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Village matter at 50

Recently, the talking drums were rolled out to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of “Village Headmaster”.

Many of the millennials who make up a large percentage of the population of Nigeria would be forgiven if they do not recognise the brand “Village Headmaster”. But Nigerians of a certain age would remember Village Headmaster as the pioneer and flagship television drama series on television. It mirrored the lived experience of a rural population somewhere in the South-West of the country. It was family entertainment for a Nigerian television audience whose experience of drama up till then were British and American staples like “Bonanza” and “Hawaii 5-0”. To see colourful local characters they could identify with – people like Kabiyesi Oloja of Oja (the inimitable Dejumo Lewis) with his rustic drawl, verbose, occasionally cantankerous Chief Eleyinni (Funsho Adeolu), Amebo – the village gossip (Ibidun Alison) on their screens every week living out a communal life they fully understood was a new and delightful experience for them.

Once a week the families lucky enough to own television sets, and their invited neighbours, would sit down and watch the residents of a fictional Oja village play out the drama of their lives.

It was not just drama to entertain. It was a platform to educate and to inform.

The mind behind the creation of Village Headmaster was Mr Segun Olusola. He has since passed on to the world beyond, but his creation has continued to survive him in the minds of many of his countrymen.

In your mind, the golden jubilee of Village Headmaster was a chance to see how the past could inspire the present and guide the future.

The celebration began with a well-attended evening of Drama at Terra Kulture. Most of the surviving members of the cast of Village Headmaster got up on stage in a play titled ‘No Vacancy’. It was mostly the old story all over, with a slight modern twist. Amebo was about to be declared Iya loja General. That, among other matters of earth-shaking importance generated hot discussion in the palace of the Oloja, who was conspicuous by his absence due to an unnamed illness.

As the drama wound to a close, it was revealed the Oloja was recovering from his illness. Life was returning to normal.

But that normalcy was an anachronism. Surely life had since moved on in Oja, as in the rest of Nigeria, as in the rest of the world.

If there was going to be a “New Village Headmaster”, and there was much talk of it, it would have to be about an Oja where many of the characters had retired from active life, and their children were carrying on their conflicts, or inventing their own.

But the real heart of the celebration was a seminar the next day, where the grandees of the Entertainment and Information industry were to gather the topic “Drama as a tool for National Development”. One panel, led by veteran broadcaster Danladi Bako, would focus on “Economic Development”. The second, led by you, would focus on “National Unity”.

The proceedings took off with the arrival of the Director General of Nigeria Television Authority. He had one of his predecessors in tow, as well as Ambassador Christopher Kolade- one of the founding fathers of Nigerian broadcasting.

Summing up was tough, you reflected, as you took the microphone. The NTA had to get real and accept it could not “control” Drama and the industry it had spawned. More people were watching “private” Drama – films, television, Netflix, than were watching NTA Drama

After the nice speeches, you got down to brass tacks. There was a sense among the younger generation of actors and producers that government and “the old breed”, represented by the NTA establishment, were dismissive of the talents and achievements of the young ones, and not willing to acknowledge them, not to speak of mentoring or promoting them. Kemi Lala Akindoju (actress, producer/director – famous for ‘Dazzling Mirage’, ‘Fifty’, ‘The CEO’) lit the fuse, declaring that the new generation were breaking new grounds at home and abroad, despite their much-advertised limitations, and should be commended. Instead, older people seemed to thumb their noses at them.

To illustrate, she said, there were very few young people in the audience. It was the establishment talking to itself. She mentioned how the facilities of the NTA behemoth were lying waste all over the country, and yet they would not allow private producers to use them. She mentioned Funke Akindele, the creator of the “Jenifa” character and its spinoffs, and how she had created a huge industry single-handedly, even building her own studio. Such efforts should be celebrated and embraced, instead of being scoffed at for her character’s rotten English.  In any case, these were the Drama the Nigerian people preferred to watch, instead of expensive, government sponsored NTA productions. Nobody could force them to do otherwise.

The heat and passion spilled over into your session. Taiwo Ajayi Lycett felt it was the duty of Drama, whether government or private, to have a positive social message. Professor Duro Oni agreed that, although Drama was for entertainment, it was also to educate and to enlighten. Keppy Ekpeyong Bassey – Nollywood notable, remarked that Nollywood was a reality nobody could ignore, but it had a duty not just to reflect reality but to transform it positively.

Summing up was tough, you reflected, as you took the microphone. The NTA had to get real and accept it could not “control” Drama and the Industry it had spawned. More people were watching “private” Drama – films, television, Netflix, than were watching NTA Drama. People had a choice. It was the duty of government to facilitate and promote, rather than compete, disparage or stifle. The resources of NTA, which, afterall, belonged to everyone, should assist Nollywood to improve itself, and to grow and flourish.

Bimbo Oloyede – doyen of Newscasters, had led the team that put the celebration together. Her late husband, Tunde, was your friend, and had produced some of the television plays you wrote to earn pocket money in Medical School. He had also produced Village Headmaster for several years. Now she stepped forward to the microphone to give a vote of thanks.

 

FEMI OLUGBILE

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