TOURISM AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: THE BADAGRY EXPERIENCE

Tourists pose for photos at the Badagry Heritage Museum

Tourists pose for photos at the Badagry Heritage Museum

Badagry town is situated on the western tip of Lagos, the former Nigerian capital, and is famous because of its slavery heritage. Tourists, Nigerians and foreign visitors alike, troop there to explore not just the relics of the horrendous trans-Atlantic slave trade that spanned at least three centuries and the museums established to preserve its memory, but also the heartwarming legacies of European missionaries (Christianity, Architecture and Schools, to mention but a few) as well as the surviving indigenous culture and religion.

I travelled to Badagry for the first time sometime in 2002, when the “Badagry Heritage Museum”, symbolically housed in a single-storey prefabricated building built by the British in 1863, was commissioned and its doors open to the public. Since then I have returned a couple of times for various reasons, including sightseeing and research trips; but in 2010, I started to take daylong excursions to the coconut-rich town.

Tourists visiting the elegant palace of the Akran of Badagry, one of Nigeria's first-class kings

Tourists visiting the elegant palace of the Akran of Badagry, one of Nigeria’s first-class kings

Badagry is the only place in Nigeria I know where the locals—the youths mainly—have been the key drivers of tourism activities. The daily influx of tourists in the past decade has birthed a clique of resourceful local tourist guides, who take their jobs seriously, because it has proven to be a source of constant income. What’s more: they tell the local history—and the story of slavery—with relish, and this has ensured a steady stream of tour buses.

One of Badagry's resourceful and tourist guide Anago James Akeem Osho lectures tourists about slavery in the compound that once housed 40+ slave cells known as "Brazillian Baracoons"

One of Badagry’s resourceful and tourist guide Anago James Akeem Osho lectures tourists about slavery in the compound that once housed 40+ slave cells known as “Brazillian Baracoons”

One of the most thrilling moments for tourists in Badagry is the boat ride across the Lagoon. The boats help the community generate regular revenue

One of the most thrilling moments for tourists in Badagry is the boat ride across the Lagoon. The boats help the community generate regular revenue

In 2012, taking inspiration partly from The Gambia and one or two countries in East Africa, where the initiative has proven successful, some of the existing tourism services providers in Badagry, including crafts makers, boat operators, hospitality businesses and motorcycle-taxis, among others, then operating independent of one another, formed a collective known as SCATE (Small-scale Allied Tourism Enterprise) to better co-ordinate all the tourism activities in the town and enhance the linkage between tourism and economic empowerment.

Badagry receives a steady stream of tourists, including Nigerians and foreign visitors. This has helped to keep the local tourism activity alive

Badagry receives a steady stream of tourists, including Nigerians and foreign visitors. This has helped to keep the local tourism activity alive

“Our objectives cut across economic, social and environmental considerations,” one of the initiators told me. “SCATE is an opportunity to create jobs and serve as an intervention for the good of all our members.”

One of SCATE’s founder-members told me that the local tourism practitioners, for instance, have agreed to deduct and save a tiny percentage of the daily revenue from the boat rides across the Badagry lagoon (it takes tourists to the Gberefu Island, from where they walk to the infamous ‘Point of no Return’) to be spent on low-budget projects that impact positively on the community.

Badagry is fringed by coconut palm trees, which the locals utilise to weave all sorts of arts, crafts and tourist souvenirs. These baskets, woven locally from palm fronds are used by the farmers and traders to pack and transport produce and purchases.

Badagry is fringed by coconut palm trees, which the locals utilise to weave all sorts of arts, crafts and tourist souvenirs. These baskets, woven locally from palm fronds are used by the farmers and traders to pack and transport produce and purchases.

“We recently invested part of the money in stocking the health centre,” one of the guides told me. “We have been talking to our people, young and old, educating them about the contributions the visiting tourists are making to Badagry town. We encourage them to continue to be friendly and welcoming to visitors, because the more these people come, the more money that comes to the community. We see that they are taking our advice and we have noticed an improvement in indigene-tourist interactions.”

slave chains preserved from the 15th century and housed in a family-owned museum is one of the reasons tourists flock to Badagry

slave chains preserved from the 15th century and housed in a family-owned museum is one of the reasons tourists flock to Badagry

Hubert Ogunde: A Visit to the Tiger’s Empire (3)

Hubert Ogunde: As it was with the father, so it is with the son

Son of his father: Kunle David Ogunde

Son of his father: Kunle David Ogunde

On our way out of the bungalow housing the fledgling museum, we stumbled on the renowned filmmaker Tunde Kelani. He was headed towards what I was told by the Bose sisters used to be the rehearsals room in Pa Ogunde’s days (his actors were there six days in a week, perfecting their roles), now serving as set for Kunle Ogunde’s first feature film, ‘The Snare’.

“You know him?” younger Bose asked as they greeted each other and exchanged smiles.

“Oh yes—everybody knows TK.”

