Lulu and Destiny sit at the gate, daring you to make a move. Shouldn't you? One good attempt and they both relax. But are on alert.
Who are you? "People call me Amebo. I am Ibidun Allison. You choose which will fit your purpose."
We will be home addressing Chief (Mrs.) Ibidun Allison as Amebo, better still as the unassuming, quiet woman of modest height, good set of dentition, graceful and artistic, whose contributions to the television industry in the last 30 years cannot be swept under the carpet. "So you think I have done enough to deserve these encomiums?"
She did say that today is a very busy one for her. It is so obvious. Household items litter every available space in her Dolphin Estate duplex-home, which she has had for a few years now but just recently decided moving into. As she made all attempts to be receptive, she intermittently attends to the handymen. Mrs. Allison would rather sit on the pavement of the walkway and talk.
"If I had become a pharmacist, today may be the story would be different but much as I tried (I got as far as obtaining an admission into the Nigerian College of Science), … My primary interest, which was fuelled by a visit the late Pa Ogunde made to Sapele, where I grew up, in 1951, always came to the fore. After seeing this young handsome man tailed by a bee-hive of women who were damsels and who danced so well, all I wanted was to sing and dance. That much I communicated to my parents."
As the last of a family of four children, Mrs. Allison had her way. Her first chance came in 1960 when she went to Ibadan to work as a Radio/Library Attendant with the WNTV/WNBS. She later graduated to the tube; and was opportuned to make history as part of a four-man group which staged the first live drama on television.
"Let me check on these men. I need to know what they plan to do with those pipes. This place is gulping so much money, I regret not working on it since I bought it." She excuses herself from the forum, permitting you to browse.
Lulu and Destiny come around. Now what? They sniff and even attempt to snatch.
Let's have some peace, please. And tranquility. These are the hallmarks of Mrs. Allison's, whose home houses her mother, three young relations, two pet-dogs and incessant last-minute callers. "I always like to have kids around me. I just can't do without them. Though my three children are away, I still crave the fellowship of young ones; this keeps me strong and healthy. I love to cater for them." It must be part of the reason why the dogs are so daring. Lulu is bossy and dominating. Doesn't like eba but will savour rice round-the-clock. Destiny is more relaxed and understanding, checking Lulu in cases of extremity.
As she returns to her seat, her bespectacled face shines and compliments her skirt-suit abada piece. What made Amebo?
"By 1962, I returned to my job in the Ministry of Information, which I left briefly to work and live in Ibadan. It was while at this job I got the opportunity to further my education. I skeptically applied for and obtained a Federal Government scholarship to study Drama, Broadcasting and Scriptwriting in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. The school is now known as the Barbican. I was there for a three year Performance and Teaching course."
While in England, Chief Allison also attended the London School of Music, had BBC training, studied TV Production in the London School of TV Production and had a brief spell with the Central Office of Information in London.
Three years, and it was time to go home. Young, elegant, promising and enterprising Miss Ibidun Folahan caught the fancy of a young undergraduate. Consequently, she returned to Nigeria with a new identity. Home was anxious for her to occupy it. No sooner did she touch her feet on the sand than she was seconded from the Ministry of Information to the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, where she was till 1969. By 1970, she was in Lintas Advertising.
Where are the children? "Three of them are sojourning in America while three others are here with me. I am a mother to many and more. It was while in Lintas Advertising that I got an invitation form the Olusolas – Segun and Elsie – to partake in The Village Headmaster. I was given the Amebo role, one which, over the years, has stereo-typed me into the class of the pidgin-English speaking acts. The Nigerian TV industry is such that once you have been given a role and you have perfected it, you are automatically classified as being good at only that role. However, it was Amebo that actually brought fame to Ibidun Allison."
And for 19 years, Amebo reigned supreme over Ibidun and brought home to her so much fringe benefits; one of these is the chieftaincy title of Otun Iyalode of Ode Remo, conferred on her by Oba Funso Adeolu, Chief Eleyinmi in The Village Headmaster.
But the addition of "Chief" to Mrs. Allison's name is not compulsory to her. She has never stopped asking, "what is in a name?" For her, it could be any name or title so long as it represents you well. It was not a surprise, therefore, to discover that she gives her children the freedom to choose what name they would love to be associated with.
For one who is separated from her husband, it is an irony that she believes so much in marriage. "Oh yes, I do. We have been separated for about 28 years now, but I still believe so much in marriage. The separation has not changed my views in anyway. I was just 28 years old and mother of two kids when I had to leave my husband. That was barely a year before The Village Headmaster role came."
So why is she keeping her husband's name, hasn't she ever thought of divorce? "I do not believe in divorce. I do not have the time to go through the trouble. I am happy and content as a woman, a mother who has fulfilled all necessary obligations as a female. I am sure I could not have done better."
But the TV industry could have done much more than it has, argues Chief (Mrs.) Ibidun Allison. The standards seem to have nose-dived so much she now doubts if it can ever be resurrected. "In those days, broadcasters were teachers, people we learnt from. These days, the wrong people are placed in key positions. I have no problem with most of the programmes aired, but the people who air them – no, they need to go back to the classroom. Diction, comportment, pronunciation, everything is zero."
One thing Mrs. Allison regrets till date is that she was not able to set up a training school, which would have really assisted with the advent of private TV and mass employment in the air services. "I know it would have made a lot of difference. I still have high hopes to set up a place where I can teach the young ones because they need to be trained and prepared properly to assume the roles otherwise they will all soon fade out. My ears twitch each time I hear some pronunciations."
This must really bother Mrs. Allison. She rises, suddenly, and calls Tosan, who incidentally hopes to be a journalist. She asks her to recall some of the words, at the mention of which the household rolls on the floor in tear-laughter sessions. Now the young girl is thinking. "Oh Tosan, please tell me one of them, quick." She turns and tries to evoke such words, while Tosan thinks still. "They are so many. I just can't begin to mention any. I am not against private station enterprise, they are beautiful and wonderful; it is a good and marvelous development but I'm against ignorance and the application of such in this trade which should educate. At this stage, ignorance is not even enough excuse. Training is essential."
She regains her seat and relaxes. "My greatest dream is a school where I'll teach speech. Speech has been ruined, with Queen's and American English all being muddled and juggled to achieve nothing. The role models should be Aba Zoro, Ralph Opara, Adamu Muhammed, Anike Agbaje-Williams, Julie Coker, Taye Ayorinde."
At this, she rests her case. She is praying still. Having stayed so long and been so well received, Lulu and Destiny could not help but see you to the gate. Gone is the fear of them.
First published in ThisDay on October 18, 1997.