Veteran broadcaster, scriptwriter, producer, novelist, poet and public speaker, Biola Olatunde clocked 70 on October 3, 2020. The distinguished alumnus of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife has written more than 200 stories for radio and television, as well as poetry anthologies and two novels – Blood Contract and Numen Yeye (Book 1) with its sequel, Rose of Numen, in 30 of those long years.
Olatunde has engaged drama and fiction in drawing public attention to social issues, including writing for USAID on maternal health, democracy and governance, women’s issues and HIV/AIDS. She shot into the limelight as an artiste about two decades ago, with an intervention drama series she created for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) towards behavioural change on teenage reproductive health.
The drama project tagged: ‘I Need To Know’ was so successful it won the sponsorship of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which had it adapted for radio in two major Nigerian languages and shown on national, state and private television stations, as well as on satellite TV.
In this interview to commemorate her birthday, the president of Toastmasters International, Akure, Ondo State chapter, speaks about her life at 70. Enjoy it.
Can you describe yourself and your life at 70?
It has been a life of grace, guidance and phases that have defied human calculations. I will always wish to be a woman, I loved my dad fully and consciously and I have kept up a conversation more than 50 years after he departed the physical. I have no regrets about this incarnation. I just hope that I did my best. When we are permitted to come across the Truth, we learn that nothing is really accidental. In the laws of Eternity, every action is accounted for. I learned in the early years to know myself as a human being and wondered about the rationale for my incarnation. I was never bitter but just curious most of the time.
How would you compare the standard of broadcasting today with that of your days, particularly with respect to quality of newscasting and hosting of programmes?
It seems to me that speaking well, and courteously, has been ignored. I see this as the age of abbreviations. I feel kind of sad about this. Today’s young people do not really care about being thorough. Programmes rarely have finesse attached to it. It is a reflection of the age. We may have placed the signposts wrongly. There is a shortcut to dubious popularity these days in the broadcasting world. It looks like just anyone is allowed on air. The language is wrong. Hardly do you find prepared, studied scripts. When I came on air in 1976 for the first time in Radio Lagos, I had been given a six-week training to learn.
What are your prescriptions for remedy?
I think the issue that has become a disease in my country is ‘who do you know?’ I have seen some radio stations where the officers are just errand boys. After acquiring powerful boyfriends within the polity, the announcers see themselves as instant stars. The remedy is simple – give the officers some level of authority to teach, and encourage. A head of programmes must be able to discipline an erring presenter. In my own time, it was regarded as promotion if you were allowed to read the news. But today, you tune in and some girl is murdering the news with an affected accent that nobody knows or understands. Train the voices is the only remedy I can suggest. Then, allow the trained voices to come on air.
You once wrote a radio drama series that got sponsored by Canada International Development Agency (CIDA). Tell us about it.
Yes, the drama series, I Need To Know was meant for teenagers and parents. Before then, I had been running a comic magazine called Ella. I loved drama, but I only loved drama when it had a message. As I grew up, I was always confused that parents rarely talked about sexual issues. The impression was we would become loose girls. One of my mum’s favourite injunctions was not to know a man, as I would get pregnant. That was very confusing, as I would tell her as patiently as I could that my father was a man, so were my brothers. Some of the confusion was the language; things like knowing your time had nothing to do with a timepiece. It’s the emerging young woman and her body. I wanted to use my comic magazine then, but on a visit to UNFPA in Lagos, the intention changed into writing a drama series. I remember the shock on the face of Lloyd Weaver, my producer when I wrote the first episodes of the series in his office. Writing was instinctive and joyful for me. All I needed to do was remember my teenage years.
Luckily, I had teenage children about the time I started writing the series. UNFPA was a fantastic experience. They sent me on courses to enhance my writing skills. They also asked Gallup poll to review the effects of the series. This came to the attention of Canada International Development Agency and they wanted a larger audience for the series. We adapted the series to radio and translated it into pidgin and Hausa. I had a lot of fun; the reception of the series became truthfully the peak of my writing fame.
How paying would you say art has been for artists in Nigeria?
With all due respect, writing is a low paying enterprise. I am yet to meet any of my old heroes who became self-sufficient in Nigeria. When I tell young friends, I try to make them see how they might earn decently as a writer. My first play in Radio Lagos brought me the princely sum of N40. I was in shock. First, I did not even anticipate I was to be paid; it was my first earning. When I started producing drama series for my (radio) station in Akure on a weekly basis, sometimes I got paid sometimes I didn’t. The officers saw payment for a scriptwriter as bonus. Then, I went into television and got paid something like N5, 000.
Years after I stopped being part of I Need To Know. My niece was bewildered when she read the script of I Need To Know; she asked if the characters were real. When I told her that it was creativity, she felt sorry for me. She said, ‘so auntie, you have been lying to make money’. I was shocked. I sat her down and explained about what I intended to achieve. It took a while. I felt better when she married and asked if she could have copies of I Need To Know to play for her daughter. The average Nigerian rarely reads for pleasure except to pass examinations. When importation of books was banned in the ‘70s, it made the situation worse. I think it is wrong to say ‘art for art sake’. A man is worthy of his wages. The writer is creative and helps humanity to enhance the right thoughts and build the right power centers for our growth. The gift of being able to transmit your thoughts and observations into plays or dramas or poetry carries embedded responsibility for the shaping of a communal goal.
But some have expressed fears that travelling that road will compromise commitment and quality. What’s your take?
I can’t stop writing. I carry within me a sense of responsibility, to give us options. The writer creatively passes on information and contributes in shaping his society. We take responsibility seriously. I love helping to shape thoughts. It is a form of social propaganda.
Can you recall the most memorable experience of your life?
It’s when I took the personal oath to serve the Lord of all worlds and belong to Him alone. It never matters if it’s about groups, religions or associations. I follow the Lord and learn His laws. Jesus made it simple. He said ‘Love the Father Almighty and your neighbour as yourself’.
At 70, you still enjoy deep and valued romantic relationship with your husband. What’s the secret?
Isn’t it lonely, with the children having all left home? I made a joke earlier; I fell in love with a pair of trousers. I have been in love with him for more than 31 years now. The children learnt to see us as a pair. We have been described as Siamese twins.
I am grateful because each day is new for us. We miss the children but rarely feel lonely because we always saw us as one. I have learned a lot from my husband, my twin and my pair of trousers. I can never understand why a handsome, younger man would fall in love with me a writer who could go into bouts of writing and he would make himself comfortable and wait for me. He is my friend. We have been friends from the day he walked into my living room some 32 years ago. Thank you, Tony.
Beyond 70, you will be given many more years to live I’m sure. How will you spend them?
I will just go on writing, publishing and teaching anyone interested about writing. I am very grateful for the gifts I was blessed with. I hope now that I am permitted a chance to review and be grateful. I thank the Father Almighty as I stand in the departure hall of creation, waiting.