By Anote Ajeluorou
Ibadan is a city built on seven hills and ‘running splash of rust and gold’. That was Ibadan, a city that so charmed JP Clark that he wrote the most admired seven-liner lyrical poem ever written on any city. With its two most famous learning educational institutions – Government College, Ibadan (GCI) and University College, Ibadan (UCI) – Ibadan proved to be the Oxford and Cambridge of a country soon to be delivered from the fetters of colonialism to independence and these two institutions were poised to play a significant part. And they did admirably.
But there were also other iconic Government Colleges that would play a part besides GCI. There were the Government Colleges at Umuahia and Ughelli, which contributed their own quota of creative human capitals that would converge at UCI at a critical moment to define a country’s literary destination. Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, all from Umuahia; JP Clark came from Ughelli and Wole Soyinka from Ibadan. Femi Osofisan would later join this creative club from GCI as well to form the second generation of eminent Nigerian writers.
Right from UCI campus as students, they started showing their keen mettle, as writers when they voraciously read every book they came across. Then Mbari Club was formed, as baking ground for the literary dough that a nation’s creative imagination would later feast on; it turned out an elaborate feast not unlike the fabled imaginary mould of foofoo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart set before in-laws who didn’t see each other until sunset when the mountainous mould had been considerably reduced. But there’s no exhausting this feast, as it has bred other bigger feasts for coming generations to savour.
But gradually and as harsh economic realities began to dawn on the new nation, the cultural landscape began to shift. A court case involving members of Mbari Club led to its eventual disintegration, with Clark and Achebe also moving to Lagos to take up jobs as lecturer and broadcaster respectively in the mid-1960s. While Ibadan still retained its intellectual base, as first university city in the country, the real place for artistic and cultural engagement had changed to Lagos, as both economic and cultural capitals. The city became merely contented as the intellectual breeding ground, with other cities also playing similar roles with the establishment of other universities in the 1970s and then the unbridled floodgate that was to follow in the preceding decades up till the present.
So, Ibadan lost its pre-eminence as cultural capital, and the hiatus was to remain so for decades, as the only significant literary matters came from the now University of Ibadan long after its pioneering University College era had ceased. Not even its state chapter of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) could do much to revive the city’s flagging fortunes. While other cities bided for and hosted the association’s yearly convention, Ibadan looked on helplessly, as it couldn’t muster the will to host, what with successive state governments that remained impervious and even hostile to artistic and cultural matters.
But the creative Muse was still latent all the while. The seven hills brooded over its creative fate and bided its time. It finally announced itself in 2012, when it sprang a surprise with one of its own on the African continent. Perhaps, as a herald of things to come, Abimbola Adunni Adelakun had in 2008 brought out her iconic novel on Ibadan titled, Under the Brown Rusted Roofs, a novel that captures the mind and soul of a city so thoroughly. Then in 2012, one of its own, Rotimi Babatunde was declared winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Africa’s prestigious short story prize, worth US$10,000. As if not down announcing itself, it again came out in bold relief, with another Ibadan citizen again stunned the literary landscape by winning Africa’s biggest literary prize, The Nigeria Prize for Literature, worth US$100,000!
But how did Ibadan get it wrong? Where did things begin to fall apart for the culturally vibrant city? And how can things get back to where they were before? Some eminent literary citizens of Ibadan lent their voices to the fluctuating cultural fortunes of their beloved city.
Some of the city’s great writers have lent their voices to the transformation that has taken place in the literary life of Ibadan. First is Prof. Femi Osofisan, who, in his University Lecture delivered in 2005, entitled The City as Muse: Ibadan and the Efflorescence of Nigerian Literature, sates as follows, “There are such writers as TM Aluko, Flora Nwapa, Niyi Osundare, Isidore Okpewho, Kole Omotoso, and Harry Garuba. So what is this other bond that unites these famous names? The answer, simple enough, is that they are all graduates of the University of Ibadan! Yes, incredible as it may sound, all these names we have mentioned, as well as several others in the field of African literature, are our products—that is, alumni and alumnae who have sat in our classrooms, slept in our halls of residence, played on our sports fields, or strutted on the boards of our Arts Theatre! Most in fact began their literary careers right on this very campus, editing or making contributions to the students’ magazines.
“And then, when we step out beyond the walls of the campus, and enter into the city itself, we find that the list of ex-Ibadan residents who have achieved fame as writers and artists lengthens even more astonishingly, to include names like Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, the South African Ezekiel Mphalele, the Malawian Felix Mthali, the Englishman William Boyd, and so on!
