Jibola Dabo is a veteran actor that does not hide the story of his struggle with poverty before he finally had a break. He shares his life experiences in this interview with Ademola Olonilua
You are easily identified with your white beard. What influenced the look?
I have had this look for over twenty years. It has gradually become a way of identifying my brand. I cannot really remember when I started looking this way.
What kind of child were you while growing up?
I grew up a poor boy. I would not say I was radical because I was young, but I was quite stubborn. I was an angry young man because I felt luck deprived me of most things that my mates had. Moreso, because I schooled with rich children, I used to feel bad. However, I was a very hardworking young man and I was determined to get what I wanted, but I always got them in the hard way. Growing up, I was very stubborn. I remember when my father died and a family meeting was held to decide the fate of the children, it was suggested that I learn a trade because almost everyone thought I would probably end up in jail. I was always fighting. Thinking about it, I think I was an angry child because I fought a lot and I hated cheating or seeing people being cheated. Most of the fights I got into were on behalf of somebody else. I fought a lot especially when I was in high school. On many occasions, the police would come to my school and the school authorities would have to ask me to go home because I could not be arrested in school. In those days, if you were very brilliant but stubborn, you would not be expelled. They would keep tolerating you, as far as you were doing well in school. That was my saving grace. I was doing well in class.
Why were you that angry as a kid?
I think it was because I did not have what others had. I had to fight to get anything in life. I had to go to building sites to work for money, cultivate farmlands, etc. When I was disrespected while doing those things, it infuriated me a lot. I also witnessed some terrible things like in 1968 when there was political unrest in my town. It was so terrible that the king was dethroned and my grandfather’s house was burnt. I had to salvage some of our things and I got beaten on the road. I saw women being raped and I became fierce because I had to protect my mother. Thank God I did not have to fight because I was determined to kill any man that dared came close to my mother to do what I saw was being done to other mothers. I didn’t know if I had the potential to do it, but I was ready for the worse.
If you were from a poor home, how were you able to attend the same school with the children of the rich?
Our society is structured in such a way that the millionaire’s wife buys things from the same market with the farmer’s wife. I schooled in my town, Owo, Ondo State and we had the children of the rich there as well. We all attended the same school and a lot of times, we the children of the poor did better than the rich’s.
How did you feel during visiting days when the rich parents came to see their children with various goodies and your parents could not do same?
I never had the opportunity of my parents coming to school to visit me. I was in the farm working so I could get money to buy some things for school. My father died when I was 11 years old and I grew up with my mother. She could not even afford to pay for me to be in the boarding house, so I trekked at least six miles to and fro school every day. I used to get up in the morning, eat what was available and go to school. Sometimes I got back home from school and there would be nothing to eat until later in the night.
So the hardship made you to later move to your uncle’s house where you were raised?
I would not exactly say I was raised by my uncle. I had to be with my uncle because my mother had to always go to the farm and seven of us living with her made things very difficult for her. So I lived with an uncle who I basically served so I could have a roof over my head. I did not see it like that then because my mother thought the uncle was helping. After I grew up and thought of everything I did in the house, I realised that I was a houseboy. If I remember correctly, apart from the food that I was fed with, which I think was not commensurate with the kind of chores that I did, I didn’t get much. Basically, I was serving to be cared for. I did not mind because it came naturally to me. I do not think I saw my parents as poor then. I just felt that if my father were alive, things would have been better. My father was a farmer. I always got angry anytime someone was looking down on another person that was not as rich as they were. I just saw us as being different; they had cars and we didn’t. That was it.
What led to your father’s death?
He was sick, but we believe that it was due to some diabolical means which was brought upon him as a result of some political scuffle. My father was an activist as a young man. He never ran for any political office, but if he stood behind a candidate, he was noticed because he had a large following.
What fond memories of your father do you have?
I was never close to him because he was a polygamist and never really had time for us. We did not have the kind of family where everyone would sit down in the evening and talk. My father had a big house and he basically rotated round his wives. He had more than one house, so he slept with whoever was next among his wives. I was closer to my mother who was a disciplinarian. After my father died, she had to always go to the farm to fend for us and I was made to live with several relations so I could attend school.
