Kole Omotoso’s Witness to Possibilities in Africa
It was an interesting evening with creative writing discussion. The man on the hot seat in this intellectual encounter and voyage was Professor Kole Omotoso himself, the popular Nigerian-born South African author and dramatist. It was over two decades that I had interviewed Professor Kole Omotoso on what he felt was the problem with Nigeria. Before he left the shores of Nigeria to domicile in South Africa Omotoso had written many works. Amongst them was the historical and literary work entitled; Just Before Dawn which chronicles the evolution and degeneration of Nigeria including the main political actors, the successful and unsuccessful coup plotters. He also wrote; The Combat, To Borrow a Wandering Leaf, The Edifice, The Sacrifice, The Scales. He wrote plays such as; The Curse, Shadows on the Horizon. One of his recent works is a book entitled; Achebe, Soyinka – A Study in Contrasts.
Omotoso used to teach Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University. In those days at Ife, his face was a familiar one with that of Professor Biodun Jeyifo (BJ) at the Institute of African Studies and the Pit Theatre as well as Oduduwa Hall where the literary giant and Nobel Laureate, Professor Soyinka performed his great plays. In fact, Omotoso starred in the work; Opera Wonyosi by Wole Soyinka which was the writer’s adaption of Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Omotoso’s picture with other actors like Peter Fatomilola is on the cover of Opera Wonyosi book. While we sat at Life House venue of the dialogue with Kole Omotoso that evening, the literary icon discussed his works Just before Dawn, and his childhood memoir. Omotoso, a former President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) answered questions from the audience which included Odia Ofeimun, his-one-time Secretary-General in ANA who later became President. More importantly, the evening provided an opportunity for Omotoso and the audience to reflect on the state of the nation since he wrote his historical narrative; Just Before Dawn. This reporter had done a preview of the book which was published in Sketch of Tuesday, August 4, 1988. The review was entitled; The Dawn of our Travails. The voluminous book of 345 pages from a manuscript of 662pages gives an insight of how Nigerian got into the mess it has found itself. That was in the 1980s. But Omotoso was optimistic in those years that Nigeria would get out of the woods. According to him at the Life House, Victoria Island encounter, he felt the country was at the dawn of a new golden era, hence the title; Just Before Dawn. Besides, he also picked the title with the word; Dawn because just before dawn was also the time that men of the Nigerian Army used to meet to plot coup-de tats in those years. Most evil things happen during the hours of darkness, before dawn.
Professor Omotoso spoke on his forthcoming book; Witness to Possibilities. The event lasted for about two and a half hours and the audience still wanted more. From his reflections and answers, it was very clear that Omotoso knows a lot about Nigeria; he had also interacted with a lot of key political figures in Africa and despite a success full academic career in South Africa, he is disillusioned about his native country. Omotoso recalled how Nigerian was such a beautifully place while he was growing up in Akure. He attended Sacred Heart School in the town. The family lived along Burdillon road and they received their letters without anyone tampering with it-a practice that has crept into the fabric of our postal and communication system. As he reflected on the decadence in the Nigerian society; Omotoso asked; “where did we go wrong?”
He looked at the audience and asked again; “where did we lose the collective pride in ourselves as a people?”
Then his mind journeyed to Senegal and he wondered why a court in that country would rule that its 87 years old President Wada could contest election again. Omotoso could not fathom how a waning octogenarian president could have what it takes to solve huge problems confronting youths in one of the world’s poor countries. One after the other, he spoke about African leaders and those who had gone unsung after holding on to power for years. Omotoso was unhappy that Nigerian had sunk into so much poverty despite its oil wealth.
It was a very interesting evening where Omotoso delved into how he “witnessed some possibilities” while growing up. He recalled the pranks he played with some of his friends in those days. As he narrated some of these pranks, one’s mind went to those fantasy fairy tales of the likes of D.O Fagunwa/ Wole Soyinka in The Forest of a Thousand Deamons or Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Omotoso recalled how he and his inquisitive friends in the primary school used to argue that some spirits or ghommids were coming to the market to buy and sell wares. And he and his friends used to follow some of the ladies from the market to find out if they would end up in some forests where they were thought to domicile with the ghommids and transform into them. But there was a particular tall woman who the curious kids in their curiosity likened to a strange forest being. They followed her from the market regularly. Then the furious woman one day went to Omotoso’s uncle and rebuked him; why would you ask your nephew to be trailing me every day?
She frowned at his uncle and said he was monitoring her movements with the small boys who were trailing her regularly from the market and monitoring her everywhere she went. Unknown to the young Kole Omotoso, one of his uncles had been asking for the hand of the innocent, tall lady in marriage! Their trail was borne out of the curiosity of children. Omotoso recalled this foray into Marxism, the encounter with late Dr. Tunji Otegbeye, the acclaimed Marxism, the trip to Ayetoro community in Ondo State where they practice communism and his own visits to the former Soviet Union during the days of communism. Then he spoke of his disappointment in Russia where he found the former leaders tried to re-write history by removing the image of Trotsky from the group that formed modern day Russia.
He went in retrospect on why Nigeria is not moving forward. He recalls the story of a former minister for education from the north (names withheld) whom he found a Brazilian University sent a request for a Yoruba lecturer. When Omotoso inquired what the matter was, the Minister retorted: it’s a Brazilian University requesting for a Yoruba lecturer.
He did nothing about it Omotoso regretted noting that the minister was unaware that by the time Brazil became a major industrial power, as it is now, Nigeria would have a stronger base in the country, culturally and educationally. Omotoso who also schooled in Egypt speaks Arabic and French very well. He rendered poetry in Yoruba that night to the admiration of the audience. Not being able to converse in someone’s mother tongue is what exiled Nigerians miss, he admitted.
Omotoso also recalled that there was an Arabic school in the 1950s in Lagos and this school published a book with one of the Arab world’s foremost publishers. He suggested a relationship between one the country’s universities and this Arabic Centre in the 1980s but the authorities did not deem it fit. He regretted that all the treasures in that centre would have been lost. During question time, I took Omotoso down memory lane to the day I interviewed him in his 504 Peugeot station wagon at University of Ife in 1987 through Road 1 on the campus to Lagere Street in the town where the interview continued inside a bank. I reminded him about the map of Nigerian which he turned upside down in his office at Ife at that time because of his disillusionment.
“How will you turn the map of Nigerian now? I asked him.
“It’s not just the map of Nigerian now, it’s the map of Africa that I have turned upside down with South Africa on top,” said Omotoso.
He told the audience that he left Nigerian many years ago when he realized that the state of the economy would not have allowed him to give his children the level of education that his mother gave him during the colonial days. In fact, Kole Omotoso had told Quality Magazine in those years that he had to “export” his brain because that was the only commodity he had during the SAP era when people (farmers) and industrialists were asked to export whatever they had and they were making a lot of money while others wallowed in poverty.
Omotoso believes that its parasites in the Nigerian nation that have been feeding on its host, Nigeria and unless something was done quickly, the parasites will kill its host as it’s always the case in medicine.