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Omoseye Bolaji: Writer with the Grassroots Touch

Tebogo and the Epithalamion (2009), the latest in the “Tebogo Mokoena Mystery series” created by Omoseye Bolaji was published earlier this year. For many readers in South Africa of course, Omoseye Bolaji is synonymous with Free State Black Literature. The new book (Tebogo and the Epithalamion) is a testimony to the enduring powers of the author as a writer with the “grassroots touch” – a black African author whose books are read and enjoyed by many at grassroots level. As a rather prolific author Omoseye Bolaji has an army of readers who are enamoured by his books, especially the fiction.

In South Africa his readers are legion. In Free State libraries alone, thousands of copies of his books are available. He is one author who knows how to grip and enthrall readers. He hardly strives for literary aesthetics, but this does not mean he’s entirely pedestrian. Because of his prolific publications, many people tend to overlook the fact that Omoseye Bolaji is actually a versatile writer who has published much more than fiction. He has produced books on literary criticism, poetry, drama, biography, and general works. (see list of works at end of this article)

Important works (novels) of Omoseye Bolaji over the years include The Ghostly Adversary (2001), Impossible Love (2000), and People of the Townships (2003). Like his creative works in general, the plots of these books are constructed in such a way that the general reader just has to read on till the invariably unexpected conclusion.

Bolaji is also a literary activist who has performed wonders in unearthing and galvanizing burgeoning black writers from the grassroots to contribute their own quota to literature by way of publishing their own short stories, reviews, literary oriented articles, and their own books too.

Indeed the Citation on Omoseye Bolaji by the University of the Free State when he was conferred with the Chancellor’s Medal in 2007, states inter alia:

“Bolaji’s outstanding contribution to the community has been the dozens of black Free State authors who were either directly or inspired by him. Many have become important writers after reading his books. Others were mentored and supported to publish their books… The Eclectic Writers Club that Bolaji co-started years ago in Mangaung literally spearheaded a literary revolution in the province and beyond, by providing black people with the confidence to write and publish popular, informative books. He has also contributed to the community at grassroots level by establishing a culture of reading and of appreciating literature… The works of Omoseye Bolaji, in themselves stand as a monument. However it is his extraordinary contributions to grassroots literacy and appreciation of African literature, as well as his mentoring and support of black Free State authors that are worthy of recognition. Mr. Bolaji has almost single-handedly succeeded in creating a vibrant, relevant and respected Free States black literature not only through his example, but also by instilling confidence in the authors of the region…”

Perhaps Omoseye Bolaji’s most popular fictional creation is the “Tebogo Mokoena Mystery series” initiated in 2000. The first book was Tebogo Investigates. The series features the earthy, humane, zestful Tebogo; the man who is not averse to sharing drinks with all sorts of shady characters, male and female, and in the end ferreting out the truth in the assorted mysteries. There are now six books constituting the “Tebogo Mystery series”.

What are those ingredients that make Omoseye Bolaji’s fiction so interesting? They include a gripping, fascinating plot; the gallery of interesting often delectable women that dot the books, the racy action and conversations, and also the fact that most of the fictional works are written in the first person, essentially informally, with the reader fascinated and “hooked”.

Books come to life for so many of us when they include memorable characters that we seem to know vividly.  For example, whilst alive, Bessie Head confessed that she loved creating powerful male characters (like Maru). One of the fascinations of Omoseye Bolaji’s books, admittedly from the male point of view is the way he can swiftly bring a female character alive, infusing her with irresistible feminineness and sensuousness.

In the very first adventure of Tebogo Mokoena, – Tebogo Investigates – from the very moment he meets Susan he becomes fascinated and somewhat enchanted with her. We are told:

Tebogo stood up, his heart beginning to race. What a sexy lady! He thought. No wonder the men are all crazy over her. Susan was rather tall for a lady. Her skin was flawless. Her slender frame seemed the stuff of dreams. She walked with grace. There was a friendly interest and smile on her face. She was wearing a sort of light gown which did not hide her lovely legs. Tebogo stared at her, temporarily confused.

