Bunmi Sofola is the popular relationship counselor-columnist at the Vanguard Newspaper. In this interview, she speaks about her work, the challenges that relationships face in a time of economic hardship and – as usual – she proffers solutions
Dear Bunmi is a popular agony column and countless readers have been writing to you for advice for many years. How did you get started on that route?
I went into journalism quite early and was one of the founding members of The Punch publications. We started off with Happy Home magazines, a part of The Punch publications, which I later became editor of. It was while I was editing Happy Home that the Aunty Gina thing came up. I stayed with Aunty Gina and then left Punch to go to Great Nigeria Insurance Company as head of PR, but I was still writing for Punch. Then Daily Times approached me, the editor of Lagos Weekend, asking me to transfer Aunty Gina to Lagos Weekend. It ran for almost ten years in the late 70s to early 80s. I launched my first book: Yours Sincerely – Selected Writings of Bunmi Sofola. I left GNIC and was running an insurance broking firm and making fairly good money until the brokerage industry went bust. I called Uncle Sam (founder of the Vanguard newspaper.) He was so excited. He said, “Come back, come back!” I wrote three or four columns for them and he then said that we should revive the agony column but to rename it “Dear Bunmi.” You can imagine how many letters I have seen over time. From this, I was able to gain experience, so I’m a self-trained relationship counselor.
How do you retain a sense of detachment when dealing with what can sometimes be very emotional topics?
After all the years of getting letters, once you get a letter you know where it’s going. There are some letters that are really badly written but the substance will be good so you have to sit down and go through it. It can be quite a tedious thing. Sometimes it might be the crudely written ones that have depth and you want to treat those kinds of problems. That’s it. It more time than people think, more time than just sitting down and knocking together a column. But it is very rewarding.
Men are perceived to be less forthcoming than women in seeking relationship advice. Have you found that to be true in your experience?
It is mostly women that write in, but a lot of men do write in too. And when men write in, you take note because their problems, although relationship-based too, tend to be more of the sexual rather than the emotional. It is usually that they are impotent or are experiencing premature ejaculation. The women tend to write in more about emotional problems.
As people mature and gain more experience, they might not necessarily look for advice through an agony column. Would you say that your Dear Bunmi is more popular with a young demographic?
Not too young, probably between 30s and 40s. Once in a while you get older ones. When you have the very young ones, they are usually juvenile requests but you take it seriously because it means a lot to them, and so I answer those as well. It’s interesting; you get a very mixed bag. And that’s it. Everybody faces problems, whether young or old. For people over 50, it might be their children. That’s part of relationships too. Their children might be in a bad relationship and they want advice. Or their husband, for instance, might have a younger wife and she will want to know how to deal with it; things like that. Sixty and seventy-year-olds are remarrying so there is a mixed bag of problems as I mentioned before.
Talking about relationships, Nigeria is in the middle of an economic downturn and that must surely impact on relationships. Has there been a spike in finance-related correspondence and are you seeing more relationships under strain given the dire economic climate?
I don’t think there is an increase; perhaps a bit more. The recession didn’t just happen. It’s been a gradual thing, until it has now reached a sort of crescendo. This is not the first time it will happen; we had one in the late 80s when we were told to plant vegetables to eat. But the problems that people contact me about are not necessarily to do with money. It is more emotional than financial, even now. Once there is a recession, the rules change so you have to play by the rules. That things are bad today does not mean they will be bad tomorrow. When you are boxed into a corner and, perhaps, it is the wife who can now provide for the family, you have to encourage her; not just that, make do with whatever she brings in.
Look at the effect of the recession on social parties: you don’t get a lot of champagne like you used to. Even with the meals, a waiter will come to take your order and then go away and you don’t see him anymore at that party (laughter.) Things are tough. Event centres that used to cause gridlocks on the roads are now empty at weekends. I feel, though, that things will get better. Money is being pumped into the system. We cannot continue this way. The general atmosphere is down, everywhere is feeling gloomy. The casual worker that would go to a bar and order cow leg now only makes do with a drink and goes home. This is a shame and it impacts everything. We’ve never had it so bad. Even the other time in the 80s that I mentioned earlier was not this bad. We’ll pray that things improve so we can have our destinies in our own hands. You can’t do anything without money in the system. Look at graduates with no jobs. This affects family life. You will then see the sugar daddy or gigolo syndrome. A friend and I were at a car park and a young fellow came over. Before he had finished talking, she immediately said, “Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me.” She said that all these young boys have some form of ‘juju’ in their eyes and once they stare at you directly in the face, you will be smiling and feel flattered. That’s how they will spend all your money. I thought to myself, this is a different thing o! You see, it might be true because people are desperately looking for ways to make money, legitimately or otherwise. Salary earners are already in a backlog of debt so there is pressure on individuals and families. It’s sad. We hope things will get better soon.
Despite there not necessarily being an increase in readers seeking solutions to their problems during this recession, do you feel that there has been a noticeable impact on relationships as a whole?
