Is Hafiz Oyetoro aka Saka unhappy at his newfound fame? Or is he acting a script prompted by his controversial switch of loyalty? Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha took the question to Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Ijanikin, Lagos where Saka is employed as a lecturer. Oyetoro declines comments on all of that, but speaks about himself as he has never done before…
We did get him to laugh every now and then, but for the better part of the interview at the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education at Ijanikin in Lagos where he teaches in the Theatre Arts Department, Hafiz Oyetoro, better known as Saka, behaved like one with a heavy burden on his heart. He appeared determined to keep a distance from the perceived good turn in his life. He came across as a dutiful servant whose loyalty is called into question between two demanding masters. Though he has pitched his tent with one, he does not want to be seen as an ingrate by the other. So even when Saka is distant from these seeming overbearing masters, he is so charmed by their ostensible presence that he behaves like one whose every move is being watched.
Each time, he excused himself to take a call as his phone struck an instrumental version of his famous ‘I Don Port’ jingle, he refused to say which other network serviced the three cell phones in his possession.
More interesting was his attitude towards colleagues who made a mimic of “I don port” or called him Saka. He displayed an unusual demeanor: a quick nod and sparse pleasantries were all he offered them as if he would rather they ignore his presence.
Try as we did, Hafiz would not be drawn into talking about the controversy and the corporate war generated by shifting his loyalty from Etisalat to MTN. From any angle that we approached the subject, he bluntly turned down questions around the subject, promising to either issue a statement through his lawyer or hold a news conference. The only thing he made a subtle hint at is that his finances have improved to the point that he can afford a lawyer on retainership and has employed a personal assistant. He also disclosed that he is building a house somewhere in Lagos and has deployed his recent earnings into other investments that would stand him in good stead in case of a rainy day and his old age.
‘I Want to Retire to Productive and Fulfilling Life’
His small office was cramped like the typical office of lecturers in a Nigerian university. He explained why he would not furnish his office. “There are so many things one can do in life with money. I want to be as natural as possible. I don't have to be extravagant. This is like a makeshift office; the school is building another hall that can accommodate the Theatre Arts Department. I'm a lecturer. I deal with books, files. As far as I'm concerned I'm an average Nigerian. What is important to me is to be comfortable, to take care of my children, my family and my parents who are still alive. Then make some investments so that when I leave the struggle here and there, I will enjoy. I want to retire to a productive and fulfilling life, not to retire and continue to struggle.
“On August 20, I will be 50 years. In the next 10 years, I will be 60, if I'm still alive. I want to start living comfortably without working. I'm chasing everything now. I want them to chase me later. For everything that comes my way now, it goes into investment. Some people enjoy the early part of their life when they still have the energy. When they do not have the energy, they lose it and they begin to suffer. Now that I have the energy, I want to struggle and get everything so that when I don't have the energy again I can enjoy.”
Hafiz’s explanation reveals that pecuniary consideration must have motivated his switch from being the iconic symbol of Etisalat to being the face of MTN. He drove the point home. “I think the best time to struggle is when you are young and have the energy.”
The eldest of his three children is nine years old. At Saka’s estimated time of retirement, the child will be 19 years and may still need parental support. He acknowledged his understanding of the situation thus. “That is why you see my office that way. I'm tying down investment. When I'm 60 years, I won't have to use my grey hair to pay their school fees. Proceeds from the investment will do that.”
He disclosed that he currently lives in a property at Badagry provided by his employers. “You see, life has a rhythm, step by step, stage by stage, that's the rhythm of life. When you get out of that rhythm, you are in trouble. So I want to follow that rhythm steadily.”
Saka drives a 2004 type Maxima car. It is the only car owned by his family, as his wife who owns three shops around does not have a car.
Perhaps, he longs for the days of anonymity, when he did not stand out of the crowd. But it is exactly 10 years since his given name became swallowed by an alias. The name Hafiz Oyetoro became subsumed by the screen name, Saka.
How He Got Nickname Saka
In 2003, when Hafiz and a friend of his, Gbenga Windapo, created a TV series, ‘House Apart’, which was produced by Greg and Debbie Odutayo who own Royal Root Communication, It became a popular TV series. One of the characters in ‘House Apart’ was Saka played by Hafiz. And the name has stuck like a second skin since.
However, there is another alias of his that contests for prominence with the Saka character. It is Dola or Adola. “Most people in Ibadan still call me Adola till today,” he enthused. Hafiz would have us know that he did not drop out of the blues. He studied Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University). As an undergraduate, he began to demonstrate commitment to the discipline as a member of an on-campus group, known as Comic Palace Productions. Some of his co-travellers included Smart Babalola and Dr. Tunde Awosemi, who now teaches at the University of Ibadan. Done with his studies at Ife in 1990, he joined ‘Laffomania’ headed by Solomon Igwale.
