Although you appear in home videos as well as television series, you seem to be more at home with the latter…
I am at home with both. This is my job. This is my life. I love being in front of the camera. I love making people happy. So, it is not a question of whether I am more at home with one form or the other. As long as it is drama, I am ready to do it. I would have loved to do more of stage, but age is telling more on me, and the stress of stage play is more.
You are probably the last of your generation. What has kept you on?
Like I said, acting is my life. I love doing it. Let me put it this way: maybe I was born an actress. Some are born to do it, some acquire it, while some get it handed to them. But I believe that the gift of acting was given to me by the almighty God. It is not me, but God. If you say I am probably one of the last actresses of my generation, it is okay. But I know that there are people who are older than me, though they are very few. Are you calling me an old woman? I am old, no doubt about that. I am a great grandmother and the biggest joy of my life is for me to see my great grandson.
In terms of language too, you don’t seem to have a problem acting in English or Yoruba drama…
For Yoruba drama, I am first and foremost a Yoruba. Let me spell my name for you: I am Zainab Olubukola Ajayi. Apart from that, if Yoruba is paying me one kobo and English is paying me one million, I will still do Yoruba. I have been saying it and I am doing it. For English plays, I still have two people who are owing me after I did some jobs for them. I mentioned their names in one interview and they called to say that people had been calling them to say that they were owing me. I will still mention their names now, because I worked for them. I did not beg them for money; they came to me and called me for a job. I paid the fare to Abuja to oblige them. They told me that my money was paid into my account and because I trusted them, I left. To them, I may look stupid, but I am not. The film has sold, you have made your money and you are now calling to tell me that people have been calling you that you owe me and that I am spoiling your name.
Who are they?
Afam Okereke and Sunny Collins. I travelled all the way to Abuja to do the work. Afam called, and because I believed him, I had to go to Abuja. We had worked together. When I got there, he said before the end of the job, the money would be paid, but nobody paid me a kobo. And you want me to keep quiet? If it means going to all the media houses, I will do it, because I am old enough to be their mother. I don’t know how to steal, do fraud or stay in a hotel. This is the only job I know how to do, yet somebody refused to pay me for a job I did.
Why didn’t you report them to the guild of actors?
When Kate Henshaw-Nutal was still their secretary, she called the man. Then we went to do another work for the same man who gave it to another person, using another name so that I would not know. The producer paid me my money two weeks before we even left Lagos. But Afam Okereke called me for this particular job, and if he is reading this now, I want him to put me in the position of his own mother. How would he feel if someone else does that to his mother? I acted with Ucharia, Desmond Eliot and another Ibo girl. How come you paid some and refused to pay me?
How did you know that others were paid?
That is their business. I know Ucharia will not work until you pay her money. I don’t beg people for favour, but when you come to me for a job, I give it my best. You can ask around; I don’t take two jobs at the same time. Everybody knows me; I am a stickler for time. When you tell me ten, I will be there at ten. But some of the younger actresses will tell you oh, I want to go and see my doctor, I want to go and do this and that.
You described acting as your life, one wonders how you came into it in the first place…
I give every credit to my late father. My father used to take me to the cinema when I was a very young girl. Whenever he felt he had done something wrong to me, he would appease me by taking me to the cinema. I remember Royal Cinema, Capital Cinema on the then Broad Street, and I would be looking at all those stars and would say to myself that I wanted to be like one of them one day. Unfortunately, my father never lived to see me acting. I believe that whatever is in your mind to do, just be determined, work hard and pursue it.
How did you pursue yours?
I went to England and spent six years to train. I am not a roadside actress or a mo gbo mo ya. I studied it and I was well equipped for it. Even at my age, I am still learning it, but some of the younger actresses don’t know.
At the time you went to England, was acting a fashionable profession?
Ah, acting? Unless you didn’t come from a good family. A child from a good home and a good family would never do it. It was seen as something for riffraffs; people who had nobody to talk to them. ‘How can you say you want to become an actress? Don’t you know the daughter of who you are?’ But today, a lot of parents encourage their children to consider it.
How did you convince your parents then?
They were both dead, so it was easy. The only person left for me to convince was my uncle, so I was begging him to send me money. I said I was living on bread and butter, and he said, ‘You are very lucky, we don’t even get bread and butter to eat in Nigeria. So continue eating it, you will not die.’ And when I came back and started working with the then NTA, he was the first person to say, ‘Ah, that is my daughter. You know her? My younger sister’s daughter. She is my daughter.’ It was not easy then because you had to prove that it was love and passion that you had for the job. The money was not even there in the first place. We were not interested in money. If I tell you that I was paid just N200, you will not believe it. And tax would be deducted from it. But that did not stop us from doing our job. If rehearsal was fixed for 2pm, you would be there between 1pm 1:30pm. That is how it ought to be: dignity of labour.
You mentioned the NTA. Were you a regular employee there?
I came back from England in 1965 and started reading the news for the NTA on a freelance basis until I resigned. I was on my own for some time. I tried other jobs. I was doing some PR job for some people, but I realised that I couldn’t just do other things. There was a time I was into supply business, and when they wanted to beat me up, I had to move. Because everybody was quoting exorbitant price and I refused to do so, they ganged up against me and I had to run. That is one thing about me; I don’t like cheating people, and it pains me when people do it. Maybe because I love listening to sermons. There is no way you will not have a message to take home from what you hear.