Luckily, a lot of women are now financially independent, so you now even have ‘househusbands’. With that, the man can’t toss you around or anything. If he misbehaves, that’s it. You’re having a bit of role reversal now with the economic downturn. Maybe it’s for the better. By the time things get better, you will have men who are domesticated. And women will have more power. Some know how to manage the power so that they don’t make their men feel emasculated. But for some, the power goes to their heads. Often men treat women badly because of financial superiority, and the women are learning a lot from their male counterparts. When they are financially independent, they might just use the man for what they need, maybe to have children and then kick him out. Some women do that. That is the situation of things now. Years ago, when women had their own money, such as the women traders, they dared not flex muscle with their husbands. They’d just sit there and enjoy their money quietly. Now they make a lot of noise and a lot of people know that they are the ones making the money.
This sounds like the feminist ideal. Would you describe yourself as one?
I’m comfortable in my own skin. I like male company more than I like female company because the men tend to be more straightforward and are not competing with us. But I don’t like it when women are ill-treated. I don’t like it when women know they are being ill-treated and still stay in that relationship because of what other people will say. They go through a bad marriage because they don’t want to be a divorcee or a single mother, etc. You don’t owe anybody anything because today’s news is tomorrow morning’s akara paper. When they talk about you today, they will find someone to talk about tomorrow. What is important to you is your own general wellbeing. It’s as simple as that. Make yourself happy because life is short. I’m in my 60s. Before you know it, you’re getting on and what will you say that you’ve done with your life? You owe it to yourself to make the most of the life God has given you.
There will also be people, for example, young couples embarking on married life during this period. Is it harder on them and what are the tools they will need to cope?
It can be a very tough time. But then some will learn to live with the situation they find themselves in and make the most of it. That is the best thing, really, instead of just packing your bags. It is true of some spoilt brats nowadays that are newly married. When the slightest thing goes wrong, their parents say, “come home, come home, I didn’t train my child for poverty.” There is much less endurance nowadays. There has to be respect, love and sacrifice. Like they say, in the beast there is some beauty. So you try and take the beauty and make the best of what you’ve got.
Are there some relationships that you have found to be irredeemable in the face of economic difficulties and what would you advise in such situations?
Children need to be considered. Their welfare is important. If you decide to leave, are you taking the children with you? In a recession, when there’s no money and there are no jobs, who is going to help you? Some people stay because they have no choice - like our mothers and grandmothers stuck in bad marriages because there were limited options. Their parents would say, “I went through worst things than you, so you had better grin and bear it and get on with your life.” Everyone needs to decide on their own how much they can cope with.
There are global statistics that domestic violence increases during a recession; have you found this to be true?
We seem to hear more stories of domestic violence nowadays. Research has shown that people who come from homes where there was violence are most likely to go on to inflict violence on their future partners. That is all they know. So it is either you want to expose your children to that kind of thing or not. The future of a child is more important than a relationship with this man who doesn’t care a hoot about you or the children. If you can manage on your own, do so and let the man have access, but if you cannot, let the children know that this is not the norm. Their dad is behaving like this because of money worries, the country is in recession so be patient with him. But for how long will you do that? At least for as long as you can bring a sort of normalcy to the family situation. With those living abroad, because the law seems to favour women more, we find that the men are hitting back. Maybe a separation is imminent; before it happens that they suffer a loss of home or assets as decided by the law, they will deliberately cause a commotion and, maybe, kill the woman. They plead involuntary manslaughter, serve maybe five years and come out to claim their property and their children. There are many stories of this kind among Nigerians living abroad. Violence in relationships is really disheartening. You discover that even when people are in a violent relationship, they don’t want to leave. It’s very sad. They give excuses and reasons even after they have been advised, until they are eventually forced to leave, pushed out. And it doesn’t have anything to do with whether you’re from a rich home or less affluent home; it is to do with the psyche. If you get married to a man, let’s face it, a man doesn’t become violent overnight. You must have seen some traits in that person. Sometimes the violence might be towards the children. Violent men or women can never change. Because, you know, it’s not just men that are violent. Therefore you either live with violence - and I don’t see why anyone should, or you pack your bags and look for better things.
So there is no hope for violent people and those in relationships with them?
It’s like having a gambling addiction or being an alcoholic. I used to have a neighbour who literally drank himself to death. He would dry up, go back to drink, dry up several times until he eventually died. It is a dangerous cycle that they cannot easily overcome. People are made differently. Like I said, it depends on how much you’re ready to take if you are in a relationship in which there is violence.
Financial hardship is clearly a problem during a recession but as has been coined by experts, we also have to deal with social recession – the social impact of recession i.e. the after effects of recession on social structure. What should we look out for?
All that was happening before the recession; it is just made worse by problems during a recession. When there are break ups, after the recession, people go on to remarry when things are better. Just as you get bad step-parents, so also you get good ones. There are two sides to every relationship. Even after a recession, things settle down and the social life will go on and relationships will improve. Definitely.
