ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1982 (Part 38)
“Wole Soyinka wants to have a word with Rufus. Tell him to come as soon as possible. Kongi travels out of the country next week,” was the simple message that I got back from Kole Omotosho.
Omotosho was the head of the Dramatic Art Department, University of Ife. He sent a driver to me to collect a manuscript, “Marx and Mask,” written by the brilliant Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah.
Soyinka regularly received manuscripts from several writers, and after making copies, he would distribute the manuscripts among his circle of intellectuals who met at least once a week to read and discuss the manuscripts.
Because I lived with Kole Omotosho (at his boy’s quarters), I always tagged along for the breaking of bread and wine that went with these manuscript readings lasting from dinner sometimes into the early mornings.
Masks and Marx was one of those manuscripts that we discussed in 1978 or 1979, and I ended up with a copy. Three years later, it happened that everybody had lost their copy of the manuscript, except me.
Word reached me through Tejumola Olaniyan that Kole urgently needed a copy of the manuscript. Olaniyan was a student at Ife and visited the University of Benin for a symposium, where I ran into him.
“Kole would be delighted to know you have a copy,” Olaniyan told me. “He’ll immediately send his driver to you to collect it.”
“How would the driver know my place,” I asked him
“Are you not living with Rufus?” Teju responded.
I nodded in the affirmative.
“The same driver who brought Soyinka’s boys to raid Rufus’s house,” he said. “He knows the place alright.”
I recalled the day I returned home and found Rufus looking depressed. When I asked why, he told me that Soyinka had sent some boys to the house to raid him, and they carted away his video recording equipment. Maybe Teju Olaniyan was even among the Soyinka boys who raided Papa Ru’s house!
That’s a question for another day, I decided.
“Hey, Teju, do me a favor, will you?” I said. “Please ask Kole to speak to Soyinka about returning Papa Ru’s equipment.”
“Chief, I don’t know exactly what happened,” Olaniyan said, “but Kongi seemed really upset about the whole thing. He was rumbling like a lion when he ordered Rufus’s place raided.”
“I understand, Teju,” I continued. “First, Papa Ru needs the equipment for the work he Put yourself in his place. He was neglected at Ife. No pay, no place to stay, not even a letter of employment. And Benin wanted him immediately and was willing to care of him.”
Teju agreed and promised to speak to Kole Omotosho about it. He was only an undergraduate, but he was focused on academia.
“Chief,” Teju said, “I wanted to ask you. Will you do a cover drawing for our literary magazine?”
“I’ll be back next week to Benin,” Teju said. “The co-editor of the journal is a graduate student here at Uniben. We will come to find you at your studio and tell you more about it.”
I was therefore not surprised when the following day, Adisa, Kole Omotosho’s driver showed asking for “Marx and Masks.”
“Kole asked me to get “Mansamans” from you, Eleko Irole” he said. Adisa was my good friend, one of those who knew me by that name.
“Mansamans?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“Yes, Eleko,” Adisa said. “Kole says you would know what I mean. Please Eleko, don’t waste my time. I didn’t go to school to study big grammars like you folks. I’m just a professional driver. Give me the Mansamans or whatever and let me hit the road back to Ife. It’a a long drive.”
I quickly figured out that what he wanted.
“Are you one of the vagabonds who came to raid this place couple of months ago,” I asked Adisa.
“No, no, no,” he said too quickly. “I know nothing about no raid.”
“So how did you find your way here, Adisa?”
Rufus came out of his room when he overheard the conversation.
He took one look at Adisa.
“Moyo, you know him,” Rufus asked me?
“For sure,” I said. “Adisa is one of our guys at the Ife theater. He’s one of the drivers.”
“He drove those thugs here to sack my house,” Rufus remarked.
“Oga Rufus,” Adisa pleaded, “It was like this…”
“Don’t give me any story,” Rufus said, advancing threateningly forward toward Adisa, “did you not lead them here?”
