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Ibadan: The Cultural Stalk of Literature in Nigeria

Ibadan: The Cultural Stalk of Literature in Nigeria

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The point of great occurrences in history have often been named centres of pilgrimage. It is this place of pilgrimage that Ibadan holds, first as one of the centres of modern urbanisation of the Yorùbá nation, and secondly as the stalk of the literati from Nigeria who shaped Africa’s image to the world.

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera

If Ibadan was brought into proper historical context, the role it has played in the growth of literature in Nigeria would be likened to that which London played in England, Dublin in Ireland, and Harlem in New York city for African American literature. Like these cities, Ibadan has housed great literary structures, publishing houses, and a literary environment which nurtured pioneer writers, and have continued to nurture writers today, like a literary stalk from where the fruits of literature originated and spread to other parts of the field.

Ibadan was initially founded as a war camp in 1829 during the definitive war which led to the disappearance of old Yorùbá cities such as old Oyo (Oyo ile), Ijaye and Owu, and the appearance of newer ones such as Abeokuta, new Oyo (Oyo atiba) and Ibadan itself. Being a landscape with a number of elevated hills, Ibadan naturally served as a war camp for people from Oyo, Ife and Ijebu, and much later, people from other parts of Yorùbá land joined in. Hence, the city became a meeting point for various people of the Yorùbá nation. When the city began to develop, it naturally assumed the character of a cultural metropolis. Because of its heterogeneous character, its system of government borrowing partly from the old Oyo empire which relied heavily on checks and balances, Ibadan became a republican society with a decentralised government. There was mutual respect and regard among the various people housed by the city, and they formed a largely democratic system of government where even the king did not have as much absolute power as in a monarchical system. Public debates were a regular feature in their gatherings, and the people who made the city home explored new ideas more freely than in many other parts of Yorùbá land. This healthy intellectual culture paved the way for the speedy evolution of Ibadan into the most powerful kingdom in Yorùbá land. Just before the mid-20th century, Ibadan had become the second most populous city in Africa, just behind Cairo. So, when the British, in 1948, sought out to build Nigeria’s first university, it was in Ibadan that they built it. The University College Ibadan, (now the University of Ibadan), was born.

“Two things have contributed in making Ibadan a cultural centre for literature in Nigeria,” Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, author of the English poetry collection, Edwardsville by Heart, told me during a Zoom meeting. “First, the egalitarian culture of the city and the citing of Nigeria’s first university in the city.” Mr. Túbọ̀sún’s life and ancestral history is embodied in the evolution of Ibadan from the hilly war camp to the biggest Yorùbá city. “My ancestors came from Ekiti,” he tells me. “But I cannot say I am from Ekiti, since my lineage is five generations removed from there. This is how many other people from Ibadan are today. People moved from various other parts of Yorùbá land to find a home there, much like it is in America.” Born in Ibadan in 1981, Túbọ̀sún’s coming-of-age years which included dabbling in a myriad of interests from wanting to be an OAP like his father and wanting to be an accountant like his elder brother, also included coming in contact with the great literary tradition of the city. “Growing up in Ibadan, and meeting those wonderful writers like Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, just gave you the impetus to want to write,” he says of the city. It was this literary presence that would inspire Túbọ̀sún to become a poet, like many other writers, while he studied Linguistics in the University of Ibadan in the early 2000s.

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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún

The place of Ibadan as the literary stalk of literature in Nigeria began in earnest in 1948. The citing of Nigeria’s first university in Ibadan in that year, gave room for the rise of an upsurge of novelists, poets, dramatists, thinkers whose work would become a starting point for studying African literature in the proper cultural context. The city’s egalitarian character as well as the presence of a true intellectual culture, served as a fertile soil for planting the seed of African literature. And over the next decade, the city had been home to a myriad of indigenous writers, thinkers, publishers, theatres, and a location for many of Africa’s finest cultural pacesetters.

