running splash of rust
and gold -- flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun.
-- J.P. Clark
Last fall, when my friend Rotimi Babatunde won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing, the first things that came to mind were Star beer and a sacrificial goat. His work is dark, often political, though you might not even notice for the beauty of his language.
I met Rotimi in 2006 at a canteen called Flavours, where they served the best goat and fish pepper stews in Ibadan -- the goat soup filled with juicy chunks of meat and the fish enormous, laid across the bowl from eyeball to tail in triumph. This was one of the many cafes in which I came to know a circle of young Nigerian writers, editors, and teachers.
One evening toward the end of the dry season, clouds flirted with the scorched earth and, as dusk fell on the canteen, we watched dozens of lightening flashes streak the sky at once, each a slightly different shade of white, blue-white, silver-white: the Yoruba sky god Sango's fireworks extravaganza. We ordered Star beer or Guinness, pepper soup or isi-ewu, the flares of phosphorous lighting matches to Bensons or sometimes the menthols called White London.
Earlier that day Rotimi and I had been invited to speak to our friend Kunle's students. I'd shown up at Kunle's school in the Eleyele district of Ibadan to discover that by "his students" he hadn't meant the students in his English class but the entire secondary school. There was no auditorium or microphone. Two hundred teenagers lined up in a field with rows marked off by white stones, while we stood above them on a concrete slab. I yelled about what it was like growing up in West Texas, about writing what you know while also imagining yourself into the lives of others. Writers need empathy first and foremost, I remember saying, repeating what other writers had once taught me.
During the Q-and-A, the Ibadan kids were unforgiving. I'd figured they'd want to know about the U.S., but they were more interested in stumping me: What is the difference between prose and fiction? How many different types of poetic meter are there? Can you define hyperbole?
At Flavours that night, I asked Kunle what the students had to say later about our "speeches."
"They thought Rotimi was more arrogant than you," he said. "And some people," he laughed, "were confused as to how your parents could possibly be from Liberia."
Despite my attempts to speak slowly and enunciate -- I knew from experience my American accent would be difficult for the students to understand -- I hadn't anticipated the phrase "my parents are librarians" might cause such confusion.
"They thought Mary Helen was less arrogant than I was because they only understood every third word she said." Rotimi isn't fat but spherical -- round torso, round head, round nose -- and he speaks quickly, with a slight stutter, frequently interspersing his words with laughter. He was the most successful of our literary circle back then, having already had several plays staged in London as well as a number of international fellowships from places like the MacDowell Colony and the Rockefeller Foundation.
"Or maybe it's because the superior can afford to be self-effacing," I replied.
"See, the Liberian isn't arrogant at all."
The students at Kunle's school never asked me why I'd come to Ibadan to immerse myself in African fiction, because they knew there was no city on the continent with the charmed literary history of their home town. It's a city that, while virtually unknown in the States, played such an important role in the emergence of English-language African literature that I was inspried to move there after graduate school in the same way writers used to swarm the quartiers of the Left Bank.
My first encounter with Nigerian fiction: holed up in a bone-chilling Boston winter, I was drawn into Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road, a frenetic, meandering novel of magical realism in which the "scumscapes," where a boy named Azaro lives in abject poverty, are permeated by the dazzling images and machinations of the spirit world. I learned that the title The Famished Road alludes to a poem by Wole Soyinka (which is, in turn, indebted to a proverb): "The right foot for joy, the left, dread / And the mother prayed, Child / May you never walk / When the road waits, famished." I had to find a way to get there.
* * *
In Robert M. Wren's Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature At Ibadan: 1948-1966, he avers that no other university town in the world has "produced a similar cluster of distinguished authors." There are dozens of renowned writers (Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Remi Raji, and many more) who at one time or another have made their way through Ibadan, but the four heavyweights to whom Wren alludes are: Wole Soyinka (playwright-poet-novelist-biographer Nobel Laureate), Chinua Achebe (whose Things Fall Apart adorns high school and university reading lists everywhere), Christopher Okigbo (the modernist poet who died tragically in the Nigerian civil war), and J.P. Clark (known primarily as a poet, although he wrote a number of plays, one of which was first directed by Soyinka and involved the live sacrifice of a goat). Even two of the biggest names in African literary criticism had come out of Ibadan: Harvard's Biodun Jeyifo and Abiola Irele.
As an anthropologist passing through town on research told me once: "In the Ibadan of the sixties and seventies, everywhere you went, literature was in the air."
