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28 Apr 2013

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There are no second acts in life, so it is said. But Kole Omotoso has taken on several roles in one lifetime, reinvented himself each time and ended with remarkable results, writes Michael Jimoh…

On one indolent afternoon at The Post Express’s office on Warehouse Road in Apapa, the period between paralysing inaction and the edgy urgency you find in most newsrooms,  Nduka Otiono took me out for a drink. The year was 1999. The Post Express looked to be a promising newspaper at the time, with an equally enterprising Arts & Culture section – including its literary supplement – headed by Otiono. Akin Adesokan, now a professor in an American university, was his assistant while Chris Paul Otaigbe (formerly Chris Omozokpia) and I were Staff Writers.

A writer on first name terms with his contemporaries, Otiono’s love for literature was built on solid reputation. He also liked his drink. So, each time I turned in a good copy – and there were not many of those – he rewarded me with a drink.  It was either at Iya Ijebu’s – a smoke-filled, rundown Mama Put where scruffy, ebony-complexioned mechanics shouted for Amala, rice and beans; cracked open bottles of soft drinks with their teeth; made short work of huge mounds of fufu and eba or where casual labourers working in factories nearby shouted out orders impatiently.

Sitting in the same shack for hours many times every week were some of the best young writers of the day: Uzor Maxim Uzoatu. Sanya Osha. Pius Adesanmi. Ogaga Ifowodo. Pita Okute. Harry Garuba sometimes made a rare but unforgettable appearance, all of them sated with alcohol and a literary diet which invariably was the subject of lengthy discussions and which was also clearly above the head of artisans contented with their simple diet of bread and beans.

Or Mobil Filling Station on Commercial Road where we inevitably rushed two Harp lagers each so that “make e work for bodi,” as Otiono used to say. One Thursday afternoon, Otiono had spoken with Harry Garuba, who had just relocated to South Africa from The Post Express where he had been a member of the Editorial Board. He was obviously elated.

Their conversation, Otiono later told me gleefully over beer, was about Professor Kole Omotoso who was making good in South Africa. Though Otiono did not quite say it in those words, the impression I got was of someone who had, to borrow a phrase common with over eager Nigerian reporters ever ready with superlative backslaps, “taken Johannesburg by storm”. It was not untrue because, then, Omotoso had indeed become the most popular black face in advertising in a country just emerging out of apartheid.

What was also true was that I didn’t know much of Omotoso before that time. Yes, I knew he wrote Just before Dawn. But there just wasn’t that eagerness to read him as I did some of Wole Soyinka’s books, for instance, Chinua Achebe’s or even Isidore Okpewo’s. In short, Omotoso just wasn’t in my literary consciousness pre-journalism. And even in the line of duty as an Arts reporter, I met Soyinka at French Cultural Centre (Maison de France) on Kingsway Road, Ikoyi; Achebe during the Odenigbo lecture in Owerri and Okpewo at GRA in Ikeja. But Omotoso? Not once.

And then one day last February, as I entered the sylvan-screened house of poet and scholar, Odia Ofeimun, I met a spectacled, urbane-looking man sipping from a wine glass. A half-empty bottle of The Four Cousins, a South African red wine, was on the table. Odia was in his traditional boxers, bare-chested, rocking his knees sideways. “Good afternoon, sir,” I said to the man sitting directly opposite Odia. “How are you, my friend?” It was a rich voice, stentorian, a broadcaster’s voice apparently polished by years of good breeding and good wine.

It is impossible not to admire Omotoso once you’ve met him. In blue denims, long sleeve and unbuttoned sleeveless jacket favoured by photo-journalists, hair cropped low with a matching, trimmed silver goatee, it was a face you thought you knew but weren’t too sure where. The overall impression was of a gracefully ageing hippie minus the bushy hair, bright eyes flashing behind rimless, spoke-thin framed, fancy glasses. It was a scholarly look typical of a certain generation of Nigerian writers pioneered by Soyinka himself.

Not long after, he was off – accompanied by his only daughter, Yewande, also a novelist – to Murtala Mohammed International Airport to catch a flight to Jo’burg where he lives and works. A second meeting was not long in coming, also at Odia’s house in Oregun. By then, I had known who he was and was only too delighted to pour his first glass of beer brought by Abiodun, Odia’s hands-on man.
“Thank you,” he said in that rich, cultured voice again. It was not the obligatory expression of gratitude dispensed without warmth for service rendered to people used to being attended to. He meant it genuinely. He passed the night and the following day was off again, back to SA. He was expected in Nigeria as the chief celebrant to mark his birthday in Akure and Lagos from mid-April. Omotoso turned 70 on April 21.

Turning 70 in a country where life expectancy is somewhere between 45 and 50 is an achievement on its own. But it is not for longevity that an eclectic mix of the literati, businessmen and politicians converged in Lagos and Akure for three days this month. It is for a far higher and profounder reason. For as his “soul brother” Odia has written, “Omotoso’s arrival at the biblical three-score-and-ten offers all of us an opportunity to draw attention to and appreciate his many-sided commitment to the literary arts as well as celebrate those with whom his path has crossed.”

