Tina Mba has been in the stage production and film making business for over two decades. The Enugu State born actress is passionate about not only the arts, but also God’s creation: man, plants and animals. That is why plants live with her in her sitting room, balcony, and she has a small garden and four parrots. In this interview with RONKE KEHINDE, she talks about how she started stage production, how art can be used to rebrand Nigeria, and the kind of man she wishes to settle down with.

It’s been a while since we saw your face on soap operas last. What have you been doing?

I’m still on TV. Shadows is still running, Footprints is still running. I’ve done a couple of films lately. I’ve also done a couple of Yoruba movies that are already out, Ijapa and Ohun Oko So Mi Da.

I’ve just shot another one and I don’t know what the title is going to be, but basically things are generally slow. New projects are coming, but aren’t coming as they should. Besides that, there are other aspects of the art that I’m known for, like stage production.

We’ve known you for quite a while, how did you find yourself doing what you do?

I got inspired by a couple of people a very long time ago, and somewhere in my mind I just knew it was something I would like to do. Also, my house wasn’t far from the National Theatre at the time, so it was easy to just trek there, see people rehearsing and join them. We had play houses in those days and you belonged to one and got trained if you were not formally trained as it were at the time. It’s been a long journey, but I don’t think I would change it for any other thing. I also have a couple of stage productions: I do poetry interpretations and prose for some organisations and those are my major things. But other than that, I like to do a bit of interior decoration. I like to plant, because I love plants a lot. In fact anything that is art oriented, I do.

So apart from acting, you do a bit of decorating?

Yes, I did my house. I like to do bathrooms and kitchens. I do all sorts and I like colours.

When you were growing up, who were the people that inspired you?

The one person who did inspire me a lot was Iria Akima. He did inspire me both on TV and radio, and of course I do radio. He was my first and major inspiration.

Who else did you see on TV that you wanted to be like?

Ajayi Lycette of winds against my soul was one of my favourites. Jimi Sholanke was an inspiration.

Can you let us into your educational and family background?

I can read and write and of course I went to school. As for my family background, we are seven; let me count (laughs). We are four girls and three boys. I have two kids, Tani and Joseph. It is a closely knitted family, and my mother has been a widow for about 30 years now; so she has done it all alone until I joined. So it’s been just us and our God. I had a very happy childhood. I love my mum, but I was very close to my father.

How long have you been acting?

It’s been over 20 years.

Can you share with us some of the challenges you’ve faced in the course of your acting?

Challenges come in all forms. I know what people want to hear is sexual harassment, but the truth is I have not personally encountered any major sexual harassment even minor as it were. Otherwise the challenges I have had would be productions… our colleagues, producers, directors, even actors appreciating our traits, being responsible for our flaws and forging ahead. We have gone into mediocrity with the kind of actors we have. We have very fine actors, but most of the times are not touched because of man-know-man and there is this unnecessary divide in the arts, where they say stage actors like us don’t fit into the glamour of home videos. But I believe if you are a total actor it means that you must sing, dance and act. Therefore whether you are a home video actor, theatre, radio or dance or whatever; you are an actor so that divide is a major challenge for me. And that’s why most of the time we turn out films with little or no professionalism in it in terms of not technical now, because technical personnel are doing brilliantly well as far as Nigeria or Africa is concerned, but actors lack training most of the time, whether formal or informal. So it is nice to hear or see people like Joke Silva start up a drama school where people can actually know the basics of acting, because it is not for every Tom, Dick and Harry. Even if you are going to sell pepper, there is a union in the market for it and you would have to register and learn. It breaks my heart when my vulcaniser comes to me and says Aunty Tina, I want to act. I get irritated because something that people have toiled for, went to school for and trained on the job for, and along the way you keep training, brushing yourself up and reading books and doing research and somebody just thinks it’s about “mo kan fe act” (I just want to act) so that’s a huge challenge, and it is because we encourage it. I know that of course you can discover talent but when you discover this talent, do me a favour, and let them know the ABC. You don’t discover a talent and first thing you do is put them in front of a camera and shoot. They become “Stars” and they have problems of cutting them to size because they now go larger than even you the maker of this character or this monster. Those who have slaved in this industry over time, including the producers and directors are beneath them. And the truth is that they are unfortunately the faces representing us in the art all over the world. So when they say do we have good actors in Nigeria, the first thing that comes to mind is what they see on the screen. But the truth is we have total actors, but because of tribalism or nepotism whatever it is; nobody touches them. An Igbo woman can’t survive the Yoruba film industry. The Yoruba man cannot survive in the EnglishIgbo home video film industry, but it is sad because we are all actors. There was a time we had to do a merger where we find people like Shan George doing Yoruba films and it was nice. At one point it stopped perhaps the marketers didn’t like it or too much trouble or money, I don’t know. Whatever made it stop was an ill decision. I think we should just learn to merge and grow this industry.

