Aerial image in the University of Ibadan. Image from Wikimedia.
The city of Ibadan in south-western Nigeria is historic for many reasons. In this case, it was once the intellectual hub of the country and arguably, the Anglophone sector of West Africa. The seminal quartet of modern Nigerian letters comprising Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark Bekeredemo all studied at the University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan) in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The same is true of the first major generation of literary critics and theorists.
And so, it isn’t surprising that another significant figure-Harry Garuba- of the Nigerian literary scene emerged from the Ibadan school of poets and literary artists. Garuba, sadly passed in 2020 and Sanya Osha in this essay, explores what the culturally rich city might have meant to him and what he in turn personified for the sprawling metropolis.
The historic city of Ibadan in South-western Nigeria is home to the University of Ibadan, the country’s first university. But it is also a city of startling contrasts, mystique, and secrecy. Capital of the Western region for a time, it has never completely shed its aura of deep mystery, even as an endless influx of cosmopolitan denizens flooded its world-renowned university and urban conurbations in search of refined company, rustic serenity, knowledge, and off-beat experiences.
Harry Garuba was a distinguished professor of literature and African studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa before he passed in 2020 due to leukemia. He had been a brilliant student at the Ibadan university which was established by British colonial authorities in 1948. More importantly, Garuba was an influential poet whose groundbreaking first collection of verse, Shadow and Dream and Other Poems (1982) inspired an entire generation of poets, writers and academics most notably, Remi Raji based at the University of Ibadan, Onookome Okome at Alberta University, Canada, Nduka Otiono at Carleton University, Canada, Afam Akeh, a London- based poet, and many others who made their mark in the worlds of academia and creative writing. Indeed, for a significant length of time, he was a fulcrum around which all major literary figures, initiatives, and activities on campus converged. Arguably, this attraction was not due to an inordinate exercise of power or undue force of character. Rather, it stemmed from the lambency of an ineluctable Warholian disposition.
At Ibadan, Harry also commenced his career as a young academic when he was still in his early twenties. The main campus was virtually ‘everything’ with its own vast residential quarters, not excluding rows of rickety stalls and kiosks that served as eateries and tuck shops at what is called the Black Market. Other similar arrangements can be found at Abadina, the quarter meant for non-academic staff and low-end workers. At the Black Market, apart from eating and drinking, theatre students and lovers held drama rehearsals. There were stores everywhere. You didn’t have to leave the campus for much and there was a shop that was once well stocked with the written works of the brightest minds the world had to offer.
And so the campus became a city-within-a-city. As a result, this curious relationship led to a dichotomy between city and varsity.
Virtually all of Nigeria’s major literary icons and intellectuals—Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, John Bekeredemo Clark, Abiola Irele, Michael Echeruo, Ben Obumselu, Isidore Okpewho, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Femi Osofisan and so many others—passed through the city and varsity at significant stages of their lives and careers.
Expatriates such as the late Ulli Beier, the irrepressible cultural catalyst, worked at Ibadan along with his then wife, Suzanne Wenger, who had facilitated the famous Oshogbo school of art that promoted the talents of Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Braimoh, Rufus Ogundele and other notable artistic luminaries. They were also pivotal in establishing the Mbari artistic collective that offered a platform for the likes of Duro Ladipo, Kole Ogunmola, and a young Orlando Owoh, a great exponent of highlife music. Wenger would later become a well-respected high priestess of traditional spirituality, the river goddess Osun specifically, in Osogbo, calmly receiving and nurturing acolytes from all over the world until her final days.
The city of Ibadan and its illustrious varsity loomed under this formidable pedigree. As we walked as students through the hallowed corridors of the Faculty of Arts, we were never allowed to forget this lofty history nor the colorful personalities who inscribed their kaleidoscopic narratives drawing richly from their transformational personal experiences and inimitable perspectives on life and art. Bekeredemo Clark immortalized the city in a poem in which he remarked that it was a place browned with dust and rust glittering underneath the sun like fragments of broken china. Such a metaphor captured both the brokenness and inexplicable allure of the city. In a way, Clark (who passed in October 2020) was a poet who captured and represented the city’s vernacular cosmopolitanism.
Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Noble laureate, has a long and intimate relationship with both the city and varsity where he once studied and worked. There, he plotted his numerous artistic adventures and staged his first major act of political rebellion by holding up a regional radio station to protest an election widely believed to have been rigged in 1965.
One eerily bright and sunny afternoon in the early nineteen nineties, whilst walking along the narrow road that ran in front of the central administrative block, Soyinka spritely hopped out of a barely stationary vehicle, sighted Harry and greeted him warmly like a long lost friend. Having been entertained by a plethora of tales pertaining to Soyinka’s legendary self-regard, I was quite amazed at the depth and sincerity of the warmth he demonstrated towards Harry who was much younger than he.
Harry, being the consummate raconteur, always had delectable anecdotes to share about our numerous literary heroes. This was not out of place having been taught by the likes of Biodun Jeyifo, a Harvard emeritus professor, and the ever so proper Dan Izebavye, who managed to uphold an ethic of fair play, propriety, and humane considerateness even whilst scrupulously adhering to varsity rules. Undoubtedly, much of Harry’s social and cultural grooming also came from mavericks and perennial barroom fixtures such as the late Joe Emordi (fondly called Oga Joe), a formidable thespian in his own right and Sam Loco Efe, the also deceased great Nollywood actor who was already an established Ibadan legend long before he found renewed fame and controversy in the frenetic film industry cities of Lagos and Onitsha.
