Tuesday, September 2, 2014 1:02 pm
Ifeoma Fafunwa, an interior architect and dramatist, recently produced Hear Word, a stage play based on issues that affect women across social strata. She explains to NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI and TAIWO OKANLAWON what motivates her creativity, and the place of women in the society.
What is the difference, in the 21st Century, between a Nigerian woman and women in other parts of Africa and indeed the world?
There is no difference really. Women all around the world right now are fighting for equal place in the workplace. They want equality in the home, in government. All cultures have issues around women; there are some cultures that make you wonder whether we are actually in the 21st century. There are some cultures that we don’t want to name in some countries, where if a woman decides to change her religion the people sentence her to death. There is a culture where if a woman is raped, the family is so embarrassed to a point that they must now kill the woman; when she has suffered one thing already, she suffers another. So, there are cultures that are even worse than Nigeria’s. But then, there are cultures that are much more progressive than Nigeria’s. We have to talk to ask ourselves where we are now and where we are going, especially regarding where Nigeria is now. I believe that some of the problems we have in Nigeria arise because we don’t have women at the table making decisions or raising people properly. I think that we don’t raise men the same way we raise women. I think that Nigerian women themselves believe that a man should be free to do whatever he wants and that a woman should come behind him and pick up the pieces.
So, is it not a mother that raised a man who decides that the money that should be used to fund education, hospitals throughout the country, be put in his pocket? A woman raised him to believe that he should not even be afraid to do that. Same thing, a woman raised a man who thinks he can go in the middle of the night and collect 300 of other people’s children; he believes that he has the right to do that. You see what I’m saying? So, you are talking to the women: what are you doing in your house? How are you raising your son? And how are you raising your daughter? Are you raising your son to believe that he has a free reign and your daughter has to go to the kitchen and has to learn how to cook and do this and that, play more and not think too much? And then you groom your son to believe that he can roam anywhere, do anything and nothing happens. Somebody met me the other time and said maybe the reason we are protecting the girl-child is because she is weaker, that if a girl gets pregnant her life is ruined and that the boy can continue to do whatever he wants.
My answer is that was that, you who is asking that question is a perpetrator because by asking that question you don’t think the boy has a responsibility. Back in the days, if a boy in the village made a girl pregnant, the village would make sure that he took care of that child. So, where have we now come to? Are we going backwards? What has happened to our proper village values? What have we adopted that actually doesn’t work? If I have a 16-year-old son and he comes home and tells me that he has made some girl pregnant, do you think he will go free? He won’t go free. I will ask him how he is going to manage it and possibly ask him to start working.
You appear to agree with what some men usually say; that ‘a woman’s problem is another woman?’
Yes. I think that women are the keepers of culture in every society. I really believe that in every society, it is the women who keep up the culture. The question women have to ask themselves is, what part of our culture is not good and what part of our culture is good? And what I see here is that in Nigeria, we tend to throw away things that are good and take the ones that are not good. I see it happen; it has happened over the last 300 years; I mean, since colonisation and independence. We are now in a city and it is a jungle. So we are behind time, we are not progressive in any way.
So, you will find that people are still bringing women to their houses in London or America to circumcise their children. But then, the ones that they should maintain, the spiritual aspects, that have to do with Nigerian culture and language, things that have to do with the beauty of the Yoruba language, its literature that is like Shakespeare’s, those things now, we throw them away. If you go to any institution to find old films, old languages documented, you won’t see them. Such things are just rubbish thrown away. But those ones that are torturing, that are limiting, those are the ones that we embrace. Some of them are not even Nigerian.
So, that is a tangent but it does tie into women issues. Why is it that today, we cannot pass a law stating that a 50-year-old man cannot marry a seven-year-old girl? Where are we? Are we still living in the period of 1825? We look at countries like Afghanistan, Sudan and we think we are better. Nigerians are actually jolly people. Our intelligence is there. But why are we still backward? What is going on? Can’t people stand up and say this thing is not correct, we will not accept it? Nigerians are so tolerant of rubbish. We know the things that are going on but nobody stands up to say anything about them and this is very true about women issues. In fact the women are the ones helping to perpetrate the crime against another woman.
You did the V-Monologues recently?
Is this a sequel to V-Monologues?
