Ropo Ewenla is the deputy Media Director at the University of Ibadan. He is an Actor, a political and cultural activist. In this interview with Victor Alagogooko, he bares his mind on the socio-political situation of the country as we approach the 2019 elections and the erosion of traditional culture and values.
Ibcity Announcer: You are many things to different people, Writer, Actor, Teacher, Activist and so on. Who is Ropo Ewenla?
Ropo Ewenla: I have not always been an actor. I started up working as a human right activist. I started my activism career as a member of staff of the Committee for the Defense of Human Right; an organization to which I have been a member before I became an employee. That was in the days of civil right uprising against military dictatorship. Along the line, I have had to encounter and interact and interrogate and advocate for culture, especially the Yoruba people. I have some sting with the Committer for Relevant Art (CORA) now known as CORA foundation in various capacity and the management board, right now am a member of the board of the Committee for Relevant Art. Right now I am the Secretary General of the PEN Nigeria. PEN is the oldest writer body in the world comprising over 170 countries in the world until last two years I was the Secretary General. I acted mostly on stage, a lot of people got to know me as an actor when I did one or two television stints. But I have been doing stage since when we were in the university at the Obafemi Awolowo University. Let me also remind you that I was then chairman, student union caretaker committee at the Obafemi Awolowo University and also a former president of the National Association of Nigerian Students. So that is more like a collage on who Ropo Ewenla is.
We are not going anywhere politically and culturally once we disengage from our own culture. We are not likely to make head way.
Ibcity Announcer: How was this experience confronting the military regime as an Activist?
Ropo Ewenla: It is better experienced than imagined. We were younger, full of ideas; passionate about the direction in which Nigeria is going. We did certain things without caution, because we believed that the love of Nigeria is greater than anything. That was also fashionable for the military government to factionalize the student body, so we were known then as the faction that was on the side of the pro-democracy activists. There were things that other people could do that were difficult for students of the union. Others had vehicles, we didn’t have vehicles. We hopped from bus to bus, we went to preach inside molue in Lagos, and we printed leaflets like evangelist proselytizing, like local pharmaceutical peddler who go inside buses. ASUU will be on strike and we would use the time to hop from Ebute meta to Iyana Ipaja in molue buses, preaching and distributing leaflets that we raised money on our own to print. We travelled incognito; many of us were arrested several times, locked up charged to court sometimes on charges that were not founded. Irrespective of whether the charged were founded or not some of us still found ourselves in prison. Because the system felt that there was a need to teach us a lesson. But we continued until we were able to chase the military out. But unfortunately we have not been able to achieve the democracy of our dream. And we hope that one day just like some people handed over to us we will have a couple of young people who can also continue
We hopped from bus to bus, we went to preach inside molue in Lagos, and we printed leaflets like evangelist proselytizing, like local pharmaceutical peddler who go inside buses. ASUU will be on strike and we would use the time to hop from Ebute meta to Iyana Ipaja in molue buses, preaching and distributing leaflets that we raised money on our own to print.
Ibcity Announcer: Do you feel a sense of accomplishment considering the present crop of activist at the student union level?
Ropo Ewenla: There is very little that I will say to blame them because the society gets the kind of leaders it deserves especially a society that does not consciously and actively work towards achieving certain positive goal. it doesn’t happen by accident except for those who believe in miracles. And in that field miracles don’t happen. When you get to the political field, hardly do miracles happen. You have to be hardworking and steadfast. You have a system here where, the natural means and platforms through which these younger people will have shaped their political and ideological tentacles are not there. There is a concerted effort to make sure that our young people in various institutions are the most docile, we do not encourage them to ask questions. We do not believe that they can challenge our authorities, the few once who are bold enough to challenge the authorities are smashed and when they are so smashed; there is no adjoining faculty that can rise to their defense. I won’t say that we just became who we were by virtue of the fact that that was what we wanted to be. We had people who were willing to correct us when we made mistakes. We had people to correct us. Even when through our exuberance take certain step that might not be politically correct. We were allowed to take their mistakes. There is no system now that is even allowing those young people to make their own mistakes. They are not allowed to speak whether what they want to say is right or wrong, they are given space in the political and administrative mechanism of institutions that are around. When we were in NANS we believed in a NANS charter which out of many other things, insisted that students should be part of the admin of any higher institution. The only reason why the institutions are set up in the first place is because the students are there. If the students are not there, institutions will not hold. And this is one of the means through which we can help the students to observe to learn just by watching you do things and to also begin to develop a critical mind of their own, to have a sense of responsibility. When you set up committee in institutions even in secondary schools, and you involve students there is a way it prepares them for positions of responsibility and leadership in the future. But now we want them to just come in, see things go wrong and not being able to challenge these things and we want them to transform the society. We are joking.