“Okay. He was one of the first cameramen our father trained.” Now, that I never knew.

Soon we got to the rehearsals room, already throbbing with activity. It was a rowdy setting as a largely Nigerian cast, dressed in fancy traditional costumes (they’re about to shoot a village scene), and a largely foreign technical crew, dressed in their T-shirts and shorts, prepared for the afternoon’s filming. The high-definition equipment, apparently shipped in from the UK for this project, gleamed in the distance. I had never been on a film set before, so it was a pleasure to see how the world of make-believe worked. Outside, the support staff went back and forth to fetch all other things needed on the set, including new costumes and accessories.

The Snare, the movie

The Snare, the movie

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Shortly, the younger Ogunde picked up the megaphone to address everyone. ‘The Snare’, he explained, is a sci-fi, futuristic thriller about a young African who has used advance a DNA bio-technology to help improve the quality of life in his community and by so doing save many lives. His genius has caught the attention of a foreign organization and they want him to come over and work for them.

“So what we are filming today is the sendoff and the community is giving him the gift of an ark because he describes himself as the Noah of his generation,” Kunle announced to the seated crowd. “So as you are seated here, you are dignitaries and special people of the community who have come to honour this man and to thank him for all he has done.”

Kunle had considered filming these scenes in other locations—Badagry and Benin City—but while out scouting in those places he found them unsuitable.  “That’s where my religious sentiments come in,” he said at a press conference later in the day. “I prayed for God’s guidance and direction, and God told me ‘Don’t leave your family out of this—go to Ososa. When I saw here, I said ‘wow!’—it was like heaven opened. That’s how we came to film in Ososa. Choosing Ososa has been a tremendous choice for me.

“I found out that everything I was looking for—in terms of setting, support and equipment is here. Our dad has done a lot. In fact, I am a hundred times, a thousand times proud of him. He’s done a lot of work. I was awed by what he has put in place in this neighbourhood, by the vision he had 20-25 years ago. There is better equipment available here, so I told my crew not to ship any to Nigeria.”

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Elvon Jarret being made up on the set

Elvon Jarret being made up on the set

Budgeted at one million pounds, Kunle started work on ‘The Snare’ in 2010. Other scenes will be filmed in Morocco and some countries in Europe. “God has taken care of 80% of that for us,” Kunle, who attended the film and television school in Berkensfield, England, said. “We have all the post-production equipment and studios set, everything on 35mm from end to end.

At that moment I recalled what the older Bose had told me earlier about the older Ogunde. “He was a perfectionist; he worked with an all-white crew, some of the best hands in the industry then, and he wouldn’t mind to spend his last kobo to get it right. He once sold part of his land to fund ‘Aiye’.

Hubert Ogunde: A Visit to the Tiger’s Empire (2)

Hubert Ogunde: A different kind of polygamist

A young boy IN oSOSA wears a T-shirt inscribed with the title of one of Ogunde's films--JAIYESIMI

A young boy IN oSOSA wears a T-shirt inscribed with the title of one of Ogunde’s films–JAIYESIMI

“Our father had so many wives but I won’t tell you how many they were,” older Bose, who retired from the Lagos State public service, told me at the onset of the tour, both of us standing in front of portraits of Ogunde and his parents, all placed in a exposed corner of the sitting room.

Shortly, she was joined by the younger Bose and both of them began to tell me of how closely-knit the family was—and still is. “He had many children but you wouldn’t be able to distinguish one from the other,” older Bose said. “All of the children took any of the wives as our mothers. If you asked me, for instance, who my own mother is I can introduce any of them to you. That was the life we all lived. It is one love that has bound us together.”

The younger Bose, a proprietress at a Montessori School in Ogun State, chipped in: “He had loving wives. They were always there for him in his lifetime and even after his death they are still there for him. As for the children, despite the fact that we are all from different mothers, we still work together with love”

Minutes into the tour of the estate, it became clear that the Ogundes pride themselves in the fact that they have remained united nearly 25 years after the death of the patriarch; year after year, they have returned to Ososa to either mark the anniversary of his death or during the Christmas season to bond. On such occasions, the villagers come around and the family pays courtesy visits to the king’s palace, among other engagements. They also get together to watch the few epic films Ogunde produced in the latter part of his life. “When he died, people said some nasty things; they said ‘we give them one year, they will go their separate ways’, but instead we are waxing stronger,” younger Bose said.

L-R: Kunle David Ogunde, Tunde Kelani and Richard Ayo Ogunde in Ogunde's Ososa home

L-R: Kunle David Ogunde, Tunde Kelani and Richard Ayo Ogunde in Ogunde’s Ososa home

Beyond their mothers, both sisters credited their older brother, Sir Richard Ayo Ogunde, the Baba Oba of Ososa, for this feat of togetherness. According to younger Bose, “He has done a very good job of coordinating the children and ensuring that the estate is what it is now. And God is still using him to move the estate forward and bless all of us.”

