By Morenike Taire
MRS Ebun Clark has modelled her life after four remarkable female academics, accomplished individuals who, for the sake of modesty and their privacy, have mostly avoided the public eye. Amongst these are Professor Bolanle Awe of the Ibadan University, Professor Mrs Olurin and Professor Oyin Elebute of the Lagoon hospitals.
Herself an accomplished teacher, researcher, author and leader of thought, Professor Clark shares not only their sense of clear direction, but also their consistency and love for learning and mentoring.
She was also a pioneer in theatre studies, being the first Nigerian lecturer at the University of Ibadan in what was to become the Theatre Arts department, which then birthed at least forty others across the country.
A homemaker and avid art collector as well as a businesswoman, Mrs. Clark still makes the juggling act look like child’s play – literally.
Married for almost five decades to the legendary poet, JP Clarke, she talks at length in this chat with Morenike Taire, about her values, her work, her love and life at 70.
IF there was an adjective to describe your life, what would it be?
God-blessed. It’s been tough. People think that because I happen to belong to one of Nigeria’s powerful business families I was born with a silver spoon. My father was the foundation of modern Nigerian business with Dantata in the North, the patriarch, who gave rise to Dangote because his mother was a Dantata.
Ojukwu in the East. It was my father who introduced him to the transportation business. You find out that the originators of business are very tough. They don’t let go of their money easily. People would think I’m privileged. It’s only their children’s children- not even the second generation. Nobody who makes the money lets it go easily. That’s why they are rich.
Would you say there is a difference between the original rich and the rich who got their money by unusual means?
For the average businessman who went through the normal process of doing business it’s not easy. Probably it was easier for my father in the colonial period when there was not as much stress. He stared his business in 1921 so the business that we have is 90 years old this year and it has never stopped.
It was my father that started business first. His brother joined him later, then they went their separate ways and they built their empires individually. Technically he started at the age of ten but formally he started at twenty one.
How do you start business at ten?
Alhaji Gusau started at the age of 10. You have these geniuses. My father was apprenticed to his uncle selling cattle at the age of 10. Soon after he bought one sheep and started to inbreed and by the age of 15 he had his own herd, like the Laban story.
Really, what was life like living in such, I insist, privileged circumstances?
We were never lonely for sure. There are pros and cons. That is one advantage of proper polygamy, not modern polygamy where women are scattered all over the place with their children. I am talking about living within a compound situation.
Are you saying “proper” polygamy is better than what obtains now?
If you are practicing polygamy it is much better because you have a family unit. I know my brothers and sisters from the first to the last.
Even those who have gone abroad for a long time I will recognize them because we grew up together. Whereas if you have your gates scattered even within a city – “Mama so and so is here or there”, how will all these people meet each other? You can actually pass your brothers and sisters without knowing. Maybe you will look and say “this person looks like me.”
And maybe not… They have family identity. Even if you have infighting which you can have with monogamy and we know the difference. You also learn to be streetwise very quickly. I wouldn’t choose it for myself.
Are there things you prioritize now that you did not?
I would love to prioritize proper retirement which I am not able to in this very hostile economic climate since the structural adjustment program of the 80s till today . It’s been very difficult for any pensioner to retire
What is your definition of proper retirement?
(Laughs heartily) Sleeping until 10!
You would soon get tired of that
People keep saying that. I think if you ask the average person who has worked hard for a long time you look for that period of rest. That is why I think the academia is so wonderful. Every seven years you have sabbatical and if you do not get your sabbatical, that is your fault.I missed two or three. I had two and was in the university for 28 years.
That was my fault. One was because I got a secondment job. One was changed to study leave. One hasn’t had that chance to rest. There are people working up to 80. I am talking about professionals, not business people. My father worked two weeks before he died and he died at 105. He still travelled to Lagos, Ibadan to look at his empire.
He still had his faculties?
