Erelu Abiola Dosunmu: My Most Truamatic Experience is Losing Three Men I Cherish

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Super Saturday  

Her Royal Highness Omoba Abiola Dosumu, the Erelu Kuti IV of Lagos is the queen mother of Lagos. Her gait,

young and stunning looks would sway and stop any man in his tracks. At 72, not many in her age group have this carriage. Her command of Queens English is also admirable. In a chat with Adedayo Adejobi, she relieves growing up memories with her parents and her Muslim grandmother, romance with white dress, why her life is anchored on faith, how she’s dealt with horrendous moments of losing the three men she cherished most in her life, and lessons life has taught her

You’ve always been a staunch Catholic and also a part of the church choir from the age of 12, could you relieve those memories?

There are some aspects of my life that I don’t remember often, and when you asked the question, some kind of joy leaped from my heart because those were good old days. I used to look forward to such occasions in church. I participated in the choir either during mass or special celebrations and sang to the whole city. I thank God for what I was exposed to by worshiping the Almighty because it forms a ring of fortification around me and unknowingly prepared me for the future. When we sang, it was as though angels were singing. In the corner of my room, I still think I am a singer and a dancer. In my former life, I sang and danced as though no one was watching, especially when you are listening to beautiful music and even the drums; I just love the sound of drums; I think I can still sing.

There are songs that I like, but you know I enjoy songs that are pleasant to the ears. But I think I have preference for rhythm and blues, soul, and jazz. I grew up with those songs around me; my children, especially my eldest son, grew up listening to such music at home, I also love the traditional songs with the Gbedu drums and especially those lyrics eulogising our ancestors and their powers.

With your clout in the society and your leaning towards culture, tradition and Christianity, how do you balance the trappings of both worlds?

Well that’s wonderful question, and I have been asked that question so many times. But you know what a lot of us don’t realise is that long before the missionaries came to Africa, we have had our traditional ways of life and we believed in that supreme being – Olodumare. And like most religions, you have intermediaries to the Olodumare. For example, we don’t worship Sango; Sango is an intermediary to the Olodumare, like you have saints and figures in the church that also have devotees. That does not mean they are worshiping those figures; they are asking them to intercede for them before the Almighty God.

What was it like growing up in Lagos?

Growing up especially in Lagos was beautiful. Lagos was clean and everybody knew Lagos. Definitely to achieve greatly, you have to have good education and perseverance. We had schedules for work, when you work and how long you have to work to buy your first car, how long you work to have your home, and of cause the main essence of life is to have children, to be able to give than good training, to be able to provide school fees, and roof over their heads. If you display emergency money, the neighbourhood would ask you and in fact you won’t flaunt it, because people will wonder when you started work and what you are doing to achieve that. While I was growing up here in Lagos, it was clean, we had adequate water, adequate electricity, working rail way system, we even have water means of transportation and adequate attention was paid to students. We had free bus moving students.

Do you miss your Parents?

I miss my parents terribly, especially probably my father. But that’s a lie; I miss my mum more. I was the apple of my father’s eye, I could get away with everything. He was a consummate banker. He was one of the first Nigerians to work with Bank of West Africa, now First Bank of Nigeria. Although I was the apple of his eyes, discipline was important. My dad was prim and proper. Being around him, you had to be the same. I really didn’t appreciate my mother until I started having children. My mother became the anchor of my life and I still miss her so much. For almost 15 years, I still miss her terribly because she was my friend, confidant, and of cause my helper. I miss my parents so much.

What’s it with you and white apparel? What does it represent? Do you belong to any fraternity?

I am not the only one who wears white in this world; you have the Cherubim and Seraphim, Celestial, Priest of Catholic Church and Jews who all wear white. White to me is a beautiful colour, and it stands for purity and closeness to the Almighty. So if anyone wants to give it another interpretation, I don’t know where that is coming from. Most of the people I know in the world that all wear white, all stand for good and what is right.

What does fashion and style mean to you? What inspires your sense of fashion?

Fashion is the real essence of life. Fashion is the appropriate use of your apparel. The way you now wear, interpret and design it then becomes something special or peculiar to you. Fashion starts with cladding yourself and protecting that which the Almighty has given you. Everybody must wear clothes or one form of accessory. Fashion is a way of life; it’s the essence of human living and presence. I can be simple, elegant, garish, but I hope I can never be vulgar. I must wear whatever gives me joy and confidence and is pleasing to the eyes of the onlooker.

You are headlining African Fashion in London in August, what is the unique essence of that event, and what is the input for Nigeria and Africa as a whole?

The input is enormous, as Nigeria, we are a race of fashionistas. We have so much to offer the world and the best thing to do is to showcase it just like we are going to do with the African Fashion week in England. I decided to open a shop in London not because it gives me joy to open a shop in London, but I felt at that point in time, I was already romancing with the Aso-oke. At that point, my husband and I were wearing them. He loved wearing them.