The narrative flipped again to the wives, with older Bose leading shedding more light on how Ogunde related with his women at home, like watching their favourite television programmes together and sharing story ideas for future productions with them. “He never did anything solo. He consulted his wives when he had flashes of inspiration, and they offered their own opinions,” older Bose said. “Our father loved his wives despite the fact that they were many. He was concerned about each and every one of them. I think commitment is one thing he got from his wives; he showed them love and they reciprocated with love too. He was everything to them as they were everything to him—they were the secret to his successful shows.”

In rounding off what was becoming a tale of one man and his many wives, young Bose said almost in a whisper, “They loved him so much that they even found new wives for him—they knew his taste, they did their research and they found the right women for him. Even the girlfriends knew the wives and there were no quarrels whatsoever. His polygamy was a peculiar kind; there were not many like it.”

By this time more people milled about in the expansive compound and inside bungalow, looking at the various Ogunde exhibits and memorabilia—turntable records and cassettes, film scripts, costumes, award plaques, film posters and many more. Ogunde’s trademark waist-high traditional drum, Ilu Agba, stands stoically in a corner of the parlour; and black-and-white images of his stage productions—some of them with equally famous actors of the time, like Duro Ladipo and Moses Olaiya—speak volumes about a long life spent acting out stories.

 

Preserved for Posterity: Beaded crown from one of Ogunde's film from the 1980s, "Ayanmo"

Preserved for Posterity: Beaded crown from one of Ogunde’s film from the 1980s, “Ayanmo”

It’s on record that some of those stories ruffled not a few feathers, from his early anti-colonial native operas to the very politically tainted plays post-Independence. So influential were his plays that his group was banned a couple of times. Older Bose recalled once when he was approached by politicians who tried to bribe him so that he could change the plot of a particular political play at the time (The ‘Yoruba Ronu’ episode in the old Western Region). He never did. “He was a man of integrity and he taught us to also be that. Our father never did anything for the sake of money. We take after him in that regard. None of us will do anything for money. That name Ogunde is the one thing our father bequeathed us with—we are not prepared to soil in in any way.

Hubert Ogunde: A Visit to the Tiger’s Empire (1)

Hubert Ogunde: The Repentant Charmer

A memorial in honour of the late Huber Ogunde in is hometown of Ososa (on the Lagos Ijebu-Ode highway)

A memorial in honour of the late Huber Ogunde in is hometown of Ososa (on the Lagos Ijebu-Ode highway)

Art decor/ painting in front of Hubert Ogunde's country home in Ososa

Art decor/ painting in front of Hubert Ogunde’s country home in Ososa

“My father died clinging to a Bible on his chest.”

That’s Kunle David Ogunde talking to the local media about the distinguished filmmaker Hubert Ogunde, who passed away on 4th April 1990. Based in the UK, he was in Nigeria recently to shoot some scenes of his first feature film (titled ‘The Snare’) and he chose to address a press conference at the end of it. “It was a great way for a man to leave this planet, to call upon God his creator and prepare the way for where he is going in the world beyond.”

A couple of hours earlier, two of Kunle’s sisters, both of them named Bose, had taken me on a tour of the Ogunde estate at his country home in Ososa, Ogun State. The tour started in the filmmaker’s living room, now the heart of the museum being put together by the family ahead of the 25th anniversary of his death, took me through the big twin rooms housing the vast wardrobes from some 50 years of stage and film productions, a rehearsal room, apartments for wives, children and production crews, a clinic and ended, an hour later, at the spot where two of the vehicles that served Ogunde’s traveling theatre decades back are parked, almost like guards near their owner’s grave.

The tour included a brief stop inside Ogunde’s private room, because the sisters wanted me to see the adjoining ‘prayer room’. (Unfortunately, the room is locked.)

“People believe that he doesn’t pray,” the younger Bose said, after we gained access to the main room. “Yes, he was a traditional man but he later converted himself. One fateful day, he took the decision to do away with all his charms—he put everything inside a lorry, drove into the bush by himself and that was the end of it. When he came back home, he converted the room at his home in Alagomeji (Noble Street), where he kept those charms, to a prayer room. That was many years before he died but the public didn’t know—they thought he died a traditionalist.”

Ogunde, it must be said, was only doing what came naturally to him. His parents were traditionalists, so he wouldn’t have had to look too far off to draw inspiration for his numerous creative outputs later in life; the influences were, literally, close to his chest.

According to the sisters, Ogunde’s spiritual zeal intensified to the point that he prescribed a fasting regime in his household. “We used to do white fasting in the family—we broke the fast with cooked corn and coconut,” younger Bose recalled, her face brightened by the memory.

“He told all his children that the only thing we should hold onto is God, because he had used all these charms and realized that they never really worked,” said the older Bose. “He believed that the herbalists who had the potent ones were already dead. As a matter of fact, he had a nasty experience with one man in Ibadan. The man made some juju for him; papa used them for some time but they didn’t achieve much. They failed him.”

