‘’Trespassing Vehicles will be shot and eaten’’ was the grim sign that welcomed us to Wole Soyinka’s residence in Abeokuta. Set in a forest enclave at the far corner of the Kemta Housing Estate, the massive leafy enclave reminded one of the legendary D O Fagunwa’s ‘’Igbo Irunmole’’ (A Forest of a thousand demons). However instead of demons, what Bros Kongi had in his own forest was a brick walled villa tucked into a corner of an enchanting forest and accessed by a laterite road sandwiched by sky high trees and creepers above which birds flew and sang and through which a natural stream slowly flowed. So thick was the foliage that daylight visibility was a challenge.
On what necessitated the scary signboard, our guide, Yaya who is one of the caretakers of the estate explained that it came about when the workers, in a bid to fend off marauders had advised Prof Soyinka to fence off the property and install a gate. However, the Nobel Laureate told his staff that he had a better idea on how to ward off potential intruders and so the scary sign board. On whether the trick had worked? Yaya replied; ‘’Yes. It worked like magic. Once anybody including visitors see the sign, they will all stop at the entrance and shout to announce their arrival. Since they know that Oga is a hunter, they fear that he might also turn his gun on them. Fortunately, Prof only shoots ‘aparo’ (Partridge) and not human beings’’.
I had come to Abeokuta on the invitation of The Wole Soyinka Foundation to the Formal Inauguration of ‘A Residential Fellowship for the Arts, Research and Creativity’. Although the venue of the inauguration was the Cultural Centre, Kuto, Abeokuta, I had tagged along with Kunle Ajibade one of Prof Soyinka’s close associates who had come ahead of the invitees to put finishing touches to the preparations.
To arrive that early in Abeokuta meant leaving Lagos just as the muezzins in the local mosques called for the early morning prayers. Even at that hour, the Lagos – Ota road through where we had travelled to Abeokuta was already choked with traffic. Matters were not helped by the deplorable state of the road where occasionally, whole sections of the road were full of pot holes the size of gullies. Mercifully, things got better immediately after Ota and we could then glide down the well paved road. At Ewekoro, white dusty villages and farms flew past as the whole environment laid prostrate under tons of white powder from the nearby Cement Factory. Finally, we arrived Abeokuta long before the inauguration and made straight for Kemta Estate.
Kunle and I were still a few metres from the entrance to Kongi’s residence when we saw the Nobel Laureate coming out of a building which turned out to be the residential annexe for the junior fellows. As always, I was immediately captivated by the aura and quite dignity around this 81 year old savant. In spite of the years, he was in good health, his white fluffy mane wafting and glistening in the early morning sunshine. And although he appeared quiet and introspective, his brown quick eyes that danced with excitement gave him away as a man who has not only experienced life in all its ramifications, but has also endured in order to tell the tale.
On sighting me, Kongi said; ‘’hello Wale. I saw your mail’’ as he quickly disposed of an unfinished business between the two of us. Greetings over, our host turned back to the bungalow as he took Kunle and I on a quick tour of the 5 bedroom bungalow which was richly decorated with art works and paintings. From the spacious and well furnished main sitting room, we visited the comfortable looking bedrooms one of which had been named after the legendary poet; Christopher Okigbo. ‘’Okigbo’s daughter, Obiageli who is one of our pioneer Senior Fellows has graciously agreed to unveil the plague to the room named after her father’’ Prof said. He later introduced us to another pioneer Junior Fellow, Ifedolapo Akinola who is a Port Harcourt based writer. All in all, there were five bedrooms in the annexe for the Junior Fellows. According to Prof Soyinka, one of the highlights of the residency is for the Junior Fellows to be mentored by the Seniors who will be quartered in the main house.
Done with the annexe, Kunle and I joined Prof in his black SUV for the short trip to the entrance to the forest enclave from where we disembarked. I was impressed by the vast forest which I was told is about 4.2 hectares in size. And as we walked, our host gave a running commentary of his empire made up of an enchanting greenery, immaculate manicured lawns and soothing flowers that yielded to the gentle wriggle of the rhythm of the early morning breeze.
Few minutes later, we came out of the forest and were greeted by a brick walled sprawling and picturesque villa that was deliberately tucked into the far corner of the forest. It was a lovely house, enormous and quiet and romantically mysterious like the owner and designer. With its high ceilings, priceless arts work, memento-adorned walls and sparse but tasteful furniture it gave an aura of quite grandeur, the type you see only in the homes of the deep. Expectedly, the house had many parts to it; an amphitheatre, an inner chamber for elders (Ibale Agba) with its own wine cellar, many sitting rooms as well as four large double bedrooms for the use of Senior Fellows. Suddenly, Kongi turned to me and said; ‘’Wale, this is where you will stay when you come for your own residency’’ I quickly muttered my thanks for what I considered an open invitation. Kunle and I were later introduced to Kongi’s elder sister, Mrs Tinu Aina who had come visiting. It was obvious that she is still the dotting elder sister as she passed some snacks to Kongi for onwards transmission to another younger brother, Prof Femi Soyinka, Emeritus Professor of medicine and my former teacher in Medical School.
