A wassail for the wayfarer: Biodun Jeyifo at 71 – Part 1
It is already a year ago, incredibly, that artists, writers, journalists, trade unionists and intellectuals gathered first at Ibadan, and then at Ife, to celebrate the 70th birthday of prof Biodun Jeyifo, the Nigerian scholar at the Harvard University, and one of the most profound and humane spirits of our time. In fact, the celebrations have virtually lasted the whole year long, as other friends and admirers from different parts of the world joined in, and the feasting moved from one continent to another. In a few days we will be gathering again, even if not as boisterously, for another anniversary. But, as someone asked me, who really is the man, and why this world-wide attention?
Much of course has been written, and many by eminent voices. He has been copiously serenaded by colleagues and former students. The words of loving and of respect in his honour will make a dignified tome of tributes. Naturally therefore, it has been a mystery to many that, as one of his closest friends, I have so far been noisily silent. It has been hard for me to explain that, for me, when friendship is deep, it is also largely mute. Words fail me when the subject is a cherished companion, they crawl out limp where I aim for the limpid, sloppy where I want them brisk and stimulating. Always, lucidity quavers; the uniqueness of the relationship finds me inarticulate, tongue-tied. So it has been with writing about my best friend. But it is time now to fight off this reticence before the next round of feasting begins…
I admit of course that such taciturnity is difficult to understand in our clime. Most friendships here, as one can see, are built on gushing and egregious volubility. Many of our so-called friends seem possessed of egos that can be made secure only through loud and loquacious babbling. They seem convinced that the best way to assert their presence or their power is by filling the air with voracious trifle. They cannot stop talking; almost as if, if they closed their mouth for a second, they would collapse and expire. And therefore, instead of useful conversation or fruitful information, what you encounter repeatedly are monologues of unstoppable, torrential trash. When they claim to be your friend therefore, you must be instantly on the alert, because most of what our people refer to as “friendships” nowadays are little different from variants of mutual parasitism, and love has become something you earn because you advertise.
It is important to say this at the outset, in order to properly fix the context of my friendship with BJ. For unusually, in this noisy market of endless fustian, the strongest reason why our friendship has endured is this, that—I am looking for a way to best express it—it is built not essentially on what is spoken, but rather, on silence, on nuggets of unvoiced, introspective exchange.
BJ, many may not know, is essentially a loner, and loves to escape deeply into himself. To plumb such a personality therefore requires a kindred spirit since, as Awo once reminded us, “only the deep can call to the deep”. But if the solitary, as we know, are perpetually in danger of social estrangement, BJ, happily, is not. What rescues him from the eremite’s cloister is his passionate humaneness and reflex compassion. Let’s look at this a little more closely.
First, who is he? Everybody, at his insistence, calls him BJ. Including total strangers and even youngsters not half the age of his last son. They all call him, simply, ‘BJ’, with the familiarity of siblings or of friends he’s known for years.
All perfectly logical, you would say, for one who proudly defines himself as a Marxist-socialist. The simple cognomen attests to a voluntary rejection of the false hierarchies and hypocritical manners of both the traditional and bourgeois societies. It suggests the promise of easy accessibility to the bearer, of unhindered and spontaneous access (and therefore, gives the pride and pleasure of a surrogate kinship).
But does BJ have a phone then, to ease this promised access? If he does, what is the number? If you ring it, does he answer? And what’s his address on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., these new highways of rapid communication in the modern world?
Very few among these teeming admirers, I am sure, can answer these questions. They must be a scant number indeed that have ever seen BJ carrying, like all of us, this gadget we call a handset or mobile phone and which is universally considered nowadays to be almost as indispensable as the air we breathe.
But actually he does have one, I can say with authority. A crude and antiquated minuscule affair that was manufactured probably at the dawn of civilization, and which no self-respecting waste scavenger or even the lowest-paid cleaner would be caught with alive. (Well, let’s not exaggerate—maybe not the dawn of civilization, since mobile phones are a more recent affair; perhaps, more accurately, the dawn of the IT revolution, or somewhere pretty close to it, if you get what I mean.) BJ has a phone, but hardly uses it. And if it rings—as it does when it wants to give everybody a bad jolt—you will have to fish among assorted bric-à-brac to find it.
It is tempting to infer that BJ’s attitude to these modern inventions is that of absolute mistrust, if not pristine hostility, as I used to think. For instance, I can reveal it now to the public, without betraying a friendship, that it took me years to persuade BJ to start using a computer. As a professor at the famous Cornell university where he used to teach before being snatched by Harvard, BJ was duly allotted a desktop with all the necessary accessories by the authorities, as of right. But what was my pain on several occasions, when I passed by his home in those days of my somewhat frequent visits to the USA, to watch this computer sitting there on his table, completely idle, and staring at us with arrogant disdain. You can imagine my anguish—me, coming from a country where such items were at the time still a luxury, and where NEPA took the final decisions anyway whether you could use them or not—you can imagine my torment when I tried to get my brother to start using his computer to ease his work—and all in vain! Yet he would spend tens of dollars hiring some lucky woman to type his manuscripts! I would switch on the thing, slot in a disk, print out a sample, all to demonstrate to him how easy it all was—but my brother would not budge. And all I could do, to avenge myself, was seize a bottle from his fridge to wash down my frustration.
Then one day, to my astonishment, I arrived at Ithaca, only to see the man clicking away at the computer as if it had been manufactured in his bedroom, and he had been using it all his life! More amazing still, BJ’s competence on the computer nowadays has risen so high that he works completely and directly on the machine without even having to write his thoughts down first on paper. Now, that’s a skill that I still have not managed to acquire! I have to work first in long-hand, write everything down, before I proceed to type it out. Then, to make corrections, I start on the same process again, scribbling laboriously with pen or pencil, before I move back to the computer again for the final copy. Needless to say, while I am still trudging this way along the old path, BJ has long completed work on his laptop, and moved off to other things! So the joke is now on me—the former dinosaur is the one now digging at me to get to grips with modernity!
