THE ENTERTAINMENT AND NOLLYWOOD COMMUNITY WAS THROWN INTO SHOCK THIS WEEK WHEN NEWS OF THE DEATH OF ONE OF THE VETERAN ACTORS, ENEBELI ELEBUWA WAS ANNOUNCED IN LAGOS . OJI ONOKO, JOURNALIST AND PRODUCER, WHO WORKED WITH THE LATE ACTOR WRITES ABOUT HIS LIFE AND TIME
We met for the first time at Abe-Igi, the melting pot for artists, performers, journalists and even stragglers, opposite the National Arts Theatre in Lagos. He was sipping his beer, laughing loudly to jokes by some artistes around him. I was to find out that he was always surrounded by people with the Andrew effect still at fever pitch. Later, he invited me to his NTA office in Victoria Island where he worked.
That was how I also met Sadiq Daba. Year was 1989. I was fresh out of university practising my theatre profession, well not so fresh...
After my National Youth Service in Lagos in 1986, getting a paid job was the farthest from my mind. Looking back now, I know that was quite naive. And Enebeli did caution me when Kabiri Yusuf of today’s Daily Trust gave me a break in journalism as staff correspondent with Citizen magazine in 1990, which I quit after one day! I can still hear the actor’s voice as I write this: “You need a job to put food on the table, take it”.
Did I listen to this worldly wise man? No. Young, restless and brimming with idealism, I wanted to practice, not as an actor but theatre manager. Anansa Playhouse headed by Bassey Effiong, now late, provided the initial platform. There was Kulture Point Ltd, KUPOT, in 1987-89, And Karavan Production which I co-founded with Enebeli in 1990 - planned as a non-profit theatre with season programmes. We did pull off the command performance, but as support from corporate bodies never came, I knew I needed a job desperately! I am thankful to Enebeli who encouraged me to go back and plead with Yusuf for same job I earlier dropped six months earlier otherwise I would still have been on the fringe today.
Our paths did not cross much as I moved the ladder in journalism - Citizen magazine, African Concord, THISDAY and Daily Sun but he touched me most profoundly and so when I learnt of his ailment I could not but draw very close. When Delta State government through Stella Damassus, another great actress who staked her all for him to live, brought him to Abuja where I now reside, I was visiting him at the hospital every other day.
Pinned to his bed, we would talk for hours on end. That was how I came to know how overzealous federal soldiers during the Nigerian civil war in almost an act of madness but common in those dark days, tortured him in the Surulere area of Lagos where he had gone to see an acquaintance: “They pushed me into a muddy gutter, shaved my hair with broken bottle and dragged me with blood all over me to a cell...”
But to know who the essential Enebeli Elebuwa was, we have to go back in time. He was from Utagba-Uno in Ndokwa West local government area of Delta State and his career started at NTA in 1974 as a scenic graphic artist. His was not a matter of checking out. His overriding interest was to do those things he knew how to do best.
He did technical drawing on an apprenticeship basis at the Railway Technical College, Zaria, and his love for painting took him to Greece where he also apprenticed under a master called Yani. ”He was a big painter”, he told me. “I perfected my painting under him”. The skill came in handy when a friend introduced him to NTA where he painted landscapes and other scenery-villages, streets, markets etc to enhance productions on canvas of 12ft by 8ft which served as backdrops.
He played with colours, shades, and other technical aspects of painting to achieve the desired effect. “I just remembered that writing of graphics was simple technical drawing with some painting to go with it and so I had to do it”.
There was another talent that he did not allow to waste - singing. In the 60s, he played with amateur bands. In fact, he had a group called The Commodores long before he heard of Lionel Richie and The Commodores. Along with other enthusiasts, including ace producer, Laolu Aikins, used to have a regular concert called, Sunday Jump at Ebute Metta in Lagos. He was also part of the famous Steve Rhodes Voices. He played the guitar and had one to buoy him any time he felt low in the spirit. “It is natural for me to sing”, he once said. It is a trait he took after his father who used to sing sonorously as he tended his farm stead back in the village.
When he was getting tired of his job at the Design Unit of NTA, he toyed with the idea of setting up shop as a painter, but felt a stronger urge to “build show business industry through television”. But based on his contact with directors and producers at the studio, he discovered that he had a certain grasp of directing and wanted to take up the challenge. He therefore wrote for a change of Unit-from Production Services to Directorate of Programmes in 1981. After an extensive interview, he scaled through and was moved to Programmes. It was a different turf. Instead of handling only an aspect of production, he now had to contend with the totality of it. The Authority helped out through its training programmes sending him to Television College, Jos, among other places to hone his skill.
