Friday, May 9, 2014 5:08 pm
At 85, Pa Anthony Olajide Fayemi’s memory waltzes perfectly. He still recalls his experiences with Chief Daniel Olufemi Fagunwa, the iconoclastic Yoruba writer (1903-1962), under whom he worked as a secretary. Fayemi, it was, who processed the last manuscript of the celebrated educationist’s last novel, Adiitu Olodumare. Fayemi explains to NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI how he met Fagunwa, his death and the state of Yoruba culture
Q: How did you meet Chief D.O. Fagunwa?
It was in the 1950s. We were both in the Ministry of Education. He was at the General Publications Section, GPS, of the ministry where they published the Teachers Month and other short stories. I was at the Students Division of the ministry. General Publications was under Students Division. General Publications was located in the town not at the secretariat where I was. I had been eager to meet him because I read his book, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, in the primary school in 1940. I thought it was written by a demon or so.
One day, he came to the GPS. There was an Ife man, Dr. Olotowoju, who also came to the GPS. I was in my office upstairs when I heard him chanting praises of Olotowoju in Yoruba like, Doctor mi owon, doctor Alagbara (my dear, powerful doctor) and so on. When I heard that, I asked who it was that spoke like Fagunwa. Somebody said it was Fagunwa. I ran downstairs to meet him and greet him. That was the first day I ever saw him, not knowing that I was going to work directly with him later on. About one or so years later, they wanted to transfer me to Sapele, I rejected it. I told them I wanted to be anywhere in Yorubaland. The post I was going to hold in Sapele could be held by a Sapele man who was also in the GPS. So, I asked why not ask if that man would prefer to go to Sapele so that I could take his place here? That was how I contacted that man and he was happy.
There was Ms. Sanders, who was the chief education officer in-charge of the place. Fagunwa was education officer. That same year, Sanders retired and went back to England and Fagunwa became senior education officer at GPS. I could type. I did typewriting tests up to 50 words per minute, which was the highest. That was how I became his typist. He loved me so much that he entrusted everything to me. I thank God that I didn’t misuse the opportunity.
What kinds of things were you typing for him?
I used to type letters and manuscripts in Yoruba. Our writings were mostly Yoruba except for Teachers Monthly which was in English. It was a monthly journal for teachers, the others were in Yoruba.
Did you type any of his manuscripts?
Yes. I typed Adiitu Olodumare, which was his last book. He had another one which never came out; it got missing in transit before he died and we were not able to find the script. At GPS, I asked him one day: “Baba, how did you come about these books? What prompted you to write them?” He said, “You are a good boy.” He said he never knew that writing books could bring money in those days; he wasn’t chasing money. All he wanted was to write so that people could know him by reading him.
He said that when he was going to write Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irumole, he was at Oyo as headmaster of St. Andrew’s Practising School. The idea came to him to write, after all those who wrote books were human beings like himself. He said from the town he came to Ibadan road and created a path through a bush to a very big tree which was so huge that you couldn’t see sunrays under the tree.
That was where he started writing this book. He didn’t know that opposite the road he created, there was a woman selling yam and other things in a kiosk. He didn’t know that the woman was suspecting that he wasn’t a human being – he used to come out of the bush to buy yam and returned there. The road didn’t lead to anywhere.
The woman contacted some hunters and the villagers to search the bush. God saved him. The period they came was when he had gone out to buy yam, otherwise they would have searched the place and could have killed him while doing so.
He was returning to the bush after buying yam when those men stopped him. They asked him where he was going and where he came from. He said he told them stories about himself. They asked, “You say you are writing a book, is it in the bush that writers work?”
They followed him into the bush and saw the small table, chair and books on the table. They asked him where he originated from. He told them and that he was the headmaster of St. Andrew’s Practising School. That was how they spared him.
After finishing writing the book, the problem of printing arose. He didn’t know anything about publishing at that time. He was just worried about printing the book. He had no money on him. Then somebody told him to go to CMS. It was the Europeans who were at the head of affairs there and they were into book selling and publishing. So, when he was on holidays, he went to Lagos. He went to CMS, met the general manager and told him about his book. The general manager called a Yoruba man there to study the book. In about 30 minutes or so, the man came back and said, “This is a very good book, it’s going to sell.” They accepted the manuscript. He said he was shocked when they asked him how much they should pay for it. He just wanted them to print it. He asked them how much they wanted to pay him.
After a little bargain, they offered him £20, which he declined. They however settled for £25. They asked him, “Do you want cash or cheque?” He said cash, because cheque wasn’t popular. In Ibadan, there were only two banks – Barclays Bank and Bank of British West Africa, BBWA, which have now metamorphosed into First Bank plc and Union Bank plc. So, they told the cashier to pay him. He said even when he was coming down from the building, he was looking back, feeling that they would call him back to say, “You thief, what have you done to earn £25?”
From that £25, he prepared for his wedding to his first wife. He bought a Raleigh bicycle, a gramophone, some records, iron bed, mattress and so many other things. He was able to hire a vehicle from Lagos to bring him to Oyo. When he got to Oyo, his fiancée asked him where he got money to buy those things.
He said that was how he wrote his first book. Then he started planning to write another one. By the time he wrote Igbo Olodumare or so, he said he had an idea about publishing. He gave the book to Thomas Nelson who published it and paid him royalties. He then felt that, so one could sit down and earn money without writing every day. He said at that time Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irumale, which was published by CMS, was out of circulation. Following what he was getting from Nelson, he asked himself why Ogboju Ode…, the first book, was yielding no money. So, it occurred to him to go and ask why it was no longer circulating. He said they told him that they were book sellers and that they had stopped combining book selling with publishing. He then told them to return his manuscript. The general manager returned it to him. He sent it to Nelson again for publishing. That’s was how Nelson became publisher of Ogboju Ode …
What changed your earlier perception of him when you encountered him personally?
It’s different when something is physical. I knew then that he was from Oke Igbo. I began to feel that he was not a demon; he was a living person. At first, when I was transferred to GPS, I still had the opinion that I was going to work with a demon because even after that first day I saw him, I didn’t believe still, that he was human. But when we started working together, I began to see that he was a human being like me.
When he knew that I come from Ife – mind you, the people of Oke Igbo are related to Ife by blood – he took me as his son.
Is that to say you had a very personal relationship beyond official work?
How did that relationship affect you beyond the office?
As I told you earlier, he took me as his son. He was like a father to me. And with that, I moved so close to him because he trusted me. I also relied on him as a father since I had lost my father in 1947. I believed he was my father again. Gradually, I kept his personal account records. I knew how much he had in the bank, his pension from the ministry, his publishing royalties. He was chief examiner in Yoruba for WAEC, so all his earnings were known to me. That’s why if you asked his wife anything about her husband, she would say, go and ask Fayemi.
He was a hunter and swimmer. Were you also taking part in those activities with him?
I heard that also but I didn’t see him do those. You know he was getting old at that time. I think from hunting, he was able to visit dangerous places in Oke Igbo, where he collected the ideas for his books. But the knowledge that he had been a swimmer came to me when he died. I will come to that later.
I know there were very few universities at that time. What was his relationship with the intellectuals and why were his books not read in higher institutions at that time?
I won’t say much about that. But I knew they recognised his books at the university level but not to very great extent. I don’t know much about that area, so I wouldn’t say much.
What kind of family person was he, given the crowded schedule he had? How did he divide his time to meet all the demands?
I think it’s God-given power because I don’t believe anybody can cover all the things he did. He had very little time to himself. He used to get up in the night and drive out. He went to cemeteries and other places, sat there and thought of what to write. He thought about things like, supposing a spirit came up and said something to him, how would he defend himself? That is what you find in all his writings.
If you travelled with Fagunwa from Ibadan to Lagos, when there were not many traffic gridlocks, you wouldn’t arrive there until probably about 3pm or 4pm.
He never went straight to his destination. If a rabbit ran across the road, he would ask the driver to stop, he would check where it passed, ask what it meant if a rabbit came from the left side of the road to the right side. He would query himself. If it was a bird, he would stop and if the bird flew or ran somehow, he would have something to put down.
So he was constantly researching and writing?
He was always with a pen and paper in his car. He sat comfortably at the back of his car, while being driven.
His coming to Heinemann is another point. When he was to retire from service, he wrote to his friends abroad in December, 1961 [he had a lot of friends outside Nigeria] that he would become a full-time writer. They replied that Heinemann was looking for a representative in Nigeria. Fortunately, Van Minh, the overseas director of Heinemann at that time, was the overseas director in Nelson. He had resigned from Nelson and joined Heinemann. So, Fagunwa wrote him as a friend, not as a publisher. Van Minh replied that they were looking for somebody in Nigeria, why won’t he take the job? Van Minh told him that he would have time to write, since he no longer had a regular job. He accepted. He gave them a condition that if he must take up the appointment, he had somebody in mind that would work with him. They told him that he was the manager so he could employ anyone to work with him. He asked me to resign from the civil service. It was a risk because I was holding a permanent pensionable post and leaving it to a place I had no guarantee of steady employment. But because I trusted Fagunwa, I went. And everything went well
Why did he choose to write in Yoruba and what challenges did you have, typing those scripts in Yoruba language, with all the mechanical demands?
As I told you before, he was writing before I joined him. It didn’t occur to me to ask him about that. But all I know is that he was really interested in anything Yoruba. He supported you, if you were interested in Yoruba culture. He was a Yoruba man to the core. And because he went into the bush always, most of his writings were better written in Yoruba than English. If you understand Yoruba and you read his books, you will enjoy them more than when you read the translated versions. He was chief interpreter (from English to Yoruba) to the premier or governor of the Western Region at that time. Before I came to the ministry of education, I was with the local government service at Ife as a typist. I too had developed interest in typing Yoruba things, I wanted a change from English, and so I was able to type Yoruba. I got better when I began to work with Fagunwa. He discovered that I was the only one who could type Yoruba language very well out of the four typists at the GPS. That was why he took me from the others and I think that was why I became his secretary.
Tell me about that adventure to Heinemann. How long did you work there and from what time to what time?
It was a very good journey because I still live on it till today. When I went with him, unfortunately, at the end of the second year, he died. But Heinemann people – Alan Hill, Chris Ambrose and James Currey, who were the directors there – retained me after dismissing all others. They kept me and one driver. I’ll tell you why they came to know and liked me. In 1963, Fagunwa went to London and I was here with one assistant manager he had employed. I covered one exhibition at Ondo. When I returned, I wrote my report and passed it to the assistant manager. That one said go and type it and send it to Baba. I protested that he was my immediate boss. He insisted, so I typed the report and sent it to Fagunwa in England. Incidentally, Alan Hill, Chris Ambrose and James Currey were in the car when they brought the report to Fagunwa. He opened the envelop and read the report, after which he passed it on to Alan Hill, James Currey and Chris Ambrose. They enjoyed the report. They wrote back to thank me for the beautiful report. I didn’t know that I was paving way for my progress. Unfortunately, it was that year December when he came back from London that he died.
Chris Ambrose and Alan Hill came and wrote that we should keep working until their arrival in December. When they came, they sacked all others including that assistant manager.
They retained me and one driver. So, that was how I became the link between Fagunwa’s administration and Aigboje Higo’s in Heinemann. I held the office for one year. That was 1964. They wrote to me that they had a new manager who was a graduate; I wasn’t. I had primary education and a little bit of secondary education which was not certificated. But I developed myself. We were working together when Higo was employed. I became the sales manager before I retired. So, you can see, I don’t regret going to Heinemann. I’m enjoying it till today even without pension.
How did you learn about his swimming exploits and what was so special about it?
It was when he died that I came to know really that he was a swimmer. What happened was that Heinemann sent him a cablegram from London that Alan Hill and Chris Ambrose were coming to Nigeria and that he should fly from Ibadan or Lagos to Kano to meet them at the airport there. The driver took the car and left in advance to Kano. He flew to Kano and met them. After meeting the Heinemann duo, they went back to London and he was returning to Ibadan by road. He was stopping on the way to visit schools, ministries of education and so on until he got to Bida. It was late, so he slept in a hotel.
The following morning he left because there was a river on the way which he thought was just like the River Niger between Asaba and Onitsha, where they used to ferry people and vehicles across the river. He woke up very early because he thought he was going to queue up at the river. But when they got to the bank of the river, they were disappointed because there was nobody there at all. He told the driver to wait while he followed one path by the bank of the river.
I was not there with them; they didn’t telephone us. But the driver said shortly after Fagunwa left him, he started hearing splashes of water, he thought that may be a dangerous animal was there. So, he said he ran to one side of the river and found him [Fagunwa] in the water, trying to swim (That is why I said he was a good swimmer.) The driver said, had there been people to rescue him, he wouldn’t have drowned. But the heavy garment he had on, shoes and as on, which mean he wasn’t prepared for swimming, stopped him. The driver shouted but the villagers didn’t hear him or understand Yoruba language. And it was just dawn; most people were still asleep. The harmattan was also at its peak. Before they realised what happened… they contacted the police, the driver gave the police the phone number of Heinemann office in Ibadan and they called us. The Heinemann office was in Fagunwa’s house where it started. By the time they called, work had closed. When the phone rang, it was his wife who picked it. She contacted the assistant manager, they sent for me. We got the car to Bida, we arrived there very late in the night. We slept in the car at the bank of the river till early morning before we were ferried across to the place. We then tried to organise a search party to look for the body. After some time, they found it.
According to the villagers, if an elephant fell into that river, after one night, it won’t be found again. But there was no scratch on Fagunwa’s body. He was fresh and was still holding his eye-glasses. His wristwatch and other accessories were intact. We took him to the hospital for post-mortem. I was asked to wait to bring the car to Ibadan. I wasn’t around when he was buried, I heard they prepared another coffin and he was buried at Oke Igbo, his hometown. Some people said we did not get the corpse, that water spirits or mammy water took him away. It wasn’t. What happened is that as he was passing through a path on the river bank, he got too close to a marshy area and he fell into the river. It was during that time that I remembered what I heard that he was a swimmer. The driver confirmed that he was struggling and if the hadn’t clothes on, he would have probably swum back to safety.
That must have been a very traumatic experience for you.
Ah! I thought the end had come for me. In fact for almost two or three years, I was deeply affected. But there was nothing I could do, I had to bear it.
Tell us about yourself. What have you been doing since leaving Heinemann?
That’s a long story. I wanted to be a book seller but I couldn’t. The year was when Chief Bola Ige became governor of Oyo State and he said he was going to supply books directly to schools. He chose only two or three people for that purpose. Then, I wondered what I would sell if books were supplied directly to schools. I had a friend, Frank Alkali from Lampese. He is a wealthy person. He asked me to go into gas distribution. I told him I had never done it before. He encouraged me to start from somewhere. I was asked to deposit N5,000 with Granny Gas at Ikeja. He went with me because he was a friend of the managing director of that firm. They gave me gas and the components; that was how I started selling gas. I was supplying gas to the University of Ife. After some time, we discovered that Total Gas was cheaper. Mr. Fashola, who was the manager of Granny Gas, then introduced me to other components, like parts of refrigeration and other materials. I later changed to poultry. When I began to age seriously, people told me that poultry keeping was not good for my age. My children told me not to worry about anything. And they have been taking good care of me. If I ask for anything, they give me. Fortunately, I had one or two buildings before I retired. So, I earn some money from the rent.
Fagunwa’s parents were heathen but he got converted to Christianity. Do you know how it happened?
I don’t know how he became a Christian. I met him as a Christian. He was a very strong believer in Christ. He was a member of St. James’ Anglican Cathedral, Oke Bola. Now, judging from his writing, people won’t agree that he believed in Christ.
It’s difficult to reconcile his writings and research methods with his belief in Christ. Is it not?
It is. Unless you were with him, it’s difficult to reconcile the two views. I didn’t ask him, because I met him a Christian. I know he had a brother, Oyedele, who was a traditionalist. He wanted Fagunwa to join one secret cult.
But he refused, despite the pressure. You couldn’t convince him to use a charm. He never attended any cultural ceremonies except it had no fetish elements. That was because he believed in Christ. I wondered myself because the two things – his writings and religious belief – were incompatible but he was able to maintain the two levels.
As somebody who worked with him very closely, how do you feel now that he is being remembered and celebrated?
You talked earlier about the universities and so on not reading his works. But Fagunwa was so popular in schools to a point that you didn’t attend secondary school without reading one or two of his novels. His books were set-books in WAEC. One is surprised that people are beginning to turn to his writing. But I know that Fagunwa was the Shakespeare of Yoruba.
He could have become an African Shakespeare because of the importance of the things he wrote about?
That’s what Soyinka is trying to do with the translations. He translated Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole to English as The Forest Of A Thousand Daemons. Fagunwa himself was translating Adiitu Olodumare, I was typing the translation. He was also writing part 2 of Adiitu Olodumare, which he called Ireola Olodumare or Experience The Land of Almighty God.
What happened to his versions of the translations?
Nobody could trace the manuscripts after his death.
It wasn’t that he had handed them over to the publisher?
Not yet. He had finished the part 2 of Adiitu Olodumare. I had typed and given it to him but we couldn’t find it. We don’t really know what happened to it and the other parts of his translations.
What is your relationship with his family? How do they affect you and how do you affect them?
We lost contact for some time. I was familiar with his senior wife and the younger wife, Elizabeth. We reunited when we had a party at Heinemann and Elizabeth was invited. Since then, the relationship has been very good. I’ve been to Oke Igbo several times. She telephones me always to ask how I’m faring. We are both aged, she’s over 80 years old, and so am I. We don’t travel as much as we used to. But we still keep a very good relationship.
He was a Christian but had more than one wife. How did that go with the church?
Traditionally, it was permissible. As a Christian, he was married to his first wife who had two children, Femi and Ibukunolu Fagunwa. The children were both in London when he died. But I think because he had only two children and you know the Yoruba tradition, pressure was mounted on him. People were asking him if he was relying on only those two children. They wanted him to marry from Oke Igbo. They weren’t happy that he married a wife who wasn’t from Oke Igbo. That was why he had to marry Elizabeth.
Didn’t the church disturb him?
You had to be deprived of some things. He was denied of some privileges.
You have seen a lot of things by virtue of your age and exposure. Can you compare what the Yoruba culture is now and what it was in the past?
The culture is really dying off. And that is why we are crying and fighting for the language and the dialects. We want our people to begin again to speak Yoruba language. You see our children speaking English, most of them can’t even say a word in Yoruba. It looks as if they are not yielding to our cry. Maybe God can change their minds. You can’t get a European speaking Yoruba, he may, if he comes to Yoruba and learns the language. But we are making English our first language. Even people who are much older than I am, learnt Yoruba in the school. Now, they’re bringing Yoruba language back to school anyway. My granddaughter told me she wrote Yoruba examination the other day.
The language, dressing and every other aspect has changed, and not for the better. We are going to the extreme in everything. You can imagine a Yoruba person christening his child Joyce or Miracle and all that. Miracle has a Yoruba equivalent – Iyanu. Why not use the Yoruba one? Ayo is Joy. Why not use that one? We are trying to correct it. Let’s hope that things change. Government is trying now to reverse the attitude of the people