Her tintinnabulating voice chimes through the telephone like a nightingale. It’s not hard to imagine her gap-toothed smile and her gleaming visage that has graced the TV, stage, and movies. As a superstar of the silver screen, a matriarch and an oracle of artistry, creativity and ‘womanity,’ Taiwo Ajai-Lycett is an icon and a confluence; a running brook of still waters. An awe-inspiring veteran actress, broadcaster, journalist and cosmetologist, Ajai-Lycett still rocks, dressing to the nines. With fame, fortune and fun, life is never-ending for the woman who goes with the flow. Her life defies age and time. For a superstar whose life story is like a public library, FUNKE OLAODE, in this interview, digs deeper to find out what makes the almost-80-year-old Ajai-Lycett irresistible and indefatigable
How would you say life has treated you in the last 79 years?
Life has treated me robustly. Life is a challenge. Life always leaves you in the eye of the storm. But I was lucky that I was able to rise above the storm. Yes. I have had my storm. It has been turbulent. I have been through the fire. I have been through the furnace. It has not been a quiet sort of life but it has been exciting.
You had a setback in your early years: had a child at 15 and dropped out of school. What gave you the strength to bounce back in the face of adversities?
In life you must always be moving. And you must not feel sorry for yourself because the world doesn’t owe anybody anything. Our parents bring us into this world and we must fend for ourselves. Again, once you have had a good upbringing it will help. And if you stumble in the process, you get up quickly and start moving. In my case, I have been lucky to have the strength, motivation, and guidance to keep going.
You have been in the limelight for over five decades now. What’s your staying power?
Well, it is by respecting the people who put me in the limelight. You must always be aware that life is not about you. So, if I have been in the limelight for decades and still relevant, it is because people who nurtured me to limelight still see something interesting about me. When I started out as an actor and a journalist, I didn’t think I had a choice but I was chosen. I was turned around. I was made to see my true purpose in life. Apart from that, hard work counts having switched from the corporate world into the arts embracing both journalism and acting simultaneously.
You covered the first International Women’s Conference in Mexico and later in Berlin, Germany. What was your experience and did it influence your activism?
It was a wonderful time to know finally that the world recognized the part women play in this world. The United Nations decided that women’s role in developing the world was paramount. It was an exciting period for me. If you knew how I started my life and if you are a woman, your role in life has already been prescribed: go to school if you can, get married, cook and look after your children. Period. And everybody believes you have nothing to contribute. For the first time in human civilization, the UN declared that more attention should be paid to women. Women as a people populate the world. It was a wonderful experience and I feel very proud to be part of that historical gathering. In a way, it influenced my advocacy for women.
What year was that?
It was in 1975. I was with Africa Woman, a political, social and economic journal for black and African women in the diaspora. I was the first editor of the Africa Woman journal. Our publisher was Ambassador Ralph Uwechue, who was the ambassador for Biafra in Paris during the civil war in those days. Ambassador Uwechue later moved to London and founded Africa journal. Peter Enahoro was one of the editors. I was an associate editor with the journal. My boss, Ambassador Uwechue later challenged me to start Africa Woman Journal.
Acting wasn’t part of your career plan. How did you get to stay in the game?
I accompanied a friend to the Royal Court Theatre in London when a producer stumbled on me and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a turning point in my life. I was in the British Civil Service and I had already had the discipline and everything. In those days, every day during my annual vacation I would take one course or the other. That was how I did fashion, cosmetology, management, accounting, etc. When this man (a producer) approached me while waiting for my friend I didn’t think somebody was discovering me at that particular moment. I just thought my holiday was coming up and saw the opportunity in the art as a pastime for that year. There is nothing you can’t learn if you put your mind into it.
I am a perpetual learner and knowledge seeker. Considering how I started my life, I was determined to give myself a broad education. I wanted to be a generalist. I thought it was an opportunity to do theatre because at that time I had no idea or ever thought I wanted to be an actor. In fact, I wanted to be a lawyer. When I eventually started, I brought discipline, hard work, intensity, and focus to what I was asked to do. And suddenly I became an overnight sensation. And I said if people loved what I was doing I had to hone my skills. So, I went for training. While I was invited to the BBC to come and do play, I said I didn’t know anything and I threw myself into learning.
You went to school when education for a girl-child was considered a taboo.
Well, Lagos has always been cosmopolitan while the other towns were seen as hinterlands. They are backward and the people didn’t want to educate their girls. Lagos didn’t discriminate against girls. Everybody went to school. It was a disappointment when I stumbled during my teenage years. Nobody said because I was a girl, no. You may have the education and get married. We had education and how far we wanted to go was left to us. Whereas the boys were predestined to go as far as they wanted to go. There was no pressure on the girls to become doctors. But all that has changed now.
You took a course in cosmetology. Does that explain your gorgeous and radiant looks? What is your beauty secret?
