I used to bear the name, Abel Edet Essien Martins, until 1993, when, for reasons I would talk about presently, I excised Edet from it.
I was born in Aguda, Surulere, Lagos, Nigeria, on 27 March 1959, the last of the six children of Mr Ibok Essien Ita Martins and Mrs Gloria Henshaw Essien Martins. Though both are from Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, my mum was a princess of one of the past monarchs of the town, Obong Henshaw. Unfortunately, I do not know his own first name as the Henshaw family is big.
I do not know where or how my parents met, but I know that he was into cocoa trade while she was a petrol attendant with the then Shell Petroleum.
I did not know much about him and he was the cause: he regarded me as a bastard.
My mum, God bless her soul - she died in 1996 during a brief illness - was a fair beauty.
My skin colour is like hers.
On the hand, my dad was dark.
My three brothers and two sisters from my mother - my father had other children when he separated from my mum - had chocolate colour. By the way, only one of them, my sister, Elizabeth Mma eyen, now Mrs Okunola, older than me by five years, is surviving. Our eldest brother, Papa Eye Eteyen, died late last year at the age of eighty-one. He was an army sergeant. The second born, a female, Ekaette Margaret, died in 1982 at seventy-two years old. The third, Asuquo, was killed by the Biafran Army during the civil war.The fourth, Henry Boyce, an army general, who was a buddy of late Head of State, Gen Sani Abacha died in 1998 at the age of sixty-nine.
Anyhow, because of my different skin colour, my father regarded me as a bastard, and did everything to make me an outcast.
As I learnt later, this devastated my mother and when she was going to be a wreck from unending weeping, her family sought to find the truth through a water goddess.
I learnt that when I was about five months old, I was thrown into a river and it was when I floated significantly that they accepted that my mother could not have had me for another man. If I had sank, my supposedly bastard status would have been confirmed.
But it did not seem that my dad was satisfied; at least his actions towards my existence showed that.
I was treated like dirt.
He did not even want to send me to school.
I decided to turn against him too: I hated him till his death.
It was when I found Christ that l forgave him. So, in 1996, when I went to Calabar for my mum's burial, and at the persuasion of my pastor, I went to his tomb, knelt down and asked for his spirit to forgive me, not minding that I was the one who was hurt.
Three years earlier I also removed "Edet" from my name, also on spiritual ground.
My mum bore much of my burden
We moved to Ibadan when I was about six or seven years old. We were briefly in Calabar before then.
I attended ICC (Ibadan City Council) Primary School - now IMG (Ibadan Municipal Government) Primary School on Veterinary Road, Mokola. I remember that our second born took me down for the examination at the school and l passed. The results then were always announced the same day of the exam and we were very few then.
We lived then at Adebule Lane,
Adamasingba. There were not many buildings in the neighbourhood as it is today, so walking from home to school was a bit straightforward. We later moved to Adejuwon Street, Ekotedo, still in the same area. When it became inconvenient, we moved to Sabo - the settlement of folk from Northern Nigeria - where my mum was a petty trader at Scala Cinema, which is now a shopping complex. By now, my father had moved to Calabar to continue his cocoa business or whatever else, and he never came back. I am aware that he stayed in his uncle's house. He could not have stayed in my mum's house built by Obong Henshaw, because, in any case, the king abhorred him for his daughter's ill-treatment by her husband - my dad.
I cannot remember how long he spent with us in Ibadan but it certainly was not long.
My mum, with support from her dad, had no other choice than to take over all expenses. Poor woman.
I started at ICC in 1965, had a double promotion from Primary Three to Five and then Primary Six in 1969.
Getting a double promotion was not because of any super brilliance that I manifested. Speaking of brilliance, I had a classmate, named Olatunbosun, now a medical practitioner, who always dusted us all. His first name has escaped from my memory.
The double promotion came because the school authorities got to know that l had issues with my school fees and buying of books. So, an examination was conducted then by some charitable individuals who wanted to assist students with my similar problems and l passed.While I hawked bread to support my mum during my secondary school days, my surviving sister also helped during my university days.
