A PERSONAL STORY
By Kole Ade Odutola
Saturday, October 29, 2012.
There is a collection of poetry with a similar title to the one above. When it was published around 1992, it was roundly rejected and subjected to ridicule by friends and the few lucky ‘critics’ who obtained free copies from the publisher-photographer who was paid to facilitate the printing. He now rests in the bosom of his creator and the writer of the poems still bent on fighting the Lord’s battle in words. That collection, in fairness to those who shot it down, was neither a book nor a pamphlet, it was just the raw feelings of a thirty-two year old, who felt short changed by a nation and a world that were heading into self-destruction.
Words in cold print have not been known to change the hearts of tyrants nor has badly written poetry warmed the hearts of peasants who toil day and night to keep body and soul a piece. At the time the collection was published the nation’s intellectuals were voting with their feet before the new world economic disorder made the streets the home of their intestines. They were leaving in large numbers and for some of us their disciples, living took new meanings. All we heard were words to the effect:“scram before you become another scrap on the garbage heap of history”. Some of my contemporaries remained behind and like acolytes of a new religion devised new ways of engaging the soul for the benefit of self and society. The Lawyer, who writes stage plays found an ‘adaptor’ for his thoughts and thus was born Ajofest, one of the most ambitious privately funded festival of Arts in Nigeria.
As the stage was burning against social ills, Peter Igho and later Lola Fani-Kayode, redefined television production before the video home crowd came along to build the present house of spittle. It was not all work and hope for a social revolution, the artistes found kindred spirits in German and American diplomats who provided space and watering holes to unwind. The crowd awaited the monthly ritual at the ‘worship center’ of Lopez, the Puerto-Rican diplomat who came from God’s own country. He brought with him a slice of the American dream and the parties cushioned the effect of our energy sapping chores around town. We danced as if there was no tomorrow and no sorrow was too insoluble not to dissolve in the wines and drinks provided by Lopez. True to life, that dream was cut short and like a whiff our main man left the country. Somehow, amidst that creative volcano taking place in Lagos, our mentor, who trained as a geologist but spends a large chuck of his resources on cultural activism, started what became the Artistes Parliament. The arts stampede has now become a cultural reference point just as the concept of the Coalition of Nigerian Artistes (CONA) points at a failed dream. Looking back to the nights and days of meeting and planning one cannot help it if tears start to roll and sadness overtakes the heart. What could be possibly be wrong with asking for coordinated welfare for the producers of vision, exchange programs that can take them far and wide and a systematic training program that took care of their present and their future?
Many moons have come between now and that sketchy slice of our reality above. Life changing transformations in different hues kept visiting the clan at home and abroad. These events called for hearty celebrations and clicking of glasses. Some reporters among us have become editors, actors of yesterday from Benin, Ife, Ibadan, are now big players on screen, and geologists too are in new positions in the Oil industry. Lest I forget some journalists too among us, crossed to become Press Secretaries issuing depressing releases from their bosses. How can the case of the two who blew the whistle on a senior journalist who paraphrased Thomas Paine be forgotten? One went to jail, wrote a book and now lives in his own house. The other avoided the long arms of the tyrant and set up shop in distant lands, he too now lives a life of kings. Such is life my dear reader. The point is that in Nigeria you can become whatever Olodumare
has written for you (“the Lord creator, where he isn’t there isn’t”-apologies Uncle Lari Williams).
The cycle of life never ceases, as fire dies so does ashes arise to be its cover. But this story is not about my generation and their constant efforts to tame the monster that Nigeria has been for them. It is about a bearded apprentice poet at forty-four still looking for relevance and meaning in a nation that kills dreams and dreamers. Have I not lost count of those dead and started to count my days like the Psalmist advised. I still recall sitting next to Ken Saro Wiwa at the Goethe institute (in their former office) when some writers came calling. I can still hear his roaring laughter and see the ever-present pipe between his lips. What of dear gentle soul Renate, the German who gave and gave so much one feared she might become like us. The memories of the beautiful ones will never burn.
