8th November, 2022
By Biodun Jeyifo
I am as constant as the northern star/Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament.
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 111, scene 1
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton
My first published book, The Yoruba Traveling Theatre of Nigeria, was dedicated to my father, Samuel A. Jeyifous, and my maternal grandmother, Madam Jadesola Ajayi-Obe. The dedication was based largely on a sense of duty, though in the case of my grandmother, I also thought of the fact that from the earliest moments of my life that I could remember, I knew and got an unconditional and nurturing love from her. The crucial point about this particular act of dedication is that it was not very difficult for me to arrive at the people to whom my very first book should be dedicated. I did think of my mother, Morounranti Aduke, before any other person, but I thought that she was still alive and, hopefully like all the women in her line of descent, she would have a very long life and therefore an appropriate book of mine would eventually be dedicated to her. Unfortunately, she did not have the kind of long life I had confidently expected and by the time I dedicated one of my books to her memory, she was gone forever.
For my second published book, The Truthful Lie, I had a much tougher time deciding to whom I should dedicate the book. Given the nature and the contents of the book, I knew from which group of acquaintances I should make my choice: the dedicated, uncompromising and humane comrades on the Nigerian Left, the body of compatriots among whom, in the entirety of my adulthood, I have found the most sustaining sources of hope for our country and our continent. This is a body of women and men often riven by fractious and self-decimating quarrels and by the usual kinds of betrayals of ideals and trust that afflict all social movements. Moreover, at this present moment, this group is at its most fragmented, dispersed and exhausted as at any other moment in the entire post-independence period. But it is a distinct and significant body of Nigerians from all classes, all social and ethnic groups and from all walks of life; and it is a rich and variegated tradition of thought, imagination and sensibility that has provided the most treasured backdrop for much of my work as a scholar and a human being. It was from this group that I wished to choose the compatriots to whom to dedicate my second published book. Because I knew and had met so many admirable individuals within this group, this proved to be a tough endeavor.
Eventually, I chose to dedicate the book to three people, Eddie Madunagu, the late Ntiem Kungwai and Seinde Arigbede, one of the subjects of this essay, this testamentary tribute. Of Madunagu, I have written of our friendship, comradeship, shared hopes and frustrations. Kungwai, a lecturer at ABU Zaria, tragically died too soon and I have not written about him. From the very first time that I met him to the occasion of our last encounter, I always went away with a renewed sense of the bottomless depths of his dedication, selflessness and humanity. Seinde Arigbede I have also never written about and even now as I am writing this essay, I wonder whether or not I am making the right decision in so doing. Let me explain and in the process give a profile of this extraordinary Nigerian and his wife and partner, Dunni Arigbede.
At the most intimate levels of personhood, the late Kungwai, Madunagu and Seinde share two closely linked but contrastive qualities: on the one hand, there is willpower of an extraordinarily concentrated kind and, on the other hand, a predilection for self-effacement of an equally extraordinary kind. With Seinde, these combined, integrated or interfused qualities assume an almost uniquely pristine dimension: in his presence, you know you are confronting a man of tremendous force of personality and self-confidence, but at the same time you sense that here is a man who demands no deference from you, a man who goes to great lengths to treat you as an equal, a man who gives you the impression that he has as much to learn from you as you from him. And indeed, of all the progressive intellectuals I have met in our country and other parts of the world, I know of no one who craves anonymity as much as Seinde Arigbede.
