Oba Gbenga Sonuga… Like A Gem Of Purest Ray
BEFORE a person decides to write his life-story for the public to read, he must have been well-assured that his experience is of great significance not just to himself, but to the society at large.
This is the touchstone with which great biographies evaluated, and “Deep as the Ocean’, an autobiographical account of the life so far lived by His Royal Highness, Oba Gbenga Gbadebo Sonuga, the Fadesewa of Simawa, Ogbodo I, falls squarely within this exemplary literary status.
The author has been a trail-blazing culture administrator. He has been a distinguished culture activist and theatre practitioner with vast international exposure.
By virtue of his current position, he is naturally a royal patron of the arts. As such Oba Gbenga Sonuga fits appropriately into the rank of those whose history are read ‘in the nation’s eyes, using the words of the English poet, Thomas gray.
The narrative of ‘Deep as the Ocean’ is delivered in three cycles. The First Cycle consists of the first three chapters, that is ‘Ancestry and Family Values’, ‘Schooldays and Lifelong Friends’ and ‘Learning and Teaching’.
The Second Cycle, ‘Large than the market’, which runs through Chapters Four, Five and Six are devoted in that serial order to the ‘New Culture Philosophy’, ‘The Director of Arts and Culture Years’ and the ‘International Centre for the Arts Lagos and MODESPROS initiatives, where MODESPRO is an abbreviation for Model Estates and Projects Development Company.
The Third Cycle which is, so far the climax of it all, consist of Chapters Seven, Eight, Nine and the Epilogue. In that same order, it focuses on the Oba’s Ascendancy to Royalty, the rites of enthronement as the Fadesewa of Sinawa, Ogbodo I’ and the ‘comity of Monarchs. It concludes with a homily on the monarch’s 70th Birthday which is being celebrated today. Instructively, it is this Third Cycle that bears the title of the book ‘Deep as the Ocean.
In his preface to the book, His Royal Highness, Oba (Dr.) Adeniyi Sonariwo, Erinjugbo II, the Akarigbo and Paramount Ruler of Remo Kingdom states as follows: “There is no doubt that Oba Olugbenga Gbadebo Sonuga was born great and has achieved greatness,” adding that the memoirs is a compendium of experience from a man born into royalty, yet very humble in spite of his educational and distinguished experience in Art and Culture career.
The words of the elder, no doubt, cast a light on the path of wisdom. Oba Sonuga’s ancestry is replete with noble pedigree. From the time of his great-grandfather, Chief Taiwo Sonuga (a.k.a Adegoruwa) and great-grandmother, Erinle Sonuga in the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th Century, nobility had been etched deep in the lineage. In fact, the great-grandmother, Erinle, was the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Simawa where by marital union, her husband and herself laid the foundation of the Ogbodo Dynasty. The title Ogbodo is actually the name of Erinle’s grandfather, one of the founding fathers of Simawa who fought with others in the Dahomean/Egba wars of the mid-19th century.
The family had shown vital traits of cosmopolitanism even as far back as the days of their great-grandparents. They had been exposed to the modern media. Aspects of the Sonuga family history were documented photographically as far back as the early 20th century. Pictures of the great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles and aunties are available to the younger generation, and the author has made copious use of these in the publication.
Enlightenment is key to development. The Sonuga clan evidently set itself on the path of enlightenment long before the author was born, three generation to be precise. Woven into their enlightened spirit is love, as showed by the author’s grandfather, Oresanya and his brother, Sonaiya. They are described as lifelong friends and business-partners working their extensive heritage of farmland to good profit. They educated all their 28 children ”
‘from seven IDIGI (wives) both male and female, when it was not even the fashion to send all male children to school, as though the children were from the same couple’.
Sonaiya and Oresanya demonstrated enterprise as an abiding virtue. They cherished education which, without gender discrimination, reflects the Sonuga clan’s level of sociality and civility in those days when some communities were still enmeshed in a primordial state of being.