Why didn’t you start acting when you came back from England? Was there no acting business then?
There was an acting industry, but it was not like it is now. Then, because of the nature of our society, if you said you wanted to go into acting, your family would ask if you were you out of your mind. When I started reading the news, a lot of people started calling, saying they would love to see the face of the voice behind the microphone and all that. I showed my face and that was when I started doing some presentations and programmes. I even sang on TV. I enjoyed my life at that time, but I left and started acting.
Can you recall your major acting jobs?
I believe that everything I do is major, because I put my heart into it. Even where I play a waka pass role, I do it well. Anything I want to do, I want to do it very well. Even when we did Sisters, I never believed I could do it with Joke Silva, Teni Aofiyebi, Iyabo Olajumoke, and I enjoyed it. I couldn’t believe that I could do Widows Court but I did it, though I fell ill after that.
Was it a deliberate attempt on your side to avoid scandals?
There is no perfect human being, but it depends on how you conduct yourself. So when I was younger, it was okay. Is it now that I am over 70 years that people will start talking about me?
Before the advent of home video, would you say acting in Nigeria was something to write home about?
No, it wasn’t. Everybody now believes it is possible to make money from it. But I think we need to do a lot to stop producing rubbish. Instead of every Tom, Dick and and Harry producer churning out many substandard movies, why can’t some three or four people come together and produce a quality video? There is no discipline at all.
How did you manage to live a life worthy enough to become a great grand mother in spite of being an actress?
It is not me but God almighty. You see, whatever you do in this world, if you don’t have contentment, no matter how much you have, you will never be satisfied. I have gone to gatherings where people seem to forget that any other person there matters but me. That gives me joy. I was ill during the Ramadan period and my children were worried, though they did their best to take care of me. And when I told them that I would not do any job during December, they didn’t believe me. Here I am, I eat what I like. Though I don’t have a car, I go out in taxis when I like.
I used to have one. I am old now and I cannot drive. I don’t go out as I used to do when I was younger. Even if I want to go anywhere, I can afford to hire a taxi to take me there. In fact, as soon as I enter the motor park, all the drivers would want to take Mama.
You keep mentioning God. Have you always been close to Him?
You see, there are certain things we do while we are young and we think we are enjoying life. But we don’t know that it is not the case. I went to England and, I can not deceive you, I enjoyed my life. I drank and smoked and went to parties. But today, you can not even smoke in my presence. Today, all I drink is juice. I used to be very high when going to parties. We had different dresses and shoes for different parties. But there is time for everything. I now know Allah more and I think I can advise young ones that they should do things moderately.
When did your life witness a turning point?
I think it was in the late seventies, because I went for the hajj in 1982. In Mecca, I won’t say I met God, because I don’t want to blaspheme. But He showed me His overwhelming grace. I then realised that all the struggle in this life is nothing. Although some people argue that nobody has come back from heaven to tell us what happens there, when you know God, you will realise all that. Like I said to you, the contentment I have is the biggest gift that Allah has given to me.
Have you always been a Muslim?
No, I converted.
I just embraced Islam. You see, I was born into both religions. In our family house, there were adherents of both Islam and Christianity. Two of us, my elder brother and I, embraced Islam. I believe that both religions worship the same God; the only difference is the mode of worship. I come from Lafiaji, one of the toughest areas in Lagos, and Okepopo. If you come from those areas, you must have sympathy for both religions. When they are celebrating Christmas, I go there and eat because they come to me during Ileya to eat my ram.
Did your work as an actress pose any problem for you when you wanted to get married?
How can it pose a problem? You knew me as an actress before you came to me and said you wanted to marry me. If you truly love a man or a woman, you love him with everything. I love being myself; I don’t pretend or try to impress anybody.
They say because of the larger than life image of actresses, they find it difficult to remain under the control of men. How did that affect you?
That is a wrong question to ask me, but I will answer you. Why would I want to control a man? Why should I go against the law of God because I am an actress? I have always been taught by my father who said, ‘Bukola, whenever anyone wants to give you a job and you know you are not qualified for that job, don’t take it.’ I loved my father a lot because I could talk to him. Maybe that is a punishment for me now, because I have only boys. I don’t have a girl. A lot of things are said about actresses, but some of them are not true, at least about some people. In Nigeria, we don’t know how to separate the roles played by an actress from her person. Young girls now see me on the road and pray for me. They say I am their role model.
Did your husband try to talk you out of acting?
No. I will not deny that he loved me with everything, but then it didn’t work out. You can’t blame God for that. But now we have become the best of friends. He is now my best critic. He would call and say, ‘Mama, that job is not tight enough,’ and I would say, ‘Baba, you too can do it.’
Is any of your children taking after you?
Yes, my last born. He is into music and acting. He was nominated for AMAA awards this year. He is in Fuji House of Commotion as Kasali, who plaits his hair.
What has acting done for you?
A lot. At least, it puts food on my table.
Now that you are over 70, when will you retire?
Retirement? You don’t retire in this industry. As long as I can still read the script and can walk, I will continue. I told you, acting is my life, I don’t have any other thing. I am happy when I am on location and in front of the camera. I cannot sit down at a place for long without doing anything.
What was growing up like?
It was beautiful. I fought a lot and I was a tomboy. I loved fighting with boys. You know I grew up in Lafiaji and Okepopo; that toughened me.