Fifty years after the passing of Yoruba fantasy author, Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, his home-state Ondo, played host to many eminent academics and personalities at a three-day conference in his honour. The conference was put together by the Fagunwa Study Group, in collaboration with the Centre for Black African Arts and Civilisation, CBAAC. Renowned for his five-book series, which includes Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, Ireke Onibudo and Adiitu Olodumare, Fagunwa gained fame for writing detailed stories where the Yoruba and Christian traditions interlock and his work continues to be relevant both in their original Yoruba and in the different languages to which they have been translated.
Themed, ‘Fifty Years On…’ the conference featured panels and discussions analysing aspects of Fagunwa’s work within literary, philosophical, social, historical, cultural, linguistic and religious contexts. Unfolding over a three-day period, the event commenced on Thursday, 8 August with a keynote address by Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. Adopting Fagunwa’s persona, poet and Professor Niyi Osundare introduced the award-winning playwright as ‘Imodoye,’ a character from Fagunwa’s seminal novel. Osundare also described Soyinka as “a teller of tall tales, a language pyrotechnician, and moral evangelist”.
In his presentation titled, ‘Fagunwa’s Forest Tapestry: Heroes and Heroics, Morals and Moralists,’ Soyinka gave a background into his own encounters with Fagunwa’s works and his translations of the author’s oeuvres. Although the Christian influence cannot be shaken off Fagunwa’s art, Soyinka said that, “Fagunwa often strikes me as a writer under the possession of Ogun, the warrior-god.” In Fagunwa’s world, it was easy to see the physical “tied to the moral in a mutually-affecting way,” the literary icon said. In reference to heroics and heroism, Soyinka also quoted from Alabi Isama’s The Tragedy of Victory on the effects of war and the consequent cannibalism, which Soyinka linked to an encounter with Ojola-Ibinu, one of Fagunwa’s many well-rounded and fiery characters.
Bravery and cowardice can be equally tragic, the playwright said, especially in contemporary times when even heroism couches its own evil and deceit. “The daily beast is within and around us,” he said, recommending moderation in all things, especially as regards extreme heroics. Concluding his address, Soyinka said that anyone who does not recognise Fagunwa’s prescience as a writer, suffers from “amnesia, blindness, compartmentalisation and deafness.” Also posing the question of which was more real – Fagunwa’s mysterious world or our own humanity – the playwright referenced Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, and tagged the citizens of Fagunwa’s universe, “a thousand characters in search of the human race.”
Besides the keynote address, there were a number of speeches by dignitaries at the event as well as performances in Fagunwa’s honour. According to the Ondo State governor, Olusegun Mimiko, Fagunwa’s works showed the importance of bonding to improve society. The governor quoted instances from Fagunwa, where even the oddest characters become eventual heroes because of their peculiarities. “In literature lies the very philosophy that can change our society,” Mimiko said.
Fidelity was also essential to leadership, he said, buttressing the earlier remarks by the Conference Chairman, Orangun of Oke-Ila Orangun, Oba Adedokun Abolarin. The traditional monarch described true character, according to Fagunwa, as brave, victorious, honest, reliable, and honest. “Such a man is rare,” he said.
Governor Fayemi of Ekiti State said Fagunwa’s contributions to Nigeria’s lingustic and cultural phenomenon can be surmised in the knowledge that we “should not allow our culture to die.” For Fayemi, “the spirited cultural activism of the likes of Fagunwa and the intellectuals present is the thread that holds together our social fabric, preventing it from giving way under the strains of cultural imperialism.”
Professor Tunde Babawale, Director-General of CBAAC, co-organisers of the conference, also gave a goodwill message as did the Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, represented by the Executive Secretary and CEO of the National Institute for Cultural Orientation, NICO, Dr. Barclays Ayakoroma.
There were performances from the Ondo State Cultural Troupe, that paid tribute to Fagunwa’s genius and Omowale Odumo, aka Akaraogun, who recited excerpts from Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole. Young Iwalewa Olorunyomi also read from the same work and was widely applauded by the audience for her proficiency in reading Yoruba. Such dexterity in indigenous languages, many said, should be encouraged among Nigerian youth.