The grandparents served as a bridge between the traditional and the modern. When it came to the generation of the author’s parents, the family had blended perfectly with modernity. Oba Gbenga Sonuga’s father, Gbadebo, was Senior Station Manager at the Nigerian Railway Corporation until his retirement in 1962. His mother, Olutayo, was a schoolteacher.
There is so much to say about Pa Gbadebo Sonuga and his son, Olugbenga as distinguished public servants. This trait abounds in other members of the family who, in their respective stages of eldership, are engaged by the community in higher levels of responsibility. Grandpa Oresanya was appointed the Baba Ijo (Grand Patron) of Methodist Cathedral, Agbowa, Sagamu. Pa Gbadebo became a Customary Court Judge after his retirement from the Railway Corporation. His son, the author himself, is now a Royal Father, after his meritorious service as the Director of Arts and Culture, Lagos State.
As a child in the elementary school, the author described himself as ‘a mobile pupil’. He attended primary schools in Ibadan, Abeokuta and Ebute-Metta, a reflection of his father’s postings from one station to another. And, amid these peregrinations, young Olugbenga’s childhood fantasies, dreams and escapades unfolded. His love for the ‘Wild, Wild West’ movies were glowingly enunciated. Most significant, of course, was his life-changing encounter with the Hubert Ogunde Theatre in 1953, an experience that impacted so indelibly on his impressionable mind that it laid the foundation for his future career as a theatre artiste.
Thereafter, the reader is led into the author’s adolescent years, especially as a student of the famous Igbobi College, Yaba. The Principal during his ICY years was a man who later became one of Nigeria ‘s most outstanding academics, Emeritus Professor Adeboye Babalola, the First Nigerian to bag a Ph.D in Yoruba.
The author recalls the academic rigour he had to go through with his classmates, the strict order in all Igbobi College traditions and with fond memories his co-curricular activities as well as the lifelong friendship he cultivates.
A list of his classmates paraded those who later became the movers and shakers of Nigerian life as a new nation. Olugbenga Sonuga’s turf is in the area of arts and culture. Bode Akinyemi an accountant, was the Chief Executive of EMI Records. Mudashiru Lawal was a Military Governor of Lagos State and Alex Ibru was a multi-millionaire businessman from the famous Ibru Family and Founding Publisher of The Guardian Group of Newspapers. There are certainly a host of other groundbreaking professionals in that class who one cannot list here for lack of space.
Shortly after his secondary education, the author began to associate himself with major artistes of the day; Segun Olusola, Yomi Onabolu, Femi Johnson, Kunle Olasope and those in his age-group like Jimi Solake and Tunji Oyelena.
But his stride was a bit altered as he decided to proceed to Ransome Kuti College of Education for his tertiary education. His choice of a Teachers’ College, among other reasons, was to relieve his father of the burden of the payment of school-fees, in view of the old man’s several financial commitments, especially to the training of his younger siblings. That was an example of his large-looming altruistic disposition. However, after graduating from the College of Education, and a teaching stint at his alma mater, Igbobi College, he gained admission to the University of Ibadan as a combined honors student of French and Drama. At that stage, he also won the University Scholarship. He recalls vividly the pampering he always enjoyed from his aunt, Sister Fehinti and her friend Sister Ayo Ogundipe and Mrs. Laide Soyinka. This was how he became connected as a young family-friend with the Wole Soyinka family. A section of Chapter Three is actually devoted to his association and fascination with the legendary writer and dramatist, Wole Soyinka, fondly referred to as ‘Kongi, who, two decades later, became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
He also chronicles with relish the stimulating theatre tutelage he enjoyed from other great teachers in the University of Ibadan Department of Theatre Arts. They include Dapo Adelugba, Dexter Lindersay, Joel Adedeji, Paul Worika and expatriates Axworthy, Erolflynn and Peggy Harper.
“This was my world”, he writes with full breath of satisfaction, “and I revelled in it.”
