A great friend of this author died on December 23, 2023, and was buried last week. Everybody knew him as the Oloja of a fictional Oja village, Oba Ajelende, whose Yoruba drawl epitomised the lives of the majority rural population of Nigeria, in a characterisation that was at once risible and seriously authentic.
Dejumo could not walk on the streets anywhere in Nigeria without being recognised, and in characteristic manner, exchanging genial greetings with perfect strangers. He stood out among a panoply of unforgettable characters that popularised the television series ‘Village Headmaster’ from the moment it was conceived by Segun Olusola, and put out by the Nigerian Television Authority, in one of its all-too-few indisputable creative achievements.
But your own long, sometimes fraught friendship with Dejumo had nothing to do with ‘Village Headmaster.’
Dejumo could not walk on the streets anywhere in Nigeria without being recognised, and in characteristic manner, exchanging genial greetings with perfect strangers.
Your first meeting with Dejumo was at the NTA compound in Victoria Island. You were a medical student visiting from Ibadan. You had seen his name, like Tunde Oloyede’s, in the credits of some episodes of ‘For Better For Worse’, a weekly television drama series. You had been writing plays for Lekan Ladele to produce on WNTV in Ibadan, for kicks, and for pocket money. Dissatisfied with the limited audience in Ibadan, you decided to venture farther afield, into Lagos.
It was not a particularly auspicious meeting. He took you up to his office, a shabby den in a rickety container perched precariously atop another container, at the back of the compound. It was reached via a flight of dangerous-looking stairs.
Somehow you struck up a working relationship. He was a man with a large appetite for life. He was also a serious-minded producer, and his eyes lit up when you told him what you had done.
December was approaching, and he was thinking of producing a Christmas Special, he disclosed.
In another week you were back up those dangerous stairs, handing him the script for ‘THE HERMIT’. Dejumo went on to produce and direct the drama.
On Christmas day, you sat at home in Lagos, studying the reactions of everyone as they savoured your creation, and were gripped by the drama. Lari Williams killed the role, playing opposite a beautiful, vulnerable Kemi Aderemi. Veteran actor Solomon Ayaghere was a towering figure of rage as father of the love-struck girl.
From then you could do no wrong with Dejumo, who you called by his name and not ‘Uncle’ or ‘Egbon’, though he was much older, for reasons you could not yourself fathom.
A major landmark event was looming, which Dejumo thought would make or mar his career. This was the First National Television Drama Competition between all NTA stations. He was to produce the offering from Lagos.
‘Give me something hot’ he said, clenching his fist.
You hunkered down back in Alexander Brown Hall, and wrote him ‘DOWN AT THE DEEP END’.
You were occupied with your final Medicine exams by then, but you heard later of how Dejumo drove his stellar cast with maniacal energy as he recorded the film, which sought to capture the passions and peccadilloes of life in a Lagos ghetto, warts and all. John Chukwu. Elsie Olusola. Lari Williams.
You were in Zaria, starting House-manship, when the competition aired. Your heart was in your mouth, not just for yourself, but for Dejumo. You had also contributed the entry that was used by NTA Ibadan, titled ‘POLITICS OF ENVY’, featuring the irrepressible Sam Loco Efe.
In the event, all the excitement turned out to be about ‘Cockcrow at Dawn’- a heart-warming, much-hyped story from NTA Sokoto. About Dejumo’s work or the entry from Ibadan, there was nary a whimper.
Dejumo would tell you later that some of his bosses called him aside and whispered to him in confidence that he was caught up in ‘NTA politics’, and he was to take it on the chin and move on.
He would, indeed, depart NTA several years later, in circumstances that made him feel even more hard done by.
After NTA, he made a living of sorts acting in plays and films.
What he really wanted for himself was twofold- to write a book he had been incubating for several years, and to produce and direct his own films.
He engineered some difficult-to-understand changes in his personal life, which was a no-go area for any friendly advice or intervention.
He became very energised over an unshakeable belief that Africa had to reclaim its cultural integrity, values and spirituality by discarding what he described now as ‘alien political and religious indoctrination’. The book he was writing grew to several volumes, and he laboured at it tediously, writing in longhand, since he could not type. After he finished a volume and spent a fortune getting it typed, he wanted you to edit it. He believed it would dramatically turn the black world around once published.
‘I know you think I’m too vocal because you’re an establishment man’ he chided gently, whenever you ventured a reality check, or tried to get him to keep something back for himself.
Redeeming Africa and reviving its culture and dignity was the overweening passion of his last days, despite a dawning realisation that his book might not shake the world, afterall.
He still dreamed about producing his own films, which would be the ultimate testimony to his art.
On the day he finally laid hands on a copy of your book ‘PELEWURA’, he called you excitedly.
‘I feel invigorated.’
He assumed he would direct the film. It was the last reading on his table, and he had got halfway through it before he became too ill to continue.
A unique, generous, man, unshakeable in his convictions – whether adjudged by others to be right or wrong. In the end, he saw his life’s mission as a determined propagation of what was best for his race. He was ready to give up everything to achieve it.
May his soul rest in peace.