Hafiz’ course in life may have been influenced by the popular Yoruba travelling theatre, Alarinjo, made popular by the likes of Hubert Ogunde, Moses Adejumo (Baba Sala) and Oyin Adejobi. Iseyin, his hometown, in Oyo State was a popular hub for these thespians. As a boy, he recalls with glee how eager town folks gathered to be entertained. The multitude of tales spurn around these personalities made them larger than life and made an indelible impression on his young mind.
For all his hunger for fame, his formative years were largely spent in the pastoral community of Iseyin where his parents were farmers. In their homestead, Adegbola close to Iseyin, his primary education was at Baptist Day School, Koso-Iseyin. For his secondary education, he was at Koso Community Grammar School. His first venture out of Iseyin was to Ibadan where he went to stay with an uncle at the University of Ibadan to prepare for the university qualifying exams-a place he would later return to many years after for his masters degree.
Living in the university community fired his ambition.
By the time he went to the Lagos State University for a post-graduate diploma in education, he had made up his mind to teach. It is not strange then that Hafiz has chosen to make the academic environment the bedrock of his burgeoning enterprise, moonlighting between several acting jobs and teaching creative writing, acting and production management in the Department of Theatre Arts, Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education. At present, he is gunning for a PhD at the University of Ibadan. His research project is on standup comedy as a form of performance.
Influence of Alarinjo Theatre Group
The seed for comedy may have been sowed from watching the Alarinjo theatre. Little wonder he opted for one-man-shows on campus as an undergraduate and teamed up with the Laffomania squad after graduation. Unmistakable as the comedy trait may appear in his character, he would not be cajoled to accept the crown of Nigeria’s new king of funny men. He thinks the scepter should deservedly go to the likes of Ali Baba. “There are many funny people around. It depends on what you mean by funny.
There are so many fantastic actors in the comic genre in Nigeria today just that people haven't noticed them. I can't say I'm the new funny man now because I know that there are some other people who are as funny as I am only that what we do is different from one another. Reminded that Ali Baba is into stand up, Hafiz made an interesting submission. “Comedy is comedy. They are still comedians. They may not be screen actors but in a way they are because they perform”.
My PhD project is on stand up comedy as a form of performance. That's why I'm saying some of them are real performers and they create pictures of what they perform. They can also be good actors.”
The lecturer/actor revealed that life was difficult at the beginning of his career. This led to his late marriage. “I got married late by choice and by circumstance. When I finished my first degree, I was still struggling, unfortunately the economy wasn't friendly. That was back in 1990. There was no prospect for entertainment in Nigeria back then. I couldn't find myself doing anything else, I was committed to my career. I was moving up and down. At that time 90% of my life was spent in hotels and locations. I was not stable. A family man must have an element of stability but I didn't have that. I was struggling to establish myself in the industry. So by the time I got this job 12 years ago, I decided to get married. Incidentally, this weekend, May 24th, I will be celebrating my 10th marriage anniversary.”
The harsh economic condition was not all to blame for his late marriage. The fair-skinned Hafiz didn’t deny that he also deliberately turned down request from ladies because he was afraid that he wasn’t ready to cater for a woman.
“I wasn't ready to pick up a life that I will not be able to maintain, that's one reason. Two, our society does not really value prospects. It is what is happening now that matters to most members of the society. I actually wanted to marry a lady but she said I didn't have a car. I told her I was working now and she retorted, 'you want me to hop from one bus to the other when I become pregnant. Her own requirement was that I should have two cars. I just felt that if I continue like this, I will kill myself. I decided to wait till I was comfortable and when I did, I got married.”
Saka: A Serious Man
Saka may make life look like a joke, but he is a very serious man. One pointer to his stern (or is it austere) disposition is the fact that he does not have a lovechild despite his long stay in bachelorhood. At first, his parents were worried about their son’s delay in marriage and his father had to pay him a visit at Ibadan to ensure his manhood was intact. Fortunately, for the comic actor, he was with a female friend when his father arrived and this automatically erased any fear about his sexual capability in the old man. Recently, he collaborated with the University of Lagos to stage one of his plays. Apart from income from his teaching job, Hafiz can be found in a couple of TV series, appears in Yoruba movies and is very much sought after as MC. There are days when one session of master-of-ceremony job rakes in a sum that is more than his one- month salary as a teacher.
It is rare to see the theatre art lecturer in suits. He prefers to wear his danshiki and sokoto, which he thinks provides the type of comfort necessary to let in fresh air in this relatively hot entvironment. He, however, admitted that he is capable of adapting to any costume depending on the environment and occasion.
‘My Dad Can Read, Though He Did n’t Go to School’
Speaking of his parents, Saka expressed surprise at how his dad who never saw the four walls of a school could read later in his life.
He said: “Sometimes it baffles me; I tried to find out because at a point in my dad's life, he could read. I have never seen him write anything.
Though when I was small, I saw him reading letters in Yoruba. I think there was a way he could get to read outside the school but as he grew older he lost his sight and couldn't read anymore.”