At a point, you dropped out of school, why?
It was because there was no money for school fees. I dropped out of school for about a year. The school fee was about four shillings and she could not pay. I had to return to the farm to work with my mother. I went back to school the following year, but dropped out again because there was no money.
You also ran away from home during that period.
I would not say I ran away from home. I will say I was confused at the time. I actually wanted to study theology. There was an uncle that told me that since I could not afford my school fees, there was a place I could study theology and the fee was very affordable. I wanted that option because all I wanted was to go to school; it was not about religion. I thank God it did not happen because we eventually got money for my school.
Do you think you would have been able to cope as a priest?
I don’t think so. I question too much, I have a very inquisitive mind and I probably would have dropped out of the theology school. There was no way I would have coped.
Is it true that you once contemplated jumping in front of a vehicle because of hardship?
Yes, it is. Things were so hard for us that I once had to pick a mango peel on the street of Ibadan, rinse it at the public tap and eat. We were so poor that I bought groundnut worth a penny and fed on it for a whole day. I did not know where I would sleep at night. It was harder because I left home. I was tired of seeing my mother suffer. I wanted to go and struggle. I just left Owo to the city to fend for myself. I left home and accompanied a friend that was coming to Ibadan. I never knew that he did not have a place to live. For a short while, we stayed with his friend who lived with his aunty and we were not welcomed there. I had to sleep in uncompleted buildings, many time on the benches of carpenter workshops. It was hard.
How did you become an actor?
I had always been an actor even before I was in primary school. I was always a part of community dramas especially during story telling. It started naturally for me. While growing up, elders in our town would gather the children and tell them folklore. After each story, we were made to enact them and I was usually part of the actors. Also, when my older ones were in school, they usually came back home to re-enact biblical stories and that was before I entered school. During such times, my older siblings normally gave me roles to act in their plays. In fact, before then, there was a game we used to play as kids called ‘mummy and daddy.’ I was also a star in my primary school because I acted in several plays. That is why I say I don’t have any problem dealing with stardom; I have always been a star. If someone calls me ‘Samson,’ it means the person knew me from primary school because I played the role of Samson in the ‘Samson and Delilah’ story. I hardly ever played a minor role and it was not because I rejected them. While I was in high school, I created a drama group also.
Share some of your experiences as a street hawker in those days.
I saw a lot of things in the streets, but I hawked in Owo, a town with a relatively low crime rate, although there was a time crime was perpetrated against me. It was during the time I was hawking kerosene; someone bought kerosene from me and as I went to get change for the person, he replaced some of the bottles of kerosene with water. I did not know until I got home. I was lucky that day that my mother forgave me because on a normal day, she would beat me mercilessly.
At a point, you had the opportunity to travel to Europe. How did that happen considering your poor background?
I have always been in the arts; even in Owo, we had a local theatre group that I was a part of. I also used to be a cultural dancer both in my primary and high school. In 1978, I was admitted into the University of Ibadan to study Geography, but I never completed my studies before I had the opportunity of travelling to Europe. We snuck into Europe, but we were caught and sent back to Nigeria. I went to Lagos and this was around 1980. In Lagos, I was doing menial jobs and trying to go to school when I heard of the Black Heritage group, which brought back my artistic prowess. I went for audition with about 400 people and was chosen. Later, I became the leader and creative director of the group. From there, we went on a tour of Europe and United States.
How were you able to sneak into Europe?
I got deported. In those days, you could stow away on a ship; all you needed do was hide in the engine room. I got to Italy but I did not understand their language, so it was easy to fish me out. We got to the Italian shores and I was there for a few days before I got caught. What happened was that when the sailors docked, they had money to go and enjoy themselves, but we did not have money. We were trying to hustle along the shoreline when we got caught. Also, Rome was like a semi-police state then and they asked so many questions. Our accent was quite thick, so it was easy to fish us out.