I was born at Number 37 Bola Street, in a corner-piece building that has Banke House written boldly in front of it. This abode bears too many unwritten stories and too many unrevealed secrets. I grew up in the same neighborhood with the Dadas, the Odusanyas, the Akapos, the Awolanas, the Ainas, the Oyesanwos and so many other families who now live permanently in my memory. They represented a Nigeria of hope. Fathers had the means to be the authority figures at home. Mothers held the family together without complains. The only complaints I heard were of children who refused to eat not of children without food. The streets were safe with Area Fathers and Sisi Ekos. There was even a Sisi London who lived near the market at Oyingbo. People had jobs and we knew what they did to earn a living. The printer was called Lord Awo and the tailor was a Bob Taylor who lived close to Iya Kosegbe’s abode. Who can forget Iya Niyi who sold moin-moin down the road or Iya Aja who sold Iyan (pounded yam) on Kadara Street. I still recall a man my father fondly called Willie. He was a photographer who worked for the Morning Post and on the side recorded every family event. One day we heard he was going off to the East to cover a war. What that meant at first was that the sound of his Vesper would not be heard in the mornings and the music from his apartment would be missed. Mr. William Osinbajo, till today represents the organic link between the civil war and most of what I recall of it. He came back with gory stories I could not really follow or did not understand at that time. He never stopped to talk about a Brigadier Adekunle, who fought like a commando. How a commando fights he left to our imagination to decipher. The black and white pictures he brought back from the war must have been used in the paper he worked for. What were probably unused were the man’s deep feelings about what he saw and recorded of the carnage. What he saw changed him forever; we noticed a change in his bounce and the way we were treated. “Never go to war” he counseled, we his young listeners, whose song about war was “awa soja kere..” (we small soldiers…).
Thirty or so years after, my generation found themselves in another kind of war and a few chose the cultural sector as the battlefront. We wanted to be sure the mental onslaught and cultural pollution from the industrialized countries did not take the only precious gift we had from us. The movies, the music and the clothes all constituted the armory of the enemy camp. The media of those countries shifted the battleground to our impressionable minds. Their products were better and ours inferior. Their names appeared sophisticated on paper while ours were long and clumsy. Our native tongues and native wisdom were the next to fall in the unseen war. We became alienated from our roots. However, in little groups across the country, the campuses and newspapers became the forums for counter-offensive. Those may go down as the golden era of great intellection on the pages of the newspapers and in seminar rooms. The sentiments were the same; we knew there must be ways of making sense of the locust years and the dark times that enveloped our daily lives. The search was for safe spaces where our experiences could be shared and disseminated. When the second tier foreign exchange market tore the pockets of publishers and book buyers we knew trouble by the dozens would unfurl in the land. Wide toothy smiles of the General soon gave way to dark goggles of insanity. Little wonder that as politics in the land is
smeared with blood and littered with broken limbs, the literature coming into the market is marked by prison tales and long dark nights.
As I read and re-read Sola Osofisan’s collection of short stories-Darkvisions, which was a joint winner of the 1992 ANA prose prize, and Michael Harrington’ s“The other America: Poverty in the United States” though written over forty years ago, I began to see the world in a different light and the two sides of an ugly coin made sense. I quickly borrowed their ‘tongues’ to rearticulate my inner pains and fears. These two books have become sources of inspiration for me, the foot mats that cushion footfalls. You can understand why Harrington’s book would inspire me. I have lived in America in the last five years and I can tell you that the American dream is for the citizens here, yet not all the Citizens can lay claim to that corporate America. The latest figures point to about 35.8 million poor souls. I see the homeless, the shirtless who are becoming nameless within the system. So many are without medical insurance, an important cover for the rainy days. Rain or sun there are many like me do not have the three vital Cs: Car, Credit cards, and Cell phones. These are markers here too just like the titles back at home.
In a capitalist economy you should not live under the illusion that you can work hard for money here. No, as the motivational speakers say, let your money work hard for you. This is the bitter lesson immigrants here are yet to learn in this knowledge-driven economy. The simple truth is that you need capital to survive. How to accumulate without exploitation is the real deal. Someday I shall tell the whole story of hardship, of pain and depression in this place. To mothers reading this piece, call your children and tell them that the America of the movies is not real.
What is real is a dark hole that can suck their souls. You are free to think it is my ‘bad luck’ (or home trouble) that makes it impossible for me to send“Western Union encrypted numbers” home as regularly as the average Joe down the street does by the drop of the hat. I tell you most immigrants are living a lie as life here. The credo is suffering in silence while you pretend to live in affluence. If you really want to know how people live here ask about the many steps to obtain their papers. The medical tests, the staying in line as early as 4am to obtain permission to visit home, the thousands of Dollars paid to Lawyers who help you fill the forms, the interviews, the finger printing, the photos and so much more just to live on God’s own earth. To compound the reality many cannot speak because there are no spaces where their voices can be heard. They have elected to speak only through procreation.
