Meet the lady interpreter of medieval Chaucer to English folks
UFUOMA VERO-TARIMO is Nigeria’s quintessential cultural ambassador to the world, especially Europe, where she has made her home for decades. Still deeply rooted in her Urhobo cultural heritage, she has unearthed a new understanding of Geoffrey Chaucer of Old English and its co-relationship with African traditional ways of life. In a word, she has repackaged English Chaucer for the entire Europe and she stages the Canterbury Tales in Nigeria’s dramatic aesthNigerian dramaticnishment of Europeans. She recently visited The Guardian and spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU and ENIFOME UKODIE
How did your artistic journey start?
I think it started in the village, when all those relatives go abroad and come back home. As children, we were part of the celebration; big parties were held. I remember Uncle Ibru coming home and various uncles. As a child, I just remember that big parties were held whenever relatives came from abroad. Now this is where the artistic bit came in because you will have to also figure out how you are going to be part of that whole celebration from the children’s level. I am just saying that, really, the background was very coluorful and the stories, if you are a busy body child, you are going to end up being an artist, and by the time you go abroad and you are exposed to poetry and all sort of things, you will find cupboards to put all that you had before and it all starts to have a life of its own.
So, while I went off to do philosophy of religion as first degree; theology and then law, I qualified as a lawyer, we wander back to that original thing called reading, writing, telling stories, discovering and so on. This is someone who did not go for the second for ‘A’ levels. After her first papers, she locked herself up in her room and didn’t go back to finish the Chaucer paper; she is now the African specialist on Chaucer. So, I think I am paying homage for what I didn’t do many years ago. With my kids having grown up, I ended up doing English in Iceland because when I married and I moved to Iceland, I couldn’t work but in order not to be bored, I had to do something.
The country speaks Icelandic; everything in Icelandic. Then I realised there must be an English department; so, I went and they said, ‘yes you can do English but you must start at Masters level. And I said, ‘Hay! I did not come to work o. I just want to read quietly and just enjoy myself. I want to be respected in the house for studying so they can say “mum is studying o, don’t disturb her.” I didn’t want to start cracking my head and writing.’ But equally, the department said, ‘you can’t come with all this qualification to start with a bachelor degree.’ So, that’s how I got into English.
So, I do plays; I write plays. I have written a novel and I’m looking to having it published. I started writing the novel from 2010. I really love it; it is completed. I’ve got to read over it as we all do, you know. It is our baby we hold onto and I had to make sure I don’t read any other contemporary Nigerian writer like Chimamanda Adiche, because I didn’t want my mind polluted by her style. So, I got all her books but they are unopened; my kids have read them, but I have not because I said, ‘when my own soup is cooked, ehn, e go sweet well well’ and no one can say ‘ehn na, there she goes; I no go there o, na my own.’ So, that’s the struggle I have had. I also write songs and I think every aspect of the arts; I design clothes; so, my mind is just spilling over into overtime and I’m making up for lost time.
Your interest in Old English Geoffrey Chaucer and how it relates to Africa is intriguing. What is it about?
Chaucer is the father of English language; that’s is the position he occupies. He is the most important writer of all time. While Shakespeare is the commercial face of English literature, Chaucer is the man. I mean, if you stopped the average English person and say, ‘who is the father of English language?’ they would say, ‘oh, Shakespeare, of course; yeah, it’s Shakespeare,’ but they are as ignorant as I was; It is Chaucer because Shakespeare went to Chaucer to shop off, and Shakespeare is like 250 something years much later and the English language we have today developed from Chaucer. England was colonised by France, but Chaucer being Chaucer, he reinvented himself in so many ways. So, the vernacular that he was enjoying, he decided to write it in his Canterbury Tales to entertain his friends in the vernacular, which is English and it is that version of English that was first printed in 1476 by the William Caxton Press and that stamped his authority into the English we know today.
