I have many names.
Initially, I was being called Tokunbo by my paternal grandmother, Alhaja Awero Rianot Davies. I was born in London, England, in 1956, when my parents were still students. When I was ten or eleven months, I was sent to Ibadan, to my grandmother. I suspect that I was brought in as an unaccompanied minor, because, over the years, nobody mentioned that so-and-so was the person who brought me. I just know that my grandmother came to Lagos to collect me and that I spent my first night in Nigeria at the family house of my grandmother's closest friend, Alhaja Ajala, at Idumagbo Avenue.
So, being brought from abroad, I automatically became Tokunbo, a name some people still call me.
Now, my father, Ganiu Davies, joined the diplomatic service after his studies, and his first posting was to Liberia. My older sister, Oyindamola, who was born in Nigeria and unfortunately passed away last year, myself and my younger brother, Hakeem, who was also born in England, went on Christmas and New Year holidays to Monrovia, and somewhere along the line, my mother, Sekinat, nee Tinubu, began to call me Bunmi, which was the name she gave me. With time, it caught on. I think that, at some point, there was a conversation in the family which name I preferred. I had always been scared of my mum, or let me say that, through no fault of hers, you took a look at her and you just knew that you had to be of good behaviour - she was a teacher. I chose the name she gave me: Olubunmi.
My father said I should have said Modupe, which is the name he gave me. So, today, I use Serifat Olubunmi Davies. The Serifat, my Muslim name, came in, because of bank documentation where what you have on your passport must be reflected in your personal information.
I also moved around a lot, my father being a career diplomat.
I was in Ibadan probably till I was eight years old. It was where I started schooling, at UMC Demonstration School and Omolewa Nursery and Primary School, owned by Chief (Mrs) Gladys Aduke Vaughan, who used to call my grandmother aunty. It was from Omolewa that I went to Monrovia where I also attended a small private school owned by a British or American lady.
I remember my first night in Monrovia. While in Ibadan, my grandmother pampered us. She gave the children whatever food each one asked for. So, in Monrovia that night, when dinner was set on the table and it was the same type of food for everyone, Hakeem and I refused to eat. My mother was like what was wrong with these children and my father said she should watch till the morning. Of course, by the morning, we were starving and we had no choice but to eat what we were given. No more granny-five-star-treatment.
Later, when we came back from Liberia and visited granny in Ibadan, she could not understand why my brother and I told her when she asked us separately what we wanted to eat and we both answered 'whatever you have.'
Back from Liberia, I attended St Catherine's Model School, on Fawehinmi Street, off Ojuelegba Road, Yaba, Lagos.
From here, my brother and I went with our parents to Congo Kinshasa and we attended an American school. From Kinshasa, we went to Moscow and attended The Anglo-American School of Moscow.
From Moscow, my brother and I were sent back to Nigeria; I guess our gallivanting was now enough.
While I went to Reagan Memorial Baptist Girl Secondary School, Sabo, Yaba, my brother attended Igbobi College. That was in 1970. We lived with my uncle, Jibade Williams, and his family at Modupe Johnson Street, off Adeniran Ogunsanya Street in Surulere. They had then just had a baby, Iyabo, who herself is a mother now.
In between 1970 and 1974, while I was at Reagan, my dad had been posted to Kano as a Passport Officer.
He was back in the UK when I finished at Reagan.
I was back there too, and attended Hammersmith and West London College where I sat for, and passed, my GCE O-Level because I had poor grades in my school certificate examination back in Nigeria. Then, for A-level, I decided to do one year, thinking that I would get away from my parents and return to Nigeria but, unfortunately, my father was posted to Lagos, and we all came back together. My mum had taken a degree course in chemistry and performed well. The only snag was that she studied in my room and that meant that I had to study at the same time and I had to pretend that I was not falling asleep.
For career, I had desired to be a broadcaster because I enjoyed talking. In fact, most of my classmates in secondary school believed I would be a broadcaster. I remember that, growing up in Ibadan, I used to stand under my grandmother's Rediffusion box and listen to news in seven Nigerian languages. It was not like I understood the languages but I just stood there and listened.
One day, in London, my father's close friend, late Engr Ade Afolabi, visited us in our house, and asked what I was going to do since I had completed my secondary school. I told him broadcasting. And he said: 'Broadcasting? You can't do broadcasting. It's people without background that did broadcasting. Go and read architecture.' I had never heard of architecture. I just kept quiet. Later, my father asked me what I thought about what Engr Afolabi said. Think? I simply said: 'I will do it.'