Well, Hear Word is not a sequel. It has a different message. Some of the content from V-Monologue is in Hear Word. But V-Monologues is a bit more centred around male content – it’s a lot more on the fundamental problems of battery, man overpowering woman, rape etc.
Hear Word is more about society. It is about legislature, about laws, Nigerian culture, about Nigerian women and then men. You will find that some places what happens if a woman is raped. In Hear Word, the question we ask the audience is: Why is it that the woman doesn’t have anywhere to go? Those are the hard questions we ask in Hear Word. Why is it that if a woman is raped on a campus of a university she cannot go to the campus authorities to report, she cannot go to her parents to report, she has nowhere to go? Is that a civilised society? No, it’s not, because these things existed in 1950s in Nigeria. In 1950s there were places you could go to report. So, now we are in 2014, what has happened between 1950 and 2014 that there is nowhere to go? We are going backwards. Those are questions we ask. It’s about government and the society.
Is your objective then to stoke a debate around these issues? If yes, is that debate already on?
Well, I am very impressed with the response that Hear Word has gotten. I think people are a bit tired. The number of the people that came out to see Hear Word was in thousands. Thousands of men and women, government officials came. So it was very good to see Abimbola Fashola, Remi Tinubu, Donald Duke, pastors of churches come to the show and they had heard about it. For me, I think the time is right. These are people in power, these are people in position to make a change, to make a difference. We had many very influential and powerful guests in the audience and we had many major business women and heads of women organisations.
So we were happy that that happened and the response that I have been getting both on the website and phone calls are very positive – people calling me and asking the hard question, which is: ‘What can I do?’ And that is the first of all the things I have ever done. Where people are asking what can I do? I am ready to help. That was great and also part of it is what is happening in Chibok. I have gotten so many phone calls from people telling me that I must not stop the Hear Word; the play must go round Nigeria and that they are actually ready to put money on the table. When somebody says that I am ready to sacrifice my own personal money for you to carry the show to Port Harcourt, Calabar to Enugu, then it means that the right discussions have started to take place. And I am not talking about corporations,; I am talking about individuals.
Culture is said to be evolving. Is our own culture evolving in wrong direction?
But here is the thing. You cannot help but notice that there is nowhere things are functioning, institutions are functioning. You cannot help but note it that there is no place for people to go. More importantly, you cannot expect that after forty years of proper education and a decay of institutions that you are suddenly going to see culture evolving. You just can’t. There is a reason why people go to school and I am not talking about conventional school per se but there has been forty years of corruption in Nigeria. I am not saying it wasn’t there before, but I am talking about real chopping. So when you are not investing back into the society, in anything in life, if you don’t invest in it, it actually doesn’t even stand still, it decays. If you don’t invest in your body, you won’t remain the same, you will suddenly start seeing potbelly appearing… You have to invest in anything to make it even stand still, talk less of improvement.
What is the difference between your own kind of activism and what we have feminist theoreticians doing in the academia?
Well, I think the only difference really is that we at the Hear Word group are trying to look at how women, how the general society, may have deteriorated. Basically, we are concerned with how there has not been advancement for women over the last 40 years and in fact, there may have been deterioration of the structures that may have supported women right now. Now an academic person might talk about the society as a whole and government and politics. But as women, we have also pointed in Hear World where government and politics are failing women. To that extent, we and the academic are all related. Every member of the society benefits from the hospital put in place, from a programme that is properly thought out. But there are unique things to protect women and children.
The question is, do you have those things in place to protect a child from being sold to a man to do whatever he wants to do with her? Why should a child who is just born into this world be determined by the poverty level of that child’s parent? It is not right. You just basically create somebody who is like a slave. You know the government of that society is supposed protect that child’s interest no matter how poor that person is. So the issues are broad, somebody who is an academic can cover broader space, we are just talking about how it affects women – young and old. What I will say our final message in Hear Word is that we are only hurting ourselves as a society by not enabling women to fully reach their potentials, because they constitute 50 per cent of the population of Nigeria and imagine that energy, and you know what women can do?
