By Jemi Ekunkunbor
Since 1974 when she was installed as 4th Erelu of Lagos, Erelu Abiola Dosumu shot into limelight and has held onlookers spell bound since then. She is one royalty who has carried herself with uncommon grace, poise and elegance yet to be matched.
Born to Prince Adewunmi and Ajoke Dosumu of Lagos, Erelu was raised and instilled with high sense of duty necessary to function as a Princess. It is this same sense of duty and to fulfil the requirements of tradition that has pegged her fashion style to an all-white ensemble for decades now.
For more than three decades, she bestrode the social scene as a fashion icon. The truth, in fact, was that many of those functions were palace duties and not mere social engagements. This role which gave her so much visibility, also, made her grossly misunderstood.
The product of Anglican Girls School, Lagos and St. Theresa’s College, Ibadan, will turn 70 years next Saturday. Planned out for the celebration is a lecture next Friday. Thereafter, she will lead friends and family for Thanksgiving service on the Lord’s Day.
When I met her for this interview at her Victoria Island home, I was pleasantly surprised. I not only met a beautiful woman with a beautiful melange of experiences of life, I also met a woman who could engage you intelligently on various subjects. One could aptly describe her as a confluence between the old and the new as far as history, culture and traditions are concerned.
You will turn 70 next Friday. How has the journey been?
It’s actually been very interesting; sometimes stormy, sometimes nostalgic. But one must continue to give glory to God for every experience.
What do you look forward to now that 70 is here?
I look forward to a continued peaceful life. I think I am enjoying that now and I pray to God that it will be sustainable. I look forward to more interactions with my family and to continue to add value to my environment. I think the day I feel that I am not adding value to my environment, I just would be heart broken.
The peace which you seek is eluding a lot of people because of unrest in many parts of the world. What do you think is responsible?
The lack of peace that we see now is more man-made. God doesn’t come and just throw disaster amongst us. We create our peace or disaster through good or bad decisions or actions taken. Take Nigeria for example, we are suffering from economic depression; there is agitation, conflicts and unrests. `Why? When people at the helm of affairs mismanage the economy of a country that is so highly endowed by the Almighty, a country where nobody really, should go hungry not to talk of being poor, there will be unrest. Monies meant to be used to alleviate the sufferings of people are carted away by a handful of people, to be “hidden under the bushel”. The people are bitter and angry and when these leaders are finally caught and taken to court, they now talk about plea bargain. To make it worse, the same people who caused us this depressed times, are recycled for further appointments. And so, the system continues to be depressed. How would there be peace?
What was it like growing up in Lagos of yesterday that attracted so many people to it?
I always like to capture it this way: when Lagos was younger, it was a happy place; a place where peace and comradeship reigned and where people showed courtesy to one another. What we have now is not that young, innocent, beautiful Lagos we used to know. Lagos has grown and hardened up and become a small Nigeria. Lagos has offered opportunities to diverse people not just of Nigerian decent, but to other peoples of the world. Now, these people who have been given opportunity by Lagos should look inwards. The young, loving Lagos, that welcomed everybody with open arms and made peace sustainable, and gave you opportunity to blossom and utilise your talent to attain greater height, we must not lose focus of that Lagos or do something that will rock the boat of that beautiful Lagos.
Lagos, like you said, has grown and so are some of the people that Lagos embraced. Now, some of these people are today, saying Lagos is a no man’s land. As a Lagos royalty, how would you address that?
Well, it all stems from ignorance and a mistake of past leaders not to allow the teaching of history or current affairs in our schools anymore. The lack of knowledge is what is creating this mirage in the minds of the people who are in Lagos today, who are successful and are saying Lagos is no man’s land. If history is taught, like when we celebrated Lagos at 50, Dr. Patrick Cole came and delivered one of the lectures, and he zeroed in on the travails and the acumen of the King of Lagos at that time, Oba Dosunmu. He said to us to close our eyes, and picture in our minds the Lagos of 1861, when the British came with their gun boats and heavily armed soldiers. The soldiers were stationed in front of the palace of Oba Dosunmu while the gunboats were across the lagoon. And suddenly, in the middle of the night, they were hearing the thunderous noise from the gun boats, people who have never heard the sound of gun shots in their lives. The loudest sound they have heard was that of thunder. And when you hear the sound, they say the God of thunder is angry. They know what to do to appease him. And now, they were hearing this sound which they now found out was not from the God of thunder but from across the lagoon. You can imagine the perplexity, the confusion and the disarray and that was the beginning. Then the king was summoned to the gunboat faced with a paper that he must surrender everything he owned. You now had a King who had the presence of mind to reach a peaceful resolution of that conflict, was able to suspend that paper brought by the British. Instead, he was allowed to administer all his landed properties and that anyone one that does not carry the King’s insignia, becomes null and void. And this gave the basis for the laws we enjoy today in Nigeria. And then some people come, you are welcomed with open arms, you make great successes, nobody stopped you from carting them away to your place of origin to develop those places and alleviate the sufferings of your people, and then you now turn around and say, “you can all go to hell. Lagos is a no man’s land”. All these wealth you made, I cannot remember anyone who of his volition would say, let me put borehole in one community or build a school or mosque as they go to do in their home towns. That is my answer to those who say “Lagos is no man’s land”.
