I’m broke –Dejumo Lewis

Veteran actor, Dejumo Lewis, popularly known as Kabiesi in the classic television series, The Village Headmaster, tells Ademola Olonilua about his career and love life

What was growing up for you like?

I was born and raised in my paternal grandfather's estate in Lagos Island. That was where my father married and raised his children. Later, my mother left him and took me with her to her father's house in Lafiaji, also in Lagos Island.

Why did your mother leave your father's house?

They parted ways after some differences and because I was very close to my mother, she took me with her. There was an irreconcilable difference between them and she thought it wise to leave my father. That is the much I understand about the issues between them.

Regardless of the rift between your parents, did you relate well with your father while growing up?

Yes I did and my father really loved me specially. Of course, there was some detachment when my mother took me away and like a typical woman, she had her way of poisoning my mind against my father; she did that very well. It was not just with me but all the children she had for him. She also got involved in some metaphysical 'remote control' things.

After some time, I started doubting some things my mother said about him and at some point, I went to meet him to ask if he was indeed my biological father and why my mother left him. His reply was, 'never trust a woman.'

Later I found out that my mother actually left him to have two children for another person. The man was my father's best friend. There was so much between them while we were growing up but we did not know and that is why I was shocked when they parted ways.

As your mother's favourite child, were you pampered while growing up?

I was not pampered in the sense of getting spoilt but I was spared from the hard punishment she normally meted out to my older siblings. I never got into any trouble because I was a very submissive child while growing up. I was brought up in a staunch catholic home and with the catholic discipline, you could not afford to go astray especially at that tender age.

My mother flogged me only once all through my life and it was for an offence that my elder brother committed and he got me involved in it. I have very happy and sweet memories of our family while growing up.

I remember that my mother would rather take me to a party instead of a girl child and I was not the last born. I was the fourth born. My mother had 12 children but four died young. She had 10 children for my father and when she left him, she had two for another man.

Why do you think your mother chose you as her favourite child?

She did not give me much detail but at that time, I was the most handsome of my siblings. I was not necessarily the most brilliant because all my siblings were very intelligent but I looked good. If you consider that I was given a typical Yoruba girl's name like Adejumoke, it says a lot. Maybe she was expecting a girl and I came to this world as a boy but she insisted on giving me a girl's name. I don't know, I am just speculating. Dejumo is the short form for Adejumoke.

When I was growing up, I was called Jumoke. After experiencing some taunting from my peers, I had to change my name to Dejumo. My friends always used to taunt me that I must be a prostitute to bear a girl's name. I have had very embarrassing experiences because of the name. There was a time I went to see a cousin of mine in his office and the receptionist asked for my name so he could announce it over a public address system. When I told him my name, he looked at me raising an eyebrow. When he called my name over the public address system, he could not help but laugh because I was a guy with a girl's name. I decided to change my name when I went into broadcasting because I aspired to be a presenter. I felt it would sound weird if I bore Jumoke on the television. I deliberately changed it to Dejumo.

So did you change your name because of the taunting or because you wanted to become a broadcaster?

Because of both. In fact, I also wanted to change the Lewis and adopt my grandfather's name which was Osunyomade. I wanted to sound like a Yoruba Nigerian.

What was your mother's reaction when you decided to join the seminary?

She was very delighted when I announced my intention. As a matter of fact, I was already admitted to St. Gregory's College which is the school all the male children in our family passed through. My mother and I were shopping for things that I would take to the boarding house when I announced that I wanted to become a priest. Immediately I told my mother, she began dancing on the street. From her reaction, it seemed that she was hoping one of her children would become a priest, particularly her favourite child.

When I became a father I made sure I did not have a favourite child because I felt it was wrong. Being the favourite child of my mother earned me some harsh reception from my siblings. The next day, she took me to Ibadan to meet her twin brother who took us to the convent at Ibadan. I was given oral exam and they found me suitable. I got to the seminary two weeks after the time I ought to resume but I still caught up.

What kind of hostility did you face from your siblings?