So, imagine if you have 50 per cent of multi-tasking, incredible women, empowered to do their best, to bring their best, do you think Nigeria will be the same Nigeria of today? It can never be. But if a woman is worried about, ‘Can I safely walk here? If this happens to me is my husband going to marry another wife? Can I even talk in this meeting? What will they say when I open my mouth to contribute?’ Then you know what, in any corporate organisation, the leader of the organisation, the managing director of the organisation, knows that if he can empower his staff of 20, 100 or 1000 to all do their best, he knows what he will get. So it reflects on necessity of the society.
Can the rural women identify with the actresses who performed Hear Word given that the artistes are accomplished and high class people?
I actually disagreed, even though our cast is made up of 50 per cent known names and 50 per cent young ladies who you have never heard of before and you have never seen before. But that doesn’t matter. I think when you use a Nollywood actress that people in the villages have seen over and over again they actually listen more carefully. It wasn’t necessarily deliberate, but I know that if Joke Silva opens her mouth to speak her monologue in Yoruba to market women as we did in Mushin – because we had a free show in Mushin market and we had show in National Theatre for N200 – they would listen. We had people even answering back; and they had never seen the play before in Mushin market. As we were doing it we translated the whole play to Yoruba and in Hausa, some Pidgin and some Igbo, and the women were answering the thing before the actress could finish saying the lines. This was amazing to me. You see, it’s like these people in Nollywood are in there their living room, they are like their sisters and aunts.
Has there been any time you regretted being a director or producer?
No. Not at all. Well, let me be honest with you, not in the product itself; what is difficult for me is the support. I could have been anything. I could have worked because I actually have a degree in Interior Architecture and I make more money doing that but I have left that and I have decided that this is what I’m supposed to do. What is difficult is when you are begging for money, when you cannot also find the venue to do your show because everything is so expensive, you want to rent this hall they say N1.5m, you want to rent that they say N1.3m and even the hall themselves are not properly built, that’s why I like Agip Hall. Because the way it’s built, that’s a proper show hall. So, even though it only holds 360 people and we had more than that to see the show, I refuse to go anywhere else. Shell Hall can hold a thousand but they are not going to have the same experience and theatre should be done properly. And I’m hoping that some governor or president will say, Let’s build an art centre. Those are the things that depresses me as a producer – where can I put my product?
Are you networking with other people concerned about bringing about change, to have a multi-pronged approach?
We’ll welcome anybody [but] so far, we haven’t started on that. I think that is just the way of the environment and we hope for what you are just describing. We have gotten some interest and we are going to be talking to United Nations people who have some sort of interest. But we as artiste, as all artistes, just got to a point and said this was what we are going to do. And we just did it. Now I will say that I was extremely impressed with our sponsors and I have to call their names.
UBA to me was very surprising to come on board on women issues. I haven’t told you about Eye Open Eye, Eye Open Eye, our production company that will be doing all sorts of social transformation. They may not do any women issues, they may do children, political, but Eye Open Eye is basically a production company that believes that you can use art excellently for social transformation to put out a message.
Back to our sponsors, UBA, Airtel, Africa Magic, Cool F.M. and Nigeria Breweries plc, those are our five main sponsors. We had some other smaller sponsors, like Visco, Onga that does the food seasoning cube. Those two of our smaller supporters were instrumental in our market show. Promasidor made sure we took the show to Mushin market, to the National Theatre, so they literally sponsored those shows in the National Theatre and that’s why the ticket was only N200.
What does it take to be a professional director or producer?
To tell you the truth, it is just passion. I mean, I have studied Theatre Art in the United State but, as I said, I was an Interior Architect. So, for me I think it’s all the same, I was into advertising, I was doing television adverts in the United State. Basically, I was born a creative director, whether it’s dance architecture, plays and so on, so far it’s an artistic thing, I’m good at organising people.
There several women association around town, like the Market Women, FIDA, NAWOJ, etc. Are we going to see women come together apart from this 35 per cent Affirmation that politicians bandy around?
You know, that’s not a bad idea. There is a possibility that when this play has actually gone around, the response we got in Lagos alone from powerful women, if we get that response from other cities like Calabar, Port Harcourt, Abuja and other places, then there is so much that is possible. One at a time we can take one matter. It would be fantastic to have this show also marketed to large women organisations and have a forum afterwards to say, ‘What can we decide to attack one thing at a time?’ You know that change doesn’t happen overnight, but if we were to take one issue I think you will be surprised at what can actually happen.