Soon, he was directing A rated drama programmes on NTA including, several episodes of Village Headmaster, the last quarter of Second Chance and some enlightenment programmes like Who’s On. Indeed, he was Assistant Director in Lola Fani Kayode’s soap opera, Mirror in the Sun. On his experience on drama programmes, he said: “I will give credit for my drama involvements because if you are a director, you have to know how to move actors with the camera. Involvement in drama has been able to expose me to what motivates who to move and where”. Among other programmes he directed are Artiste Showcase and Caravan of Life and some episodes of Telemovies. From 1996, he handled mainly drama productions. He was bracing up for more challenges when he ran into an administrative hitch, which he never wanted to speak about. He resigned and embraced the home movies at its infancy, featuring in numerous flicks. “Some people who need actors always come to me when they need me. Some scripts I reject, some I accept. I do not try to promote myself. I have two options: I can work as an actor throughout my life; I can work as a director throughout my life. NTA trained me as a director. I trained myself as an actor”.
But for millions of Nigerians, he was always Andrew, the disenchanted Nigerian who wanted to check out because of lack of basic amenities in the country, which he portrayed in a one minute TV promo in 1984. There had been three versions of Andrew before Enebeli Elebuwa came into the picture with varying degree of success. The writer/producer of the series was his friend, Clement Diei who ironically never saw him as an actor. Instead, he would ask Enebeli to source actors for him. This did not bother the burly actor as he was only too willing to assist.
Then one day, the friend just said, “the way you talk, I think you can do this thing”. And without waiting for an answer gave him one of the scripts, “why don’t you just take your time and read this script and try and see whether you can talk like a Nigerian who had been to the United States? “
Enebeli Elebuwa nearly laughed. Apparently, his friend never knew he had been to America not just for a short stay but for two years! He had gone there under the auspices of Mark Odu, a Real Estate guru and husband of society lady, Edith Odu to correct his speech defect of stammering. And under a speech therapist, he was not only able to overcome, it but learnt more about the Theatre and the Arts.
So he knew how Americans spoke the English language with a peculiar slang or lingo. He was also conversant with how to express the Nigerian been to. Beyond this, he was attracted to the script because it was not bare faced propaganda. It mirrored the Nigerian situation as it was then and the need for everyone to be involved in turning it around. He went on location, played the part and forgot all about it.
It was in far away Enugu that he realised that everything had changed for him. There, at the Airport, he came face to face with thousands of fans who would not leave him alone. He had gone there for another NTA assignment a few days after the Andrew campaign broke. He was mobbed. Shout of Andrew-Checking out rent the air. They wanted to touch him; hold him; embrace him. Seeing the whole crowd surging towards him, he almost panicked. This was his first taste of stardom. He had to be smuggled into a car and driven off. But even at the NTA premises, Enugu, things did not ease up. “Whenever people saw me, they would shout Andrew and the rest of the people will come. I didn’t know how to go about it,” he recalled.
Almost 30 years down the line, the Andrew tag stuck to him like a second skin. “Even till now, people still call me all over the place. I even get tired”, he once told me. One of his major concerns though was the persistent question they always asked him: “Are you not checking out”? He usually reminded those people that after the checking out episode, “we told people that I was staying back to salvage it together”. His surprise was that Nigerians have conveniently forgotten about the queue culture, cleanliness and other ethics Andrew taught them. “I thought they would rather stick to these than asking me whether I am checking out again”.
Enebeli Elebuwa, always wanted to strut the stage and screen as an actor. He was so captivated with the idea that between 1964 and 1966, he enrolled for a correspondence course in Acting with a Drama school in Boston, United States. They sent him manuals on stage movement, speech, role interpretation among others. He read these voraciously and equally practised at home and was primed for a break. Back in 1974, he had just come to Lagos bubbling with enthusiasm, rearing to go. But the first major attempt to put his training to the test did not come until much later. And it was a big flop! Dr. Bode Osanyin, then of NTA gave him the role of a criminal in which he was to stick up somebody with a gun. When the camera zoomed in on him, he forgot to grab the gun on the table but instead pointed his fingers at the man! In subsequent appearances, however, he cleaned up his act. He went back to the basics, dusted up his books and swore to himself that he would give a good account of himself. The 70s was the golden era of celluloid films and soon enough he had a second chance in Sanya Dosunmi’s film, Dinner with the Devil. Here he played the part of the police detective to the hilt, winning the admiration of the director and his fellow actors. Jab Adu’s Bisi, Daughter of the River followed where he played Bisi’s (Patti Boulaye) swimming instructor and Eddy Ugbomah’s film, The Rise and Fall of Oyenusi where he portrayed the notorious armed robber, Oyenusi... For Enebeli Elebuwa, acting was life itself. He enjoyed it, savoured it. But even the best actor must take his bow at curtain call.
Adieu. Nwe ne nmalu, ekika oma ne li.