Watching Soyinka

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Watching Soyinka: A Peace Corps Volunteer Remembers
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Hebert

Used here with permission of Tom Hebert. [Editors note: The original work has been slightly reformatted for this medium.]



“I cannot claim that I am a good Dramatist, but I believe that practice makes perfect. I may have my faults as any other dramatist may have, as there is no perfection in humanity. Sensible readers may agree with me that it is a tough job to get a story explained. This book is written in simple English to enable many readers who are semi-illiterate to read it and understand. Very high words are avoided. May you enjoy the interest in the book, that is all.”

—Okenwa Olisa, About the Husband & Wife Who Hate Them-Selves, Onitsha, 1962.


1. However badly the English finally cobbled Nigeria together in 1914, for an enchanted spell in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nigeria was the capital of Africa and the best place in the world to be. Over-filled with the most politically sensitive, fervent, and sophisticated citizens known anywhere, it included the largest percentage of whole sane people on the planet. Then a census went bad, a Southern politician mistakenly campaigned through the Moslem North in a helicopter—thus over-flying harems—and years later all this—and more—resulted in the promise of an independent Biafra dying in 1969 under the guns of a military that once roused to ethnic excuses and excesses, never returned to its barracks. And how odd that would have seemed to us in 1962. When then it was politics, politics, and politics like no American since the early 19th Century has known. Oh, to be there and then again. To have another try at mere raw and rare politics.

2. The ramifications of this sloughing-off of democratic freedoms and institutions were not only preamble to the Biafran War, but helped directly to create the blasted landscapes of Darfur, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Congo, and Liberia. And their child soldiers. And even violent Islam.

3. Yet, Nigeria in the 1960s—in its wondrous play of intrigue, power, and corruption, atavistic moments revealing secrets ancient and wise, and in its violence, size and distinctness of character, portents and augury, fools and tragic heroes, kingship struggles, a fabulous renaissance of African art, dance, and scholarship, public clownery, and scope of divisive political, cultural, and religious issues—all this was closer to Elizabethan England than anything since, anywhere. And add love of language and flowing national dress.

4. Founded in the 1830s, Ibadan, now the capital of the Yoruba peoples, developed into the most powerful Yoruba city-state before coming under British protection in 1893. As an American Peace Corps Volunteer from 1962 to 1964, I was at home in—and was at content in—this Yorubaland, this Ibadan, my russet tin city.

5. It was there that I met Wole Soyinka, titan.

A Comedy of Errors in an Ibadan street

Note: Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors , BBC-described as a “madcap romp of mistakings and misadventures,” while “Shakespeare is much more than a literary great. As a crowd puller, his name virtually guarantees money in the bank.” And that was surely true in the first years of Nigeria’s independence—before Nigeria’s Great Unraveling—particularly whenever A Comedy of Errors was the West African School Certificate’s annual Shakespearean “set play.”

It’s May, 1963. The scene: A silent late-evening downtown Ibadan street outside a down-at-the-heels colonial-era cinema which now and then still doubles as an honest theatre. Players: A 25-year-old Peace Corps somebody—a former college drama major—trying desperately to hold on to his first experience directing a full-length play. And this fool is losing this encounter because he is up against Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s poet laureate, Africa’s foremost playwright, and the toast of London’s West End. (This, as opposed to the great Kola Ogunmola, Nigeria’s premier Yoruba opera and theatre party impresario. Do I mention that because I am still harboring rebellion forty-three years later?)

Anyway, the Wole Soyinka holding all the cards and standing before me is headed—I already know with an absolute dead certainty—to a Nobel Prize in literature. And not due to accidents of literary geography, but because Soyinka writes like a fierce angel happily mired to his kneecaps in all things Yoruba:

“Love of independence, a feeling of superiority over all others, a keen commercial spirit, and of indefatigable enterprise, that quality of being never able to admit or consent to a defeat as finally settling a question upon which their mind is bent, are some of those qualities peculiar to them, and no matter under what circumstances they are placed, Yorubas will display them.”

—The Rev. Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas, Lagos: 1897.

Worse still, there is a growing suspicion that I am not much of a play director. How did I get into this unlovely pot-holed street on the short end of a stick?

A Comedy of Errors was the new University of Ife’s first step into live theatre. And Wole, then a Lecturer in the English department at Ife—which was then getting organized in borrowed space at the University of Ibadan—was producing and directing the play. I became involved because even though I was a middling Fourth Form English teacher at the very poor but very competitive and Moslem Ahmadiyya Grammar School at Eleyele, Ibadan, I had been making myself known around town, loitering at arts gatherings and chumming it up at the famous Mbari, a cultural club on Onireke Street for eaters, drinkers, and vagabond artists including J. P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe and the stranger-by-the-moment German couple Suzanne and Uli Bier. On behalf of a reluctant American Embassy, I even booked the suspect American folk balladeer Pete Singer into Mbari. (Ironically, during Richard Nixon’s 1972 Watergate scandal, we learned that Mbari had been indirectly funded by the CIA—good work that.)

Anyway, I came to know Soyinka somewhat and because he needed all the volunteer help he could find, he asked me if I would work on set design and construction. Sure! Since we didn’t have enough budget to build a real set, I whumped together with scraps of wood an Italian street scene in profile/outline and in-filled it with chicken wire. It’s true! I thought/hoped that the chicken wire would get picked up in stage lighting creating a sparkling effect beyond our means. Well, no. By the time the play opened it was clear that with only small-small lighting and smaller money and wood scraps and chicken wire, more genius than I was required.

But after Wole cast the play with U. of Ife student actors—some really good—he was called to London on some film business. So I started the play in rehearsals—someone had to and I was surely available. I was not only set designer and builder but until Wole returned I was director, helping define characters, blocking movements, setting pace, timing laugh lines, and the rest. Well, several weeks went by and no Wole. So I really began to take hold and take ownership.

But alas, Soyinka returned and one evening sat through a run-through to see what had transpired—of good or evil—in his absence. I see him now, stirring in his seat, standing up, walking around. Finally he stops the action and asks some questions which the actors try to answer or in my case, defend.

Well, of course the actors knew who was back and in-charge. And one by one, my proud interpretations went flying out the wings. Unfortunately, not being a shy or retiring person, I began to take exception. And this is when Soyinka invited me to conference in that silent, dusky Ibadan street. Here I met the cold wind of reality as Wole said the obvious: that the play could only have one director and he was it, and how he really liked my set design, and how he hoped that I would stay on as stage manager through the run of the play. Or somesuch. As I had carried water for him in his absence and am not a bad sort, he let me down easy. Comedy of Errors soon opened to good audiences, its many mistakings and misadventures playing to much laughter.

