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Friday, 8 September 2017

I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO BE THE FIRST AFRICAN IN SPACE

– Dr. Newton Jibunoh


Award winning environmentalist and Founder of FADE (Fight Against Desert Encroachment) Dr. Newton Jibunoh is indeed an interviewer’s delight. From the love of the arts to the love of the environment, the erstwhile boardroom guru is all about passion for what he does and for who he has been.
At almost 80, Jibunoh still looks sprite, agile and he easily does exercises way out for his age. But then he says the environment he has cared for, has in turn cared for him.

In this interview with Paul Ukpabio, Dr. Newton Jibunoh says though he is retired, he does not know what tomorrow has in store. If a new passion comes up, he might still stand up and run! He tells us how from nothing he got everything he ever wanted. 

Sir, we understand that you are retired now, so what do you do these days?
I retired into the world of environmental sustainability and looking after my artworks. Retirement also affords me the opportunity to spend more time with my grandchildren. I also find time for traveling, writing, teaching, speaking engagements and public appearances.

When you took the decision to go into retirement, were you considering taking a holiday, and did you eventually take off on a holiday?
I knew I was going to find more time for the environment and also for the role I have been made to play in various traditional matters that has to do with my age and responsibility to the community where I come from. I knew that all these would be enough to occupy me for the rest of my life and in between, I try to go on a few days holiday. For instance any time I am out of the country I make sure I take a few days to relax after completing whatever I traveled for at the time. 

We recall also that when you retired from Costain West Africa a while ago, you probably thought that you were going to rest. Was that the feeling you had then, and did you get that needed rest?
I have always believed that resting means going 6 feet below the ground and I don’t have any such thing in my diary as I know when that time comes I will probably rest forever.

But sooner than one knew it, you were involved in a whole new workload called FADE Africa. What did you really intended that FADE Africa should be?
An advocacy platform! My involvement in the founding of FADE was mainly as an advocacy body because of the catastrophic effect of climate change on the environment and the degradation we have subjected our land and environment to. Many years I was in advocacy and have even gone on to implementing pilot projects to show how some of these degradation can be combated. That was what FADE (Fight Against Desert Encroachment) was set up for and is still doing.  

Were you able to achieve your dreams for the organization?
It depends on how you measure achievements. Most of the projects that I started and the advocacies that went along with these projects, I knew would take somewhere between 40 -50 years to realize and that I probably would not be around to see the result, but my achievements are a work in progress which involves having a structure in place especially amongst young people who can carry on when I am no longer around. I have quite a lot of young advocates, environmentalists and so on, working with me in achieving the desired result.

What prompted your first journey by road to Europe?
My first journey was from Europe actually. I wanted to be part of that space era. As a student in London, the civilized world started exploring the space and moon, coming out with innovations that have kept our lives the way it is today and I wanted to be a part of that. It’s like the old saying ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. Without such explorations, very little would have been discovered. In Africa, we never think much of such things but I have found that the reason why the civilized world is what it is today is because of exploration. So back in the 60s, as a young chap with a desire to explore space but no opportunity, I turned to the next best thing I could find and that was exploring the Sahara which was then seen as a forbidden territory. I had always thought that I would be the first African in space but sadly due too many constraints on the continent, that dream was not realized. My exploration however helped me develop initiatives that is aiding in the preservation of the environment. 

What memories and experience of that first trip has refused to go away from your mind?
I have the desert beckoning to me all the time mainly because I am yet to realize the dream I had when I crossed the Sahara which is to be part of an initiative that will green part of the desert and restore the grazing fields. Restore the farmlands and restore communities. It is because of such dreams that led FADE Africa to go into partnership and collaboration with one of the most disciplined society in the country, the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE). This is to ensure continuity as it is one body most likely to carry the whole goal of bridging the desert to the next generation. 

And then the second journey, in what ways was it better than the first? Were you able to achieve your dreams for the second trip? What memories of that trip have refused to go away from your mind?
Well I cannot say the second was better than the first because in exploration you don’t worry about things like that. Every exploration has a theme and you do it with the spirit of adventure. It was during the second expedition that I discovered the magnitude of the problem of desertification and I felt there was a need to take it to the global arena. To do this, a lot of research work into desertification needed to be carried out and at that time, Israel was the only place that had in one of their universities, a department that dealt with the science of desertification. Going through the Israeli embassy in Nigeria, I was able to secure the opportunity to go study the science of desertification in the country.