Apart from the newspaper columns, your radio programme and your publications, do you receive people in person to address their concerns?
That would be disastrous. I have a healthy social life and I won’t compromise that. Once you allow even phone correspondence, you’ll be getting calls in the middle of the night. I don’t encourage that. And if you make it one-on-one, you’re not sharing that problem with the rest of the public, and that is the essence of Dear Bunmi. If someone else reads it, they can relate it to what is happening to them and might not even need to write a fresh request to Dear Bunmi anymore as they might have found a solution.
Are you tempted to always counsel and advise even if you’re out and about on your personal business?
People come up to me all the time. For them to do that, it is because they are looking forward to a solution from you. You don’t turn them back if you can help it.
How does your advice on relationships align with what would be recommended by religious counselors? For example, a rape victim gets pregnant and wants to have an abortion, yet their religion forbids this.
Well, for instance, our society accepts polygamy. You see when people have a problem, they know in their heart how much of this issue they want to take. That they ask for advice is just to get a second opinion. So, for example, if your religion accepts polygamy, you can’t say that you’re strictly monogamous. You tell that person to sit back, talk to themselves and ask themselves how much of this they can take; how much of this are they happy with? Many of those religious leaders are themselves impregnating members of their own congregation and procuring abortions for them. You have to know what you want. You go to church for counseling, yes, but deep in your heart you know what you want. It is important to go for counseling but you need to try to balance the two: your opinion, my opinion. You should take the position that you feel able to handle emotionally. For example, someone phoned into my radio show that having already had a couple of abortions, she did not want to undergo another. Now she is left holding the baby and the man has taken off. The lessons here are that you have to be careful who you try to help and the type of advice you give. Some people don’t want advice; they just want to take advantage of their situation. It is necessary to sift through to see which cases are genuine.
How has the digital revolution changed the way that you communicate with people?
Emails are not like letters that there will be a whole pile all at once and you have to select. With letters, you just cannot read everyone. With emails, you can leave some to address at a later date or you can easily delete whatever you don’t want. I have a Facebook page but I don’t use it often. I have my email address on the column page and that is my preferred way for people to contact me. However, a lot of people would rather phone than go on the internet and send an email. I feel if you’re serious about whatever problem you have, you’re better off emailing so I can go back and deal with it.
But perhaps people might turn to self-help sites or the popular search engines to seek solutions?
But the problem is unique to them and that makes all the difference to whoever it is that has the problem. They will still want to ask someone.
Do you ever get questions that you have no solution for, that you simply don’t have an answer for?
A few. I have one now that I don’t yet know how to reply. I’m still thinking. There will be an answer. It may not be what they want to hear. For example, in this instance, the person has lost their home to an estranged wife. What is left for him to do is to take his life back. You don’t always have a solution to all the problems, you wish you did but you don’t. It is not easy.
Does that bother you?
How many will you think about? There are so many. You just have to move on and see what you can do with the others. Once in a while when you get a better solution, you can let them know. When you hear loads and loads of problems over the years, you learn to let go.
Love Has No Recession is a song by the group, Kindred the Family Soul. What three things can you say you’ve learnt about money and relationships over the years?
Firstly, whoever has the money should be able to spend it for the family. Not that you will make it and spend it on booze and women and such like. In a recession, you manage whatever you have.
I have always believed in giving back. Whatever you have, whether it’s
N1, you give; it comes back to you.
You have quiet moments to yourself, be thankful for all the things that you have, instead of moaning about what’s gone wrong. Remember the good things. Life is as good as you make it. The impact of recession can be negative, but it is better that you make it positive for your own good. Some people just worry for nothing. It is not that recession only impacts some people badly; it is just that everyone has a different way of handling things.
Finally, what would you advise people to do to nurture their relationships, especially in times of economic recession?
They should remember that things will definitely get better. After the recession, all those affected will have to psyche themselves to be able to pick up. Don’t ever give up. Pick up the pieces and make the most of it. It might not be easy. Some people go through life happy. Whatever they want within reason, they get it. Others have to struggle for what they have. With having children, some have it easily. Some take years before they have one child. That is life. Whatever hand life deals you, you have to know how to play it. Confidence is very important. So also is financial independence. No matter how little, it is very important because if something should happen, you have to be ready to deal with it; you have to be ready for any emergency. I cannot overemphasize the importance of general well-being. You must have very good friends, good social life. I don’t mean partying all night every night. You must have one or two friends that you can share your problem with that will not deceive you. Because there are supposed friends like that – they might be taking rubbish from their husbands but will tell you to leave yours, that they can’t take that kind of thing. I get together with a group of fellow journalists once a month and we enjoy ourselves. The most important person in your life is YOU. Once you’re happy with yourself, then you’re happy with the people around you and you will be able to relate accordingly. Nobody goes through life without various challenges but you must know what to do.