And soon, in late July, 1963 I did direct a play at Mbari Club for Ahmadiyya Grammar School, completely ace-ing the theatrical reputation of Ahmadiyya’s long-time cross-town rival, the elite Government College Ibadan. Yes!

The play, The Gossips of Ewa, was a very funny one-act play “with Woro Dancing and Bata Drums” set in a Yoruba village. It had been adapted at the University of Ibadan from the Irish play, Spreading the News by Augusta Gregory. (I played a clownish white anthropologist investigating the people of Ewa.) I was beginning to learn the ritual magic of Yoruba theatre because we ended the play with a marriage feast and then invited the Mbari audience to eat and dance with us to the student drummers and singers. Wole came up after the Saturday show and congratulated me on a fine little play. The review that counted.

When I left Ahmadiyya Grammar School in September 1963 to join the founding staff of the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan, I was presented with a book from the students. The book? George Padmore’s 1956 “Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa.” That contest would have been much preferable to today’s Big Oil, AIDS, child soldiers and civil war, and government-by-bribery.

Oh yes, the inscription on the flyleaf read: “To Mr. Tom Hebert, in appreciation of his indefatigable efforts in raising the name of the school during his short stay.”

My Nobel in theatre, said he proudly.

Of Soyinka the charismatic and cinematic

To illustrate both, two japes to lightly spoof our friend and world player.

First, back before recorded history—likely about the time of Nigeria’s 1960 Independence—in search of some international urbanity, good times and good films and thus under the guise of a competition, several staff of the University College, Ibadan organized FNIFF, the Federation of Nigeria International Film Festival. FNIFF quickly became a once-a-year solid week of terrific movies presented in the School of Drama’s theatre, with drinks served from the theatre’s bar. (As the School’s Business Manager, I was the whole world’s only Peace Corps Volunteer bartender.) So, while Wole was president, I served on the board of directors mostly to keep the alcohol flowing at intermission. One of FNIFF’s key workers was an English lady, Geraldine Dobson [not her real name]. Not long ago, I sent Wole the following note:

Last night in a local cowboy saloon, I was remembering tales of “our one true Fatherland” and it occurred to me that perhaps you didn't know that Gerry Dobson once thought herself in love with you. Yep. She told me that.

The best part of the story is that you so flummoxed her—drove her to such despair—that one night in her little Morris Minor car Gerry found herself going nuts, driving around and around the roundabout near Bodija Housing Estates, maybe fifty times!

I of course, wanted to bed that lady sooo bad while only Soyinka occupied her mind.

Such were the halcyon days of FNIFF.

Given my delight in that old story, Wole’s reply, simply: “!!!”

Perchance, mayhap, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer has reduced a Nobel laureate to punctuation?

A second movie tale told out-of-school: Old Ibadan hands will recall the outdoor, open-air Lebanese-owned cinema lying deep in sabon gari, Ibadan’s Hausa/Northerner/stranger quarter. While primitive by any standards, somehow it brought blockbuster hits to West Africa fairly fast. It was also great fun. Of an evening my chums, including other Ibadan-area Peace Corps Volunteers, Nigerian neighbors and colleagues, and assorted University staff, would congregate at the cinema, smuggle in some home-made popcorn along with Star beer bought in the street and laugh and cry right along with wretched home-bound Londoners, New Yorkers, and Los Angelinos whom we all pitied. Because right then, Ibadan—a city of unknown millions—was the true capital of black Africa. Or, as I heavily described it to my parents, “the crucible of Africa’s intellectual ferment.”

Which sounds like all-work, but it wasn’t. For example, many staff were caught up in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, the whole trove of which we could buy at either the University bookstore or at the Christian Missionary Service (C.M.S) Booksellers downtown. Then, starring Sean Connery, the Ian Fleming oeuvre was acquired for the movies. Whoa! First was “Dr. No,” which likely came to sabon gari in winter, 1962. A year later, the 2nd James Bond movie, “From Russia With Love,” and the third which came to our movie palace in mid-late 1964—and which figures in this story—was “Goldfinger” with Pussy Galore and Oddjob. It may sound odd and frivolous, but these 007 movies became significant social events amongst us local literati, boulevardiers, scamps, scalawags, and the scholarly.

Now, to the event in play. A bit after sundown on that sultry Saturday sabon gari evening, a hundred or so of the above-named undesirables gathered in the rude parking area in front of the cinema to await “Goldfinger.” Just as the ticket booth lady began to accept our shillings and bob, ka-wham! All the lights in sabon gari went out! Abruptly, it was hopelessly dark as a Dugbe market-bound Fulani cow. The film projectors couldn’t crank, finish. To explain: Ibadan’s too-small diesel power station (owned by Electric Corporation of Nigeria—ECN) also lacked spare parts and neglected maintenance to the point that it couldn’t produce enough electrical generating capacity for the city. Whereupon every evening ECN had to shift its tactical area-of-service around town in a rolling series of blackouts. After weeks of waiting we weren’t, after all, about to witness “Goldfinger.”

So we did what any self-respecting crowd of intellectuals and assorted hangers-on would do, we milled about loudly complaining. But then, a leader emerged. Wole Soyinka stepped up and called out something like, “Let us see how mighty is the pen! We shall learn this night if Nigeria’s poet laureate has the clout of our ancient kingdoms’ seers and sibyls. I shall go to ECN to reason through this wrong!” With that, he hopped into his car and sped off into the night. We waited and waited. But alas, we were learning the politics of electricity: suburban regions of story-houses would have their lights and fans, but the poor of sabon gari could eat and play in darkness. But wait! Is that a streetlight flickering into life? Yes! One by one, the lights came on and as the box office reopened for business, a triumphant Wole Soyinka hove into view as we all shouted hosannas, echoing a famous advert for Guinness stout, “Soyinka gives you POWA!”

Or as the Yoruba say, Íka kó dógba, “All fingers are not equal.”

Wole’s short take on négritude

An oddity of American life is that while African-Americans are seen as Negro or Black, trouble or whatever, Africans here in America are appreciated as African, simply a large nationality with little baggage, welcome in living rooms all over town (unless you have been recently scammed by an internet Nigerian). I think this is because centuries of slavery created a cultural divide with both sides, particularly in the 1960s, armed and ready to argue if not fight. I mean, still it is often work for both American peoples (not one people notice) to even shoot-the-shit about the weather without some racial anxiety creeping in.