Day 1: Celebrating Fagunwa
The well-attended opening ceremony was followed by an introduction to the Fagunwa Foundation, its history, objectives and accomplishments. There was also a reference to the Fagunwa Lecture Series instituted in 2007. Speakers at the previous lectures comprise Professor Ayo Bamgbose, J.O Abioye, Bisi Ogunsina, DuroAdeleke, Olabiyi Yai, and Tola Badejo. Done by Fagunwa’s only surviving son, Dipo, it was an opportunity to get to know more about the late writer who according to his son, was fluent in both English and Yoruba but chose to write in Yoruba to uplift Yoruba language and culture. The younger Fagunwa also read letters between his parents from the time when Mrs. Fagunwa was abroad studying for a professional teaching certificate.
Apart from establishing a resource centre, amongst other plans for the advancement of old and new Yoruba language literature, the Fagunwa Foundation also intends to make audio versions of the books and are also looking at proposals to adapt some of the books for screen.
It was then time for the panels analysing Fagunwa’s art. Aptly titled, The Genius of Fagunwa, the first panel featured Professors Karin Barber, Niyi Osundare and Dan Izevbaye in discussion about Fagunwa’s precursors, his audience, and his legacy.
“To appreciate Fagunwa, we need to appreciate other writers in this context,” Prof. Barber said, debunking popular claims that Fagunwa is the pioneer of Yoruba Literature. During her presentation, “Experiments With Adversity in the Formation of a New Genre: Fagunwa and His Precursors E.A. Akintan and I.B. Thomas,” she compared Fagunwa with Akintan, who wrote Itan Emi Omo Oru Kan, and Thomas, author of Itan Igbesi-Aiye Segilola Eleyinju Ege. Both works were serialised in Nigerian weekly papers prior to Fagunwa’s fame.
For Izevbaye, the late adventurist’s work was not limited to a Yoruba or Nigeian audience but rather extended to black people all over the world. Positing in his paper, ‘Fagunwa’s Audience Consciousness’ that the late author obviously realised that his books would go far, that now begged the question of how he intended or expected this to happen. Providing the answer to his own question, Izevbaye said that translation remains a means for Fagunwa’s stories to travel beyond his immediate community.
Crediting the success of the likes of Amos Tutuola to Fagunwa’s genius, Osundare said that the latter’s decision to delve into the mysterious and write same in Yoruba no doubt paved the way for many after him. In what would be the first of many controversial statements at the Fagunwa Conference, Osundare said, “This generation could not have created a Fagunwa,” basing his statement on the increasing dumbing-down and endless distractions that have occupied the attention of today’s young Nigerians. Proceedings on Day 1 ended with a state dinner at the Ondo State Government House with more performances from the State Troupe and a promise from Mimiko to build a monument in Fagunwa’s honour, “so that we are forced to always remember.”
Day 2: Dissecting Fagunwa
The three-day conference continued on 9 August with another session, Engaging Modernity, which was chaired by Benin Republic’s former representative to UNESCO, Professor Olabiyi Yai. At the panel, Kole Omotoso’s presentation, The Colonising Mentality of Some of the Persons In Fagunwa’s Novels, highlighted similarities between British colonialists and some of Fagunwa’s characters: a knack for imposing their own government on towns they captured during their adventures. Are such attributes found in the Yoruba culture? queried Omotoso, a professor of English and author of Just Before Dawn.
Associate Professor of History at the Seattle University, Saheed Adejumobi’s Empires and Utopias: Fagunwa, Civilisation and the Nation State seemed to take a cue from Omotoso’s postulation, describing the world of Fagunwa’s books as a ‘Utopia’, which while rejecting colonial rule, merges some of its attributes with aspects of Yoruba and Christian tradition to create some sort of hybrid society in search of harmonious balance. Adejumobi’s presentation analysed Fagunwa’s world as one rebelling against the trappings of imposed civilsations.
