Saturday, 30th September 2023

Harry Oludare Garuba and the De-Parture Of Wahala

By Sola Adeyemi
19 April 2020   |   2:00 am
What is the sum of a man’s life? Is it as described by D. O. Fagunwa, that all life is misery dictated by misfortune? Or is it a series of independent wilful actions that positively affect other people in many delightful ways?

Harry Oludare Garuba

Wẹ́lẹ́ wẹ́lẹ́ l’òjò alẹ́ ò
Wẹ́lẹ́ wẹ́lẹ́ l’òjò
Wẹ́lẹ́ wẹ́lẹ́ l’òjò ńrọ̀
Wẹ́lẹ́ wẹ́lẹ́ l’òjò

Gently falls the tears of the orphan
Rolling down the cicatrized cheeks
Gently, achingly

What is the sum of a man’s life? Is it as described by D. O. Fagunwa, that all life is misery dictated by misfortune? Or is it a series of independent wilful actions that positively affect other people in many delightful ways?

Harry Oludare Garuba lately joined the current exodus of brilliant minds from our literary firmament, after a very short period of illness. The University of Cape Town press release stated that it was after a long illness but that was not quite correct. True, Harry was indisposed for a long period of time, but it was a series of short, unrelated ailments, and the final blow lasted less than a day. This deep cut by a blunt serrated knife is the most painful of all.

The first time I met Harry Garuba, on the veranda of the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, he was in the company of my late cousin, the poet who left, Sesan Ajayi. They were inseparable. Some critic once described the two, with Afam Akeh, as the leading poets of their – our – generation. Garuba invited me to their poetry reading/meeting that evening. I could not attend, but that created an insistence in him, wanting to find out why a cousin of the Firefly would not want to make a poetry reading. Surely, nothing could be more important, or relevant. The following day, he beckoned me to his ‘headquarters’ at the Student Union Bar of the University. That was in 1984.

Gradually, I became an informal member of the august Thursday Club, fleeting in and out whenever I could, and developed some of the most enduring relationships I have ever had. Alas, some of them are now possibly hosting a Reading for Harry yonder. Sesan Ajayi left. Adenike Adesuyi left, then, only last year, in a tragic circumstance, Pius Adesanmi.

But there are still many left, the indefatigable disciples of the great High Priest, the genius that was Oludare Garuba, and they have established plots on our literary field– Akin Adesokan, Remi Raji-Oyelade, Nduka Otiono, Chiedu Ezeanah, Lola Shoneyin, Godwin, now Amatoritsero Ede, Funmi Adewole, Niyi Okunoye, Onookome Okome, Bose Shaba, Sanya Osha, and many more who drifted in and out over the years as the Interpreters of our time.

I am grieving but I am not mourning. Not yet. I remember only the happy moments.
Once, in Empangeni, a small town in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, where Harry was living when he was at the University of Zululand in South Africa, he decided to make Ogbono soup. It was my lot to fetch palm oil from the Kumasi woman in Durban. I arrived Empangs (as it’s locally called) late on Friday evening, armed with some new books, some drafts of short stories, and a bottle of the oil. Harry immediately started preparing the Ogbono. Several moments later, heavy banging on the door alerted us to the smoky kitchen. With the cigarettes, the bottles of drinks and the discussion, we had forgotten about the soup. That was one Harry I remember.

It was also at Empangs that the bundle of manuscripts that was to become “Wahala”, his next poetry collection after Shadow and Dream and Other Poems (1982), got misplaced. How did Harry take the loss? At most, he was irritated but they were only ‘words’ he said, and the good ones would be recovered. It was probably a good thing, he mused, as he had been carrying about some of the poems for more than 20 years. A few of the poems later surfaced in Animist Chants and Memorials (2017) – the good ones.