It is against this background that the myths and the rumors around Seinde and Dunni Arigbede must be deconstructed. For they are known, very well known, in circles and communities of progressives and radicals in the country and other parts of Africa and the world. At the most elementary and indisputable level, the Arigbedes are known as the doctor and his wife who, together with their young children, gave up their very comfortable middle-class professional existence in the mid-seventies to go and live among rural, peasant communities around the Ife-Gbogan-Ode-Omu area of Osun state. Beyond that basic fact, the grapevine and the rumors have accumulated a considerable number of half-truths, lies, mystifications and distortions. At one level, there are the stories of a “class suicide” that has not inspired others among professionals on the Left because it unrealistically and romantically asks of everyone who wants to work for real change in our country to leave their jobs, leave the cities and go and live in the rural areas as farmers and peasants. Then there are those who allege that the Arigbedes’ real objective in moving to the countryside was to start a commercial agribusiness enterprise on a more or less capitalist basis. Some of those peddling this view often also go on assert that if that was not the objective, it ought to have been! Why? Because – so goes the argument – first you have to accumulate wealth or financial muscle before taking up the fight against the powerful, moneyed interests in the cause of justice and equality.
I have remarked earlier in this piece that with all its faults, reversal of prospects and even outright defeats, the progressive Left in this country represents a rich and variegated tradition of thought, imagination and sensibility. I now wish to state with as much emphasis as possible that it is the failure to recognize and accept this simple but profound fact that makes the Arigbedes and others like them seem almost completely incomprehensible in our society. What do I mean by this?
Our country is not in short supply of genuine progressives and compatriots who first amassed wealth or financial muscle in order to effectively fight for equality in our country. The great examples here are of Balarabe Musa and Abubakar Rimi and the PRP in the 2nd Republic. There is also the exemplary case of Gani Fawehinmi, sustained with unyielding courage and dedication over the course of more than four decades. However, at the same time, the realities of progressive, radical politics in this country are littered with the ideological and moral corpses of individuals who started out with the same premises like Musa, Rimi and Fawehinmi and ended up solidly and comfortably in the camp of the anti-people, anti-democratic wings of the political class. One of the most notorious of such cases has been that of former ASUU leaders who became Ministers of Education and promptly assumed the roles and adopted the policies of state functionaries they had fought for years.
The pattern represented, or better still embodied by the Arigbedes can be simply but paradoxically described as one in which on the road to equality, you start with equality itself. And you absolutely never stray from this path. Another way of expressing this is to say that you start with equality and raise it to ever greater and more humanizing forms and expressions. This pattern seems almost alien to our political culture and the horizons of our moral imagination. Later in this long tribute, I shall try to demonstrate that it is not that alien to our society and that in embracing it, the Arigbedes are in fact reinventing a submerged part of who we are. For now, let me conclude this opening segment by saying that of all the married couples I have known, none has embraced and concretely lived the equality of the man and the woman as the Arigbedes.
When everyone is a farmer
We’ll grow enough food
In the land!
Harvest is coming, harvest is coming
In the land!
-Femi Osofisan, The Chattering and the Song
Earlier in this tribute, I made the observation that rare people like Seinde and Dunni Arigbede who give up a comfortable middle-class existence, even a brilliantly promising professional career to cast their lot completely and irrevocably with the poor and the downtrodden seem, at the present time, an incomprehensible phenomenon in our society. I ought to somewhat clarify this observation before proceeding to flesh it out in greater detail.
Like all societies, ours has imaginative space for comprehending, categorizing and even celebrating idealists, visionaries, nonconformists, rebels and iconoclasts who depart radically from custom and tradition, from the known and the familiar, and from safe, convenient and reassuring paths and prospects. Of course, limits are set and distinctions are made between forms and expressions of non-conformism and idealism, but in general, the same awe is accorded a Charlie Boy as is given to Gani Fawehinmi, the same veneration is given to a Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his cousin, Wole Soyinka, and the same respect is showered on a Dora Akunyili and a Yusuf Bala Usman. Most people are willing to do what is good and honorable, what is right and just, and what is daring and unconventional – as long as it does not involve too much inconvenience, discomfort or threats to liberty or life. This is the source of the admiration for nonconformists and idealists – through them we vicariously experience things which we long to do, things which our deepest psychic or moral promptings urge us to undertake.