I remember once visiting the ancient slave depot at Badagry on the Yoruba coast with some Americans, black South African exiles, and some Nigerian teachers, all friends of the resident Peace Corps Volunteer in Badagry. It was all history and analysis and even some laughter. But black Americans in Ibadan didn’t have it as easy. I also remember listening to Malcolm X,—the newly-minted hajji just in from Mecca—giving us his now-famous May 8, 1964 lecture at Trenchard Hall on the University of Ibadan campus. I was standing at the back next to a friend, a nice black guy and the Public Affairs officer at the US Consulate in town. Listening to Malcolm’s trenchant discussion of being Black in America, he turned to me and said, “It’s simple: you don’t want us in America, you want us gone.”

That truth was bad enough, but we liberals were also having trouble with négritude, a cultural/political analysis that was even then elbowing white folks. Darn! Négritude was born of the great Senegalese/French poet and statesman Léopold Senghor, then president of Senegal. Négritude is “the literary and artistic expression of the black African experience. In historical context the term has been seen as an ideological reaction against French colonialism and a defense of African culture.” Senghor wrote that “L'èmotion est nègre, la raision est héllène." (emotion is Negro, reason is Greek) and "Négritude is the totality of the cultural values of the Black world.” As a precursor to the Black Power movement, négritude was becoming “in” in black America.

Traveling in similar weighty circles, Soyinka probably knew Senghor. In any case, he wasn’t intimidated by him or his renown. I know this because when Senghor published “Négritude and Humanism” in 1964, I asked Wole about it. He replied, “Négritude, nuts. Yorubas don’t need it.”

Thank God.

An aside about Malcolm X’s speech. It was courteously received by the packed house of students, staff, and community. But while we knew it was historic, it was kind of sad. Obviously Malcolm had boned up, reading a whole bunch of negritudinous nonsense about African history and its contributions to world culture, etc. But sophisticated, technically informed, and secure in its knowledge of Africa, this audience didn’t need flattery by fallacy. But when Malcolm spoke about America, we Americans attended his words intently, almost reverentially.

Speaking of divides, Malcolm later said that he had never before spoken to such a racially-mixed, at-ease-with-itself crowd. And that night he heartily partied with a bunch of Nigerian students and staff and some Peace Corps Volunteers. But interestingly, Malcolm seemed a bit more at ease with his fellow Americans. And we liked him.

Race? Go figure.

A wife in the forest

By the 1960s Westernization, loss of religious grounding, and other modern madnesses had disrupted much of the traditional lifeways of the Yorubas. This once mighty engine of cultural accomplishment was letting slippery agent-thieves into the towns and villages of Western Nigeria to scarf up with cash their wooden images of honor and worship, of king, clan and family. Many, but not all, were of museum quality. They flowed out to us in a terrible torrent, the rapids of change.

When these scoundrels come around to our houses at dinnertime with pillow cases stuffed with fine art and graven images, what do you do? Buy the best and save it, or let it go next door to an expatriate buyer with less taste and less guilt, to be lost forever, to show up later in a London antique shop or Akron yard sale?

Understand that under normal conditions these images, carved in Oroko, a soft white wood, would usually have a short lifespan. White ants (termites) had eaten away some of the head on my own ibeji twin doll and its feet were rotted away when I purchased it for a few bob. When a traditional religion breaks down, its art is left to molder. Or get sold to indirect grave robbers like me.

In my defense, when I became a serious collector it was known that I would alert government museums or other scholar-buyers of traditional images that an exceptional fine image was on the street so that they could move to purchase it. (Most of my collection I donated to the Federal Museum in Lagos. In exchange the curators gave me an export permit for several good pieces.) I understand since then, much of the material culture we saved has been looted, pilfered, and simply lost.

Beyond a confession, the point is that Nigerian Yorubas have had the wherewithal—2,000 years and the intellectual resources including a discerning creation myth and Olorun, a Supreme Being—to think through the complex issues of living, loving, grieving, and even death among twin children. Such artifacts as my ibeji twin doll, for example, do not come out of backward societies. Call such sophistication “an easy knowledge of the world.”

Now, of course one of the collectors also caught up in this malevolent trade was Wole Soyinka. I recant the word “collector.” In his case, the terms conservator, defender, deliverer, guardian, hero, preserver, protector, and rescuer cut to the difference between us.

I also am not sure of a “malevolent trade.” Perhaps “Janus-like” fits better. Janus, with two faces on opposite sides of his head, is the Roman god of doorways and passages. Janus also represents the transition between primitive life and civilization, between rural and urban existence—new beginnings. Boy, doesn’t that image work here?

Before arriving in Nigeria, I probably knew more about Africa than most of my Peace Corps brothers and sisters. I had studied its art and dance in particular. (Of course, before Peace Corps training at UCLA I had never heard of the mighty boundary Niger River.) But woe is me, my cultural lead didn’t mean squat when I got to Ibadan. While I could even carve a passable African mask, actual Yoruba art remained a mystery to me: too complex, too many themes, too fulsome.

So at first, I bought large simple ebony and mahogany images {mostly heads) carved for the tourist trade, fake Benin bronzes, adire indigo-dyed cloth, mats and baskets from the Middle Belt, and camel skin poufs from off the Sahel, all brought to me by my personal Hausa trader, old Mr. Quality who arriving at dinner-time, would call out, “Mr. Quality here!” Attending him was a “small-boy” carrying on his head a large basket of wonders. But I was wildly bemused by all this. I knew what I was missing, but the Yoruba aesthetic was just beyond my reach.

This cultural conflict went on for six solid months. I was very angry at myself. How could this be? I had been a drama major and dancer. Huh? Then wham, bam, and thank you, ma’m, Yoruba country arrived in my heart. One night at the Paradise Hotel’s club, I finally figured out the highlife beat and how you subtly shifted your weight from one leg to another, how you presented yourself on the dance floor while relating physically to your partner possibly yards away. How you could dance to one song for typically 20 minutes and never break a sweat. Oriwo! Wo! Wo! Thank you, Eddie Okonta! (I eventually became a founding member of his fan club (no. 17) and once bailed him out of jail on some trumped up political charge, but that’s another story.)

And sure enough, about the same time my music came together, with the help of friends, the traders, and Peace Corps staff more Nigeria-senior than myself, without warning I GOT Yoruba carving and then learned to parse out the real from the knock-off. Quickly trading off my tourist mahogany and ebony art for better works, I started really collecting. It wasn’t long before my eye was quite good.

Besides Wole, involved in the traffic was the aforementioned Africanist scholar Uli Bier, U. S. State Department staff, University faculty, and even Dennis Williams, director of the University’s Institute for African Studies, which had its own collection of Yoruba art and artifacts. So, I was getting a small reputation as a responsible collector.

