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Just Jahman: Modest Humanist, ‘Pencil in God’s Hands’

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Across newsrooms in Nigeria, rookie reporters know better to address line editors of even middling media outfits by their titles and not their names. Heaven forgive any junior reporter, for instance, who dare look his editor in the eye and then address him by his name. How and when it began as an unwritten code of deference by subordinates to their superiors in the newsroom is hard to say.

For Jahman Oladejo Eniolorunda Anikulapo, it was the exact opposite. For all his years in journalism, it is just possible nobody ever called him editor even though he was both a line and title editor. It was always Jahman! From Layiwola Adeniji to Steve Ayorinde, Ozolua Uhakeme to Uduma Kalu and many other outstanding journalists whom he mentored in The Guardian, it was always Jahman. Even when they meet at events far from Rutam House, headquarters of newspaper, Freedom Park on Broad Street, say, or MuSoN Centre at Onikan, they always addressed him by his first name. And he liked it just like that!

Part of the reason was the man himself. Jahman is as modest as they come, from his genial nature and carriage down to his sartorial sense. In the very formal ambience of the elite newspaper he worked for close to three decades, you’re more than likely to find some of his colleagues dressed to the nines as if readying for a banker’s convention at a posh venue. For Jahman, his Adire/Batik top is just good enough, complete with well buffed leather sandals or nifty shoes. The Adire/Batik fabrics were not for nothing. As a renowned culture ambassador, he was practicing what he preached and wrote about in the newspaper where he was Arts & Culture editor and later editor of the Sunday title.

For someone who has done so much for journalism, it was not a profession he opted for initially. He wanted to become an artist or stay in the academia but fate decided otherwise. He was already writing for The Guardian in 1984 after Ben Tomoloju his mentor and editor got him on board. In that same year, Ben T had made up his mind to resign. Jahman opted to resign, too. But Ben T counseled otherwise, telling him that the Arts pages will suffer if he does.

“What we are doing here is an evangelism for culture and if you leave,” he remembers Ben T pointedly telling him, “the arts pages will suffer. So, I decided to stay and work another two to three years before leaving because I had options to go abroad, maybe I would have become a professor. I targeted that I was going to leave in 1993 and I actually went to Germany to study.”

Jahman was still in Germany when the military under Ibrahim Babangida annulled the June 12 1993 election won by MKO Abiola. The Features Editor was on leave at the time. Jahman got a call from Femi Kusa asking him to come over and become Assistant Features Editor. “If the Abiola thing did not happen,” Jahman told Tope Templar Olaiya in a lengthy interview on January 15 in The Guardian in Asaba Delta state, “I would have remained abroad.”

But thank God he returned to Nigeria and to Rutam House where he soon distinguished himself as a committed Arts and Culture journalist and advocate, a promising journalist who strolled into The Guardian newsroom and left it saddled with the weight of his own myth.

Some of that myth was the subject of a birthday tribute by Professor Niyi Osundare when Jahman turned 50 in 2013. It was republished last week with some minor amendments. Writing glowingly of Jahman’s career as a dedicated journalist, Osundare describes him as “a true man of the theatre with an uproariously humorous mien and gravely serious inclination mixed in equal proportions, he has learnt to make us laugh at some of our grievous flaws and get deadly serious about what we have come to regard as mere trifles. Honesty of purpose; the readiness to serve without seeking immediate reward; humility – genuine, elevating humility; that refusal to take oneself too seriously which is one of the hallmarks of virtue – these are some of the attributes that have endeared Jahman to his throng of admirers.”

And there were many of those admirers at Freedom Park on Monday January 16, from Ben T himself to Edaoto Agbeniyi and Yinka Davies. There were scores of big-foot journalists as well, a handful of Nollywood stars, culture activists and well-wishers.

President Muhammadu Buhari sent his birthday wishes saying that “Anikulapo’s tutelage under some of the best dramatic and literary critics in the world, with many living and teaching in Nigeria, shows in his dedication to creativity, especially in the narrative styles.”

PMB went further, describing Jahman “as the journalist, director, actor, and critic uses his creative talent to keep the spotlight on arts and culture as integral aspects of development, President Buhari believes his zeal and knowledge will continue to be relevant in a dynamic world, where values and virtues will shape the future of leadership.”

