July 23, 2023
In 2018 when news sieved in that that constellation of emeriti, Prof Bankole Ajibabi Omotoso, had crept into Akure, Ondo State, our association, Ooye Development Initiative, (ODI) bated him like mousetrap does mice. Was Akure big enough to contain that hippopotamus-statured literary giant? I wondered. I, perhaps, was the most excited of the lot. I had read Omotoso’s works with doting wonder and imagined if he wasn’t a gnome or some genie. So, this day in September, as we drove towards the then pot-holes ridden Oda road to honour an appointment given us by the professor, I fantasized that I would meet a hippo. We waddled through a forest-like jungle into his home. We were later shocked to see that it lacked electricity but Omotoso didn’t mind.
The gate opened. Was I disappointed? Before us was a slim, dark, tall man. Since he opened the gate, was that the gateman? No. That was the Omotoso, the man whose literary fame and portraiture – literal and metaphorical – in South Africa and Nigeria, was that of a giant.
Prof was excited to see his Akure brothers – Olumide Origunloye, Sunday Falae, Prof Abiodun Ayodele, Ayo Ajayi (Headmaster) and myself. His wife, affable in all ramifications, was there too. We hadn’t sat for long when breakfast jumped on the table. He spoke in fluent Akure and it did not take long for me to discover that in spite of his wide travels, Omotoso relished his culture jealously. One was that, he loathed the idea of anyone anglicizing his surname by adding ‘h” to his Omotoso to form an “Omotosho.” Then he took us round the expansive bungalow. What would he be doing with such “mansion”? I wondered. He explained. One of the open foyers would be an amphitheater where playwrights could come and activate their muse. He had actually come to finally settle in Akure, he said.
The reporter in me would not allow me to rest. As he took us round the house, I sought an interview appointment with him, which we fixed for the second day. We spent close to three hours on the interview. I asked him so many questions in the one and only interview I would have with the great octopus of Nigerian literature. Questions about his epic book, Just Before Dawn; relationship with Soyinka; was his house patterned after Soyinka’s middle-of-the-forest home as well?; why he studied Arabic in UI; how he became a South African; his NADECO activism; how his face became the face of South Africa, into becoming one of the most famous South Africans, adorning billboards in Jo’Burg and other cities as Yebo Gogo, so much that Nelson Mandela told him he was more famous than him, among others.
As we went into his orchard, Yebo Gogo gifted our brother, Headmaster, a plant he must have brought from South Africa. It aids memory in elderly persons, he said. Was he trying to ask Akure to etch him in its memory? I have wondered endlessly upon his passage.
Then Yebo Gogo promised to reciprocate our visit. He did and met us at Isopo, Headmaster’s home. Pleasant and unassuming.
As he left us after that evening out session, we never knew it was our last encounter with the literary dinosaur. He developed an ailment which, the best decision he took on the instant, was to leave immediately for South Africa to seek succor. He probably would have left us far earlier than the almost five years he lived after the diagnosis of the ailment. We exchanged calls and messages thereafter. When he read my column thereafter, he expressed delight that his Akure brother penned the stuffs.
Africa, Nigeria and Akure are already missing Omotoso. I just hope and pray that his remains would be brought to Akure. That is the land he cherished so much. Yes, South Africa clothed him from the usual coarse hostility that he would have received were he in Nigeria. It was still merely Omotoso’s dwelling place. It shouldn’t be his resting place.
Goodnight, our icon.