By Kunle Ajibade
When we learnt on December 14 1987 that Dr Biodun Jeyifo had resigned from the University of Ife, the anger in the Post- Graduate Hall was palpable. The following morning, O.J. Gochua, Femi Dunmade, Dapo Adeniyi, Dele Momodu, Femi Folorunso and I went to BJ’s home in the Staff Quarters to have a conversation with him. On February 2 1988 The Guardian newspaper published the first part of that interview titled “For Biodun Jeyifo, An Era Ends at Ile-Ife”. BJ spoke expansively about his love of literature, his intimacy with words, his reputation for being extremely impatient and unruly in his younger days, his audacity to challenge, on behalf of other less articulate and timid students, the Principal of Ibadan Boys High School, an incident which, expectedly, led to his expulsion from that school. He talked about his highly creative days at the University of Ibadan where he acted professionally on the Western Nigerian Television Station to enable him live comfortably on campus. He spoke glowingly of his membership of Pyrate Confraternity and the wonderful friends like Yemi and Shade Ogunbiyi, and Femi Osofisan he made at UI where he also made a First Class in English—a rare feat at the time.
But he also explained solemnly and unambiguously why he called it quits after 11 years at the University of Ife. “The bare factual reason for my resignation”, he said, “is the refusal of the authorities to grant my application for an unpaid leave to enable me write a special study of Soyinka commissioned by Cambridge University Press. You see, I’ve just finished editing the collection of Soyinka’s essays since 1963 and need to move directly to the book commissioned by OUP, so the refusal of an application for leave supported by my department was a politically motivated way of forcing my resignation. But I must admit that the whole thing has come as a catalyst prodding me to take a step I have been contemplating for the last two years but reluctant, unwilling to take. I don’t know what I will do next, but I look forward to a period of “free” time to read, think and write after the period of my present leave in the United States”. Because of many angry responses in support of BJ to that first part, Ben Tomoloju, the then Arts Editor of The Guardian changed the title of the second part of the interview published on February 9 1988 to “Jeyifo’s Nunc Dimitis at Ile-Ife”. Need I say that those nation-wide responses indicated that BJ’s exit was a big loss indeed? It was so depressing to see him leave. Remember that the same University authorities had forced Wole Soyinka to leave. How wonderful would it have been if Soyinka had been in Ife a year after his forced exit when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature? Our beloved university of Ife, Africa’s most beautiful university, that was gaining a world-wide reputation for the quality of its teaching, was fast degenerating into a citadel of pettiness. BJ quickly put that ugly episode behind him. Every summer holiday he still comes here as he makes a great success of his profound intellectual engagements with the rest of the world. The book, on account of which he was forced to resign, has been published to the acclaim of his peers. It is titled Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics and Post -colonialism. It is a rigorous study of Wole Soyinka’s works. Apart from Conversation with Soyinka, published by University Press of Mississippi, Professor Jeyifo has selected and edited a Norton anthology called Modern African Drama, published a book on Chinua Achebe and many scholarly articles in world-class literary journals. BJ remains an authority in his field. Now in Harvard University, he has taught in many reputable universities in America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
He told us in The Guardian interview that teaching was his real vocation. Like many of his former and current students I bear witness to this. BJ was one of our best teachers. He was one of my favourite teachers of all time. His knowledge – both the depth and breadth of it – was always on full display in class. Time and again, BJ would say, “Let me explain”. And one explanation would lead to other explanations as he grappled with complex ideas and some imponderables of life. He shared big ideas with us. Heavily bearded, he would often turn out in his khaki or jeans trousers on adire or khaki shirts with his pipe or cigars or both in his breast pockets. It you were a non-smoker – sorry you would be forced to become a partial smoker. BJ’s imaginative canvass and reading universe were expansive. As he taught, he would reference appropriate books in Economics, Political Science, Philosophy, Social Anthropology, History etc., etc. He was the most erudite, brilliant and honest of the literary critics and interpreters of ideas on the left. He was a taskmaster of a teacher. I remember that for a single course in Modes and Genre, BJ recommended eight secondary sources. Because we were just seven in our Masters class, I was asked to review two of the books. That was unfair!
