Sunday, June 18, 2006

afam akeh on osofisan @ 60

Cleansing Song
(for Don Mattera & the six musketeers of a memorable German Summer, 1992)

I'm travelling with fine and lovely men
I go as one travels with dreams

past rivers and castles and waterfalls
I'm travelling with such a lovely group

we share all that we brought to share
our memories of loss and betrayal
and we link our hearts and we smile

along great rivers and ancient ruins
I'm travelling with dreamers and dreams:

six men from a shattered continent
share pain, and share compassion: we
shall salvage hope yet from our land's wreck

I'm travelling with fine and lovely men
past rivers and healing waterfalls
and I ride as one travels with dreams

On the shoulders of each other's song
we lean our famished souls to drink, and
oh, how soothing are the fountains of poets!...

we bring the ears of our compassion
to the windows of each other's pains, and
now all our derailed wagons are rolling again

and I shall forget losses, the promises broken.
I shall pledge to start my journey afresh
with the wings my brothers have given me:

For the continent will never die now.
I know, because of such men and their dreams

© Femi Osofisan

Such personal memories as evoked by his poem above, in the 1993 collection Dream-Seeker on Divining Chain (Kraft Books Limited), are what I mostly attach to the notable public and literary name Femi Osofisan. That "memorable German Summer" of the poet's evocative personal outpouring above, we had been travelling through a post-Cold War German nation, still much pained by the challenges of East and West unification - six of us, Osofisan and myself included, others being Ken Saro Wiwa and writers from East and Southern Africa among whom was the South African poet Don Mattera. The International Conference on Literatures of the Developing World at Bayreuth University was our destination. I was some kind of debuttante in distinguished literary company and acutely aware of my inexperience. I think that Osofisan, Saro Wiwa and Mattera were, perhaps, also aware of my difficulty, and, especially in the earlier part of the journey, found ways of being attentive and pulling me into that brotherly love the poem speaks of without making me feel patronised. Mattera was the Clown King of our Happy Company. He was also the oldest. Saro Wiwa was frequently absent from the officially organised group tours, even then already engaged with the personal projects of the environmental struggles that would eventually claim his life. He did not even return home to Nigeria with us but flew from Germany to some conference on the environment and displaced peoples. But the prevalent satirical humour of Wiwa's work was in evidence when he was in our company. I remember him mocking Osofisan (and I suppose myself) over repeated helpings from what seemed to me then an inexhaustible breakfast offering. Saro Wiwa drew a funny analogy about the scarcity mentality of poor nations and their politicians, which forces a grab-it-all attitude to wealth so that whatever is available to be shared never quite goes the distance.

For Mattera's earthy clowning and Saro Wiwa's satirical wit, there was Osofisan's endless run of myth-making and mischief-making. Highlighting our moments with imagined incidents, humorous anecdotes and characterisations was uniquely the province of Osofisan. I think it is that ability to sometimes sound really serious when he is being very funny, or to sound very funny when he is being very serious, that I find most engaging in Osofisan. Ever heard him tell a few about Okigbo? Or, just about any other writer? Wole Soyinka, in perhaps a despondent moment, described his generation as "wasted" by the land of their birth. Osofisan was also once similarly uncertain about his generation of writers - and he was being serious that day, many years ago, or was he? He said it was not so difficult to see that Nigerian writers were not really committed to the Nigerian struggle because not a lot of them were locked up in prison by the then military government! I am paraphrasing him, of course. But this leaning to the dramatic even in discourse is classic Osofisan - often on stage and at play even in what some consider 'real life'. Among the major Nigerian writers, it had to be Osofisan who would take the early sacrificial decision to publish all his work locally in encouragement of the fledgling publishing industry. For him, this decision would prove costly, quite painful though some may say also hilarious as he soon became the nation's favourite playwright, performed by so many eager enthusiasts and professionals in schools and in the broadcast media without the due returns in terms of royalties or even official acknowledgement of rights. Last year at the British Library ceremonies for the Noma Award for African Publishing won by Werewere Liking, I decided to trouble Osofisan, who was one of the judges, with a question from the floor on this vexed matter of his experiences in local African publishing. He is now publishing abroad also after many years of losses through poor marketing and other adverse business practices of some local publishers, a period in which there were also unlawful prints of his books.

It is my strict instruction to myself to avoid any discussion of Osofisan's work in this personal tribute but I may note that whatever the comparative appraisal may be the Osofisan theatre is reputedly an audience-pleaser. Drama is spectacle in Osofisan, the active engagement of form or performance with the people of its spatial reference. In this, Osofisan is closer to the Yoruba language theatres of Hubert Ogunde and Duro Ladipo than Soyinka. But as I said at the beginning the personal connects are what I mostly attach to my experience of Osofisan. I retain a note dated 6 April 1993 from the Britsh Council in Oxford informing me that Osofisan had been in the city for some conference and was disappointed we could not meet. He had, however, left the parcel which was being passed on to me. The parcel contained his second book of poems Dream-Seeker from which the poem above is chosen. There was a kind note on the title page "to Afam and our hopes for the future - warmly Femi Osofisan (Okinba Launko)." So in saying thanks for all the lovely memories, for the many entertaining theatre moments of A Restless Run of Locusts and other plays, for that eternal Summer in Germany captured in poetry, I am also reminded that the past is not all we are. Yes Okinba Launko, we do have "our hopes for the future" and believe that even at sixty you will continue to be an influential part of it even as you have been a pivotal part of that recent cultural past we all celebrate in celebrating you.

Happy birthday.

Afam Akeh

At the NOMA Awards - L-R: Osofisan, Luli Callinicos (one of the winners) with the rest of the Judging Panel - Peter Katjavivi, Peter Bgoya, Fatou Keita & Mary Jay.

*Taken at the British Library, London, 15 October 2005 - by mw;
*Cleansing Song (c) Femi Osofisan - Reproduced with permission.