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How returning to Nigeria turned Oladipo Agboluaje into a storyteller

Photo by Nnaemeka Ugochukwu on Unsplash

“There are two ways to lose oneself: by segregation in the particular or by dilution in the ‘universal’.” — Aimé Césaire (Lettre à Maurice Thorez, 1956).

In 1977 I was nine when my Dad told me we were going to live in Nigeria. Up until that point, Nigeria was a place my brother and I thought of as an imagined space. Mum and Dad, uncles, aunts and their friends spoke Yoruba, and sometimes they wore Nigerian clothes on special occasions. Dad had an extensive record collection of Yoruba music ranging from Fela Kuti to King Sunny Ade. We ate Nigerian food once a day at supper. A Nigerian storyteller once ran a workshop on Yoruba culture at my primary school in Hackney. I remember him making two of my classmates wear Yoruba chiefly robes. He taught them how to roll up the sleeves and wave fly-whisks in beat to his drumming. Then the whole class got up to dance. We had a good laugh that day. I felt pride that a taste of this imagined space came to me live in my school in Hackney. When I got home I told my parents about the storyteller. Dad asked me why I didn’t introduce myself to him. The thought never crossed my mind.

Returning to Nigeria, I realized that, although I was ‘home’, I had crossed a border into a new world. I had to learn its language and its codes. You do not call anyone older than you by their first name, it’s rude to point at people, and so on.

Although most of the programmes on TV were in English, the ones that were the most interesting, gauging people’s reaction, were of course the ones in the local languages. The comedies of Moses Olaiya and the satires of Ojo Ladipo provoked volcanic eruption levels of laughter compared to the shows in English. The historical and mythical dramas of Duro Ladipo evoked passionate debates about his artistic licence, or about how the antagonist would survive now that his plan to eliminate the protagonist had backfired. These artistes were first dramatists who led travelling theatre companies. They had crossed over to television, but their acting styles were still reminiscent of their theatre roots. My need to understand these performances accelerated my efforts to learn the language, to cross the border into the Yoruba imagination.

My ability to cross this border planted in me the desire to become a storyteller. Once I began to understand the Yoruba dramas, once I could communicate with my cousins and schoolmates, I began to share in another world.

I didn’t leave London behind completely. Dad brought with him from London an extensive library of British and European classics. He continued to subscribe to Readers’ Digest. In addition to the local programmes in English we watched English and American imports like Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and The Jeffersons.

In Nigeria, I was introduced to other cultures. In the cinemas, most of the films screened were Indian and Chinese kung fu films subtitled or voiced-over in English. My classmates would turn up to school and narrate shot for shot the films they sneaked in to see the night before. Their renderings of the kung fu fights were as exciting as watching David Chiang and Angela Mao doing the real choreographed thing. On a few occasions, the renditions were hazardous to the health of the persons doing the retelling and those of us watching. They sang the songs of the Indian movies word for word, imitating the choreographed dance moves of the Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachchan.

In literature class in Form One, we read books like Kola Onadipe’s Koku Baboni, and Cyprian Ekwensi’s The Drummer Boy, Trouble in Form Six, and The Passport of Mallam Ilia. These were stories written for children of our age. They were pacey adventure stories that spoke to the sense of justice of an eleven year old. In later years we read heavier fare like Wole’s Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the Cameroonian author Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala. These texts enhanced my sense of Nigeria as a setting for stories. I could begin to identify places and peoples and match them as backdrops to the stories I read.

Then there was our first visit to our Dad’s home town, Oyo, in Western Nigeria. I was about eleven or twelve. I came across my cousin’s slim book of Greek mythology, written for young people. I spent most of the visit swept up in the stories of Achilles, Heracles and Athena. On the journey home my brother and I marvelled at the similarities of the Greek myths to those of the Yoruba myths we were beginning to discover through TV dramas and children’s programmes like Tales by Moonlight and through oral literature, and in books like Ulli Beier’s Yoruba Myths.

