I knew Yulisa Amadu Maddy for only a short while in his 78-years of life.
After having listened to you on the then BBC World Service for Africa’s ‘weekly ‘African Theatre’ radio programme, with the likes of the late Jeillo Edwards, Willie Jonah, Jumoke Debayo, Yemi Ajibade and John Sorbah-Green among others, it was a pride for me to meet you, Yulisa Amadu Maddy personally, shortly after you arrived in Sierra Leone in 1974. It was at the City Hotel on a rainy Wednesday evening. I coyly went up to you and introduced myself. You responded in one of your characteristic manners: “I cannot hear you young man. If you want to talk to me you have to speak up. You are not my girlfriend.” I felt totally intimidated but was determined to be an actor and to be associated with you so I spoke up- louder than my normal self and in awe. You were in a group of elders and so gave me an appointment for the following day at the same place at 7:p.m. I was not late and being a sticker for time that appeared to have warmed your heart. Since that day onwards, we were to embark on a journey that saw us together for a decade sharing a slice of our lives before we parted company in Nigeria in 1984.
We both shared the same roof, first at Old Railway Line, Tengbeh Town in Sierra Leone and later at Ilorin and Calabar in Nigeria. We travelled the length and breadth of both Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
My first lengthy trip with you, Pat, was to Northern Sierra Leone when researching for fresh dancers into the National Dance Troupe, where you served as Artistic Director with the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. As we sat in a veranda in Senegedugu, you took a pensive and lengthy look at the Wara Wara Mountains, turned to me and said: “This is such a beauty. Why don’t we write a picturesque booklet on tourism in Sierra Leone?” It was a thought that, alas, never became a reality. We were to embark on many more travels, most of which left ineffaceable memories in my mind.
I cannot talk about you without mentioning someone you loved so dearly in her lifetime. Mama Joko, your mother whom you fondly called ‘Sissy’. She was the only one who referred to you as Joseph or Abisodun with her angelic voice. To these, the obedient son that you were, would respond with a respectful, “Maa.” You always spoke glowingly about her and her strict fashion in bringing up her children. It was from Mama Joko that you inherited your fastidiousness. She taught you the art of cooking and your mastery of this art made it very difficult for most people to satisfy your taste buds. Cooking, you usually said to me, “is itself an art and must be done to perfection even if you had not studied it in school like chefs and other cookery professionals.” It was an art you demonstrated many a time in Ilorin, especially on weekends when we hosted prominent theatre artists, writers and poets from every corner of the federation for the usual poetry to music rendezvous.
I will not talk about you without also mentioning the late Isaac Randy Wright. For a long time in the mid 70’s the three of us were referred to as the “Trinity in a Perfect Unity.” But that unity was a hard fought one. Together, with four other nascent actors and actresses, we were the founding members of Gbakanda Tiata, the smallest theatre group in the country at the time. It was not clear whether it was by design but the playwright you were carefully crafted your scripts to suit mainly six characters, hence we served as the original cast of ‘Big Berrin;’ ‘Nar We Yone Den See;’ ‘ Put For Me’ and ‘Big Breeze Blow,’ which all had politically engaged undertones to reflect the signs of the times. ‘Take Tem Draw Di Rope’ was commissioned by the Planned Parenthood Association (PPA) as a vehicle to promote the use of condoms and other birth control methods. Even as it dwelt on this subject matter, you deliberately wove in raucous political messages into it. I will pride myself of having participated in all your plays from “Allah Gbah “through “Gbana Bendu,” “Life Everlasting,” “If Wishes Were Horses” to “Saturday Night Out” and “A Journey into Christmas,” with you as director.
As a director, you were a complicated animal to satisfy. It was either to the point or nothing else. I remember when one of the musicians with Fire Sie Stone walked up to you after a gruelling six-hour non-stop rehearsal for Big Berrin at the Freetown Community Centre. “Pat, we are tired and fed up with repeating the same thing over and over and each time you come up with a change to what we have perfected.” Your response was swift. “You have not perfected anything. You either do it the way I want it or you leave.” That was the end of the rehearsal for the band that night but the rest of the group continued till 2:00 a.m. to the infuriation of the night watchman. We all thought that was the end of our association with Fire Sie Stone. It was not. You had gone and talked them into understanding your modus operandi. They returned with fervour the following day and we rehearsed again well past midnight. Such was the man and his tenacity.
By every reckoning, Randy and I bore the wrath of your sharp tongue than anyone else in the group – be they dancers whom we knew got their moves way off target than the actors- or our colleague actors. Such dressing down notwithstanding, the three of us would be seen planning for the production away from the rest of the group late into the night after rehearsals and the following days and even weeks.
For me it was even worse while in Nigeria where, like everywhere else you served, you made an immeasurable impact on the lives of many.
Beside me as I write this tribute, lay one of your many letters to me. It was dated 16 March 1982 from Ilorin, Nigeria where you had just taken up appointment as one of the founding staff members of the Department of Performing Arts. Part of it reads: “If you want to make theatre arts your profession, your place is here. You have your room waiting for you. The sky is the limit here…….” On my arrival three months later that dawn on Sunday the 6th of June 1982 from France, you were at the airport waiting for me.
It was the first time we met face to face since I bade you farewell at Pademba Road Prison. You had not changed. The firebrand was still in you.
Once at Ilorin that evening the stage was set as you had informed almost everybody you knew of my coming. Our living together was a fulfilling one. It was like a father-son relationship which had its ups and downs but many ups than downs. We traversed that vast country to watch performances from Jos, through Maiduguri, Oshogbo, Ile Ife, to Port Harcourt, Enugu and Calabar. These innumerable trips; the many performances with other groups, but more so with the Nigeria implanted Gbakanda Tiata; your teachings at the University; our usual pep talks, our quarrels which usually ended up with: “Let us have a beer,” were all inspiring to me. They helped galvanised the person I am today.
I called you on your birthday last December as I always did over the years. You spoke with a cold, copper voice and said to me: “Son, I am not well. I am now in Hamilton.” You thought I was in Freetown but I told you I was not and that I was calling from Syria. “Whenever you come to town please make it a point to see me,” you said in an angelic but weak voice. That was your last sentence during that conversation. Regrettably, I did not get to see you again.
When I heard the news of your passing, I was promptly reminded of the lines in Gbana Bendu that you recited to me on my visit to you at Pademba Road Prison: “George,” you said: “We are the Gbakandas, First and Last. Sons of Great Gbakandas. Killers of Men. We live Gbakandas Fearless. We die Gbakandas undefeated. Gbakandas Now, Gbakandas forever.” You have gone but not undefeated. Your spirit will be hovering over the many lives that you touched. Your Gbakanda Tiata will continue to exist.
You lived a full life, Alagba, for that was how Randy and I called you. Enjoy your peaceful rest till we meet.
By George Ola-Davies
Tuesday April 08, 2014