“I warned Nigerians, I warned the government 20 years ago that if certain things were not done, that Nigeria will run into crisis”
Dr Newton Jibunoh is indeed a man of many parts. He is an engineer, environmentalist, writer, arts lover and of course, he loves looking good. Meeting him at his museum recently, you saw a calm octogenarian neatly dressed in a sharp white shirt on black trousers. He spoke with Effects about his lifestyle, writing zeal, growing up and why he founded DiDi Museum.
With your busy schedule, you still write. Tell us about your journey into writing and how you cope.
I have been writing for a very long time. I just finished publishing my fourth book Hunger for Power. I have had a lot of interests in writing. I dabbled into poetry, I cannot claim to be an expert, but I try. People like Chimamanda Adiche had reviewed some of my works. In fact, she wrote the foreword for my last book . But having a column in The Sun Newspapers on a weekly basis, started from a very accidental meeting between former governor, His Excellency, Orji Uzor Kalu and myself. He came to my house with my state former governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, to congratulate me on my 80th birthday. Congratulations and discussions now deviated, like it is done in any Nigerian gathering, into our crisis at that time, which was the herdsmen crisis. I told them that I warned Nigerians, I warned the government 20 years ago that if certain things were not done, that Nigeria will run into crisis between those that are in the practice of animal husbandry and the farmers in various communities. If only they had listened to me then, we will not be in this kind of situation we are in today over herdsmen crisis. I think the former governor of Abia was very fascinated by the background information that I was giving about the root of the matter and its origin. He then requested if I could write about this and I said why not. So, my first article in The Sun was on the origin of herdsmen crises. I think because of the public interest that came following that article and the fact that people did not know that I wrote about this 20 years ago, people were calling me, even retired generals were calling and asking questions about where I have been all this time. This kind of empowered me the more and I started writing. It is a bit tasking for a man of my age to write every week for the newspaper but the responses that I have been getting and the criticism is amazing. Every time I opened my mail, I get not less than 20-25 comments from people. I must have written close to 30-35 articles since then and I have not got one very negative criticism. All of them have been positive. With that positive reaction from the public from all parts of the country, even though one is being stressed to some extent but I find it difficult to stop writing the column.
Back to your question, it is difficult because of my numerous activities, it’s difficult because of my age, it’s difficult because of finding time to sit down and write, but I can tell you, it’s one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me.
You said you’ll be 81 soon, but you still look strong and good. What’s the secret?
I don’t know. Maybe because of the activities I dabble into. I like healthy living. When I talk about healthy living, I don’t mean what you eat or drink. I’m talking about the things that give peace to your mind and body. I’m the owner of a museum. Arts is life. Arts is wonderful. I love arts so much and I love the environment. I think the combination of both, the arts and the environment contributes to the kind of peace that I have. I think peace is part of what enables you to age gracefully. I don’t mean external peace. Your peace must start from inside. What you are inside, no other person can see it except you. Those are the things mainly responsible for the way I look.
Do you have special food as an octogenarian?
I eat what everybody eats. But my favourite food is pounded yam. I’m looking forward to the new yam festival very soon.
You are also fashionable. What is your kind of style?
I’m flattered. Most of the time, I design what I wear. At times, when I take clothes to my tailors, I tell them what I want and they make them for me. When I was a student, I like to make my own clothes. Then, it was cheaper than buying. Out of poverty, I would buy the material and tell the tailor what I wanted. My dressing was unique in a way even though it was a poor man’s way of dressing. But at the same time, it was unique because you hardly see other people wear what I wore. Lots of people say I’m fashionable, to be quite honest with you, a lot of people have said that to me before. I think I design what I wear out of necessity.
How do you relax?
I do find time to write. I love writing. I also love reading because I have always felt that for you to be able to write you must read and also for you to also have people read your book, you too must read other people’s books. Those two things come first. I love music and of course family. I love to travel, I love to go to strange lands and strange places; even if it means going to a place that has never been stepped upon before by anybody. I’m an explorer. As you know, I happened to be the first Nigerian to drive from London to Nigeria across the Sahara deserts. Those are the things that occupy me. Many people would ask me, if there are ever a dull moment in my life? I always say No, because I’m always doing something, inventing something and exploring something. That is the way I find my relaxation.
Could you talk about your growing up?
I had Lagos life and village life. I was Lagos boy in the 60s and 70s before I went abroad to study at age 22. I was away for five to six years to study, then came back immediately after graduation and then started work in the civil service. I was in the Federal Ministry of Works before I went into the private sector. I worked for a subsidiary Costain West Africa. I started from the beginning to become the managing director/chief executive of the company before I retired.
Being a Lagos boy, how was life in Lagos way back?
Lagos was beautiful and wonderful. Apart from studying building engineering, because that was what I earn my living from, one had other flair, which one did not know about then. Like my flair for the arts, my flair for the environment, all came out in Lagos. From the people I mingled with, from the friends that I made, Lagos was a bubbling city and it was Lagos that kind of molded me. If I begin to name my friends––some are late and I have been with them for the past 50-60 years––it would amaze you. Sometimes I will be in a gathering and you hear people calling me Lagos Boy and I take delight in being called Lagos Boy because Lagos molded me, from a village boy to a Lagos boy.
How did DIDI Museum come about?
Like I said, Lagos molded me. Lagos brought out the arts that was in me that I didn’t know about. Not until my association and friendship with people like late Ambassador Segun Olusola, 56 years ago, people like Akin Euba and Francesca Emmanuel that I was close to. Apart from finding out my flair from friendship, I also went abroad to study. I visited the British Museum just to get myself educated only to find out that Nigerian arts in the British museum was the most attractive part in the museum and it fascinated me. It was there that I read the history of the Ife bronze, the Benin mask, Igboukwu artifacts and then, I remembered that back home we didn’t even know much about our arts. That was when it dawned on me that we in Nigeria don’t even know how great and how wonderful our art is. That is one side of the story. The flip side of the story is the fact that I lost my only sister. We were both orphans. We didn’t know our parents. Our parents died early and we were very close. When she died, I didn’t have the photograph of her and I had always wanted to do something in her memory because she was my first love. When I came back to Nigeria, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to where she was buried and did something there. But then nobody remembered because in my place when you die very young like that, they bury you the same day and don’t even mark the grave. A combination of two things––what I told you about the British museum and the fact that I want to keep my sister’s memory alive. Her name was Didi. Didi too was another story. When I was young, I stammered and I couldn’t pronounce her name Edith. In the process of trying to pronounce Edith, because I stammered, I ended up calling her Didi. Before I knew it, Didi became her name. When she went to school to register, she registered with Didi. That was how I registered Didi Museum.
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How do you cope with artists?
Didi Museum is 35 years old. We have come across almost all the masters in Arts. Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Oshinowo, Ben Osawe and all the top masters in this country have all exhibited here. Dealing with artists is not easy but we have mastered the arts of dealing with artists.