But there is one order of idealism and utopianism which, although it is related to other forms of humanistic radicalism, it does stand somewhat apart. And unfortunately, it seems less and less visible or even comprehensible in our society and that is the one to which the Arigbedes and a few like them belong. This is the idealism or radicalism that seeks to transcend the great divisions on which much of the crippling social disabilities and human suffering in our society are based. Permit me to clarify what I mean by this observation.
Life or existence itself is riven by great divisions – between animal and plant life; between life and death; between light and darkness; between being and nothingness. But as great, deep and wide as these divisions of nature can be, they are like nothing compared with the divisions that often arise and congeal in society. Some of these are clearly visible and endemic, especially in our society at the present time; the most troubling and tragic, as this column has maintained tirelessly since its inception, is the schism between the overwhelming majority who live in extremely dire conditions below the absolute poverty line and the very tiny minority who wallow in an embarrassment of wealth. And of course, of the greatest visibility and often manipulated mass awareness in our country are the real and imagined divisions of ethnicity, region and religion.
No less troubling but somewhat less “visible” is the division between the urban areas and the rural communities; the flow of human population and hapless souls from one to the other follows a one-way traffic and what’s left of the social surplus after much of it has been looted disproportionately goes to the urban areas. And within the urban areas themselves, there are the separations between the vast, sprawling slums and the upscale, gated GRAs, even if there is a process of decay that is slowly but relentlessly enveloping all areas of the country.
Even less visible but no less significant is the division between the very literate and the poorly educated or uneducated in our society, often expressed in its sharpest cultural contradictions in the advantages or disadvantages that attach to the use or non-use of English, our national lingua franca. And of course, there is the great division based on gender, most often either simply ignored or vigorously denied, even with the overwhelming evidence of what has been very aptly described as the “feminization” of poverty, a phrase by which is meant that women, far more than the menfolk, bear the brunt of the effects and consequences of widespread and endemic poverty in our society.
The words of the epigraph to this second segment of this tribute come from a song which comes at the very end of Femi Osofisan’s play, The Chattering and the Song. It is very easy to misread or misunderstand the literal “message” of the song: when everyone becomes a farmer, we will grow enough food in the land; ergo, we should all become farmers. But anyone who has either read the play or watched it performed is very unlikely to misunderstand the song in this fashion. For none of the characters of the play are farmers; only, in the manner in which Raymond Williams has explored the issue comprehensively in The Country and the City, the characters in Osofisan’s play are aware that the central contradiction between citified populations and rural communities is at the base of all the other social divisions and contradictions of modern society; if you attack that primary contradiction at its roots you will sooner or later come up against all the other contradictions and divisions. Thus, the trope of “everyone farming” is invoked in this song as a vision of true egalitarianism where the tillers and toilers are not separate from the reapers and harvesters, we all put back as much as we take from nature and society and the prospects of growth, renewal and community are enhanced; those crippling divisions and disabilities of class, ethnicity, gender, locality, language and culture are transcended.
It is important for me to state that Osofisan’s play did not come out of a void. From the early 70s to at least the mid-80s, progressive intellectual and political circles in the country were rife with talk of this vision of activists and cadres who are women and men of flesh and blood who could bridge these gaps and divisions by fundamentally breaking away from the usual, beaten paths of bourgeois reformism. In a country deeply afflicted with a short national and cultural memory, it is no wonder that even within literary circles, it is no longer remembered that that there exists a large body of novels, plays and poems which extensively explored these issues. Even much less is it remembered that nearly all of these literary texts – Osofisan’s The Chattering and the Song and The Oriki of a Grasshopper; Kole Omotoso’s Shadows in the Horizon and To Borrow a Wandering Leaf; Isidore Okpewho’s Tides; Bode Sowande’s Farewell to Babylon; Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah; Niyi Osundare’s Songs of the Marketplace; Odia Ofeimun’s The Poet Lied; Ola Rotimi’s If and Hopes of the Living Dead; and many others – used as the real-life inspiration for their fictional characters and their thematic concerns, men and women who left their middle class jobs, became full time activists, moved to rural communities, or took it upon themselves to create new patterns of personal and collective identities that could address those historic divisions and contradictions. Seinde and Dunni Arigbede were the ultimate real-life inspirers of these fictional literary characters.