So, my love of Chaucer came not from the tears of ‘A’ levels, it came because I had to do something. Iceland has 22 hours of darkness in the winter and in the summer it’s the opposite, 24 hours of sunlight. That is why we are able to dry the stock fish people eat, because they have that weather, no flies and it is not humid. That is why we can hang the fish outside, leave it for several months and then it becomes dry and then they bring it over here. My love for Chaucer came about because I went to live in Iceland and married someone from Iceland and I went to study at the University of Iceland and started off on a Master’s programme, and one of the subject options I chose was Chaucer and I just fell in love with the language and the poetry. But more than anything, I discovered that it just hooked me forever and put Nigeria and Chaucer on the map.
I am the authority in adapting Nigerian Chaucer into modern day context; so the Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey means, in all the 22 tales of Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, every single one of them has wahala. So, my title for everyone that I am adapting is The Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey, The Wife of Bath Tale: Wahala Dey, The Clarke’s Tale: Wahala Dey and so on. All of them have this double face and all of them have typical Nigerian wahala. At least by the time I am finished, all the western language speakers will know of one word wahala. When they came to Scotland at the Fringe Festival to watch this play, they will be standing and saying, ‘yeah, the one that’s got wahala; they didn’t even go further; they just stopped at wahala!
Do you perform it every year at Fringe Theatre Festival?
I was to do that every year, but other interesting things took over. So 2014, I was a member of Chaucer Society and every two years they go to different countries on the globe. They hold a huge conference of all the professors, over 500 of them, from around the world. Because of my work, I have been invited to stage Chaucer for them. So in 2014, I staged this play in Iceland because the conference was held in Iceland. They loved it but I ran into complications because Tunji Sotimirin couldn’t get a visa at the last minute; he was my main star; he was going to play the Miller and the Carpenter. So as a result, I had to think quickly on my feet. I came back here and shot a movie of it with him and of the Nigerian cast and rushed it back. Then what I did was: when it came to the general prologue, I staged that using their actors; when it came to the actual Millers’, the drunk Miller, I put it on screen. So, that’s how I got around it.
But I have been so busy writing my books, writing my plays and doing things, but next year, I am taking two plays to the Fringe. One is going to be the Refugee sagas, because it is so topical, it will be sensible. If I wasn’t so caught up here, I would have taken it to the Fringe this year but I am still here.
What is the intersection between Chaucer and Nigerian culture that you discovered in the old English man?
In fact, when I was filming in 2014, I gathered my intelligent cast and they had checked out the play and they said to me, ‘this is a really lovely Nigerian play’ and I said, ‘my friend, it is not a Nigerian play; it is a play of almost 600 years ago; it is an oyinbo play.’ They didn’t believe me; so, I brought my big Canterbury Tales and I said, ‘here;’ so, they opened it and tried to look for words they can understand of the medieval time. The point is, I don’t know what it is but the oyinbo world, at that time, the medieval world, fits like a glove into the world here (Nigeria’s, Africa’s). I don’t mean in terms of rating, like they are medieval and we are medieval, no. It’s in terms of value, in terms of how society was organised. For example, just look at the language then they were colonised and they were forced to speak French. Today, we were colonised and forced to speak English; they had many different languages. The English they were speaking was a vernacular; the pidgin we are speaking is a vernacular. It is a base language that nobody should really be speaking. We speak because we enjoy it; there is an entertaining value. It was the same as English vernacular; then they were not supposed to speak English, but they were speaking it quietly and they were enjoying it. So, it was a language of quiet entertainment and they were enjoying it. I’m just saying that is a similarity in language.
Then at that time, the behaviour of the people, the value system; the were really into religion. It sat at the pinnacle or the zenith of the society and it went like this down, even when you look at Henry VIII, on why we have Protestant churches today; Henry said he gets his authority from God, not from the Pope. So, we are talking about the time when religion played a key role in every aspect of society. So, when you read these plays, they sound like a Nigerian play. In those days, your priest would tell you, ‘I want X amount of wood; don’t sleep with your wife; don’t do this, don’t do that!’ They had authority over people’s lives. They don’t do that today; that is why today, in the classroom, the English folks don’t understand Chaucer.