Olufemi Taiwo’s presentation took a philosophical bent in his paper ‘From D.O. Fagunwa to Akinsola Akiwowo: Doing Philosophy in a Yoruba Key.’ Both writers, according to Taiwo, “mined Yoruba for insight into the African condition.” However, unlike Akiwowo, Fagunwa never betrayed any form of ‘occident anxiety,’ a phrase Taiwo coined to capture the unease many Africans experience towards accepting Western influences. While Akiwowo was perpetually fearful of “contamination,” Fagunwa “created a Christian worldview, which he still made people believe was Yoruba.” Taiwo added that Fagunwa was neither a fantasy novelist nor folklorist, but a writer, who was very modern in his art. Lamenting the absence of any study of Akiwowo in sociology and philosophy courses outside universities in Australia and the U.S, Taiwo said that such programmes would certainly open up the complexities of the Yoruba existence to a wider world.
The day’s second panel proved rather heated, especially with Oyeronke Oyewumi’s stance on gender and witchcraft in Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole. Also on the panel themed, “Engenderings: Imaginative Quest and Social Relations,” were University of Ibadan’s Sola Olorunyomi and Adeleke Adeeko of the Ohio State University. Many believed that Oyewumi misinterpreted the lines, “Ogbologbo aje ni iya mi se,” and that rather than have a negative connotation as she thought, the statement was rather a thing of pride for the character, who felt it was a good boast to instil fear in potential rivals. The professor at Stony Brook University also hinted at Fagunwa’s suggestions that husbands should be jailers of their wives; to literally handcuff them.
Olorunyomi took a less-controversial path in his questioning of the mythical and the magical in Fagunwa: to understand the author within the realms of the mythical, it was as well necessary to understand him in a realistic context. Arguing that Fagunwa’s shapeless and inanimate forms become animated in a socio-cultural context, Olorunyomi said that this leads one to wonder what then is fictive, what is real or what is merely a function of literature in Fagunwa’s imagination. For him, it was important to ensure that Fagunwa’s work is cross-generational and that beyond translations, the works should be better valourised to make reading them more attractive to the public. Expanding Fagunwa’s audience and redefining literacy through his work, Olorunyomi suggested, could be done via screen adaptations, digital animation and interactive video games, ideas that would recur all through the conference.
Returning to the issue of gender and how it drives Fagunwa’s plot, Adeeko said that some of Fagunwa’s adventure tales could be described as a commercial that reads, “Want to travel? Only men need apply.” “Central adventures that drive narrative progression in the novels force in the story, a male patterned view of the world that does not quite cohere with the rest of the story,” Adeeko said. Journeys by women are cut short, and Fagunwa hardly gives them a chance to become fully-formed heroes.
According to him, women travel as helpmeets or witches manifesting in what Adeeko terms a ‘call-and-dump’ approach adopted by the author. Elaborating on the idea, the Humanities professor said that Fagunwa skillfully and cleverly plants female characters along the way to rescue the male protagonists at their time of need. Speaking a day after Adeeko, Arinpe Adejumo of the University of Ibadan would make the same argument about women being indispensable to Fagunwa’s plots: when faced with dire situations, his male heroes cry out in tears to their ‘mothers’ to come to their rescue.
Back to Adeeko, who dexterously drew inferences from dedications in Fagunwa’s texts in relation to the influences on his work. Unearthing Fagunwa’s links to the erstwhile Akure Training Institute, which was then a school for raising good housewives, Adeeko offered that this could very well mean that Fagunwa’s books were quasi-tracts for the Institute’s mission. A valid argument considering that polygamists and women hardly travel in Fagunwa’s world, where only married men and women are successful.
Panel over, the ensuing interaction with the audience did not shy away from gender issues with some arguing about how most women have to curb their talents and gifts to avoid being called ‘Aje’ (witch). No less controversial were the conference’s fourth and fifth panels dwelling on the translations of Fagunwa’s works, which remain limited to English and French. Kicking off this session, Professor Olu Obafemi, who translated Adiitu Olodumare (Mysteries of the Gods), said that translations were more restrictive than adaptations; the latter give the writer the opportunity to be free to make decisive changes and departures from the script. “Anyone, who wants to translate Fagunwa must transport to at least 50 percent of his imagination,” Obafemi said, “What the translator does is a process of meta-creation but not to the extent of creating an alternative text.” The experience of translating an already translated author could also be intimidating, he said, especially given the “sheer profundity” of existing translations of Fagunwa.