It is a normal thing for the older ones to leave some food for their younger ones especially as it could serve as an incentive for the younger one who would wash the plate. There was a time our second boy left food for me but he put excess salt in it before giving it to me. I took a spoonful of the rice before I realised it had too much salt and he burst into laughter. There were later developments where he was very hostile towards me. It was very serious and it made me realise that maybe he gave me rice full of salt out of jealousy. I would not go into the details of the hostility that I experienced from my siblings but definitely, the problem is not from the first born. He was a very gentle soul; my friend and confidant.

How did your mother take the news when you opted out of the seminary?

She almost died. The catholic authorities in the town tried to persuade her to get me back to the seminary. I had a very good record and they planned to send me to Rome. When I left the seminary, I was not thinking of doing any work.

In the seminary, I participated in some drama presentations. When I came out of the seminary, the immediate attraction for me was to join a drama group and that was when I got into the Village Headmaster. Before I got into it, my mother was very worried about me because I was not concerned with getting a job. She always tried her best to persuade me to job hunt. When I joined the Village Headmaster, people were very pleased with me and they were always congratulating my mother. Even my contemporaries who were priests had to admit that I just found my calling. When people started respecting her as the mother of Kabiesi, she soon forgot about the seminary.

One day, she told me that she went to the post office to collect some money sent by my elder brother, the queue was very long but she had no choice but to wait in line. Some people who were from her area saw her and they were arguing if she was Kabiesi's mother. The post office clerk heard them and immediately asked my mother to come to the front of the line so she could be attended to immediately. She was so honoured and that was how she got consoled that I left the seminary.

Why did you leave the seminary?

It was purely for ideological reasons because my philosophical studies had turned me into a radical. It made me to question things that I would not ordinarily question and they bordered more on cultural issues. I saw that the church was almost "anti-Nigerian culture." I saw that it was mainly Italian and European culture that was infused into Christianity. It was when I was in the Junior Seminary that the Vatican Council II convened and came out with the decision that the church should adapt to the cultures of the people wherever they were. I noticed that the adaptation was minimal; all they did was to sing Yoruba songs during mass. I started serious research into culture and the deeper I went the more I learnt. I had some other reasons too. I had some butterfly in my belly regarding some things I found in the Bible. I was a consummate student and there was nothing else I wanted to be in life than a catholic priest and till today, catholic priesthood is my first love. I was coming up with some radical ideas and I knew that the church would not accommodate the ideas I had. I thought it was best to leave on my own than to be expelled if they saw me do some funny practices.

At what point in your life did you join the Nigerian Television Authority?

When I started work with it, it was not referred to as NTA. It was the Nigerian Television Service which later became the Nigerian Television Broadcasting Corporation when it came under the same management with Radio Nigeria. It was in 1977 that NTA was created to have one management for all existing television stations in the country then. I think it was during the time of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo as a military head of state. I started my broadcasting romance not too long after I left the seminary. I got to television through drama. I became a full staff in 1969.

I started as a programmer and part of my job was to prepare the daily programme schedule. I was kept in that department for long even though I knew I did not belong there and I wanted to be part of the production crew. I wanted to be transferred but they would not let me because I was so good on the job and I was even better than my boss who was a woman and she was fond of travelling every time. If anything went wrong with the log even when my boss was around, I would be tongue-lashed. However it was a good training ground for me especially when I got into production and I became a manager.

You once claimed that after serving for about 30 years, you were unceremoniously sacked. Why?

I had a stance which was totally professional. I decided to do everything within the professional ethics but there were a lot of unprofessional practices going on and I refused to be part of it. It was then that President Obasanjo brought in Ben Murray Bruce to be Director-General of NTA. This is a man that had never worked within any broadcasting outfit but he had some foreign children programmes syndicated on NTA. I am not sure if he had something against me but it was during his period that I was laid off work.

Did you know him before he became the DG of NTA?

Yes I did and he used to call me "Egbon." I was close to his family and his father was my friend. I met him for the first time at his father's 70th birthday and he served me drinks because I am much older. He called me egbon anywhere we met. Even when he assumed office as the DG, that was what he called me.

If you had such a cordial relationship with him, why do you think he would sack you unceremoniously?

Before he became the DG, I was in Ibadan but I was re-assigned to Lagos upon his request. When I came in, I went to meet him that I had been transferred back to Lagos and he said that I was needed in Lagos because I was a production man. I felt happy. I reported at work and asked for permission to go back to Ibadan to hand over to my successor but when I came back, I was given a retirement letter. I really don't know what went wrong. I wrote a letter to the government to be reinstated; I wrote to the presidency and minister of information.