But when I put on my hat from here (Nigeria), it all started to make sense. I was like, ‘hay, this baba Chaucer, you and I are wearing the same nicker o.’ Let me tell you, in the Miller’s Tale is an elderly carpenter, who marries an 18 year old. Now shey you understand that kan story for here; he is done making his money and he needs to exhibit it so he goes and marries an 18 year old girl. Chaucer says the 18 years old got roving eyes. So already, there is wahala; we have established the wahala; the husband is very afraid of outsiders. So, he keeps her very closely guarded; he thinks the problem is out there.
In the house is a big estate; there is a lodger from Oxford University. So, he is educated. Of course, in my play, he is from Ibadan. Now the carpenter is a rude man; rude in the sense of being uneducated, of simple disposition and he is superstitious. So, the lodger strikes a deal with the married lady of how they can consummate their relationship without baba knowing; so they cook up a story that the world is going to end, a flood is going to happen at a greater level this time, but three people will be saved: the baba, his young wife and he the lodger only if the carpenter carries out God’s work that he has been given in revelation.
You will not believe that this is Chaucer, but na Chaucer; so, the young man says, ‘before we start let me tell you what God has told me: go and bring big drink before we can get into God’s language.’ The carpenter runs back, and guess what he does? He goes back to his room, opens his cupboard, and brings out the amulet. So, he prays to that one first, then prays to St. Benedict; he prays to all the different gods as double assurance. This is something we do here. When he comes with the drink, Chaucer says the young man is sitting like he is possessed, completely still; only God knows why. Na all wayo complete wayo. If you see the poetry that Chaucer uses to describe this young Charlatan; but guess what the carpenter does. Before they do the drink, which because we are Africans we get it, he offers drinks first to the four corners of the room. They do that in Europe; they used to do it, and we do it today. When I read that I said, ‘where am I? am I there or am I here?
When I went to the professor at Kent University, who is head of Chaucer Studies, he interviewed me for about five hours; he just sat there in his office like this. He was like, ‘tell me more about this discovery.’ His ears were all open. This was in 2008 and the rest is history.
So, my Ph.D was about seeing the similarities between the behaviours of the language of pidgin today and Medieval English then and the connection and also Chaucer’s work in terms of adapting the stories to present day Nigeria. That was, whether it is doable, can Chaucer be put on stage and be enjoyed in the same way that we do with Shakespeare? That’s the hidden thing. They have decided that actually the reason why Shakespeare is lord is because he is more readily accessible in terms of drama, whereas Chaucer’s Medieval English is not. So, I had the challenge of ‘no be so, its because you people no understand am na, so you no dey enjoy the koko.’
So, what I have done is cook the food for them in a Nigerian flavour here, and I have served it back to them and they are in complete shock. It’s like, ‘how did you come to this? You are African, how did you make this connection?’ So, that’s where their interest lies.
There is a conference next year, The Chaucer Conference of over 600 professors; it’s in Toronto and the title of it is, ‘Who Owns Chaucer Now?’ I submitted a summary of what I am going to do, and they quickly took it up. They only took a few hours; I was late o, had missed the deadline, but in an hour or so they said, ‘Yes, see you in Toronto next year.’ Because after all I had to say, I ended with ‘Chaucer makes sense in Africa, especially Nigeria.’ I wanted to take all these actors to put the play on. So, I want to actually stage it so that all these Chaucerians from all the globe can see it. What it would do, they would take it back to their different countries, universities, and it will be a topic. You see this picture I used on this book,it’s the new publication of Medieval Studies of Chaucer; this is the picture they used.
Is this your concept?
Yes, because, like I said, in all the plays, they all have got wahala and they are all double-faced. So, that is what this is, the double face. This is supposed to be the beautiful 18 years’ old, for whom water cannot melt in her mouth, sweet as a rose, but she is scheming… So, that’s what this is.
