Pa Peter Fatomilola, an Ifa Priest and Nollywood actor, in this interview with BOLA BAMIGBOLA, speaks about his growing up and experience working with Prof Wole Soyinka and the late Ola Rotimi
What was the nature of the family setting you grew up in?
My name is Chief Peter Oladele Fatomilola, I am an indigene of Ifinsin Ekiti, in the Ido Osi Local Government Area of Ekiti State. I was born about 75 years ago to the family of Pa Abraham Fatomilola.
The family I was born into was a joyous one. My father had more than one wife and you know any house with three, four or five wives is a big house and it will be full of activities. Sometimes, there were rifts, at other times, everything was peaceful. My mother was unable to have a child for a long time, but she remained in the house till she got her only child.
And you are that only child?
Yes, I am her only child.
How many wives and children did your father have?
My father had nine wives and many children, my mother was the third wife.
Being an only child, did your mother pamper you a lot?
My mother did not know how to pamper a child. She usually said to my hearing that though she waited for long years before having me, she would not spoil me.
What were some of your memorable childhood moments?
At about age four, when I started being conscious of my environment, my father’s other wives used to go to church. My mother also joined them and whenever she wanted to go for a church service, she would call me to get ready and join her, but I refused to follow her.
Why didn’t you like going to church?
I was just being stubborn and childish. My focus then was Ifa and the perks I was enjoying by those coming to my father for weekly Ifa service. After others had gone to church, people would visit my father for Ifa consultation and these people brought all sorts of things, such as chicken, goat, roasted yam and so on.
We would kill the animals and I played a prominent role in preparing sacrifices with the items brought to my father. I was doing that with some of my brothers. We would eat part of the meat and I enjoyed and preferred that to going to church where there was nothing to eat.
So, these were the things that attracted me. In fact, it got to a point that I started absenting myself from school. While my siblings left for school I stayed back at home, so I could collect gifts from people who visited my father for consultations. The visitors used to give me little gifts after consulting my father.
At times, my mother would beat me up but my father never interfered. As years rolled by, I became wiser. I noticed that when my father’s other wives dressed up on Sunday, they usually attended church service with their children, while my mother was always alone. I took pity on her. I just thought to myself that if they asked people to bring out their children in church my mother would not have a child to present since I refused to join her.
What was your experience in church?
I did well in church. I later joined the choir. It got to a level that I was the one who would open the door, ring the church bell and clean the pews in the church.
How did your mother feel about the change in your attitude?
My mother was extremely happy and my father was happy too. Also, when I started attending church, I started appreciating education. I was attending classes regularly. I was very brilliant as a student. And in the church I was good with musical instruments. During recitations, I did better than others. My change of attitude really made my parents happy. But despite attending school, I was also learning Ifa.
What were the early signs you would end up as an Ifa priest?
Once in five days, the meeting of Ifa adherents held in my father’s house. I would wake up early, cleaned and arranged the meeting venue before they started arriving for the meeting. I would be the first person to sit at the venue. The meeting usually started with Ifa songs and we would dance, just like they did in the church. There was also preaching. Then I used to say there was no difference between what they did in church and what we did during our Ifa service. Later I started playing the gong for the adherents. Before age 18, I had mastered Ifa divination well.
Which schools did you attend?
I went to The Apostolic Primary School, Iwaro Oke, Ilesa because my family lived in Ilesa. I went to The Apostolic Modern School Oke Oye, Ilesa and Ife City Commercial College, it is a secondary school now. Later I studied at the Obafemi Awolowo University, when it was University of Ife. I studied Theatre Art.
I used to follow the late Ola Rotimi around before I joined Wole Soyinka. Soyinka was the one that told me to study further. He said that would enable me to maximise the gift that God gave me. So I went for a diploma in Dramatic Art.
Between Ola Rotimi and Wole Soyinka, who exactly influenced your decision to go into Theatre Art?
They both contributed. I had known theatre from home, from my fathers house. Those activities that we observed during Ifa weekly service, they were theatrical. It was later I knew that our activities were theatrical. I prepared the venue for Ifa service and participated in the Ifa worship. After the worship, there would be entertainment and being the youngest, I, most times, served palm wine to others. When serving them palm wine, I would be told to drink the first and the last cup. We sang and danced, there was preaching every week. For me, that was where my drama practice started.
When I was in the primary school, I wrote many playlets from the knowledge I gained studying Ifa. I wrote one playlet then titled “Atitebi.” By the time I got to Modern School, I had mastered how to direct plays. While working at Esa Oke Farm Settlement, I founded a group named “Ta Ta Ta, Tu Tu Tu.” I organised other labourers and we formed the group. I was the leader. We would go to the hall and act drama. People, including our bosses, would come to the hall to watch us perform, our bosses then kept telling us, “You guys have a good job at hand with your acting skills.” So, people encouraged me to go into full-time acting. They used to mention names of people who were already popular in the trade, like Ogunde, Ogunmola and others. When I left Esa Oke and returned to Ile-Ife to continue my education, I decided to continue with my acting.
Incidentally, there was this teacher in our school called Mr Akin Akinyanju from Awe, in Oyo State. That time, Mr Akinyanju was our House Master in the boarding house in Ife City College. Before our paths crossed, he had worked with Oyin Adejobi in Osogbo. After we met and discussed the possibility of setting up a performing group and we founded Ife City Dramatic Society.
