An encounter with Taiwo Ajai-Lycett offers a pilgrimage into her rousing present and the bleakness that marred her past. The details are grisly: she was a teen mom at 15, a dropout at 16, widowed at 52, and raped at 65. But she learned to deal with grief by simply ‘moving on.’ Such wisdom of the ancients defines the trained entrepreneur, life coach, actress and Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), whose losses and triumphs inspire her fans, at home and abroad, to trust in the soul of a woman who had been through the furnace and the fire, and emerged fortified, writes OLATUNJI OLOLADE, ASSOCIATE EDITOR.
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, 79, is a “student of the universe.” She is used to its workings and gifts of misery. Sitting under a canopy in her Ilupeju home, Lagos, on a Wednesday evening, fragments of pain shimmered in her eyes like broken glass. It’s hurtful shards whiffed through her yarn and stabbed at the air with a shattering peal.
The effect was harrowing; her nostalgic drift unmasked pain’s route across her face and curvaceous frame.
“I have been through the fire, I have been through the furnace, I emerged fortified,” she said, reiterating her knowledge of the universe. “I have learnt a lot from the universe. Where you have to go, you would go. The universe pushes you in the direction of your thoughts. It helps you actualise what you are thinking in the inner recesses of your mind,” she said.
So far, the universe has seen her through spells of betrayal and misery as a starry-eyed girl and teenage mother.
“I was 15 years old when I had a child. I became a teenage mother. By 16, I was on my own,” she said.
That had to be scary. It was. But despite her situation, she was passionate about learning. “I knew I was going to get a good education. I was going to be a lawyer. But I knew that I was on my own. My family disowned me. They thought I gave them a bad name because I got pregnant. It was a big deal back then,” she recalled.
Was she forgiven?
“It’s complicated. It’s not that they forgave me, I didn’t go away,” she whispered and added that, “This feisty spirit of mine saw me through. My father wanted me to abort the pregnancy at first. But my mother thought I was a young girl. I was a baby. So, she had to spirit me away. I had the baby somewhere in Yaba. But after delivery, my father got attached to the baby. The child became his playmate.”
Becoming a teen mom inflicted upon her, the challenges of stigmatisation and a cold shoulder from her family.
She said, “I was ignored. I went to Methodist Girls High School from where I had to drop out. I know where my problem stemmed from; I always dealt with people older than me. Many were intrigued by my ability to engage them in conversation. So, I was exploited. That is why I am always protective of the girl-child today.”
According to the actress, most of her critics didn’t know what she was going through and how it all happened. “They felt I was a bad girl, a promiscuous girl. And such notions about me helped me develop a high sense of discipline and morality. “Bad things happen but if you learn from them, they would shape your life positively.
I studied the nature of sex. The nature of love. I don’t go into relationships for sex because love is paramount to me. There is nothing more riveting than sexual love, together. Real genuine sexual love,” she enthused.
Her father insisted that the man who got her pregnant, Adebanji Adefolaju, must marry her and he agreed. But he (Adefolaju) perished in the Lalupon train disaster on September 29, 1957. He was among the 66 people who died out of 370 travellers in the rail accident. “My child, Adebowale Adefolaju, was one-year-old at the period. He is now 63 years old and father of Atinuke, 33, and Bolaji, 26. I have a son and two granddaughters,” she said.
A maid in her father’s house
Ajai-Lycett wanted to go back to school. She needed to find employment too because she was been ignored at home.
She said, “All my siblings were in school but there I was, I was a maid in my father’s house. Everybody just ignored me. It’s a fascinating world. I think its a wonderful life.
“I was the one doing all the cooking and house work. I kept my head down but I enrolled in evening school. There was no way anyone could stop me from learning.”
Subsequently, she secured a job as an assistant teacher at St. Paul’s Catholic School at Costain. “Back then, you couldn’t work as a teacher without a Grade II qualification, I wrote the qualification exam and passed but my father refused to pay. He said he couldn’t foot the bills only for me to go and get pregnant again. Nobody trusted me,” she said.
Then out of the blues, a letter came from the United Kingdom (UK) from a mutual friend she had with the father of her child, who was married and had resettled in the UK.
“We used to meet in his house. Then I got a letter from one David Akinduro in 1959, who told me that he was a friend to that friend of my husband. He said our mutual friend told him what happened to me and that if I didn’t mind, I could come to England and marry him.
“I dissected my situation noting that my father didn’t wish to educate me, and I stood the risk of getting pregnant for someone else, again, which was what everyone expected of me.
“I went to my mother and showed her the letter. She went to my father and showed him the letter and my father refused. I told them I wasn’t going to stay back and serve as a maid in my father’s house. I wrote back to my suitor that I would marry him and live with him in England. So, I processed my passport and travelled to meet him in the UK,” she said.
Life in the UK
At her arrival in the UK, the wedding plans had been perfected. She said, “I arrived at night and the following morning, we were married. I found a job as a waitress in a tea shop and I started going to evening school.” Ajai-Lycett purchased a typewriter and applied to the British civil service’s post office department. She was employed by the department and sent to a training school, periodically.
Despite her passion for learning, her husband, Akinduro, nursed a different idea about what she should do with her life. She said, “I was working and he was schooling, and I was supporting him, financially. That was the whole idea. A lot of Nigerians were doing it back then. At the completion of their studies and on arrival back in Nigeria, they dumped their wives at the airport. Note that, in the UK, the wives worked to support the husbands and raise the children they had together, so they never had the chance to develop themselves. They were used. Their husbands simply used them and dumped them.
