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At 90, matriarch of Nigerian literature, Mabel Segun’s pen remains strong

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Life In My City (Lagos), Olumide Oresegun, winner 2007

The extreme weather this Tuesday, February 18, 2020, afternoon lie heavily across Lagos like a blanket, with countless hours of buzzing heat and torpidity. I approach the gate of a fairly old-looking building in Surulere. Holed up in the building, waiting in the shadows, is Mabel Segun. She has a halo of silver hair and that distinctive aura of agedness.

The living room is modestly furnished. The most striking feature, however, is the displayed certificates and plaques on each side of the room.

She is lying down on the couch, like a baby in the crib, resting. Dressed in a simple robe, the hair on her head is fluffy like wool. It is as white as snow. Her eyes are not so dim, but are buried in the socket. The eyes reveal a gradual movement from one path to another, which elicit anxiety from everybody.

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It is her 90th birthday.

It is a decent evening with a woman leavened with humanity.

“I was scared, I thought I was going to die,” Mabel Segun says.

“Dead?” I ask.

“Yes,” she answers quite firmly.

“But you’ll need to wait for your interview,” her daughter, Omowunmi, says, “mama is not too strong. She had diarrhoea some days earlier and is only recuperating.”

I sit back, looking at a granny who has aged gracefully, whose literature is an abiding memory.

Occasionally, she raises her head to welcome visitors.

Just as she stretches to welcome a new guest, Pa Oduyoye teases her, “I’m going to set up a table tennis board for you to play.”

I am slouched on a chair, with nothing left but to wait for the old woman to be ready to talk on such a glorious day.

“I was born on Tuesday,” she tells her guests.

At 4:00pm, she remembers, she has not had her lunch.

“I’m hungry, tell Omowunmi to get me my food,” she says.

Everybody giggles at the sentence. I hear her turn to a visitor and explain quietly, in an admiring voice, “I don’t mind eating Indomie.”

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She sits properly for her meal to be brought and nudges an older visitor to sit by her side. She takes a quantity of the rice with a cup filled with cool, sweet water.

At graduation from the University College, Ibadan, aged 23

Just at sundown, when the day’s work is ended, quite a number of literary enthusiasts and family members stream into the home. Rich emotion and great humour follow. Then she begins to speak.

The essence of waiting reminds me of Graham Greene’s famous writing that there is a moment when a door opens and lets the future in. So, this is a story about one person who opens the door and another walks in through it.

The conversation that was interrupted earlier is resumed without a beat.

What advise do you have for the younger ones who are below 89?
She says, leaning her back on her chair, “when I didn’t get the country’s national honour early, people started complaining; my son, Femi, especially. He said, ‘you mean all these works you’ve done, nobody considered them worthy to give you a national honour’, but like it is said, slow and steady wins the race. And when I got the honour, it was higher than what many who eventually got before me had. Sometimes, it is good to wait.”

She has not lost any strength for conversation. 
Her voice still reverberates with a constant buzz of chatter. “I advise every young person to cultivate the habit of reading, early. If you don’t read early, you will find it tedious. But if you start early, you will really enjoy reading. I cannot do without reading. I think I have been lucky to have good teachers very early. I went to C.M.S. Girl’s School founded in 1869 — the oldest school for girls in Nigeria — teachers there knew what they were doing.”

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She is all smiles and sharing jokes and thoughtful discussions. Her voice is like the sound of rushing waters. Her face glistens in all its brilliance. “I think there is no one of us who can boast of having telescopic eyes. But when you read, books become your telescopic eyes. You will see the whole world through the books you have been reading. And you become wiser. If you don’t read any book at all, you will rarely develop,” she says.

Born in 1930 in Ondo town, Mabel Segun comes from a literary family: the Aig-Imoukhuede family of Sabongidda Ora in Edo State. Her father, Reverend Isaiah Aigbovbioise Imoukhuede, who adopted the surname Aig-Imoukhuede, wrote the first Ora primer, a short history of Ora and was translating the Yoruba Hymn book into Ora when he died at the age of 39.

