Humour. Geniality. Conviviality. Niyi Osundare is all of those, and more. A visit with him to Ikere-Ekiti, his birthplace, was full of fun and education, and the rare opportunity of sharing the “poetry of presence” overflowing around him.
At about 6.30 pm, when I had waited for him more than an hour at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, his Volvo pulled to a stop in front of me. He eagerly came out of the car, full of apologies. I stood up and moved to the car, convinced that the person I had seen on the wheels looked like the Osundare I had been seeing on the covers of his books. He stood tall in front of me. It was a surprise. For I had thought that, like most writers (or perhaps like me), Osundare was a short man! “So it’s you, E. E. Sule?” he asked. We were meeting for the first time after exchanging emails, text messages, and hearing each other’s voices on the phone.
I was extremely excited. He was also excited, introducing me to his friends now and then. People trickled in and out of the huge Faculty building. We drove to the University of Ibadan Staff Club where he was to fulfil his promise (“E. E., I assure you, you’ll eat plenty of pounded yam when you come”), but there was no pounded yam, only a miserable dish of white rice and stew. He was disappointed; I was not. It satisfied my hunger which was the most important thing to me then. A bottle of small stout each got us more enlivened. And we talked as we drove to his house, stopping to pick Lipton tea for me at a supermarket. Questions and answers, banters and laughter filled the car whose professorial complexion could be seen in the books cluttered on the back seats.
Osundare’s two-apartment house was impressive. Hurray! the poet-scholar who had no house of his own at fifty-eight, invoking our tantrums against the Nigerian government, now owns a house, because he has left the mess and mediocrity and mental torture that characterize the Nigerian academia. You may envy me: I was the first guest to sleep in the house. After he showed me into my room and I washed, I met him in the living room. Of course I would not let him be. He too understood that I had not travelled several hours from the north just to rest or watch his TV. I switched on my recorder and the legendary poet, fighting fatigue, held me sway with his outpouring, though he accused me of behaving like a journalist. He spoke of his birthplace (where we would visit tomorrow); he spoke of his childhood; he spoke of his father and mother; he spoke of his great teachers; and he spoke of the farms and the rocks he grew up knowing. His talk was punctuated by the intrusive memory of Katrina.
Much of his wisdom came from his father, Ariyoosu Osundare, and his mother, Fasimia Osundare, who did not have western education but were amazingly intelligent, perceptive and visionary. What was the single most remarkable thing his father did towards his career as a writer? When he was not old enough to write with pen, his father, in one of his trips to the city, bought him a ballpoint pen, telling him, “Here is your pen. I want you to put black spot on a white surface.” Nothing could be more prophetic. “The first thing I ever wrote,” Osundare said, “was a letter for Papa. Once I could write, I started writing his letters.” And as Osundare reveals in his trenchant valedictory lecture at University of Ibadan, his father’s letters always ended with the mantra, “My dialogue with you has no end.”
A very definitive opinion I formed of Osundare that night, as we talked, was that he did not only respect his father, he regarded him as a sage, and saw himself as his father’s ardent apostle. His summation: “Papa was a great man in his own way. He never had a bad harvest because he intelligently predicted the seasons. My first knowledge of geography came from him.” Of course, he quoted sparks of wisdom from his mother too, whom he regarded as a quiet and intelligent woman, and was eager for me to meet her. Osundare’s father was a drummer and singer, his bata the delight of all at Ikere-Ekiti; his mother a composer and weaver, whose quiet artistry Osundare began to imbibe when he was a baby strapped on her back. Osundare’s craft, unlike those of other writers, is not rooted in books, but in roots. While the art of drumming and singing naturally passed from his parents to him, his uncle, Tayo Olaitan Ayodele, exposed him to the Yoruba theatre; Ayodele organised plays in the family and Osundare increasingly grew enthusiastic about acting, taking most of the lead roles, and doing well.
As the night deepened and I listened to Osundare, I did not know where the stress of travelling by the road several hours from Keffi to Ibadan disappeared to. But because we had a crucial trip the next day, we retired into our rooms some minutes to midnight, even though I wanted us to talk throughout the night.