There is a concerted effort to make sure that our young people in various institutions are the most docile, we do not encourage them to ask questions. We do not believe that they can challenge our authorities, the few once who are bold enough to challenge the authorities are smashed and when they are so smashed; there is no adjoining faculty that can rise to their defense.
Ibcity Announcer: Why are you not into politics despite your background in activism?
Ropo Ewenla: Everything is political. A stylist may be more political than an unconscionable vociferous. What we want to term politics is a defined activity that change thought scape, the thinking scape of a large majority of people such that the society can advance. It may not necessarily mean joining political parties that you have no faith in. I belong to a political group that does not necessarily subscribe to all the shenanigans going on.so I am not personally convinced that the only way to participate in politics is to join them if you cannot beat them. In my own political organization might not have grown and developed to a level where you can see them out there. But perhaps you could ask yourself that the only substance to what they are doing is they are political groups that have no roots. They are like parasites of the political landscape. They are jobbers. A lot of them are looking for relevance, trying to solve a basic existential problem of what to eat and what to wear. What have they done to educations with the number of years of democracy? How many times have ASSU and ASUP gone on strike. The same reasons they were going on strike when the military were there. You think I should have joined those people who are all moving around in one small circle. I do not see myself as belonging to such political groups or parties.
We need political parties that identify first of all the socio-political ideology that is clear about what its role will be in the lives of the people of Nigeria; Parties that can demonstrate unflinching commitment to that in the face of any other thing.
Do you know what they say of the bamboo tree? It not the year it is planted that it germinates, it keep growing deep down, building roots. But these ones, they don’t have a root. Because, before you wink your eyes…right now we have 91 political parties, they say it is good for democracy, but it is shame on our collective intellect. Are we that confused/ give me the shade of ideology separating ten out of those 91 political parties? They are just six and half a dozen. They are all one and the same. This is not the kind of politics that will move us out of where we are. We need political parties that identify first of all the socio-political ideology that is clear about what its role will be in the lives of the people of Nigeria; Parties that can demonstrate unflinching commitment to that in the face of any other thing. Even in liberal democracies like the United States, we still have families who from generation to generation, you can say this is a Republican, or a democrat family. But you don’t have that here.
Ibcity Announcer: Are you also a cultural activist?
Ropo Ewenla: Yes. Am very much am.
But perhaps you could ask yourself that the only substance to what they are doing is they are political groups that have no roots. They are like parasites of the political landscape. They are jobbers. A lot of them are looking for relevance, trying to solve a basic existential problem of what to eat and what to wear.
Ibcity Announcer: Why so. Why the transition from political activism to cultural activism?
Ropo Ewenla: Well, there is no transition as a matter of fact, the same errors that political elites make is what is responsible for asking me that question. The best way to get a people to listen to you is to speak in a language that they understand. And that is culture. What is culture? Culture is not rooted in the way they did things in 1914 or 18th century. It takes cognizance of that but it is also in constant motion. So, part of today’s culture that I am also involve in is the hip hop culture, because I must understand it, otherwise I won’t be able to speak to people twenty years my junior I won’t even be able to listen to what they are saying. So when they do their rapping and singing, I listen attentively. This is despite the fact that I still want to listen to Ogundare Foyanmu, Alabi Ogundepo, I also want to listen to Olamide, I want to know what is going on between Simi and Gold. This is because they are the future. So to be a cultural activist also means that you have to exhibit cultural dynamism. You have to be ready and attentive to receive what is good from different perspectives.
Culture is not rooted in the way they did things in 1914 or 18th century. It takes cognizance of that but it is also in constant motion. So, part of today’s culture that I am also involve in is the hip hop culture, because I must understand it, otherwise I won’t be able to speak to people twenty years my junior I won’t even be able to listen to what they are saying.