What were the things that made the simple life of Lagos tick in those days?
Well, I would say it was that peaceful co- existence of all the people that lived in Lagos. You had the Portuguese, the Germans, then the French and later, the British. Lagos was a gateway to a vast inter-land, and also at that port of entry, they met a very friendly people. They used that as a stepping stone into the community and of course, it led to a buoyant economy. People started coming from the interior. Up till today, thousands of people are still coming into Lagos on a daily basis.
As children what were the fun places you visited?
For children, we looked forward to the sports days. We had boys and girls schools and we looked forward to meeting during games. On Tom Jones was where we had our fun place like the Muson Center of today. Socialising really was the key and when you socialise, it’s party, it’s food, music and dance. It was an unending fun and as a result, you developed human kindness one for the other. But as more people came, they didn’t bother to imbibe the culture they met in Lagos. And these people became majority and gradually, that lovely culture of caring for your neighbour disappeared.
Is it possible to have this Lagos again?
It is possible but maybe not in its totality. We can achieve this through re orientation and developing national pride. That is an instrument that can bring back semblance of old Lagos. We have to use the instrument that the colonialists used that whatever belonged to us is inferior and that what they brought, was the best. They didn’t achieve it by just saying it; it was through constant pounding and indoctrination in all its ramifications. They used music, religion and lifestyle to propagate what they believe is their own. It got to a point that we believed that whatever is their own is good and whatever belongs to us is negative. A lot of them are still smarting under that inferiority complex.
As royalty, how have you been able to carry yourself so well and maintain decorum before the public these many years?
I don’t know but it hasn’t been with great difficulty. I see it as a duty, something that is expected of me. If you came from a background that made you aware of your duties and responsibilities at a very early age, it will stay with you and become a way of life. Whatever I do today, I do not see it as something extraordinary. I see it as a way of life, something that was instilled in me as a child. That’s why, it breaks my heart that some of us who have been instilled with such values are neglecting to do same with our children. Women especially, must find a window to raise their children properly. At the end of the day, it’s the way you raise them that they will turn out whether they’d be a source of joy to you or a source of pain.
Growing up, my father would frown at you staying out too late. And when you step out of line, all he needed to do was to look at you and you are reined in by that look. Nowadays, you look at a child in that manner and she would right there ask you, “mummy, what’s wrong with your eyes?” So you have to instill in your children, good breeding, good principles. I enjoyed that. One of my father’s favourite phrase was: “low breed”. Once you misbehaved, he would look at you and say: “you low breed what do you think you are doing?” The harshness of that word makes you sit up immediately. Who wants to be a low breed? That stayed with me.
When I became the Erelu, because of the advanced age of the incumbent Oba at that time, I found myself doing a whole lot more than was generally required of an Erelu. When the Oba was invited and he couldn’t go, he would send the Erelu to represent the Royalty. So I found myself running from pillar to post just to satisfy everybody. But the press, because they’ve never seen a woman so visible, would question my actions. “What does the Erelu want”? Or say things like, she just loves parties, whereas, I was working. It was my duty and whatever is expected of me, I do it to the best of my ability. I will strive to do my duties properly even at 70 because I do not know any other way to do things.
Now at 70, when you are not working, how do you like to rest?
I am somebody who enjoys my own company. When I’m not doing anything, I am at home. You can see I have created my own garden at the roof top. I listen to music, watch TV, read my newspapers, read some books but now, I read more online to enrich myself.
When I need to get out of the country, I have so many lovely destinations but the one that would always come to my mind first, is the South of France. I love Monaco, I love Nice, the attraction is the food. I love the cuisine. I also love the Bahamas; the rustic beauty, the sea on one side and the opportunity to take short cruises. I am not one for long cruises. I just love my holidays, you get to chill, see other places and just 100% calmness away from everything especially if I am traveling with my children and grand- children, I am in 7th heavens because we do wonderful things together. Last year, we were all in Italy, Rome and Florence. It was nice being with family.
What would you say life has taught you that you can hand down to children and grand-children?
Those who work with me would tell you that I am not a very patient person. This is because I don’t tolerate sloppiness. But I have realised that you cannot judge everybody by your own standard because we are made differently. I had to struggle a lot with that. The only saving grace I had is the fact that I love people. So what life has taught me is that I need to have a lot of patience: and if you are patient enough, you can bring out a diamond out of a rough stone because there is good in everybody. So the greatest lesson for me is patience. If you can do that, you can conquer the world and by extension, you’d give other people a chance, see things from other people’s perspective because your perspective is not the ultimate. So be kind and tolerant.
Would you have changed anything about your life if you had the chance?
I don’t think I want to change anything about my life. Why would I want to?I am happy with my childhood and upbringing. I am happy with the kind of parents I got, the schools I went to; especially, the Irish nuns who helped to enhance and consolidate what I brought from home to boarding school. I don’t want to change the people I was married to because I believe I enjoyed tremendous love, respect and comradeship. But nothing goes smoothly. You still have the storm of life that will set into any situation. My life has been bitter-sweet but I thank God for making me an example of one adding value. I pray to impact more.