It took a while, it has to be said, but it was worth the wait. Catching up with Ebiye Alaibe, who left us in 2009, was a delight – in spite of the slightly irritating delay over the phoneline to Nigeria, which nearly ended our chat before it began. To hear again his booming laughter, with enough resonance to shake the Hurtwood rafters, and mesmerizing voice with a presence that never failed to impress on stage, and to hear again his inimitable wisdom and energetic views on life, was a reminder of all that he brought to us here in the Surrey hills. Now, ten years into life beyond our school, Ebiye is an experienced solicitor and barrister, MD of several large companies, the driving force behind the camera of a number of creative film documentary projects, and busy enough not to need the extra hassle of a catch up with his old school. He was nevertheless charming, focused and complimentary. Hurrah! Same old Ebiye! Some things don’t change.
So where to start? Armed with sturdy A levels in History, English and Theatre Studies, he moved from Hurtwood straight into a Law degree at Warwick, swiftly followed by a Masters, and then onto pupillage in Manchester. After a year, he moved back home, consolidating his legal skills as a barrister in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Am I surprised that the daily challenges of this role did not fulfil him? Yes. Until he explains that he soon felt hidebound by the rules and regulations of daily battles with litigation. Where were the opportunities to exercise those acting skills in the pursuit of right? I should enlarge: Ebiye was always one of our finest actors, across all genres, and had, before this point, been involved in numerous performances from Edinburgh to New York. He was a human being of diverse and considerable talents. He wanted more than life as a lawyer was offering at that point and, taking control, Ebiye took a leap of faith into the business world, specifically that of ‘maritime logistics’. At the same time he re-focusing on his performance skills. The result, he tells me, can still be found on You Tube, a series called ‘Inspector shot over 10 weeks or so, and fitted around his new working world, often filming throughout the night, and turning up for court at 9 in the morning. It was clearly a frenetic time, as well as formative, and the outcome was rather surprising on two fronts: ‘I didn’t want to practise Law any more,’ he tells me. ‘There was little room for self-expression.’ What about acting, I ask? ‘Nor did I want to be in front of a camera.’ He had learned a great deal about the wider world of the law, film and finance; enough to know that he wanted both more control and personal input, and he wanted to be earning good money.
It was at this point that his life increased in intensity, if you can imagine it. Swiftly becoming involved in the varied portfolio of family businesses, he was able to integrate his knowledge and expertise, drawing directly on his knowledge of maritime logistics and law, and moving up into main ops. Alongside this, he now manages other companies, including a 67-bed hotel, all of which clearly both challenge and excite him. In his own words, he is ‘having so much fun,’ and is rightfully proud that he finds himself dealing on a daily basis with over 300 employees, working with some of the poorest as well as some of the richest people around, and treating them all, he trusts, with the same respect and understanding: ‘You have to care about people’s lives,’ he tells me, ‘you have to understand people’s emotions.’ This is the Ebiye we knew at Hurtwood, and now it seems very much at the centre of a challenging and successful working life. Yet, he still finds time it seems to support and mentor a group of young people from his home town. Aware of the privileges that he has experienced, he sees clearly the need to provide positive support where he can.
‘And the actor’s life?’ I ask. ‘The acting life hasn’t died yet,’ he laughs, and unfolds a burgeoning project: as Executive Producer, he is working on ‘What’s up, Lagos?’ the start of a wider provision of lively, informative ‘guides’ for the brave new world of business and tourism in his country. Ebiye positively explodes with enthusiasm over the phone. ‘At this point in time it is so beautiful to be African. Everyone wants to come to Africa,’ he tells me, and he wants to be part of the boom, sharing his love of Lagos and Nigeria, music, entertainment and all the things to do in his beautiful city with those returning or visiting for the first time. Very much behind the camera now, but drawing on all that experience and practice that his Hurtwood days consolidated, this is hopefully the beginning of a wider project to ‘share the love’ and information about his amazing Africa.
Time to let Ebiye get on with running his various worlds, I think. Any particular Hurtwood memories, I ask? So, so many it seems, but first and foremost he addresses one of the saddest facts about his school years with us. It was in his final year of A levels and in the middle of a big production that his beloved mother died. ‘Hurtwood saved my life,’ he tells me. So many teachers held his hand through this terrible time. Terry, Tina, Jackie, Ezra, Ted and Sophie: he names a few with profound gratitude. They all ‘held (his) hand’, guided him through the work, so he got to the other side of this heart-breaking experience. He moves quickly on to happier memories of performances, friendships and indeed his initial arrival at the school. Ebiye and his mother talked their way into an informal interview at Hurtwood – apparently a first prospective student interview by Ted – he found himself invited to sing. An instant success, Cosmo offered him a place, while his rather canny mother demurred, saying (not entirely truthfully) that he needed to weigh it up with other offers before committing. Happily, Ebiye came to us – and we have all been winners.
It has been a complete delight to catch up with such a gracious and positive human being. Now heading up to the watershed age of thirty he admits that he has not always found it easy to maintain that balance between work and home life, and laughingly admits that his girlfriend vacillates between ‘loving and hating’ him. Oh, the emotional complexities of life! What is apparent is that Ebiye is clearly thriving on the challenges, and is learning to balance things including his own multifarious talents. Any advice for students now? ‘No fear’, he says at once. ‘Life is not so long. It is a blessing. Live it every moment.’ He did just that in his Hurtwood days: looks like he still is. Hurrah!