Also on the same panel, Pamela Olubunmi Smith shared her experience of translating Fagunwa, describing it as one that was “daring, exhilarating, frustrating” and yet “robust and humble.” She told of how she learned Yoruba through Fagunwa and also cut her teeth in translation using Fagunwa’s books. Unfortunately, Smith could only get permission to translate Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodunmare for academic purposes and not publish same for a commercial audience.
She shared the many options that could have been taken in translating Fagunwa asking the audience to decide which ones sounded better and which ones fell short before ending her presentation with a tip: “Translation is ineffective if done word for word.”
For Dapo Adeniyi, who translated Irinkerindo Ninu Igbo Elegbeje (Expedition to the Mount of Thought), Fagunwa’s language could be turgid but also “beautifully fluid.” In his opinion, Fagunwa’s naming of his characters are meant to evoke laughter. Adeniyi did the same with his peculiar definition of Alágàbàgébè before adding that the “fusion of sound and action” is reflected in Fagunwa’s naming process.
Comments that followed the first translation panel included a call for consistency in translation, with Osofisan saying that “Anybody can translate but the problem is with the quality of translations.” Professor Abioye, who has translated Fagunwa into French, said that without interpretation, which is oral, it becomes near-impossible to attain translation. Adeeko said that the absence of Yoruba to Yoruba manuals also made it difficult to ensure evenness in translation.
Session Two on translation featured Osofisan and Gbemisola Adeoti – both of them Obafemi Awolowo University – and Professor Abioye, formerly of the Olabisi Onabanjo University.
Abioye constantly threw barbs at Soyinka’s translation of Fagunwa, claiming that the former attempted to outshine the latter and created a text that had too much of the translator in it. “A translator should never add or omit from an original,” he said, “A translator must give ideas of an original.”
The next presentation was an analysis of the various translations of Fagunwa into English. Referencing transliterations in Soyinka amongst others, Adeoti’s examples were as comical as they were thought-provoking. “Writing a novel is one thing; writing a mystery novel of this nature is another and translating it is something else entirely,” he said. His paper highlighted seeming inconsistencies, anachronisms and examples of word-for-word translations apparent in some of the English versions.
Delivering a presentation titled, Forest of One Thousand Hurdles, Osofisan, who adapted Ireke Onibudo for stage as The Fabulous Adventures of the Sugarcane Man, listed a number of things that translators grapple with when embarking on the act. An initial question for him was “Why does Fagunwa place so many obstacles on his characters’ paths?”
“As a playwright now, your job is not just to translate but to interrogate,” he said, suggesting that one should create a text that provokes questions rather than just mirrors the original. It is not sufficient to just present the exotic and the spectacular (in Fagunwa); use that lyrical aspect to try to push the culture along.”
There was a break between the two translation panels for Fagunwa’s widow, Mrs. Dorothy Fagunwa, to clear the air on her husband’s death. According to her narration, he travelled to Northern Nigeria on 16 November 1963 in his capacity as manager for Heinemann Books. On 7 December, he slept in Bida in order to return early to Ibadan, where he lived with his family. The next day, he and his driver were early at the River Niger jetty to wait for the resumption of pontoon services at 6am. Fagunwa was walking along the shore when he slipped and fell into one of the boats at the harbour. Unfortunately, the boat tipped over, trapping Fagunwa beneath the water, unable to swim to safety. Two days later, his body was found still fully-clothed; his cap in place and his pair of glasses in his hand, where he held them before he drowned. He was buried in his home-town of Oke-Igbo in Ondo State and was said to be writing a sequel to Adiitu Olodumare: Ero Nla Olodumare, at the time of his death. The manuscript was never found.
Day 3: Before and After Fagunwa
The third day at the conference was dedicated to further study of gender in Fagunwa. It was also the day that featured the sole lecture written and delivered in Yoruba.