“Professor Kole said I should give you this letter, sir, Oga Rufus,” Adisa pleaded quickly. He produced an unsealed envelope containing the note from Kole.
Rufus read it and passed it to me.
“I should go to Ife and see Kongi this weekend, then,” Rufus said. “Good timing. I need the equipment so bad. I want to record our performance of “Kurunmi” next week. And if I get the equipment now, I can quickly train some of the boys to use the cameras.”
“So, let’s go to Ife this Friday,” I said. “We can stay overnight and return Saturday to catch your dress rehearsal with your cast.”
“And if I have the equipment,” Rufus explained, “we can record the dress rehearsal, and watch it together on Sunday, to check and fix the errors.” He looked happy and relieved.
“I can always pause the clip and show the character exactly what I want, where they screw up,” he said. I had not seen him come alive so spiritedly in a long time.
I went inside, brought out “Marx and Masks,” and Adisa looked too happy to get out of there.
“Please tell Kole we will see him Friday evening,” I told Adisa as he was fleeing from the sitting room.
Once outside, before I shut the door, Adisa turned to me. “Eleko, you guys are Satanic. Not even a bottle of beer for me. I drove all the way from ….”
“Wait, wait, Adisa,” I said. I went back, opened the fridge, grabbed a bottle of cold and handed it to him.
“Did he ask for beer,” Rufus asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“He is lucky he didn’t get his jaw broken,” Rufus said.
That Friday, three of us got into the Mitsubishi bus, on our way to Ife.
Oyinbo drove. I sat next to him and Rufus was in the back seat.
We left early and took the old road that went from Benin City to Ore, turned through Ondo and snaked to Ile Ife, the location of the University of Ife, our destination.
I had warned Steve about driving carefully on that road, especially between Ondo and Ile Ife, where large numbers of dilapidated lorries laden with huge timbers ruled the road.
Steve said he would take care of the road and he did. He drove carefully and we were in Ile Ife by noon.
We decided to visit Jimi Solanke first, since his house was along the Ondo road, just as you entered the ancient city of Ife.
Jimi Solanke was home, receiving some visitors. A middle-aged woman was visiting with her beautiful young daughter.
The woman had come all the way from Lagos with her daughter. She had been a fan of Jimi Solanke since she was very young, this woman said.
She knew Jimi Solanke in the sixties when he used to sing highlife music at nightclubs in Lagos. She sang a couple of the songs, her voice so beautiful and humorous.
We all laughed. Jimi Solanke, always the great host, had all of us settled with drinks as we listened to the woman.
She mentioned how she was disappointed when Solanke left music and went into acting, relocating to Ibadan to perform with Wole Soyinka at the University of Ibadan.
She said she was surprised that Solanke looked even better as an actor than as a singer. He was an instant star on the stage. She mentioned how her daughter was also a fan of Solanke’s music and acting careers and would like to be an actress since she was a child.
“Toyin doesn’t let me rest,” the woman said. “She just wanted so much to meet you and study with you. So, today, we got into our car and drove all the way from Lagos to your house here in Ife.”
“Oh, My God!” I thought! “What is this woman thinking! Bringing her daughter to Jimi Solanke! It’s like taking the kid of a sheep to a lion!”
Life has a way of taking over and organizing chaos.
Jimi Solanke was getting near forty. He was the King of Boys.
The little Toyin, no more than 20 years old then, turned out to be the woman to repaint the entire life of Jimi Solanke into a beautiful portrait of a happy man.
She settled him down, bore him wonderful children, and made a home for him. She tamed and empowered him at the same time, helping him to become the amazing person that he became.
But that afternoon, as the woman dropped Toyin off at Jimi Solanke’s house, I thought she was out of her mind.
As soon as she left, Rufus told Jimi Solanke that we were leaving for Wole Soyinka’s house.
Rufus told Jimi Solanke about the story of the house raid and his equipment.