Ogunde Productions--The Tour Bus parked inside the late actor's country home in Ososa

Ogunde Productions–The Tour Bus parked inside the late actor’s country home in Ososa

Ogunde's tomb in the premises of his country home in Ososa

Ogunde’s tomb in the premises of his country home in Ososa

My gaze shifted from the sisters to the bathroom door, which is slightly open and showing part of a bathtub. A water heater hung a few feet above it. Everything in the room, the sisters told me, is as Ogunde left it—the king-size bed, the sofa, the wardrobe and the air conditioner (“It’s still working up till now. We have not repaired or changed it since he died. Even the generator outside—our father had taste.”).

There are also costumes worn by Ogunde’s character in some of his films about; along with his personal clothes, they are dry cleaned as often as necessary, every three years on the average. Somewhere on the wall an academic robe hung from a hanger.. “That’s what he wore when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Lagos,” the younger Bose said.

All the clothes are, surprisingly, in good condition in spite of the passing of time, in this case 24 long years. “It is our mothers we have to thank for that,” older Bose said. “They are the ones who have brought them out regularly to let them get some air and sun.”

At that point, the sisters turned to one of the room’s walls and lifted up a light blue cloth. Beneath it was a large frame; on it, linear diagram shows the family tree, all of Ogunde’s wives on one level and all his children per wife below that. I got a couple of seconds to scan the passport-size photos by each name before the veil came down and we stepped out of the room, headed out to the next stops.

EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY (11 ‘FUNtastic’ Things to do in Badagry)

The folks at @TravelNextdoor have announced the next excursion to the historic town of Badagr; it comes up on Saturday 9th August 2014. To book a seat on the tour bus, or to get more details on the excursion, email travelnextdoor@yahoo.com or call 0807 0999 670.

@TravelNextDoor have been taking tourists–Nigerians and foreighners–on regular excursions to the town famous for its history of slave trading since 2010 and they have built quite a reputation for that over the last few years. We thought to share some highlights of what it means to be part of that 12 hours (8am-8pm) spent outdoors, enjoying the very best of #nature, #culture and #history that Nigeria has to offer.

NB: click on the photos to view a larger version of the photos

1. Take a boat cruise on the Badagry lagoon

1. Take a boat cruise on the Badagry lagoon

2. Take a splash in the ocean waters

2. Take a splash in the ocean waters

3. Relax (or read) at the beachside

3. Relax (or read) at the beachside

4. Take a leisurely stroll on the beach sands

4. Take a leisurely stroll on the beach sands

5. Network--make new friends

5. Network–make new friends

6. Preserve the memories--take lots of photos

6. Preserve the memories–take lots of photos

7. Taste the local delicacies

7. Taste the local delicacies

8. Enjoy the best of nature

8. Enjoy the best of nature

9. Visit Heritage sites (palaces, museums, etc)

9. Visit Heritage sites (palaces, museums, etc)

10. Learn something new about Nigeria and its rich history

10. Learn something new about Nigeria and its rich history

11. Take a second cruise on the lagoon

11. Take a second cruise on the lagoon

 
PS: Picture credits: Oluwakemi Ojo, Dr Raphael James, Adededi Olalekan (@stylomedia), @TravelNextDoor

The Preacher-Man Died (Review of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Camwood on the Leaves’)

"Camwood on the Leaves"--the set

“Camwood on the Leaves”–the set

"Camwood on the Leaves"--The Cast

“Camwood on the Leaves”–The Cast

 

Camwood on the Leaves, a radio play by Prof. Wole Soyinka adapted for the stage by Kenneth Uphopho‘s Performing Arts Workshop & Studios to mark the playwright’s 80th birthday, has a slim cast of six but it packs a punch—there is no dull moment, from the first scene to the last. In fact, Camwood is one of the few plays I have seen where the audience is so fully absorbed in the unfolding drama that they are keen to see what happens next.

Here’s the story: Ishola, the 16-year-old son of a hunter-turned-preacher, has got Morounke, the 15-year-old-daughter of a wealthy and influential chief in the community, pregnant. Both families are shocked and upset by the news and the young man is the butt of every form of attack conceivable, verbal and physical. He is the outcast in a society that thinks little of what children think or feel, or what they choose to do with their lives without their parents’ consent, especially when they yield to “immoral temptations”.

For one, the Reverend couldn’t stand the fact that his oldest son has chosen to join the masquerade society and roam the street “with pagans” in the day and when they offer “bestial sacrifices” in the dead of night, when he should be more active in church and attend Sunday school dutifully—like children his age are expected to do.

“Ishola has brought nothing but shame and disgrace to this family,” the father says to his wife, Moji, during one of his many fits of anger. In one scene,, in between kicks and punches, he looks Ishola in the face and tells him: “You are a child of sorrow, you are completely lost. You have sold your heart to the devil.”

Morounke’s parents were unrelenting in their own attacks on the Reverend’s household, invading his home at will and threatening fire and brimstone while he meditated in the church.

