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In Akure, eggheads gather for Soyinka, Fagunwa

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor (Arts and Culture Editor)
18 August 2019   |   3:34 am
The celebrations of the 85th birthday of Prof. Wole Soyinka have not ended. Certainly not. Only last week, Akure was canonised with literary activities, as eggheads converged on the Sunshine State for the second international conference on Daniel Olorunfẹmi Fagunwa.

Akin Adesokan and the keynote speaker, Moradewun Adejunmobi PHOTOS: MOLARA WOOD

The celebrations of the 85th birthday of Prof. Wole Soyinka have not ended. Certainly not. Only last week, Akure was canonised with literary activities, as eggheads converged on the Sunshine State for the second international conference on Daniel Olorunfẹmi Fagunwa.

With Wole Soyinka, D. O. Fagunwa and the Yoruba Artistic Heritage as the theme, the conference held from August 7 to 11. Organised by Fagunwa Study Group (FSG), it was partly sponsored by the Ondo State government.

The study group comprises scholars and intellectuals largely from Southwest origin in Nigeria, who are in universities located in the country and outside. They organise regular scholarly activities such as conferences, seminars, and debates on Yoruba cultural, literary, educational issues and matter of interest to the promotion of Yoruba artistic heritage, as well as that of Africans at large.

The first conference, in 2013, was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing on of D.O. Fagunwa and a book were published, thereafter. The book, which was part of the proceedings from that conference, was launched at the University of Ibadan in 2017.

Soyinka and Fagunwa are two of the foremost figures in 20th-century Nigerian and African literary history. These two literary figures have done a lot not just to promote the Yoruba artistic heritage, but raised a lot of issues about the positive aspects of the Yoruba tradition.

The two writers work in different primary languages, but prominent features of their imaginations sourced deep in the Yoruba artistic heritage and then elsewhere, cross one another in many profoundly stimulating ways.

The conference examined both broad and specific intersections and elements of the two writers. However, the broad spectrum of Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, was the primary focus of the conference. Essentially, the conference was organised to celebrate his 85th birthday.

According to Prof. Ropo Sekoni, chairman of the FSG Board of Trustees, their works seem to interact at several points, even though they wrote in two different languages. They both drank from the same cultural well.

Primary language or medium notwithstanding, both foregrounded for philosophical exploration what Fagunwa offered as the imperatives of forward-tilting progress (ìlọsíwájú) and upward escalation (ìdàgbàsókè) as chief driving forces of life and the artistic-narrative contemplation of same.

Most significantly, questors in Fagunwa’s adventures are often charged with the task of obtaining from their journeys new templates for social living, new ways of being human, and ever novel ways of attaining the common good and coming to ever better approximations to it.

Soyinka, on his part, is the preeminent scholar, translator, and populariser of Fagunwa’s works. This is not just in terms of Soyinka’s pioneer status in the enterprise but also in how influential his interpretations of Fagunwa have been on subsequent efforts.

The expansive cultural and literary traditions they draw from, their work allows the reader to critically juxtapose and interactively explore key elements of modern African sensibilities and consciousness: orality and literacy, community and the individual, tradition, and innovation, secularity and religion, freedom and unfreedom, ethics and aesthetics, the modern nation-state and its fragments, culture and politics, and antiquity and modernity.

Divided into seven panels — Culture Heroism and Militarism; Soyinka, Modernism and the Emergence of African Literature; Translation: Language and Culture Politics; Wole Soyinka and D.O. Fagunwa: Intersections; Monotheism, Polytheism and Modernity; Fágúnwà and the State in Africa: Writers in/ and Politics; Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Yoruba and Nigerian Cultures — two roundtables — Art Freedom and Democratic Values and The State of Soyinka’s Studies: Notes, Experiences and General Conversation — and two keynotes by Prof. Adeleke Adeeko and Prof. Moradewun Adejunmobi.

The fact that the conference was going to be stimulating was announced at the screening of Tunde Kelani’s Sidi Ilujinle.

“It was Prof. Soyinka who inspired me to embark on the project,” Kelani said During Conversation With The Filmmaker.

“He (Soyinka) said, TK, why not take a look at one of my plays? One of the simple plays. But when I started to take a closer look at Lion and the Jewel, trying to break it down, I discovered that it is not as simple as many people think. For me, it is more of poetry than prose.”

The panel reconfigured the narrative and aesthetics of the one hour, 30 minutes movie, with Sidi (Ayisat Onitiri), the village belle as the ‘bridal figure’ of discussion.

Two schools of thought led by Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo and another by Professor Olufemi Taiwo of the Cornell University provided the template for a cinematic re-reading of the flick.

Sidi is the belle of Ilujinle. She’s very beautiful and is acutely aware of that fact, especially once the stranger returns to the village with a magazine of photographs that show Sidi in all her glory. Seeing the photographs makes Sidi obsessed with her own image and gives her an exaggerated sense of her power over men.