As we continued the inspection, our host reminded us that the whole house gets its power supply from solar energy which runs the house for 24 hours. He also let us into the objectives of the residency. As he put it; ‘’the main idea is to bring writers, artistes, scholars, researchers and other creative thinkers together in an optimally conducive environment for reflection and creativity, by providing them a serene retreat in which to pursue their projects.’’ According to the Mission Statement in the brochure supplied to visitors; ‘’The Foundation will especially encourage Literature, Art and Environmental Designs that are inspired by the ideal of pluralism in society and committed to the eradication of prejudice, bigotry and intolerance in all spheres of human undertaking. In addition, entry requirements will be abstracts or outlines of the writers’ work-in-progress. Selected candidates will become Foundation Fellows in Residence. A selection committee will identify artistes and scholars in need of the fellowship. Fellows will spend a few days, weeks or months at a time when they will be free of all constraints for a period of reflection and creativity. Emphasis, especially at inception, will be placed on youth, with a view to a Mentor/Protégé development partnership where desirable and practicable. Accommodation will be modest, but residents will have the freedom to work on a project of their choosing without economic or other constraints or distractions. The duration of stay will be decided on the nature of each Fellow’s project, and its demands. Fellows will be free to interact with the neighbourhood or isolate themselves completely. They will be offered opportunities, where available, to hold workshops and special tutorials with students and other interested groups to go out to deliver lectures in response to requests or simply open themselves to outsiders for exchanges’’
It was soon time to go for the Inauguration Ceremony at the Cultural Centre in the town. That was when Kongi reminded Kunle of his role as one of the readers at the event. And when Kunle told him that he would be reading from Soyinka’s Ake, Kongi had responded; ‘’I was looking forward to your reading from your book ‘Jailed For Life’. It will be nice to hear a former prisoner recounting his experience’’. And as we all laughed at the joke, Kunle quickly retorted; ‘’but sir, you were there before me’’.
‘’I was never jailed, just put in a long drawn detention whereas in your case, you were a condemned prisoner’’ came Kongi’s response amidst another bout of laughter.
As we all laughed at the joke, I quietly informed another guest that from the calibre of the writers invited for the occasion, I seemed to be the only one who had not been to detention or jail before to which my friend replied; ‘’You are an ‘aje butter’ (Butter fed, Mild) writer. You can’t write what will take to jail. Unfortunately it is too late to do otherwise. Buhari is not in the mood to jail any writer now that he is a born again democrat’’.
And as Kunle and I made our way to board our car for the trip to Kuto Cultural Centre, we saw a familiar figure behind the wheel of a black Land Rover packed in front of the annexe. It was the former Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi who had obviously driven himself all the way from Lagos. Not showing any sign of having just gone through the rigour of a Ministerial screening, Amaechi still looked fresh and in high spirits. Also on ground at the residence was Christopher Okigbo’s daughter, Obiageli who had come to unveil a room named in her father’s honour as well as being a pioneer Senior Fellow at the residency.
Back in Abeokuta town, we were welcomed to the Kuto Cultural Centre, by a platoon of Pyrates Confraternity members in their traditional black, red and white outfits as they sang and danced to the delight of visitors. This was in addition to another column of traditional dancers at the entrance to the main hall. It soon became obvious that Rotimi Amaechi and this writer were not the only politicians who were taking the weekend off from politics as former Governors Kayode Fayemi, Donald Duke as well as Governors Amosun and Oshiomole soon made their appearances. In his welcome address as the Chief Host, Governor Amosun poked fun at Rotimi Amaechi as he reminded him that even though he had been screened by the Senate, he was yet to be confirmed like Kayode Fayemi as such, he should brace up.
Apart from politicians, students, pyrates, former prisoners and detainees, members of the literati such as Francesca Emmanuel, Promise Okekwe, Kole Omotosho, Odia Ofeimun, Remi Raji, Igoni Barrett, Dapo Adeniyi, Jumoke Verissimo and Hakeem Lasisi among others were all there to support their own.
It was a long but fascinating Inauguration made up of speeches, poetry recitations, readings, a film screening as well a performance of excerpts of Wole Soyinka’s Alapata Apata by Tunde Awosanmi before Governor Adams Oshiomole did the informal presentation of Kong’s latest book; ‘The Republic Of Liars’.
In his closing remarks, Prof Soyinka expressed his happiness at the fact that many Writers Residencies were coming up in the country around the same time. These were Wale Okediran’s Ebedi Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State, Femi Osofisan’s Residency in Ibadan as well as J P Clarke’s Residency in Kiagbodo, Delta State.
And as I came to the end of the refreshing weekend with one of the greatest living writers in the world, I counted myself lucky of such a worthy company. In the past, some of my literary weekends spent with the likes of Anton Chekhov, Kwame Nkrumah and Winston Churchill to mention just a few had been done post humously through their books. As a recorder of men and events, I consider spending another literary weekend with a living legend a rare honour. I admit that I wasn’t doing anything original only following in the footsteps of some of the masters; the storytellers, dreamers and thinkers who as life’s legendary witnesses have witnessed and recorded far greater events. Their names come to mind, Plato, Dante, D. H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy, Chinua Achebe, Abubakar Imam to name just a few. Having set the pace, their fame has become inseparable from civilization’s glory despite the fact that the bond between writer and society seems to fade with each passing year. Our duty therefore as legatees of this ancient craft is to refreshen the bond by dreaming, wandering and recording society as it is.
The sun was still up when I finally took my leave of this remarkable and respected writer. And as my taxi drove out of the Cultural Centre, Kuto, in the Saturday sunshine, I looked back to see him standing, talking, gestulating in his trade mark fashion. He stood there in the warm glows of the daylight, slim, ram rod straight, his white fluffy mane shining in the sun like a famous statue with all the aura of a man who has lived to tell his tale.
Okediran, a Medical Doctor is a former National President, Association Of Nigerian Authors and former Member, House Of Representatives, Abuja. He founded the Ebedi International Writers Residency, Iseyin Oyo State in 2010.