“He has led my daughter astray,” Ngozi, Morounke’s mother, wails.

“No one bears any love for him in this town,” a visibly angry Chief Olumorin declares, justify his decision to send touts after Ishola, who has by then fled from home to seek refuge in a hideaway in the forest.

Mother and Child--Ishola and Moji

Mother and Child–Ishola and Moji

Embittered--Morounke and parents, Chief and Mrs Olumonrin

Embittered–Morounke and parents, Chief and Mrs Olumonrin

In the turmoil both families have been thrown into, it is Moji who stands as the voice of defiance and reason. She is a mother’s mother through and through, a mother every child wants on their side when the world is against them. Ishola is cursed throughout this play but he soon develops a thick skin to the countless abuses that comes his way; and not strangely, Moji is the one who wears the grief on her sleeve. She sheds all the tears that should come from Ishola’s eyes. When Reverend loses his cool, which happens often, it is Moji who tries to calm him down; when the Olumorins rant and rave, it is Moji who stands up to them, sometimes appealing to their sense of understanding—to no avail.

“My son does not deserve curses—only correction,” she cries at one point.

“We must rescue him. We can’t drive him out in shame,” she says at another.

 

Adolescent Lovers--Morounke and Ishola

Adolescent Lovers–Morounke and Ishola

Fathers at War--Reverend and Chief Olumonrin

Fathers at War–Reverend and Chief Olumonrin

Though Ishola impregnates Morounke and turns his back on Christianity to embrace traditional worship,  his own way of asserting coming of age, Moji sees her son’s actions as an innocent slip, a failing anyone is prone to, though she never fails to talk sense to the heady boy when she gets an opportunity. “If you could model yourself on him (Reverend), others will follow your footsteps,” she tells him in the sitting room one day when the Reverend is away.

Ishola, now past caring what becomes of his parents, is unrepentant. He has joined the Masquerades’ ‘choir’ and there is no going back. “Why don’t you raise your hand and kill me? Why break me in pieces?” a crestfallen Moji is heard saying.

While both families are at each other’s neck over the unexpected pregnancy, the young lovers couldn’t care less if the heat consumed their parents; now cohabiting in their own little nest in the forest, they both hold fast to their mutual affection. And evidently content in their own little universe, they go snail hunting at dusk, chattering happily and content just hearing each other’s voice.

Throughout the play, the actors take us from one peak experience to another—right to the very end. As often happens when humans are deaf to reason, the worst happens. When all has been said and (un)done, what series of dialogues and fighting couldn’t settle a bullet did. Reviewed by Pelu Awofeso (@PeluAwofeso)

The Stallion--Moji

The Stallion–Moji

Wole Soyinka (at 80): The Colourful, Outstanding Moments in Abeokuta

It all began with the 80 kids (finalists of the #WS80 National Essay Competition) dressed in the bright colours of their respective ethnic groups, all seated inside the June 12 Cultural Centre in Kuto, Abeokuta. A moment later, singer Edaoto Agbeniyi’s walked in decked in a rich green ankara print buba-and-sokoto (and a very black guitar case hanging on his back); then there was that unforgetable flash of a smile from #WS80 producer, Lilian Amah-Aluko shortly afterwards.

It seemed like someone opened the floodgates of the rainbow as every single activity of the Nobel laureate’s birthday celebration onwards shifted into higher gear, including the palmwine reception and the trip to the awe-inspiring open-air amphitheater inside the ‘Ijegba’ Forest, where the play “Dance of the Forests” was to be performed.

Here are a selection of our most outstanding moments from Abeokuta as the world celebrated an African Icon. By Pelu Awofeso

 

Nigerian kids dressed in local traditional costumes

Nigerian kids dressed in local traditional costumes

Celebrant and Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka inspects the set of "Dance of the Forests"

Celebrant and Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka inspects the set of “Dance of the Forests”

A guest at the #WS80 event is all smiles just before the palmwine-laden reception

A guest at the #WS80 event is all smiles just before the palmwine-laden reception

Journalist and spoken word poet Akeem Lasisi performs a love medley titled 'Udeme' to a rousing applause

Journalist and spoken word poet Akeem Lasisi performs a love medley titled ‘Udeme’ to a rousing applause

Jamaican dub-poetry grand-master Mutabaruka is looking all regal with actress and #WS80 producer Lilian Amah-Aluko

Jamaican dub-poetry grand-master Mutabaruka is looking all regal with actress and #WS80 producer Lilian Amah-Aluko

Ogun State Commissioner for Culture & Tourism, Mrs Yewande Amusan, pours Yeni Kuti (Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's first daughter, a serving of palmwine

Ogun State Commissioner for Culture & Tourism, Mrs Yewande Amusan, pours Yeni Kuti (Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s first daughter, a serving of palmwine

PR maestro Steve Babaeko and professional photographer wife, Yetunde at the palmwine reception for #WS80

PR maestro Steve Babaeko and professional photographer wife, Yetunde at the palmwine reception for #WS80

