By Wale Okediran
‘’WALE, no formal programme please. I was alarmed when I read, in one of your earlier mail, something like “the programme will begin at something o’clock and should be over by etc, etc” but chose to let it go. I shall interact with your centre most informally, no structured programme please!’’
With the above mail from the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, it became very obvious that receiving our august visitor at the Ebedi International Writers Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State, Nigeria, would not be as simple as I had earlier thought.
It was at the inauguration of Wole Soyinka Foundation’s ‘’Ijegba Retreat’’ for writers in Abeokuta a few years ago that I casually intimated WS about the Ebedi Writers Residency. I was pleasantly surprised when the Nobel Laureate said he was hearing of the Residency for the first time.
As he put it; ‘’How come I didn’t know about this? Hearing about it for the first time – that’s a great pity! Five years operational – Congratulations! Maybe we should start a kind of internal newsletter and also run a kind of Fellowship Exchange network.
”I don’t know what’s happened to Bode Osayin’s initiative – which I mentioned at the launching. Then Flora Nwapa’s son is also starting something in honour of her memory. Femi Osofisan mentioned something about a building he’s dedicating to writers’ use – and maybe others. Something to work on. Again, very well done.-WS’’.
A few weeks later, precisely in January 2016, I got a mail from WS which threw myself, staff and Board of the Ebedi Writers Residency into ecstasy: the Nobel Laureate would be visiting Ebedi!!
Quickly, I had called members of Soyinka’s well known inner circle of friends on what to do to make the visit a memorable one.
Apart from asking for details of his culinary inclinations, I also asked for the list of those to be invited to welcome our distinguished visitor to Iseyin. I was advised to inform the Oyo State Governor, the State’s Commissioner of Police, the Director of the SSS and, of course, the Kabiyesi, Aseyin of Iseyin about the great man’s visit.
When I called my good friend, Yomi Layinka the recently appointed Senior Special Adviser to Governor Ajimobi on Media on what to do, he asked me to decide what we wanted: a courtesy visit to the governor by Soyinka, or a visit to Soyinka in Iseyin by the governor. I suggested the former and sent a proposed programme to Soyinka just to gauge his mood.
That was when the Nobel Laureate responded by affirming that the visit would be an informal one only to the Writers in the Residency. In that mail, Soyinka had also indicated his desire to combine the literary trip with one of his favourite pastimes: hunting!
As the literary icon put it; ‘’Have I indicated the following? Planning a visit to your Ebedi Retreat during the last week of February, depending on scouting reports in some major non-literary pursuit. Re: Ebedi, will like to explore possibilities of interaction between my Ijegba Retreat programme and yours. What do you suggest would be a good time? Normally this is the season I should be foraging around Upper Ogun, so I thought of killing two birds with one stone… hopefully more than two, quite frankly. The guinea-fowl clans would have migrated to the scattered green belts still surviving the Harmattan drought’’.
Although I had previously read of Soyinka’s hunting skills, I never knew it was a near professional one until I read the concluding part of his mail:
‘’Maybe you could also discreetly check for me on any traditional hunting groups. If you hear the name Asimotu in that zone, let me know. He was my night hunt companion of many years. I just hope he hasn’t preceded me to the hunting grounds yonder. Let me know of your findings, if any, and if you’re likely to be around that period. Thanks. -WS’’.
Unknown to me, some of the community leaders in Iseyin and environs were hunters who had previously gone on hunting expeditions with Soyinka. According to one of them, ‘’Prof is an ‘Ogboju Ode’ (master hunter). I have been following him hunting ‘aparos’ (Guinea Fowls) and other animals since the 1960s.’’
My source also told me to get prepared to join my guest on the hunt. When I protested that I didn’t know anything about hunting, I was assured that Baba, the ‘Ogboju Ode’, will quickly put me through. And just to reassure me of my safety in the bush, the man added: ‘’Prof is not an ordinary person. He will protect you!’’
I dutifully made some enquiries as requested by Soyinka and reported back to the master hunter a few days later: ‘’Further to my last mail, I have some good news for you. Your old hunting pal, Asimotu, aka Asumo, is alive and kicking!
”My contacts who are aware of your previous forays in the forests of Upper Ogun – Oke Ogun confirmed that he is still on this side of the hunting grounds and will be available for your hunting trip as soon as you are ready. He emphasized that your old hunting grounds which used to be before the Ikere Gorge Dam in Iseyin LGA has now been moved to the forest after the dam.
”Once you confirm your hunting dates, we can fix your visit to Ebedi Residency for the day preceding your hunting expedition. The Ebedi event which can start about 10am can be over before 2pm with enough time for you to commence the hunting trip.’’
Soyinka replied my mail the following day: ‘’Excellent research results! Glad to hear of Asimo, my old partner-in-crime! Looking forward to meeting your literary guests.’’
With the issue of the Literary and Hunting events well firmed up, the next problem was how to contain the numerous important personalities within and outside Iseyin who were eager to see Soyinka. Kabiyesi, the Aseyin of Iseyin, a veterinary doctor and great fan of Soyinka reminded me of the importance of bringing Soyinka to the palace during his visit while some chiefs and community leaders in the town, the caretaker chairman of Iseyin Local Government Council as well as secondary school principals, students and teachers were also not to be left out.
Again, I consulted the ‘Soyinka Experts’ on how to handle the dilemma: ‘’He loves writers and children. Just make sure that these groups of people are the first he will meet, then he will not mind who else comes after,’’ said a family member.
I was also warned about his allergy to cameras, flashlights and microphones, including autograph and photograph seekers: ”He just gets tripped off at their sight and could bring the event to a sudden halt, so be careful,” we were warned.