Now I must admit that I soon became addicted to the trade, spending all my money, etc., (not having a wife, I couldn’t lose her.) But within a year, given a work of some age, I could likely place an object’s provenance within fifty miles or so and tell you about its traditional purpose. Yea, I got good. But I had a problem. I didn’t know how to live in the same small University staff apartment with all this powerful, really powerful traditional art. Like the full ju-ju mask and shirt I bought from a man in the market who was wearing it. . . . It’s true. I did that. To my shame. After just three troubling weeks I took the whole outfit to Dennis Williams at the Institute, “Here, take this. I can’t have it around anymore. I did wrong!”

But living with the more legitimate material was also difficult. I didn’t know how to display it, on shelves, on the wall, how? One day talking with Wole about his collection at home, I asked if I could come out and see it. We made a date and I was Johnny–on-the-spot on my little Honda 50.

Wole lived in a deep forest away from the University in the best house in Ibadan: one of Ibadan’s last-remaining cast-iron framed Victorian colonial staff houses built up on 10-foot stilts away from the heat and damp and mosquitoes of the earth. With verandas, and wide, wide sheltering eaves, a classic Sadie Thompson tin roof, all wooden shutters and ventilation, these divine old homes had been prefabricated in Scotland in the late-1800’s and shipped out from there to Nigeria, in the “Bloody Bight of Benin, where few come out where many went in.” I wanted one like that. To this day, I have never seen any home place like it.

After a walk-around outside, we went in. And then I saw how you lived with powerful art: casually. You just laid it around the house, you put a fine carved Obatala—Mother of the Gods holding a chicken carved into a kola nut bowl—on the floor next to your chair. A divining platter you left on the table but didn’t use it for cheese. You hung a mask or cloth on the wall if it looked right. You left great traditional figures propped up all around. It was no big deal. But it was respectful. And you damn sure didn’t compromise anything good, placing it next to the second-rate.

Learning from Wole’s open and free style of domestic living—all comfortable in an organic atmosphere—freed me and my better-than-amateur collection from pretension. When I went home I just set my Yoruba pieces easily around the house, kind of like they were family. We are still living that way today.

Of course, the Soyinka collection was unbelievable in quality. To this day, I have never seen anything like it.

But there was something else. After a few minutes studying his masks, iron staffs, and dozens of Yoruba carved images, there was a stirring outside and then, a young and wonderfully beautiful Yoruba woman appeared, a vision of loveliness and character. She was, of course, Wole’s wife. While most anyone can collect great art, a man can only earn this kind of woman.

To this day, I have never seen anything like her.

The politics of Emergency at the Paradise Hotel

If asked to name the place I would rather be right now, it’s Ibadan. And then I will scope in on the Paradise Hotel, a convivial Lebanese-owned hotel, brothel, and open-air night club that often functioned as Ibadan’s agora—a public commercial, social, and political arena—of a city-state region that journalist Ben Lawrence has described as a “busy enigmatic, sprawling city swarming with brains and brawn, an experiment in international living and human understanding, in which then lived the most sophisticated and liberal intellectuals on the continent—that was Ibadan, which admitted men and women of smooth character and civilized tastes.”

For such smooth men and women, one night in 1962 it inevitably happened that a traveling correspondent for the ever-vigilant TIME magazine reported that he had spotted in front of Ibadan’s Paradise Hotel three of the really large bright-blue Chevrolet Suburban 8-passenger vans that had been assigned to early Peace Corps households. Well, as we say today, um, duh. Of course, on weekend nights local and traveling Volunteers were at the Paradise Hotel, eating goat shish cabob, drinking Star Beer, laughing, dancing the highlife (or learning to), holding forth, and generally being of “smooth character and civilized tastes.” Or working at it. But, in the adverse international publicity occasioned by our being busted at the Paradise, the big blue Chevy vans were taken away and replaced with Honda 50s—motorbikes that left less of an impression when parked in several ranks in front of the Paradise Hotel. Along with the cars of the social elite of the city as described above.

Now habitués of 1960s Ibadan night life will remember that there were several memorable night clubs available to us, including the Central Hotel, the Starlight Club[?], and the ________. Of course, I can’t leave out the hard-edged juju club, owned by Black _____.

Each of these clubs had a special character, a set of regular patrons, and its favorite highlife or juju dance band. Remember that there were also a dozen or so great dance bands touring Nigeria at any moment. There was the pioneer Bobby Benson Band, Victor Olaiya (“Omo Pupa”), the juju master I.K. Dairo (later MBE), Sunny Ade and His Unibadan Voices (later African Beats), the Casino Dance Band, Charles Iwegbue and His Archibogs, Chief Ebenezer Obey, Roy Chicago, Pastor Rex Lauson and the Mayor’s Dance Band, Tunde Western Nightingale, or as noted above, Ibadan’s favorite bandleader, Eddie Okonta and His Top Aces—Oriwo! Wo! Wo!

Adding to this scene—which is now recognized by fans and scholars as the apex of African popular music—every few months one of these touring big bands would suddenly show up at the venue of one of their rivals for an impromptu Battle of the Bands. How could life get any better than when day is done, you go down from Mokola Hill to the Paradise and listen to Eddie Okonta square off against Roy Chicago’s All Stars?

These highlife bands (the more hip mainstream sound) and juju bands (more bluesy-traditional) mostly played music from their home region, be it Twi, Yoruba, Igbo, Rivers, or Delta. And naturally, in the feisty Yoruba-based bands, there were mysterious distinctions between the music of Ondo and Ijebu and Ibadan and Illorin towns. Traditional juju was more guitar, choral, and drum-based, but the big touring highlife bands enjoyed electric guitars, trumpets, saxophones, several kinds of drums, shekare [sp?], tambourines, and lead singers. Highlife music was urban, influenced by American swing and jazz, but with an African rhythm locomotive strong. The stuff of modern Afro-Beat doesn’t touch highlife for sheer fun and musical magic. The individual highlife dance tunes might run for 15-20 minutes, with several internal movements where the beats change and new songs might even begin. Whatever, if you had come to terms with Ibadan—learned to love it— and you had learned to dance within your means—not foolishly—you could highlife your heart out.

Also, remember that in the early 1960s, Africa’s political fight of the century was taking place. Western Nigeria was then under an Official Emergency, a kind of curfew with many of its Yoruba political leaders like Bola Ige and [?] under house arrest or in jail under Federal laws allowing preventive detention.