Both Lakunle (Ibrahim Chatta) and Baroka (Adebayo Saalami) wish to marry Sidi, but she doesn’t act particularly interested in marrying either of them—she deems Baroka too old, and Lakunle insults her by calling her dumb and referring to her as a ‘bush-girl’.

However, she indicates that she supports her village’s traditional way of life.

Both schools of thought interrogated the search for beauty, balance, proportion and conscientious use of materials. They noted that a proper reading of the flick could only be determined by an understanding of Africa’s cultural milieu. They, however, differ in terms of the Holy Grail that ‘beauty is in the eyes of beholder.’

While the Ifowodo School believed that beauty conveys various feelings and messages to the casual observer, which Sidi did not possess, the Taiwo School noted true appreciation could only arrive through an understanding of the culture and environment that influenced the art.

The Taiwo School believes that Sidi is a fair enough representation of Africa’s idea of beauty; Rotund, comely, cultural, elegant and rich in oratorical skill.

In his paper titled, The Furry-Bearded Being and the Beardless Butcher on a Rock Promontory: Notes on Soyinka’s Breed of hybrid Humanity in Alapata Apata, Gbemisola Adeoti, a professor in the Department of English at the Obafemi Awolowo University, looked critically at Soyinka’s Alapata Apata with the aim of showing the influence of Fagunwa’s narrative aesthetics on characterisation and setting.

Adeoti looked at intersections between Soyinka and Fagunwa and tracing the source of individual creativity to the traditional Yoruba cultural milieu. He agreed with Oyin Ogunba (The Movement of Transition: A Study of the Plays of Wole Soyinka) that the Agemo Festival of Ijebu was source for The Road and A Dance of the Forest and draws from the Yoruba pantheons, Ogun and Esu.

He identified an affinity between the protagonist, Alaba, the retired butcher and the enigmatic being called the Furry-Bearded one (Baba onirungbon yeuke), who dwells in the rock promontory in Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare (Soyinka’s In the Forest of Olodumare).

For Adeoti, Alapata Apata is a satire that is targeted at governance in post colonial Nigeria — The dominant figure during this period being military, which Soyinka considers as ‘hybrid humanity’, who uses the instrument of governance to appropriate commonwealth.

“Alaba is a satiric archetype through whom Soyinka censures the military’s misrule and disruptive domination of governance in post-independence Africa,” Adeoti noted.

Although Soyinka acknowledged drawing inspiration from comedic (awada) arts of Moses Olaiya Adejumo (Baba Sala) in Alapata Apata, Adeoti argued, “Fagunwa maintained a significant influence on the play and if given further attention, can yield a greater insight into its panoply of symbols, pun, burlesque, irony and other communicative devices of satire adopted by Soyinka.”

He noted that ‘rock’ is significant among symbols that feature in Igbo Olodumare, which both writers explored.

For Adeoti, “Soyinka appropriates the ‘rock’ trope to depict the imposing lordly height occupied by political elite (represented by General and Daanielebo) who has governed Nigeria in the post-independence years. This is apart from its deliberate punning on Nigeria’s seat of Presidential power in Abuja.”

Adeoti said, “the play shows that while in power, Military elite whom Soyinka refers to as “this breed of hybrid humanity”, tower above the rest of the society socially, economically and politically. The rock is, therefore, an iconic representation of cultural alienation and political power appropriated for the pursuit of personal benefits and unethical advantages. Thus, Soyinka creates in Alapata Apata, a topical drama of contemporary existence marked by an uninterrupted connection between the narrative and the performative; between Fagunwa’s super realism and Soyinka’s encompassing social strictures.”

In his paper, entitled, The Famished ‘Fourth Stage’: The Nigerian Road and the Aesthetics of Wole Soyinka’s Yoruba Tragedy, Bisi Adigun of the Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, noted that having lived in England for nearly five years, Soyinka returned to Nigeria in January 1960 to redefine, from an African perspective, tragedy, as it is known in the west.

Consequently, Soyinka traveled the length and breadth of Nigeria, “probing its ritual tissues for a contemporary theatre vision or perhaps a mere statement of being.”

He said, “Nigerian roads are, however, notoriously dangerous. It is in every Nigerian’s psyche that the motor road is a flesh-eating, blood-sucking predator waiting to pounce on its hapless victims at any given time. Hence, the Yoruba prayer: Ka ma rin ni ojo ti ebi n pa ona, which appears in Soyinka’s The Road as: “May we never walk when the road waits, famished.”

According to Adigun, the propensity of Nigerian roads to kill indiscriminately inspired more than The Road, it also provided Soyinka with the fillip with which to theorise his Yoruba tragedy.