“Hi; it’s Mr. Tebogo, isn’t it?” she said, shaking hands. “Call me Susan.”

For a terrible moment, Tebogo found out that he had lost his voice. He willed himself to pull himself together. But his voice sounded hoarse…

(Page 34, Tebogo Investigates)

Note that this is the ONLY book in the Tebogo Mystery series not written in the first person. Tebogo Investigates has a general narrator, using the omnipresent “Eye of God” method. But the next five books in the series are written in the first person, arguably making them more interesting.

In Ask Tebogo again, an intriguing woman wreaks havoc – but she’s not particularly beautiful. She has allure though, which Tebogo Mokoena acknowledges upon meeting her:

“Yes, the dark lady was beside us now and we both stared at each other.  She was tall and slender, but what I found most outstanding about her were her eyes. They seemed to be amazingly friendly, sort of ablaze and frank. I have to be honest though and admit that many would also describe her as being ‘sluttish…’”

(Page 44, Ask Tebogo)

One of the charms of Tebogo and the Haka (2008) is the character of Charlotte, another intriguing lady. Her relationship with Tebogo borders very much on the romantic (though Tebogo is happily married to another woman). He is clearly attracted to her, and I have heard it vouchsafed by many readers that many men would not have blamed him if he had succumbed to her charms when we read:

She directed me to her house, a beautiful, though small mansion. I parked in front of the place in the darkness and opened the car door for her. She was deliciously intoxicated and smiling beatifically.

“Thanks so much,” I said. “Take care of yourself.” I gave her a peck on the cheek.

“Robala hantle”

“Such a gentleman” she said. “You deserve a kiss”

And she kissed me on the mouth.

(Page 38, Tebogo and the Haka)

The irony of these books is that in so many cases these alluring ladies turn out to be the villains; and of course we find out only at the end of the book.

Aside the Tebogo Mokoena Mystery series (Six in all now), general works of fiction of Bolaji include Impossible Love (2000), The Ghostly Adversary (2001) and People of the Townships (2003). Impossible Love is a charming love story between a man and his daughter (!) – both unaware of their blood ties; The ghostly adversary is an authentic “African thriller” which races on to a stunning conclusion.

Though on the surface both works might seem as dissimilar as chalk and cheese the plots are not so different. It is because Amos the suitor protagonist of Impossible Love leaves South Africa and goes into exile for many years that he does not even realize that he has a daughter who has blossomed into a beautiful young lady. Additionally, it is his experiences outside the country (in exile) that largely make him so attractive to Betty (his blood daughter) as their relationship takes root.

Unbeknownst to readers the following small passage actually provides the key to the intriguing, impossible situation in this work where a man does not even know he is wooing his own daughter:

“Your father was lucky to have a wonderful daughter like you,” said Amos

Betty said: “He was always there for me, strong, patient and understanding. He saved my life when I was a kid. He rarely knew I continued to remember it, for I was so young then…”

The Ghostly adversary showcases a trio of middle aged gentlemen who find themselves being attacked and besieged by an “adversary” unknown to townships them.. It is only later on in the book that we learn that a lady they had raped many years ago in their youth was now out for revenge! Interestingly the lady in question (Susan) also goes into exile where fortune smiles on her.

People of the townships is a much praised work of the author’s. It seems to be more serious than the other books with an ambience close to despair. Although not full of many twists and turns as in other Bolaji works, the conclusion is absolutely stupendous; and the reader realizes after a second reading that the clues to the stunning finale were actually in the book throughout.

In People of the Townships “kasi” (“Township”) life is unveiled and briefly filtered through the mind and action of the protagonist, John Lefuo within hours on a particular day. But it must be pointed out that it would be misleading to conclude that the work is an un-budding of black culture; in reality the impression one largely gets is that township life is essentially an extension of URBAN life in general.

