Long before hosting a radio programme became a byword for vainglorious display, Bunmi Sofola’s Woman to Woman was a weekly highlight for most listeners. Add the fact that she had before then shot into limelight as a high-flying journalist whose brilliance and youth shone as beacon for several other aspiring female journalists and you would understand why Sofola is such a delight to speak with. Funke Olaode recounts a recent encounter
A peripatetic childhood
II was born in Lagos on May 6, 1949, into the Sofola family of Iperu-Remo of Ogun State. By the time I was born my father was working with the Public Works Department and my mother taught briefly before veering into sewing. My father was on frequent transfer and we were always moving from town to time. At a time, my father was in the north and we came back to Lagos in 1956 when I was about seven years old. My father had two wives with six children on both sides. There was no problem in our polygamous setting because by the time the other woman came in, we had already been established. We didn’t experience the rancour associated with polygamy. We were already adults and most of the time we were in boarding house so there was nothing to contend with.
Memories of old Lagos
Growing up in Lagos of those days was fun. We lived on Wakeman Street, Olonade Hughes Avenue in Yaba where you had all the fashion houses, night clubs and all that. Lagos wasn’t as populated as we have now but everything worked. There was electricity, there was water, transportation was okay and the traffic wasn’t as bad as this. Opebi area didn’t materialize until late ‘70s or early ‘80s. I remember a time in the ‘70s when plots of land were being sold and everybody wanted to be part of it. The only Lagos that was in existence then was Lagos Island, Ikoyi, Surulere, Yaba area (was occupied mainly by the civil servants) and there was Agege. Ikoyi was for the expatriates and government officials. Surulere was New Lagos because my late father completed his house off Adelabu Street in the 60s. And when I came back from school the building was the only structure around because there was bush everywhere. Again, Lagos wasn’t as chaotic as this with noise everywhere. There were record stores and if you were interested in any music, you entered the shop, you listened to the music with the earphone and bought what you wanted.
It was a privileged beginning and I am grateful. My father was after our education and it was a must to excel in your education. Whatever you asked him to give you, money wise, for your education he would give. With modesty, we (my siblings and I) were always among the first to pay their school fees. I didn’t have problem except to sit down and read. So the influence was enormous. And when I was in the boarding house my father was always the first to pick me up. You know the others would always have this big lorries hired by the school to take them to their various destinations. And it would be more fun going with co-students than chatting with my dad all the way home. But it was good. I was a tomboy as a child. I was a happy child, inquisitive but adventurous and had several friends.
Days in school
I began my early education at Baptist School, Kaduna, in the ‘50s. I couldn’t recall much of my first day at that early stage because there were loads of pupils and we could get so many things to buy. From Kaduna, my father was transferred to Zaria and we all moved and we later ended in Jos and we came to Lagos in 1956. After his stint with PWD my father transferred his service to LADP now LSDPC. I was six years going to seven when we came back to Lagos. I was re-enrolled at Methodist School, Yaba, for my primary education after which I proceeded to Methodist Girls’ High School in the same premises. I went to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School for my higher school certificate. I was a bit apprehensive leaving Lagos for Ijebu-Ode for advanced level. But when I got there, I found out that the school was a cosmopolitan setting and 80 percent of the students came from Lagos. So it was home away from home. Though it was a boys’ school, but the HSC was mixed and we were like top-notch.
Becoming a journalist
Ironically, journalism chose me; I didn’t choose it. You don’t start dreaming about career until you get to the mid-secondary school. In my case, I was dumped into the arts class. And by the time I finished secondary school, the principal told my dad that whatever I did it should be English or nothing else. I was even angry that you can’t limit my ability. I wasn’t thinking about journalism. After my advanced level, I was waiting for admission to go into the university when Happy Home (a publication of The Punch) was looking for a features writer and I applied. Uncle Sam (Amuka-Pemu), publisher of Vanguard was in charge of recruitment. He said I should write one or two things and he was impressed and asked me to start immediately. This was October 1972. And from being a school teacher I was thrown into the high society because all the embassies and corporate houses were in Lagos and they were functioning round journalism. I was doing interviews and meeting these people you have read or heard about and it was fun. So, in a way, my career chose me. While waiting for my admission into the university I was teaching and didn’t like it a bit. Like I said, my principal spotted me. I was good in English and was always carting away prizes for the school all the time. That was how I began my journalism career with Happy Home and after one year, I took study leave for one year. Daily Times was looking for the first batch of graduates and professional journalists to train free of charge. I went and did the interview and I was chosen. There were only 15 of us with three women: myself, Tayo Adetola and Tokunbo Gbadamosi. We had the one year stint in 1973/74. When I finished my training, I went back to Happy Home Magazine and became the assistant editor, woman editor and later editor of the magazine.