I would like you to also share some of your memorable moments.

My greatest times have been on stage where I’ll have to rehearse for at least four weeks, or as long as the producers wanted it. Stage for me is my strength, it is where I belong, it is what I love doing. It broadens my horizon and the craze behind the entire production is fascinating. Rehearsals, screaming at each other sometimes jesting or fooling around while rehearsing are those moments you can’t buy. You are at work rehearsing for about 10 hours, and you don’t feel it; and when the production is coming to an end you are like gush so this is ending. It’s so much fun.

Do you think stage production is still as active as before in Nigeria?

What we are doing to stage production in Nigeria is just unfortunate. Since Prof Ahmed Yerima left the national troop, I haven’t heard of when the national troop has done an open audition; if they have; maybe not more than one or two. So these are our challenges. Who would take over? At one point it was only the national troop that was producing stage plays, but even at that now who takes over? Who is running what? Nothing is happening on stage and it’s expensive. The last one I produced was worth so much money and sponsors would rather do reality shows. They would rather sponsor a dumb reality show or a copycat reality show rather than infuse our culture into children and even adult in terms of literature, the culture of reading, culture of appreciating art in itself even exhibitions; except it’s an individual effort. I do not see anybody saying we are sponsoring an exhibition. It doesn’t happen anymore, if it does, it is very few. I knew at a point in time we had grants for all these things even radio productions but right now nothing is happening, everybody is doing reality shows and what we end up doing is what the Americans and Britons are running away from. People are trying to imbibe the African culture while we are busy throwing it away. There was a time that when one dresses like this (Ankara gown with head gear) in Europe, you are looked at as ‘what is wrong with her?’ But right now you find Americans dress in Ankara because it’s trendy.

They are talking about re-branding Nigeria; I do not know what we are re-branding yet o! Because our kids are still walking about with sagged trousers; our girls are still going around with no particular ambitions and direction. We are throwing away brotherliness, love for one another, decency, decorum and our modesty. In those days our parent and grandmothers would teach us to sit upright, sit properly and close your legs; teach you to cook for a man, teach you to wash up as a woman. We have our own traditional incenses or perfumes that women soak themselves. I have some here. We are sensual people. The kind of things we send out is not us, we have more dirt. They talk about girls exposing their bodies. That is not the issue. My issue is your carriage, your sensuality as an African woman. It goes beyond all of that. As an African woman, you can soak yourself in traditional perfumes that are made from trees. You can perfume your house by burning the barks. We have lost all of that. You can dress up for your husband the African woman way and be very sensual. But all we do now is going to eateries and jumping around. We are losing all that. I could go on and on and on. So for me, the one sure way we can bring all these things back is through the art. Look at the art of Laali, our own tattoo here. The kinds of tattoo you see now are actually very scary. I don’t know what they do that for. But the Uli and the Laali that the Hausas use are from trees and plants and it’s an art on its own. You find the northern brides looking beautiful using them. That’s Africa, our designs are compared to none in the world because we are just a people God has created and blessed for himself. That’s how I see Africans and Nigerians especially. We are so gifted but we are losing the essence of our being. That’s why we have so much problems and controversy. So re-branding Nigeria for instance isn’t all these billboards but from within and how do you do that? You can start with the arts, from the arts, spread the gospel and it would help. It is not giving billions of naira to politicians. It is from us. Enlightenment, go to the schools and introduce curriculum. We used to go centres in the old days where girls are taught how to do cookery, sewing, knitting, all of that. The boys were thought the technical things. We don’t have them in schools anymore. So that makes a woman know that ‘I am a care provider or caregiver’. No matter how ambitious a woman is, you can be a president and still be a woman and a mother. That is the strength of being a woman in Africa.

