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A tribute to my aunt, Chief (Mrs.) Elizabeth Fagunwa

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Elizabeth Fagunwa

Yesterday, all roads led to my maternal hometown Oke-Igbo whose fame is often rendered in songs as the “little Jerusalem,” but in reality, is known as an ancient Yoruba town where the legendary Prince Derin Ologbenla, the great warrior and Ile-Ife royal, pitched his war tent.

By so doing, he attracted eminent war-lords from different parts of Yoruba land to this hilly place.

Most major Yoruba sub-ethnic groups are represented in this town: Ijebu, Owu, Egba, Ibadan, Ondo, Oyo, and, of course, the Ife people.

Their festivals, rituals, traditions, ethics all combined to make the town what it is today, a stronghold of Yoruba culture and tradition in Ondo State.

But in more recent, modern times, Oke-Igbo is best known as the town of the legendary Yoruba writer D.O. Fagunwa, the author of the well-known book Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale (The Brave Hunter in the Forest of A Thousand Spirits) and many other works that have been acclaimed globally.

Thanks to the scholarship and work of eminent Nigerian literary scholars such as Wole Soyinka, Ayo Bamigbose, Akinwumi Isola, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Olu Obafemi, G.A. Ajadi, Dapo Adeniyi, Olaoye Abioye, and many others, Fagunwa’s works have now also been translated into English and French languages.

Visitors, friends and relations travelled to Oke-Igbo to celebrate the life and transition of Chief Mrs. Elizabeth Adebanke Fagunwa, D.O. Fagunwa’s wife by his second marriage.

But because Mrs. Fagunwa is an important figure in her own right, it is imperative to recall her 86 years of life and activities for some of the lessons the living may learn from them.

Mrs Fagunwa was born in Oke-Igbo to my grandparents, Samuel and Abigail Aderemi on a hilly place called Oke-Agbe (farmers’ place), the little house where I was also born as a twin.

She would be the last of seven children of Baale Aderemi, the patriarch of a Christian family that produced two sons and five daughters, including their first son, Venerable Archdeacon Albert Aderemi of the Anglican Church.

Chief Mrs. Fagunwa travelled around many places with her elder brother as the latter was transferred from place to place as an Anglican missionary, as was the practice in the CMS mission then.

Concerning her own educational background, Chief Mrs. Fagunwa attended St. Mary’s Primary School, Iyere, Owo; and later Our Lady’s Catholic Teacher Training School, Maryland, Lagos where she trained as an elementary school teacher.

She began her teaching career at Agbaje Primary School, Ibadan and thereafter taught at various schools in the city including the Ibadan City Council (ICC) schools in Adeoyo, Mokola, and Oke Ado. After many years of dedicated teaching, she traveled to the United Kingdom where she attended a higher diploma teacher- training program at Birmingham University.

Mrs. Fagunwa was a very knowledgeable and brilliant woman with quick intelligence and enormous energy.

She inherited the look and temperament of her mother, Mama Aduke, who equally came from another illustrious warrior family called the Kuole’s an ancient lineage that is symbolized in a legendary masquerade tradition considered to be one of the oldest in the town.

As I wrote in the memoir in memory of my parents: “In My Father’s Parsonage: The Story of an Anglican Family in Southwestern Nigeria,” Christianity made all these ancient traditions off-limits and my grandmother’s last conversation with me in her little corner in Oke-Igbo was that since she and her husband became Christians, all the ancient traditions have passed away.

Mrs Fagunwa married the late writer D.O. Fangunwa at a very early age.

At the time, she was considered to be the most beautiful lady in town and one of the few Western educated women- the best-known being Mrs. Fola Akintunde-Ighodalo who would become the first female Permanent Secretary in the country’s history.

D.O. Fagunwa was already in his prime and his writings were already gaining global fame.

After their marriage, they settled in Ibadan where she continued with her teaching career, and her husband pursued his writing.

I recall that in those days, as young nephews and nieces, my cousins and I used to spend our holidays with them in Ibadan, and I remember that it was Baba Fagunwa’s practice to send some of his new publications as Christmas presents to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Yoruba who lived very close by.

As a teacher, my aunt taught a great many students, several of whom are highly placed in the public and private sectors in Nigeria and abroad.

While in Ibadan, Mrs. Fagunwa was a staunch member of the Cathedral Church of Saint James, and together with her elder sister, Mrs. Emily Fajeyisan, they belonged to many church societies where they participated in both the religious and social life of the church and the city.