He had also composed the first verse of the well-known Yoruba song, lwe Kiko, which was inspired by his farming background. Although she was only eight when her father died, because they were close, he had exercised a great influence over her. Her industry, her creativity and her humanity all stem from this source. Mabel’s two brothers are also creative writers while her sister was a household name in the 1960s as a children’s television producer.

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Her father was an instinctive humanitarian. In the book, My Father’s Daughter, she pays tribute to him. The grand mother of Nigerian literature says, “when I wrote My Father’s Daughter, some people said it was too good to be true; but it couldn’t be too good to be true, because if you set your mind in good things, you will do good things. I think they are just jealous; it’s human nature. I found such inside me and it will always be inside me. That is why I will not steal because he was a clergyman and he believed in what he preached. Fifty years after his death, he was promoted. I don’t know how many people who were promoted after they were dead. My father was promoted from an ordinary reverend to archdeacon. All should emulate my father, but now, people are very selfish. This is what is killing us in Nigeria. We are very selfish.”

From 1938 to 1941 Mabel Segun received her primary education in St Peter’s School, Edunabon, Akoko Jubilee Central School, Ikare, St Paul’s School, Ikole and St David’s School, Akure. From 1942 to 1947 she attended the oldest girls’ school in Nigeria – C.M.S. Girls’ School, Lagos, founded in 1869. She left with a Grade 1 Cambridge School Certificate with exemption from London Matriculation. At the school, she made her mark as the first pupil-librarian when the teacher-librarian, exasperated by the constant demand of this avid reader for more and more books, handed over the keys to the library.

She showed early promise both as a writer and as a sportswoman at the newly founded University College, Ibadan where she was admitted in 1949 into the second set of students. She graduated in 1953 with a second class London Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, Latin and History. She was deputy editor and advertisement manager of the University Herald with Chinua Achebe, her classmate as editor, and contributed poems, short stories and articles to that pioneer students’ magazine. A short story, The Surrender, which she wrote in the year of her graduation, won the maiden edition of the Nigerian Festival of the Arts Literature Prize the following year, 1954.

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“I still pay tribute to my English teacher, Mrs. Ore Cole, who taught me how to become a writer. It makes you wiser and more intelligent. When you read a lot you eventually want to become a writer,” Mabel Dorothy Segun, a versatile woman whose outstanding achievements in the fields of literature, broadcasting and sports have won her local and international recognition, says.

The first Nigerian woman to play table tennis, she became an honourary male by entering for Men’s Singles tournaments and was awarded the University’s Table Tennis Half Colour.

One moment she doesn’t like remembering is when she left Children Literature Association of Nigerian (CLAN).

“The association died because the burden was too much on me that time. Other people came into it for selfish reasons. I haven’t told anyone this, but I think it is time for me to say it. People came there for selfish reasons. They have never written anything before, and so, they decided not to be productive. One of the staff came to me one day and said she was going to the hairdresser and she needed money. I asked her for what? Money for hairdresser? I’ve never heard this. Yet, there was somebody else, who said I should not pay him for his work as a resource person,” she says. Her memories are sharp.

She continues, “there were many who couldn’t even write very well. Next time, when I want to set up a thing like this, I will make sure you have written one or two books before becoming a member of the association. So, anyway, I became so ill due to over work.”

One of the members was very nice to her. The nonagenarian recalls, “she sent one of her daughters to stay with me. I didn’t have any housemaid to help me cook and do other things. So, I said, at this rate, I would die because she was bound to go back home sooner or later and what would I do. At that point, I tendered my resignation and rest of the money I left in the bank. Till today, I don’t know what happened to the money. I just walked away straight because the people were not reasonable. I just resigned and left them I came to Lagos. That was what happened. It is very frustrating when you are like that and others are thieves. That’s what happens in Nigeria, where a lot of people are just out for what they can get. I don’t know how we are going to change that attitude of selfishness. Extreme selfishness. That’s very terrible.”

While earning her living in the various establishments, Mabel Segun found time to engage in many other activities that have made her a household name in the country. She has written, co-authored and edited eleven children’s books including the classic autobiography My Father’s Daughter and its sequel, My Mother’s Daughter, both of which have formed the subject of University theses and literary articles in Nigeria and overseas.