“But in my own case, it was different. We used to have these big fights. He would beat me up and try to prevent me from visiting the library but he failed to stop me. He said he was studying for both of us. That didn’t cut it with me. After work, I developed a routine of going to the library to study.”
Ajai-Lycett supported Akinduro, till he completed his studies and qualified as an Accountant, then she called it quits with the marriage.
“I got my own apartment, packed my bags, dropped him a note and left his home. I was going to focus on my education. The final straw was when he accused me of giving him a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD). He tried to put the blame on me. I felt mortally wounded. There was no love, no compassion, no affection, no loyalty.
“At the period, a cousin of mine, a pathologist had just arrived from Nigeria. He advised me to go to the clinic and check myself, and luckily, I was declared unaffected. He hadn’t infected me with the disease. So, it was clear that the fault was with him. He didn’t respect me enough to apologise to me. So, I sued for divorce and I got it. The court tried to award me alimony from him but I declined. I felt he didn’t owe me anything. I just moved on,” she said.
Life after divorce
Ajai-Lycett’s life took an interesting turn afterwards. She met Thomas Lycett, who was with Shell, a petroleum company.
“I met Lycett long after I divorced my first husband. By the time I met him, I was a big name in acting and business. By that time, I was studying to get a Law degree and my acting career was in full swing.
“I was looking for an apartment and at the one I got, some people living in a big apartment, like a condominium, gave me a welcome party because I was a big name. They were all artistes too. For the party, they invited Lycett, who lived across the road and we got talking. We talked about books. He was a bibliophile like me,” she said.
They kept talking after the party, even while he was away on a trip. She said, “He told me he wasn’t interested in a casual affair. He said he wanted marry me. He was very quiet, very clever, very perceptive, very deep…I was studying to be an Accountant then. I was doing this and that. I was obsessed about studying.”
In London, Ajai-Lycett took courses at Christine Shaw School of Beauty Science in London, where she received a certificate in cosmetology. She also attended Hendon College of Technology, where she obtained a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Business Studies in 1969.
She made her acting debut three years earlier, in December 1966, in Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, a two-act comedy directed by William Gaskill at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Subsequently, she enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
In 1972, she left her corporate career and joined the Traverse Theatre Group for the Edinburgh Festival. She was later in a string of television and stage shows. In 1973, she was in Amadu Maddy’s play ‘Life Everlasting’ at the Africa Centre, London, and later in the year, she was in Peter Nichols’ ‘The National Health’ during the Festival of British Theatre. In 1976, she played the lead role in Yemi Ajibade’s ‘Parcel Post’ at the Royal Court Theatre. While in England, she also featured in British sitcom, ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.’
She said, “Eventually I married Thomas Lycett in between a stage production. We had a blissful marriage. He died when I was 52-years-old. I remember him everyday. He was the one that told me that I was better off being an actor. He advised me to return to Nigeria, to teach people and share my acting gift.
“I was married to an incredible man for 25 years. In 1971, the idea of coming back home was born. I came to rebuild, because I believe in the industry and how it should be structured. By the time I came back to Nigeria, I had become notable. I was known in the acting world and business,” she said.
Ajai-Lycett has since, featured in several notable Nigerian film and theatre productions including Oloibiri, Tinsel, Dazzling Mirage, The Inheritors and Hear Word, among others.
Despite her acclaim, Ajai-Lycett despises the title of ‘celebrity’ dismissing it as a sobriquet for ‘glamour girls.’
According to her, talent and artistry should be wary of the pitfalls of ego. “First of all, as an actor, you are a member of a team. The team contributes to your success. It doesn’t matter how well you dress your delivery, without the writer, director, producer, camera man, costumier, make-up artiste and even the woman who brings you coffee on set or location, your work as an actor would never be seen as marvellous.
“But when these folk contribute to their success and get to be stars or divas, they think that they have arrived and start to play all kinds of nonsense. They think that they are the cat’s whiskers. They think that they are celebrities,” she said.
Robbed and raped in Egbe
In 2006, Ajai-Lycett was robbed and raped in her house in Egbe. The same compound hosted TAL House, her private school. Then 65, she said, “I ran TAL House, a private school I meant to do good with it but my staff orchestrated an attack on me. I was tied. I was beaten. I was brutalised. My health was ruined. I was blindfolded and raped. The man who raped me complained that he couldn’t gain easy entry into me because I wasn’t wet. I told him ‘widows don’t get wet.’ I kept talking to them and asked them repeatedly, ‘Are you doing this to your mother?’ Angrily, they taped my mouth but I remained fearless and prayed all through the attack.”
After the incident, she shut down the school and left Egbe. “That was a hard decision because TAL House was doing so well. The business was flourishing but I was not in it for money. The police came. They expected me to pursue the case. I knew the masterminds. I could have gotten them incarcerated but I simply moved on.
Explaining the reason for the attack, she said, “They felt I was too strict. They were stealing from me and became openly hostile to me. They tried to take over my business. It felt like I didn’t own the place. When the robbery happened, I shut TAL House.
“Look at me today, I am over it. See, the mind is a beautiful thing. When you hold on to past hurt, you tie yourself down to grief. You get infected with its poison. Rather than wallow in grief and self-pity, I picked myself up and sought medical help, ensuring that they hadn’t infected me with any STD. Then I moved on. That same year, the Olusegun Obasanjo government got me the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) national honour.”
Few years after the sad incident, “One of them came to prostrate before me, pleading for my forgiveness. I told him to seek forgiveness from God. I told him that I had moved on,” she said.