Our breakfast the next day was boiled yam with scrambled eggs (for me) and palm oil (for him), which he prepared. I would come to know in the five days I spent with him that Osundare is a yam-eating poet. He dished his food in a small earthen pot. Why the earthen pot? “I like eating from the pot because it gives the yam a rural flavour,” he said. After we had eaten, and he had settled the labourers putting finishing touches to the house, we started off to Ikere-Ekiti. We had a Toyota Corolla with a driver, given to us by University Press Plc, his publisher, to ease our journey.
The journey to Akure was smooth. While Ismaila, the driver, concentrated on the road, Osundare and I continued our interview, the tape rolling. Was the memory of Katrina so alive? “Oh well, Katrina humbled me. My wife and I saw death and would have died. Our daughter was away in school. We were saved by a neighbour, a Cuban-American with only a few sentences of English. He heard our shouting and came to our rescue. I lost everything to Katrina.” But why did he have to leave Nigeria for the US, having risen through a successful career in Nigeria? “I have a daughter who is intelligent and sensitive, but she is deaf and mute. In Nigeria she was just wasting away; she couldn’t get good education. I moved to the US because of her.” Interestingly, Osundare had a different plan other than retiring from University of Ibadan. He was stampeded into retiring. “I wanted an extended leave of absence to be able to take care of my daughter in the US. I met the VC and told him about my plight. His response: ‘no, the university cannot afford to lose a person like you. We must do everything to make sure that you remain with us’. But when my department wrote a support letter, requesting that the university should grant me the needed leave, the vice chancellor never gave any reply. So I had to put in a notice of early retirement.”
At about 2pm, we were in Akure, and headed straight for the house of Foluso, his immediate younger brother, where we were welcomed by Osundare’s mother. She was old, quite old, but sprightly and active, disappearing now and then into the kitchen. She had a quiet mien that belied the ecstasy of seeing her son again after a long while. Foluso is married and has three children. A short while after we came, he bounced into the house. He pointed at me, “You must be Dr Sule.” His vibrant voice and laughter indicated the vivacity he and Osundare inherited from their father, the unforgettable man of bata whose drumbeats echoed through the length and breadth of Ikere-Ekiti. Foluso would tell me later, when I trapped him for my tape, that “Prof is exactly a copy of Papa. His height, his skin, his face, even his voice are Papa’s own. He and Papa were very close.”
I got the tape rolling for Osundare’s mother. Her answers were brief and direct. She was unself-conscious. Her fingers continued to tap rhythmically on the arms of the chair in which she sat, and I could see that there was music going on in her head. What kind of a boy was Osundare? “He liked books from childhood,” she said. “He also liked playing. He participated in all the neighbourhood plays, and we also watched him acting outside the family, in the school.” Not the type to show much emotion, she watched the progress of her son mostly through the eyes of her husband whom she believed knew the best for their son. She carried Osundare’s luggage on her head and walked a distance of about five miles with him to Amoye Grammar School the day he started secondary school in January 1961. She was there every visiting day with food for him, and a message from his father. She argued that her son was not the type to be called naughty in his teens, but he was certainly stubborn (in the real sense of resistance), and would insist on a thing if he was convinced it was right and just. What was her son’s relationship with his siblings? “Like his father, he grew up a disciplinarian, berating his younger ones who did not measure up mostly in academics and etiquette.”
I was eager to go to Ikere-Ekiti, to dialogue with the rocks. Already I had begun to see the rocks in their rolling essence as they stood protecting Akure from the overarching bravado of Ekitiland. We took off at about 10am the next day. The thickness of the forest, punctuated now and then by a brotherhood of rocks, amazed me. More than twice, I had the urge to stop the driver, to get out of the car, to saunter into the forest, to get lost in it and slough off my northern-savannah skin.