He argued that Soyinka’s voyage all over Nigeria, “worrying out dramatic forms from the mold of rituals, festivals and seasonal ceremonials” was wholly unnecessary, because the Nigerian motor road on which he journeyed was itself a ‘numinous abyss’ upon which the aesthetics of Yoruba tragedy is predicated. Thus, what Soyinka went all the way to Sokoto to obtain could also be found in the pockets of his Sokoto (trousers).”

The same Ogun myth and fourth stage as they affect soyinka’s creativity run through Ainehi Edoro Glines’ and Taiwo’s papers.

Glines, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at Fragmentation as Form in Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard.

In working out the terms of Yoruba tragic aesthetics in The Fourth Stage, she said what has defined Soyinka’s journey is disintegration. He repeatedly returns to images of fragmentation. Ogun undergoes a “fragmenting process,” which Soyinka links to “the elemental fragmentation of Orisa-nla.”

Fragmentation is essentially a motif for the attainment of spatial order.

She noted that Ogun is able to reconstitute himself and allow scosmic order to prevail.

Glines asserted that uncodified violence exists in space — it is wild and in a state of nature — But Ogun provides context to order.

Ogun is completely fragmented and pushed beyond the limits of the spatial gulf to bring order.

Towards the end of the essay, he cites the ritual-dramatic practice of sacrificing a dog, the carcass of which is “literally torn limb from limb.”

In Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard, a story about an Ogunresque protagonist, fragmentation is an organising principle.

“Bodies are presented as a collection of disjointed parts. Space in the forest is discontinuous. The story itself is rambling and episodic. Using Soyinka and Tutuola as starting points, this paper looks at fragmentation as an element of Yoruba storytelling,” she said.

In his, Soyinka’s The Fourth Stage: Doing Philosophy in a Yoruba key, Taiwo made a link between the Genesis story, Marx, Satre and Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus – in each of these, “you can find iterations of what it means to be human.”

For Taiwo, “ you don’t need Camus, Satre, etc. when you have it in Ògún… It’s not accidental that as we plumb the depths of ifa, more and more people are finding solace in it” (than in the monotheistic religious worldview.)

In his paper, Of State, Stranger, and Progress: A Soyinkaresque Reading of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther Tolulope Akinwole, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued that Coogler’s critically acclaimed Black Panther holds a vibrant conversation with Soyinka’s ‘mythopoetic orientation’.

He noted that Coogler’s ventriloquist reference to The Fourth Stage, Soyinka’s most important theoretical essay, Black Panther, confers with Soyinka in many other interesting ways. Chief of these is its take on the state. Reading Black Panther against Soyinka’s The Writer in a Modern African State and The Fourth Stage, he argued that for all its sterling promises of a better Africa, “Wakanda seems headed in the direction of many failing African states on two counts. First, the obvious absence of the philosopher-poet in Wakanda is disconcerting; and second, Wakanda’s progress is suspicious where the most important state resource is in complete control of the ruler.”

In his paper, Akinwole showed the points of convergence between Soyinka’s mythopoesis and the movie, and then interrogate the fictive African state portrayed in the movie with attention to Soyinka’s explication of the burdens of a writer in a modern African state and Tejumola Olaniyan’s delineation of the state as a stranger.

Akinwole posited that although the movie ends happily, Wakanda does not hold up to a Soyinkaresque scrutiny.

Prof. Chima Anyadike of the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University titled his paper, Myth, and Rationality in the Dramaturgy of Soyinka and Brecht.

Anyadike said as myth focuses attention on intuitions, essence, and wholeness within the same symbolic order in its methods, “rationality is devoted to dialectical changes in natural phenomena and continuous configurations of new possibilities.”

Anyadike said both myth and rationality are at work in the dramas created by Soyinka and Brecht.

For him, Soyinka draws a cosmic relationship between the living, the dead and unborn in determining his created universe, while Brecht interrogates the social realities of his time. He attacked conditions of the period, which he lived, evolving a new synthesis of the dialectical relationship.

“The products may be different but they provide interesting perspectives on the larger drama of existence.”

Tunji Azeez, Associate Professor of Theatre, Film and Cultural Studies at the Lagos State University, looked at Trees of Life and Forests of Death: A Spirito-Physical Reading of Six Yoruba Artists.

Azeez said trees and forests are imbued with anthropomorphic, metaphoric and existential qualities and properties that make them regular characters and motifs in creative works across time and space.

For him, “in Yoruba oral tradition, culture and cosmology, trees and forests serve different purposes from the physical to the spiritual as evident in the everyday life of the people.”

He noted that in the animist world of these people, trees and forests interact constantly with humans just as some of them are believed to be once humans. “In fact, the duality of the sexes is also captured in the vegetal world as the Yoruba have male and female trees with each representing different things and serving different purposes in their physical and spiritual lives.”

