SALLY MBANEFO is a woman of many parts who is passionate about the development of tourism. She opened the doors of her home to FUNKE OSAE-BROWN early this year in a rare interview where she talks about her unknown side as an artist.
She welcomes me warmly to her Ikoyi apartment at a few minutes past ten on a warm Sunday morning in January. She was just returning home from an early morning Mass. “I love to go to church early,” she says as she walks me into the elevator. “I would have been back earlier but I stayed back to pray.
Beyond being religious, Sandra Mbanefo, the director general of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) is a woman who is committed to God and humanity. Hanging on her apartment door are crucifix and the image of Mary, symbols of her Christian faith. I walked through the doors of her home to a posh setting of an apartment full of painting. These are not paintings she acquired, no, far from it. She painted them herself. They number hundreds. A soft number of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, her favourite musician, is playing in the background.
“I started painting since I was 18 years old in England,” she tells me, walking me through her collection. “Art is a talent. People will say you are a lawyer, banker how come you are in the arts. I began to think about it and say: ‘look at this gift God has given me.’ I have been painting since I was eighteen. I will be 51 years old this year, 2016. It is a free gift. It is when you recognise what God has given you. You can’t be a musician unless God has given you the gift. You cannot learn to be an artist; I enjoy my company.”
Every piece of art in her living room has a story behind it. Some of them show the trajectory of her sojourn as DG, NTC in the last two and a half years. She has been inspired by her experience travelling through the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria. Some others feature her romance with nature and love for undiluted human form.
“What inspires me is peace of mind,” she says. “If I have peace of mind you can see the different aspects of art. Love also inspires me. Peace of mind. I do landscapes with still life drawing. You can see from my works that it is not just landscapes but my works are also about my life when I was in Europe.”
In her collection are landscapes from Ondo State, Badagary, landscape of the first story building in Nigeria. Landscape of Abuja mosque, Iganmu National Theatre, under it is the Eyo Festival, further to the end on the far left next to a pair of gloves hanging on the wall is a painting on Tinapa in Calabar and Ahumu Waterfalls in Enugu. Close to it is a painting on the famous Osun Osogbo festival and another named ‘Tai Solarin Footsteps’. And next to it is a painting on the outskirt of Abuja and Adamawa.
“I have brought my art into tourism,” she adds. “I have painted tourism sites. In addition to what I have, when I am in love, I paint it. You can see the whole painting on the subtlety of love. Human forms is a form of art. What inspired this is that if you go to an art school, they give you a nude image to draw or paint, because we were born nude. We were not born with clothes on. People have to show themselves. It is the innocence and simplicity of human being. You a not hiding.
“If you look at my book I published for my 50th birthday celebration, you will see that I put masks before the human forms. To show that today people are wearing masks everywhere. They are covering their inadequacies. Because the insecurity some it is by wearing excessive jewellery. Some it is extreme make up depending on what you are trying to mask. When you a nude, it is your frailty, your fragile innocence. Like Adam and Eve they were born without any clothes on. They never saw anything bad about it. As an artist, it is better if you continue to portray the innocence of creation, of our being.”
What I find instructive about Mbanefo is her neatness with her works and work area. Neatly arranged on a table laid with a white table cover are brushes, tubes of paints in different shapes and sizes, bottles of paints in different hues. There is order. Her little studio created in a corner of her home is not chaotic as it is the case with most artists.
Mbanefo’s love for the arts stems from her quiet nature. A nature that involves looking inwards and taking a retrospect on life. “I am a bit of a loner. I am designed like an extrovert but by nature I am happy in my own quiet little space. I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t do anything out of the way that some people get into trouble for doing. But I am happy in my own space and I like to reach out to people if I can be of help to them. And add value to their lives. I would not like to meet people to gossip or to just useless my time because our time on earth is short and we must use it judiciously.”
Mbanefo is passionate about the arts. Therefore, her appointment as the NTDC DG was not by accident. She has put in some efforts to promote Nigeria as a tourists’ destination but she has been incapacitated by limited funds.
Part of her effort was to take a tour of the tourists’ destination across the country in 2015. She believes to better preach the gospel of domestic tourism, she has to experience it first. This birth some of the pieces in her collection.
“There is culture everywhere!” she exclaims. “There is Eyo festival; we are still experiencing it. These are the cultural heritage of our people. I have been to Badagary slave town. I made a beautiful trip by boat there. It was fantastic I didn’t want to leave. Culture is decadent because people are misplacing their priorities. Every Nigerian race have taken their children abroad.
“Yorubas are the only ones even when their children are brought up abroad they speak their language. That is a very important ingredient of culture. And you find that my family we are not Yorubas but because my family didn’t grow up in my home town they are very cosmopolitan. They grew up in the north. My father worked with the colonial masters. He was next in line. My parents all went to school in the north. My uncles went to Raimi St. Johns including Ralph Uwechue who was a prefect every year. They grew up not thinking I am Igbo, I am this. They grew up in an environment where everybody was somebody not necessarily where you come from.”
A member of the Uwechue’s family from the East, Mbanefo speaks glowingly about her late Ambassador Uncle, Ralph Uwechue who penned the famous book, ‘Who is Who in Africa’. The book adorns the mantelpiece in her home. It is one of the first books I saw by the door when I entered her apartment.
Before joining NTDC, she has worked in the corporate world for many decades. She at the defunct bank, IMB for 17 years. She started her banking career 19 years at Abacus Merchant bank owned by a Yoruba man, Adewunmi, who was from Ondo State. From there she moved to IMB where she worked in all the facet of banking.
“I didn’t go there as a lawyer even though I trained as one,” she says, “I moved straight to accounts, from accounts I moved to operations, treasury, corporate finance, human capital, it was a training ground for me. So Lafarge, was my first step out of my comfort zone. If you look at the history of many people if they have been in a company for a very long time they are never able to cope at their next bus stop. I went where I knew no one. You go from known to unknown and it is the courage the Holy spirit gives you courage. Things you can’t do he will push you, do it.
“I got there and it was a beautiful experience for him at Lafarge. I was loved by the staff. Change management was a job that was something that changed the place. The staff realised that I was working passionately. They saw on my CV, shareholders’ crisis management, media, management and more. The position I was employed for was the highest, reserved for Odua people that is Yoruba people because Odua owns 40 percent of Lafarge. I am Igbo yet I was employed for the role because of my experience as shown on my CV.”
When she leaves NTDC Mbanefo says she will like to be remembered for being “the humble citizen that brought the conscience of Nigerian citizens awake. That awaken the giant of tourism in every Nigerian. That I would awaken the giant of patriotism in Nigerians and in Nigeria. I want to be that person that has made Nigeria that has made Nigeria a name of pride. Already we have a name because the expatriate community have embraced what I am doing. They know my resources are limited but they keep coming to me. All the ambassadors have visited me in the last two and half years and they said we love what you are doing.”