“The city of Ibadan, and particularly the campus of the University of Ibadan, have played a unique role in the history of Nigerian literature. Here, where we live and work, has been the place where modern Nigerian literature was born and where, until recently, it was steadily nurtured and sustained.
“Furthermore, Ibadan as the capital of the turbulent Western Region, was also a place where politics had a most robust life, particularly at that period in the country’s history when the struggle for Independence was at its peak, and later, in the early ‘60s, when the first governments were trying to find their feet. The games of power played by rival politicians and political parties with their colourful paraphernalia and grandiloquent speeches and posturing were more than sufficient fodder for any literary imagination, and we will soon see the harvest in such works as Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests  or Kongi’s Harvest , or TM Aluko’s Kinsman and Foreman , or Achebe’s A Man of the People .
“…Thus, in addition to all the previous factors—i.e. a highly educated community of young men and women, living in an ambiance of enlightened curiosity, in an ancient and bubbling multi-cultural city, plus the strong stimulus provided by sympathetic expatriates. It was certainly a period of great excitement, especially among the educated elite of which the writers were members, and of an adventurous political drama in which some of them were direct participants.
“…What followed, I regret to say, was a complete rout. Abruptly, almost as abruptly as it had begun, the Mbari club died out; its members dispersed to silence, and the Black Orpheus after some fitful gasps for life, subsided into a limbo. The reason for this debacle was, simply, the political disaster that befell the nation, and the descent to civil war or, if you prefer, the Biafran war.
“Fortunately, I do not have to go into any extensive narration before this audience about the Biafran war. You all remember too well yourselves the causes as well as the consequences. The politicians, to put it very simply, had simply messed up our independence with their quarrels and their insatiable avarice”.
For winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2013, Mr. Ipadeola, “Ibadan is to African literature what Harlem is to African-American literature. There was the big literary ferment here in the 1960s, which was never meant to be the constant condition of Nigerian or African literature - it was for a reason and a season. At the same time it has to be said that Ibadan was never really 'silent' after the pioneering era of J.P Clark, Mabel Segun, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi and Chinua Achebe.
“There was the succeeding wave of Molara Ogundipe, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Harry Garuba, Femi Fatoba and Odia Ofeimun. Then the succeeding wave of Remi Raji, Chuks Okoye, Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Omowumi Segun, Obododinma Oha and so on. Ibadan is always bleeding talent into other cities. The city is paying a price for not consciously regarding her literary heritage. The last great governor to consciously do something for the city's literary progress was Chief Bola Ige.
“The libraries in the city are appalling at the moment; there is no major literary festival for the city and there is no vote for a museum of the city's literary heritage. What the city has going for it is the sheer weight of literary tradition at the moment. Also a strong centre of literary gravity where writers and intellectuals like Rotimi Babatunde, Yomi Ogunsanya, Peter Akinlabi, Benson Eluma, Niran Okewole, Ayodele Olofintuade, Damilola Ajayi and Biyi Olusolape still meet for discourse.
“For as long as writers still meet in Ibadan, the city will continue to birth more writers. Again, Ibadan is a state of the mind. It can be kindled once the mind is attuned to the city's rhythms. I will rather see the literary productivity of Ibadan as a system of organic, succeeding waves. Remember that Ibadan is not just the home of writers; it is also the home of great literary critics. There are few cities here with that kind of productive tension, which keeps both creatives and critics on their toes.
“So it is just a moment in the continuum. When Harry Garuba writes a poem or paper in South Africa, it is still the spirit of Ibadan on display even though it might not be immediately apparent. You can say the same about Amatoritsero in Canada or Afam Akeh in Britain. That some chose to stay within Ibadan and to write from there is just a detail. The city works in manifold ways.
“Fortunately for Ibadan, there is a push among the city's lovers and elders for a more engaged space for thinking and writing. There are quiet initiatives from people like Dr. Niran Okewole, Mallam Femi Taiwo, Dr. Akin Adesokan, Dr. Ebenezar Obadare, Dr. Wale Adebanwi, Dax Kumapayi, Molara Wood and Prof. Oka Obono and others to lead civic change within Ibadan in many ways. If only the official culture apparatus within the city-space can meet these initiatives halfway, the city's literary ambience can acquire critical mass once again”.