He said forests connote several things to the Yoruba; it is the sacred grove of the initiate; a hiding place for criminals; a home of spirits and ghosts; a hunting ground for survival; a sanctuary for the banished, needy and homeless; a place with abundant wealth; a place where courage is tested and; a place where life and death cohabit. It is, therefore, not surprising that Yoruba oral, literary and visual artists across generational divides employ trees and forests as motifs in their works.”

Folasade Hunsu, Obafemi Awolowo University, Literary Celebrity Culture, and Self-definition: The Example of Wole Soyinka.

Soyinka remains one of the most outspoken and popular African activist-writers in the last six decades making him a ubiquitous literary celebrity. From his campaign against colonial imperialism to military dictatorship and in recent times, against undemocratic democracy in Africa, he has consistently shown his affinity with the masses. However, Soyinka’s engagement with the genre of life writing reveals certain individualistic tendencies that have made his status as a literary celebrity possible.

She argued that gender, class, ethnicity, and ideology are implicated in the movement from masses-oriented activism to a self-oriented genre.

Her paper concluded that Soyinka’s life provides a model in the way it underscores the need for self-discipline and sacrifice in the making of a literary celebrity.

For Dele Layiwola, University of Ibadan, Fagunwa, Soyinka, Bunyan and the Echoes of 16th Century Christian Reformation.

He said there is a connection, which cuts across some works of the three authors: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress; Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, Igbo Olodumare; and Wole Soyinka’s The Road.

“These works are, in style and content, allegories depicting particular periods and epistolary traditions driven by the emergence of Western education and the printing press. There are constant references to the written and the spoken word and undercurrents on their applications. The authors and their heroes put the responsibility of the printed word on the capacity of individuals to read and interpret works of literature in their literal, hermeneutic and epistolary states. They also impress the initiative for adventure and reformation on these heroes who migrate in search of quests and conquests.”

Fagunwa’s heroes, heroines and fictive characters are drawn in striking correspondence to Bunyan’s. The moral, political, social and economic outcomes of the quests and adventures are meant to reform the entire society to which the melodramatic performances are directed.

In Soyinka’s The Road, the role of Professor in the shadows of the church and the road signs are essential factors of literacy in partnership with the printing press. It also underscores the Protestant burden of self-determination as a responsibility of the individual soul.

Aderemi Raji-Oyelade, University of Ibadan, Framing the Fantastic in Fagunwa’s Yoruba Lebenswelt: The Translator Dilemma, said, “intersection of indigenous Yoruba imaginarium and Western literacy, foregrounds the uniqueness of African/Yoruba creativity and the projection of the pre-literate ‘postmodern’ Yoruba thought.”

Through the agency of the fantastic, the Yoruba Lebenswelt is further explored by other literary progenies – Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, and Ben Okri who, through Fagunwa’s tremendous influence, have re-invented and re-introduced the presences of indigenous Yoruba Imaginarium to the world, deploying their individual creative talents.

He examined the framing of the fantastic – magical/animist realism, fantastic characters, liminal spaces, time warps, metafiction – in D.O. Fagunwa’s narratives, with the view of establishing the existence of a pre-literate postmodern Yoruba imagination.

With a focus on Soyinka’s translations of Fagunwa’s texts, the research interrogates the dilemma of translating the word/world of magic realism amidst other elements of the fantastic.

Raji-Oyelade touched on “the irony of influence” in relation to Soyinka’s translation of Fagunwa. Many editions (and consequently readers) seem to identify Soyinka as the author of ‘Forest of a Thousand Daemons’, whereas he’s actually the translator, not the author

Prof. Wumi Raji of the Obafemi Awolowo University in You Must Break Forth at Cockcrow: Performing Masculinities in Wole Soyinka and D. O. Fagunwa, interrogated both writers’ perspective of ilosiwaju.

In the works of the two writers, masculinity – conceived here as a social construction concerned with the multiple and even contradictory qualities, behaviours and identities attaching to maleness – may initially be presented as a biologically given or stable endowment.

For Raji, heroes of Soyinka and Fagunwa are always men. He said gender is organised patriarchally.

Using Soyinka’s The Strong Breed, and D.O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, the concept undergoes a transformation, becoming either a social role that ought to be staged or a duty that has to be performed.

The task in question may be an act of sacrifice, an adventure that is fraught with risks or an obstacle that must be surmounted.

The successful performance of this task, or at least the attitude with which the protagonist confronts it, becomes the measure of his maleness. The downside of this articulation of masculinity as heroism is that, either deliberately or inadvertently, femaleness is often presented as its negation.

It was indeed a great intellectual feast, which afforded participants the opportunity to see Yoruba culture and aesthetics in a way they never imagined. “I will now go back and look at Fagunwa again, and look at Soyinka again,” said Azeez, while calling for the dialogue to continue.