Apart from acting, what other things bring you joy?

The first things that bring me joy are my children. Before they came, it was the art. My job and being around my family; we have a lot of fun in my house. Besides all of that, what gives me joy is to see other people happy so I try in my little way to do that. In all modesty, I’m like a priest who people run to; I hear a lot of things and stomach a lot of things. I’m not quick to judging people rather I try to see where you are coming from because everybody, no matter how bad has a reason, no matter how flimsy the excuse is. There is always one reason why you would do this. I like to see people happy, I like to see people engaged and I also like to give people a second chance in life, because we don’t know it all and we don’t always get it the first time. Those are the things that propel me as a human being.

Have you had an embarrassing moment with your fans?

I just want to call it an appreciating moment. Out of excitement a woman hit me with both hands on the back saying heee! Heee! Tina Mba. You are coming to my house, you will eat pounded yam. It could be embarrassing but there are moments like that. There are other moments like ‘I don’t like what you did in that production at all, you were very wicked, you were this and you were that’; and I just glide over it like don’t mind that character, she is very naughty. For me, it could be much worse or it could be better. Either way it comes, it is just an appreciation of what you are doing. It means you are doing it right and you are doing it well. I’ve had situations where people that I know, in their hearts they want to say hello but they are not sure; so I say ‘hello’ first. And they now say sorry o. You know your people, I greeted somebody and the way the person reacted, and I said we are not all like that and it is not all about the job but our individual personalities. But I apologised on the person’s behalf; perhaps it was bad timing but as an artist you can’t have bad timing, because the secret of any actor or performer is your fans. The day they stop appreciating you, forget it, your food has ended. But they keep saying good work, and then you know you are doing well.

What was your first job ever?

My first job ever was producing stage act in 1989.

What did you do?

Production. I had a production outfit. My first job as a core performer was producing a stage play “as you like it” by Shakespeare, and it was done at the National Theatre, for schools and it was a huge success in terms of who attended. We were a couple of friends who owned the production outfit Benson Odama, late Kenneth Igbuna, Okunedor Omokaro, Charles Elumelu and the likes. Some are still in the arts, while some are out. The production was called ABC productions. Yea and it was good.

I want to know the very first job you did as an actress.

Ok, there was this thing they called mask parade at the time. There were all kinds of people in it and it was segments of performances. We were supposed to tour, but we did not. ; That I remember to be my first job.

What would you consider to be the boldest step you’ve taken in your life?

Walking away from a bad relationship (laughs). Seriously, knowing when to walk away from a bad relationship; When you are in a relationship or anything in life and initially you were very happy and then suddenly or gradually something begins to go wrong; you’ve searched your soul, relationship and heart and everywhere and it’s still not working; then you try and try, but it isn’t still working, my Darling, if it is me Tina Mba, I would sit the person down if it’s possible to discuss it. If it is not going to work beyond where we are, I walk. Because I do not owe my life to somebody else. It is mine, not yours. It means that what I make of it is what I see. I cannot be miserable for another man’s gratification. No matter how much I love someone or something, once you begin to give me undue pain and depression, I walk because my happiness is paramount in this world. The thing about joy, happiness and peace, it reflects on your skin. The day you begin to get depressed, you are dead.

Share with us some of the high moments you have had.

When I had my children are my high moments (laughs). Also when I’m working, my adrenaline just shoots up. I’m happy when I’m doing anything that makes me work. It could be when I’m making salad or lemonade, or trying a new recipe. Seeing a new day is a high point for me.

What about your low moment?