From 1962 onwards, Nigerian Peace Corps Volunteers were not exempt from this bubbling political stewpot. With us, it took only a few months of living in a given region of Nigeria before Volunteers took on the political coloration and loyalties of its local people. It never failed. The learning curve was also helped along because each political party—which were largely ethnic and regional—had its own newspaper and that is what you read every day. So if you were teaching in Sokoto, you were conservative, admired the Sultan, believed the 1960 census which gave the North the entire government and you would have voted NPC. If you taught high school in the East, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was your man, you read his West African Pilot and you were centrist NCNC, and if you lived in Yoruba country, you were simply left-of-center Action Group and would have voted, if you could have, for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, founder of the first modern political party in Nigeria, all the way. Asked today my political affiliation I will still say Democratic Party and Action Group.

Such is the holding power of really good politics in the hands of masters—and Nigerian politicians of that time were amongst the best politicians anywhere. Indeed, everyday Nigerians were likely the most politically savvy citizens the world has ever known. To this point, there is research to the fact that Nigerians, at least in the 1970s, knew more about—and voiced opinions about—their political situation and their leaders, more than any people similarly surveyed by the researchers, anywhere in the world. Nigeria then was a kind of village. Ask any Nigerian anywhere about Awolowo and you received a sophisticated and smooth assessment, suitable for framing.

At first, baffled by the complex politics of 1962 Nigeria, I once asked my Fourth Form English Grammar students at Ahmadiyya Grammar School some leading questions about the fraternal strife between the Moslem regional premier, Chief S. L. Akintola (murdered in 1966), and his fellow Yoruba but political opponent, Chief Awolowo. Awo, as everyone called him, was then Federal Leader of the Opposition in Parliament; he later went to prison. “Students, how are the political struggles in Yorubaland similar to those in Julius Caesar? Are there parallels between Akintola and Awolowo and Cassius and Caesar?” This question turned the afternoon studies of Julius Caesar into an extraordinary political seminar, with teacher becoming student.

Indeed, with their larger-than-life Elizabethan roistering and whanging, Nigerian politics were also, at their best, great theater. Listen to Awolowo speaking at his famous 1963 Treasonable Felony conspiracy trial:

“Look here, Dr. Maja. I am a pepper that no one can chew without tears. You have said grave lies against me. You will suffer for it. You have sworn in the name of God, but you are giving evidence in the name of Satan…. Woe betide you.”

Awo! Awo! Awo! Later, I was chanting that with several thousand others at a political rally in Ibadan. Obviously, I received more than one serious talking-to by Murray Frank, my Peace Corps regional director. Decades later, I learned that Murray had already had to field a Department of State Telegram which explained that Secretary of State Dean Rusk hadn’t had a ready response when confronted by an angry Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who, throwing an Agency photograph on Rusk’s desk, demanded to know why a Peace Corps Volunteer named Tom Hebert was marching on the US Consulate in Ibadan in a student-led Anti-Apartheid demonstration.

Moving on, one night in late 1963 I was at the Paradise with friends and was dancing to a fine Yoruba band. But everyone there was on edge because an onerous Federal decree had come down from Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa relating to our Action Group heroes who were in jail or worse. We even feared that the Paradise itself would be raided that night by the National Police. Adding to the unease, the Action Group newspaper, The Daily Express, had been suspended for a couple weeks and so the Yorubas were even more uncertain as to their political future in a country then, as now, totally dominated by the Moslem north and always, then and now, on the edge of great war.

As I noted above, highlife dance numbers contain several musical movements. With Yoruba bands at a certain point, the tuneful music ends and Yoruba drumming kicks in, with two “talking drums,” taking over. Here is the University of Michigan School of Music describing them:

“Talking drums are part of a family of hourglass shaped pressure drums; in the Yoruba language of west Africa, these include “gan gan” (the smallest member of this drum family) or “dun dun” (the largest of the talking drums.) The drum heads at either end of the drum's wooden body are made from hide, which are wrapped around a wooden hoop. Leather cords or thongs run the length of the drum's body and are wrapped around both hoops; when you squeeze these cords under your arm, the drum heads tighten, changing the instrument's pitch.

“One of the unique features of the instruments is their ability to closely imitate the rhythms and intonations of spoken language. In the hands of skilled performers, they can reproduce the sounds of proverbs or praise songs through a specialized “drum language”—their dialogue can be easily understood by a knowledgeable Yoruba audience. Drums have often symbolized the power of a traditional political leader, and skilled drummers have held considerable status in these west African communities.”

That night, towards the curfew hour of eleven o’clock, a hundred or so people were dancing in a lively fashion to the music when this band turned to its talking drums. Now, one doesn’t dance to the talking drum. You stop and listen. If the drummers are good you “dash” them a few shillings or a pound note pasted to their sweating forehead.

But this night, things were all different. Of course, when the drums began to talk all dancing stopped. But then, the dancers swept forward to the bandstand. I had no idea what was going on. Pushed forward, I found myself standing next to Wole. Learning over, I urgently asked what was happening, what the drums were saying. “Shhh! This is important. Ask me later.”

I didn’t. I knew I was over my head. But six months later I would have asked Soyinka.

To topple the Government in 13 days

Heading into 1964, the old “One Nigeria” was reaching the limits of political settlement—unraveling at the seams. On April 27th I wrote home to my parents, “Nigeria seems to be heading toward trouble. There will be a revolution.”

And I wasn’t only alerting my parents, I was telling the U. S. State Department. John Mahr, the American consul in Ibadan was a good guy and we were friends. He and I had quietly worked together in January organizing the singer Pete Seeger’s under-the-radar tour of Nigeria. (Pete’s U. S. Passport had been returned to him after the American government finally ended decades of embarrassment, having one of its great ambassadors-of-goodwill unable to leave the continental United States because of his progressive political beliefs.)

Anyway, one day in February I marched into John’s office, sat myself down to talk with him about Nigeria, which the State Department was desperately trying to hold together as “Africa’s showcase for democracy”—we never learn. Ten minutes into a frustrating discussion, I pointed to an open newspaper clipping file on his desk. “John, you are circle-ing the same stories I am! You know where things are heading. A damn war. The Igbos have about had it, they don’t feel safe in this Confederation. And the Yorubas, they want out too. We are just making it all worse. The Nigerians need to work this out themselves, without Great Power interference.” John looked at me, “Tom, that’s enough.” The next day, my Peace Corps boss, Murray Frank, told me officially, “not to talk with Mahr again,” that John had told him that Tom Hebert was no longer welcome in his office. A former New York City labor organizer, Murray could have cared less.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, working Nigerians had troubles of their own. The CIA writes in its “World Fact Book”:

“After independence, many workers had begun to feel that the political leadership was making no effort to reduce the inequalities of the colonial wage and benefit structure. Corruption and conspicuous consumption were perceived to be widespread among politicians. An April 1963 pay raise for ministers and members of parliament further fueled labor resentment because rank-and-file civil servants had been doing without raises since 1960.”