There are things that we are doing now that I myself will use the knowledge that I have to see that ‘this will not go’.it is not just to say that everything goes in the name of culture being in constant motion. But, we are going to define our culture as being in constant motion as Yoruba people. So you are coming from the traditional bureau, the likes of Odolaye Aremu, Duro Ladipo or those who are even older than them and then you are trying to find the connection between those ones and the stage activists of those days such as Kunle Afolayan who is also doing things in different ways like 9ice, Asa, so it is a mix. Some wonder when they see me writing about hip hop or singing. They wonder, but that is because they don’t understand it when you say there is a transition between political activism and cultural activism. I don’t see a difference. One would assist the other. If I do not understand your culture why should I want to determine your politics or interpret your politics? This is because politics is an integral part of culture. We say culture is the total way of doing things which include the way in which we run our system.
But these ones, (political parties) they don’t have a root. Because, before you wink your eyes…right now we have 91 political parties, they say it is good for democracy, but it is shame on our collective intellect. Are we that confused? Give me the shade of ideology separating ten out of those 91 political parties?
What is our judicial system like? How do you compare that to what we have now. What is the sense in having judges in this land and clime, who wear black in courts that are not air conditioned? Where there is even no electricity to power fans and they wear that heavy wig. Is that not plain stupidity? Our fathers judged, they didn’t have to wear these things. But we as a people we have refused to realize that we can be independent. So if we are not culturally independent, how can we be politically independent?
9ice decided to do Hip hop, but hip hop in our Nigerian way. Dagrin decide to do Rap but in Yoruba way. Olamide also decides to do Rap not just in Yoruba way but in the street/bariga way and that is what stands him out. At different times when young people understands their culture and apply their culture to their art, it is because it is integral. It is what flows in their veins. It is very little effort that they will put into it. These artistes are the ones who do their things effortlessly, and people just embrace them.
As young as I was then I knew I was not going to bear an English name though I didn’t know much about Yoruba culture as I know now but I was culturally conscious.
Ibcity Announcer: You do most of your posts on Social media in Yoruba. Why do you not translate these posts for easy understanding?
Ropo Ewenla: I do not want to. First I want to challenge people to read it in its original form and understand it in the original. Those who may desire an interpretation should do there research or look for interpreters. I also did my research to find those things. There are things I did not know about ten years ago. So I don’t want to do the lazy man’s post. From some of the comments I follow, some of them interpret it. Where there is a deadlock, I try to come in. but I also want to challenge other people on the thread to say oh! You don’t know it, This is what it means. I also do that on other peoples thread, unless there is a misinterpretation. So, let’s tease our brain, let us call our Moms and Dads to explain things to us. There is a priest, Stephen Ofonikot who follows me, he writes his comments in Yoruba with the marks. He is not a native speaker. When he doesn’t understand what I post he side chats me and I explain it to him. He is even close to 60 years of age.
Despite the fact that I still want to listen to Ogundare Foyanmu, Alabi Ogundepo, I also want to listen to Olamide, I also want to know what is going on between Simi and Gold. This is because they are the future.
Ibcity Announcer: There is a growing appeal among millennials to forgo the Yoruba language amid the quest to belong. What is responsible for this?
Ropo Ewenla: It is insane. It is pure madness. It is a kind of collective hysteria that leads nowhere but an abyss. We are more or less a doomed people. Doomed as in we are finished. This is largely because we have irresponsible elite, the Yoruba elite especially. They are unconscious of their responsibility to the culture and the tradition. Cultures are encoded in certain basic things, before western literacy, in our songs and our tales. To remind ourselves of whom we are. What should be our values, where we should not step beyond? What defines us? Those things are captured in our tales and in our songs in the festivals that we celebrate. The festivals are not there anymore and people pretend that it doesn’t matter. When the festivals happen in the village, the elites, the people will be in the cities. There is no sense of commitment because they don’t see the values. That is why their children will rather go to see Father Christmas and say Egungun is Evil. Our Fathers say Egungun are the spirits of our dead ancestors. Father Christmas comes from heaven every year. Our Egungun speaks in guttural; Father Christmas speaks in a disguised voice. They take away our own Egungun and they gave us their own Egungun. Our children will line up see Father Christmas.
Today the BBC has a Yoruba channel. This shows that our heads have gone off its normal place. We will tune in to BBC to hear Yoruba and I am sure that they will make sure that their won Yoruba presenters are well trained.
How many new Yoruba novels have you encountered in the last 10 years? Who are the writers of the language? How many radio stations are promoting Yoruba literature how many of them have presenters speaking Yoruba very well. Some of them can’t pronounce Yoruba names. But we have elites who can set up radio stations but cannot set up language training for those people.