Any time BJ travelled, he would buy, most of the time, two copies of a single title: one for his library at home, the other for his library in the office which his colleagues and graduate students could borrow. Some of those books never returned! BJ did not hector, he did not preach in class. If you want to have a feel of the tone he used in class, just read out in solitude his essay, “Literary Drama and the Search for a Popular Theatre in Nigeria” published in his book, The Truthful Lie. The superb oral quality of the essay is the kind that BJ delivered in class. Felicitous words and carefully crafted phrases would simply filter through the silence of the Lecture Theatre, supported by appropriate gesticulations and other body languages. When The Truthful Lie was published by the New Beacon Books owned by John La Rose in 1985, we went to his office to congratulate him only to be confronted with a question by the author, “What do you make of ‘The Truthful – Lie” part of the title? We sat down for some time trying to gather our thoughts and then BJ posed a rhetorical question: “What is ‘imaginative literature if it is not a truthful-lie?” In a subtle way BJ was teaching us to pay attention to hidden meanings of book titles. More crucially, he was asking us to pay rapt attention to the nature of literature itself. Based on his prompting, we read Jean-Paul Sartre, Northrop Frye, Walter Benjamin. George Lukacs, Rene Wellek, Austin Warren, John Frow, Harold Bloom, Frank Karmode, Terry Eagleton, George Steiner, Raymond Williams, Beninson Gray and African literary theorists like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Emmanuel Ngara, Micheal Echeruo, Dan Izevbaye, Chinweizu, Wole Soyinka etc.,etc. He encouraged us to read Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral, Martin Luther King Jr., C.L.R. James, Malcolm X, Walter Rodney, Che Guevara, Noam Chomsky and Karl Max, of course!
He called our attention in December 1984 to that month’s edition of South magazine in which the Zimbabwean writer the late Dambudzo Marechera spoke about the great influence that Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo had had on him because, according to Marechera, ‘’within every word, within every phrase they use there is a gigantic experiment going on in the background”. Marechera was quoted to have also said in that interview that “for a writer to have a clear-cut goal usually diminishes from the artistic strength of the work”. This led, of course, to an open-ended debate on the merits and demerits of the ethics, ideology and aesthetics of Soyinka, Okigbo, Achebe and wa Thiongo. Here was BJ who was obviously enamoured of the writings of these authors presiding over a passionate, if not rancorous, debate of student ideologues on both side of the divide. He later encouraged one of his post-graduate students, Dapo Olorunyomi, to give a seminar talk on modernism and Dambudzo Marechera. It was Olorunyomi’s brilliance and confidence at that departmental seminar that drew me to him. We would later collaborate on some important national projects. The seminar culture was very vibrant when we were in Ife, and BJ would call our attention to many of the seminars. He too would show up and participate in them actively.
BJ was quite a fire at numerous gatherings for one cause or the other at the Sports Centre or Oduduwa Hall. He would speak stirringly, ending most of the time with solidarity songs or Nkosi Sikele Africa! He was an effective unionist, a highly charged and politically engaged person, yet he never missed any of our classes. He did not also miss his classes between 1980 and 1982 when he was the first National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of Nigeria. He gave the Voks in Volkswagen Beetle which he rode a practical meaning for he would cram about six of us into the car after our tutorials on Aristole’s Poetics and other works by many of the other Greek masters, and we would go to the old Buka for a meal which he would pay for. Iya Sariyu’s shed was the favourite spot. BJ was generous with his money but extremely stingy with his grades. But he was always fair in his assessment. He taught us how to see works of art in society and society in the works of art. He opened our minds to the sense in the vibes of Fela, Miles Davis, Rex Lawson and Roy Chicago, etc., etc. For BJ, every medium has its own uses. Before our very eyes he wrote for The Democratic Review, The African Guardian and The Guardian. It was only logical that he would teach a course in Literature and Popular Media at the graduate level in addition to the course on Marxist literary theory. The Ife Monographs on Literature and Criticisms which he edited with B.M Ibitokun and Bayo Williams when he was Head of Department of Literature-in–English published some original works of creative writings and criticisms. Indeed, it was in the series that Niyi Osundare’s collection of poems A Nib in the Pond was first published. It was also here that Osundare’s lyrical and insightful essay, “The Writer as Righter” was first published. BJ also wrote some plays. His Haba, Director! directed by Chucks Mike, was a convocation play. I acted in his Anniversary which he directed. We witnessed the reference with which he treated his mother, Madam Aduke, each time she visited. We witnessed the conviviality that accompanied the visits of Bene and Eddie Madunagu, Dr Seinde Arigbede, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare and a host of other friends. We witnessed the love he shared with Dr Sheila Walker, his African-American wife, and Okunola and Olalekan, their sons. We were deeply humanised by his loving kindness. We witnessed also some of BJ’s moments of anger when this tall, slim ebullient and humorous man would choose ponderous silence and withering gaze as a mark of protest.