“You’ll be lucky to still find your equipment intact,” Jimi Solanke warned Rufus. “Let’s get back to Benin tonight. I want to take Toyin to that wonderful city. It’s full of nostalgia for me.”
“We were planning to spend the night at your place,” Rufus said. “But we can return to Benin tonight, as soon as I collect the equipment from Kongi. If the things are still there.”
“Last time I saw them,” Jimi Solanke said, “they were in a large black box in the television room at the Oduduwa Hall. If Kongi says okay, start searching for them there.”
We said fine, piled into the bus and headed toward Kongi’s house on the University of Ife campus.
He was in his sitting room, and had just finished lunch.
“Se e ti jeun?” Wole Soyinka asked us.
Rufus said, “No, a a ti i jeun.”
“Good,” Kongi said. “When you leave here go and find something to eat. I have no food for you.”
The home looked like a museum of African art. There are giant sculptures from various parts of Africa throughout the sitting room. There are also beautiful paintings and prints arranged most tastefully on the walls.
Rumor had it that he had a room filled with sculptures that he raided from Pierre Verger, who had raided them from some indigenous shrines all over Yorubaland.
Laide Adewale, one of the greatest actors of the University of Ife Theater said Kongi was having trouble giving the sculptures to the Nigerian museum because they were afraid of offending Verger, so Soyinka stored them, rather than allow the researcher to keep them.
“if he collected them from the shrines to save them from destruction as they all claim,” Laide quoted Soyinka as saying, “it is well; the works will end up in the museum in Nigeria. But if he intended to move them out of Nigeria and take them to Europe or America, it is also well, because he can no longer do that now.”
Soyinka noticed that I fixated on a large pen drawing on white paper, finely framed, gracing a wall.
“That’s by LeRoi Clarke,” Soyinka said. “New York-based artists from Trinidad and Tobago. Reminds me of Ibrahim El Salahi and Skunder Boghosian. Well, not really. I like their pen works in different ways.”
“Oga,” Rufus said, “please, I am here to plead for my cameras back.”
“Oh, your cameras,” Kongi said. “I think they are with Kole. You can collect them from Kole. By the way, Moyo, thanks for the copy of “Marx and Masks.” Everybody except you misplaced their copy. Fine writer, Armah.”
“Yes, sir,” I agreed.
“Steve,” Soyinka said, “I know your dad at the BBC. Matter of fact, I’m seeing him next week when I get to London.”
“I didn’t know that,” Steve said. “What is going on in London?”
“A play,” Soyinka said. “I will direct my play, “Death and the King’s Horseman.” Maybe you will see it. When are you returning to London?”
“In about a month,” Steve said.
“Heard you’ve been here all year,” Soyinka said.
“Yes,” Rufus jumped in. “And we can’t wait for him to return to London.”
“He’s been staying with you guys here for a year?” Soyinka said. “London will be too small for him now.”
“He’ll be fine,” Rufus decided. “Thanks, oga. We’ll go to Kole Omotosho’s house and see if he’s home.”
It was a drive of less than five minutes to Kole’s house.
He was in the sitting room with his wife who just had a baby girl. Margaret, Kole wife, was from Barbados. She sat on a large seat, cuddling her new baby.
On another seat was a woman dressed in a floral gown. Kole introduced her as Hilda, Margaret’s friend visiting from London. It was her first visit to Nigeria.
“Hilda has just completed her Ph.D. at the University of London in African American women’s fiction,” Kole announced. “It was just a battle to them to accept her dissertation title. They said there was no such thing as African American women’s fiction. But, finally, she won, just a month ago, and she now has her doctorate.”
“I had always wanted to visit Nigeria,” Hilda said in a voice that seemed laced with honey. “My parents are from the Caribbean. I wanted to see Africa. And once I was done with all my dissertation rituals, I jumped on the plane.”
“By the way, Rufus,” Kole Omotosho said, “here’s your stuff back. Everything in the black box, cameras, players, recorders. Just as the day they came in.”
TO BE CONTINUED