much reading escape into the sciences.
How do you feel women are treated today in Nigeria?
Well, I wouldn’t know really. I don’t go out much, to speak the truth.
Then what is your assessment of the involvement of women in politics?
I don’t join associations. When I was about to retire from the civil service, I took a decision that I was not going to start running to meetings anymore because I was going to sit down and do more writing; which I have done. I have not only my own books. Go into that Third Room (we call it the Third Room), you will find many books not written by me but anthologies of books, including my own poems. I am a poet. Some people say they are poets now. You can’t read their so- called poetry (laughs). It doesn’t sound like poetry at all. In fact right now somebody in Leeds is doing her PhD on my poetry. Nowadays I am low key in Nigeria on such things.
What were your influences in poetry?
I am glad you ask me that. I had a lovely teacher, Ms Ore Cole, who taught me so well. One of her favorite poems is Sea Fever. (She recites the poem). And she gives many things to the senses, how the sky looks. She was a Nigerian and knows so much about poetry and then the way she describes this poem, with the imageries, you wanted to go to the sea yourself. And so I wanted to be a sailor because I had never seen a woman sailor (laughs). I never saw a female sailor. But this poem so stirred me that I said I must become a female sailor. In those days nobody could be a female sailor. In the end, what I did was to sew a dress. You know you could sew a dress with the sailor’s insignia at the back, which I did and I felt very proud.
At what school did Ms Cole teach you. At CMS Girl’s School?
Yes, at CMS Girls School. It was the oldest school in the country at the time, founded in 1869. And I thoroughly enjoyed that poem.
How do you see children literature in Nigeria today?
Well, I tried to bring it up. But most of the time it is going down again. People don’t know what rhythm is, especially in poetry. I am not going to mention some tribes and so on. There are some people. I don’t think their women can ever write good poetry. I won’t tell you who wrote this one. You are our father. You are our mother (laughs). That’s writing a poem about cassava and rice. Can you imagine? And you call that poetry.
Do you think women have been given their due in Nigeria?
Somebody has been trying to get me in Leeds. She asked me to write for her. I’m still debating whether I want to write. She wants to send it to a Commonwealth magazine, or whatever they call it. My fear is that she wants to use me as a feminist figure. And I am not a feminist. I am not and I don’t like being termed feminist.
Why are you not a feminist? Why don’t you like being termed one?
Do you know what I did when I was 46? I used to live with bishops in those days, after my father’s death. My mother took me there. She thought that was a place to learn good behavior and so I lived in the cathedral house owned by the wives of bishops. I went hunting. Obalende was bush in those days, no houses there at all. So I got friendly with two sons of a policeman who had guns in the house. So they “borrowed” one (You know what I mean by that?). They didn’t tell their father. But they borrowed his gun and we went hunting. I used to go hunting shooting birds in Obalende, when there were no human beings there. I used to go canoeing with boys. I did a lot of things with boys yet I never got raped. The people who were very feminine and dangling like this, they were the ones that people tried to rape (laughs). Because they saw me as one of them. They called me a tomboy. But I refused the term, tomboy. You know what I gave myself?
Honorary Gentleman (laughs).That was what I was. So I did all these things. I went canoeing. This young man told me he knew how to punch a boat. And we went and hired a boat when I came back from school on Saturday. And in the end I discovered that he didn’t know how to steer a boat at all. On top of it, he was playing pranks, jumping from the boat on to the rafters of a bridge; and then jumping down into the boat. And the boat would rock as if it was going to throw us into the water. I had adventures in those days. But God knew that he wanted me to be alive. And I lived.
Why did you have to write a book on cooking and food?
What I wrote was what is called cultural book. I wrote about our customs regarding cooking, our taboos and why they were those taboos. I wrote about proverbs, about different types of cooking, what you should eat, what you should not eat and what happened to me when I went to Enugu to stay with a cousin of mine married to somebody from Itigidi. And I took the gizzard there. She shouted, “Look at Mabel! Look at Mabel!” Why look at Mabel? What’s the matter with Mabel? I looked at my dress. Didn’t I button up my dress properly? Then when she saw I was looking at my clothes, she said, “Okay.” She said, “Look at her plate! Look at her plate!” So we looked and there was the gizzard. And then she said only men ate gizzard in their own society, making such a fuss about gizzard. They said I should surrender the gizzard and put it on her husband’s plate. So the husband could eat it, which I did. So I asked, “Suppose I had eaten the gizzard before you shouted?” She said I would have had to pay a fine and buy a cock or something and kill it for the community. And then I would not eat out of it. I would cook it for them as a fine for taking the gizzard. So I wrote about customs like that. And then in those days we used to try to catch termites, those flying ants. They are very tasty, you know. And then I had a very cheeky houseboy that time. He said, “Madam don eat elephant finish na ant he dey run after now” (laughs). That stupid boy. So I said “Mind your own business. If I want to chase ants, I will chase ants.”
Could you speak about your first book on children, My Father’s Daughter? Is the book autobiographical?
Wow! Some people who didn’t have better fathers said it was fiction. I said, “Well. if you didn’t have the kind of father that I had then there is no point in trying to belittle my own father. My father was a great man. And it was proved when, 50 years after his death, they exhumed his body and took it back to our home town and promoted him Archdeacon. They said the work he did was more than being an ordinary priest. I have the newspaper. The Guardian covered it. I am still going to deal with that because we are going to write a new version of the biography of my father. We just said My Father’s daughter. I wrote My Father’s Daughter. I didn’t say who he was. So I am going to do that this year and let people know that he was a Reverend. He is now Venerable Isaiah Aig Imokhuede.