Of Edo parentage, Odia was born when his father worked as a motor mechanic in Akure, hometown of Omotoso where he was born in 1943. Their path did not cross until Kole returned to Nigeria after his doctorate in Edinburgh and Odia was a post-graduate student at the University of Ibadan. Literature was the crux of their friendship, which has continued to this day, deepening their love for literature and affection for one another not unlike biological brothers. Omotoso was the founding General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors. He became President of the writers’ body after Professor Chinua Achebe – founding President.

Omotoso specifically flew in from SA when Odia turned 62 in March 2012. Expectedly, activities in Omotoso’s honour were already in high gear and put together by a committee of friends, coordinated by Odia himself. A dance drama, lecture and exhibition were part of the activities lined up for Omotoso’s 70th which flagged off from April 19 and ended with a high-profile dinner on April 20 by Governor Olusegun Mimiko for the most literary son in the state. 

Importantly, according to Odia, “there is a need to view Omotoso’s achievements as a creative writer also in the context of his role as a pioneering activist in literary journalism.”

Not many people now remember that long before the symbiosis between the media and academia today in Nigeria – having people in the Ivory Tower lend their intellectual weight to editorial opinions in mainstream media – Omotoso had set the pace. Some of his colleagues in university campuses were scornful; to them it was like a climb-down from a lofty pedestal. Ironically, many of them now maintain regular columns in national newspapers and magazines.

Thirty or so years ago, Omotoso had seen the light and did not hesitate to shine it brightly on under-reported areas in the life of his countrymen. Beginning from July 1983, Omotoso travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria – by road, rail, air and sea – and wrote travelogues which were serialised in Sunday Concord, one of the most popular weeklies then. The slug was “Knowing Nigeria.” He also maintained a column, “Writer’s Diary,” in West Africa magazine, not to mention his “Uncle Very, Very” published in Sketch. All three publications are now moribund.

But Omotoso has not stopped writing, producing, in the process, several works of fiction, drama, short stories, essays and a historical narrative. Some of his more popular publications are Just before Dawn, The Combat, The Edifice, The Sacrifice, Memories of our Recent Boom and Miracles and Other Stories. His critical studies include Achebe or Soyinka: A Study in Contrasts, The Form of the African Novel and Theatrical into Theatre. He has also written a political essay, Season of Migration to the South, a disturbing account of his decision to settle finally in South Africa.

With this volume of work spanning several genres, you would expect Omotoso to be one of the more talked about authors of his generation. They were members of the Positive Review Group: Femi Osofisan, Biodun Jeyifo, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Omolara Ogundipe and G. G Darah. Odia Ofeimun dropped out when he became Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Secretary. They are all accomplished critics. Omotoso and Osofisan have taken their creative writing to a loftier level, considering their oeuvre over the years.

A plausible reason for Omotoso’s marginal acceptance is his movement to South Africa. Besides, except for prescribed texts, reading is one of the most democratic exercises in the world. It allows for arbitrariness in readers and in a country with a failing book market, it is the case that freedom to choose authors gets truncated even for those who do not need to meet or know one.

I am among the guilty for unintentionally ignoring one of the most fecund minds of Nigerian literature. The only consolation is that, except for those in the academia and the intelligentsia, I know I am in good company with a number of Nigerians who have failed to appreciate a confirmed star in a constellation of Nigerian writers and one who is a household name in far away SA but not his own country.

An example will suffice here. On Sunday, February 10, 2013, the day of the AFCON finals between Nigeria and Burkina Faso, I watched the match in a public place where there were no fewer than 200 Nigerians, most of them above 20. The interlude between the first and second half saw a flurry of ads, highlights of the first half and previous matches of the tournament. One, particularly, showed a spectacled and an avuncular man in ash-coloured sweater in a television commercial sponsored by Fidelity Bank. I recognised him immediately. But not one other person there knew who he was or that he was even a Nigerian. Without doubt, the recognition would have been instantaneous had Soyinka’s snow-white Afro hair and bird’s nest goatee filled the screen.

Still, Omotoso’s literary merit has not been glossed over completely. In a seminal study of his corpus published in The Guardian Literary Series in the 80s and the most illuminating till date, Odia writes that “Omotoso’s art does not fall within any pre-cast or proverbial strain; it is as distant from pre-existing fictional norms as a guerrilla foco is from a standing army. Whether in the language he deploys, the images he selects from our vast social milieu or the ideological disposition which freights and is freighted by his material, his output cannot be pressed easily into the same analytical mould as that of the older generation, born mainly in the 30s and before.”

