Sunday, September 30, 2012

How I travelled from London to Nigeria by road – Newton Jibunoh

Dr. Newton Jibunoh is a man of many parts. An arts enthusiast and environmental activist, the 74-year-old founder of Didi Museum and Fight Against Desert Encroachment, a Non Governmental Organisation, wears his passion like a badge.

Surrounded by art in different forms at Didi Museum, venue for the hour-long chat, the former chairman of Costain West Africa, speaks animatedly about his interests that have since become his identity.

On the museum, he says, it is an educational institution which he traces its genesis to a small room in Apapa.

“As a child, missionaries referred to these artifacts as taboos and tried to get my people to get rid of them,” he recalls. “What shocked me was that the missionaries were taking away some of those things. When I got to London in the early 60s and visited the British museum, I found most of these works there. So, I decided to start a campaign to keep our history. When I returned to Nigeria in 1966, I started collecting works. Moreover, because I was also finding myself in the midst of artists like Segun Olusola, Akin Yuba, Wole Soyinka, Dr Ekpeyong, I learnt a lot from them.

“Dr Ekpeyong, who was the director-general of the National Museum, would come to my house and see the works. He always commended them and urged me to show it to the public. That was how I started from a parlour exhibition to a room exhibition and to what it is now.”

Famous for his trips across the desert, Jibunoh rhapsodises on his first trip which he made when he was in his 20s. “When you are in your 20s, that is what I will regard as your formative era, when you decide who you are and where you are headed. One of such examples was the arrest and trial of Nelson Mandela. He said on the day he was sentenced, ‘this is my cause, this is what I believe in, and I will continue to do so even if I die in the process.’ The other statement was that of John .F. Kennedy, who was challenged for trying to explore the space and the moon because of the huge amount of money America, was investing in it. He told his opponents that it was only by doing hard things that good things come out. That also stayed with me and that inspiration started in earnest. I decided that I was going to be part of my era and the only way to do that was to try the impossible. It took me six months to get to Nigeria from London.”

You wonder why he still takes the risk of going on expeditions at his age. In a fit of amusement, he enumerates the reasons for his sustained interest.

“It is like going to the moon and what they have achieved by going to the moon. To go on an expedition like this, you have to put your life on the line and be ready to die. You do not do things like this for nothing; you have to have a course because many times people have asked what this whole thing is about. It is about the air we breathe, it is about the water we drink, the food we eat and it is about the land we came out from and will go back to when we die. How much are we doing to protect and preserve the land that is so important for life?”

Recounting his several near-death experiences, he tells without mincing words that he is undeterred. “If you are stuck in the sand and you cannot get your car out of the sand and you do everything (maybe for four or five hours) and you are 600 miles from help, what do you do? You just stay there and die. Alternatively, when you are attacked by bandits, they wonder why you are there, and they want to kill you, what do you do? You either surrender or try to talk them out of it.

“I have gone through so many near-death situations but somehow, I think it is the fact that once you are ready to die for anything, death stays away from you. It is when you are scared of dying and you are faced with death that you panic.”

In spite of all these, he still finds time to relax. “I do relax but maybe when I go to that six feet beneath, I will relax. I do many things and I cycle around a lot. When I am in London, I use my bicycle to go everywhere because there are bicycle tracks. In my village in Delta, I ride my bicycle. The same applied in Amsterdam, wherever I go to visit my daughter and grandchildren. In Lagos, I don’t ride often and when I have to, I take my bicycle to some island or one of these estates where it’s a lot safer.”

Bu his childhood was not as pleasant. Hear him: “I did not know I was an orphan until I was seven years old. What my sister and I were told was that our parents travelled. Family and friends offered to put us up here and because of that, I went to so many schools.”

His educational sojourn brought him to Lagos. “After secondary school, I came to Lagos, where I did a number of courses at the emergency science school now known as YABATECH. First, I got a job with the Federal Ministry of Works and I found out that I could sit for scholarship examinations. I failed the first time and passed the second time. That was how I travelled out of Nigeria to study building engineering in 1961 and I graduated in 1965. I then came back to Nigeria in 1967 and went back to the Ministry of Works where I worked for a little over a year. I found that I was not sufficiently challenged and I left there for a private sector organisation, which was like a subsidiary of Costain. From there, I moved on to Costain and whilst there, for 36 years, I worked there — I was CEO for 16 years.”

Married to Elizabeth, he remembers their meeting many years back. “It was a Christmas day. I did not have what you would call a family, so, I liked moving around during Christmas. That Christmas morning, I saw two young women and it turned out that the other lady had spent the night at my wife’s place. So, she escorted her to her parents’ place to explain why she spent the night.

“On my way back, I saw my wife alone and I greeted. She ignored me but I repeated my greeting and I followed her. She continued to ignore me and I followed her to the house where she just walked in. At night, I went back to that same house and met her mother, who was pleased with my honesty. Today, we have five children and nine grandchildren.”

Ask him what he would like to be remembered for and he stares back at you in amazement and says, “Anytime I am asked that question, I am at a loss. When I am gone, I am gone. I think it is my legacy that will determine. I do not think I want to predict. First, I do not know when I am going and I do not know how I am going to go. When I hear people talk about what they would like to be remembered for, I am not impressed.”

Source: PM News

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