By Harry Garuba
It was the 1975/76 academic year at the University of Ibadan and we were all freshmen undergraduate students, starry-eyed, idealistic, and dreaming of becoming great writers someday. But writerly aspirations aside, we were as passionate, feisty and star-struck as any teenage celebrity groupie, only in this instance – to distance ourselves from the latter – we claimed an intellectual gloss and a commitment to dissidence. In fact, as a group we had developed our own small rituals of dissidence, such as “shaking hands” with our legs and other coded ways of hailing each other when we met. I will not mention the names of members of this group – though I am certain that artists like Ben Tomoluju, Jide Ogungbade, Chris Oseji, and Steve Egbaidomeh (who was then a student of veterinary medicine) among others, will remember seeing people performing these small rituals of friendship.
The star in our firmament was Wole Soyinka and, now and again, news would spread among our coterie that one of us had seen him on campus. We would race to the spot where it was claimed he had been sighted only to be disappointed – and this was to happen on a few occasions. I remember vividly a sighting in front of the Zoology Department, another at the Institute of African Studies, and another close to the university main gate. On each occasion, it was a mistake that arose from our confusing the beard with the man – or, better still, confusing the ubiquitous photo of the beard and the head of hair that graced the blurbs of his books with similarly endowed men.
Though we had been admitted to more than one university, as was the practice in those days, one reason that we had chosen to study at Ibadan was that Soyinka had studied and taught there. We wanted to walk in his footsteps into a life of art and activism. His life story was of the genre of stories we read in our history books as primary and secondary school students – and these were often only stories of great men (and a few women) who rose to greatness against all odds. The tropes were all there – activism on behalf of nation or humanity, persecution, imprisonment, exile – and now he had returned home. All that was left was for us to see him in the flesh, walking down a road inside the university campus where he had once been a student and a lecturer.
As the disappointments piled up from one false sighting to the other, I was always consoled that though I had not seen him, I had seen his true handwriting. Yes, something written in his own, unmistakable hand and signed with his initials. It was in an essay that my eldest cousin had written for him as an undergraduate student while he was at the University of Ibadan. Brother FOG, as we called him, was Folorunso Oladipo Garuba and he had been nicknamed “Father of Grammar” by his own students to match and mimic his initials. The epithet was also an admiring homage to the flowery efflorescence of his spoken English, which was always spattered with “big words”.
On the last page of the essay he had written for Soyinka, the author – that is, Soyinka – had scribbled the words: “avoid using convoluted metaphors in excess!” Unbelieving, I stared at this comment when Brother FOG first showed it to me. Did he really write that? The evidence of his handwriting was there, before my very eyes, in pen and ink, like the handwritten essay on which the comment was made. Now that I know the concept, it seems to me that I must have treated that essay written on lined foolscap paper as a fetish – not the idol fetishes of anthropological Africa, but the real Freudian thing. The comment was my stand-in or substitute for the man we had never met. I wish we had a greater sense of archives and icons at that age – we could have saved for a Soyinka exhibition in the future.
Our first year passed without seeing Soyinka. If you detect a tone of regret here, you are right. Because when he returned from exile, he took up a position as Professor of Comparative Literature at the (then) University of Ife. We were so jealous, we thought that Ife had stolen what truly belonged to us – a feeling that grew worse when a couple of our favourite professors left to join him there and Ife seemed to gradually become the epicentre of radical intellectual activism. But I digress.
The consolations of the handwritten comment ended less than a year later when I went to see one of the bearded lecturers we greatly admired in his office at the Department of Theatre Arts. And, behold, there, sitting on a chair, resting his arms on the backrest turned to the front, squeezed in among the many newspapers spread on the floor, was none other than the maestro himself – in flesh and blood. Do not ask how I reacted, besides stretching out a trembling hand that would not be still to shake his hand, because I will not tell. The lecturer in whose office this encounter took place was Dr. Biodun Jeyifo, who would soon leave Ibadan for Ife to join the man he had hailed in the acknowledgement to his doctoral dissertation as “old master, old artificer,” echoing the last lines of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The deferred dream had been fulfilled. The power of the fetish – that essay and Soyinka’s comment – began gradually to recede until I lost the object itself, literally and metaphorically. Though in the 1977/78 academic year, Dr. Femi Osofisan had taken us in his car to Ife to see the premiere of Soyinka’s play Opera Wonyosi and we had spent the night in his home on campus, it was not the same. Though I was to write a long essay for my BA Honours degree on his plays, a Masters dissertation comparing his work to that of the West Indian poet and playwright, Derek Walcott, and a doctoral thesis that was a comparative study of these two writers and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the material and psychic loss of the fetish was irreplaceable.
However, in the intervening years, since becoming a university lecturer myself, whenever I read the work of a precocious young student whose essay is overflowing with brilliance and a confetti of metaphors, I scribble the words: “Avoid using convoluted metaphors in excess!” I think this yearly ritual – there are always such students in each class – may have become my new, plagiarist’s fetish, to soothe the melancholia of that original loss.
This story, and others, features in the Chronic (April 2017). In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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