We started staging plays. We would buy the literature books selected for WASSCE and would be going round schools staging plays. Schools in Ile-Ife started inviting for us. We were moving from school to school and our fame soared. Our school, Ife City College, became famous throughout the four years that I spent there.
While we were doing that, there was a time authorities in the Oranmiyan Local Government Area organised Festival of the Arts and told us to prepare pupils for competitions in dance, music and drama. Oranmiyan was the local government area that was later divided into Ife East, North and Central and we prepared pupils in all the secondary schools that were in the council area then.
Our then boarding house master and I worked round the clock and we came up with two drama scripts. We took the two to the competition. One of our drama came first, the other came second. Ola Rotimi saw me at that competition because he was the chairman of the programme. He then asked me if I studied drama or learnt it. I told him I neither studied nor learnt it. He wrote my name on a paper and that was how our relationship started. Whenever they wanted to act drama in the University of Ife at that time, he would send for me or come and pick me. Sometimes, I would be with him in the university for one week and joined students learning Theatre Art because there was no School of Drama as of then in the school. Ola Rotimi founded a group called Ori Olokun Players, which I joined.
As soon as I was done in Ife City College, Ola Rotimi dragged me into the University of Ife Theatre Group. I was there till he left for the University of Port Harcourt. After him, Wole Soyinka became the Head of Department for Dramatic Art and I started working with him. I worked with both of them for 20 years. I worked for 10 years under Ola Rotimi and 10 years under Wole Soyinka. That was how I became a drama artist.
We learnt that you worked with the Obafemi Awolowo University at some point. What kind of work did you do with the university?
Yes, I worked with the university. I was an instructor for 35 years in the insistution. You know that what students learn in class is theory. Their lecturers would teach them history of theatre in Rome, Greece and others. But they couldn’t teach them about theatre in Nigeria. They used to finish classes between 1pm and 2pm. So at 4pm, the students would come to us and we would then start theatre in reality. They would be taught dancing, singing, acting and others. There were many instructors then, in fact more than 20 us used to work as instructors. We took drama to Europe and other West African countries. We did not sit in one place because our superiors liked practicals just like the motto of our institution, “For learning and culture.”
What do you do now, because we no longer see you often in movies?
If you say you don’t see me, it depends on what you are watching. As of February this year, I had participated in about five movies. The productions are not immediately released most times. The producers can keep the works and say they are editing. The producers release movies to the Nigerian audience at will. In fact, I acted more after retirement than while I was in OAU. When I was in OAU, I might not get permission to travel to locations if the production clashed with our academic programme. But now, I am freer.
Is any of your children into theatre art or Ifa practice?
Academic work did not allow them to pay attention to it (Ifa practice) but by God’s grace, one of them is into theatre art.
What is his name?
He is not very popular yet. We will showcase him soon.
If you look at film production when you started and now, will you say the industry has grown?
The perception is improving. I remember when I wanted to start acting, people mocked my mother; they said she had only one child and the child was going to become an actor; they said no good child ventured into theatre art. My mother was so distraught, she did not eat for one week and people kept persuading her. Then my father told her she could reject food forever but I had the right to choose whatever career I wanted. My mother wanted me to be a catechist because I could sing well but I chose theatre art-. I had to later make her understand that an actor and a clergyman have the same assignment.
In church they preach about good character and that is what we also preach with our works as artistes. People who do not understand this see theatre as just entertainment. Even comedy movies have lessons. After my mother allowed me to follow my dream, she enjoyed the benefit of theatre for 42 years. When I had my first child, my mother came to Ile-Ife to take care of the baby and she never went back to Ekiti till my son clocked 42 years. My son was already working and had his own children before my mother passed away.
Which movie shot you into the limelight?
They are many. The one that brought me into the limelight, even before the era of home video, was Rererun aired on NTA. I acted as a labour leader in the film. I did it on stage and we then took it to the TV. That particular production made me popular. Aluwe later produced Rererun about 17 years ago. It was that play that made me popular on stage, TV and in film production.
How many movies have you featured in?
I don’t bother counting anymore. When we were in the university, we used to write it down because we used to put it in our CV. After I left service, I stopped listing my movies. I retired about 16 years ago, but my favourites include the “Papa Ajasco” series.
You were on Papa Ajasco?
Yes, I was the first Papa Ajasco. Go and ask, Peter Fatomilola was the first Papa Ajasco, the youngest old man in the world!
Do you still train young artistes?
I do, but they are not serious because they don’t value knowledge. I registered Olumodu Cultural Studio with the Ministry of Trades and Industry in 1990. There was a time the membership was around 35. I was overseeing training of members while still working with OAU. I taught them on Fridays and Saturdays. Many of them graduated and are doing well in the industry now. But when I observed their lack of seriousness, I stopped admitting new intakes but very soon I unveiling new plans for it.
Apart from your plan to start training people, what other plans do you have for the future?
I don’t have any other plans; I am already an old man. I am a farmer. I have a big farm but my children are trying to stop me from going to the farm, but I tell them that going to the farm is a form of physical exercise for me because I can no longer go jogging.