Fagunwa: A new stride in literary scholarship
“Everything about our own culture is being suppressed nowadays, blacked out systematically from the children’s consciousness, including the ability to communicate in our mother tongues. This appalling situation of alienation, anywhere else, would be apprehended as the onset of a profound cultural crisis, and provoke serious official interventions to counter it. But unfortunately however, our governments in Nigeria have habitually, for reasons largely deriving from our colonial history, shown little interest in the area of cultural education. So it has been left to private organisations and individuals, especially in the artistic world, to keep raising the danger signals in this area, and to initiate programmes to salvage things.”
This is taken from Femi Osofisan’s essay in ‘Celebrating D.O. Fagunwa – Aspects of African and World Literary History’. The book’s public presentation at the Conference Centre, University of Ibadan last Thursday, drew an impressive roll-call of attendees, led by Prof. Wole Soyinka.
Chair of the occasion, Prof. Ropo Sekoni, read out the above quote in his opening remarks. He buttressed it with two further quotes, one from Jacob K. Olupona’s essay in the same book, on the centrality of Fagunwa’s birthplace in Oke-Igbo to his works; and the need to preserve the same for future generations. The concluding quote was from the Mission Statement of Arts Council England, which is committed to spending, between 2015 and 2018 alone, “£1.1 billion of public money from government and an estimated £700 million from the National Lottery to help create art and culture experiences for everyone, everywhere.”
Sekoni declared that, “Our governments need to be reminded of the following: culture is an engine of development. It is not only about enlightenment or entertainment, it is also an economy. Like other economic activity, arts and culture require investment.” He called for a museum in Oke-Igbo, and for robust arts policies, especially at local government level.
Noting that those dedicated to salvaging culture are now ageing, he recalled the sobering exits of two greats – Abiola Irele and Adebayo Faleti. The gathering observed a minute’s silence for the two – as well as the late Deji Falae, who was Ondo State Commissioner of Culture during the landmark international conference on Fagunwa, held in the state capital, Akure, in August 2013.
Edited by Adeleke Adeeko and Akin Adesokan – and with a foreword by Soyinka – the new book is a collection of essays by scholars (including Prof. Dan Izevbaye and Karin Barber) – presenting for posterity some of the groundbreaking papers delivered at the Akure Conference, convened in commemoration of 50 years of Fagunwa’s death. Poet Odia Ofeimun attested that, of the many conferences he has attended around the world, the Fagunwa Conference was the greatest.
Conference and book presentation were organised by the Fagunwa Study Group (FSG) – “a collection of scholars and professionals with an abiding interest in the works of Fagunwa” – mostly based in the United States and chaired by Olufemi Taiwo. Representing Taiwo was Tejumola Olaniyan, who touched on events that led to the conference and ultimately the book. “Some years back, we noticed the absence of much recent original scholarship on the writings of Fagunwa, so we decided to do something about it,” he said.
One of the 16 essays in the book is one entirely in the Yoruba language, by Arinpe G. Adejumo, titled ‘Ipo Wo Lobinrin Wa Ninu Itan Aroso Fagunwa?’ (on the position of women in Fagunwa’s fiction). Its presentation at the conference had been a very exciting moment, and it’s particularly heartening to see it included in a collection of essays on a writer who wrote his immortal works in Yoruba. Included as an appendix is ‘The True Story of Fagunwa’s Death’ – his widow’s account of the writer’s last moments in the River Wuya in Bida, Niger State, which had caused a stir at the 2013 conference.
Adeeko called Mrs. Elizabeth Fagunwa “the star speaker of the conference… The Akure Conference made Mrs. Fagunwa a widely quoted Fagunwa scholar.” Adeeko revealed that events leading up to the book actually started in North America six years ago “around two simultaneous discussions among those of us who all cut their teeth on the novels of Fagunwa.” Journalist Kunle Ajibade and Prof. Tunde Babawale were eventually drafted in to drive the Nigeria end of efforts aimed at “reigniting critical interest in Fagunwa’s work.”
As with the conference, the Fagunwa family had a significant presence at the book presentation in Ibadan. The author’s widow was on the high table, as was his first daughter, Mrs Ibukun Sijuola, who heads the Fagunwa Foundation. Another daughter, Adediwura also attended – as did Chief Olu Falomo, a friend of the late Femi Fagunwa, the author’s first son. Given the microphone by cultural ambassador and trustee of the Fagunwa Foundation, Chief Lekan Alabi, Mrs. Sijuola shared touching anecdotes of her childhood with her illustrious father, recalling his gift of wordplay.
One of the memorable moments of the Akure Conference was the reading, in flawless Yoruba, of an excerpt from Fagunwa’s ‘Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole’ by then 14-year-old Iwalewa Olorunyomi. Now a student in the Department of Classics at the University of Ibadan, she reprised the performance at the book presentation, to the delight of many, including former Ondo Governor, Olusegun Mimiko, who could not stop smiling. “All of them are in rapt,” Ofeimun observed of a trio of Oke-Igbo traditional title holders who had beatific expressions on their faces as they listened to Iwalewa’s rendition.
“In a normal country, all the television news will show this today,” Ofeimun said of Miss Olorunyomi’s reading. The poet had some strong words for the Yoruba elite. Describing them as “a very self-forgetting elite,” he lamented that, “We have refused to domesticate the knowledge with which we were conquered.” He later told me, “I am quite a Fagunwa man. If you want to define an African self-perception, he is fantastic.”
Representing the Governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu, was his Special Adviser on Research and Documentation, Kunle Adebayo, who described Fagunwa’s birthplace as “the last vestige of cultural afforestation,” and promised support for FSG activities. “The significance of this event defines the challenge of nationhood,” said Akeredolu, adding that, “D.O’s books are metaphors for the cataclysm suffered by our nation as well as the context of its possible remediation.”
Dr. Ayo Adeduntan of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, delivered an engaging review of the book. Soyinka, while standing corrected on his widely known earlier misconception regarding Fagunwa’s death, admitted to the continuing allure of the more mythical version involving a mysterious disappearance in the Wuya River. “It was as if one of his own creations had emerged to lead him to the world [beyond]. I simply prefer my own version,” Soyinka said, and many could relate. He praised the book, published by Bookcraft, as “a marvelous testimony to the Yoruba pioneer and literary genius, D.O. Fagunwa.”
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