Also for medical doctor and politician, Dr. Wale Okediran, “Ibadan fell into literary silence for three main reasons. Since most of the literary figures in the city where in the academia, there was a big migration in the late 1970s and the whole of the 1980s of many of these scholars abroad and to other Nigerian universities. This 'brain drain' though largely for economic reasons was also for intellectual pursuits as some of these scholars were poached by other local and international universities to help establish some of the newer sets of Universities.
“There was a sense of fulfillment among some of these literary figures who gradually withdrew from artistic and intellectual activities. In addition, some of the patrons of the art such as the British Council, the United States Information Service (USIS) and Leventis Foundation among others, withdrew from Ibadan when these organizations were downsized. Unfortunately, the political class failed to fill the resultant gap left in the city, and so, the situation deteriorated.
“Also, the poor state of the economy in the ancient city, which is largely a Civil Service town did not encourage the citizens to patronize many of the artistic and intellectual activities in the city which gradually died a natural death. In addition, many of the publishing outfits which hitherto had been in the forefront of publishing literary works decided to concentrate more on the publication of textbooks which is more commercially viable.
“The reawakening in literary activities which we are now seeing in recent literary awards is a result of the personal efforts of the writers in question as well as the various activities put together over the years by organizations such as the Oyo State Branch of the Association Of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Educare Trust as well as the Alliance Francoise. Apart from organizing literary and artistic activities, these bodies are also in the forefront of organizing literary and artistic competitions among writers and artists.
In addition to the above bodies, the Theatre Art Department of the University of Ibadan is also playing a significant role in the resurgence of literary and artistic activities in the ancient city.
“To get things going again in the city, the various bodies enumerated above can sustain their artistic and literary activities. For example, when between 1994 and 1996 I was the Chairman of the Oyo State Branch of ANA, ANA tried to revive the literary culture by fixing the monthly ANA readings in the homes of many prominent personalities in the city such as Prof. JF Ade Ajayi, the late Chief Bola Ige, Prof. Ayo Banjo, late Chief Wale Ogunyemi, Mrs. Mabel Segun, Dr. Tony Marinho (EDUCARE TRUST) among others. This way, we were able to invite a new generation of writers and artists through these eminent personalities.
“In addition, apart from hosting literary readings, some of these patrons sponsored literary publications (Chief Bola Ige sponsored a compilation of writings on Ibadan called, Ibadan Mesiogo while Prof. Ayo Banjo sponsored the publication of a book of essays and poems on the late Chief Bola Ige and Dr Tony Marinho through his EDUCARE TRUST hosted many literary activities).
“This tradition of using notable personalities to sponsor and host literary readings has continued till today by the Oyo ANA. In addition, the establishment of the Ebedi International Writers Residency in Iseyin, about an hour away from Ibadan in 2010, is my own humble contribution to the revival of literary and cultural activities in Oyo State and Nigeria as a whole.
“It is important for the Oyo State Government at all tiers, philanthropists, corporate organization as well as publishers in Oyo State to buy in to this revival of literary and artistic activities in the state by supporting all the various bodies mentioned above. They can also assist by organizing literary competitions, book fairs and the like”.
“Even the masters saw it gradually growing into decay”, so argues Mr. Kolade Mosuro, owner of Ibadan-based largest bookshop in all of Nigeria. “There was the government assault, police interventions, disruption of shows, arrests of artists and the use of thugs to interrupt shows. Following the war, there was a palpable cleavage. Some of the masters had engaged in the war and it created a polarity that weakened the artist club.
“The soldiers and the oil boom brought in money, big money that tainted art. It was now praise-art. It still has not recovered.
“For the artist, more than most, the night is truncated from lack of electricity. Creative work is not regulated with time. The inspiration to write, compose or carve comes at any time. The nights are out of it with no electricity and the days can be quite as bad. Security concerns have also curtailed the nights making night shows unattractive.
“However, Ibadan still remains an artist's bedrock. The University of Ibadan remains an epicentre for all academic activities in the country. It must be on account of Ibadan's performance and follower-ship that they have been able to have three people - Osofisan, Okediran and Raji preside over the affairs of the Association of Nigerian Authors within the past 12 years.
