Akinwumi Isola: Farewell, Curator of Yoruba Beauty

Late Akinwumi Isola

Toyin Falola

In an earliest scene in one of Professor Akinwumi Iṣọla’s classic films, with the title Ṣaworo Idẹ, we learn that a patriarch is dying. This patriarch is surrounded by a group of young men and women who urge him to speak to them before he yields his ghost. The old man obliges and he begins to speak, and a young man amplifies his voice to the hearing of those who will carry out his instructions, and to the audience as well. The dying patriarch gives a specific instruction on the making of Ṣaworo Idẹ, a drum that will serve as the voice of the people and, subsequently, seal a pact forever with their rulers in the town of Jogbo.

The story is, of course, talking about democracy, and the mutual responsibility of both the leadership and followership to check as well as balance each other. In the wake of Iṣọla’s recent passing, I find myself watching this film again and, in the process, thinking of him as that father, the dying patriarch, whose wisdom and insight created the culture, practice, and rituals that would forever serve the people!

By any objective assessment, Iṣọla’s impact on modern Yoruba culture is undeniable. He, indeed, burst onto the world literary scene in 1961 with his first play, Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura: Iyalode Ibadan. He interestingly wrote the play as an undergraduate student of the University of Ibadan, a significant achievement similar to the origin of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The play became popular by winning an award in 1966, organised by the Ẹgbẹ Ijinlẹ Yoruba (Yoruba Language Society) and, then, by being staged to public acclaim. When it was eventually published, the play became the defining text of its era. Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura: Iyalode Ibadan shaped the Yoruba cultural imagination in a way that Iṣọla himself might not have envisioned when he started writing the text.

The heroine and lead character, Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura, was an actual historical figure. She was the Iyalode of Ibadan in the nineteenth century. She fascinated me then, she fascinated me now! Iṣola’s Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura: Iyalode Ibadan was not meant to be an historical account; instead, the play was meant to be a creative rendering by an artist. The play was staged a number of times by different theatre production groups, but the most popular one was shown by the Ishọla Ogunshọla (“I Show Pepper”) theatre group. The play became hugely popular, and it was as well read by generations of Yoruba school children as well as their parents, who were all fascinated by the Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura character. Remarkably, Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura: Iyalode Ibadan would go on to canonise the actress, who played the role of Iṣọla, Iyabọ Ogunshọla, and who is today still referred to as “Iya Ẹfun.” It was recorded that once, when the play was billed to be shown in Ibadan, the then governor of Oyo State, Chief Bọla Ige, the legal luminary, received intelligence reports that the theatre would be overrun. Therefore, the governor had the stage play transferred to the Liberty Stadium, and the place was filled up with thousands of spectators. The combination of Iṣọla’s writing skills and the artistic virtuosity of Ogunshọla, a phenomenal actress in her own right, was simply irresistible.
The irony of Iṣọla’s characterisation of Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura was that it made an “accidental feminist” out of Iṣọla. His play, though a fictional representation of the story of a woman who had been buried deep in the rubble of history and cultural memory, fascinated the public so much that it became the official autobiography.

Isola’s feisty wielding of the pen, which proved that it could be mightier than the sword, revived the faint memories of the woman’s story and turned her into a cultural phenomenon. There was, however, a major problem, and it was pointed out to him by the celebrated and iconic Yoruba historian, Professor Bọlanle Awẹ: that the actual historical figure was killed in the nineteenth century by a male-dominated ruling council in Ibadan. Through Iṣọla’s portrayal of her in his play, and his plotline making Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura’s death inevitable, Awe argued that Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura had suffered another round of male violence. On his part, Iṣọla contended that he had created the character as emblematic of women’s power and strength, as he had witnessed in his own mother and grandmother, respectively, while growing up. Meanwhile, the question of whether the historical figure would have become iconised in cultural imagination, if he had not created her as he did, remains an academic subject. I should, however, note that the tragedy of Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura’s representation in the play was eventually redressed in the film version when Tunde Kelani, the preeminent film producer, offered the woman a more dignified death.

Iṣọla created other powerful female heroines. One of them was Madam Tinubu, another historical figure, who was a wealthy slave trader and a nationalist. Just as it was the case with Ẹfunṣetan Aniwura, his writing of the woman’s history has, in some ways, replaced her actual history and biography. Such was Iṣọla’s compelling power on the cultural imagination that his creativity became the emblem of history that everyone related to.