To be sure, Jeyifo was only a super star among other stars. For the Department of Literature- in -English had a formidable team of dedicated teachers: Prof Oyin Ogunba, Dr Desmond Hamlet, Dr Ropo Sekoni, Dr Margaret Folarin, Dr Chidi Amuta, Dr G.G. Darah, Dr Chima Anyadike, Mrs Modupe Kolawole, Dr Bayo Williams, Dr Funsho Aiyejina, Dr Wole Ogundele, Dr Bob Fox, Dr B.M Ibitokun and Mr Segun Adekoya. At the invitation of Wole Soyinka, Okot p’Bitek and David Rubadiri, two notable East African poets came to the University of Ife, They were very active in the Departments of Dramatic Arts and Literature- in- English. There were some Fullbright scholars too who taught mainly canonical British and American works. We were encouraged to take the Philosophy course taught by Dr Geofrey Hunt and almost all the courses taught by Wole Soyinka, Dr Kole Omotoso and Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi. Apart from the compulsory courses in English and Linguistics, we took courses in History taught by Dr Segun Osoba. The teaching strategy in the department gave us direction. Our teachers’s enthusiasm and commitment lighted the darkened paths of knowledge. They had different ideological persuasions but somehow they tolerated each other.
Biodun Jeyifo in the acknowledgement section of his The Truthful-Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama writes: “Beyond this circle of professional colleagues, my greatest debts are to my undergraduate and post-graduate students in the last four years whose openness to radical sights and alternatives encouraged me in no small measure”. And Ropo Sekoni in an interview that Dapo Olorunyomi, Femi Folorunso and I had with him when he turned 70 in 2013: “I established camaraderie with my students, as I saw the whole thing as a community of learners. All of us were learners. It was a community of learners and I was primus inter pares. I shared my books with them and I made learning environment friendly”. Also, Adebayo Williams in his essay in TEMPO magazine of 23 December 1993, titled “Remember Rufus” writes:
“As I write this, my mind races back to November 1, 1983. There on the corridor of Humanities Block 2 at the then University of Ife was Babafemi Ojudu, the current editor of TEMPO and a final year student of mine, doing a running commentary for my benefit on an article of mine that appeared in that morning’s edition of The Guardian. The title? “The Guardian and the State of the Nation”. Two classes ahead of Ojudu’s I had decided to poach the best and brightest students from different tutorials. My thinking was that they would give me a good run for my money. Among the harvest were: Simon Ibe, Dili Ezughah, Tejumola Olaniyan, Kemi Ilori. Maxim Uzoatu joined the group later. He had written an essay for me which turned out to be a savage tirade against all the lecturers in the department. Since yours sincerely was no stranger to such suicidal procedures. I had to seek the chap out for urgent rehabilitation. A year before this was the turn of Dapo Olorunyomi’s class of 81. Later on came the Ajibades, the Yinka Tellas, the Seye Kehindes, the Tayo Alabis etc etc. Now all this had nothing to do with desperate ideological recruitment or crude brain-washing. It was an attempt at cultivating the intellect, at honing the spirit of humanism, liberality and tolerance. I remember that after a lecture in 1980, Dele Momodu hurriedly slipped a note into my hand to inform me that I had mis-spelt “anthropology”. Such was the open spirit and the refusal to be fazed by unearned authority”.
Since there was no written record of any code of conduct compelling our teachers to have groundings with us as Walter Rodney would say, where did they get the collectivisation spirit from? Four days ago when I was re-reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed which was published in 1970, I found this passage very striking: “The problem – solving educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflections of the students. The students – no longer docile listeners – are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with their teachers. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own’’. Looking back now, with all sense of modesty, some of us in the Department of Literature –in-English were not docile listeners. So we helped our teachers to frame and reframe their arguments. Paulo Freire also talks about the necessity of ‘’humanising pedagogy’’. Given the immense power of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, at the time, it is possible to assume that the humanising pedagogy of our teachers, particularly that of BJ, must have been forged in its furnace.
Finally, it is heart-warming that we are celebrating BJ who certainly deserves all the accolades that we have been pouring on him since yesterday. But are we really worthy of people like him? Are we good human beings? Do we believe in merits, in high standards? Do we stand up for justice when we are confronted with injustice? What do we do to make sure that we don’t all perish together as fools? Are we selfless like him? What kind of work ethic do we have? If these questions are not answered in the affirmative, this celebration would not have served the purpose and meaning it ought to serve. Happy birthday, BJ, the uncommon mentor. May you continue to nourish many more minds.
*Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS gave this talk at a Symposium in honour of Professor Biodun Jeyifo which held at the Conference Centre of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, on 21 and 22 January 2016.