There was a joint in Pietermaritzburg, also in South Africa, where the proprietor produced the best home brewed beer in the whole of Natal! I was chagrined that Harry knew about this hidden hole in my territory before me. How did he know? Nonetheless, we decided to resuscitate a version of the Poetry Club there, on alternate Thursdays. Joined by a few Nigerian expatriates – mainly medical doctors – we would spend hours discussing the latest literature from Nigeria, or the updates on Radio Kudirat, or the affairs of the now moribund Association of Nigerians Abroad (the other ANA). This was a tradition we carried over to Mr Au’s, a Chinese restaurant in London’s China Town. Mr Au’s was where we finalised the collection of short stories that later became Goddess of the Storm (2000). In the collection was “Pleated Skirts”, a story Harry Garuba dedicated to Kunle Ajibade for his 1995 incarceration by the Abacha regime.

I always remarked that Harry’s office had the best view in the whole of University of Cape Town. From his office window, you could see the Table Mountains, and to the left, the ragged slow dip as it points to where the Atlantic meets the Indian ocean. It was a place to give a fertile mind the perfect nurturing, and it was there, one misty evening, that Harry explained his theory of lateral textuality in African literature, and the enriching process of entextualisation, where you lift a text out of a particular context, only to re-insert it in another context, such as the use of proverbs in statements. Lateral textuality deals with interiority of writing, beyond intertextuality, and examines the relationship between literary texts that appear almost simultaneously in two languages, such as Okot p’Bitek’s Wer per Lawino (Song of Lawino, 1966), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross, 1980).

Entextualisation on the other hand specifies the conditions for understanding a text and constrains what a text should mean and should stand for. His intention was to create a new alternative point of entry to the other/under-side of modernity, using the works of Okot p’Bitek, Bessie Head, and Chinua Achebe, among others. Fascinating stuff, and the subject of the book he was writing when he died. For us in Africa, knowledge generation must be considered from the perspective of the consumers, in the interest of the epistemologically disenfranchised, those right at the centre of knowledge production. That was Harry Garuba’s thesis, his last work.

He bore his final illness with stoical equanimity. I didn’t know how serious it was until a frantic message from Akin Adesokan seeking information prompted me to directly ask the details of the illness. I was aware of the several surgical interventions to his eyes, but I misinterpreted his ‘you know these doctors; they just want to clean the blood’ and responded that surely a glass of red from Stellenbosch should do the trick. After Pius Adesanmi left – because, he said ‘Pius was always calling when he was busy – he vowed to keep more in touch with his ‘people’, and to talk about issues that matters, as one never knows what was lurking round the corner. It was Akin’s prompting that exposed the ‘lies in the rhymes’. For three weeks, he had been undergoing treatment for Leukemia.

But perhaps he was focused on the ‘issues that mattered’, for during the period, we only talked about the children and how independent they are, about Zazi, his wife, about world politics, even about Covid-19; never about what he was going through. It was a relief during the first week of February when he was moved to a step down facility, which is like a rehab place with a lot of physio activities. The doctors hoped that the muscles will strengthen so he could walk again without the aid of a walking frame. Even more joy as he quickly regained strength and only spent a few days there before going back home. It was therefore unexplainable though expected when, a few days ago, he mentioned that the doctors thought he should have a test to investigate a niggling pain in his leg. Less than twenty-four hours later, he was gone… and I am still numbed, and crying. The mourning will come later, or never. His last words: “It’s been a tough journey, but God has been good”.

So, Harry, this, “Death of a poem” you composed for the Firefly, composed for you:
to tell the tale of a boy who loved beauty
so much he could not take the warts
that punctured the rhyming lyrics of his life
the debris and the log that punctuated
the flow of the river and the grace of the seagull

he couldn’t take it here
and one cloudless day
sunshine pouring like crystal showers
his spirit soared above the skies
leaving behind the lies in the rhymes

This dull, dull craft of words
Can it capture the dark delight of his life?

Harry Oludare Garuba, 8 April 1958 – 28 February 2020

•  Adeyemi is the Programme Director, MA World Theatres,
Goldsmiths University of London, UK