Newton, where are you getting these lovely flowers from?” Sisi Clara asked me that evening, as I dropped in to visit her at the hospital.
Now, a little bit of history for those who do not know Sisi Clara, whose real name was Elsie Olusola.
Any time I remember Elsie Olusola, my friend Segun Oluso-la’s wife, I cannot help but give in to uncontrollable spasms of mirth. The memory of that woman always brings a smile to my face.
Elsie played the unforgettable “Sisi Clara” character in the equally unforgettable Village Headmaster, a television se-ries created in 1964 by her husband Segun Olusola. But un-known to many, Elsie also worked for the Voice of America.
The television series has the impressive record of having the longest unbroken run with its first broadcast in 1968 on NTV (Nigerian Television) – which later metamorphosed into NTA (Nigeria Television Authority). The programme became the longest running drama series in African televi-sion history with the final episode shot in 1988.
Set in the fictional Oja Village, a little sleepy community trying its best not to be left behind by modernity, while still tenaciously holding on to cherished traditional customs and standards of conduct, Village Headmaster was a seminal sit-uation comedy that became iconic in what is now regarded as the golden age of Nigerian television, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
This was, many commentators agree, the period when the highest level of raw talent, professionalism and production standard was evidenced by the industry. Working with sets and equipment that would appear near rudimentary today, the cast and crew of Village Headmaster managed to distil consistently high production values, driven by some of the best acting work ever committed to reel, making the TV series throw up some of the most famous and iconic charac-ters to ever inhabit the Nigerian television ecosystem.
The Sisi Clara character was a seamstress; an acerbic, world-weary spinster with a hair-trigger temper who did not suf-fer fools gladly. Her default mode was rampant suspicion of human foible. Being perhaps the only “London-trained” seamstress in Oja (or anywhere else for miles in any direc-tion), Sisi Clara’s shop, of course, was a busy concourse for the women of that area.
Among her regular customers, and usually bearing the full brunt of Sisi Clara’s dry wit and causticity, was her nem-esis and best friend, Amebo, the village gossip, whom she was not averse to summarily throwing out of her shop from time to time.
Their love-hate relationship was symbiotic. Sisi Clara made Amebo’s dresses, and her shop gave the tale-bearer a per-fect avenue to express her pathological proclivity for chin-wag. Sisi Clara, on her part, depended on Amebo for the lat-est news about town, in order to keep a finger on the pulse of her business environment.
The cause of their frequent quarrels lay in the fact that the news had to be what Sisi Clara wanted the news to be. She only wanted news she could use. Nothing else. Amebo’s news, however, was wholesale, and not retail; it was up to the consumer of the news to edit the news and decide which one to use and which one to discard.
One look at the Sisi Clara character and one could be tempt-ed to surmise that the woman who played that role so con-vincingly, could not possibly have had a warm, loving bone in her body; but nothing could be farther from the truth. Elsie was kind, sympathetic and nurturing, and a wonder-ful wife to my friend, Segun. It was a tribute to her superior acting ability that she could shed her true motherly virtues, so completely, when the bright lights came on, the camera rolled and she inhabited the Sisi Clara character.
I recall an incident that has become emblematic for me of Elsie’s dramatic personality. She had been in hospital for some time due to a serious illness, and one day, during the period of her convalescence, I took her a bunch of flowers. Elsie loved the flowers; a bunch of fragrant red, yellow and white roses, and I was really glad to see I had done some-thing to cheer her up.
She asked me where I got the splendid blossoms from but I told her their source did not matter; what mattered was that she liked them and they made her feel better. Now, even if I wanted to, I could not have dared to reveal to Elsie the origin of those flowers. You see, the flowers came from a graveyard!
At the time, my firm and I were carrying out some work in Ikoyi, close to the Ikoyi Cemetery. I had noticed that some areas of the cemetery’s well-manicured grounds, bloomed with exceptionally attractive flowers that always caught the eye.
One morning, curious to know who was responsible for raising such beautiful blossoms, I strolled into the ceme-tery and talked to the gardener, Baba Sunday, who kept the place. I discovered he was actually doing a little business on the side, selling the flowers he raised there – blooms of all shapes and sizes – roses, amaranths, jacaranda, violets, tulips – of quite the most resplendent hues imaginable. In fact, these were some of the best flowers I had ever seen anywhere in the world!
This was around the time of Elsie’s illness, so I negotiated with the graveyard keeper to supply me a bunch of his best blooms, for a fee, whenever I needed them. Of course, I was not planning on telling Elsie any of this, but she had liked the first flowers so much that the next time I went visiting, I took her another bunch. She seemed to like roses, so I took her more roses – this time making sure they came in an even more gorgeous palette of hues – the best of the best!
“Newton!” exclaimed Elsie from her bed, when she saw the newest bunch of redolent blossoms I was carrying as I en-tered the room. “You must tell me today where you’re get-ting these flowers from. They’re simply beautiful! All the doctors and nurses are in love with them. Please, please tell me. You have to tell me. I insist.”
I was smiling proudly as I placed the flowers carefully, stalk by stalk, into a vase on her bedside table. As the delicate fragrance of the roses wafted around the room, they seemed to somehow alter the aura of the place, making it perkier. I was feeling a little giddy myself with pride from knowing I could bring such joy into an environment as sober as a hos-pital. So I told her.
Immediately I told her, I saw the colour drain from Elsie’s face; her face went completely white with shock. She went stiff on the bed and just stared incredulously at me for a few seconds. Then, suddenly, she sprang up, grabbed the bunch of flowers from the vase and swung them with all her might owards the door. “God forbid!” she cried, “Get those things out of my room now!”
In order not to be indicted by the medical council on grounds of exacerbating a patient’s condition by unduly raising her blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing rate, core body tem-perature and other metabolic vitals, all at once, I quickly packed up the offending articles and ran away!
That was not the last time flowers would get me into a bit of trouble though.
My first company accommodation in the early 70’s was a two-bedroom duplex at number 2, Oniru street, Apapa, La-gos.
Having always been green-fingered, I decided to develop a bed of flowers in a small space in front of the house, follow-ing the experience I acquired from the grave yard keeper, Baba Sunday.
A few months after I started growing the beautiful roses of different colours, I had an encounter with the Indian couple living almost opposite me.
It was early on a Sunday morning and I was tending my bed of roses when this beautiful Indian woman stopped by on her way past. She stood by the fence and asked me if the roses were real and I said yes.
But I felt that she didn’t believe me so when the roses reached full blossom, I decided to cut some and present to her. She thanked me and said it was a long time since she saw roses like that.
So, one day I was outside my house when the husband Muli stopped by and asked if I was the one that brought flowers for his wife. He didn’t look very happy when I said yes and I could understand.
Few months later, Sagni the wife stopped again to ask how the roses were doing. I told her I was contemplating bring-ing more for her because of the way she appreciated the roses but that I wasn’t quite sure about her husband.
She said that I might have read her husband wrongly and that her husband appreciated the roses too. Based on that, I gave her more roses and she subsequently invited me to her house for dinner with her husband.
One of the questions her husband Muli asked me was whether I was married or single. I told him I was single but engaged to be married soon and some months later, I got married to my wife, Elizabeth, and introduced her to them.
We have all remained friends ever since. In fact, when we moved to Ikoyi, they too moved to Ikoyi, and when we moved 196 197 to Victoria Island, they also moved to Victoria Island. Their children became my children’s best friends and for over 40 years, the Mukhis have remained one of our closest friends, though they have retired and now divide their time between London and India.