For as long as anyone will remember #WS80 celebrations in Abeokuta, there will always be reference made to the spooky evening trek through the 'Ijegba' forest and the haunting yet pleasant 80 old women at the 'gates'

For as long as anyone will remember #WS80 celebrations in Abeokuta, there will always be reference made to the spooky evening trek through the ‘Ijegba’ forest and the haunting yet pleasant 80 old women (all dressed in white wrappers and headgear) at the ‘gates’

old women at the gates

old women at the gates

folklore musician, Edaoto Agbeniyi

folklore musician, Edaoto Agbeniyi

 

Wole Soyinka (at 80): An Evening of Spoken Word Performances

KONGI’S NIGHT OF POETRY: On the evening of the day (July 13) Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka turned 80, a stellar cast of young spoken word poets/ artistes from Nigeria (and from the US and Jamaica) took the stage in Abeokuta to voice their thoughts, feelings and emotions to an appreciative audience. These are some of the performers who stole our hearts–and those of many in the audience.Subjects included a broad spectrum of human emotions: #faith #religion #chibok #sex #corruption #love #justice

#racism #prostitution#God #determination.

Needless to say that we had enough lyrical imagery to last us a lifetime. “This has been a great night, an electrifying night,” says Professor Niyi Osundare (Uni. of New Orleans), who is a leading figure in poetry circles globally. By Pelu Awofeso

Edaoto Agbeniyi performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Edaoto Agbeniyi performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Efe Paul Azino performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Efe Paul Azino performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Jumoke Verissimo performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Jumoke Verissimo performing in Abeokuta for WS80

AJ Dagga Tolla performing in Abeokuta for WS80

AJ Dagga Tolla performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Akeem Lasisi performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Akeem Lasisi performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Titilope Sonuga performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Titilope Sonuga performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Dolapo performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Dolapo performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Iquo DianaAbasi Eke performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Iquo DianaAbasi Eke performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Jamaican born Mutabaruka performing in Abeokuta for WS80

Jamaican born Mutabaruka performing in Abeokuta for WS80

A performer in Abeokuta for WS80

A performer in Abeokuta for WS80

 

 

Wole Soyinka: Artistic Impressions

 

Soyinka Acrylic on canvas

Soyinka Acrylic on canvas

Soyinka (Chalk and Charcoal)

Soyinka (Chalk and Charcoal)

Soyinka (Melting Pot)

Soyinka (Melting Pot)

Soyinka (Seed Collage)

Soyinka (Seed Collage)

The days’ long celebration of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s 80th birthday has kicked of in Nigeria (and around the world) at the University of Lagos with an International Conference. Themed “The Soyinka Impulse: Art, Humanity, Transitions and Performance”, Harvard Professor Biodun Jeyifo gave the keynote speech while renowned Soyinka scholar and literary “stalker” Professor James Gibbs talked at length about the staggering oeuvres–with special emphasis on his less well known radio plays dating back half a century ago–of the man also affectionately called “Kongi”.

The day ended with a special spoken word performance by Jamaican born Mutabaruka, American Jayvon Johnson and a host of their Nigerian counterparts, including Sage Hassan, Efe Paul Azino, Dagga Tola and Titilope Sonuga. Subjects treated were as diverse an they they were awesomely rendered: racism, Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, a ‘black ‘Adam and his ‘White’ Eve; bleaching, poverty, leadership, justice, fashion, rape, money, politics, infidelity, child marriage, music and–yes, you guessed right–love.

On the sidelines of the Wole Soyinka  celebrations, taking place in both Lagos and Abeokuta, the celebrant’s ancestral home, is a month-long exhibition in his honour. It’s hosted at the J.P Clarke Centre, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos. It is a room full of images of Wole Soyinka as created by various artistes using various media–from Acrylic to Clay to Pencil.

Report by Pelu Awofeso (@PeluAwofeso)

Wole Soyinka: The Man, the Myth and the Melodrama

By Pelu Awofeso (@PeluAwofeso)

 

Soyinka (and future Soyinkas)

Soyinka (and future Soyinkas)

 

 

Deifying Soyinka

In January [2004] admirers of Wole Soyinka in Nigeria got together to talk, perform short sketches and clink calabashes to mark his birthday. But the dramatist, poet and teacher won’t turn seventy until July 13. What could the point be in the advance gathering? “It’s not really trying to do anything unusual,” explains Femi Osofisan, 58, Professor of Drama and Chief Executive of the National Theatre, “It’s just that all over the world different events were being arranged to mark the man’s birthday. And my fear was if we waited till July it will then look like we got the idea from Europe or things like that.”

In that get-together Pedro Obaseki, a third-generation director, sees something: “The deification process has just begun,” he says. There has been at least a gathering like that here and there almost every month since then: The Dance Guild of Nigeria, the G15 (a group of writers, painters and photographers), the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) and the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) have separately held sessions and lectures to praise Soyinka’s literary gifts and influences.