Twists and turns are indeed an integral part of Bolaji’s writings. These are not restricted to the eventual endings of the books, but run throughout most of the works. Two examples, taken from two of the Tebogo Mystery series books, will suffice here, to explain this. Firstly when Tebogo Mokoena meets “Sebastien the lawyer”, one of the minor, yet interesting characters in Tebogo Fails (2003):

“Aah, Tebogo” (said Sebastien) “Interesting thing obiter dicta, isn’t it?” I looked at him in ignorance. “You know, Judges are at their best while delivering judgment.  Res ipsa loquitur. Per rem judicata. That sort of thing?”

This man was making me feel like an ignoramus. He must be a lawyer!

“Interesting how Judges live till old ages abroad, haven’t you noticed my man?”  Sebastien went on. “For example the renowned British judge, Lord Denning lived till over 100; Lord Goddard retired at almost 90 years! In the USA Judges like Thurgood Marshall and Hugo Black were still going strong at over 80…I do some research in my legal offices here…”

(Tebogo Fails, page 10)

Yet just a bit later on we realize Sebastien is not what we have been led to believe when Tebogo talks to the sarcastic “Aunt Maggie”:

“Eem,” I said, “Interesting guy, the lawyer (Sebastien). Makes quite an impression…”

She laughed and said: “Lawyer my foot!  At best he’s a quack. Actually he helps people with legal problems, but he’s not a qualified lawyer. I doubt whether he even knows where law is studied! I understand he used to work at a lawyer’s firm in Gauteng, then in Durban. Reads a lot about the law, and can pass for a lawyer among average folk…”

(Tebogo Fails, page 12)

In Tebogo and the haka (2008) as the mystery starts to unfold the reader is given hints about another intriguing lady, Charlotte. We suspect Tebogo will make attempts to locate her and talk to her. But when he finally meets her it happens in an unexpected way, with both the reader and Tebogo surprised! Tebogo is at an Internet Centre (a concession to modernity by the author) and is helping a lady there with her documents. The lady is appropriately grateful and it is only at the end of this Chapter (Chapter Seven) that we learn:

The lady insisted on at least paying me back some of my money but I refused. I followed her outside the shop and she said: “Today is really my lucky day. I’m so pleased to have met you.  By the way let me introduce myself to you formally,” She extended her hand for a shake. “My name is Charlotte. Mrs Charlotte Moalusi.”

(Tebogo and the Haka, page 33)

A number of commentators have also referred to the manner in which Bolaji wrestles with moral issues at a basic level in his writings. In a short review of Omoseye Bolaji’s new work, Tebogo and the Epithalamion Peter Moroe writes:

————————
The issue of “morality” seems to interest Bolaji in his writings. Petro Schonfeld writes almost sarcastically in this wise in her book, Tebogo on the prowl (pg 38): “The virtues of Dave are legion. He did not flirt with women…he liked a simple life…he was popular and generous…he liked reading…he was a writer…almost a saint…His character overshadows Tebogo (whose) characteristics are few compared to the praises Dave receives”

Also note that Aryan Kaganof in his review of People of the Townships  writes: “I would suggest that Mr. Bolaji has created a morally ambiguous protagonist in order to test our own opinions and ethics. The truth is that judgments on the moral plane are extremely hard to make, both in life and, as John Lefuo amply demonstrates, in fiction”

In Tebogo and the Epithalamion there is this type of tantalizing ambiguity on issues of “morality” again. For example when Tebogo and Seleke the ‘rich man’ discuss:

But whether Neo “had played her cards right” or not, was hardly the issue here. I stared at Ntate Seleke and said: “But is it true – that there is another woman in this town who has a baby for you?”

Mike flinched as Seleke’s face changed into a ruthless mask. Indeed he (Mike) looked away uneasily, perhaps cursing me inwardly for raising this matter which I had heard about. But I tried to look unperturbed.

Seleke said at last: “Are you questioning my moral ethics?”