Today, as a film maker, if you go to DSTV and say you made a cultural film, they will reject it. That is because we don’t own it, we can’t determine what we are going to do there. If you do Ogun and Sango legend tale, they will say they don’t want it.
Today the BBC has a Yoruba channel. This shows that our heads have gone off its normal place. We will tune in to BBC to hear Yoruba and I am sure that they will make sure that their won Yoruba presenters are well trained. There are more private radio stations in Ibadan now than we had at a time in Nigeria. In the whole of Nigeria we never had more than Six (6) at a time. Apart from radio Nigeria few other states have their own broadcasting corporation. So what are these radio stations doing for the language. Or how else do we preserve our culture in the age of technology. When we didn’t have technology, our forefathers did promote the language. Today, as a film maker, if you go to DSTV and say you made a cultural film, they will reject it. That is because we don’t own it, we can’t determine what we are going to do there. If you do Ogun and Sango legend tale, they will say they don’t want it. And none of our elites can rise up to say what can we do change this narrative.
The cinemas we use to have, have all become churches. They are places where Pentecostal churches have taken over. So we don’t have elite that can rise up to the challenge and provide the platform for filmmakers and promote the language and culture. How many Yoruba films do they slate in our cinemas here in Ibadan? So we end up watching films made in English about Yoruba people. When you know that these people are putting on Agbada and Esiki but they are speaking English. They actually speak Yoruba but you are hearing them in English. Nature abhors vacuum. If our children don’t have anything to guide them, they will lash on to anything because they can’t continue to be tabula rasa. If we refuse to write on the minds of our children, other people will write on it. What they watch on TV and what they do on their phones has no connection with our culture, why won’t there be that gulf between whom we are and who we are likely to be in the future. Americans send their children to come and learn our language here in Nigeria. They even learn how to beat the talking drum.
Nature abhors vacuum. If our children don’t have anything to guide them, they will lash on to anything because they can’t continue to be tabula rasa. If we refuse to write on the minds of our children, other people will write on it
Ibcity Announcer: Do you think the failure of government is responsible for this drive for westernization?
Ropo Ewenla: We are not going anywhere politically and culturally once we disengage from our own culture. We are not likely to make head way. Those whose culture we are embracing or those who are midwifing; the Asian are midwifing the western culture. American companies go to Asia to set up companies and we go there to place orders. They are still strong on their culture. They didn’t abandon who they were for what they want to eat. They have a larger population with poverty and unemployment and the American came in to set up companies so as to help them but have they stopped speaking in their own language or have they started importing clothes from other cultures?
In china for instance, their culture determines their political direction. We seem to think that our culture does not matter. Once we think that way. All kinds of political systems will be thrown upon us. How many political systems have we tried by the way? Quite a lot. This is because we have neglected a culture that will show us the direction to go. So, we kept doing a la carte from all over the place.’
We have people sit down in a constituent assembly and say oh, this is what they do in America let’s take part of it. This is because there is no cultural direction.
We use to have a house of chiefs, which meant that those traditional rulers too matter. That is what perhaps we should have improved upon but was abandoned in the name of trying to catch up with the rest of the world. You cannot catch up with the rest of the world if we forget who we are and neglect our culture. There is no Globalization without ‘Glocalization’. That global pot where everyone is eating from, it is some people who brought their local content to that pot. It is when A brings, B brings and D brings, that is when we call it globalization. It is not a miracle. it is contributions of different people, It is collage, it is a mixed art. That is why we call it globalization. If we forget who we are, what are we going to bring to the dining table? If there is a buffet and everyone is supposed to bring something along. You can’t bring what is mine and say you a contributing anything, it will be of no value.
You cannot catch up with the rest of the world if we forget who we are and neglect our culture. There is no Globalization without ‘Glocalization’. That global pot where everyone is eating from, it is some people who brought their local content to that pot. It is when A brings, B brings and D brings, that is when we call it globalization. It is not a miracle.
Nigerian University wants to invest in how to make solar panels; the Chinese have gone beyond that. We are the once who should have started it. Because this is the area of the world where there is much heat. People who are in cold places are making air conditioners. We who need it are not making it. In 2018 we are still stupid enough to export cocoa. How long does it take for the human brain to wake up? In 2018, we are still exporting crude, and then looking for money to import refined products for our own domestic use. We mine raw things and export them; they refine it and sell it back to us at exorbitant prices. In fact it is as if something congenital is wrong with us as a people.