Intact. I forget, he never forgot. He was a workaholic, but I am talking about a technocrat’s life. I represent thousands in this country who must continue to do something in order to survive.
Some of them still have children. I had a child in my old age at 37. My first child was 14 years older. I had friends who at forty something had finished with university. I was just starting with one. As a woman you’ve got to work so that you can support your husband.
At the time you married, how did people view inter-ethnic marriages?
I went through hell. I was not educated in Nigeria. I went to England in 1951. Kofo Bucknor went in the 40s.
Did some people try to stop you?
My father never gave us permission to marry so we eloped
That is so romantic
I was not the only child of his that eloped. I just eloped to Dahomey. We had a friend who was a charge d’affairs and we had been going for weekends so without knowing we had done the required residency. He had told us he could marry anybody. We arrived one Saturday and I was determined to wear my white gown.
There were only six of us. He had to rush out to get two witnesses. Midway his wife realized there was a cake so she rushed out to get chocolate sponge cake. The news came out much later that we were married… hell let loose. He became very good friends with my husband.
Did you have another ceremony?
Forty five years later. You cannot be a member of Mothers’ Union unless you were married in church. We did on our 45th anniversary. He took me to church – he is not a Christian anyway
So you were even of different faiths
I was born into a Muslim family but my mother was a vicar’s daughter. My grandmother converted to Christianity and for me that arrangement was beautiful. Come Moslem holidays I got new clothes. Come Christmas we had new clothes. We had an ideal situation. I loved it. Left to me I would leave it like that. We made it easy for people to intermarry now. I was cut off. I went out of line and doors then shut, as it were.
How did you two meet?
We met as lecturers in Ibadan. He was a research fellow, Institute of African Studies and I was assistant lecturer in the School of Drama where I pioneered in West Africa.
What does the theatre mean to you?
I teach it more than I do it but it’s my first love. When I started having children it couldn’t quite come together because you are leaving your kids alone with nannies and I was not too comfortable. Within seven years of marriage we started having light problems and generators were not there.
We had hurricane lamps and I was afraid someone would get careless so you’d find me more in the house than out. I had to let go of that love because of children. Call me paranoid if you like. If you were to pass here even now you will see me still working at night. The men are lucky. They go to the club, come back, lock themselves up and do their research.
Some people say you were part of the feminist movement
In our kind of gathering where we smoked and drank in those days – we were young radicals, forget it. We were terrible, about five or six of us. Different disciplines within the university. We said no, we don’t want to burn our bras…
You wanted to keep them on
We would say we would love not to work but we had to work because in Africa a woman is part of the estate of the man. If you sit at home your in-laws will say iyawo is spending our son’s money so to have peace of mind. On the other side they were sitting at home and wanted to work. I was not in gender literature.
That we left to the Molara Ogundipes of this world. I do believe in women’s rights but I also believe women should realise their role as well. You are a mother. I did my shopping myself and was well known in Sabo until I became Head of Department. Unilag was a women friendly university. Female heads of departments are a lot now. I tell them we have blown off all the bombs along the way.
Some 70 year olds these days do not look like septuagenarians. How did you do it?
It’s God’s grace. I have worked very hard. A scientist once told me Africans do not wrinkle early because of melanin.
We should bottle it
When you see an African age really quickly it’s because of hardship
What are your five-year/10-year plans?
Do I even have a day? There are so many things coming at me. I write down everyday what should be done. Tomorrow has its own worries.
Xpressions: Playing politics with rape
WHEN the gory pictures of the rape of the young student of an Abia State university took over the cyberspace, internet social networking had finally become useful in our society in the investigation and combating of crime.
It is unfortunate the way the governor of the state Theodore Orji handled the whole matter, getting his spokesman to discredit the whole thing and putting the poor victim into further disrepute. In addition, he detracts from two very important issues arising: The fact that laws guiding the punishment of rape are too loose and the misdirection of the call to the governor to “do something”. He is the Commander in Chief of the State, but is he really?