By Sylvester Asoya
‘Zulu Sofola was certainly ahead of her time. At the time she took to writing and staging plays, drama and theatre were
firmly in the hands of men. In fact, that genre was dominated by much older and experienced theatre scholars and practitioners who were not only very visible but also domineering and unwilling to yield space. But she persevered, working tirelessly and resolutely to announce her presence and create her form. Eventually, hard work and resilience paid off. She became Nigeria’s first published female playwright and Africa’s first female professor of Theatre Arts.
At the University of Ilorin where she lived and taught for many years, her former students remember her for her creativity, generosity, accomplishments and commitment to scholarship. She willingly and happily shared anything and everything with her students and other young people without expecting anything in return. May be that was the reason she was affectionately called ‘Mama’. Her students nicknamed her Mama not because she was the only female professor but because of her good nature. But Mama was also firm. She had very little patience with unthinking people, especially her students.
She was a spontaneous and highly gifted playwright and choreographer who wrote plays and other theatrical performances at short notice for the entertainment and enlightenment of visitors and the entire university community.
Like most writers of her generation, Sofola was the daughter of an educationist. Her father, Chief Francis Ogana Okwumabua was first, a school teacher and later a headmaster and eventually a school administrator in the service of Nigeria’s Western Region of old. In fact, Sofola’s father was involved in the robust curriculum development of Western Region educational programme.
At her family compound in Ogbe Utu Village, Issele-Uku, headquarters of Aniocha North Local Government Area in Delta State, Nat Okwumabua, a Canadian-based engineer and Sofola’s younger brother speaks glowingly about a sister he will never forget. “Professor ‘Zulu Sofola, my elder sister, was a great lady. I was very little when she travelled overseas, so we never met until after a very long time. I first knew her through pictures. I must say that she laid a solid foundation for us, the younger ones. She actually took a lot from our parents; our parents were very hardworking and loving. They helped the community, training young people and providing solutions that were within their power”.
For Okwumabua who is on vacation in Nigeria, his love for his departed sister is forever. He admits that he misses her everyday because she was truly a woman of good value who showed a lot of affection in her behavior towards others. He also remembers her engaging storytelling gift and how she managed to make others laugh. “She told a lot of stories. My sister could actually look at a fly or goat and tell great stories about it and you would laugh and laugh. Apart from the fact that she was helpful to those who came her way, she continues to make us, the younger ones, proud. In Canada, I ran into a couple who knew her way back in Nigeria. When they learnt that we were from Issele-Uku, they told us that Professor ‘Zulu Sofola taught them and they said great things about her. Such revelations make us proud and also give us another view of her life”, he states.
This matriarch of Nigerian theatre left behind great works like The Deer Hunter And The Hunter’s Pearl, The Disturbed Peace of Christmas, Wedlock of the Gods, The Operators, King Emene, Old Wines Are Tasty, The Sweet Trap, Song of a Maiden, The Wizard of Law and many unpublished plays, vocal and instrumental works.
As the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA celebrates 40 years of creativity and friendship, lovers of Sofola’s books and unique theatre will surely remember her for her pioneering efforts and for daring.
This article was first published in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.