Both Babafemi Babatope of the Lagos State University and the University of Ibadan’s Arinpe Adejumo defended Fagunwa as a women-friendly writer, who emphasised their roles in community development. Babatope labelled the female demons in Fagunwa as responsive and passionate, asking why Ireke evokes his mother’s spirit and not his father’s in his time of need. He concluded by stating that the problems in Nigerian socio-politics reflect the absence of women in positions of power, a statement he backed up with proof from Fagunwa, that men who did not heed their wives’ advice came to a bad end.
In the conference’s only paper in Yoruba, Ipo Wol L’Obinrin Ko Ninu Itan Aroso Fagunwa? (What Role Do Women Play in Fagunwa’s Narrative?), Adejumo said that women issues were important to Fagunwa. Rather than portray them as negative as Oyewumi’s paper on the first day suggested, she argued that Fagunwa used “women to further values and traditions which he thinks should be eternal.”
She also reversed Oyewumi’s belief that the author intended for men to keep their women under control, suggesting instead that the women are the ones who keep men in manacles: “The power women possess force the men to do the impossible and the absurd.”
While Fagunwa does not portray a radical feminist outlook (Asètòf’ábo Alákatikítí), his perspective on African women is universal, Adejumo added.
This panel also evoked a lot of questioning of the context of Fagunwa’s works. While some suggested references to homosexual sex in his works, the presence of a paper in Yoruba also raised the issue of making Fagunwa’s work available and accessible in other Nigerian languages and also via audiovisual material and resources. One of such comments was that even outside literature, Fagunwa’s stories could be adapted to treat issues in teen behaviour.
Analysing religion, literacy and language in Fagunwa, was the focus of the next panel with discussions around his art and its religious influences. On the panel were Harvard University Professor Jacob K. Olupona, Moradewun Adejunmobi of the University of California and Indiana University’s Akin Adesokan.
“Accusations that Fagunwa moralises too much in his novels is a limited understanding of his work,” Adesokan said while presenting Itanforiti Meets Akowediran: Fagunwa, Author. The professor deferred to Fagunwa’s naming of his characters and ran through a list comprising Omugoparapo (an assembly of dunces), and Ifepataki (Love is of the essence) amongst others. Hailing the late writer as a user and creator of the Yoruba language, Adesokan said that Fagunwa used names “to propel specific philosophical purposes. Naming is an obvious aspect of his linguistic wizardry.”
Making way for Adejunmobi’s presentation that explored Fagunwa in relation to the likes of J.K. Rowling and Mike Bamiloye, Adesokan said that, “Fagunwa is such a Christian writer that he does not give room for much of Ifa and the Yoruba traditional religion.” According to Adejunmobi, “Fagunwa’s books are not constrained to Christianity but are about spirituality, which he was able to do using fantasy.” And fantasy, she said, is not strange to the Yorubas, as it speaks to modern spirituality and is probably the reason why the Christian dramas of Bamiloye’s Mount Zion Ministries dwell so much on it.
Respectively, while Bamiloye and Fagunwa’s art attends to religious issues, both take a different stand towards Yoruba tradition: while the one condemns it, the other glorifies it. On another level, Rowling’s Harry Potter series can be viewed by some as valourising the occult. Also, in the case of Harry Potter, the characters require a formal institution to be trained in magic and the dark arts, while for Fagunwa, “Magic is a resource that characters deploy against each other or one another,” with no recourse to formal training.
Asking what role fantasy plays for someone pre-occupied with modernity, Adejunmobi opined that magic and the supernatural occur in the everyday reality. In what she described as “background war games,” she added that, in Fagunwa, “Events in a secondary reality provide the basis for social order in the primary reality.”
For Professor Olupona, who is also Fagunwa’s nephew, the books appear to have been commissioned to propel the activities of the Christian Mission in Nigeria, especially given that the stories were written at a time when many Nigerians grappled with bridging the differences in their indigenous religion and Christianity.
Inferring that perhaps “religious practices do not precede rational thought,” Olupona said that Fagunwa’s characters usually make up their minds to pursue a goal before they receive supernatural help and that man’s efforts yield nothing if he does not involve God. In other words, the stories reflect the success of Christianity.
