By Muyiwa Adetiba
Bunmi Sofola, author of ‘Yours Sincerely,’ one of the longest running columns in Nigerian journalism, turned 70 last Monday—you’d think she would be a great deal more judging from the length of years that column has been running. She celebrated it on the day with the fun and panache that is typical of her persona. Small but classy, it was an occasion that had veteran colleagues, including at least two powerful newspaper publishers and longstanding friends coming to celebrate her.And she was well celebrated. It was informal, it was breezy, and with the band playing old tunes, it was nostalgic of the good days of journalism and old school music. Food, drinks, music and banters mixed in such generous proportions that the day would be etched for a while in the minds of those who came. The ‘amala group,’ a group of old friends that was formed shortly after her 60th birthday and which she played a major role in nurturing and giving character to, played a very visible role on the day as it did in the planning and execution of the event.
To the best of my knowledge, Bunmi Sofola had always celebrated her birthday. This is not a knowledge of yesterday or the day before. I have been an active and joyful participant in those birthday celebrations for at least three and a half decades—half the number of her years on earth. With the exception of landmark birthdays like the one of last Monday, they have always taken the form of an ‘open house’ to which close friends and family members thronged to make a cheerful noise to the Lord and the god of Bacchus. It is a reflection of her focus that her landmark birthdays always had something else to celebrate beyond the obvious. Her 40th was for the opening of a duplex in the mainland. Her 50th was to launch the first volume of her collection of articles. Her 60th was to launch the second volume.
Our paths crossed in the early 70s at the Punch. She was one of two women in a small group of strong and exceptional characters. I was the youngest in the group and probably the most innocent and naïve. Punch in those early days was wild and pulsating. The canteen was an extension of the newsroom and vice versa. Everybody drank. Everybody smoked—or so it seemed to me. It seemed there was always an ash tray and a bottle on every table in the newsroom. There was no opening time or closing time. Nobody asked questions if you didn’t come to work—you were left to wonder if anybody cared. But we all liked to come to work because work was fun and the atmosphere was good. In any case, if you had time on your hands, there were always foreign papers to read; and the canteen which never closed to go to. In all of these,Bunmi held her own; wit for wit, joke for joke, drink for drink and smoke for smoke.
She has a slightly different recollection of how our paths first crossed in those days. She likes to banter and needle me, especially when the atmosphere is made conducive by a glass of her favourite bubbly, and state with relish that she was the one who showed me the ropes. The truth is not quite as dramatic. Apart from being the Editor of Happy Home magazine, Bunmi also had some beats she was covering for Sunday Punch. She was asked to hand over one of those beats to me when I came. To make for a seamless transition, we had to do the first assignment together.
But that is not to say I didn’t learn from her. I did. As I did from the other senior colleagues. But not in a formal way. And it was not all professional. I learnt about personality, character, assertiveness, balance, fairness…qualities of a good journalist. But I also learnt about life. I learnt about relationships— I was ‘best man’ to three of my Punch colleagues who got married in the late 70s. We are still in touch. In fact, two of them are core members of the ‘amala group.’ Our boss has morphed into a friend, mentor and a worthy member of the ‘amala group.’ As for Bunmi, she has become more of a senior sister than a colleague in a 45-year relationship that has criss-crossed personal and professional boundaries. On the personal side, I had met a Sofola even before I had met her. Her immediate junior brother, the late Kola played cricket for St Gregory’s College, about the same time I played for Igbobi College. He was a good cricketer, and we had some good ‘sparing’ moments. Her junior sister, Iyabo, was my wife’s colleague at Peat Marwick now KPMG. Her senior brother, the Professor of medicine, is an Old Boy of Igbobi College whose brilliance as a scholar stayed behind long after he had left. So I fitted rather smugly into her close family circle. On the professional side, I soon found myself writing a youth column for Happy Home, a magazine that clearly bore her expansive imprimatur and that of Uncle Sam, the founder. The table turned years later after she had left Punch and was a contributing columnist. I had become the Editor of Sunday Punch and she was one of my columnists. She was a delight to work with. If she told you her article would be ready by Tuesday, you could take her word to the bank. No other columnist of my time was like that. Even I struggled with deadlines in my first outing as a columnist and must have given my Editors a torrid time.
Our friendship and allegiance to each other would be sorely tested when I was the Publisher of Prime People and she was my favourite columnist. A boardroom disagreement led to my leaving to publish Vintage People. She left with me despite the fact that she was close to some of the Directors of Prime People whotried to pressurise her to stay with a promise of a higher remuneration.Somehow, I knew she wouldn’t stay. I was not disappointed.
Bunmi could be feisty. Her verbal jabs are quick and could hurt. She takes no prisoners when she is involved in a verbal duel. But her outbursts are like a puff of smoke. They clear quickly to be replaced by a sunny smile and a kind gesture. Her organisational skills are understated. Behind that sunny, carefree mien is a deep mind. She is as comfortable in a crowd as she is in her own skin. She would not have been able to write three columns a week if it was otherwise.Writing is a lonely job. Her loyalty to friends and friendship is her forte. They joined hands to reward her last Monday.
PS Happy birthday also to an old friend,Police Commissioner Yomi Onoshile,Bunmi’s twin brother. I know you celebrated it in a unique way in Ibadan.Pity,I couldn’t be in two places.