Yet the irony is that Mr. Seleke is probably morally flawed as it emerges that he has fathered a child quite carelessly whilst drunk and has little or no respect for the mother of his young child.

As we can imagine, moral issues especially in our (South African) townships are complicated with the background and heritage of apartheid in mind. The idea of “good” conflated with “bad” is not so clear-cut, especially in mystery books where murders often hold sway. Hence when in the book Tebogo fails (2003) where the detective Tebogo Mokoena allows a murderer to go scot-free in the end on the grounds that the killer was avenging a child rapist and killer, readers are divided in their response. On her own part critic Petro Schonfeld comments:

“He (Tebogo) believes in justice… but he himself decides what the just thing would be, to reveal the culprit or to overlook the (legal) system and let him go free…”

(Page 35, Tebogo on the prowl)

On the whole, however, going through his oeuvre of works, it is clear enough that Omoseye Bolaji – through his protagonists – is on the side of what we might simplistically dub “good”. Often commentators have pointed out the feel good factor consequent upon reading Bolaji’s works of fiction. It is no surprise that so many readers at grassroots level love his works passionately.

Many books (studies) have been published on Omoseye Bolaji’s writings and it is no surprise yet again that the emphasis has often been on his fictional works. Critics and literary figures like Pule Lechesa, Petro Schonfeld, Flaxman Qoopane and Charmaine Kolwane have published studies on Bolaji’s works (see list later on)

Omoseye Bolaji grew up in England (where he was taken as a baby by his parents), Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. He attended Lagelu Grammar School (Ibadan), Obafemi Awolowo University (Ile Ife). As a writer he has been recognized largely; apart from many other honours, he garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Free State Arts and Culture (Library Services) Dept; and he was conferred with the Chancellor’s Medal by the University of the Free State (2007).  In 2008 he was conferred with a traditional African Chieftaincy title by the Olubadan (King) of Ibadanland (in Nigeria), Oba Odulana Odugade in recognition of his contributions to African literature.

References
University of the Free State: Certificates/Degrees journal. 13 Sep 2007 Page 29 (for Citation on Omoseye Bolaji)
Bolaji, Omoseye: Tebogo Investigates. Drufoma. 2000
Schonfeld, Petro: Tebogo on the prowl. (A study of the Tebogo Mokoena Mystery series) Phoenix Press, 2006
Bolaji, Omoseye: Tebogo fails. Drufoma, 2003
Bolaji, Omoseye: Ask Tebogo. Eclectic Writers Club. 2004
Bolaji, Omoseye: Impossible Love. Drufoma. 2000
Bolaji, Omoseye: Tebogo and the haka. Eselby Jnr Publications, 2008

OMOSEYE BOLAJI: LIST OF WORKS

Fiction
Impossible Love (2000)
Tebogo Investigates (2000)
The Ghostly Adversary (2001)
Tebogo’s spot of bother (2001)
People of the Townships (2003)
Tebogo Fails (2003)
Ask Tebogo (2004)
Tebogo and the Haka (2008)
Tebogo and the Epithalamion (2009)

Short stories
They Never Say When (1994)
The Guillotine (2001)
The quack of Qwaqwa (2003)

Poetry
Snippets (1998)
Reverie (2006)
Poems from Mauritius (2007)

Literary essays/criticism
Thoughts on Free State Writing (2002)
Molebogeng Alitta Mokhuoa (2004)

Biographies
The story of Collins Mokhotho (2000)
Gilbert Modise: the man and the myth (2001)
My life and literature (2007)

Drama
The subtle transgressor (2006)

General
Eagles at USA 94 (1994)
The golden pen of Eselby (1994)
Fillets of Plaice (2000)
My Opinion (2005)