With the central Government ignoring huge disparities in wage inequality, the labor unions—of the old school—were returning to their revolutionary British and American roots. But they too had troubles:

“. . . the period from the end of World War II to 1964 was characterized by numerous splits, regroupings, and fragmentation with factionalism rampant, dependence on foreign financial support, the thwarting of labor’s political objectives by nationalist leaders. In 1963 union members numbered only 300,000, or 1.6 percent of the labor force.”

But unfortunately for the Government, there was a strange provision in the Constitution that required that in the event of a national labor strike lasting at least 13 days, the Government was obliged to recognize that a constitutional crisis existed and then resign and call for an election. As the harassment of the labor leaders deepened, they began to organize for a national strike. The CIA:

“The five central labor organizations consequently formed the Joint Action Committee (JAC) to pressure the government to raise wages [which] provided partial impetus for a JAC-mobilized general strike of 800,000 supporters, most of them non-unionists.”

The Government, very worried about labor unrest and growing sympathies for its leaders, knew it needed to resist any conjoining of political and labor strife. Thus the union leaders—mostly Southerners—were being targeted by the police for physical threat and abuse. But they were vulnerable to more than batons. Largely untutored in the intricacies of mass movements, they were more likely to fly to platitudes than action. And only one union leader [name ?] was up to the task of revolution.

Into this gap stepped Wole Soyinka who was then teaching at the University of Ife. He knew that in the combined faculties of the University of Ibadan and the University of Ife there was sufficient consulting talent to backstop the labor leaders: helping with manifestoes, media management, national and international communications, planning and tracking things-to-get done, and simply adding encouragement and moral support to this valid effort to bring down the Government. While Americans, with their dislike of both labor leaders and academics, will find it hard to believe this, Nigeria’s outstanding academic community was a source of pride to the fledgling Nation. Labor thus welcomed the professors, pedants, and pedagogues.

So, Wole’s Strike Action Committee went into action. The goal? Keep the five labor leaders pressed to the 13-day deadline, keep them advancing. The problem? Several were weak men and were known to be vulnerable to bribery. They could be bought off. But if the Strike Action Committee could help the leaders keep a high profile, isolating them from corrupt Government men, then the precariously honest Prime Minister Balewa might, in fact, call for new elections which might mean a redistribution of regional power at the center. Two mights are better than none.

Coincidentally, in May of 1964, I was both nearing the end of my two-year Peace Corps tour and becoming increasingly suspicious of American foreign policy in both Nigeria and Vietnam. In my heart I was moving on. So what the hell did I care what anyone thought?

As noted above, I was Business Manager of the University of Ibadan’s School of Drama. Which meant I could access useful resources. Like an office, telephone, a vehicle, supplies and equipment, and a prized office copy machine, a British Gestetner which was a kind of mimeograph machine based on typing stencils, lots of ink, a roller, and drum which could crank out readable copies by the box-load. If you didn’t mind dirty fingers, it was a publishing miracle. What else could a concerned citizen and diligent Peace Corps Volunteer do but put the Gestetner to the use of the Strike Action Committee? The first product, and the only one I now remember, was a flyer for a really big Strike Support Rally in Ibadan which earned a lot of good press and fed the flames of academic/opinion/labor unity.

On June 15, in the midst of all this, my Peace Corps Service ended and I was free to return to America and was surely encouraged by Peace Corps to do so. I didn’t. I quietly stayed on in Ibadan doing odd scut work—thrashing the Gestetner—for Wole’s Committee and just listening in on strategy meetings. I mean there are limits!

Anyway, as the strike days moved towards the magical Thirteen, fierce pressure on the labor leaders to settle the strike began to mount. We could feel it, we could read it in the papers. Touch and go. Finally, Wole called a team meeting with the JAC. Of course I asked to go and once again Soyinka had to tell me no, as in, “Tom, your machines have been useful, but an American can’t go to a meeting where the goal is to bring down the federal government of Nigeria!” Well, darn, double darn.

The CIA: “Although the strike, which lasted twelve days, demonstrated the government's fragility, the JAC could not translate its victory into permanent political strength; labor unity disintegrated in the face of overtures by political parties to segments of organized labor as the federal elections of December 1964 neared.”

Here the CIA doth trim. There was no JAC victory: On the twelfth day of the strike, the key union leader was finally brought to heel by cold cash and the strike collapsed. But had it gone a day longer, the history of Nigeria and thus Africa itself, would have been different, possibly felicitous. In any case, America’s cherished One Nigeria and the Showcase of Democracy was finally finished. Along with American expectations of anything good for Africa.

Out of the Peace Corps and with Nigeria dead-in-the-water, within in days I bused to Calabar—a favorite haunt of mine on the old Slave Coast—and on July 4th, 1964 I exited Nigeria by old steamer to the Spanish island of Fernando Po, in the “Bloody Bight of Benin, where few come out where many went in.” From there to Paris and the rest of my life. But the me that went into that Bight of Benin was a much different bloke than came out.

And the Soyinka-led effort to lawfully help the trade unionists scuttle the national government of Tafawa Balewa, began the work which led to Wole’s eventual imprisonment and death sentence. And world recognition beyond imagining.

Obatala, Mother of the Gods

Obatala, Mother of the Gods

I was beautiful
Laying out on an orange spread
All morning reading
Intelligently dying
Very clean, slack, and forgiving.
My hosts gone
I began to wander
Padding room to room
In my feet
Stepping over and around
Secrets and laundry.
While the Goddess was
Holding her breasts
With a great comb
In her hair and me alone
With this Goddess I owned.
They said she would hold them
For years until someone took them.
I had not the energy.
I was tired from being heated
To an incandescent
And again,
I was beautiful
Laying out on an orange spread
All morning reading
Intelligently dying
Very clean, slack, and forgiving.
Tom Hebert
June, 1964
Calabar, Nigeria

SRO on Spanish Air

Apparently, Nigeria and I will never be finished. In late October 1978, Wole and I had an odd chance encounter on a Spanish Air Boeing jet on the Lagos tarmac during some political trouble. He had already published in 1972 the magnificent “The Man Died—Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka” and was already being mentioned as a Nobel-level writer.

But first, Hail Biafra! In 1969, then a UNICEF refugee officer working on Biafra food supplies, I was named a “mass murder of children,” and quickly expelled by Portuguese authorities from the island of Sao Tomé on a night arms flight to Lisbon. This was done at the behest of the European church groups who ran the Biafra refugee relief operation. My sins were protesting the racist relief structure we worked in, and then, finally, coming to realize—and saying out loud—that what the Biafrans really needed was not so much food as guns to fight the Nigerians. Oh, boy!