What is even more fascinating is that even if it has been years ago since you left Nigeria as an eight-year old, you have still managed to keep your roots intact. How did you do it?
I left in 1971 after the war. So, I was child of the war as far as I remember it, running here, running there; the soldiers are coming… this was the Biafran war and I can relate to my village. I understood my placement there. I like the world and, like I said, the folks from abroad were always coming, with surplus food and all sorts of entertainment will be laid out for all. So, I understood that world and I liked it; the understanding of going abroad as a child didn’t feel exciting for me. I felt I was being torn from this place and I was more or less goaded into it. I was told the streets are paved of gold; there are a lot of toys, all sorts of things to cook my imagination.
When I got there in January, it snowed, very cold; school was not like my school back home. It was full of bullies. I had to fight in playgrounds, both the boys and the girls, just to establish that you are a human being. So actually, something in my head always connected back home and home was safe and I always felt I was going to come back home, but as I grew up it turned out… actually one the reason I didn’t come back home at the time was that I was scared of circumcision because we were told by our cousins that if you come back home… So, we just ended up staying, you know, staying through university, then you find yourself a refugee abroad.
Now you are also doing something about the refugees’ crisis in Britain. What is your work here in that direction?
You hear news on TV, on radio and you think, I do not care. You think you know it all so you do not really want to know too much, but somehow I was hooked because there was a work that was advertised last year on BBC radio on Women’s Hour, where they spoke about this walk based on Chaucer. They said it would be following a Chaucer route and will be based along the line of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. So in my head I read it as Chaucer; so, I jumped on a flight to Kent University, where the walk started from. I got there thinking, ‘where is the Chaucer happening?’ then I figured it is actually about refugees. The Chaucer element was the actual route of the walk from Canterbury, Kent, to London in Westminster. In their day, Chaucer was riding horses to London through Kent. So, it was the reverse. But I walked with refuges, detainees, asylum seekers, dramatists, writers, all sorts. Ben Okri was a big part of this walk; Nigerian actors and actresses and everybody, like 150 people, doing a walk. We walked for about 30 miles a day, slept on church floors – all the women in one place on the floor; all the men in one place on the floor and no bathrooms, just a sink in the toilet. The refugees from different places and their different stories, what they’ve gone through to get to where they are and having got to where they are, where they think freedom lies; that’s the beginning of the walk, and they could be left there indefinitely.
So, the purpose of the walk was to change the law in England, so you don’t have indefinite detention. It’s to bring it to a 28-day limit, after that either send them back or give them asylum. Don’t just leave them there because England is the only country that has this indefinite time. In France, I think it’s 45 or 48 days; there are limits in other countries, but not England. So, it was to raise awareness and at the end of that, writers put in efforts, and it was published last year. I put my effort into a play; so, I wrote a poem at the end of the walk, and I just locked myself up on a Sunday and wrote but I realised that I could do more with this. I could put it in a play, which would then be read to reach a wider audience and that’s what I’ve done and I came to put it on stage here at Lagos Theatre Festival 2017.
So, its organic and other things we did. I then did a radio recording of it, which I am going to send to BBC to see if they can put it on their radio because it is 45 minutes; so it is within the frame. Various things have come up from it, like T-shirts. So, we’ve been cooking the soup, and the soup don cook, just remain to chop it!
You did a video shoot. Was it in Lagos, and was that the song you’ve been playing?
Yes. Because when you got a message, you want it to be put out. It’s no longer a monetary thing; it’s how to get it to the different sources. So, I got a choir to sing it and also children’s choir. So this is the busybody I was doing last week on Friday; we shot in the studio and then I thought, ‘if that is put on Youtube with the choir, all 30 or so wearing this T-shirts, I though that would be a bit dry; lets give them a backdrop of what they live in.’ so, that’s why I went to look at different beaches and chose that one. I didn’t want a fancy beach but a beach that a refugee would slip from like the villages that live in that actual fishing place; if they had a chance, they will be heading one way out. We did it and it was just fantastic and we are editing now and we will have this food cooked.