Oba Gbenga Sonuga, as a young man, buoyed with an unbridled spirit of adventure. His story in Deep as the Ocean is cushioned intermittently with his relationships with female admirers which sometimes bordered on amorousity – platonic most often. It also contains regular swings in the campus social circles, especially as a member of the Grand Order of the Nucleus. In that kind of situation, there was only a foggy boundary between work and play. Academic pursuit was as serious to him as it was fun. This perhaps explains why he says, ‘I revelled in it’. But it wasn’t one alloy of work and play all the way.
In October 1969, the author departed the shores of Nigeria for an academic year in Paris as part of the requirement for his undergraduate studies in French. There in Paris, while the French aspect was on at the Alliance Francaise, his other love which was the theatre nagged jealously. He struck up an acquaintance with two American students, Bob Ayres and his girlfriend, Debbie Moldow.
And that was the beginning of another great, but uniquely naughty adventure. With Bob, Debbie and others described as a motley group of artistes’, the author embarked on a trip from Paris to the United States of America to perform in an off-Broadway theatre. They headed down south and had a nasty experience with Red Indians on whose Reservation they set up a theatre-residential camp, mistaking it for a public park.
They were thoroughly beaten by the rednecks, to the extent that the author thought he ‘heard his ribs cracking’. What a pity! How was the Red Indian to know that the man whose ribs he almost cracked was Oba Lo’la (a crown Prince) who was going to be the King of a modern African community forty years later?
The anecdote ended like a melodrama and, afterwards, back home to Nigeria, the Prince of Simawa ran his course through and graduated from the university in 1971.
Thereafter, the author’s second cycle began with another stint as a teacher at Igbobi College and, subsequently, a devotee of the New Culture Philosophy, working at the New Culture Studio, Ibadan, under the great master, Demas Nwoko, whom he described as a renaissance man. Along with his colleague, the indefatigable lady of the theatre, Miss Esohe Omoregie, they explored the new principles of Applied African Aesthetics. The study and practice at the New Culture Studio devolved around Theatre Design as a generic title which, according to the author, Demas Nwoko had expanded to include the Architecture of Theatre, Designs of Costumes and Make-up.
here are a lot more to the New Culture Philosophy as we later got to know. It was revolutionary; so much that Demas Nwoko had, in the 1970s, prepared an architectural model of his own homegrown idea of a National Theatre. He has an opportunity of practicalising on this model when he was commissioned to construct the Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre in Benin City. History has now vindicated the Master Artist. While the National Theatre, Lagos – a Bulgarian import – remains now as a wasted behemoth ready to be discarded by the government of the day through concession or outright sale, the Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre in Benin continues to breathe life as an organic component of the ancient city’s cultural life.
The impact of the New Culture Philosophy on Oba Gbenga Gbadebo Sonuga as a cultural icon in his own right cannot be over-emphasized. He worked at the studio for ten years, during which he was in the top echelon of the Directorial Corps of Demas Nwoko’s production of ‘Children of Paradise’ for the 2nd Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77). He also edited eleven issues of the NEW CULTURE MAGAZINE during his stewardship at the studio.
Most significantly, it was during this period that he wedded his first wife, Tolu (Nee Ighodalo), also of a noble pedigree. She is a daughter of Chief Jeremiah Ighodalo, a Senior Accountant at the University of Ibadan and the famous educationist and first female permanent secretary in any government service in Nigeria, Mrs. Fola Ighodalo. It is both interesting and symbolic that Oba Gbenga Sonuga first met Tolu when her research work brought her to the New Culture Studio, the Studio was, therefore, not just a haven for professional fulfillment to the man who would be King, but a love-nest of sort for the father-and-mother-to-be. Between them after their wedding in 1976, they have three children Oluwafijinmi nicknamed FESTACUS, for he was born in the year of FESTAC (1977), Oluwaferanmi, also known as PEANUT or CHAMPION GIRL (1979) and FiolaOluwajaiye (1986).