That was how I found myself in architecture.
It was the reason why I did physics, mathematics among my subjects at Hammersmith.
When we came back to Nigeria, the Lagos State College of Science and Technology (LACOSTECH) had just taken off - that was in '78, and I became one of the pioneer students.
Fortunately for me, they started architecture at some point, and I switched over from the A-Level I had enrolled for. It was supposed to be a five-year course leading to the award of higher national diploma, with one year in between for industrial attachment. But what we ended up doing, based on some change of policy, was two years for ordinary national diploma, one year industrial attachment and one year, higher national diploma. They went back later to the old system.
Was it easy or difficult? Anything I have to do, I put in my soul. I might grumble at the beginning but that does not last long.
There were ten of us in the class and I was the only female. There was only one female in engineering as well. To me, it was not a problem; but the boys were saying why should a woman be reading architecture. I did not pay them any mind.
Then, it was either you passed or failed, unlike now where you have various classifications (distinction, upper and lower credits). I passed. But only nine of us completed the course. By the last year, there were only nine of us. One of the boys had gone to Bulgaria or so. It was that period when those communist countries were awarding scholarships. One of us failed. So, only eight of us passed.
1982/83, I did my national youth service in Jos, Plateau State, precisely at the National Museum and Monuments. I was interested in the monuments. There was this section of the Museum that was called MOTNA - Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture. Distressingly, the person who was in charge then did not like working with women. But, of course, I ignored him and enjoyed taking people round the monuments. I am told that the place has fallen apart; that is unfortunate.
Another unfortunate thing was that Engr Afolabi did not see me become an architect as he had died when I was through at the polytechnic, although he knew I started.
When I completed the youth service, I went to see my parents in England, and there was this distinguished gentleman, Chief Adeyemi Bero, whom I had never met, seen or heard of, who came to the house for dinner. When he was leaving, he asked what I read, and I told him. He then said that I should go and work at Modulor. Silly me, I asked him, 'do you work there?' My mum said later that she nearly fainted. (Are you going to blame me?) I did not know who he was. I learnt later that he was one of the people who set up Lagos State (during the administration of Brig Mobolaji Johnson). Justice Agoro, who was my dad's childhood friend, was Chief Bero's friend. So, Justice Agoro was the link between both of them. In those days, when Nigerian students had problems with their papers and what not, Chief Adeyemi Bero would send them to my father to help them sort it out at the Nigerian High Commission. So, whenever Chief Bero was in the UK, he visited my dad.
So, when I returned to Nigeria, I went to Modulor Group (Architects and Planning Consultants), at Idiroko Bus Stop, Ikorodu Road, and the secretary to the principal, now late Chief Olayiwola Balogun, said there was no vacancy. I reported back to Chief Adeyemi Bero. He picked up the phone. I do not know whom he spoke with but I was to go back the following day. I took a test; anyway, I was employed. Chief Balogun gave me a Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA) form, I filled and sent it off. But they did not respond. The next year, by my own volition, I went to the NIA, they gave me a project to do. Then I got a letter from them saying that I hope I knew that they can tell me to stop at any time? What does that mean? Well, I just stopped. What is the point? If they are going to tell me to stop, I might as well stop now. This was of course a childish reaction. But, I do not like to be bullied. Let us just say that I had strong views about some things, some of which when I remember now, I am embarrassed but that is besides the point. I remember, for instance, that, one day, I accompanied my uncle, Jibade Williams, to the University of Lagos, to see his cousin, Prof Babatunde Williams, husband of Prof Grace Alele-Williams. We were served eba for lunch. In our house, we had always eaten eba with our hands. Everyone at the table was using cutlery but I asked for water to wash my hands. Everyone looked at me (wondering) how someone who had just returned from Moscow could want to do that but I did not think anything of it. I got my water and used my hands. I did not do that to be rebellious or anything, it was just how we used to do it.
On the NIA, I made an attempt when I worked in the Lagos State Civil Service to get the professional qualification but I still had one paper outstanding from the first stage. By then, I had started thinking of getting out of the civil service, so I did not see any point in pursuing it. So, I am not a certified architect. Today, I attend NIA meetings and functions when I can.