Odia goes further in the same review to show a marked distinction between Omotoso’s art and those that preceded him. With Omotoso, “we are no longer conversing with the patriarchal teacher to be encountered in Chinua Achebe or the philosopher-king that must be accosted in Wole Soyinka; we are face to face with a fellow traveller on the streets of life, a fellow traveller who also plays the tortoise and demands unsettling answers to old questions. His particular forte in this respect is that he does not fight positional battles. Omotoso is an unrepentant experimentalist who will not take the easy road to acceptability.”

Not taking the easy road to acceptability may just account for his low popularity with Nigerian readers, at least lower than some of his contemporaries. Soon after Just before Dawn was published in 1988, the author ran into trouble with the Nigerian government. With real life characters in a real country written as a historical narrative, the book was marked down as seditious. A teacher at Ife then, Omotoso had to seek refuge elsewhere, long before the term brain drain entered Nigerian lexicon.

Peregrinating from one continent to another, Omotoso was denied a foundation some of his contemporaries smartly took advantage of. A particular paragraph was considered offensive and promptly conveyed to the publisher, Spectrum. The paragraph was later removed, without the author’s consent, though. As the author himself recalled, “it was, in fact, my writing Just before Dawn that ultimately prompted me to leave Nigeria.”

Away in Edinburgh or the West Indies where he married his first wife, Omotoso was literally cut off from the academic happenings in his natal country. Nor were his books readily made available to students in the form of prescribed texts as those of his contemporaries. The result of his long years of exile can only be imagined. 

Even so, Omotoso has not looked back, reinventing himself in several different ways. Before his sojourn abroad, he was a prominent member of the drama department in Ife. Others were, again, Osofisan, Jeyifo and Ogunbiyi. In the words of Soyinka, they were the literary quartet he worked with at the university. They also espoused, at the time, a Marxian philosophy, complete with chin beards though shorter in length than Karl Marx’s himself.

“It was inevitable that I would privately dub the literary quartet of this group as the ‘Gang of Four’ who peppered all discourse and action with Marxian pellets of varied sizes, validity and effectiveness,” Soyinka remembers. “Since I was obliged to interact with them more than the rest of the campus radicals, I had to retain my mental equilibrium by placing them in individual categories – not rigid, but reasonably consistent – the Maximal Marxist, the Muddled Marxist, the Marginal Marxist and the Mechanical Marxist – I leave those who knew Kole at the time to guess within which ‘Double M’ I housed him. What matters is that when he shifted to South Africa and found that the Rand did not quite fulfil its promise, and with a wife, two fast growing lads and a daughter to maintain in a strange land, he proved a very adroit adjuster and entrepreneur.”

In many ways, Omotoso’s professional life has followed that trajectory, a man ever seeking out new ways, new ideas and often going against the grain. He read Arabic Studies at a time it was not fashionable to do so in Nigerian universities, and added French for good measure. Though Omotoso took up a university appointment in Cape Town, he quickly found other ways of making out – advertising. He was a soar-away success almost immediately.

A consummate actor, Omotoso auditioned for and got the part for a local advert by Vodacom. As Yewande recounts in a tribute to be published this month, Vodacom “would go on to create a series of adverts over more than ten years and win several prestigious advertising awards for their ever-adapting creation. My father and his fellow actors would be spotted in the street and fawned over; billboards would be installed on highways, at airports, posters on shop windows in the remotest of Eastern Cape villages to magazine covers in fancy Johannesburg malls.”

Many more ads followed, of car makers, etc, and even feature films. In time, his became the most famous black face as far as advertising was concerned in SA. The writer, teacher, dramatist and now model was on a roll. But a section of South Africans was not quite pleased, purely for racist reasons. In one of the adverts for a Nissan bakkie, a favourite truck with white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, they were riled that a black man played the lead role, sort of taking up an occupation that should be their sole preserve. It ran for just one night on television.

Even so, Omotoso’s reel life didn’t stop there, especially after playing Govan Mbeki in a film on Mandela and de Klerk starring Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier.

All is going swimmingly, too, for Omotoso in real life though he lost his first wife, Marguerita, on February 6, 2003, a day he prefers not to remember, for emotional reasons. Kole and Marguerita met in Edinburgh where they were both students – he a doctoral student of Arabic drama and she a major in town planning. Two sons, Akin and Pelayo, were born soon after they married. Yewande came in 1980. In 1992, they all relocated to SA from London.

Akin is an award-winning filmmaker while Pelayo is a computer scientist, described by Yewande as the brainiac in the house. Marguerita was no doubt a great influence on her immediate family, as attested to by her daughter. “Any achievements that my father, my brothers or myself enjoy today, even without saying it, we always know to thank Marguerita Omotoso and we always know the immense role she’s played in our lives so that we can do whatever we do.”

For Omotoso’s achievement as a writer, it is to Odia, his friend and “brother”, that we leave the last word: “Omotoso’s output installs itself at the interstice between the old and the new, the popular and the highbrow, the naturalistic and the fantastic, giving the author a place at the bridge-head of the rising echelon of younger writers whose strength has been in the urgency with which old questions are asked and fresh answers are being teased or cajoled out of the bowels of time.”

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