A few months after, I met Ben at a party and I told him that I had not heard anything about my reinstatement, all he told me was that he would send for my file on Monday. That was the last time I met Ben one on one.

You became the lead character of Village Headmaster at 25, can you re-live the experience?

It was a wonderful experience and that was the peak of my dramatic career. I got attention from everybody, especially the women and I was able to cope. Those days, things were so professional and natural. We were one big family and our relationship was cordial. We had our differences but we never took it to heart. It was mostly about the job and we were never vicious or diabolical like it is everywhere now.

You were an employee of NTA and also an actor, how come you are not rich?

My seminary background would not allow me to go for things that are conceived as improper. These are the things that were bringing in money to the people in the media and television. Not that I did not attempt to get a land from the government for instance but I was refused. I sent a letter to them and I was surprised at the response. It was just in two sentences and they said they did not have any land for me.

Later when I could afford to get a land, I made efforts to have my own house but that again was where sibling hostility and hatred came to the fore because my elder brother who was involved made me pay twice for the land and conspired against me with the land spectators. I had so much trust in my brother but I don't know why he disliked me. I concluded that it had to be jealousy because at a point, he ganged up with my mother against me. I would love to build a model African house where every material would be got from Africa. Since then, I have not had the kind of money that would enable me to do that. I tried to have a home so that I would not need to bother about house rent but when it did not work out, I forgot about it.

So why did you turn down offers from fans who wanted to give you a house?

I considered it a corrupt practice. Like the one they wanted to build for me in Victoria Island, I said that how would I explain to people that I own a house in VI of all places. This was before Lekki was well developed. They said that they would not build it in my name but in the name of somebody that I trusted so that they would not take it away from me. I said that anything that I cannot own up to openly does not belong to me. The seminary training is so strong that anything that is improper is seen as a sin. Some people felt that I was jinxed. l later realised there was a jinx and I battled it out of my life but I will not discuss this further. The jinx was from a network of evil people and I dealt with it. I am still dealing with it. I don't own a house anywhere.

So it is true that you are broke?

I must admit that I have not been rich. I am the poorest paid actor even though people call me a legend or an icon. My pensions were not paid at a time even though it is stipends. You would be shocked how much I receive as pension. I had to struggle to pay my rent and my staff. I must admit that right now, I am indebted to the management of the hotel that I am staying. I also owe two of my staff more than three months salary. They have been so loyal and committed to me. I must tell you that I have been living on charity and that is why I have not been able to publish my book or run my publishing company. It has been very rough and tough but because of my focus on what I am doing which would be of great benefit to Nigeria, I have been coping until things become better. I must admit that I am broke.

How about your wife?

That is an area that I don't want to talk about. I am writing about it in my autobiography because it is one of the experiences that I have garnered in my life time and it has made me strong and tough but I would not like to talk about it on the pages of the newspaper.

Don't you feel lonely?

I never feel lonely. I am not lonely when it comes to women. I live alone and this condition is good for what I am doing. I am able to concentrate on my writing. I am able to focus on what I am doing. Ironically when I get some acting roles, I get distracted. When I am away from my writing for some weeks, when I come back, I have to start all over again. Even without the work, I am never lonely. My seminary days have taught me how to meditate and look inwards to solve problems. Loneliness is not a problem, in fact I welcome it to the extent that I may not re-marry.

Are you saying that no lady would catch your fancy till your time comes?

Who says no lady has caught my fancy? Or I have not caught the fancy of any lady? Marriage is another thing. I said I will not re-marry not because of my experience with my ex-wife but if I am to marry now, I would prefer a younger lady who would want to have children. At 72, to have a child is somehow. I know I would live long enough to see that child marry but I have a mission that requires my total attention and I cannot compromise that.

Are you currently in a relationship?

How will I not be in a relationship? Of course I am in a relationship. I have been into several relationships; there is no doubt about that. I am not a homosexual.

Source: Punch

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About Abayomi Oke

Asiwaju is the CEO of Novent Concept, he is a Professional MC and also a Movie Director "Biographical Info" Novent TV is a subsidary of Novent Concept.

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