The British established University College in Ibadan, or UCI, in 1948 as one of three full-scale institutions of higher education in Africa to confer degrees from the University of London. One purpose of this program was to educate an African civil service elite as part of Britain's policy of "indirect rule." UCI became the University of Ibadan after Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960 and attracted talent regionally and globally. The city of Ibadan was also the hub of West African publishing, and it was there in the late fifties that the German Uli Beier and South African exile Ezekiel Mphahlele started the literary magazine Black Orpheus, encouraging an African literature built on indigenous models rather than British ones. And the publication's list of authors now reads like a Who's Who of anglophone African fiction and poetry.
In May 1967, months after a bloody coup led by a northern Nigerian military faction, the eastern part of the country, calling itself Biafra, seceded, igniting a civil war that lasted almost three years and left hundreds of thousands dead. The war scattered the Nigerian writers -- Achebe, Okigbo, and Gabriel Okara went east to support the breakaway state, while others, including Soyinka and J.P. Clark, remianed on the Federal side. Clark once remarked that the war dispersed "atoms that should have collided to make a nuclear charge."
* * *
By the time I arrived at UI, extreme financial straits -- precipitated by a series of kleptocratic governments -- had led to perennial strikes, overcrowding of classes and residence halls, the almost total lack of laboratory equipment or texts, and the crumbling of infrastructure. From the moment I stepped on campus, via a back road because strikers had blocked the front gate, it seemed obvious that Ibadan's "magical" years had long ago rung down the curtain. The classrooms were stifling, despite the open windows flanked by frangipani trees; there was rarely electricity to run fans or computers. And there was the problem of books: where to find them, how to afford them. The collection in the library was old and most volumes devastated by the tropical heat. The selection at the two decent local bookstores (in a city of over a million people) was not much better: Who was going to spend the equivalent of two weeks worth of food on one novel? Most of the graduate students passed around photocopies and abandoned the idea of keeping up on the latest scholarship. Even if they had the money, it was near impossible to order journals or books online without a credit card; or to convince international websites they were not just another Nigerian scammer or prince in distress.
During my first month in Nigeria, I arrived early for a seminar and pulled out a ratty paperback to read. Everybody's heads swung in my direction. Where did you get it? Can I borrow it? Can I make a copy of it? Books were valued in Ibadan, in the way one values something hovering on extinction. And yet Ibadan's important history of nurturing great authors -- though the facilities and intellectual support were remnants of what they once had been -- still inspired younger Nigerians. There was still an echo of myth. Of barely lingering magic.
And that was why I'd moved there. Not to stand in the ruins and gawk, but to see what contemporary aspiring writers like me were doing with the hand they'd been dealt (and it was a tough one -- just about the only Nigerian authors being published internationally lived or studied abroad) and to see how the history of such literary glory might transfer to the succeeding generations, those who Jeyifo called "the unfortunate children of fortunate parents."
When I got together with my Ibadan literary crew, we shared works-in-progress and argued over politics; we told bad jokes and drank too much Star beer; we sometimes left the canteen with our arms flung over each other's shoulders in affection. I would tell Kunle I'd enjoyed his play about the pompous professor, but I thought the ending, where he threw a woman in a wheelchair up against the wall, might be taking things a little too far. They would critique my retelling of the Handsome Man folktale, where a village woman follows a handsome stranger into the Bush only to discover he's a spirit who borrowed his human parts. In my version, the handsome man was a white woman.
"I think your dialogue in pidgin was okay," said Rotimi. "But you need to make the bird a parrot. In Yoruba tradition the parrot is always the gossip monger."
In the fog of beer and converstation, we could almost forget that the world had changed, Nigeria had changed, literature had changed. My friends sitting across the table were the inheritors of Ibadan's past. The next Wole Soyinkas and Flora Nwapas, because why not?
On one of those nights, I tramped back behind the canteen to piss in the only bathroom available, the gully. There, tucked into the cuff of my jeans, was a lone firefly winking against the backdrop of denim. Not wanting to be anywhere else. And I remember thinking: these days, even in this decaying city during these decaying times, were sometimes magical too.
In Rotimi's "Bombay's Republic," which won the most recent Caine Prize for African fiction, he tells the story of a Nigerian soldier fighting in the Burma campaign of World War II, convinced that otherwise he would be "roasted alive for consumption" by Hitler's dogs. The writing manages to be deeply felt and vaguely distant at the same time, the tone and structure of myth. It is the story of struggle and endurance. The story of Rotimi and his circle of friends, and maybe of literary Ibadan itself.