From the audience, there were comments about how the names of the inhabitants of Fagunwa’s world did not only reflect their personality but were also predictive of what Nigeria would become. A name like Omugoparapo, for example, could very well be a reference to members of the House of Assembly.
Also looking at Fagunwa in continuity was Harry Garuba, professor of English at University of Cape Town. Exploring how popular the Ogboju Ode series would be had they been written in English, Garuba also analyses the books in the context of the oral and literary in indigenous African languages. Also mentioning the belief by some that Soyinka and his publishers silenced Fagunwa’s voice in the translation, Forest of A Thousand Daemons, Garuba pondered that had it been the other way round i.e. Fagunwa translating Soyinka from English to Yoruba, would the same be said of Fagunwa?
Garuba paraphrased Karin Barber, saying that much of post-colonial criticism had also been more occupied with African literature in English to the neglect of literatures in African languages.
Not to be ignored in Fagunwa’s adventure series, however, are the animals that his heroes encounter along the way. Professor Tola Badejo, a zoologist and Vice-Chancellor of the Wesley University of Science and Technology presented an in-depth analysis of Fagunwa’s animal kingdom. In a paper that was as educative as it was humourous, Badejo described the adventure writer as an innate zoologist with a deep knowledge of the forest. The presentation, The Zoologist in Fagunwa, headlined the 2012 edition of the commemorative Lecture Series
Previous translations of Fagunwa, Badejo said, did little justice to the animals’ original names. Indicating marked differences between zoology and literature, he recommended that intending translators of Fagunwa should work in tandem with zoologists to ensure that they got the names of the animals right.
Professor of English and African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Tejumola Olaniyan, concluded the panel with his presentation on Illustrating Fagunwa. Judging the illustrations, Olaniyan argued that some of them are “not artistically successful nor capture the narratives’ pedagogic or affective” leanings, even though Fagunwa’s publishers got the best illustrators of that era to produce images for the Ogboju Ode series.
Olaniyan also enlightened the audience that no less than eight illustrators – five Nigerians and three Britons – worked on Fagunwa’s books. Among them were Akinola Lasekan and Susan Grave Morris, who illustrated three of the novels in the five-book adventure collection.
Following three days of intense discussions around Fagunwa, the last panel focused on a summary of all that had been discussed and more. Professors Osofisan, Omotosho and Osundare alongside poet Odia Ofeimun sat on the panel, which was moderated by TV Producer Feyikemi Olayinka and writer/arts critic, Molara Wood.
All were agreed that efforts to step up the propagation of Fagunwa’s works and other indigenous language literature should be embarked upon to ensure the continued relevance of the Yoruba language and culture, especially in an age riddled with jejune distractions. Other suggestions included establishing a museum that warehouses all relevant information to D.O. Fagunwa.
Fittingly, the Fagunwa Study Group rounded off the conference with the hope that the group would live beyond the conference and also expand its membership. Speaking on behalf of the group (which also includes Adeeko, Olaniyan, Adesokan, Ajibade and Diwura Fagunwa, daughter of D.O. Fagunwa), Professor Femi Taiwo of Cornell University said that their motivation in organising the conference was not to show off but to provide the larger world access to Fagunwa. As a way forward, he recommended multiple translations of the works, infinite interpretations of same, mutual respect for all interpretations, interdisciplinary interpretations, annotated editions, children’s editions, and animated versions of Fagunwa’s stories.
He also called for biographies of Fagunwa, comparisons with other writers in the world’s indigenous languages and a collection of Fagunwa’s papers, letters and all relevant documents to be put in a museum with a virtual/interactive map, amongst other educative features.
At the end of the conference celebrating Fagunwa’s legacy, both the panelists and participants had mutually benefitted from the many dissections of Fagunwa. In addition, other areas of discourse surrounding the author, African fantasy fiction and indigenous languages hitherto untouched, have now been opened, ensuring that whatever foundation Fagunwa laid endures beyond the 50 years of his passing.