In the epilogue of Osofisan’s book he writes, “Journey’s end, our hearts have ceased to stutter. You and I…Our screams no longer hug the walls like cobwebs hug the walls like cobwebs. There is only silence now. And the silence is complete. The silent sowing of another seed. Another life.”
Though the Yorubas say Ile labo simi oko, (which roughly translates to home is the hope of the sojourner), I say home is the resting place of the body (ile labo simi ara). Taking liberty with the lines Osofisan points to the inability to procreate. Is making babies in a place like America such an expensive venture? The bedsprings go silent too when men should be men. Let us say no more on that subject. I can tell you what silence means in a country of many laws and bills to
pay. God help us.
So I walk the streets looking for the face of God, hoping that the bounty promised will be fulfilled. I sat at about 2am on the day I turned forty and wrote my heart out. I share it with you and end this sinful self-adulatory piece (or torture if you choose) with what my country has taught me.
The Poet wept
As I turned forty
bringing to life
niceties and naughty things.
The unslipped ring,
the unborn kings,
the feathered children in tubes
the cornered coalition
the ANA-tommy of a failed writer
peddling sub-standard syntax,
parading sub-versions of texts
that can't be submitted
to critics' dissecting tables
As I turned forty, comfortable
enough to pour myself out.
The Poet wept
I looked out...
Looking For the Face of God
I looked out of the window
for the 480th time
thinking I'll see the face of God
smiling or just looking over all.
Instead, I saw the mind of God
in my own mind, the little window to my being
As I looked again into the streets,
I felt the wind of God
fresh & refreshing, powered by unseen rods.
I heard the sounds of God
in the rustling leaves.
I beheld the color of God in all around.
The weight I felt, heavier
than the Pound, stronger than Cents
in their hundreds to make the green.
"The hand of God is upon me..."
even as I write from this screen,
the might that makes our sight
see from within without screams,
now powers my dreams.
God is the light that surrounds all
as we fight our way through
the maze in life filled with strife.
I'll look out again for the hand
of God that holds all things
as I feel my way through and pay
bills dictated by 'unseen hands'
in this corporate-land of hard rules.
In the City of God streets are songs
thoughts have wings
Speech is praise
and light is displayed
The Eye of God in fraternity
with the past and future.
The Poet leapt in joy?
Song of Recall with Shadow tunes
Now I have unleashed my expectations
on the future
hoping one will meet the other
and order will visit
a life on the run from home
The present has since left
the past as memories, moments and movements.
Come dance to this song that recalls,
come recall the feet of youth
that combed the streets of hope...
…and so the Poet felt for present readers and hearers of the word
He will be forty-four, two months before the politicians roll out the drums again to celebrate the independence of his country. He lived a good portion of his years as one of the children in a middle class family. As a child, the taps had water and electricity supply was fairly constant. He went first to Ereko Methodist School and two years after enrolled at Ireti Primary School next to Corona, Mekuwen, Ikoyi, where the children of the well fed attended.
As they say the rest now is history as he looks back to his years at Igbobi College where Mr. J. O. Olatunbosun was in charge. Those were days when Khaki Igbobi and that blue and yellow tie meant a lot to the young students. The injunction of the school anthem was to play ones part in any task since wherever there is an Igbobian, there should also be a noble Nigerian. The word noble and its entire connotation shaped his vision about life and society. The need to create a new society brought him in touch with one of the original thinkers for social change in Nigeria. Dr Seinde Arigbede remains a shinning star; a restless soul that lives in the terra firma of hope that one day the real people of Nigeria would be participants in their own history. To Nigerians who do not know Doctor Arigbede, ask around or read Wole Soyinka’s Book “The man died”. Though not much is said about him, the book at least opens a window into what he is capable of doing. He remains, for a reluctant generation, that thing that is not wasted but simply waiting. Waiting for a space to perform, waiting for the social space to proffer the kind of changes that would transform a nation on its knees.
There is so much to say and so much to belly ache about Nigeria. As he wishes himself happy birthday in this strange land. Let all who pluck from “poet tree” continue to await the ripening of fruits and leaves in the wind. To paraphrase Osofisan again and add my own words:
"Shut the basket (mouth)
No more nightmares
Let there be light (hearted news)"
So as your attention shifts to other stories let hearts re-consider the past, the future and the unseen.
So long, so long my friends!
Kole Ade Odutola is a Florida-based poet, dramatist and academic.