For those who wish to place much of what I have been saying here in some larger literary and intellectual context, I suggest a reading encounter with these titles. For some readers, the identification between actual persons they know or have heard of will be instant; for others, the allusions will seem more oblique. What no one can miss however is the fact that most of these literary texts presuppose a strong messianic impulse in their fictional protagonists. The subtitle of this series of essays on Dunni and Seinde Arigbede is “Making Haste Slowly for Human Equality”: the import of this is the deliberate rejection by Seinde and Dunni Arigbede of messianism. There is thus, in this particular case, a gap between what the literary texts perceive and what the actual persons live and embody as their chosen moral and ideological guiding principles. This will be the topic of the following concluding section of this tribute.
To whom much is given, much is expected.
The Book of Luke, 12:48
As a succinct recapitulation, it is perhaps necessary to state that in order to do full justice to Seinde and Dunni Arigbede, the couple around whom this tribute has been discussing issues concerning some of the finest expressions of the striving for human equality in our country, it is perhaps best to situate our reflections in a comparative global context.
At the present time, the world is faced with what has been called the crises of the three F’s – the food crisis, the fuel crisis, and the financial crisis. The worst affected by these crises are of course the poor countries of the world and the poor people of the whole world. Concerning the latter, the conditions had been deteriorating steadily even before the current crises; in the wake of these crises, things have gone from bad to worse. This is particularly true of places around the world where the crises of the three F’s is compounded by political, security and health care delivery crises – war; genocide; massive population displacements; brutal suppression of popular struggles; drastic food shortages and outright famine; the collapse of health care delivery infrastructures and services.
As the fundamental causes of these crises are structural and systemic, so also are their potential solutions. But structures and systems operate with and through human agents working as groups or individuals. And so, in the failure, so far, of global and national structures to respond meaningfully to these crises, many individuals and groups have emerged to pick up the slack, as the saying goes. In the international context, one of the most impressive expressions of this development is the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), known in English as “Doctors Without Borders”. In different national contexts across the world, NGO’s or civil society organizations are attempting to fill the void created by failed and failing states. It is in many of these national and international organizations with social bases in the intellectual and professional circles of the traditional middle and upper middle classes that one can find perhaps find the best contemporary examples of the words of the epigraph to this third section of our tribute from the Book of Luke in the Bible: “To whom much is given, much is expected”.
For short or long periods, and with their many problems and shortcomings, individuals and groups in these organizations stand for and with the poor, the forgotten, the brutalized of our world, steadfastly and selflessly. But sometimes, this solidarity is not just for a short or a long period, it is permanent, the work of a lifetime of unswerving dedication. In such cases, those words “to whom much is given much is expected” go far beyond their usual connotation of obligations that are ethically imposed from the outside by expectations of family, neighbors, clan, or nation. Rather, what seems to drive the person or the group that responds to the injunction to put much back where one has been given much is a complex mix of inner drives and external promptings, with a great emphasis on the inner, subjective dimension. Seinde and Dunni Arigbede provide a fascinating embodiment of this dialectic of external forces acting in concert with powerful, self-defining and self-constituting inner drives. However, as I hope the astute and sympathetic reader will appreciate, I cannot but be discreet in writing about this aspect of this couple’s profile in which I explore the endowments of will, personality and imagination that enabled them to respond to that injunction: to whom much is given, much is expected.