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She has published four books for adults including a poetry collection, Conflict and Other Poems, a collection of short stories published by Longman in UK titled The Surrender and Other Stories, and a selection of her radio talks under the title Friends, Nigerians, Countrymen, later retitled Sorry No Vacancy.

Mabel Segun’s stories and poems have been published in over 30 anthologies in Nigeria and abroad. They have been translated into German, Danish, Norwegian, Greek and Serbo Croat. Two of her children’s books have been translated into Swahili and Arabic.

In 1983, her name was inscribed upon the Roll of Honour of Men and Women of Distinction published by Cambridge International Biographical Centre. She was also listed in the “Outstanding People of the Twentieth Century” including 2000 outstanding writers of the 20th Century published by Cambridge International Biographical Centre in 2001.

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Does she still write? “If I don’t write, I won’t be alive, I still write. But it is painful when what you wanted to do has been interrupted so many times. It’s this humor and satire in Nigerian literature. I’ve written part of it. There is something I have been trying to write, but unfortunately this woman, she is in need of Wole Soyinka’s speech in the university. She is still expecting to hear from me and I’m going to shock her. What she asked me do I’m not going to do it and I am going to renounce everything. She is trying to use me to get legitimacy for this so-called feminism. She said she wants to do something on feminism. I don’t believe in feminism because women who are into it are fakes. They are doing it to get on. They are doing it for selfish reasons.”

She adds, “I have been to a thousand and one conferences and I told the women in feminism long ago, when I was 42, I was doing what they men were doing. I was swimming, canoeing, playing table tennis, shooting birds at Obalende, which was a bush then. Nobody lived there. There was this bushy place we went to. There were two boys who borrowed their father’s gun and used to go shooting birds and so on. I did all the things that men did and they called me a tomboy. I said, ‘thank you. I am not a tomboy. I’m an honourary gentleman’.”

Within minutes, everybody responds to her comment in exactly the same way.

At her 90th birthday on Tuesday, February 18, 2020

“That was what I was because only men did those things and it pleases me now to see women refereeing men’s football, women doing poll vault, women doing all sorts of things. In those days, they said women couldn’t go up. These feminists, they don’t dare anything, I challenge them. When I was younger, they couldn’t have done the things I did. I went canoeing and I nearly drowned. They didn’t do these things. They sit down and write and they say they are feminists. I’m not a feminist.”

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According to the doyenne of children literature, “there is a lady who has written her PhD around my poetry and things like that. One sent me to write some other things and then she slipped these little bits about feminism and she thought I wouldn’t notice. At the beginning, she didn’t start with that, she just started slipping it in and she thought I wouldn’t notice. What did she think I was, a fool?”

Did you tell her to delete the bit about feminism?
“I deliberately set a trap for her. I said, ‘when I was away in UNESCO, my place was flooded and I lost many things. It is true. I wasn’t telling lies but I didn’t desperately want copies of the things I lost back. I definitely lost a lot of things because when she was trying to persuade me to send her materials so that she could publish my poetry because she was writing about my poetry and she used it for her PhD. I thought she wanted something authentic. She actually told me she wanted other people too but she couldn’t find other people. In my days, I was the only one rarely writing regularly. So, I then asked her, because she had said at the beginning that she wanted to persuade me to agree to write about my poetry and so on. So, she then said a lot of materials came in about poetry in the 1950s to 60s and she knew about me but she wanted to know more,” Mabel Segun reveals.

The versatile writer adds, “she actually said a lot of materials that came were from the archives and some of the things that really worried me, which I wrote, they were mature for my age at the time. Then she said, ‘ which one am I really looking for?’ Then she mentioned a particular book. She said many books and poems came in. Now, I’m asking her to help me just scan and send, she didn’t want to send. Then she said, ‘is this the book? I can send that one. She said she will send the material to the Commonwealth review or whatever they call it. I’m not somebody at the beginning of her career, looking for opening so that I could develop. I cannot start developing now. I’m already developed. So she cannot dangle Commonwealth review before me, I don’t need that. That’s for young people who now want to be invited to conferences because now they have gained some recognition. So that is it. They even use black people. They use Nigerians. I’ve seen it happen before. They use them to advance themselves.”

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