ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Nineteen)
I had never seen Papa Ru in such a subdued mood. Nothing could have slugged him harder than the thought of Kongi maltreating him. He used to boast that it was because of Kongi that he returned to Nigeria from Britain.
Kongi had attended an event that Rufus produced for the BBC in London in 1979. And after the event, Rufus said, “Kongi met me backstage and asked, ‘Young man, what are you doing here, with all this talent that you have? You need to return to Nigeria immediately and contribute to the development of your country.’”
Rufus said he was hesitant. “But, sir, you know Nigeria. It has no room for artists,” Rufus said.
“That was the old Nigeria,” Kongi insisted. “This is the new Nigeria. This is the perfect time for Nigerian artists to return home to defend the land from being desecrated by corrupt politicians and their cronies.”
“I will follow you wherever you want me to go sir,” Rufus told Kongi. “But you must lead the way back home for me.”
Kongi then told Rufus about the various projects that he was doing in Nigeria and how Rufus could facilitate these projects. Rufus had just completed his studies in film and television at Bradford. He was a professional printmaker, an actor, director, choreographer and producer. He wrote and performed scripts and was a trained cameraman, both still and motion. He also edited films and marketed productions. Soyinka realized how much Rufus could give.
“I am setting up a film production unit at the University of Ife,” Kongi told Rufus. “Segun Akinbola is head of the technical crew. You would fit in perfectly with all your talent and training. I have acquired a state of the art equipment and I need you to come and handle them and train young students in film and television production.”
Rufus remembered Segun Akinbola, the stage manager, actor, and theater guru who worked with Ola Rotimi to actualize the Ori Olokun Theater at the University of Ife in the late sixties and early seventies. Rufus was an actor at the Ori Olokun Theater, and he worked with both Rotimi and Akinbola. It was at the Ori Olokun Theater that I met Rufus. He acted in several productions, including performing the character of Balogun, a lead role, in my father’s tragic play, Rẹ́rẹ́ Rún.
As early as the age of twelve, I went daily with my father to the Ori Olokun Theater, where my father, Oladejo Okediji, was one of the resident writers. I listened—very carefully—as Rotimi worked with my father, as my father tightened the script of the play for Rotimi’s performances. And I always admired Rufus for his talent. It was at that time that I met the incredible actor, Jimi Solanke, who played the lead character of Lawuwo. The Ori Olokun days opened my mind to the wide range of creative opportunities available in the arts. And it was there that I met Solomon Wangboje, Rowland Abiodun, Agboola Folarin, Pierre Verger, Frank Speed, Peggy Harper, Akin Euba, Sam Akpabot and a host of other artists, scholars and intellectuals who assisted me in developing a desire to be in the arts. The Ori Olokun era was a glorious moment in the art history of Nigeria.
When Soyinka, therefore, threw at Rufus the idea of bringing back an era similar to what we experienced during the Ori Olokun days, it was a bait that Rufus could not resist. He was ready to pack his luggage and return to Ile Ife immediately.
There was only one problem. “Oga,” Rufus told Kongi, “I will need a letter of employment, with the assurance of accommodation and transportation in Nigeria.”
Kongi assured Rufus that those “minor details” would be no problem. Rufus should catch the plane for Nigeria, and even his travel expenses and other allowances would be reimbursed by the University of Ife.
Within a week, Rufus was in Nigeria. And that was when the troubles began.
Soyinka, it turned out, was still traveling through Europe on several projects. He was not yet a Nobel Laureate at that time, but he was already an important international figure in the art world. No arrangements were made for Rufus. Nevertheless, Rufus immediately joined Akinbola at the Oduduwa Hall, and they started working on a Soyinka movie production. It was a cinematic adaptation of a Soyinka’s satire titled Opera Wonyosi.
Rufus was spending his own money, with the expectation that as soon as Soyinka returned, the university would provide him with a letter of appointment, a place to live, a vehicle and a reimbursement for his relocation to Nigeria.
Soyinka, alas, did not stay much in Ife and was always on the road. He assigned some administrators the task of ensuring that Rufus was comfortable. Those administrators, unfortunately, did not take the charge with the seriousness that it deserved. For a couple of months, Rufus was just hanging in there at the University of Ife, with none of the things he was promised in place. He had no place of his own. Yet he continued to work on Soyinka’s projects. Rufus had nowhere to permanently keep the things he brought from Britain and was precariously living with his Ori Olokun colleagues, including Kola Oyewo, Laide Adewale and Jimi Solanke.
Rufus, within months, became broke, disillusioned and puzzled. But he continued to find solace in the creative work he was doing for Soyinka, while hoping that one day Kongi would return to Ife and find enough time to cut the red tapes that tied up the administrative process denying him access to his entitlements. He new that Soyinka just needed to bark once or twice at the administrators, and everything would be alright.
In the fourth month of his return to Ife, Rufus went to the Odudawa Hall one morning to work. Just as he was about to step off the road by the Okot p’Bitek Rotunda, a car pulled up next to him, and someone yelled “Rufus!” It was a familiar voice but he could not place the voice. Rufus stopped. The person stepped out from the back of the Peugeot 505 saloon and yelled his name again.
The person was Professor Solomon Wangboje.
“What are you doing here, Rufus?” Wangboje asked. “I thought you were in London.”
Rufus explained what happened to him, and what he was working on at the University of Ife with Soyinka.
“Soyinka is not around now?” Wangboje asked.
“When will he be back?”
“ I don’t know.”
“How long have you been hanging around here?”
“Some six months,” Rufus said.
“Have you signed a contract with the University of Ife?” Wangboje asked him.
“No,” Rufus explained. “They have not given me a letter of appointment.”
“Good,” Professor Wangboje said. “You will work for us at the University of Benin we will backdate your letter of appointment by five months the letter will be ready within a week from today we will house you in a good hotel in Benin until we find you faculty housing this is Nigeria things could work fast or slow down sometimes and they are slow for you now and they will turn fast from now on is that fine I will give you an appointment as Lecturer I if it works for you I need you to transform the drama department at Uniben if you are ready now we will go to Benin together when I return this evening and we will send a university truck to get your things at your convenience.”
“I’m ready for Benin, professor,” Rufus said. “May I jump in your car right away?”
“Sure Rufus,” Professor Wangboje said. “Iyamu, open the front door for Rufus.”
Iyamu, Professor Wangboje’s driver, leaned over, opened the front door and Rufus jumped in. The engine was kept running all along. The cold inside the air-conditioned car hit Rufus as he settled in the front seat. That was when he realized how hot and humid the weather was outside the vehicle. He gave a deep and audible sigh. Wangboje passed a bottle of cold water to him. Rufus gulped it down.
Three hours later, they were in Benin City.
TO BE CONTINUED.