I had two piggy banks, what we call kóló - one made with clay and the other with wood. I used one to keep money for my books and the other for my clothes. I did not have too many clothes anyway, so I had to keep the ones I had clean always.
Mystery here and there
I have gone through quite a few incidents which were not mere accidents but I know that my life is firmly in God's hands: He has remained my deliverer.
Sometimes in 1968, at our school farm in ICC, I and my mates were weeding the ground to plant maize when I was struck on my left leg by a snake. I still have the scar.
I was rushed to the hospital of the then Sick-Hagemeyer Limited, which was opposite our school, where doctors saved my life.
I was on admission for three weeks before I returned to school.
You could ask: was it not on a farm where a snake found habitation?
Well, that was not what my mother, who was a committed member of C & S Aladura Church at Adamasingba, was told: the snake was a messenger of death. It was killed by my mates. Two weeks later, a close relation died. Perhaps, it was mere coincidence?
Whatever it was, I am still alive, overcoming all sorts of demons. I know what I have gone through.
Still, there have been bright sides which my talents brought to shine forth.
At ICC, I was a sprinter. I was the anchor leg in 4x100m relay race, until a funny but costly episode occurred while I was riding a bicycle at the Race Course, which is now the Lekan Salami Stadium, Adamasingba. I was late in returning the bicycle to the renter and in an attempt to escape his punishment, l released the bicycle but l fell yakata and dislocated my left knee. That was my power leg.
I could not run any longer but it did not stop my interest in competitive sports.
I switched to throws - shot put, discus and javelin - in secondary school, Ibadan Boys' High School (IBHS), which I attended between 1972 and 1976. In passing, I might not have attended IBHS. This is because I had been offered admission into St. Charles, Osogbo, and I was prepared to go but my mum wanted to be able to keep an eye on me in Ibadan, because I often fell ill.
My talent for throws was discovered by a senior student, Okon Effiong Edet, then one of the best in the sport. I used to watch him with awe and he gave me all the guidance. Naturally, he became my school father.
I myself became a good shot putter. I was unbeatable.
l later represented Oyo State in shot put from 1981 to 1983, and bagged silver and bronze medals.
It so happened that I later became a teacher at IBHS, and I was the Sports Officer.
There is a little story behind my becoming a teacher, which I would like to tell here.
You see, I read human kinetics and physical education at the University of Ife (UNIFE), which it was still called then, from 1979 to 1982. I had chosen UNIFE, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), because its prowess in sports and discipline in academics preceded it. Besides, I needed a change of location from Ibadan.
I set my sight on becoming a coach with the Oyo State Sports Council.
But when I applied there, I was told to go to my local government in Calabar to get a job.
Going to Calabar was certainly out of the question: were they trying to send me back to my dad?
l decided to give teaching a try.
Luckily, the Oyo State Ministry of Education did not send me to Calabar. They gave me a job.
I ended up at Basorun Ogunmola High School at Ring Road. The year was 1983.
At first, I was posted to St Anne's School Molete, a girls' school. But, I preferred a mixed school.
I had done my teaching practice at a girls' school in Ile Ife and I did not tolerate any nonsense. Because of this, four girls planned to frame me for alleged sexual harassment. Of course, I was exonerated after a thorough investigation.
I wanted to avoid such a situation repeating itself.
Fortunately, on the day I was negotiating for another school, Prince A O Akinbiyi, who was our biology teacher at IBHS in our fifth form, and by then principal of Bashorun Ogunmola, was at the secretariat. He also was once our principal at IBHS.
I opted for Bashorun Ogunmola and he also helped to facilitate it. Thanks, Prince.
I also taught at Ansar-ud-deen High School.
I retired from teaching in 2018, coincidentally from IBHS. Although I was one year short of sixty - the retiring age - I had spent thirty-five years, so I was eligible.
Making my way through the make-believe world
Our English teacher at IBHS, Mrs Funlola Oyekan, unknowingly, prophesied into my life about becoming an actor. Many years later, when I recollected the episode to her, she could not believe it, but she was happy and proud that it became a reality and, at every opportunity, she would show me off as her student.
I think that we were in Form Three when, after cramming a biology text which we called "Ogunlade" - the author is R. A. Ogunlade - and I poured it out in answering a question in a biology examination, I was suspected of cheating. So, I was invited to the Staff Room. Being summoned to the Staff Room was like a policeman being ordered to an orderly room trial. I was formally accused of cheating. In tears - my natural reaction to being called a liar not to talk of being a cheat - I strongly denied the accusation. I was then given a sheet of paper to answer the same question. Again, I poured everything out, and even went beyond what I had written before. It was like a photocopy of the page in "Ogunlade". Out of the blue, Mrs Oyekan said in Yoruba, 'iwo omo yi, elere lo ma ya,' meaning, 'you this boy, you will be an actor.' Really, because I would be able to recite lines. Back in IBHS, I would recite lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Julius Caesar and even mention the page numbers where they can be found. I may not remember the page numbers now but I have not forgotten the lines.
At ICC, I was a member of the cultural group.
Apart from dancing well, I also used to teach my mates cultural songs in Yoruba. Don't ask me how.
From when we were in Lagos, my mum only spoke to us in Efik. She rarely spoke in Yoruba throughout her life.
It was in Ibadan that I mastered speaking in Yoruba, proverbs, incantations and all. I credit and thank two veteran Yoruba actors, Lere Paimo and Deji Aderemi (Olofa Ina) for teaching and mentoring me in this regard.
I used to watch them shoot in NTA lbadan when transmission was live on Outside Broadcast.
I got to NTA in the first place through a friend, Felix Omuni, who was then a staff of the station but has phased himself out of the entertainment industry.
I soon began to show interest in acting.
Before you could say Abel Martins, I landed a minor role, and then another…and…in 1993, I was cast as the lead character - can you imagine, an unknown actor trying to find his feet in the industry - in a home video film titled Iji Aiye. Boom: I was shot into the limelight - as the film was shown in the whole cinema houses in Ibadan, with posters all around the town.
The seasoned Producer/Director, Kayode Oyebode, popularly known as Oju Oluwa, who had never heard about me, was sceptical about casting me. Anyway, when the audition was held, as soon as I started reading, I was already acting as if I was the scriptwriter.
The producer rose up with the cameraman, left the room to talk and when they came back, he asked, 'Sir, will you be chanced to shoot the film?' The question he asked was regarding whether I would be free from my teaching job for the shootings. l answered in the affirmative. They were shocked to learn that I am from Calabar and speak Yoruba so fluently. Well, it is what it is.
Now this: being part of the film almost cost me my job.
A colleague reported me to the Board of TESCOM (Teaching Service Commission) that I was missing classes to shoot films. An investigative committee set up to probe the matter found that I was never absent from school, that, indeed, I was either the first or the second to sign the daily Attendance Register. They also found out that the shootings were done during the weekends, not while we were on duty.
Anyhow, I came to the notice of Mount Zion Films Production and l was invited to be part of the English version of Agbara Nla - Ultimate Power.
And, I have, since then, been on a roll, starring in at least 95 home video films both in English and Yoruba, as well as cinema-standard films.
l have been involved in stage dramas with Prof Femi Osofisan as director, and Fire in Soweto directed by Prof Wole Soyinka and staged at the Universities of Ibadan and Ife theatres where I played one of the racist policemen and the acting looked so real and some of the audience were crying when they felt the torture was real; though some of us were really beaten, kicked and slapped.
I have acted with such star actors as Larinde Akinleye and Olumide Bakare - both deceased; Akin Lewis, Lere Paimo and Deji Aderemi - my Yoruba language and culture tutors.
At some point, sports was all l thought l could do. But, see me now, hardly able to move around Ibadan without someone or the other calling me by the name of a character I had played in the past or Abel Martins.
How I wish the fame is accompanied by fortune, but it is cool.
Maybe it is my skin colour that has aided my popularity or it is that I am a good actor, or both, I feel great that, despite the storms of my life - or Iji Aiye, in Yoruba - a once-rejected human being has become accepted, even by a multitude. I seem to have the last laugh.
To Keep Us Going
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Your kind support will keep us going. You can do so securely here.
Taiwo Obe, FNGE
Commonwealth Professional Fellow
Founder/Director, The Journalism Clinic
+234 818 693 5900