“This is a fascinating story”, I thought — a man with seventeen wives and many children, who traveled around the country acting plays and creating films. Ogun State tourism is incomplete without the Hubert Ogunde Living History Museum and this could be one of Nigeria’s best museums yet.
“What’s there to see in this museum?” I asked my contact over the phone, after exchanging pleasantries. I was hoping to hear some enticing reasons beyond the vague descriptions on the internet. “You’ll see when you get here,” he said. I tried another approach. “Please, how are you related to him? Are you a grandson?” In a whisper, he promised to tell me when I arrived at the museum. I was getting none of the details I was expecting but I was eager to visit with a small group of five TVP Adventures tourists. So, my expectations were at the barest minimum — perhaps there would be a few photos of his lifetime and a showcase of his barely preserved clothes and shoes. I was sure that we would learn one or two things about his life and work and maybe a few heavily curated stories about his seventeen wives. “This is a fascinating story”, I thought — a man with seventeen wives and many children, who traveled around the country acting plays and creating films.
The drive from Abeokuta to Ososa was smooth and straightforward. During the one-hour drive, we chatted about some of everything with our chatter interrupted only by the verbal directions from Google Maps. We found the museum easily — a bold signpost welcomes guests to a large bungalow nestled among trees in a well-maintained and spacious compound. As the curator welcomed us, we were quickly briefed about the rules of the museum — no photos inside and no touching of museum items. It is no surprise that Ogunde’s former home is tasteful and artistic without being flamboyant. Beside the building is an old bus and a lorry — actual tour buses used by the Ogunde travelling theater with mega phones used to advertise as they drove through towns. Beside the buses is the engine of an aircraft used to create heavy winds and rain in one of Ogunde’s movies. “He put a lot effort into his work because he loved theater”, the curator explains. But there is no need for the explanation because every inch of every wall of every room in that house exudes passion and exquisite taste.
Hubert Ogunde was a tall and built man, so the enormous statue in front of his house is no exaggeration. It shows him dressed up in the garb from one of his plays while beating a replica of the drum that no other person played in his lifetime. His cheek is punctured by a deep dimple and when he smiles, it deepens to reveal a gap in his front teeth. Ogunde was undeniably charming. When he was born in 1916 in the obscure Ososa town founded by his grandfather, there was no way of foreseeing his journey to becoming the grandfather of Nigerian drama. Despite only a total of seven years of formal primary education, he would eventually hone a command of English that exceeded university levels at that time. With Christian parents who revered traditional customs and demagogues, Ogunde grew up as an enthusiast of Nigerian folklore. Every profession in his life —first church organist then teacher then police officer, would become useful in creating the dramatist that he was. One day, a church in Lagos would sponsor the production of his first play and when he astonished the crowd of over 1000, his professional career in theater was born.
While he was a brilliant entertainer, his plays and dances addressed societal and political realities that were sometimes uncomfortable for the government. He was arrested and fined a number of times and even banned for years at a stretch. Sometimes, he would escape to nearby Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) to escape the ban but never stopped performing with his troupe. A stint at a prestigious dance school in London enabled him incorporate folk-style dances in his plays. All of his influences are well documented in the museum and it is clear that whether it cost a mile or a million, Ogunde was never stingy with the quality of his productions. He was not wasteful though as he put every resource available to him to use, including his wives and children who were all integral parts of running the business. In fact, he saved much cost by filling much of his cast with family members.
At the museum, every single item has been painstakingly labelled and preserved for the public to learn from. Some of his personal clothes hang on the wall as they would have if he were alive while others are folded neatly in a wooden wardrobe. In his bedroom, there is a large bed — for a large man — and arm chairs surrounding the bed. Someone makes a joke about the need for Ogunde to have such a spacious bedroom and an unusually large bed, especially as the better part of one of the walls is adorned with a large family tree. Ogunde’s seventeen wives and their children are pictured on the tree. “I am his grandson,” our guide eventually confesses, as he points to his grandmother — Ogunde’s first wife. The spacious bedroom opens up into two other rooms — one, a prayer room with enough chairs for him and his wives and floor space for his children, and the other room — a meditation room that allows breeze from the airy compound. His expensive film equipment are carefully preserved in another room while there are at least three rooms containing props, costumes and detailing full scenes from some of his popular plays and films. There are countless albums and magazines with dates as far back as the ’60s. Old posters show that some of his plays cost 1 Pound and others cost 3 Naira; figures enough to evoke nostalgia. I am most fascinated by his dining room where awards adorn his show glasses and there are photos with interesting people such as a young Jide Kosoko and Adeyemi Afolayan whose sons have continued the advancement of Nigerian drama.
Ogunde was a family man. It was important that all his wives could perform because the troupe needed them as much as he did. He would look for wives from nearby villages but never from Lagos where he lived for a long time. Throughout the museum, there is some indication as to who his favorites were — his documentary highlighted only a few women and some were exceptionally gifted actresses and dancers, making them most indispensable for the success of his troupe.
In the roll call of Nigerian museums, this one sits among the top. Even though Ogunde dies young, he lived a full and robust seventy four years and the museum is a spectacular reference to his legacy. It is indeed one of the historical treasures of Ogun State and will appeal to every Nigerian — whether or not they have a taste for art, theater or tourism. There is no doubt that Hubert Ogunde’s charm lives on through this museum and his family deserves the praise for that. I must say that could easily be one of Ogun State’s biggest potentials for tourism footfall.
Follow ‘Funmi’s discoveries, travel stories and guides on Instagram — (@funmioyatogun). You can also book a group tour or a custom travel itinerary with TVP Adventures (@TVPAdventures). ‘Funmi is available for writing or travel expo opportunities.