I am an African. African taught the world how to be beautiful. Europeans were backward as far as that aspect was concerned then. Then they started running schools on how to be beautiful and I was curious about taking that course. It has now become an industry. What an irony! And my beauty tips? I walk out, although part of it can be attributed to genes. Looking beautiful is a thing of the mind. For me, I concentrate on what I am doing. If you know me, I am not obsessed with my looks at all. On the contrary, if you come to my house you probably may not find a mirror. I am not worried about how I look because God has already done good work on me. I read. I do exercise. I do yoga, aerobics and meditate. All that is not to stay pretty. It is about the unity of body and mind because if your blood is not circulating very well, you are not likely to look good. I eat anything and do exercise to keep my body and soul moving on. So, I don’t have any particular routine. I thank God for good health. Because good health is sexy.
As a feminist, you were involved in a stage play, ‘Hear Word’ which centered on African women. What influenced it and what’s your take on violence against women?
I am a feminist and activist. I think women should own the world but nobody wants to accept it, especially the women themselves. ‘Hear Word’ is about ‘listen very well o!’ It’s a pidgin. The play itself is a collection of monologues of women in various conditions: women trafficking, genital mutilation, old age, rape, sexual harassment, widowhood rites, etc. These are inimical to the well-being of women; child marriage, barrenness, and the fact that men feel that only male children are worthy were addressed in the play. Last year coincided with the #MeToo movement in America and we were able to pass the message that we have been discussing our issues before the ‘Me Too’ movement. Staging the play was our own way to change the narratives because we are trying to address both men and women.
Who do you think socialize both male and female children? They are mothers. We are responsible for raising our children. We are the ones that help men to subjugate women as second citizens. We are the ones who say to our girls ‘go to the kitchen and cook and tell the boys to go and play football.’ So, the narrative and dialogue must change from us women. Even in Europe and America we are talking about what is the percentage of women in government? How many female heads of government do they have? And in Nigeria, how many women are in the (government’s) cabinet? And a few in the position of authority always look subdued and submissive as if they have to apologize for being intelligent. A man can parade his intelligence and status but a woman has to apologize for being bright because of the way we are raising them. You know we always tell women not to show themselves so that they can find a husband. So, if we want peace and harmony in the world, put women in power because they have in-built divine virtues of nurture, love, tolerance, patient, perseverance. They have lived the life of victims and they know how to handle things better.
COVID-19 is the rave of the moment. Of course, it has put the world as we know it on hold. What is the way forward for actors?
I wish I knew. The entertainment industry is the worst hit in the world because we depend on proximity with people. We depend on the crowd to do our work. This season is not friendly. Let’s see what happens in post-COVID-19 as we continue to practise social distancing. This is the time for us to generate ideas because it generates money. At the moment, everyone should put on the thinking cap on doing one thing or the other because we don’t know what’s going to happen as per the pandemic until later this year or 2021 -perhaps 2022. We will think about it and how we get back to our audience. Honestly, it is a big blow and we pray that this phase will pass.
Do you believe that God exists?
Well, I know there is a power somewhere that exists and I believe there are unseen hands in our lives. I am a student of surrender, who always surrenders to fate.
Do you believe in life after death?
I don’t because whatever we do here on earth is done.
And if you die today where do you think you would go?
I am not worried about where I will go. I am only concerned about the moment and that is why the moment is of great importance to me. Where you are situated should be your priority. I didn’t know where I was when I was born and don’t know where I would be when I’m dead. My business is what I am doing now because there are repercussions for our deeds. The universe is very ordered, organized and there are laws. And (I) don’t know about this business of waiting for heaven or earth.
You have been married thrice. You lost your last husband 27 years ago. You’ve remained single since then. Was it deliberate?
I am not dogmatic about anything. I go with the flow. I flow with the tide. And I accept what comes my way. My husband was chosen for me and I called him my ‘Angel Gabriel’. He was a marvelous man who saw the talent I didn’t see and encouraged me to blossom in the arts. He had played his part. If I was meant to marry after his demise another man would have come into my life. And if the man didn’t show up it meant that he wasn’t meant for me. That is how I live my life. My life has been ordered, orchestrated, and going smoothly. I have not lost anything, so I am blessed.
You avoided politics like the plague. Is this country the Nigeria of your dream?
Do we have politics in Nigeria? Politics everywhere is based on party politics. I work with ideologists but we don’t have political ideologists in Nigeria. Those who find their way into power don’t have what it takes to run the country. I work with the greatest good for the greatest number but I don’t see that here.
When are you slowing down?
I am energized. I am still on because it is not over until it is over. This question of retiring, slowing down, nature will take care of it. At almost 80, I am still very much in the game. You know some people once they are old, they believe they are not capable. For me, as long as I am breathing and my mental forces are on, the beat must go on. I am a member of the human race who will keep on living. I wrestled with forces in my life and whatever happened to me made my life triumphant. I call myself a victor.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I like people to remember me for being consistent, a woman of integrity and honour.