Beier’s book covered the Yoruba creation stories, and the tales about significant figures like Sango and Oranmiyan, son of Oduduwa, the founder of the Yoruba people. We had our own gods and goddesses of thunder, rivers, and war. They were fashioned differently, out of the culture and history of the Yoruba, a culture we were now fascinated by.

In secondary school my brother and I formed a comic book publishing company with some friends. We called our company Wonder Comics and it was going to be our answer to the American behemoths of DC and Marvel, and the British IPC, publisher of Roy of the Rovers and Tiger and Scorcher. This was where we mixed all our influences into stories that featured heroes that looked like us. We created the Junior Space Team, a group of African teenage intergalactic space travellers who sought out different worlds and engaged in space battles with belligerent aliens. We based the characters on ourselves and on people we knew. Sango, the Yoruba king turned god of thunder was our answer to Thor. Where Thor had his hammer, Sango had his iconic two-bladed wooden axe. Ogun, god of iron and war was our Aries.

Our work was syncretic. It blended influences from our experiences into unique worlds. It reflected life as we saw and lived it. It criss-crossed borders until the boundaries blurred.

Wonder Comics came to a premature end after two years. Nigeria is a competitive society. Good grades came before everything else. Our parents made us focus our attention on our studies so that we could gain a university place.

I ended up studying theatre arts at the University of Benin, in an ancient city about three hours’ drive from my home in Abeokuta. In Benin City, Edo was the main language, but the lingua franca was pidgin English. There were so many ethnicities from the eastern part of Nigeria living in Benin that pidgin. How else could we communicate with each other?

Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin define pidgin as, ‘languages serving as lingua franca, that is, they are used as a medium of communication between groups who have no other language in common.’ Seymour-Smith notes that pidgin is a language that develops out of trade languages. It is a language of meeting points, of contact zones. It is a merging of the lexicon of one language with the rules of grammar of another language.

Benin was where I broadened my knowledge of theatre, from Wole Soyinka’s mytho-poetic humanism of ADance of the Forests to Femi Osofisan’s working-class re-rendering of historical events in Morountodun, from the social realism of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to the absurdism of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I learned about new writers from across Africa, writers such as Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo and Efua Sutherland to Tanzania’s Ebrahim Hussein, to South Africa’s Athol Fugard. At this period, my father had started subscribing to Time and Newsweek.

Through these magazines I got to know about play productions in the West End and on Broadway. I learned about the musicals boom that was taking place in London with shows like Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. I began to imagine what kind of a play was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and how he came up with such a title.

London began to grab a hold of me imaginatively. I was studying theatre. Where else could I go if I wanted a career as a playwright?

In 1995, I decided to return to London. I had been working in an art gallery. By the time I graduated the thriving theatre industry had succumbed to the poor economic climate of the time. I was going to pursue my dream of working in theatre.

It was my experience of working on my first play, Early Morning, in 2003 that made me realize that there was a way of writing about Africa that made few concessions to me and my experience. Africa was the already written narrative that was pulled from news headlines rather than observed from lived experience. It was either I write according to that convention or give up. But this was the only way I knew how to write. It was reflective of the two worlds I came from but shaped by my years of living in Nigeria. A literary manager wrote to me wondering if I knew my people. I was reminded of what Tom Stoppard said:

“A writer ought to be the best possible source about their work but the writing instinct doesn’t come out of self-examination. That part of yourself in your work is expressed willy-nilly, without your cooperation, motivation or collusion. You can’t help being what you write and writing what you are.”

So I had to trust my instincts. Early Morning went on to fairly decent success, and so began my career as a playwright.

Having crossed this border, I have continued to write in that vein, and writing in other theatrical forms. Sometimes when I’m asked to explain why I write the way I do, it feels like I’m explaining a joke. It loses its humour. I still feel like a syncretic person. As Tennyson wrote in ‘Ulysses’, ‘I am a part of all that I have met’. And that works out just fine for me.

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