I think the only thing that can make me low is when I’m not active, because even when I’m ill I jump around.

If you are not in the art, what else would you be doing?

I told someone before that I probably would have been a Nun (laughs) or a social worker. I love children and I love taking care of people or a nurse. Otherwise I would be a shrink. Weird, isn’t it?

What’s your phobia?

I have phobia for height. I don’t like height. So, when I fly, I strap myself and pretend to be reading a magazine. But at some point I just tell myself: “Relax; you are not the only one here.” But it’s just there.

Tell us about your passion.

I’m passionate about people. I’m a people-oriented person. I’m passionate about the arts. I’m passionate about family basically but outside of that I’m passionate about God; anything that is a creation of the Almighty. Man, plant, animal, I’m passionate about anything and everything depending on how it comes. It depends on my perception of it.

How long have you been taking care of your parrots?

Susan and Bobby are two years old here. I bought them as almost adults. Dede and Zizi are a year old.

They keep your company.

Yea, I used to have a Canary but I gave it to the church. I kept it in the church because I travel a lot. In the mornings, when it’s 5.30a.m, they wake me up. You hear ‘iya o o!’ Or ‘hello!’ Followed by ‘Good morning’ and it’s so loud and sharp. They talk a lot and they know the names of everybody in this compound. I love them because we chat, sit with them; have coffee and we gist. They are innocent, they are not human beings and they don’t harbour any grudge. If any of them is angry with me they just peck my finger, then I know I’ve done something wrong. It’s easier to deal with them than to deal with human beings. So I can say I don’t have friends. I’m a lone ranger, but I have people around me who come every time I’m around. But the only person I can call my friend is in Ghana. Because your friend is who you can share things with and you know they won’t judge you, but people around you just want to hear so that they can judge you and mess you up. So I have not found friends, they probably have found me.

Tell us about your style.

I wear jeans a lot but I love African print. I love anything that has the African motif. I like to be comfortable, trendy and appealing. I like to be sensual. I’m an African woman. Haba! We have it so I must show it, but in my own way and in my style.

What is the craziest thing a man has told you?

Well, the craziest thing would be in Abuja, when I went for some production and someone was hosting us. We were all dancing and having fun. I like to dance alone and this man kept staring at me, so I walked up to him and said he should dance with me. While we were dancing, he went on his knees and said he felt like worshiping me but it must have been the alcohol; but he kept saying I was so beautiful that he felt like worshiping me. So I just told him that I appreciated it but I would rather not.

Most successful career women like you are not so successful in their marital and family life, what is your take on that?

I have never been married but I have two kids. God bless their soul. I consider marriage to be very serious but having said that I consider it sacred, because it’s an institution established by God and I fear God. But what I have seen and what I’m seeing now does not encourage me to even say let me just settle with somebody. We marry now and date for the wrong reasons. Our men have failed to see that we are human beings. A woman has her own dream, aspirations and focus or what drives her. You can’t marry me as Tina Mba the actress and tomorrow you expect me to open a shop and start selling clothes and shoes. I can’t kill my dream and I won’t even allow it. So you stand for what you believe in. I know someone who was a newscaster, she’s now in politics. She is encouraged by her spouse because I have some write up on her and her man in a magazine. I look at her and the man in her life and I say God if this is how it is, then I want to have it. I know of course it can’t be perfect, but I’m saying if a man pushes you to achieve your goal and you can tear yourself away from your coyness or shyness or timidity and propel you to be who you are made to be, then you should be with that man. But if you have a man who begins to suspect you when you are going on locations or who knows where you’ve been to or those actors when you hold hands, don’t you people begin to feel so and so and so.

Insecurity will ruin any relationship, whether I’m an actress or not. But the truth is they have forgotten that the first thing is the person you are dealing with. So as Tina Mba, I cannot be caged. If you want me, you must be able to let me be myself, let me blossom to my fullness. Otherwise, there is problem of intimidation, but men won’t say you intimidate them, they would never agree. They feel a little less than you because of who you are and your strength. Women want men who would help them grow, but where are they? Abeg my sister if you find one let me know.