But the celebrant has not been present at any of these shows. Earlier this year Soyinka explained on a State-owned television that as much as he would love to be back in Nigeria for good and go everywhere he is invited, he presently cannot. According to him, he’s committed himself to mostly overseas projects—lectures among them, and nearly all fixed well in advance— that could keep him regularly outbound and airborne for many months to come.

“In a sense he has returned,” says Osofisan. “I mean he is here quite often. I don’t personally believe it can be better than that. He is an itinerant spirit—he loves traveling.” What was never made public however is the fact that Soyinka discouraged any form of merriment in his name. “He said that he is very much grieved by the present state of the country and doesn’t feel this is a good moment to celebrate,” a close associate said.

This explains why in May Soyinka was, along with other notable Nigerian activists, (like the lawyers Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti) in the front row of a civil protest in Lagos demanding, among other things, that the federal government convene a Sovereign National Conference. He was visibly the only 70-year-old, intellectual or otherwise, in the country to participate in such a ‘struggle’. The police, alerted and armed, dispersed the march with tear gases and the prominent protesters were ‘whisked to an unknown destination’ and let go ‘an hour later’.

That bit of ‘breaking news’—first on the television and on the cover pages the next morning—shocked some of his younger friends. The question: why does the septuagenarian put himself at such risk? Individuals of his generation have certainly tended to ‘take things easy’, preferring to just cuddle their grandchildren and play draughts on the corridors.  “I am against any government which permits, under the guise of an emergency, the persecution of innocent men,” he states in his evocative prison memoirs “The Man Died”.

 

Soyinka chatting with a younger generation of writers (at LABAF 2013)

Soyinka chatting with a younger generation of writers (at LABAF 2013)

Global Citizen

By March—just as Osofisan and Co. had imagined—the international tributes got underway. In April the University of Leeds, where Soyinka graduated with an honours degree in drama in 1957, announced a Professorial Chair in Drama and Theatre Studies in his name.

Plans are underway in all corners of the globe to stage a couple of his plays. Six or more books will be published in the spirit of the toasts in July: a biography, another collection of the author’s essays, and an autobiography amongst these. “The Durable Bard”—a collection of submissions by writers and theatre persons on and about the Laureate and his writings— is to be published by the group G15. Details of the rest remain imprecise. There’s also to be a dedicated website from the committee coordinating activities for the D-day.

So is all of this one jollity too many? For a man who has been a darling of the local media for four decades and has also impressed millions worldwide it never is; on another level, though, it could be. Within the past year alone a couple of Soyinka’s other venerated writer-contemporaries who turned seventy—J.P. (lately Bekederemo) Clarke, Elechi Amadi, to mention two of them—were honored but not so profusely. Could the unique treatment Soyinka has enjoyed be in the Laureateship, which no other Nigerian writer has been awarded? Could the reason be in his forthright commentaries? Both?

“Whether or not he was offered the Nobel Laureate is secondary,” Professor Dapo Adelugba of the Faculty of Arts in University of Ibadan says, “because in fact whatever he has achieved is worth the Nobel Laureate times a hundred. Let’s not forget that he was a world authority before the prize.

“I would rather put it to the personality of the person we are celebrating. Soyinka has always been very active with the communities that make up Nigeria and maybe has a wider sphere of influence, and those who are trying to celebrate his seventieth birthday in their own ways are doing it almost spontaneously. People just do it because, I think, they believe they want to identify with such a sociable and social man.

“Whatever we are doing cannot be said to be excessive or extraordinary. You can put it again to the fact that he is a committed writer. He is engaged at several levels—at the level of his caring for the ordinary man. Soyinka is willing to fight injustice to the last; in that sense, he is not only a writer but also an active social man. I think it is this commitment to the best human values that marks Soyinka out.”

 

Big Masquerade: Wole Soyinka

Big Masquerade: Wole Soyinka

Built by the book

 In many ways Wole the boy is Wole the old boy: inquisitive, go getting, verbal combatant and independent.  His second autobiography “Ake” presents him as a smart and very observant kid in 1930/40s Egba locale of Ake. Son to a headmaster and trader mom, he grew up in a parsonage with a family that wholeheartedly welcomed and housed all shades of visitors—including youngsters—nearly all of whom made impressions on him. He was drawn to books and the classroom when he was barely three, and regularly to the privacy of a rock and a guava tree near home.

At the Government College Ibadan, where his literary and theatrical talents found early expression, he had the reputation of ‘a good storyteller’; his classmates liked him, too. He wrote regularly for the school and his House’ magazines and sketched occasional drama pieces for the school’s Saturday Evening entertainment. Of Soyinka’s earliest writings Adelugba says, “There was an obvious mastery of the craft which improved with the years.”  At Leeds Soyinka became well known with the short stories he wrote—“A Tale of Two Cities” and “Madam Etienne’s Establishment”. And his volume of plays, according to Adelugba, “is highly respectable; each work is almost like a landmark in world dramatic literature”.

