Hubert Ogunde: The Repentant Charmer
“My father died clinging to a Bible on his chest.”
That’s Kunle David Ogunde talking to the local media about the distinguished filmmaker Hubert Ogunde, who passed away on 4th April 1990. Based in the UK, he was in Nigeria recently to shoot some scenes of his first feature film (titled ‘The Snare’) and he chose to address a press conference at the end of it. “It was a great way for a man to leave this planet, to call upon God his creator and prepare the way for where he is going in the world beyond.”
A couple of hours earlier, two of Kunle’s sisters, both of them named Bose, had taken me on a tour of the Ogunde estate at his country home in Ososa, Ogun State. The tour started in the filmmaker’s living room, now the heart of the museum being put together by the family ahead of the 25th anniversary of his death, took me through the big twin rooms housing the vast wardrobes from some 50 years of stage and film productions, a rehearsal room, apartments for wives, children and production crews, a clinic and ended, an hour later, at the spot where two of the vehicles that served Ogunde’s traveling theatre decades back are parked, almost like guards near their owner’s grave.
The tour included a brief stop inside Ogunde’s private room, because the sisters wanted me to see the adjoining ‘prayer room’. (Unfortunately, the room is locked.)
“People believe that he doesn’t pray,” the younger Bose said, after we gained access to the main room. “Yes, he was a traditional man but he later converted himself. One fateful day, he took the decision to do away with all his charms—he put everything inside a lorry, drove into the bush by himself and that was the end of it. When he came back home, he converted the room at his home in Alagomeji (Noble Street), where he kept those charms, to a prayer room. That was many years before he died but the public didn’t know—they thought he died a traditionalist.”
Ogunde, it must be said, was only doing what came naturally to him. His parents were traditionalists, so he wouldn’t have had to look too far off to draw inspiration for his numerous creative outputs later in life; the influences were, literally, close to his chest.
According to the sisters, Ogunde’s spiritual zeal intensified to the point that he prescribed a fasting regime in his household. “We used to do white fasting in the family—we broke the fast with cooked corn and coconut,” younger Bose recalled, her face brightened by the memory.
“He told all his children that the only thing we should hold onto is God, because he had used all these charms and realized that they never really worked,” said the older Bose. “He believed that the herbalists who had the potent ones were already dead. As a matter of fact, he had a nasty experience with one man in Ibadan. The man made some juju for him; papa used them for some time but they didn’t achieve much. They failed him.”
My gaze shifted from the sisters to the bathroom door, which is slightly open and showing part of a bathtub. A water heater hung a few feet above it. Everything in the room, the sisters told me, is as Ogunde left it—the king-size bed, the sofa, the wardrobe and the air conditioner (“It’s still working up till now. We have not repaired or changed it since he died. Even the generator outside—our father had taste.”).
There are also costumes worn by Ogunde’s character in some of his films about; along with his personal clothes, they are dry cleaned as often as necessary, every three years on the average. Somewhere on the wall an academic robe hung from a hanger.. “That’s what he wore when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Lagos,” the younger Bose said.
All the clothes are, surprisingly, in good condition in spite of the passing of time, in this case 24 long years. “It is our mothers we have to thank for that,” older Bose said. “They are the ones who have brought them out regularly to let them get some air and sun.”
At that point, the sisters turned to one of the room’s walls and lifted up a light blue cloth. Beneath it was a large frame; on it, linear diagram shows the family tree, all of Ogunde’s wives on one level and all his children per wife below that. I got a couple of seconds to scan the passport-size photos by each name before the veil came down and we stepped out of the room, headed out to the next stops.