You’re a fashion icon to many, but who are some of yours?

Fashion Icon, I will like to interpret that by actually once you are a designer you know, I don’t just wear, I design most of what I wear.  All my life, I design, I have tailors who produce them but I design them. I think my fashion icons are the top designers. I love Valentino, he designs for women; he understands the feelings, thinking and the body of a woman. And so, when I am wearing a Valentino, is like the wing under my feet is escalated and I want to float and they give me joy and makes me feel happy being a woman. When it comes to accessories, I think of Channel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dulce and Gabanna and all the designers in that category. Back home, you have designers like Tiffany Amber, Deola Sagoe. They are also making our own local style, upgrading it, giving it the finesse that it deserves to catapult it to the world stage. Those are the set of people I look towards for what they produce.

The last three years were no doubt tough for you, losing the three men you cherished most in your life- your soulmate and confidant, Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, the Ooni of Ife, and Ambassador Anthonio Dehinde Fernandez. You seem to have come out strong, how did you grapple with those times?

Once your life is anchored strongly on your faith, believe in the Almighty, you find that though you go through pains, he gives you strength to bear it and forge ahead. Nobody ever forgets the pain of losing a dear one, but we all pray for the fortitude for the Almighty God to be able to be faithful to their memories and aspirations. That helps you to forge on, not to wallow in self-pity. Not really mourning for the person gone but for you. These people have gone; the best thing is to continue to pray for them and whatever they are doing or expect to be happening, you remain loyal and faithful to them.

I lost my first husband after about three years of marriage; I know that his greatest desire is for me to do what he would have done for those boys if he was alive, but if I had given up and sat somewhere sad, what will happen to those kids? So, I had to be strong, trust in God, and of cause, keep a beautiful memory of a departed loved one. Just keep the flag flying and trusting that God will be there for you. Looking back and seeing his children, I am sure he will be happy and thanking his God that this is the kind of legacy he was able to leave in this world.

My first husband died in 1972 and one year after when we did the memorial and I said rest in peace. People thought I was crazy, and I said that is the reality. That was one year less of the day that I will leave the world. We just pray that by the time it is our turn, we will also die an honourable death hoping and believing in the power and might of the Almighty God.

You come across as one with strong and deep spiritual inclination. Where is that from?

That came from very early age for me. At two years of age; I was very close to my grandmother who was a great Muslim, who went to Hajj. I grew up watching her every Friday cooking for over 50 women. She would go to mosque and they will all come back with her, at least 50 women in her living room, all seated in a circle, praying before they go and eat and chanting the praises of the Almighty God. It was meant to leave an impression and a date. As a result, I think I just grew up with the fear of God, especially doing to others what I want them to do to me. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I didn’t know at that time but every time I look back, even though I am over 70 now, I still see the picture I saw when I was two years old, of women just standing and singing and praying every Friday. In fact, people who know me in the Catholic Church expected me to be a Nun. For years, she kept writing to me and even when I got married, she will still write to me.

Would you have loved to become a Nun?

No. I do not think so. I was very religious and devoted, but I am too much of an extrovert to be able to sit down quietly in the corner of church chanting my Rosary. I think I have so much love and affection to give to my environment, than to have become a Nun. I love to be there for people, I want to champion because of people.

What is your relationship with Obasanjo?

Do you know ex-President Obasanjo? It has to be an ignorant person or a new comer to Nigeria that will say that somebody like that hosted my 70th birthday. He actually gave me a dinner in Abeokuta to celebrate my birthday because he felt look ‘what can I give you, someone who has always been there for me.’ You know we are cousins and we are a family and it is a close family. We used to have family meeting every month before he went to prison and usually we hold family meeting at the palace of the Oba of Lagos, then in my house or in his place in Abeokuta. So, those were the three places we hold family meetings and the connection was that Oba Kitoye’s mother was from the same compound in Owu with Obasanjo. So that’s the relationship. We have always been that close, and over the years in the family, you will have people who have had interventions in your life one way or the other. In fact, at one point, I was interrogated and taken to a camp in Apapa because they thought I was using the diplomatic corps to support Obasanjo when he was in prison. So, when I had my birthday, you can imagine it was over three days. My children of cause footed part of the bill. The thing was put together by my children who just felt I should celebrate my birthday in Nigeria. My 70th birthday was organised by my children with my support but President Obasanjo gave me a dinner party at Abeokuta; that was as far as that goes. He didn’t foot the bill.

You have seen so much in life, what has life taught you as a person?

What Life has thought me is that wherever you find yourself, you must always remember that it is all transient and whatever you have to do to add value to your environment, do it with honesty and sincerity of purpose because you will never have the chance to do it again. Don’t live your life with regrets.