wole soyinka
Soyinka image: Public Domain via Flickr

Crazy School Days at Great Ife

My studies at Great Ife under Prof Wole Soyinka got off on a beery note.

I was with my classmates in Soyinka’s house for practical lessons on television production when I told the future Nobel Laureate’s steward, the Ghanaian lad Francis, to get me a cold Star lager beer from the refrigerator.

I was nursing my beer gloriously when the good Prof saw me and asked why I was drinking while he was teaching the class and I promptly told him: “Prof, sir, that’s how I get my inspiration.”

He just shook his luxuriant head like a loving father saddled with a crazy son.

Apart from Soyinka, Great Ife had the iconic Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek, the inimitable author of Song of Lawino, and David Rubadiri, the Malawian poet.

Okot was an ever-present company who I once wanted to discuss Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters with only for the poet to toss the book aside and say: “Fine book by my friend Soyinka; let’s go and drink.”

Okot only cared for booze, and chased me out of the GNS 1 Use of English exam hall because he planned to take me to Uganda’s Makerere University to continue my studies there.

Okot did not reckon with the then University of Ife which he dismissed as a University of Lizards.

Our first experience of Soyinka as a teacher was, yes, very dramatic.

Soyinka was billed to teach us Shakespeare’s play. We had all come from secondary schools where Shakespeare was read line-by-line and explained by the class teacher.

We were all seated in the Pit Theatre at Ife when Soyinka casually walked in and distributed sheets of cyclostyled paper in which a speech taken from Shakespeare’s play was printed.

Soyinka asked us to pick out the unnatural word in the speech, but none of us could understand this kind of teaching.

He then said we ought to still be in high school.

The West Indian lady, Dr Carroll Dawes, had to come to our rescue by teaching us Shakespeare line-after-line at Oduduwa Hall for weeks and months on end.

Much later, in the course of our studies in the drama department, we had to read up all the plays of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht as our Special Author.

We found to our chagrin that Brecht was a rival of Shakespeare in the large number of classic plays written by him.

We confronted Soyinka with the charge that he was making us read for a Ph.D when we only applied to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Soyinka asked us to accost Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi as the real culprit giving us more books to read than doctoral candidates.

A handsome young lecturer nicknamed Shaft after the American actor Richard Roundtree who played John Shaft in the era of the Blaxploitation movies in early 1970s Hollywood, Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi in his first lecture to our class was even more dramatic than Soyinka.

The entire class did not understand a word of what he was teaching, and seeing that we were not following his drift, Dr Ogunbiyi suddenly stopped and said: “You mean you have not read Fanon? I can’t waste my time talking to illiterates!”

He packed his books and stormed out of the class.

We became instantly challenged and thenceforth foraged the libraries and bookshops, reading everything by Frantz Fanon.

The rigour that Dr Ogunbiyi put us through is amply replicated in the trailblazing book, Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book, that he edited.

Soyinka had other titans in the department such as the renowned writer, Prof Kole Omotoso, and the theatre management guru, Dr Olu Akomolafe.

In one of my kamikaze moves I once wrote an essay on “Peasant Theatre Management” for Dr Olu Akomolafe instead of what I considered the “bourgeois” theatre management he taught us, thus making the annoyed lecturer to threaten that I may never graduate from Great Ife!

One of my lecturers, Adebayo Williams, would later write in the Preface to Wale Adebanwi’s book Trials & Triumphs – The Story of THE NEWS:

“…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.”

Soyinka took us on a course in Humanism which turned out to be a class war because most of us in the class were Marxists.

We asked Soyinka to join us in the bush of revolutionary struggle instead of being an arm-chair humanist!

Soyinka was never angry with our youthful ebullition, only advising us that we would get to understand society further as we grew in life.

Interestingly, Soyinka asked a Polish lady who barely spoke English to take us in the course of Aesthetics in his place! Our fiery arguments were thus nipped in the bud.

After my degree exams, I was totally out of cash and I needed money badly such that I ran to the godfather WS in his office.

I told him I had no money to go home and he opened his drawer and gave me all the money there.

In a show of bravado I told him: “I will pay you back your money when I come for convocation.”

Soyinka had a hearty laugh and said: “How am I sure you will not run through the money and come back with another sob story?”

At the end of our studies, Soyinka threw a party for the class, declaring us the best he had ever taught anywhere!

Written by
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
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