At 90, Mabel Segun won’t stop reading, writing

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Mabel Dorothy Segun is 90. Born in 1930 in Ondo town,  Ondo state, she comes from a literary family of Sabongida Ora in Edo State. Her father, Reverend Isaiah Aigbovbioise Imoukhuede (Aig-Imoukhuede), wrote the first Ora Primer and more. Regarded as a doyen of Nigerian Literature, she is a versatile woman whose outstanding achievements in the fields of literature, broadcasting and sports have won her local and international recognition. In this chat with Evelyn Osagie, she recounts her voyage into the world of writing and more.


I feel okay except that a few days ago I ate something that disagreed with me and I thought I was going to die before my birthday. But at  90, retirement to be precise is when you are free to write whatever you like.

I decided that as soon as I retired from the Civil Service, that I would spend my time writing. Unless you overdo it, writing doesn’t kill you. You should not stress yourself in order to please people.

So, that has been my attitude. And I have done a lot of writing after I retired. And I have enjoyed myself thoroughly writing what I like – not writing to please anybody but myself.

When you are 90, the only thing needed is discipline. You must have discipline. Some feel they should answer every call: people would always ask you to do this and do that because you have done that in the past.

But when you are growing old, you would have to say, ‘No’, to those things otherwise you would just drop dead.


My writing in recent years 


In recent times, I have dealt mostly with unfinished work or revision. I like to revise my work all the time so that it can be near perfect as possible. I don’t like things that are not well done.

I am translating a story by Femi Jeboda, entitled: Olowo Laye Mo. I finished writing it, gave it to some people to read and they have pointed out one or two errors, but I am reading through the whole thing again.

Sometimes, some books take a long time to produce, like my cultural cookery book that took me 18 years to produce.

I have unfinished work and hope I can finish them before I go. I am working on finishing my book on rural and satire of Nigeria literature.


The feeling of being writer at 90  


Looking back, I feel fulfilled as a writer. I have written for children. And I have written poetry. Right now somebody is doing PhD on my early poetry.

I wrote poetry, and later I got diverted to children’s books because I wanted to raise the genre. I felt that it was a neglected genre. It’s gone down again. People can’t write for children anymore.

Children don’t even read anymore. Omowunmi is trying to take over to see what can be done about it. People don’t seem to know how important children’s books are except the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). ANA has been awake to the importance of children’s literature.

In this country, people think they don’t have to bother with it. So those who are not qualified are writing for children, in that some of them don’t even have the experience of children or talk to children.

The reason you’d find that Cyprian Ekwensi, for example, could write for children was that he could talk to children.

I remember when we were at Nairobi airport, there was a child of three running around the place. And when he got near Cyprian, he called him and they started chatting with each other.

And I thought no wonder he could write for children. But tell my honorable Wole Soyinka to try talking to a child… (Laughs.)


Books closest to my heart

Well, I have enjoyed writing everything.


Challenges of writing children’s books/On writing for children

Some think children’s literature is easy to write. They don’t know it’s more difficult than adult literature. This is because you have to go into their minds.

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To write for children, you have to write for different ages and that’s why it’s difficult. You have to study their psychology. Some write as if children are measured with one flat stick.

For example, I can’t write for teenagers because I don’t know them or what they think about. You have to study the different ages of children.

You have to know the children, what they consider important and what’s on their minds. You also have to find out their attention span.


Being a writer in my days 


It was easy in those days to get your book published. Now, most people are self-publishing. I don’t think that’s good enough. It’s not encouraging at all.

Why should you spend your money? In those days, African University Press (AUP) published my books, such as “My father’s daughter,” which became what most young people read.

It was easy for us to write because the teachers we had were people who influenced us and our childhood. They had deep feeling about writing.

For example, I became interested in poetry because there was one teacher we  had, Ms. Ore Cole, who made poetry come alive so much.

She read a poem to us, “Sea Fever”, that talks about the sea and how it felt to be on a boat on the sea. It influenced me a lot that I wanted to become a sailor.

We could see the lagoon and the ships on the sea. The poem really appealed to me. That is how a good teacher can influence you. I never forgot her all my life.

That is why I have always advocated that the role of the teachers in education cannot be overemphasised. They are influencers.


Conducive environment for writers – then versus now


Creating a good environment for people who want to be creative, like writers, also has an impact on education. We are living a most unnatural condition.

In the old days, we used lamps; but those were in the early years of the country. And nowadays there is no excuse at all. But we have gone back to it.

In fact, I was telling my daughter that I wished we had not given away our oil lamps. We gave them away because they were taking up space.

And now we need them. It is a pity but why should it be so? I am fed up with this country. I wonder when it would change. Why are we not progressing: why don’t we have constant electricity?

They don’t know it also affects the attitude of young children towards reading. Nobody wants to be straining the eyes at a book before you can see what’s written there. You should be able to sit in comfort and take your book and read but that doesn’t happen.


My father’s influence on my writing


Although I was born in Ondo town, I come from a literary family, the Aig-Imoukhuede family of Sabongida Ora in Edo State.

My father, Reverend Isaiah Aigbovbioise Imoukhuede, who adopted the surname Aig-Imoukhuede, was a writer. The man was worth more than just a Reverend.

He wrote “Iwe Kiko”. He influenced me and my brothers – Frank, the journalist and Aigboje, the former Managing Director of Access Bank.

He did lots of translations, wrote the first Ora primer, a short history of Ora and was translating the Yoruba hymn book into Ora when he died 39 years ago.

We are writing his biography – my daughter and I are working on it. He did wonders, you know!


On my son marrying Fela’s daughter

People were blaming me, asking me why  I let my son marry Fela’s daughter. I told them I do not believe in arranging marriage for people.

Yeni is a good person. She behaves very well. I was surprised when her daughter, my granddaughter came at Christmas.