The smoke from the half-lit cigarette spiraled lazily across his gray, white bearded face and dissolved into the breezy, evening air of the Lagos lagoon. With the fast flowing water of the Lagoon forming a surreal scenario in the background, the image of the German Gerd Meuer cut the picture of a legendary personality with his hand-made sun hat jauntily placed at a corner of his head. The African Oyinbo who has transcended the length and breath of the Africa continent is in town to present his book written about his long time equally larger-than- life friend, the man he proudly calls Kongi- our own enigmatic Wole Soyinka.
This rare encounter began earlier on Wednesday 3rd of September at the venue of the proposed Saturday event in Goethe Institut in Victoria Island, Lagos. This black man in white skin is certainly not your typical aloof and haughty Caucasian expatriates living in Nigeria who prefers to watch us natives from a distance or even dare to touch us with the proverbial long stick.
This titan who bestrides Africa landscape like a colossus working as a journalist, activist, diarist and culture icon habours no dull moment. For more than three hours he would throw banters, give a word of encouragement and sometimes would jab a pleasant abuse at any one who dare to cross his path. At another time he would go down memory lane from his student days at Ibadan which he calls the wild, Wild West.
Sitting across to him in front of the computer at the Goethe Institut Library, this writer had been perfecting a way to get acquainted to the man fondly called Oyinbo Pepper given that many of the Caucasian in town has always become wary of the typical Nigerians acquaintance. I threw a line at him hoping he would not be put off by a stranger. To break the ice, I had mentioned the fact that I read his most recent article in the Guardian Newspaper heralding his coming to Nigeria for the presentation of his book about Professor Wole Soyinka.
As soon as he heard this and with the agility that bellies his advance age, he quickly stood up from seat and asked me to forward the said piece to his inbox. I was shocked. Then we hit off from there. Acting as if we were long time friends and not minding my stranger status, he commandeered me to send a mail about his leaving the Institut at six o’clock to the Guardian Sunday Editor, Jahman Anikulapo from his mailbox. Then he dragged me out for an exciting evening at the Lagoon front where he spoke about his time in Nigeria and sojourn across Africa dating back to the last 42 years traversing forty three African countries.
From his time at the University of Ibadan (which he called beautiful and one of the best universities in the world at the time) where as students they would take those six pence Morris Minor and board those taxis from the bell-tower at the University of Ibadan (UI) down to Mokola and then trekked to the Mbari- Mbayo Club. He spoke about the joy of quaffing the Star Beer (a treat he also looked forward to that evening). He relishes fond memories of his younger days with icons like Kongi, Demas Nwoko, John Pepper, and Christopher Okigbo and the legend from Oshogbo of Oba Koso fame, Duro Ladipo.
He moved on to his time with his wife who later became a Director at the Goethe Institut in 1993 in Addis Ababa in far away Ethiopia at the time another pan-African and cultural icon Ambassador Segun Olusola was the Nigerian ambassador to the country. He spoke about the demonstration against their stay in that country which led to disagreement with the Ethiopia government not comfortable with his promotion of an alien culture.
The Osun Oshogbo’s arts which adorned Gerd Meuer home and car had made the Ethiopian government uncomfortable, prompting them to rent-a-crowd to demonstrate against their continued stay in that Horn of Africa country. Was that a low moment in your life? You asked. He said the whole episode was one of the highpoints of his travels.
As the day wore on and the legendary Gerd Meuer lit one cigarette after another making my eyes hurt, I could not complain. When would such a golden opportunity present itself again, sitting alone with this iconic figure who hardly takes himself serious? So I sat through the hazy smoke listening to the modern day tales of the Ancient Mariner’s journey across forty eight African states but the gentle breeze of the lagoon occasionally come to the rescue.
Off to South Africa he went, Gerd Meuer lamented the anti-intellectual condition in Nigeria that drove icons like Professor Kole Omotosho to the country of the great Madibba. With a bent of humour, he spoke about his visit to Johannesburg where he saw billboards with the blown out picture of the Ife dramatist advertising some South Africa products.
He regretted not being able to visit the Professor Kole Omotosho whom he said had just lost his wife at the time. He spoke about the flight into exile of Biodun Jeyifo; Professor Niyi Osundare etc whom he recalled was caught in the Hurricane Katrina in the United States holed up in the cellar of his home and rescued later by neighbours who were rowing past their home in the New Orleans disaster. Gerd Meuer was most devastated that the world acclaimed poet and writer lost his library and works to the fury of nature. How can Nigeria have gone so bad in a short spate of time to drive her very bests to live in exiles while contributing to the development of those countries they fled to, he asked? I did not answer, isn’t the response obvious?
How times flies? Before we knew it, the day was already far spent and I, a minnow, had been in a privilege conversation with the legendary and unassuming Oyinbo pepper who once trekked a few hundred yards from Dugbe Market to the Central Police Station near Cocoa House in Ibadan to see his childhood friend Professor Kongi who had been locked up prior to his trial for having broken into a studio of the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Station. Gerd Meuer spoke to me about many things and experiences in the places he visited.
As Arne Schneider the outgoing Director of Goethe Institut, emerged from his office, Gerd Meuer phone rang. At the other end was Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, former Managing Director of The Daily Times. It was Gerd who spoke first in fluent Yoruba Ore Bawo Ni, mo ti WA Leko (friend how are you? I have arrived in Lagos). Another Shocker. This German has Yoruba blood running in his vein. And the calls kept coming. It was time to enjoy a few lager of beer with old friends. Just as it was in the beginning….