There are some who will say, ‘oh well, it’s easy for her to say we shouldn’t venture out because she lives overseas!’ What will you tell such cynical fellows, who are bent on going abroad in spite of the inherent dangers involved?
I would tell then that the first place they needed to go to is research. They need to not take anything I have to say, but if they want to be part of that numbers game of refugee, they should do their research very well first. That’s one; then, they can come back to me. Where I am at now is that I have seen that everything I need is here (in Nigeria), everything. It is all very well like you said, ‘go out, then you come back,’ but many of us are dying. These refugees are dying psychologically; we are living the life of detainees except we are free to move around but your mind is not free.
Look at all the things I have achieved from February till now. I cannot achieve a fraction of that over there (in Europe) even if there was money. Here, you get a concept, and you can absolutely thread it through with as little money or as much money. ‘Na pitching you go pitch for your level.’ Get a great concept over there, you can’t thread it through; that in itself is a story of why you are always looking over your shoulders. There you are not relevant; here, you pitch the puzzle on this floor; there’s a section you belong to and once you find it, you are good to go.
So, how does one make sense out of the refugeee problem? Because it is very difficult to convince someone who hasn’t lived abroad and you who have lived there and you are telling him, ‘stay here.’ I do believe that we need. We all need it; if I don’t come to your village to see what you have done, how will I know how to improve on mine? So, it is good to go out, but the going out is not to stay. When you go out, you come back, and really, this is what our government should be doing in terms of scholarship and funding. You know, they send minds out there to garnish, to learn, to see, to take only the bits we need, not the whole lot, but only what we need.
Relevance is here; this is where you are relevant so you could be a fantastic copy over there because that’s what we are; we are copies. The oyinbo man sits and perceives, ‘how did you get this? What were you thinking to give you that thought? We didn’t give it to you!’ Its only when you can copy that you become relevant; but 9.9 of the times we are copies.
How would I be relevant if I had not come back home? What would I be telling them about Chaucer that they don’t know? What I am doing with Chaucer is, I am educating them about things through our own culture, which means that at some point in our world, our mindsets (Africans and British) were similar because what is an oyinbo man doing offering drinks (libations) to the four corners of the room before he drinks it? They don’t have kola-nuts otherwise, I am sure they would have used that too.
But you know, right now, I feel like I am in a little movement because the young men and women I am working with, they are of that refugee age because there is an age for a refugee. They are not the likes of me; I am not going to be making any trip after 50. They are the young ones; they are full-bodied, muscled; they are passionate; they are ready. So I am working with a lot of talents, like singers, actors…
Are you permanently back home now?
I am not back home permanently; my children are in England; husband is in Iceland, but you know, as you get older, you have to be more intelligent with your time and energy. I have realised that Iceland is my writing country. When you are really into writing, you always need a place where your mind is fed; that place is Iceland. That is where I am cooking all these from, all these Nigerian food wey I dey cook, na there I dey turn the pot. So, I realise that it makes sense to continue to turn the pot there. The ‘Miller’s Tale’ was conceived in Iceland, nurtured in Nigeria (gave birth in Nigeria and raised) and then berthed in Scotland. I think when you’ve had that exposure. I think just having had all that, you need a vehicle to give it back; that’s why I am writing my novel, doing the play, doing the songs, doing the poetry, doing all these things.
When next are you performing the play?
I am doing this next year. What I’m planning to do is, I need to get funding to take the play to Toronto in July for one week. But before then, obviously, I am going to rehearse my actors here because we are going to leave with a team of about 15-20 that I will take with me. So, I felt that, especially if I get the funding, I might as well serve the first layout (the food) to my people so they will see that which they have paid for and that which is going out and so I would love, in my wildest dream, if I could do it that way round. I put it staged here fully in its full regalia and then take it over there. It is such a great opportunity.