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Top view of a section of the city of Ibadan

In 1957, Black Orpheus, the first black literary magazine in West Africa was founded by German expatriate editor, Uli Beier, in Ibadan. Seven years into the founding of the magazine, it was described by the critic, Abiola Irele as “…a powerful catalyst for the artistic awakening of West Africa.” Black Orpheus was home to the early writings of writers like Christopher Okigbo, J.P Clark, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and even the South African poet, Dennis Brutus. Many of the writers whose work found home in Black Orpheus went on, not just to write, but curate important works that would influence African writing for generations. Achebe went on to become the founding editor of Heinemann Publishers of the African Writers Series, J.P Clark went on to curate another literary magazine called The Horn, and even immortalise the city in his poem “Ibadan”; Wole Soyinka edited for the African Writers Series, “Poems of Black Africa” which has proven to be one of the most influential anthologies in African poetry; Christopher Okigbo went on to work with various publishing houses and establish Citadel Press with Achebe before the civil war; and Flora Nwapa became the first female to write an adult novel from Nigeria. The trailblazing achievements of these alumni of the University College, Ibadan set the ball rolling for a tradition of excellence. In addition, the presence of these writers and thinkers writing and establishing in various capacities in the city, served to establish a creative culture in the city.

The great writing inspired younger writers to write their own novels and plays which would be performed, and the structures such as the publishing houses and literary magazines gave the platform for the showcasing of art. From the stable of what came to be from what the pioneer writers set up, other writers and critics of great talent like Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Harry Garuba, Toyin Falola, and the likes emerged.

The generation of writers born in the 1930s whose writings were the first from Nigeria to attain canonical height in the world were not the first group of writers from Nigeria who wrote in English. There had been Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, and even shortly before them, there was Nnamdi Azikiwe, a poet, journalist and memoirist. But most of what the earlier writers wrote did not espouse indigenous culture, language, and roots. Azikiwe’s poems were merely appendages of the poetic tradition of America where he was educated, and he was often criticised for lacking cultural and artistic depth; Ekwensi’s fictions read more like American pop fictions; and Tutuola’s stories were great, but lacked the polish to put them at the echelon of great writing. Through the University College, according to Tade Ipadeola, a poet and lawyer based in Ibadan since 1994, Ibadan became the nurturing ground which gave the artists the cultural leaning which they needed to represent their cultures in their writing.

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Tade Ipadeola

In 1986, Ipadeola was 16 and in his first year studying Law at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, another ancient Yorùbá city. There, he was taught literature by Professor Sesan Ajayi. One of the poets whose work they studied was Niyi Osundare, a poet and lecturer at Ibadan, who had just won the Commonwealth Prize for poetry for his magisterial collection of poetry, Eye of the Earth, a prize previously won by Chinua Achebe in 1972 for one of his collections of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother. That same year, Osundare also won the Association of Nigeria Authors’ (ANA) Prize for poetry. Ipadeola, sitting in his classroom and listening to his lecturer, got a sense of what was happening in Ibadan at the time, and became interested in poetry. It would be another eight years before Ipadeola returned to Ibadan to set up a law firm and to further pursue his literary interests.

“When I returned to Ibadan, I met a whole gamut,” he tells me, “I met Femi Osofisan, Africa’s most prodigious poet, I met Remi Raji, I met Harry Garuba, Lola Shoneyin was here. I was a newcomer, but most of these writers had been established. They had their routines and their rituals. They were very serious writers who wrote and fiercely criticised each other’s works.” The seriousness of the literary culture stems from the mindset of the pioneer writers from Ibadan. In Ipadeola’s words, “In the 1960s, Ibadan had some pretty serious and pretty solid writers who saw themselves as inheritors of a nation. Everything is the subject of literature; tender rose, spirituality, love and all, but these writers, their interests were broad because of how they saw themselves.”