STUDIES (Books) ON BOLAJI’s WRITING
Lebuso, Pule. 2001. Omoseye Bolaji: His writings/his role as a catalyst for FS Writing.
Qoopane Flaxman. 2003. Omoseye Bolaji: Perspectives on his literary work. Qoopane Literary Services.
Kolwane, Charmaine.  2005. Omoseye Bolaji: Channeling one’s thoughts onto paper
Schonfeld, Petro. 2006.. Tebogo on the prowl: a study of Omoseye Bolaji’s series of books based on private sleuth, Tebogo Mokoena.
Lechesa, Pule (ed.). 2007. Omoseye Bolaji…on awards, authors, literature.
Tila, Urbain. 2007. The Triumph, (details the events at the gala night where Omoseye Bolaji received the Lifetime Achievement Award).
Mooi, Julia. 2009. Omoseye Bolaji: Further Perspectives

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25 Comments

  • Close to a masterpiece. We cannot conceivably read all the books of prolific authors like Achebe, Ngugi, Soyinka, or as we can see here, Omoseye Bolaji. This article brilliantly introduces us into the essence of Bolaji’s creative writing, yet is still tantalisingly comprehensive. This is the sort of feature that makes our (black African) literature worthwhile and rewarding. Really top notch.

  • Brilliant, and exciting. If one wants to be hyper-critical, I suppose one can say that this essay focuses mainly on Bolaji’s fiction. And then again, this piece makes no reference to the tons of humour present in Bolaji’s fiction. And what about Bolaji’s moving play, The subtle transgressor? Not to mention his books of poetry, contributions to literary essays etc…But don’t let me be unseemly! This is a superb essay indeed.

  • Chief i think you have gone beyond the word creative (Laugh),
    This trully defines you on so many stages and phases,
    As a writer slash,slash,slash
    Excellent well written and beautifully pronounced
    Chief i salute !

  • There has always been this debate over “literary” writers – fawned over by the lofty critics; and writers who appeal to the mainstream. It appears Bolaji is more of a “popular” writer but with so many books published evaluating his works, it can not be said that such writing should be condemned. In any event shouldn’t the average reader be the judge of interesting creative works?

  • I guess one has to admit that Bolaji’s books appeal a lot to mainstream African readers, and for that he should be commended.

  • Most of his readers would often focus on Bolaji’s fiction, but I like his essays more, especially the book, My Opinion; and particularly Omoseye Bolaji’s Thoughts on Free State Writing

  • I am a Zimbabwean born writer based in South Africa – I have published a book of short stories. It is interesting that Aaron (above) makes reference to the fact that he loves Bolaji’s book of literary essays, Thoughts on Free State Writing. I distinctly remember telling Mr. Bolaji when I met him that my personal favouirite among his works is the same “Thoughts on Free State Writing”!

  • Yet another germ from the great man. Not only is he a great writer but a good scout of talent. People like me will always be grateful to him. I will never forget the day he said to me ” Maxwell you must diversify as a writer”. This statement ended in the creation of the book Enemy of the State of which his hand cannot be missed again.

  • Yes, many of we writers were helped with the publication of our initial books by Mr Bolaji. It’s good to see he has not lost his touch!

  • Bolaji and i used to be editors of a magazine. He has shown that contrary to what we always hear that “blacks do not read” they can read when they have interesting works they can relate to!

  • Mr Bolaji has made a great mark in South African black literature and journalism. It’s always pleasing to see him being recognized and celebrated, like in this excellent article

  • Yes ntate Bolaji has done very well indeed. But as a woman perhaps my favourite article on his works is “Omoseye Bolaji: protecting the rights of women” (also on Internet)

  • Ag! Just to congratulate Mr Omoseye Bolaji for his new book, Tebogo and the pantophagist (2010) which has just been published. It is the seventh Tebogo Mokoena Mystery book

  • I am exceedingly proud of Chief Seye Bolaji’s achievements. He has made Lagelu and Ibadan proud. Nothing less would have been expected of him anyway as a tiger will always beget a tiger. Good memories of SLB will forever remain with us. Congrats!

  • A dazzling essay – that makes one to tremble whilst re-reading it now. This is the type of superb write-up that is needed to introduce African writers to the world.