With her transition, the Aderemi family of Oke-Igbo is witnessing the end of a significant era, not only in our family history, but also in our connectedness with far and near places in different parts of Yorubaland.

Not quite three years ago, she led the family delegates to celebrate the transition of the Queen mother Chief Mrs Juliana Osiberu, our great aunt and mother of HRH Oba Adewale Osiberu, the Elepe of Epe-Sagamu and Chief Mrs Folasade Ogunbiyi, the Iyalode of Remo.

Mrs Fagunwa’s life and times point at many lessons. Hardly a day passed by without Mrs. Fagunwa reminding her children and her younger relations of the necessity to remember our roots, our maternal and paternal homes, and relatives whose kinship bonds she cherished.

In the larger lineage spheres, we are constantly reminded that we belong to not just Oke-Igbo, but also to adjacent towns such as Ifewara, Ifetedo, and Ile-Ife.

This is equally an indication that these three towns are not as disconnected in Yoruba history as we often think. While on visits to Oke Igbo, she was constantly reliving the history of our lineage and making us participate in it.

You had to have a full wallet whenever you joined her on visits because before you leave the city, you would do the rounds with her, during which you would have to oblige.

Through this practice, we got to know our relations extensively, those whom we would not have known because most of us do not live in the town.

And while her life with Chief D. O. Fagunwa was brief, it was eventful. There was no dull moment in their home.

As D. O. Fagunwa was busy writing his classics, books that have become significant Yoruba treatises for generations yet unborn, their home was very accommodating to children, families and relations who knew them.

I used to tease my aunt that one of the characters depicted in her husband’s novel, Iyunade, a woman carrying a whip and leading an Egungun masquerade, looks very much like her and may have in fact been based on her.

Another important point is her faithfulness in her obligations to the church of her birth, St. Luke’s Anglican Church, where her father served as the Baale, that is, the head of the laity.

During those harvest family meetings in Oke-Igbo, the rallying period for the Aderemi descendants, my Aunt would rightfully take her place as the baby of their family.

When it was her turn to take up the leadership of our lineage affairs, she made sure that the family harvest celebration was fully attended. Those who could not be physically present were obliged to send their donation to the church.

Once, I quietly sneaked into the service and sat at the back of the church, and I found her among the choir. I had not realised she had joined the choir.

On her 80th birthday, a few years ago, when we all traveled home to celebrate with her, she insisted she would wear her choir robe rather than the gorgeous lace materials her children gave her for that occasion, just a pointer to her commitment to church life and the Christian family heritage her parents and siblings passed on to us.

We have very much to learn from Chief Mrs. Fagunwa’s role in maintaining and institutionalizing the legacy of her husband.

It is important to remark that throughout her married life, particularly after the death of her husband, one could describe her as the witness to the truth of D.O Fagunwa’s life and death.

We are joyous and happy that in her lifetime she saw through the establishment of D.O. Fagunwa’s Foundation and memorial to promote the legacy of the legendary writer and author.

Many years before her transition, Mrs. Fagunwa was concerned with preserving her husband’s literary legacy. She realised that given our country’s lip service to literary works, Fagunwa’s classic works could disappear into oblivion.

With the support of numerous Yoruba living giants, Fagunwa’s Foundation was created to promote these works, particularly through an annual lecture series.

Thanks to the Ondo State Government which sponsored a memorial conference 50 years after the death of the legend, Yoruba scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds, and members of the Fagunwa study group in Nigeria and the Diaspora took the lead in organising this unique and successful meeting where Fagunwa’s works and thoughts were debated and analysed.

As the conference organized in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the death of her husband showed, and the book volume that was published in his honour, Mrs. Fagunwa was shown to have helped significantly to clarify the mystery surrounding the life of the great author whose larger than life persona took on more meaning 50 years after his death.

It is a point of pride that her son, Oladiipo Fagunwa, has picked up his late father’s tradition in writing his own novels, though in the English language.

Those who have had the opportunity of reading his works cannot help but conclude that Oladiipo is in all ways D.O. Fagunwa’s reincarnation.

Chief Mrs. Fagunwa was buried beside the resting place of Chief D.O Fagunwa, at Saint Luke’s cemetery Oke-Igbo. May her soul rest in peace in the bossom of her Creator and our ancestors.

. Prof. Jacob Olupona writes from the Harvard University


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