Ibcity Announcer: Are you not buying into the narrative that the black man is infinitely inferior to the white man?
Ropo Ewenla: Well, not infinitely inferior. It is not about inferiority complex. There are people who see these things we say but who are just benefitting from it because it benefits them that society does not make progress, not like they don’t make progress. They people buy whole streets in Europe and America from the proceeds of our underdevelopment. So some people are benefitting from our underdevelopment. There are people who are also agents of the larger international ‘underdevelopment’ agencies who claim to be doing things for every one of us. There are cartels that are just interested in our underdevelopment.
Ibcity Anouncer: How do we get out of this quagmire? How do we rework the minds of our people?
Ropo Ewenla: Education! Education!! Education!!! Education in different ways. Anybody who has the power or the influence to attract close to ten people to him on a daily basis and doesn’t know how to use that power is a part of the problem. If you are on social media say things in Yoruba. The social media has become a local handle, area where our values are encapsulated and captured for further dissemination. But unfortunately, this age is the age of information but it is also the age where ignorance persists. You have people who ask you questions that they simply could google up. We need to understand the power of social connection that our fathers did not have but which we are not using well enough. I think our churches are using them. They are on radio, TV, facebook etc. But there are no socio-cultural groups that are very vibrant on social media. Before social media, we use to hear of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, such things can be re-invented. Though there is Egbe Agbasaga. However, one big problem is that no sooner had these platforms been created than the members start posting different irrelevant things.
So these are things at our finger tips to challenge the status quo to ask relevant questions. The quality of questions that we ask determines the quality of answers that we get.
People must also understand that cultural advocacy does means that you must behave like Ogun and Sango. It means that you must be versatile with what pushes your people as a culture so that you can see the connection between this world and that world so that you can see that it is still the same people in motion because no culture is ever static. Even if you are not going to speak in Yoruba, write in Yoruba. Soyinka all his life has always written in Yoruba but you think you are reading English. That is why some people don’t understand his works. The day you read his works in Yoruba, that day you start understanding his writings. Achebe also wrote in Igbo language.
Whenever I leave Lagos behind a kind of peace come on me and when I get to Ibadan, I am like Yes I’m home. There is an atmosphere of relaxation that I enjoy in Ibadan, I don’t enjoy it anywhere else. Ibadan is a lovely place to live.
Ibcity Announcer: Coming to you Sir, How was growing up in Ibadan like?
Ropo Ewenla: Growing up in Ibadan was fun at least until I gained admission to the university. My life was majorly lived between Iyaganku and Apata. At that time it became impossible for me to imagine living anywhere apart from Ibadan. Although after leaving university; I had my first degree in Ife and my second degree in Ibadan. I went to stay in Lagos. I stayed at Agbado Ijaye which is very far from Lagos metropolis. Whenever I leave Lagos behind a kind of peace come on me and when I get to Ibadan, I am like Yes I’m home. There is an atmosphere of relaxation that I enjoy in Ibadan, I don’t enjoy it anywhere else. Ibadan is a lovely place to live.
Ibcity Announcer: How close are to Prof Wole Soyinka?
Ropo Ewenla: we have worked together in couple of times. Art brought us together. I have been in one or two of his plays.
Ibcity Announcer: You speak a lot like Wole Soyinka
Ropo Ewenla: Before I ever met him (Wole Soyinka) personally someone called my attention to the fact that I speak like him. This has also helped me because there are some of his characters that I have played, having some of his centrism. Each time I had to interpret those characters, it has come to me naturally because that is more like the way I also speak.
Ibcity Announcer: As an actor and dramatist, how many plays have you acted in?
Ropo Ewenla: To be sincere, I can’t count. For instance, I have done Death and the Kings horsemen, at three different times (different roles). I have played in Ben Tomoloju’s Kongi’s harvest and Jankariwo written by Ben Tomoloju himself. Yepa! Solarin nbo, on stage and also on TV. Ireke Onibudo adaptation for stage directed by Tunde Awosanmi, adapted for stage by Femi Osofisan. I have been in chattering and the Sun by Femi Osofisan, The Engagement; Trials of Bro Jero; Jero’s Metamorphosis. Ola Rotimi’ Man Talk Woman Talk.