From journalism to insurance and back
I felt I had satisfied my curiosity in journalism and needed to move on. I quit my job and joined Great Nigeria Insurance Company in 1976 as head of public relations. Again, I realised that public relations had its limitations. In 1978/79, I took a study leave and travelled abroad. I enrolled at College of Insurance in England where I studied insurance. I came back and became life insurance manager for Great Nigeria Insurance. I was in marketing and later switched to life insurance. The advantage then was that apart from your salary, you would get commission from whatever you brought in. I still maintained my contacts in the media which really helped and was getting a lot of commission. Then someone suggested that I could start my own brokerage firm. I yielded to his advise and opened an office at 77 Herbert Macaulay Way, Yaba. This was when I discovered that all these people that were encouraging you also had their own attachment to other insurance brokers. So I forged on. The firm was there, I was doing a radio programme, Woman to Woman, for Radio Nigeria which I did for five years. I was writing for Trust Magazine and had a television programme with Kunle Bamtefa on NTA. I still found myself back into journalism when I got engaged with Vanguard later. When I turned 50, I published a collection of my write-ups and when I was approaching 60 I thought I would just relax and avoid anything stressful. But here I am still writing columns. There was a time I was doing four things at a time. I was writing for newspapers, I was engaged with radio and television and still retained my job as an insurance broker. I was young then and had all the time in the world. Above all, my talents have kept me going over the years.
Journalism is like fast food now with proliferation of newspapers and magazines. If you don’t like this you go to the other. But when you don’t have enough training for you to carry on there will be lapses. Sometimes you pick up a newspaper reports or listen to radio or television announcement and you feel sorry. I think your talents and interest count to succeed as a journalist and not the glamour. Journalism is like an old wine which gets better with age and with your experience and talent it becomes a second nature to you. I didn’t go to university to acquire a B.Sc in mass communication, but the one year training at Daily Times Institute of Journalism was intensive. All the professionals were called in to train us. There was Patrick Dele Cole, Tony Momoh, Jaja and all the big wigs in and within the Daily Times. I had the best experience from that training and that also prepared me. When I pick up my pen it flows. I still write in long hand because we were not trained with all these gadgets that you people have now. We were also taught to have nose for news. How can you come back to the newsroom and tell Uncle Sam that you couldn’t get a story? He would tell you to knock on every door that something would come out of it. And once they know that you are into counselling they are ready to open up. It has been a fulfilling profession and experience for me and I have no regret. Like I said, I always knew when the time was up for me to move on. I got to a stage in journalism when I felt I had satisfied my curiosity I moved to insurance. After sometime, I found out that you couldn’t be more than public relations manager. It was a bit upsetting because all you did as a PR person was newsletter, calendar and all that. The then managing director advised me to acquire more training and I went abroad to study insurance.
Best and low moments
Whatever satisfaction I got, I got it on the job all of the time. The low moment was when I was leaving The Punch in 1977. I had the letter of appointment from Great Nigeria Insurance and I thought they would call my bluff and increase my salary. But they kept on saying they were reviewing salary and why don’t I stay. But someone called me and said you had better leave because that place would be better. And as soon as I got to Great Nigeria Insurance, I was given a brand new Gallant 2000 GLS and had the option to borrow money to buy land and even a mortgage to build it.
Where I grew up we had all the night clubs around and at night you see all these ladies and you would want to copy. It was fun. And as one grew older, I charted a career path for myself and I am still involved till date. I was married briefly. I was Bunmi Fadashe for about four months in the ‘70s but it didn’t work and I decided to stay off marriage since then. But I am a fulfilled woman because I am blessed with a daughter who is an undergraduate of University of Lagos.
I am fulfilled…
Looking at all life aspirations I couldn’t have chosen a better profession. You know once you start working you want to create a life for yourself. And like a popular saying that your later year must be better than your early days. And once you lean to prepare for that you can sit back and enjoy the rest of your life. So I am a fulfilled woman. I started a career over four decades ago and till date I am still relevant. It is God. I cherish God. He is my shock absorber. He is my father because He has been kind to me.