It seems both very unusual but at the same time completely appropriate now about four decades later, that I first “met” Seinde and Dunni on the stage of the Trenchard Hall of the University of Ibadan in 1967 when I entered that University as a freshman. He was one of the star attractions in the series of “Welcome” festivities for us, the “freshers”. There he was on the stage, singing lustily and mellifluously the words of songs he had himself composed to the accompaniment of guitar playing executed expertly – also by himself. It took no time at all for me to find out that because he was a medical student, he was known as “the Singing Doctor”. Much later, I would find out that he was also one of the leading student actors in the University; one of the memorable roles he played was as the ebullient, crafty, larger-than-life Oba Danlola, the nemesis of Kongi the dictator in Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest. In all of these extracurricular activities and involvements, Seinde unquestionably showed himself to be one of the most notable all-round students of that generation, as much present in the arts and humanities as in the sciences. But while his many accomplishments spoke volumes about his exceptional talents, it is to his lyrical compositions and renditions that, in my opinion, one must look for portents of the future man. In these original compositions, he sang of love, resilience and resoluteness. One song which was regularly a big winner with the audiences was about his love for – Dunni. As a matter of fact, it was through the song that I “met” Dunni long before I was to meet her in person. In another song about three friends most of whose words I recall to this day, Seinde sang of the will, the force of personality to stay true to one’s considered and chosen path, even when one is abandoned by one’s best companions.
If it is not immediately apparent from this profile, let me now emphasize that what I am extrapolating here is the suggestion that the words “to whom much is given, much is expected” refer, at the deepest level, not to wealth, status, or authority but to endowments of mind, spirit, imagination and intellect. Put in more simple language, some people are endowed with far greater capacities to feel, intuit, empathize and project about and on human affairs than is found in ordinary humanity; to such people, so much has been given and they cannot not give much back of the plenitude that they have been given.
Again, I have to emphasize that I write here of these things in the lives of this couple with considerable circumspection, though absolutely truthfully. In the early years after Seinde and Dunni made their irrevocable decision to dedicate themselves to the cause of full equality in our society, among many other relatives and acquaintances, they faced a quite formidable adversary in Pa Arigbede, Seinde’ s father who expected of his son a brilliantly successful and rewarding career in the medical profession. Pa Arigbede obviously had his own slant on those same words, “to whom much is given…” And indeed, in the normal run of things, who could blame the old man? I am not sure now, but at the time, I did think that the old man’s towering anger and disappointment came from his recognition that he was fighting a losing battle, his recognition, in effect, of the depths of the moral, spiritual and ethical imperatives from whence came the path chosen by Seinde and Dunni. It is very gratifying for me to report that before he passed away, he came round to accepting and honoring the reasons, the imperatives driving the path chosen by his son and daughter-in-law.
It is a very complicated, very ambiguous thing to claim that some people, like great artists, scientists, visionaries and revolutionary reformers, are endowed with an acuity of moral, intellectual, or imaginative perceptiveness far above the capacities of ordinary humanity. For that way lurks the lure of what I described at the end of the preceding section of this tribute as messianism – the complex of ideas and attitudes about a vanguard of “saviors” on whom rests the salvation of the downtrodden in particular and society in general. This messianism often goes with claims such as I have made about the few among us like Seinde and Dunni Arigbede.
There are three things to note here. First, I, not the Arigbedes, am the one making the claim, and making it with the warning caveat about messianism. Secondly, I can testify that the Arigbedes themselves have constantly repudiated the messianic, vanguardist path toward human equality; and theirs is a repudiation that is embodied and lived concretely in all their dealings with everyone, irrespective of age, gender, class and ethnic and religious background. Thirdly and finally, there is the matter of the many literary representations of radicals and reformers in Nigerian literature of the 70s and 80s to which I alluded earlier in this tribute. In many of these representations, messianism is an obtrusive element. But it is significant that in many of these literary works, the fictional radicals and reformers are not long-distance runners; they cannot, like the Arigbedes – and as indicated in the title of this tribute – “make haste slowly for human equality”. The Arigbedes have touched and been touched by many lives, the vast majority of whom they are unaware. The journey is long and hard, and it is a journey of relays between generations.
-Republished from Biodun Jeyifo, Against the Predators’ Republic: Political and Cultural Journalism, 2007-2016, pp. 573-579