One memory that has refused to go away from my mind is how the Sahara keeps expanding by the day depriving millions of communities of grazing fields and farmlands displacing them from their natural surroundings. It haunts me and makes me want to go back all the time, not only to keep up with the education that I get from such an exploration but to keep up with my research on how best to tame the situation. In one of my writings, I described the love I have for the desert even if it is a dangerous affair. 

How about the third trip?
The third trip was mainly about passing on the torch to the younger generation especially after realizing that the initiatives and advocacies that came out of the expedition was something that will go on beyond me. There was that need to now handover the torch to the younger ones so that they can continue with the whole process of getting so meting out of the Sahara like a trans-Sahara highway which is already being designed as part of our partnership with NSE.

Are you also retired from campaign against desert encroachment?
I can never retire because it’s something that has eaten so deep into me that I have dedicated my entire or whatever is left of my entire life to its cause. It is something I will keep doing until I can’t do it anymore. 

Do you see your erstwhile campaigns yielding fruits long after you are gone, from individuals, Nigerian government and the international community and world organizations?
Yes of course. Like I said earlier on I am already seeing it. From the advocacies alone, I have seen the impact the campaign has had not just from a local angle but internationally which is why I believe FADE Africa is one of the very few environmental org that is accredited especially to do with the Sahara that is accredited by the United Nations and that alone is something of joy to not just me but to the whole country. This also explains why a lot of the projects we have embarked on have attracted sponsorships not just locally but internationally. I know that FADE patronage and sponsorship will continue after me.  

As an Emeritus Environment Ambassador, what advice do you want to leave with Nigerians and people of the world in general?
To try to imbibe by that biblical saying ‘we should all live this world a better place than we left it’. The opposite is what we are experiencing today so the message is to try as much as we can to replenish or give back to the land all we have taken with it all these centuries. 

But you have been all about science and travel; you also have a creative side of you? What has been your interest in the arts over the years?
I didn’t know that there was a lot of art in me until I embarked on my expeditions which led me to environmental advocacies and subsequently after being in the construction industry for more than 4 decades, I found all that relating to the art. This is because I discovered that before the written history, art was what we used to reserve the various stages of our development and this captivated me so in the process of studying and learning more, I became an art connoisseur. Even though I have never produced any art work, my friends in the art have always joked that whenever I decide to do so I must ensure that they are there so they can be the first to collect it.

What prompted you to establish Didi Museum? What has it stood for over the years?
Jibunoh at night in his tent in the desert
Apart from collections that I had acquired over the course of my expedition, the course of my life in the construction industry and over the course of my relationship with different traditional rulers, I felt that I was in a better position to have an institution that would depict my love and admiration for the arts coupled with the fact that I had always wanted to have a memorial for my sister that I lost at a very earlier age, Didi which is why the private museum is named after her.

How have you been able to sustain Didi Museum over the years?
Initially, I funded it from my meager resources starting with what was then known as gallery exhibitions that finally graduated into a museum. By the time the museum was fully established on ground, with the involvement of major traditional rulers in the country, the presidency and a lot of gurus in the art, finding sponsors was not too difficult. So even though it started with my own resources, we have found out ways in getting some kind of subventions from institutions including government institutions.  

How would you say that your early life influenced the person you are today?
My early life was such where I had to fend for everything myself including in some cases, paying my way through my educational pursuit, paying my way through virtually everything I own. The experience is reflected in the way my life has developed. I have never depended on any institution or person to survive. I have always felt that whatever I want in life I have to go out and look for it or work for it which I think is a major plus that can be attributed to my early life. 

You have been a restless person, from boardroom to travels and newer things, how has your wife been able to cope with that?
I think that question is better put to her. She’s in a better position to tell of how she’s been affected by my restlessness. What I can say though is that it wasn’t easy on her at first but over time she grew to understand my person and fully supported all my adventures. She has even participated in a few and that was during my third expedition, she followed me up to the edge of the desert.

You are also well respected in the society for being able to hold onto a celebrity marriage! What do you consider to have been the secret of your lasting marriage?
Endurance, I will say. We learn to endure and live with our differences. We learn to appreciate each other.  

At what point did marriage come up in your busy schedule, did it happen while you were abroad or in Nigeria?
The dream started whilst I was abroad and when I came back, I had a picture in my head of the kind of person I wanted to spend a good part of my life with and I went searching for that person until I found her.

Was it love at first sight?
Yes, it was.

You have aged gracefully, what has been your health secret? 

The environment (laughs). I think the care I give to my environment has in turn cared for me.