Life swirled drunkenly in cloudy beer mugs and sometimes became crossed-eyed with blind rage and bitter regret. Dreams flitted away in columns of cigarette smoke until the first glow of dawn wiped afresh the misty bar louvres. How could one ever forget the transitional impact of the irascible theatre director and professor, Dapo Adelugba, who held court in his cluttered and dusty office on the last floor of the faculty building?
The countless attractions and distractions of the varsity often kept us from exploring the hidden delights of the city, which were generally considered to be less cosmopolitan and therefore probably less valued. In my opinion, this was a huge mistake. Harry, for instance, never learnt to speak Yoruba properly even though he had a Yoruba middle name, Oludare. The varsity was obviously viewed with awe and slight perplexity by the indigenous dwellers of the city’s inner precincts. The varsity had been constructed according to the vision and expectations of white colonial masters with considerable care and precision that is lacking in many areas around the city. It was believed that only favored initiates were cherry picked to experience the guarded delights of the varsity.
In his remarkable memoir, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt, the extraordinary Ibadan historian Toyin Falola irreverently captures the hidden mysteries of Ibadan in a manner that those of us locked within the innards of the varsity, unfortunately, did not really care to explore. When we ventured into the labyrinthine precincts of the city, we often did so as slightly snobbish and absent-minded tourists, carelessly going through the motions.
In varsity poetry circles, perhaps the most influential artistic figure with an Ibadan background was Christopher Okigbo, who is firmly etched within the pantheon of poets that mysteriously legislated over what was acceptable and possible from an artistic point of view. Although he was sadly killed during the Nigerian Civil War fighting for the Biafran side in 1967, his presence was felt in every poetry reading we held in both formal and informal settings, including our interminable after-hours drinking sessions.
Okigbo’s accomplishment confirmed the belief that we could be cosmopolitan artists even when our geographical circumstances were fairly circumscribed. Also, it was indeed possible to discover submerged postcolonial resources within the English language from which we could forge a new poetic vision and sensibility quite distinct from the Eurocentric paradigm. Perhaps this was the most powerful allure Okigbo held for us, including Harry, of course.
However, one thing we couldn’t have anticipated, flush as we were with youth, was that Okigbo’s talent and unique vision were singularly his own and not to be shared with those who stumbled through the maze surrounding the path he had so ingeniously discovered. Okigbo, in short, was not to be followed. We could only marvel and gaze forlornly from afar at the magnificent horizon unearthed in those astonishing cadences of his remarkable and ethereal poetry.
In his art and academic writings, Harry did not do much to interrogate the connections between city and varsity, except perhaps with a cursory reference to Sango (the Yoruba deity of thunder and lightning) in his most famous essay, “Explorations in Animist Realism: Notes on Reading/Writing, African literature, Culture, and Society” published in Public Culture in 2003. Rather than drawing its primary inspiration from Yoruba culture and mythology, this essay is, instead, a compelling feat of postcolonial theorizing.
While the varsity was a site of ever-encroaching cosmopolitanism, the city held onto foundations of culture and language that have so much to reveal to us. Ibadan was a settlement, stabilized at the end of the nineteenth century after a century of warfare with other towns that tore apart most of Yoruba land. Innumerable slaves were snatched away to the New World, social fragmentation ensued and old political alliances crumbled.
The British colonial authorities established a semblance of social order in 1893. In essence, Ibadan eventually settled to civil life after a protracted reign of guns and swords. Today, it is difficult to sense a history that is drenched in blood, upheaval, and wanton destruction. Instead, the refinements of language, civility, and culture are so much more valued.
Indigenes of Ibadan are known as Mesiogo, a very peculiar concept applied only to the true born. “Mesi” means to reply, “ogo” means fool. And so Mesiogo means to reply promptly to a fool who is subsequently kept in the dark about one’s true intentions. This characteristic is associated with the real children of Ibadan. In addition, Mesiogo incorporates a shifting sense of ambiguity, not as a counterproductive imperative, but rather as an unmistakable quality of existential resilience, that is, the ability to extricate oneself from a quandary with grace, skill, and finesse. Falola adds his important insights, claiming “mesiogo is a strategy of knowing when to fight, when not to fight. It is about understanding codes of behaviour in a highly stratified society.” Bola Ige, the former governor of Oyo State and a serving minister of the federation before he was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in 2001, published an edited volume that attempts to explain the concept as an existential practice. We, the admirers of Okigbo, missed the full import this vital skill, taught in the indigenous Ibadan way whilst we lived in the city.
The Okebadan Festival is one of the most important in Ibadan’s cultural calendar. During this period, indigenes flock to the streets singing songs of excess and vulgarity to mask rites of social renewal, re-invention and consolidation. To the casual observer, the festival at first glance, may appear to be a carnival of decadence and transgression but is instead a crucial exercise in social cohesion, rejuvenation, and goodwill. It also serves as a collective prayer of seasonal plenitude and agricultural abundance. Indeed, the Okebadan Festival is intimately associated with harvests and the promise that comes with them. This tradition was not often emphasized amongst those of us whose worlds revolved largely around the university where we received most of our cultural and intellectual nourishment.
The tension between city and varsity can be ascribed to the fact that the former favored neo-traditionalism and the latter pursued a slightly triumphal cosmopolitanism. These two tendencies do not readily mix well and the disjuncture may have prevented both city and varsity from attaining their full potentials in postmodern times. The late Garuba was an unabashed representative of cosmopolitan strain of the city, but he would have been an even greater raconteur if he had embraced the neo-traditionalist element most cosmopolitans would rather not entertain. Indeed, Ibadan gave us more abundance than we knew what to do with and remains a city to which you always have to return.
Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011), An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012) and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition) (2021) among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.