But the certification was not then an issue because when I left Modulor, I worked with James Cubitt & Architects for just about three months - because the group was disbanded for one reason or another- and yet another group on Lagos Island, before I started my own practice called Tubu Designs and worked on some design projects. I worked out of the boys' quarters of our family house in Surulere. My parents had by now (1990) returned home, my father having retired from service. His last posting was to Saudi Arabia. Being civil servants all their lives, they were shocked that I left an established company such as Modulor Group to be self-employed.
I got an office of my own eventually at Borno Way, Alagomeji, Ebute Metta. Later, when I was moving out of that office, I was shocked at the number of drawings I had done compared to the remuneration.
While I was there, I started Sisi Aladire. That was before 2000 when I joined the Lagos State Civil Service. I had stopped Tubu Designs by then. I started at the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture. All the monuments in the State which belong to the Government are vested in the Council but most people do not know. Glover Memorial Hall, for instance. I was with the Unit which was supposed to be in charge of the buildings, if I remember correctly. I remember that during the period, we renovated the District Officer's office in Badagry.
From here, I moved to the Ministry of Works and later Ministry of Housing. It was at Housing that I spent most of my nearly thirteen years in the Civil Service.
I started Agufon in 1997. Sometimes in 1996, I had gone to visit Chief Adeyemi Bero, again, and I met Prof John Pepper Clark there. We got talking while we were waiting for the chief. He asked me, among other things, what I was doing. I told him that I was thinking of starting an arts and architectural journal or opening a gallery. He suggested that I should start the journal and he would be willing to help. I took his advice. It was launched at Jazzville, Yaba, by late Ambassador Segun Olusola, during one serious fuel shortage. I remember vividly because we trekked from Jazzville to the house in Surulere.
I did everything by myself on Agufon, but a friend provided the money for the production. I never went back to Prof Clark for the promised help. After about four issues - it was a quarterly - I took the copies to his house at GRA Ikeja and left them for him. Over the years, when we met at occasions, he always asked about the journal and we had this and that to discuss.
The arts part of Agufon appeared not to be difficult but not so the architecture part; because most architects then were not documenting their works, so getting an article from an architect could take months or over a year. The journal was conceptualised to celebrate African artists and architects and their works. Many publications then were about politics, so the idea was to offer people other things apart from politics. It was also supposed to be pan-African. I had lofty ideas; stand at the tip of the farthest point in Morocco and see the Cape of South Africa. That was the concept of Agufon. It was a friend, Seyi Olude, who came up with the name when I said I did not want to use an English word. We were together in my 504 jalopy then and I had asked her what was the Yoruba word for giraffe. Agufon, she said, and I said that is the name of the publication. Tunde Kuboye gave me the spelling.
My parents were still alive then. I guess they had then accepted that they would only hear from me at the point of execution. I guess that they would have preferred for me to have a steady job which I eventually did by taking up the job with the Lagos State Civil Service. Between my mum and her first cousin, late Mrs Adesola Mudira Kila, they got me into the Service.
I designed my daddy's brother's house at Iwaya and my mummy's cousin's own at Lekki and I think they were happy about them.
Apart from Agufon, which last issue was the coronation of Oba Ewuare II of Benin - I had planned to relaunch the online version with the death of Prof Yusuf Grillo, but it didn't quite work out - I was also then doing Sisi Aladire. The idea behind that was just to sell adire fabric. My mother's mum actually sold adire. I had struck off a friendship with Mrs Elizabeth Okuboyejo of Betti-O. I don't know if I told her that I wanted to start making adire or just to sell. Anyway, I ended up spending a weekend at her home in Shonibare Estate, Maryland. She showed me how to do the knotting and so on. Later I would jump on a bus to Abeokuta, buy like ten adire pieces to sell in Lagos. Later, she referred me to one Mrs Onasanya, a seller at Tejuosho, and I stopped going to Abeokuta. Now, the only female in engineering while I was the only one in architecture at the college is from Abeokuta and she used to sell Kampala batik. Occasionally I had asked her to get me some adire. To cut the long story short, she is now my main supplier of adire. Before then, there was also Iya Mukaila who sent me patterns of what she had and I would choose and she would send them and I would collect at Oshodi Motor Park. Now, it's easy to share patterns via our WhatsApp number (+234 809 661 2280).
What gives me joy is helping people and make impact in their lives.
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Taiwo Obe, FNGE
Commonwealth Professional Fellow
Founder/Director, The Journalism Clinic
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