That settled, the matter of what should be on our august visitor’s menu came up next: ‘’He doesn’t eat much. A little of everything…rice, dodo, beans and yam will do. Just make sure that vegetables and fish are included,’’ was the advice.
Of course, it is common knowledge that Soyinka is a connoisseur of wine; we therefore invested in some bottles of exotic French and South African wines which we finally got at the Ibadan branch of ‘Shoprite’ after a long search. We were now set for our visitor. However, getting him to give us the exact time of his arrival in Iseyin was a major challenge.
Still bent on making the visit an informal one, it was obvious that Soyinka did not want any crowd waiting for him, as his latest email suggested: ‘I’m in London, heading back in a day or two. Will head for Abuja for an obligation that has just cropped up, then back to Abeokuta for my gear.
”Only then will I phone to say with some certainty when I shall cruise into Iseyin. Your writers are in residence. You’ve done the research and know where we can call on Asimotu and/or others at 24hr notice – correct? The rest follows the rhythm of the hunt. -WS.’’
In order to pin down our visitor, we decided to sit the students and writers, including Pa Asumo, under the already prepared canopies on the grounds of the residency and put the remaining visitors on alert. They will only be called to the residency upon Soyinka’s arrival. For this plan to succeed, we therefore needed to know when Soyinka would arrive Iseyin. The solution was to discreetly hire an informant to trail our visitor from his Abeokuta base. We were therefore aware of his departure time in Abeokuta as well as the moment he entered Iseyin town.
That was why Soyinka was surprised when he met a small group of us waiting to receive him at the entrance to the barracks area where the residency was located. As Soyinka later alighted from his car on the grounds of the residency, he took a mournful look at the set of canopies and chairs and turned to me: ‘’Wale, is this your idea of an informal visit?’’
Terrified at the thought of his jumping back into his car, I quickly did a double ‘dobale’ (I prostrated twice): ‘’I am sorry sir, that is the best I could do to handle the crowd that wanted to see you. Believe me sir, the pressure on me was too much!’’
At that point, Soyinka caught the sight of Asumo, his old hunting pal whom I had planted at a vantage point under the canopy. ‘’Is that not Asumo?’’ he asked, his face radiating with an indescribable joy at the sight of his old ‘partner-in-crime’.
As he moved gracefully to fall into a bear hug with another ‘ogboju ode’, the motley crowd of journalists, video and camera men and women whom I had hidden under the foliage of a nearby mango tree suddenly came out to record that historic moment when two old hunters back-slapped and greeted each other in a language only they could understand. Then the students who were under another canopy on a cue broke into a song of welcome which finally disarmed and enchanted our august visitor. I was now breathing better and very quickly, used my mobile phone to call the remaining invited guests to start coming to the residency.
As previously planned, a set of students groomed by our Ghanaian resident-writer, Moffatt Nii Addokwei, sang and did the Ghanaian ‘kpalongo’ dance made famous in the 1960s much to the delight of our august visitor who was now smiling broadly. The students followed it with a French song which they were taught by the Cameroonian Resident, Dzekashu MacViban. It was now the turn of the writers to receive Soyinka with their poems, songs and short stories. And while most of the writers gave a good account of themselves, one or two succumbed to stage fright.
One young lady writer broke into sweat at the sight of the great man. As she later confessed: ‘’I was overwhelmed by his presence. He is such a handsome old man. What beautiful skin, what lovely white hairs!’’
As I later led Soyinka to the residency proper, it was obvious that we had won him over as hordes of writers, students and guests posed for photographs with him. In addition were the autograph seekers all of whom he attended to without any fuss. That was when I had the nerve to formally introduce him to our invited guests who all later accompanied us to the ‘naming ceremony’ of the rooms in the residency by our visitor. So relaxed and happy was Soyinka that he did not protest when I later informed him of our need to quickly visit the kabiyesi who had been waiting for him all day.
Soyinka who was warmly welcomed to the palace by the kabiyesi and his chiefs spoke in impeccable Yoruba to the admiration of the royal father who confessed that he never knew that Soyinka could speak Yoruba after all the ‘big grammar’ he normally uses in his books.
We were soon back to the residency where guests, students, storytellers and hunters were treated to a sumptuous lunch. While other guests had one item of meal, as advised, a tray of motley plates of food was brought before Soyinka. As he was about to give orders for his wine to be brought to him from his car, I quickly stopped him and brought out a bucket of well chilled bottles of wine and beer. He took a look at the labels, smiled and said: ‘’Wale, you must have done some research. Well done!’’
He later went back to his food and discussion with Asumo, as the two old hunters regaled each other with memories of their old hunting days, some very scary, some very interesting. After more than four hours of a memorable visit, it was soon time for the Nobel Laureate to take his leave. As he stood up, I asked him when the hunting would commence.
I told him I was eager to commence my new assignment as an apprentice hunter. He laughed, obviously glad to have won another hunting disciple: ‘’I have asked Asumo to stand down the group for now. We have to fix a new date as something that needs my attention in the U.S. just came up.’’
That is Soyinka for you; always busy, always on the move. And at 80 something years old, he still walked ram-rod erect with springy steps, his white mane of hair glistening in the late afternoon sun. Twilight was setting in when we finally saw him off to his car. As Soyinka’s car departed the grounds of the Ebedi Residency, a giant whirlwind came hurtling down the nearby mountain side, blew down the valley, gathered momentum at our feet and chased after the old man’s car.
‘’Baba o, Ogboju ode,’’ cried one of the hunters. ’’I told you he is not an ordinary person. In that wind are his ‘anjonus’ (genies) who are escorting him home!”