Bukky Ajayi: Gone with the Gift

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If the life and times of Zainab Bukola Ajayi were a full-length movie, it would have a soulful soundtrack and end with deserved closing credits as well as wishes for a rewind. Yinka Olatunbosun, with the support of her colleagues in the movie industry, writes a tribute in honour of one of Nigeria’s most respected thespians who died at 82

If anyone had told you that this week, you’d be reading another post-humous tribute after Elechi Amadi’s, you would have been terribly offended. But when the eventuality that befalls all comes, the “show must go on’’. Nigerians mourn the death of Zainab Bukola Ajayi who died and was laid to rest last Wednesday at Atan Cemetary, Yaba, Lagos in line with Islamic rites. At her demise, it became obvious that more rewards should have followed her contribution to the industry where she remained active till death despite her battle with arthritis.

Archives revealed that she was born in 1934 in Nigeria. As a young girl, she would go to the cinemas with her father. Once, she had told him that she wished to be an actress but her father never found out because he died before she veered into acting as a profession. But she made some money from cutting cardboards stories for her friends at half a penny each.

With the backing of a federal government scholarship, she completed her higher education in UK. In 1965, she left England for Nigeria and began her career, first as a presentation assistant under the watchful eyes of Dr. Christopher Kolade. She later worked as a presenter and broadcaster for the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) the following year. She presented a couple of children’s programmes and ‘Nigerian’s Sketches’, a cultural orientation programme which had late Diran Ajijedidun as producer. She was transferred to Port Harcourt and later returned to Lagos. She started her acting career as soon as she got to Lagos. She was part of the cast of the vintage television series, “Village Headmaster” in the 70s before she went to feature in “Checkmate”, a popular television series in the late 80s and early 90s which is one of the longest running soaps in Nigeria.

During her acting career, she featured in several films and soaps including “Critical Assignment”, “Diamond Ring”, “Witches Angels” among others. A few months ago, her contribution to the Nigerian film industry was recognized after she and Sadiq Daba were awarded the Industry Merit Award at the 2016 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards. It was reported as one of the most emotional moments in the history of the awards.

Ajayi was one of the most enjoyable screen actresses for a number of reasons. One reason is that her act is always natural and believable. Another reason is that she was flexible with trends. She would do a peace sign, dance to hip hop and totally internalize any role that she had been assigned to do whether major or minor.
This reporter sought out her colleagues who, inspite of their busy schedule, responded with kind remarks in acknowledgement of the artistic integrity of this phenomenal thespian.
Seasoned actor and singer, Segun Arinze, who worked with her in “Checkmate” and several movies thought we all should be thankful that she lived well.

“Mama Buki Ajayi was a great woman. She showed love to everybody around her. You could feel that love. Everything she did counted. She had a very strong aura,’’ he said, in a telephone conversation. He also reflected on how she in turn responded to the love shown to her by her colleagues in her last days and what could be inferred from her tears upon receiving the AMVCA honour.

“God knows she was passing a message to us. I have worked with her on several occasions and she used to call me ‘Oju yobo’. You can never miss her enough. She was such a good woman. She would be sorely missed. We bless God for her. Her son is in the industry and we pray he excels in his career,’’ he said.
Another veteran actor, Alex Osifo who was also on location with Arinze described the late broadcaster as a wonderful and amiable person.

“She is a highly personable person and not just because of her contribution to the industry. A big vacuum has been created by her demise, I used to call her Lady Buki. When you talk about acting, nobody can beat her standard, I mean somebody about her age.

“I was dazed when I received the news. But we thank God for everything. Frankly, she lived a very glorious life. And she died honourably though painfully. That sounds like a paradox. But that is true,’’ he said.
For the actor, Erelu Asa, Ajayi was a role model, a source of inspiration and an embodiment of humility.
“Thank God she left the stage when the ovation is loudest. Adieu worthy Thespian,’’ Erelu said.
The movie producer, Felix Duker who worked with Buki Ajayi in the award-winning movie, “Not My Will’’ described as “thespian-amazon’’ and one of the finest actors on the continent.

“She was a fantastic actress. My only regret is that my documentary interview with her which never took place due to my procrastinations at keeping those appointments. We take solace in that she lived a glorious life. May her soul rest in peace,’’ Duker stated in an electronic message.
For Aremo Tope Babayemi, the Co-ordinator, National Council for Arts and Culture, South-West, Ajayi left a legacy that should be emulated by younger thespians.

“Buki Ajayi, to me, is a female version of that great and renowned British actor, Sir Lawrence Oliver who never retired from his professional calling until the very last. She was a quintessential actor who played her roles with verve and panache. I had the pleasure and privilege of interacting with her during the second National Film Festival of which I was Festival Director. I join others today to celebrate the glorious exit of a great artist. May her beautiful soul rest in perfect peace,’’ he said.

Another time-tested actor, director and broadcaster, Tunde Adeyemo recalled Ajayi’s superlative acting skills while paying tribute to the popular actor in a near-poetic tone.
“She was a highly erudite personality. Her warm-heartedness and sense of humility transcended common celebrity traits. Most importantly, she distinguished herself as a core professional in the execution of her artistic endeavour. Even in her early 70s, her sense of mastery of lines was intriguing.

“We will all miss such an amiable friend and mother. Well, we are on a short but tiring journey. Our vision is blurred by the euphoria of wanton desires. The more we lust, the less we comprehend the real purpose of life. Hence, we become roses on our own dark alleys; golden crops only on the high seas, and then we vanish within a twinkle of our own thought. May her gentle soul find a blissful stay in the bosom of the most high,’’ Adeyemo said.

Efforts to reach Ajayi’s very close associate, Yemi Solade almost went down the drain. But he promptly called back some hours later and was just pouring his heart with such emotion that was quite infectious and unstoppable. One of the earliest memories of Solade working with Ajayi was in the movie produced by Tunde Kelani, titled, “Thunderbolt’’ where she played the role of Solade’s aunt who rescued him from a festish trap planned by his lover. Solade had maintained a very close relationship in real life with this artist whom he described as a mother.

“You’d never see her sad. She was always cheerful. As old as she was, some of us had her as a friend. We would tease her, tickle her. We did “Thunderbolt” together in 2000. Aunty Buki was more than just an actor. She was a symbol of humility. She was tolerant and patient, very understanding and above all she was almost perfect professionally.
“We knew that she was aging but she was very youthful in temperament. She is gone but we can only console ourselves with the idea that actors don’t die. I’m telling you, if you turn on the television and see her in a movie or a series, her work will make you smile. She has immortalized herself through her works,’’ he said.

Solade, who graduated from the Department of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, must have measured Ajayi’s artistry against the Stanislavki-inspired principles of acting as he looked back on a former colleague that he’d described as a matriarch of the screen.

“She was the mother I never had. Sometimes I would call her and talk to her. We were quite close. She worked till her last breath. You’d never find any other person like that. She ended an era of the most disciplined and most focused actors. I don’t know how old you were when she acted in the “Village Headmaster’’. It was when the series was shot in black and white format.

“Our relationship was beyond professional. It was a son-mother relationship. I used to give her a ride home back then. I wished I was more helpful to her. It is rare to find someone whom you’d have such a close relationship in this industry. Age was not a barrier at all. The only person that came close was Toun Oni. I had the two of them as my mothers. But we give glory to God and I will continue to be proud of my association with them, both personally and professionally,’’ said Solade who acted alongside Ajayi in Tade Ogidan’s celebrated movie, “Madam Dearest”.