After a decade of creative sojourn at the New Culture Studio, Obalola Gbenga Sonuga moved to Lagos. He assumed the exalted but challenging position of the Lagos State Director of Arts and Culture in 1984 and embarked on the designing of an agenda for the State’s Council for Arts and Culture. Needless to say, he was already a well-known, celebrated figure in the country’s arts circle. Thus, he was able to open doors and relate with the prime movers of the cultural sector.
His rewarding interrogation of existing policies and interaction with senior colleagues and doyens of culture administration like Dr. Garba Ashiwaju and Elder Frank Aig-Imoukhuede proved a point for his astuteness.
Coincidentally, his tenure fell, for the most part, within the United Nation’s World Decade for Culture and Development (1988 – 1997), during which he made seminal contributions to the formulation of the Cultural Policy for Nigeria (promulgated in 1988) and its implementation which, unfortunately, has been gathering dust due to bureaucratic shenanigans and ineptitude for about twenty-seven years.
Nonetheless, his never-say-die spirit defied the odds. As a pragmatist, he continued to fashion new ideas, powered by unflinching practicality. His council was very active in the resuscitation of the National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) from 1988. For the first time ever, Lagos State won the overall best performance Gold Gong in NAFEST, Abuja in 1992.
It was during the tenure of Obalola Gbenga Sonuga that the Lagos State Theatre Troupe performed before a Nigerian Head-of-State, General Muhammadu Buhari in a Command Performance ordered by the Military Governor, Group Captain Gbolahan Mudasiru in 1984.
A year before the National Troupe of Nigeria was established, visionary Gbenga Sonuga had led the Lagos State Troupe on an international tour of the United States of America with the play ‘Ori’, written and directed by the maverick dramatist, Funmi Odusolu. His elder daughter, Feranmi, was on the cast of the play at the tender age of seven. More will be said about ‘Ori’ (The Head) and the cosmology of the Yoruba as this presentation progresses.
The Second Cycle of the narrative ends with the resignation of the author from the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture in 1993. Not known to be a jobber, his dynamic spirit led him to take on fresh challenges. He set up the International Centre for the Arts, Lagos (ICAL), a non-governmental organization.
Against the background of his monumental experience in the Soyinka School, the Demas Nwoko’s New Culture Institution, his tenure in the public service, vast international exposure and association with the iconic Ambassador (Chief) Segun Olusola, ICAL provided Obalola Gbenga Sonuga with a platform for actualizing his principles in cultural development, a platform, to be apt, for cultural activism in a practical sense.
So many projects were lined up to be implemented. One of them was the Model Estate Project (MODESPRO), an alternative building concept aimed at ‘providing shelter for the modern family’ based on the models already canvassed during his New Culture Studio years.
As a business concern, MODESPRO was culturally integrated. Even so, for the Simawa Prince, the pull of the arts was more dominant. ICAL began to ride on the crest of creative exploration. The centre was engaged in artistic productions from Lagos to America, to Europe, Ethiopia, Mozambique and South Africa either through its own institutional agenda or in collaboration with Ambassador Segun Olusola’s African Refugee Foundation (AREF). Play productions like SALT (1999) and initiatives like Project COMPACT (Corp of Mediators and Promoters of the Culture of Peace Training) came to light in this phase. They featured top artistes like Segun Sofowote, Tunji Oyelana, Yeside Dosunmu, Rasaki Bakare and Peju Sodeinde, distinguished Costumier and Make-up artist who would later emerge magnificently as the Olori of the Oba Fadesewa of Simawa.
Indeed, it was at this point in history, when PROJECT COMPACT was executed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Cape Town in South Africa in 2003 with funding support from the African Union (A.U.) and the Japanese Government that the drum of Kingship began to sound to the ears of a self-effacing Prince Olugbenga Gbadebo Sonuga.
And so began, in 2003, the Third Cycle of this life-story titled Deep as the Ocean.
Statements of deep thinkers often climax as timeless truths. Riding on the memories of seasons, they sometimes manifest as prophesies as they impact in their exactitude on the human consciousness.