Having driven for about twenty minutes, we arrived at Amoye Grammar School, Ikere-Ekiti. As I stepped into the school compound, the rocks rose and welcomed me. It was the brotherhood of the pyramid-shaped Oroole, its imposing stare on the school (See Osundare’s poem, “The Rocks Rose to Meet Me”). This was where our dialogue began. A lively, bouncy Osundare took me round the school, showing his former classrooms, his dormitory and bed space, the fields, the house master’s apartment, and the office of the very revered principal, the late Chief Sammie Fal Adeniran. What did he keep remembering about Amoye Grammar School? “Chief Adeniran was a great and dedicated principal, a rare disciplinarian. He moulded us into what we are today. He never spared any act of indiscipline. He taught me Latin and I performed very well.” Osundare remembered that when it was time for light out in those days, he had a contraption in which he hid his lantern and read in order to satisfy his insatiable quest. It was a terrible offence to be seen with light during the light out. But he thought he outsmarted his tough principal because he was never caught and punished. However, many years later, Chief Adeniran told him, “I used to see you disobeying the school rules by reading when you should be sleeping.” Astonished, Osundare replied, “But how come you never punished me?” Chief Adeniran, now old, chuckled and said, “Though you were disobeying the rules, I was proud of you.” Given his love for books, Osundare ended up as a library prefect, carting away most of the prizes in his class, earning distinctions in all but two of his eight subjects. His scores in three of his subjects were reported to be among the best in the whole of West Africa.
As we drove out of Amoye Grammar School, heading towards the township, Olosunta, the most awesome of the rocks in Ikere-Ekiti, loomed in front of us, taking the shape of a crouching elephant from one angle, the shape of a standing buffalo from another angle, and a massive, indescribable shape from some other angle, as we drove through the town. Till today, Olosunta is worshipped for its spiritual might and ability to shelter the community from external aggression. “It attracted different subgroups of Yoruba people to Ikere because they needed its protection,” Osundare revealed. Before going to the foot of Olosunta to pay homage, we went to St. Luke’s Primary School, where a tender Osundare started school in 1953. A huge, ancient block stood, fenceless, no less a rugged metaphor of the annoying decay in Nigeria’s educational sector. Beside it to the right, a block in which Osundare had his primary five, had collapsed, the fallen blocks in utter submission to abandonment. What Osundare remembered about St. Luke’s Primary School was his primary five teacher, Mr Bezi, who was a marvellous embodiment of knowledge, love and compassion; and his participation in the school band as the leading drummer, proving himself the son of his father. He also sang and acted in plays, drawing the admiration of parents who usually attended the speech and prize giving days. How did he feel seeing his primary school in this bad state? He became sober, saying, “Our government has killed education. I wished I had money to renovate the school.”
To Olosunta we went next. It was so imposing that we could see it from any side of Ikere-Ekiti. And magnetic too; it drew us closer to itself. When we went closer to it, I stood small before it, trying to remember when I saw such a massive rock last. We moved uphill to a nearby smaller rock called Ugele at whose foot wrestling matches used to take place during Ogunoye festival in those days.
After my dialogue with the rocks, we moved to Osundare’s family house, a storey building that had seen better days. “When my father built this house, storey buildings were rare and fashionable here,” Osundare explained. Osundare’s room and his father’s were upstairs, and his mother’s was downstairs. Now none of the Osundares lives in the house; it is rented out to tenants. In front of the house was a waterway, a stream bursting out of Olusunta during rainy season, flowing into river Osun after which the poet Osundare was named. I could see the stone-wall Osundare’s father had constructed to prevent the stream from overflowing into his house.
I was interested in seeing River Osun, the giver of “life” to the poet Osundare. (Really, the meaning of Osundare is “Osun has vindicated me”). Sadly, it was dry season and I could only behold the lean flesh of the great river which also enjoyed worship from the community. Any particular relation between the river and the poet? “When I was growing up, my parents did not allow me go near the river; they feared that Osun would take me away from them. That’s why I can’t swim, and would have lost my life to Katrina. But my mother tells me that if not for Osun I wouldn’t have escaped Katrina.”