In 1976, again, Nigeria: This time I became a trafficker in students. As a contract employee of the U. S. State Department, for over two years I worked in the Nigerian Mid-Level Manpower Training Program, or the Crash Technical Program as it was known in Nigeria.

Funded by Nigerian oil revenues, our team selected young graduates of secondary technical schools in Nigeria and sent them packing to American community colleges and technical schools for two years of study. These were not university-bound Nigerian students. These were young bush kids who had luckily happened upon some technical education in their home states and were thought to have some hope in life. As the program evolved, I became the lead guy at the Nigerian end of the student pipeline. In this role, during four trips to West Africa between 1976 and 1978, I managed the movement of several hundred students to the U.S: negotiated the training agreements, scheduled the airplanes, cleared the students at the airport, and worked as the principal liaison with the Federal Military Government (FMG) of Nigeria. Great fun and adventure. Reason for my success for which I received official commendation? I wasn’t put off by the chaos of 1970s Nigeria. Unlike most expatriates then, I didn’t hate the place. I remembered the old Nigeria and was able, in my mind, to hold the whole thing together, then and now.

Traveling a circuit of Nigeria state capitals, with the assistance of local education officials, we would pluck some animist kid from some village just south of the Sahara and jam him or her down in a large technical or community college somewhere in America. And they got B averages, including their very first semester of American education! They would also graduate at higher rates, with better scores, than American kids. As always, Nigerians are healthy in the head. (Because of tight immigration controls managed by both the US and Nigerian governments, most students returned to Nigeria at the end of their schooling, although a few escaped into four-year colleges.)

So, in 1978 Wole and I met again on a strange Spanish Air flight from Lagos to Madrid. While I was merely rotating home after another tour for the Crash Program—filling Douglas DC-10 wide-body planes with students, even compiling myself their Nigerian passports—the military holdfasts of power were stirring in the land, looking for new protein. Wole, who had been invited home from exile, was on this Spanish Airways flight shrewdly trying to escape the country while he could.

The plane, with even the long aisle jam-packed with frightened foreigners awaiting some sort of FMG security clearance, sat on the tarmac for several hours. But with my U.S. government passport I was happily reading a book, wondering if the Nigerian Police would ever release the plane for take off. Then, suddenly jostled, I looked up and Wole Soyinka [emphasis added] was actually standing in the aisle next to my seat—like a subway strap-hanger—probably contemplating his prospects if he was yanked from the plane.

Having not met for 15 years, we exchanged vague pleasantries and after the plane touched down in Madrid, Soyinka went on to his eventual Nobel while I, a Quixote, continued my Travels in La Mancha—to this day.

What I just left out was this: As Soyinka and I were talking, my name was loudly called by the cabin attendant; I expected to be bumped off the plane. But no, for some Godly reason I was being upgraded, with champagne and toast, to First Class. Wole Soyinka got my narrow seat.

In a few minutes we were wheels up. Wole had been cleared for take-off.

Looking back, if Wole Soyinka had been one of those eventually ordered by the Police off that plane, would I would have jumped up, offering this man my seat?

Moving along….

Finding a home for Obatala, Mother of the Gods

Now we are at the year 1998. In this year I was volunteered by a group of Returned Volunteers to contact Wole about a return of the Peace Corps to Nigeria. And in a substantial fashion: I was proposing 1000 teachers, immediately, to help revive and rebuild Nigeria’s then moribund educational system. But could the Peace Corps, now a calm and aging boutique agency of little consequence except to its Volunteers, come smartly off the mark in the spirit of it founders?

Googling, I finally found Soyinka at Emory University. In an email I explained the opportunity to encourage, if not force, the Peace Corps back into Nigeria after the dust of President Sanni Abacha’s death settled. Good luck, because, as an American Embassy staffer in Lagos told me, “I agree with you on the good things that the Peace Corps is capable of doing and applaud your bold initiative, but the Peace Corps will insist on a period of tranquility after the return to civilian rule.”

I ask you, where is there tranquility in today’s world? Peace Corps has still not returned to Nigeria. And likely will not.

But Wole, ever-there, had written me, “I applaud the new initiative. You are free to associate me with a statement of support. Again, I can only provide moral support for the overall idea for now. If the right civilian head of government comes in, I should be able to speak directly to such a person and render more concrete help.” Given the dozens and dozens of such requests that he must field every year, Soyinka is a stand-up guy. And he is still waiting for the right civilian head of government.

A year later, of course I wrote for help again. I was then involved with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer project to help aging Returned Volunteers like myself effectively transfer ownership of any valuable African artifacts they still kept, to a museum. Many, like myself, knew their own families wouldn’t much treasure them so we hoped to find a museum home for them. I asked Wole to write a letter of support to the project, which he readily did. As it turned out, no American museum would touch this project because most museums now will only absorb collections that are sponsored or have their archival costs pre-paid, up-front.

When this effort also failed (have any succeeded?), I decided to sell my most important piece, Obatala. This kneeling figure of a woman with mighty breasts was a full 18 inches tall, carved in oroko, a soft white wood used by all carvers in Yorubaland. The offering bowl (the body of a chicken) she was holding in her lap was missing it’s lid, but the feet of the chicken at the base of the bowl had been mostly eaten away by termites, one indicator of age and traditional usage. The carver was most certainly of the famous Fakeye family of carvers, whether by the master carver Lamidi Fakeye, or not, I don’t remember.

Back in 1963, I once went to the Fakeye compound to purchase a small hafted chisel or hand-axe like that used by all major Yoruba carvers. Looking at the carvings in the Fakeye compound, it was clear to me that my piece was a Fakeye—you can tell by the inherited strong jaw line. The Yoruba scamp who sold me the piece also said it was a Fakeye. (The Fakeye clan was just then emerging into the cultural limelight.) But this piece is of great interest because it was done for a traditional client, for traditional religious purposes, before there was much of an art market, per se.

To sell the carving, in January 2001 I first called the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. In the office of the director, Roslyn Walker, a helpful assistant suggested that as Dr. Walker was a Yoruba art specialist, she might be interested in the piece. Enclosing a photograph of the Obatala, I then wrote Dr. Walker, explaining that after almost forty years in my possession, I was interested in selling this image into an appreciative home and could she advise me. I said that the object I owned was an image of the orisha Obatala and that it was a ceremonial image, not a commissioned piece and not carved for the tourist trade. And that it had likely been carved by Lamidi Fakeye.