Also, Iṣọla wrote on the great Herbert Macaulay, the fierce nationalist figure. Iṣọla was not only invested in historical figures; he as well wrote such politically-charged stories such as Campus Queen, in which he put the power and agency to change the nation’s political culture in the hands of a young woman. He developed well-rounded female characters in his other works, too, and that was a factor that distinguished him from many other writers of his generation.

Iṣọla wrote plays that meditated on the social and political culture of Nigeria. His politics and his propaganda were never hidden. He was deeply interested in reshaping the social ethics that had become contaminated by the lack of values in contemporary society. He preached conservative values but the exhortations in his work never overshadowed his artistry as a painter of language. His works like Ṣaworo Idẹ, Agogo Eewọ, and Koṣeegbeare an alchemy of didacticism, poetry, and the masterful humor for which he was known.

While Isola wrote works on political issues that poked at the tense situation Nigeria had experienced, and their aftermath that still imperiled the society, he also wrote on love and social relationships. O Le Ku is one such offerings, and perhaps, one of his finest outings as a writer. Iṣọla wrote O Le Ku, originally a novel, before its adaptation to a play on youthful love and its intrigues, indeed without framing it too rigidly with the puritanical patronage for which older folks can be notorious for when addressing the lives of young people. The novel is delectable, humorous, and perceptive.

From drama, Iṣọla would go onto fiction, poetry, and, much later, film productions. His repertoire of works includes Belly Bellows, Two Contemporary African Plays, Ẹru Owo, Ofin Ga, Aye Yẹ Wọn Tan, Abẹ Abo, Afaimọ (collection of poetry), Fabu (a collection of fables) and Ogun Omode, a memoir of sorts. He also translated Wọle Ṣoyinka’s outstanding work, Death and the King’s Horseman, and his memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood into Yoruba, Iku Olokun Ẹṣin and Ake: Nigba Ewe, respectively. His plays or novels, when they were adapted into films, would define the contemporary Yoruba cinema. In collaboration with master filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, he artfully translated the beauty of the Yoruba language for which he was known for into a modern medium for his growing audience.

Iṣọla was a deep-seated practitioner of the language, and he was never apologetic about narrowing his audience to just Yoruba people. By staying within the particular, he made Yoruba universal. He has greatly contributed to Yoruba language, social and visual culture, documentation, and history. He relentlessly campaigned for the Yoruba language to play a more visible role in our social life so that the culture, the history, and the beauty they harbor would not disappear. In this wise, he lived as he believed. In 2013, he gave an entire convocation address at Adekunle Ajaṣin University in Yoruba. Earlier, he had proposed to give his Inaugural Lecture in Yoruba at the Ọbafemi Awolọwọ University but the regulations did not allow this. If he had been a citizen of some other country, a professor of a language and literature giving an address in the language he was hired to teach and research would not have been strange. In Nigeria, it takes a lot of radicalism to follow this path. Such was the acute conviction of Iṣọla that the Yoruba language should be given its pride of place in our society, a cause he advocated relentlessly in the many essays he wrote.

Iṣọla was an artful writer, yet one can argue that it was only one of the many roles he played in the definition of modern Yoruba culture. He was a playwright, language artist, essayist, screenplay writer, broadcaster, critic, satirist, producer, and an overall cultural icon. For a man who has made such a tremendous impact on the creative use of Yoruba, Iṣọla started out with a European language – French. His first degree in French was from the University of Ibadan and he would go on to earn a Master of the Arts in Yoruba Literature from the University of Lagos in 1978, and finally a PhD in African literature from the University of Ibadan. He started his teaching career at the University of Lagos from where he moved to the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University where he was appointed a professor and where he retired. He was awarded the National Merit Award, and he was also a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters.

Today, we celebrate his life because, while Iṣọla has ascended to the pantheon of the elders, he is not dead. A man like Iṣọla whose artistic mammary glands nurtured generations of Yoruba children and inaugurated his essence in the minds of millions cannot die.

Fare thee well, Iṣọla, the silver-haired curator of Yoruba beauty. We know that,
Ká a tóríerin, ó di igbó,
Kí a tóríẹfọ̀noó di ọ̀dàn;
Kí a tóríẹnibí Baba wa,

The Yoruba nation and its tumultuous people can never have another artist-cum-writer like you, dear Iṣọla, unless Olodumare and the elders choose to send one our way, while you continue to rest in peace!

.Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies