In the early hours of Thursday, January 22, 2015, while everyone else was basking in the cool of the night and possibly snoring in their sleep, veteran filmmaker and renowned social commentator, Dr. Ola Balogun and his ‘good Samaritan’ neighbours, were battling a heavy inferno which had engulfed his 11, Aje Street, Yaba, Lagos house.
Thankfully, the fire wasn’t fatal as Dr. Balogun, who was alone in the house was rescued before it trapped him in the building on that fateful night.
The teacher and purveyor of African culture has reacted to the incident with a ‘down but not out’ attitude and has viewed it with the glasses of optimism. This was evident as he recounted the incident to ENCOMIUM Weekly…
First, accept our condolences. Tell us, what exactly happe`ed on the night of the fire?
I was in bed. There was no electricity, so I had my generator on. But at about 1:30am, I noticed that the generator stopped supplying electricity by itself. Later, I got to know that was about the time electricity came back. So, something must have happened, the changeover.
Maybe that’s when it sparked fire. But I wasn’t aware of that as I couldn’t come out because I live alone. I just started browsing on my iPad. But about an hour, I noticed that the ceiling was glowing which was quite unusual. I came out and saw that the whole roof was on fire.
By that time, some young men who were drinking next door were banging on the door. I opened and they were very helpful. They rushed my car out of the compound and my generator. But I was unwilling to allow anybody enter the house again because no material possession is worth risking life. So, we just stood by and watched the fire.
The fire then developed so strongly, it spread to the next building and that building was poorly built so it came crashing down. That’s what happened! Everything was burnt inside, but now I discovered that my Benin bronze collections as well as my pottery collections survived.
Apart from those, nothing else survived…?
Not a pin!
You called the fire service, how did they respond?
They took a long time to get here, about one and a half hours. What happened was that we made several calls using the different emergency numbers. Someone even went to various fire stations, they went to Oyingbo, Surulere, even UNILAG.
But none of them came. Some said they had no water, another said their vehicle had no tyre, excuses like that. Finally, some people came from Ilupeju. They came very late and had only water. It was when the people from Alausa came that the fire was put out because they had a modern truck and foam. The one that came with only water ran out of water before the fire went out.
What lesson can be drawn from this?
The lesson that can be drawn from that, for the benefit of other people, is that our fire services should be better organized and better equipped. First, there should be faster response. There should be no limit to their jurisdiction.
If people cannot come from one station, then the nearest available one should send their truck. It shouldn’t be a question of here or there is not part of my jurisdiction. The fire men when they came showed enough initiative and bravery, but you can’t cope with inferior equipment with something as serious as fire.
So I think the government, both at the state and federal level, should do far more in terms of providing the necessary facilities. To hear about fire outbreak is not like experiencing it, it is horrifying. I also think our ceiling should be made with non-flammable materials. The roof was totally consumed.
How have you been coping, especially with accommodation since the fire?
I have been coping. When there is life, there is hope. I manage to reside temporarily in a guest house nearby. Many friends have offered me accommodation, but I don’t want to disturb or inconvenience anybody. So, I’m taking my time about taking up such offers. And I am hoping that my sister will be here in another week and I will put up with her till I find my feet again.
Did this fire affect any project you have and will it ever make you stop filmmaking?
Nothing will ever stop me while there is life in me. On the contrary, it is stimulating. It is a challenge to start from scratch at my age. I love the idea of a fresh beginning. And like I say, ‘nothing spoil’. I wasn’t hurt and still full of life. And yes, there is a big project I’m working on but I have no computer and all my notes are gone. I hope to raise some money to buy a new computer and complete the preparatory side of the project. But I believe while there is life, there is hope!
How will you recover from this, considering you lost your works, property and everything?
You can’t recover. What is gone is gone! It is not useful to regret anything or look for anything in the past. Once it’s happened, it’s happened! You move on. I would say it has been a very useful experience for me because I’m amazed at the outpouring of affection and love I have got.
I’m blunt, I have a sharp tongue so I thought a lot of people would be happy to see me go, but it has not been the case. I have been receiving messages all over the country, it is very touching. Life and death are not within our control. So, if you are going to go, you will.
Many believe it is bad a omen to start the year with such tragedy, do you believe such?
I am not superstitious. I don’t believe in anything of such. I don’t believe in witches. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in life after death. I am as practical as it gets. We are here now, I’m not going to come back and live another life. Whatever I need to do I must do now and whatever is left of life for me to enjoy, I will enjoy.
People believe in sanctity of the body, I don’t. When I die my body should be used for medical research or given to people who need body parts, while the rest of it should be thrown to one corner. So, I’m not scared of death.
Will you be investigating the cause of the fire?
Yeah, but there’s no way of doing so. We should have what is called fire investigators. People who can determine the cause of fire. But as it is, the fire service is not equipped enough to investigate. And very soon, the place will be demolished so it can be re developed.
Anyway, what has happened has happened! There’s no point bemoaning the past, it is a waste of time. ‘If’ is one of the most useless words in the dictionary.
What has been the reaction of the landlords since the incident?
They were obviously devastated. But there’s nothing that can be done. They also acknowledge my own loss, which was great. But they can have developers bring down what’s left and redevelop it.
Finally, the elections are upon us. Do you tilt towards any of the political parties and what they stand for?
Oh, the whole political structure of our country and Africa as a whole is unsatisfactory. Political parties in Nigeria and even Africa are either ethnic groupings or associations of heterogeneous bedfellows. Our political parties have no meaningful ideology, which is why people can cross carpet any number of times. They are all the same, we are looking for individuals who have the love of Nigeria at heart and will be willing to sacrifice, who also think of generations to come.
What is terrible now is that the political office holders are always thinking about how much they can grab for themselves now. Which is stupid because nobody will die with what he accumulate.
– MICHAEL UNWOKIKE