Yet not a few have described the ‘texture’ of most of Soyinka’s writings as ‘difficult’, especially the recent generation of students who have, sadly, to cope with an extremely flawed syllabus. “It’s not that he’s particularly difficult, but that his readers are perhaps less knowledgeable than they should be,” suggests Adelugba, who as president of the university’s Dramatic Society in the 1960s, directed Soyinka’s “Trials of Brother Jero” (virgin script).

“I think one has to bear in mind that Professor Soyinka went to school at a time when reading was a joy for the privileged students at the good secondary schools. He read virtually every scrap in the school library and he started early to develop in his literary taste and knowledge, so he had a command of English that you can compare to the command of English by the native speaker. He is one of the accomplished users of the language and therefore words that will come naturally to him might need a lot of dictionary work by present-generation pupils.”

Master of his craft

Granted plays like “The Road”, “A Dance of the Forest” and “Madmen and Specialists” are not that easy to figure out, “Death and the King’s Horseman”, “The Lion and the Jewel”, “Trials of Brother Jero”, “The Swamp Dwellers”, “Before the Blackout” and “The Strong Breed” are classed as ‘simple enough’. But how easy can they be realized on the stage? “Soyinka is an intensely dramatic poet in the sense that when you read the plays you don’t get their full meaning until they are staged,” offers Osofisan, who has himself written some 50 plays. “You really have to read him as if you were seeing the action on stage. Where they are difficult, put them on stage and most of the difficulties disappear.”

Some descriptions in “Ake” are simple and hilarious, however: “That same night, when the whole house was asleep and Wild Christian [his mother] was shaking the roof with her snores, I tip-toed into the pantry, filled my mouth with powdered milk. In another second I was back on the mat. In the dark, I let the powder melt, dissolve slowly and slide down the back of my throat in small doses. In the morning I felt no pain whatsoever from the pounding of the previous evening.”

“The Man Died” accounted for the two years plus Soyinka was locked away in solitary confinement— first in Lagos and later up north in Kaduna— In 1967 (weeks after the Nigerian civil war started), aged 33. Here the ‘English specialist’ acts the sleuth: “The cells as I came past them seemed peopled by corpses, propped against the walls.” Then, dispirited inmates he sized up “grew accustomed to sleeping where they sat, in a foetus crouch”.

In between the lines, it comes clear that Soyinka has an uncommon wit to outsmart his jailors’ intelligence, foil subterfuge and, once, a possible elimination. At a point in the revelation in “Ake” he writes: “I watched, I waited and schemed…A prisoner knows at once just who will aid him and who will not.” Little wonder then that he could pick out a dependable network of ‘spies’ and couriers to help him reach the world beyond the bars. Part poetic, part rumination and analysis, the descriptions of inmates’ torture are achingly vivid. His efforts to stay sane are grueling reading.

Most of Soyinka’s verses also carry the ‘difficult’ emblem. “Idanre” and “Ogun Abibiman” are prime examples. And one critique claims that his poetry “leaps into the unknown, the unfathomable, and the mystical”.  Amazing then that lots of other readers have been inspired to pen masterpieces by the same body of work, remarkable examples being Ben Okri (1991 Booker Prize Winner) and Niyi Osundare (a past winner of both the NOMA Award and the Commonwealth Poetry competition), a Professor of English and lecturer at the University of Ibadan. Both are Nigerians.

 

Wole Soyinka & I (at LABAF 2013). Photo by Taiwo Olusola Johnson

Wole Soyinka & I (at LABAF 2013). Photo by Taiwo Olusola Johnson

Like Soyinka, like Shakespeare

Osundare was the one to tell an international audience a few years back that “Soyinka is to African Literature what Nelson Mandela is to African politics”. He delivered the main lecture at the Committee for Relevant Art’s programme last June, and his brief was to contrast the septuagenarian’s writings with those of the present tribe of writers.

“Soyinka is a lucky man,” he says minutes into the two-hour talk. “Timing was on his side.  He inherited a virgin country that was just making the transition from a predominantly oral culture to a literate culture, and more importantly he inherited the right talents—an unending panoply of acolytes.”

Which was just as well.

So far, everything worth the event has been done to keep July 13 2004 in the minds of many for many years to come. But will Wole Soyinka’s literary and other remarkable legacies be on people’s lips four centuries from now—like William Shakespeare’s to whom he has repeatedly been compared (in Initials—WS—and in accomplishment)? Will posterity of that age see the writer’s birthplace and the landmarks he traversed in his lifetime? What will become of the Grier and Field Houses of the old GCI? The Tedder Hall and Soyinka’s office at the University of Ibadan? His manuscripts? The family House and street named after him at Isara, his ancestral home? That cell in Kaduna? The Samarkand Tree and Arena at the National Theatre? His home in Abeokuta? Culture and literary tourists would love to know.

Says Osofisan: “I think something will have to be worked out.”

 

PS: Article first published in Africa Today (July 2004)