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For Biyi Bandele, who snapped and snapped out

By Sola Adeyemi
14 August 2022   |   2:44 am
The news sneaked into my inbox like a mosquito at midnight. The sting, which followed, when it came, was as overwhelming as being trapped in the worst nightmare. Irewesi okan ba mi!
Biyi Bandele

Biyi Bandele

The news sneaked into my inbox like a mosquito at midnight. The sting, which followed, when it came, was as overwhelming as being trapped in the worst nightmare. Irewesi okan ba mi!

This is about Biyi Bandele the poet, playwright, novelist and filmmaker, who departed on Sunday, August 7, 2022. It is more shocking for me because, after a hiatus of a few years, Biyi and I had just started exploring collaborating again, in particular on his doctorate, which he planned to do on Samuel Àjàyí Crowther, the first African Bishop in the Anglican Church.

He had finished his latest novel on the Victorian slave boy-turned-clergyman who also transcribed the Yoruba language into the Latin alphabet. Biyi was keen on writing a thesis on the work, to accompany the published novel Yorùbá Boy Running (Hamish Hamilton 2023). The novel is a fictionalised history of Crowther, similar in tone to Burna Boy (2007). The PhD was to provide a more factual narrative of the Crowther story.

The news that stung me, drawing blood, was the harrowing release by Temi, Biyi’s daughter:

“I am heartbroken to share the sudden and unexpected death on Sunday, August 7, in Lagos of my father, Biyi Bandele.

“Biyi was a prodigiously talented writer and filmmaker, as well as a loyal friend and beloved father. He was a storyteller to his bones, with an unblinking perspective, singular voice and wisdom, which spoke boldly through all of his art, in poetry, novels, plays and on screen. He told stories, which made a profound impact and inspired many all over the world. His legacy will live on through his work.

“He was taken from us much too soon. He had already said so much so beautifully and had so much more to say.

“We ask everyone to please respect the privacy of his family and friends as we grieve his loss.”

Temi was not the only heartbroken one. There are countless others – family, friends, associates, acquaintances, and collaborators.

Biyi was indeed a prodigiously talented writer. Born in Kafanchan in Southern Kaduna on October 13, 1967, Biyi was studying Dramatic Arts at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. At Ife, Biyi entered his play, Rain, for the International Student Playscript Competition in 1989, and won.

His first book, Waiting for Others (1989), a collection of poetry also won the British Council Lagos Award. After these early honours, Bandele was awarded a one-year scholarship to continue his studies study in London.

At the end of the year, he remained in London where he soon made his literary mark with The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond (1991) and The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams (1993). He followed with The Street (1998) and Burma Boy (2007).

The first two novels, especially The Sympathetic Undertaker, are replete with anecdotes familiar to denizens of Ife campus in the 1980s and demonstrated the writer’s competence on dramatic dialogue and humour.

But what established Bandele were his plays, mainly with the Royal Court Theatre. The first published play, Marching for Fausa, a satire, appeared in 1993.

His next play, Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought, was produced and published in 1994.

In rapid succession, the absurd Two Horsemen, a dramatic dialogue between two street sweepers, followed. It won awards at the 1994 London New Play Festival. Biyi later wrote and produced Death Catches the Hunter (1995), Me and the Boys (1995), Way Past Cool (1995), Things Fall Apart (1997; adapted from the novel of the same title by Chinua Achebe), Rasselas (1997; an adaptation of Samuel Johnson’s), Oroonoko (1999; a reinterpretation of Aphra Behn’s 1688 novella), and Brixton Stories/Happy Birthday, Mister Deka (2001).

Of recent, Biyi had been active in the film industry, starting with his second film (after a short), Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), Fifty (2015), to Elesin Oba (2022).

Our last conversation was on his film, Elesin Oba: “Netflix has been a gift. I had to fight to allow them to make Elesin a Yoruba film (well, not quite totally Yoruba; all the English characters still speak English) and to their credit, they said go-ahead. The BBC would have sacked me and got someone who would shoot it in English. And no American studio would have gone anywhere near the project. Truth though is, that nationalism wasn’t even a factor when I decided to make it in Yoruba. I did so because I believed it would make it infinitely more accessible. I think it is.”

His son, Korede, and Temi, his daughter, survive him.

Adeyemi is of the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK