Thursday, October 29, 2015 1:05 pm
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 quiet 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.
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.’’