“Ibadan has also registered a good complement of publishers than any other city in the country. Kraftgroits publishers have done very well lately with poetry and Bookcraft has done well for prose. The Booksellers Ltd has also elevated bookselling for the good of writers. Ibadan is up and running because the 'grandchildren' of the masters are now driving the arts in the city. These 'grandchildren' are the likes of Ayo Olofintuade (among the best three shortlisted for Children’s literature category in 2011), Rotimi Babatunde and Tade Ipadeola.
“Mbari Club was not just book-related. They had carvers, musicians, actors, playwrights, academics, etc, all gathered under one roof. It was a great theatre of talents and they were determined against all odds to enjoy themselves, to bring art to the fore and display art with professionalism. The result was that revellers and admirers came in hordes. Art and the love of art grew.
“It will be good if schools introduced literary hour, at least once a week, in the schools. Students can be made to just wonder wild and read anything; there should also be structured reading with the intervention of a teacher or of a guest author. They must produce plays and watch performances by other schools and professionals.
“Take my case, I never visited Mbari but Mbari was brought to us. I saw Duro Ladipo on stage at Government College, Ibadan. He was fearful and awesome when he made his appearance on the stage. Through him I recognised the dignity and power of an Oba. Ogunde and his troupe also came to the school. Through him I learnt political satire. It was through him that I learnt about the bitter politics of that period. Kola Ogunmola also was on stage with us in school and I learnt tragio-comedy. Our Arts and Dramatic Society in school was therefore strong and I am therefore not surprised that it produced Osofisan, Sowande and Sofoluwe. Soyinka's play, The Strong Breed was the first Nigerian English play we performed on stage. Such was the high level production of our plays that the Premier of the Region was always a guest on our closing night.
“We just have to go back to the schools. To penetrate the schools, government must be involved. They must recognize and embrace creativity as well as champion it”.
The Caine-prize winner, Babatunde, submits thus, “Ibadan remains one of the great literary cities of the world. Since the mid-20th century, writers based in the city have consistently made noteworthy contributions to world literature. So those familiar with literary life in Ibadan would disagree with the claim that the city fell into silence after the first and second generation of Nigerian writers. The Poetry Club, whose members included Harry Garuba and the late Sesan Ajayi, played a prominent role in Nigerian literature in the 1990s. And after the turn of the millennium, the creative energy is Ibadan is famous for it persisted at other points where writers congregate in the city for example Tony Marinho’s Educare and Sola Olorunyomi’s IFAnet.
“Sudden miracles don’t happen in literature. To illustrate, ‘Bombay’s Republic’, my story that won the Caine Prize, belongs to a series of historical narratives I began working on over a decade ago. Along the same line, many writers I know in Ibadan, including The Nigerian Prize for Literature winner Tade Ipadeola, have been diligently honing their craft for years. Really, I am only surprised that it took so long for them to begin winning much-coveted literary prizes.
“And that trend doesn’t look set to change any time soon, because many of the most exciting creative minds of this age have Ibadan’s amala and gbegiri coursing through their veins. These include poets, fiction writers and theatre creatives like Niran Okewole, Benson Eluma, Jumoke Verissimo, Kunle Okesipe, Ayodele Olofintuade, Ropo Ewenla and Tosin Gbogi, to mention a few. Even when circumstances compel the physical absence of a number of them from the city, they continue to remain part of the Ibadan literary scene. Some of the names I mentioned, as well as many others that I didn’t, may still be under the radar, relatively speaking. But cream, as they say, always rises to the top.
“Also, several initiatives, including Laipo Reads at NSIAC, the Ibadan Book Fair, and Writehouse’s Artmosphere reading series, have sprung up in recent years. These organisations have been doing a fantastic job in literary programming. Nevertheless, it is important to note that from the Mbari Club years of Wole Soyinka, Ulli Beier, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Duro Ladipo and J. P. Clark to the present day, literary life in Ibadan has always transcended formal book events.
“The American novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote of Paris, another famous literary city: ‘There is never any ending to Paris.’ Ibadan residents likewise say that ‘Ibadan lo mo, oo mo Laipo.’ Roughly translated, this means: ‘You have merely encountered Ibadan, you have not yet experienced its essence.’ The essence of literary life in Ibadan is more to be found in informal gatherings that hold across the city’s diversity of settings.
“So, you are not only likely to find writers discussing the virtues of Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s new book, We Need New Names, at elite locations like the University of Ibadan Senior Staff Club, but you are also likely to find them elucidating on the contrasts between Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky at more democratic venues like the ever-lively watering holes on Mokola Hill. Like Paris, there is also no end to Ibadan!”