As background, I explained that just as my Peace Corps tour was ending in 1964, I had carried my Nigerian art collection to Lagos for a formal adjudication at the Federal Museum. This was to determine what I could take home and what should stay in Nigeria. The result of my cooperation was that, predictably, the bulk of my collection was kept for the Museum. But while this image of Obatala was a traditional one—with traces of sacrificial chicken blood upon it from Yoruba ceremonies—I was allowed to export it because of its then-relative youth. The Federal Museum director also confirmed that it was a Fakeye. Ending my letter to Walker I wrote,

“As we both know, today Nigeria is on the ropes. But as late as the 1960s, it was a fabulous place. It’s music, art, scholarship, it’s larger-than-life political leaders, it’s sheer joy in living. . . . I miss it all, still. In any case, I hope you like this lady. If you have any suggestions as to what I should do with her, please contact me as soon as it is convenient.”

She wrote back quickly enough, but explained that while she liked the piece, the Smithsonian didn’t purchase “transitional art,” art that bridges the traditional and the modern. How dumb I thought, their loss. I did send the Smithsonian my Fakeye hafted chisel for use in their educational program.

Then I thought Wole Soyinka might have an idea. He did. What I didn’t know was that while he was in exile his own personal collection of Yoruba art, tragically, had been sold off by a member of his own family. I emailed Wole a copy of my letter to the Smithsonian. On August 22, 2001, I heard back from him:

Hallo Tom,
Couldn’t get back earlier because I was doing some FINANCIAL CONSULTATIONS—I love that phrase, so beloved of my countrymen tycoons. I have raked up some money [he gave a fair figure]. It looks as if this is the best that can be done. Can this make it happen? In the end, the piece will go home with me. I’ll understand of course if you decide to go back on the market, but do let me know as soon as possible.
I like that sad expression of yours to the lady–a nation on the ropes. And your evocation of Nigerian of the sixties—that made me feel at once nostalgic and enraged. People find it difficult to believe that the nation was once a place of creative ferment. Even I sometimes wonder if it was another world, another space on the planet.

Of course, Wole Soyinka received the Yoruba Obatala. At some juncture his ESSAY foundation will receive my remaining Yoruba art—from another world, another planet.


One Nigeria? From a current CIA Country Study:

There are 250 to 400 or more recognized Nigerian ethnic groups, many divided into subgroups of considerable social and political importance. Most important ethno-linguistic categories: Hausa and Fulani in the North, Yoruba in the Southwest, and Igbo in the Southeast, all internally subdivided.

So why not three independent, cooperating nations? Let’s get down!

An admitted Yoruba chauvinist, I have long been tainted with the thought that a Yoruba cultural and political revival is essential to any decent outcome in the Bloody Bight of Benin. This came back to me recently talking with a Yoruba taxi driver in Portland, Oregon. He was going on about how Nigeria just could not work, but that it had to work!

“Nonsense, the trouble in Nigeria belongs to you Yorubas! Until you settle your own fate as Yoruba tribesman—make peace with yourselves—nothing good can happen in your benighted land. Like Athenian Greeks, you Yorubas are too proud, arrogant, unscrupulous, talented, and weak, but you are key!” We both laughed, knowing this was true.

Even before I left Nigeria in 1964, despite the insistent nationalism of its leaders, I saw Nigeria as a politically impossible and failed state. For their own administrative convenience, the British had simply lumped together those 250-400 separate ethnic peoples who had been living adequately in various forms of independence on a large land mass and then abruptly cut and ran, “Ta!”

So, as opposed to George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism, “government by Africa by Africans for Africans . . . with state control of the basic means of production and distribution,” or other failed political isms, I came to believe in flat-out, unapologetic Tribalism: “tribal consciousness and loyalty; exaltation of the tribe above other groups; a cultural practice of behaving in a manner to benefit one’s own family or tribe.” White man, black man, Yorubas look you in the eye as equals, if not superior. I always figured they felt sorry for we uptight Englishmen and Americans, believing us to be not quite human. It’s not that we don’t have as much rhythm (mostly true), it’s that to such Africans westerners are somehow shy of flesh and blood humanity. Westerners are not complete. We are no longer tribesmen brought up in a coherent society. The loss of tribalism is a desperate condition for us all. You see, the Yorubas have never been peasants. All thirty million of them. In 1853, a visiting representative of the British crown visiting Abeokuta described this Yoruba city-state and its system of government as “the most extraordinary republic in the world.”

To me, the grand Yoruba cultural and political forms and institutions—which trace directly back to pharaonic Egypt with strong elements found today in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago—are very apt for today’s world. I never met an Oba—Yoruba king—I didn’t respect, in some fashion or another. While the individual Oba might be flawed, behind him clearly lay centuries and centuries of practical political and cultural development, with the king’s great local power bound up by an array of wonderfully devious checks and balances. In today’s synthetic world, such depth of humanity is dear beyond reckoning.

On the internet I just found this 1997 exchange about the condition of the Yoruba between Soyinka and the old Yoruba hand, Uli Bier. Soyinka:

“There is a lot of hope left. I’ll give you an example: when I recently gave a lecture in Ibadan I explained certain aspects of Yoruba beliefs, the role of the orisha. The reaction, the forcefulness of response which I could see on the faces of the young people was really very encouraging. It was more than just an expression of their misgivings towards the way in which they were brought up, more than just a feeling of deprivation. These young people are really looking for new directions in their lives. I believe there is real hope. On the other hand, what you said earlier on about Yoruba scholars and their reluctance to come terms with Yoruba religion, it is a very curious phenomenon.” Not so curious. I live with the exact same on my Indian reservation: 150 years of unanswered sorrow, anger, and denial. Most American Indian Tribes have little real cultural preservation—their children also carry that “feeling of deprivation.” But last year, at the request of the Umatilla Tribal executive director, I developed a detailed plan to create a Tribal Department of Cultural Heritage. Naturally, no action has been taken. But, hope springs faintly, if not eternally.

In any case, it seems to me that a well-funded International Institute of Yoruba Studies or somesuch would be useful now. For example, how could traditional Yoruba political forms be rejiggered to make them useful for today? How does one get a cultural revival going? Can it happen? Do they work? But it beats wasting another century to make Nigeria work-o. And Wole Soyinka? Like South Africa’s first new-era president Nelson Mandela or Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, Soyinka would be a fitting, meet and proper president, of the Yoruba First Republic! But at his Inaugural Ball, after drinking much good palmwine and with the shade of Amos Tutuola—Emu, emu! E je ka memu amu kara! (Palmwine, palmwine, let’s drink palmwine with all our might!) watching over us—someone from the old days will stand up and sing the old Yoruba song, Mo gba je bu re le, oh mo lau rao. The gist of which is, Don't buy a watch from an Ijebu man. Yoruba checks and balances. FINISH

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