Ifeoma Fafunwa: “Women, Stop Waiting For Men!”
“If they looked at the stolen money the same way they looked at rapists and murderers then corruption would reduce.” – Ifeoma Fafunwa
Who is Ifeoma Fafunwa? She is the mastermind behind one of the best plays to be performed in the Nigerian theatre industry – Hear Word!, a play which has already toured the nation extensively. She has been invited to showcase at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston. She is Mrs F to those in the industry, a playful and bubbly soul who shares a collection of memories, from the girl who went to Holy Child College, Ikoyi, to spending most of her childhood at the Ikoyi Club, which she fondly recalls as, “Playing, swimming and looking for any general trouble I could find.”
Leaving the shores of Nigeria and coming back was the catalyst Fafunwa needed to take up the banner for her country, which she describes as her “biggest love and heartache.” She laughs as she remembers the reason why she came back to the country, “I married a Nigerian man who was doing business in Nigeria, who then told me to come back to Nigeria for three years maximum and now it’s 14 years [laughs]. My mother told me when I was leaving that I’d be there for 20-something years and I laughed but I’m almost at 20, she was right.”
From that moment on, she has been involved in the creative industry from directing The Vagina Monologues to founding her company iOpenEye Limited, which has gone on to create workshops and produce her signature play Hear Word! as well as Love & Recession. She recalls having fallen in love with theatre through the play For Coloured Girls Who Have Committed Suicide When The Rainbow Is Not Enough, which she saw in New York City in 1982. In her words, “It was an incredible piece of work commenting on the African-American woman and what it meant to be African-American in White-American and Black-American society.”
Coming back to Nigeria
You left Nigeria when you were 16. How did leaving the country and coming back have an effect on your views on women?
Because I left at 16, I really hadn’t processed what was going on in terms of women’s issues in Nigeria well enough and, because my mother is American, I also missed out on all these undertones and undercurrent that Nigerian mums tell their daughters. So, when I came back I was very fascinated by choices, decisions, limitations and how the country was affected by the way women see themselves in society.
When you came back to Nigeria, what were the unique things you noticed in the Nigerian theatre industry?
The first thing I noticed when I went to a few plays was that there were very few people watching these plays. I also noticed that theatre was the underdog, everything was about film and I wanted to improve that. I had made a note of that even though it took me ten more years to get into iOpenEye, but I made a note that I wish I could do something about this, have proper critics, have a place where people could find out what was happening in the theatre industry and even just create quality entertainment that people would want to come and see.
The Vagina Monologues was the first play you directed in Nigeria; what were your first thoughts when you were invited to direct the play in Nigeria in relation to our society?
I didn’t think about that; I just thought about making good art that said something. I had seen a version of the play in Nigeria that was not clear what the message was and so I wanted to be very clear about the message but I wasn’t thinking too deeply then, I was doing art. I wasn’t thinking as a feminist, I wasn’t thinking about Nigeria the way I am now in my work, I was thinking this is a piece of art. I really wasn’t engaged in feminist work at the time, it just happened that it was The Vagina Monologues.
Asking the hard questions
From the inception of Hear Word! until now, what conversations would you say the play has generated?
Well, I think that there are many conversations but one of the big ones is women asking themselves, how am I accepting less? Where am I responsible for the position that I’m in? Hear Word! is not centred around the efforts or lack of efforts of men, what Hear Word! does is ask the victims how they are the perpetrators, where is their responsibility in this equation? If all women in Nigeria said, I will not date a man that has stolen money, in fact, I will disgrace him. If they looked at the stolen money the same way they looked at rapists and murderers then corruption would reduce.
What became interesting to me was to ask these women, “Where is your focus? Do you not care about your children? Do you not care that the country is on the right track? Stop whining and moaning and get to work, this country needs everybody.”
You could be directing a movie about anything, why is the story of women so important to you?
The story of women is so important because women, right now, are what we have not tried for Nigeria. Women are what we need in terms of their involvement. Unfortunately, women are not effective, they are not engaged in the proper things. They are waiting for permission and husband. It is critical, we are in a state of emergency, Nigeria is at war with itself, it’s eating itself up from the inside, so we need women to stop waiting for men to give permission and get to work. I’m not saying that it’s only women that are going to do it, I am saying they need to balance out the insensitivities that are happening around the Nigerian future. Women are the nurturers of society around the globe. Women, nurture your society!
What’s significant about the name Hear Word!?
Hear Word! plays from the grassroots up, it talks about the small things every day that we take for granted. It talks about small things but those small things are what sends the subconscious signal to the woman that her use is to serve a man. I’m not saying that being domestic if that’s your desire in life is not great, I think it’s great. I as a woman can see that the women are playing smaller and more ridiculous than the men are doing because they are not engaged on the macro level, they are engaged on the micro level with low vibration issues.
Being Mrs F
What’s a typical day in the life of Ifeoma Fafunwa?
A typical day for me is not typical, I actually believe that there is something about me that does not like my days to be the same. Some days, I’m waking up at seven am, some days six am, some days nine am. I have always hated my life looking the same from day to day, so at a very early age, I couldn’t work in the corporate environment, it was too monotonous.
Are there any elements of your personal and daily experience that seep into your work?
I am very passionate about Nigeria. For me, Nigeria is my biggest love and heartache, it is very painful for me if I think about it deeply because I grew up in the 1960s when I could play and ride my bike around Ikoyi – there were no fences. Things worked better than they work now and to think that in 45-50 years nothing has improved (it has actually gone the opposite way) is very painful for someone like me especially if you left and came back to meet it worse than you left.
Creative Direction: Chidera Muoka and Ireti Bakare-Yusuf
Assisted by: Beatrice Porbeni
Photography: Jerrie Rotimi
Makeup: Jumoke Tychus for Eyesome Beauty
Clothes and Styling: Ituen Basi
Hair styling: Zubby Definition