When in 1984 Obalola Gbenga Sonuga, as the Director of Arts and Culture, Lagos State, produced the epic play ‘Ori’, hardly did we realize as arts journalists in those days that that very subject of a theatre expression would become a major reference point in the destiny of the producer. In Yoruba ‘Ori’ means ‘head’. ‘Ori’re’, as is now exegesised by the author, means ‘The Good Head’ or to put it literally, ‘The Good Fortune’.
There is in ‘Ori’ an order of predestination. It is a choice made from Eledumare, the Almighty God. The life of Oba Sonuga is anchored on this order of predestined good fortune, borne with nobility and valour, but also with humility and enterprise from his ancestors through to his person.
The insistence of great-grandfather, Chief Taiwo Sonuga Adegoruwa that his wife, Erinle should claim her inheritance of vast farmland of cocoa and kolanut at Simawa prepared the way for the good fortune that is being celebrated with royal splendour today. And that good fortune, when it was time for the community to nominate a candidate for the throne, beamed like the noonday sun.
The family met. The patriarch provided an ‘Omo-Oye. There were further discussions among principals of the Ogbodo-Sonuga family. There had to be a consensus. Without much dispute, except for a slight hesitancy on the part of chosen one at the very tail end of the deliberations, the lot fell on Prince Olugbenga Gbadebo Sonuga. On May 24, 2004, he was installed the 11th Bale of Simawa.
Three years later, after the consent by the Ewusi of Makun HRH Oba E. O. Ogunsowo was conveyed in writing to His Majesty, Alaiyeluwa Oba Adeniyi Sonariwo, Erinjugbo II, the Akarigbo of Remoland, the ascendancy of the 11th Bale and Oba-elect of Simawa to full royalty was affect. The Akarigbo gave his approval and granted Oba-elect Gbenga Sonuga ‘the coronet’ in January 2007.
‘Deep as the Ocean, is profound and exciting. It is written in free-flowing prose. It boasts of a crossover appeal to any literate person irrespective of his or her calling.
What makes the book especially interesting is the copious, yet complementary use of photographs. In fact, the author, in his creative turn of mind refers to this work not as an autobiography, but an auto-photobiography. Notwithstanding, readers will savour these photographs which sometimes convey messages and feelings with the kind of immediacy that letters do not. For instance, long before Oba Sonuga, as a Prince, began to interact with monarchs, his own father Pa Gbadebo had been photographed with paramount rulers like the Emir of Zazzau, Ooni of Ife, Awujale of Ijebuland among others as if they were presaging that good fortune we spoke about.
Also, it was particularly uplifting to learn through one of the photographs that the sage and one of the foremost African Statesmen and political philosophers,
the inimitable Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a personal friend of the author’s father. The young Awo, in a two-piece-suit is seated to the right of Pa Gbadebo among members of the latter’s family.
It is true that Oba Gbenga Sonuga is a highly respected documentation expert. But, it would seem also that he learnt it from his father and other forebears.
My conclusion in this exercise is evoked from global paradigms. Back to Thomas Gray. He wrote:
‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear…’
Between Gray lines and Deep as the Ocean is an attestation to the depth of the sea. In a metaphoric sense, the sea here probably represents the mysteries of being or the hidden treasures of life in its inexhaustibility. Whereas Gray’s is elegiac, Sonuga’s is triumphal and celebrative of a life which the confessedly ‘dark unfathomed ocean’ cannot subdue.
‘Everybody has a story,’ writes President Clinton in his own autobiography My Life. In telling his story, he mused that he would rather do it in such a way that others would have better stories to tell.
‘Deep as the Ocean’, story of a gem of purest ray has also done that. With all the great work the monarch who turns 70 today has put into cultural development, tradition and education within Nigeria and beyond, there is no doubt that the teeming population of beneficiaries of his initiatives will continue to cherish him.
These indeed, are the ones who have better stories to tell because an individual, now a Royal Father, Oba Gbenga Sonuga, the Fadesewa of Simawa, Ogbodo I, has been a positive change-agent in their lives.
.Ben Tomoloju is pioneer Arts Editor, and former Deputy Editor of the Guardian.
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