There is also the philanthropic side of you? Why do you choose to support so many people and support other people’s dreams?
I can’t quite remember the name of the philosopher that once said,’ when you share what you can do without, it is gracious but when you share what you cannot do without, it is novelty.’ I was touched by that. When you see someone in need, unable to afford even basic education and even though you also can barely make ends meet, you still find the strength to give out of your little; I believe life has a way of paying you back and not just your investment/contribution but in giving you a lot more.

All through my philanthropic endeavors, I have seen that happen over and over. This has kept me going to a point where I run into people who are for instance not able to continue with their university education and I see them coming from not so privileged background, I consider helping out first before even considering if I have the money to do it. I get a lot of joy from doing so.

You are also a stylish man where does that come from? Is it inherited?  
I am not a great follower of fashion. Sometimes my inspiration comes from my environment as I have been known to create unique pieces from my local attire that people have gone ahead to copy. If that is what it means to be fashionable, then I will take it as a compliment. As to where my fashion comes from, I believe it must be from my environment, my travels and interaction with people.

What kind of clothes do you actually love wearing?
It depends on my mood. Sometimes the weather also determines what I put on. I love making things out of my traditional fabric and looking very local.

If you were not who you are today, what else would you have loved to be?
Batman, Superman – a superhero as then I would have the power to make things better, to help people get justice, equity and to change society from ignorance to education, poverty to wealth. I would also have the power to save the environment and restore the greenery in the desert. Even knowing that I can’t have those super powers, I try to find the power by some other means to enable me still make these changes in one way or the other. On a more realistic note though, I would probably have been a farmer because of my love for nature.

Any regrets?
Not really because I’m assuming I have some years to go and I will do my best to realize those things I am yet to attend to. However, in terms of where I have reached and what I have attained, I believe I have done better than I could have even wished for myself some 40/50 years ago.

Jibunoh in the desert with a fellow adventurer
Are you fulfilled?
Yes, of course. I am a much fulfilled man to the point of being humbled with what I have been able to do not just for myself but for my friends and community. I want a situation whereby when it is time for me to go, I want to know that I have touched the lives of many people.

Any new hobby you have developed in recent time?
Not at the moment. I am happy with where my passion has taken me to in the environment, art world, construction business. But one can never say as I might take up something tomorrow like going to space. 

At this time of your life, what you say you value most? 
Good people. Good leadership. The kind of leadership that Mandela gave to his people and the whole world, the kind of leadership John F Kennedy gave to the people of America. I love good leadership and am inspired by same. We are lacking this in Nigeria and this has slowed us down in many departments of life.

What does success mean to you?
Peace of mind. Every time I embark on any expedition, adventure, an exploration, I come out of it with wonderful peace of mind unlike not trying at all. That is when I get restless and worried.

At this point, for one who does not know your age, it’s difficult to fix it, because the youths are at home with you and so are the elders, how do you find it easy to blend?
I do not judge people by their age, I do not judge them by their wealth and I don’t judge people by their class or power. I think that’s a gift from the creator and has gone a long way in endearing me to both old and young people.

You have been honored by President Mohammadu Buhari with Environmental Friendly Award, how did you feel and did you at any point think of going into politics?
It was one of the finest points of my life considering that he was just a few months in office when a few of us were honored. I see this as something to be shared especially for the kind of support I receive from my colleagues, friends of the environment and all those that have walked with me, supported me and believed in me. I hope through a medium like this they begin to realize how much I appreciate the honour. 

Jibunoh
With regards going into politics, I believe that I am in it already as I play the politics of art, environment and even then the politics of the construction business. Sometimes we all tend to view politics as mainly holding a political office, I don’t think I can be a part of that at this age and besides I see the type of politics I have played as being adequate to suit the kind of lifestyle I have lived. At almost 80 what kind of politics can I be expected to play except staying with what I know and what I’ve done which I want to believe has made a difference in the lives of those around me.

What worries most?
The one thing that has remained worrying to me is a lack of patriotism in our land.  I do not see Nigerians loving their country as I have seen in some of the other countries that I have been to all over the world. I don’t know if I should blame the people as you get a feeling that it is probably because the country is not doing what the country is supposed to do for the people which is why it is difficult to gain their love. At the same time, I always remember what John F Kennedy said in the 60s about not thinking of what the country can do for you but what you can do for your country. So there is a conflict and until we find out why we lack patriotism we might never be able to move forward. For example, how can someone go into a system like education, health, an infrastructure that supplies power to the country and loot the money. I have always believed that if the country prospers, we will all prosper with the country. Those who take from the country only get richer while the country gets poorer.

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