But his stupendous reversal, let me hasten to say, has nothing to do with any Pauline miracle, to disappoint the zealots. BJ did not undergo any sudden, spectacular transformation or conversion of faith. I was the one who had read him wrong. His initial aversion to these gadgets, far from being the outcome of some innate incapacity or an intrinsic dislike of modernity was, really, just an act of resistance to their universal and ubiquitous intrusiveness. It is an aversion shared by many of the older generation.
We complain, to the mockery of our children, that anywhere you go nowadays you will see everybody clutching one handset or another, or tapping away on it with serious concentration, unaware of or indifferent to the presence of others around. Or perhaps clutching the instrument to the ear and talking volubly to invisible interlocutors, like persons possessed by demons or in the final throes of derangement.
The mobile phone, in one word, has virtually turned all of us into lunatics. Laughing or quarrelling with people who are not there; communing with ghosts we do not see; feeding ourselves with a stream of assorted information without discrimination, and so on! Obviously this cannot be interpreted as freedom, as some “experts” erroneously insist, but a new kind of enslavement, a hypnotic spell in which all our hitherto cherished values are being systematically dismantled or made tragically contingent.
Still, the question of morality apart, the main problem with these new media and the instruments created to carry them, is their overweening nuisance value. Especially for people who are naturally introspective, and who cherish silence and solitude deeply, it is probably impossible to conceive of a greater adversary. That is where we come back to BJ. He keeps these modern gadgets at a distance because he is a man who guards his privacy jealously, with an almost fanatical zest.
That statement will, I suspect, surprise not a few of his admirers. How, they will wonder, can a man who has been a ‘pyrate’, that is, a member of the reputedly libertine campus group, also be ‘private’? Certainly the two homonyms are not synonymous. Or can someone be simultaneously open and closed? Vivacious at social parties, full of yarn and banter when he is in the spirit, not averse to the usual lark of belting out one mischievous song or another at naughty moments, BJ can come to seem like every other Nigerian socialite you know.
But that assessment would be terribly wrong. Just like it would be for most of the ‘pyrates’ in fact, who may be rascally on the outside but are governed, in their conduct, by a code of the strictest nobility.
It happens to be the case that, despite all this occasional conviviality, BJ is perhaps the most reclusive of all the people I know. He is the one most prone to brooding, to lapsing suddenly and without warning into a bout of prolonged and baffling silence. Worsened now by growing age, and by a long and slow convalescence, BJ’s mood can swing abruptly from the welcoming guffaw and warm embrace to frigid indifference, from effusive and affectionate cordiality to surly churlishness. After an hour of affable socializing, he can plunge into a week-long mood of perplexing incommunicability.
Such is my friend. On such occasions, when he turns incommunicado, the secret in fact is not to seek to pester him for explanations but simply to follow suit and clamp up yourself and share the silence. And, speaking for myself, how one then discovers the infinite self-fulfilment that these moments of inward retreat can bring!
BJ has spoken at some length before now of some of the common episodes in our lives, some of them hilarious, and some painful. What he has not mentioned however is the fact that both of us can be together for hours sometimes, without either of us uttering a single word. And it is in those silences, that we come to our closest bonding.
BJ is an intensely, and you may even say, at times insufferably, private person. But to understand that is to also understand why he seems to be affected by an incurable wanderlust.
To the lonely, travel is opium and introspection is their fuel. Those who are introspective always seem to need the expanded space of roads and seas and open skies to make their turbulent imaginations soar to their fullest flight. The shy and the private must continually flee the homestead for the unfamiliarity of other places, in search of ‘friendship’ from the foreign and the exotic; for them, the daily domestic palls unbearably. But—and this is the problem they can never resolve—no sooner are they arrived somewhere than they must leave again. Fulfilment for them is relentlessly fragile, ever ephemeral.
So it is with my friend BJ. Ever restive, perennially on the move, he is one of those whose bottoms, as the Yoruba like to put it, have missed the bite of the family bedbug. Indeed, if he was to be given another cognomen today, the choice would fall on ‘Mr Restless’ with a capital ‘R’, or just simply ‘Àjàlá’, that notoriously incorrigible nomad of our recent history.
It is no wonder then that BJ is easily one of the most travelled of our generation, constantly jetting across borders and frontiers and never seeming to tire. Like some modern day Aladdin on a magic carpet. There is no continent now that he has not visited; and the list of countries that have hosted him is impressively long. The startling thing for me in all this is that, in the past decade at least, wherever or whenever his plane has landed, I have usually been there at the airport, among the welcoming team. Or vice versa.
Times without number in recent times we have found ourselves in the course of the same year living together in Beijing, where we teach a course on African literature that we initiated at the Peking university; then moving on to Berlin, where we have both been Visiting Fellows at the International Research Institute of the Freie University; then moving back to Nigeria before starting off again. In between these sojourns would be shorter journeys to the US or the UK, or Ghana, or India, or some other place, for conferences or lectures or leisure—the most memorable recently being the visit to Belgrade for my conferment with this year’s Thalia Prize. Not surprisingly therefore, because we often share the same office and the same apartment in these foreign places, our favourite argument is on who is the better cook. (I am, of course). That is why my name recurs so frequently in his writings, and why some call us siblings.
We talk like others do about politics, the state of the world and of our country; of mutual friends and our families; of treasured moments retrieved from the past and others we regret; of ongoing projects and future plans; and so on.
• Osofisan is a distinguished writer, scholar-critic and professor of drama.
TO BE CONTINUED