We detoured to the palace of the Ogoga, the Oba of Ikere. I noticed some vandalised houses by the streets. We had been told in Akure the day before that Ikere-Ekiti was just smarting from an uprising. The youths had gone on rampage, demanding the head of the traditional ruler and other prominent people who acceded to what the youths thought was a clever way of denying Ikere-Ekiti its robust College of Education. Governor Segun Oni, the Governor of Ekiti State, had established a state university of education to replace the college of education and some sons of Ikere-Ekiti did not foresee the ruse therein. The college of education, seething with students in thousands and offering Bachelor Degrees in some courses, had far better economic, social and political benefits than any new specialised university that might not have more than one hundred students. The youths sought the heads of the Oba and some Ikere elders who were complicit with the governor.
That was why we met a deserted Oba’s palace, with gun-totting police scowling at us at the gate to the Oba’s palace. They had a superior order not to let anybody in. But from where we stood, Osundare pointed at the seat of the Oba, the statutes around him, and a room upstairs where Ulli Beier, the German scholar and catalyst of modern written Nigerian literature, used to stay whenever he visited Oba Adegoriola who was one of his important friends. Behind the palace was Okeruku, the place of the red earth (read Niyi Osundare’s “Meet Me at Okeruku”). The earth and the houses here were really red, distinguishing the neighbourhood from any other in Ikere-Ekiti.
Thereafter, we drove to Ado-Ekiti, just twenty minutes from Ikere-Ekiti. It is the capital city of Ekiti State, housing Christ’s School in whose abode Osundare wrote his first award-wining poem. Although Amoye Grammar School remains Osundare’s favourite, it is Christ’s School that gave him the opportunity to discover himself as a poet, a dramatist, and a teacher. He came to the school from a “bush school” (in spite of the intellectual pundits of Amoye Grammar School), but had a result better than anybody else’s. He would revive the school magazine to the admiration of his teachers and fellow students. He would act lead roles in the open air theatre modelled on the traditional Greek theatre. He would take part in the writing of the history of the school, a job given to him because of the tremendous writing skills he had displayed. He would be given his first job, which was to teach in the school. And, expectedly, the college would give him a scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan. Were there other scholarships apart from the one offered by Christ’s School? “Oh yes. Amoye Grammar School insisted they would sponsor me, but Christ’s School’s offer came first. I wrote a carefully worded letter to Amoye, although late Chief Adeniran was disappointed. He understood. Also, I got a federal government scholarship which I turned down, even though my friends urged me to take it. I thought it was unfair to take two scholarships at the same time.”
After taking a lunch of pounded yam in Ado-Ekiti, we drove back to Ikere-Ekiti. We went to St Joseph’s primary school where a burial ceremony was taking place. We were to meet his childhood friend, Femi Ogunmola, and many other friends who had not seen Osundare for years. I watched the poet prancing around with friends and well-wishers who liked him because of his intelligence and fame, but were not happy that he did not have a house in Ikere-Ekiti. Why didn’t the poet have a house in his homeland? “I don’t have the money. And even if I do, I cannot manage two houses at the moment. There are other things to do with money.” But it is a cultural demand. I provoked the Marxist in him. “Some of our cultural demands turn people into criminals. We have to do away with them while we stick to the ones that point the way forward.’
Although he does not have a house in Ikere-Ekiti, I observed the overwhelming respect he commanded among his people. He has instituted a prize at Amoye Grammar School (Osundare Prize for the Best Student in Yoruba and Osundare Prize for the Best Student in Science), and has continued to render assistance to the winners of the prize when they need it. His kinsmen have known him to be consistent in his crusade for service to humanity and social justice, even if they do not like its complexion.
As we drove out of Ikere-Ekiti, the sprawling town crossed by River Osun and bounded by incredible rocks, I suddenly desired to read all of Osundare’s volumes again, for I could hear the rhythm of his poetry in every corner of the town. I asked myself if there was any poet in Nigeria who had poetised and popularised his homeland like Osundare. Were his volumes of poetry not bigger than any mansion he had failed to build in Ikere-Ekiti? No mansions could have made Ikere-Ekiti as famous as Osundare’s poetry.