Ipadeola expanded on how critical culture evolved alongside literary culture and gave birth to serious critics like Abiola Irele, Ben Obumselu, and others like Toyin Falola who came later on. The development of craft and thought was so spectacular, and in Ipadeola’s words, “By the time major literary conferences were organised in Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania, the world could not look away any longer.”

When Ipadeola returned to Ibadan in 1994, he was greatly inspired by the culture he met in the city, and by 1996, he began publishing his poems. In 2000, he published a collection titled, A Time of Signs followed in 2005 by another collection of poems, Rain Fardel. In 2013, his third collection, an epic of 1000 Quatrains, The Sahara Testament, won the $100,000 NLNG prize for literature.

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For Ipadeola, the influence of Ibadan on his craft was not just ancestral (his father, a literature teacher, graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1967), it was also psychological as the city managed to rub off on him during his days in Ife. It was also as a result of the structure and culture which he met, especially what was happening at Magazine Road where the publishers were. “If you took Dugbe as the centre of the city,” he tells me, “within a radius of 2km, you had everything, including the University, the publishing houses at Magazine Road and various arts and cultural centres. Everything was booming.” It was with this presence of infrastructures alongside the great traditions and culture which made Ibadan the cultural centre of the country.

Ibadan was also of great help to other countries in Africa, particularly South Africa where for much of the 20th century, black writers suffered apartheid, and could not publish some of their fierce anti-apartheid literature in the country. They came down to Ibadan and had their works published here. Dennis Brutus’ first collection of poems Sirens, Knuckles and Boots was published in Ibadan while he was in prison in South Africa. The South African poet and author of The Wanderers (1971), Ezekiel Mphahlele, co-edited Black Orpheus alongside Soyinka and Beier. Through the publication of various activist literature, Ibadan assumed a political character, and from here, various books, journals, and newspapers were published which stood against the less than admirable system of government which rocked the country. The city, hence, became a target for the dictatorial onslaughts of the government. Asides the strikes which affected the institutions, the publishing houses were targeted and underfunded, and with the decline in the country’s economy, many of them closed shop. Today, with the steady decline in literature in Nigeria and the migration of writers from Nigeria to Europe and America, things are a little different, and the city has not been left out on the infrastructural rot which pervades the whole country.

The root from which all great art springs is culture and tradition. Ibadan has both, and so despite the general decline in the state of things in the country, from Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, to Femi Morgan, Gbenga Adeoba, James Yeku, Rasaq Malik Gbolahan, to Adedayo Agarau and many others, Ibadan has continued to churn out fine writers and publishers. With its numerous poetry, drama, book clubs and the presence of the artistic tradition, it continues to remain a progenitor of good literature and centre of culture. Among the current most prominent Nigerian journals are Olongo Africa (published by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún), and Agbowó Magazine, currently edited by Adedayo Agarau. These magazines curate some of the finest stories and poetry from Nigeria and the rest of Africa. Unsurprisingly, Agbowó Magazine takes its name from the street opposite the University of Ibadan. On another hand, there is Àt́lẃ, a collective which serves the need for literature in Yorùbá. In Àt́lẃ, writers like Rasaq Malik Gbolahan and Salawu Olajide, both writers who write in English and Yorùbá are involved in curating writing and events which serves the purpose.

The kind of history a place has housed determines what culture it is capable of nurturing. Ibadan, having housed an egalitarian society which arose from the necessity of surviving a civil war, housed the growth of a literary and intellectual culture which fostered the growth of African literature, and the documentation of postcolonial history. Ibadan’s place in history is like that of an old house that has borne witness to the evolution of the greatness of multitudes. Wherever greatness passes, it leaves its trails. The point of great occurrences in history have often been named centres of pilgrimage. It is this place of pilgrimage that Ibadan holds, first as one of the centres of modern urbanisation of the Yorùbá nation, and secondly as the stalk of the literati from Nigeria who shaped Africa’s image to the world.


Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera writes pieces on literature, culture and music for Afrocritik. Follow him on Twitter @ChukwuderaEdozi

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