Then why did you have to write My Mother’s Daughter?
No. That was many years after. People were harassing me and they said I was biased. They said I must write My Mother’s Daughter. My mother was great, too. Unfortunately, in those days there was discrimination against women. Each time she went to school, they drove her out. They had inspectors in those days who went into schools. If they saw any girl there they drove her out. They said, “What is a girl doing here?” That girls were not supposed to be there, that they were supposed to be in the kitchen. So my mother couldn’t go to school. She even went as far as Benin . You know we come from Ora, which is about 64 miles from Benin-City in those days. Then she even traveled away to her home town, went as far as Igbo land to see if she could get a school that would take her. And unfortunately, she didn’t get a place. But she had to live with one Sierra Leonean woman who was mistreating her. So in the end she came back. So that is what I wrote. I wrote about me mostly there: how she came to rescue me from my uncle’s house in Akure; when my uncle said I should not go to secondary school, that I should be a pupil nurse. And I knew how those pupil nurses ended. I didn’t know the process by which they did it. But they got pregnant. Usually, I said, “Me? I don’t want that kind of life for myself.” So my mother devised a way of getting me out of the place by arranging an entrance exam which only I took in Akure. They just sent for me from the CMS Girls’ School. They said, “Mrs Smart wants you.” Those oyibos were powerful in those days. Nobody asked what for. So my uncle’s eldest wife sent me to the school. I got there. They gave me a ruler, pencil and ink. And they said I should take an entrance exam impromptu, just like that. So I took it. Then later they then sent to me that I had been admitted into CMS Girls’ School. So my chief wife (that’s what I called her) said, “That’s why they sent her to Girl chool.” She said I was not going anywhere. I said, “This one na wa o”. I said, “Me become a pupil nurse and then get pregnant?” Because I used to see them hiding between the trees whenever I passed by the hospital; and there was no electric lights then. So I said not me. In the end my mother devised another means. She then sent a telegram, which said: “Send Mabel. We’ll pay the fees.” It’s not that my uncle was being wicked. It was a cultural thing that a woman should not be responsible for the fees. It should be my uncle’s responsibility to pay. But my uncle didn’t have the money to pay my fees. So his own answer was, “No School.” Then later it was followed by a letter , signed by E. Imokhuede. My mother’s initial was E. She was Eunice. My uncle, the oldest in the family, was Emmanuel. They thought it was big uncle in Lagos who offered to pay my school fees, which was okay culturally. So they agreed that I should go. It was later when they discovered that it was my mother that they started making a fuss. By then I was in CMS Girls’ School by that time.
How would you describe life? Do you think it is worth it?
It’s full of surprises, that’s all. It’s worth it. I think so (laughs). The struggle is good. I had to struggle all my life. And I think that was what made me what I am today. I struggled for things. And I don’t like anybody ride over me. Never.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
I don’t think I go into that kind of thing. What I would say is that I inherited my father’s genes. We share the same genes.
Were you to come back to this life again, would you come back as a Nigerian?
I would come back as a changed Nigerian. I won’t let them get as bad as they have gone now. Every time we take one step, we get worse and worse and worse.
You were with Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo at the University College Ibadan. Could you describe the days you spent with Okigbo?
I was supposed to write the foreword to Okigbo’s book, which was going to be published in his honour. But I think in the end they didn’t get enough sponsorship. Okigbo was one kind of funny character. I was able to handle him because I remember the day he annoyed me so much. He borrowed my bicycle. He said he would return it. And the next thing I didn’t see my bicycle. Although these days, I look back and ask myself, “Why did he keep the bicycle for so long?” I begin to feel it was to entice me to come over. I didn’t think so at the time. I was just angry. He said I would return the bicycle this evening and the next thing, one day, two days and three days I didn’t see the bicycle at all. So I said, perhaps it was a means of getting me to come over and look for the bicycle.
Did you go over?
Of course, I didn’t go over.
But did he later apologize?
He prostrated himself because one moment he was there. And then I looked one way. When I looked again, Okigbo had disappeared. He brought the bicycle. And then I discovered that he was kneeling down.
What would you want to be remembered for?
Well, I am not going to be original in this. I want to be remembered as one who loves his fellow men. That is why I tried to do things to benefit Nigerians Unfortunately, there are too many people doing the opposite. What can I do? I would like this county to be the number one country in Africa. It could be. But we have got such thoroughly selfish people who get the money and don’t even know what to do with it. And because they steal the money they don’t dare bring it out to do better things. Somebody brought down a house somehow. And in no time, had built a three-storey building. Does this area look like a place for three-storey buildings?
You seem to be angry with Nigeria. Why are you angry with Nigeria?
Because we had the potential to be a great country and every time we take steps backwards, backwards, backwards. It’s very painful. It’s very, very painful. That’s what I find about this country. We are a very selfish people, very selfish people. We never think of other people. What does a man want to do with 10 or 20 houses? What does he want to do with them? Greed. They don’t even know what to do with the money, when they have stolen it. And the ones that do it are the most religious people. They are the thieves.