For Yinka Olatunbosun in her birthday tribute published in THISDAY last week, she writes that Jahman is “arguably the most ubiquitous figure in the arts and culture community in Nigeria,” insisting that “he is perhaps one of the busiest persons known in the arts and culture sector. Working closely with the Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, Jahman is often seen promoting as well as directing art and culture events. He could be anchoring a panel discussion, hosting a festival or serving as a compere at a programme. Full of wit and smiles, he could throw banters at some members of the audience who are often his associates.”

Born a privileged child, his father did not cuddle his first son and his other children. There were four houses and cars at their disposal. He made them work even though they were chauffeured to school. “I worked in WAHUM, Guinness, and other places where you would work overnight and when you get home in the morning, you are almost dead,” Jahman himself told Olatunbosun. “My mum would fight for us but my father said we had to go and learn the value of work. He also taught us to be respectful of the dignity of others.”

It was a lifelong lesson for the chap who maintained the same work ethic all through his years in journalism and as a culture ambassador. Though not in the newsroom anymore, Jahman still writes, sometimes ghostwrites for clients. He is also actively involved in Art and Culture matters within and outside Nigeria, co-founder of CORA (Committee for Relevant Art) with another tireless soul brother, Toyin Akinosho. For years now, he has been working with Professor Wole Soyinka, making sure things go swimmingly in the Nobel laureate’s office at Freedom Park.

Soyinka himself has shown his appreciation, remarking last Monday at the venue of the colloquium thusly.: “In just a few words, the best expression I have for him is that of a ghost worker,’’ Soyinka said as laughter erupted. “You hear about the expression ghost worker in a negative sense. Some of them have never been anywhere near the establishment. But someone somewhere is collecting salary. I always think of Jahman as a ghost worker. By that I mean you don’t know how he achieves what he does. If you give him a task, you don’t ever see him at work on it. I think he’s an instinctive artistic facilitator. He promotes others without promoting himself. He has assisted me in theatrical production and worked behind the scenes.’’

That selfless service of “promoting others without promoting himself” was also mentioned by another speaker at the venue. Molara Wood is an author and journalist whom Jahman personally put through her paces as far as Arts and culture reporting in Nigeria is concerned. Wood had lived in the UK for years before returning to Nigeria as a culture reporter. Jahman took her on as he did some of his mentees at Rutam House.

According to Wood, Jahman “gave me the column to write on the broad range of arts. He shipped off all the Guardian Literary Series to me in London. He would always give me context. From there, I was able to build readership. He did a lot to encourage me. He truly believed in me.”

More important to Wood is Jahman’s timely intervention in the life of many artists without which “many of them would have gone into oblivion.”

Theatre professionals have also paid the sexagenarian deserving tribute. One of them, Norbert Young, had this to say about his friend and collaborator whom he describes as a workaholic. “Jahman was a stage manager for two plays,” Young recalled, insisting that during productions, “Jahman would be the last to sleep and the first to wake up. The natural flair for arts energises him.’’

Another well-known figure in the Culture sector, Ehi Braimah has also lauded Jahman at 60, saying the man was focused right from the get-go at university. “Jahman always knew what he wanted to be right from his undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan: an advocate for the art and culture community and defender of the public interest. It was his own way of expressing himself and achieving a higher purpose in life.

“The intersection of art and society fascinates Jahman during panel discussions. It is why he uses his prodigious intellect to explore diverse art and culture themes for robust engagements. For example, music and visual arts have enabled a thriving cultural diplomacy across borders for the creative industry with bountiful harvests.”

At sixty with a glowing dark skin and wrinkle-less visage, Jahman is not sure to discontinue what he has done for decades – a lifetime of devotion to Arts and Culture. On what lies ahead for him in the coming years, Jahman restated his commitment. “My two parents died before they were 70, but if I am going to live up to that, I just want to continue doing what I am doing. I see what I do in the same way that a pastor, genuine or fake, sees what they are doing. I just want to be a culture evangelist. I see myself as a planter. I want to plant ideas about what we could achieve. I will like to be a bit more businesslike, though I don’t like the term, but I will like to be a bit more deliberate about the choices I will make in the course of propagating culture. I am rededicating myself to what I have been doing, cultural advocacy, evangelism and curating culture, because I believe that is the strength Africa has.”

Alluding to a phrase traced to Mother Teresa in a 1999 interview, Jahman has also said he wishes to be “a pencil in God’s hands.” From the numerous testimonials by his admirers and well-wishers, he has been doing just that all his life.