Journalism in the service of society

Kole Omotoso: In memoriam

Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peaces – Oscar Wilde

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THE news of the death of Prof Kole Omotoso came like a thunderbolt on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Six days after the celebration of the 89th birthday of Prof Wole Soyinka on July 13th. They were both kindred spirits whose image loomed large on the horizon of most of my contemporaries’ growing-up years. They were both renowned and celebrated writers (among others) whose lives intertwined and defined the arts and literature of the country in the seventies and eighties. Both were from the drama department of the then-University of Ife.

In the heat of military rule and the anomie of the eighties Prof Omotoso left Nigeria and later settled in South Africa where he became popular not only in the academia but was also the poster man for the advertisement of mobile phone in the country. He was “Yebo Gogo Man” advertising Vodacom.

I met the late Prof Omotoso first on the pages of books and later in newspaper and magazine articles in the weekly West Africa magazine and later in the Sunday Concord newspaper under the editorship of the late Dele Giwa. However, my first physical meeting with him was in Kano. I was a first-year student at the Bayero University Kano in 1984/5 when he embarked on a nationwide tour to gather materials for his book about Nigeria. The book was later published by Ibadan-based Spectrum Books with the title Just Before Dawn.   

On his trip to Kano, one of our literature teachers invited him to the university to come and talk to us. He spoke passionately about his project and why he was travelling round the country. Before the stop in Kano, I had been reading stories about his tours of other parts of the country and what he intends to do after the tour with materials gathered. As a first-year student, his pep talks to us about the country, her potential, and the need to document our stories and history caught my fancy. He was enthusiastically received by the students and we had animated discussions. That trip left a great impression on me and helped shaped my interest in our stories.

A few years after I left the university, I met him again. This time it was in Minna, Niger State, at the annual general meeting of the then fledging Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Dressed in his characteristic adire top and a pair of jeans trouser with a beret on his head. After one of the sessions, I walked up to him and introduced myself. Of course, he had met a lot of young guys who were swarming round him at the conference venue. I told him that the young man standing before him was one of the young undergraduates he spoke to at BUK years back when he was conducting his research for his book. Immediately I could see his face light up and he smiled and stretched out his hand for a warm handshake with me. He asked what I was up to and I told him I was working in Jos, Plateau State and also moonlighting as a reporter with a local newspaper. He was very warm and had a few words of advice for me when I told him my dream was to be a writer and that a couple of my stories had been published in some local and national newspapers.

The third and last time I met him was in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had travelled to the country as part of a contingent of journalists to cover the first edition of the Big Brother Africa (BBA), of which he was something like the technical adviser to the production and to MultiChoice. That was long before the BBA became a voyeuristic past time that it has turned to today. The poet Odia Ofeimun on hearing that I was going to South Africa had sent me to him. We met at the venue of the event and delivered Odia’s message and I once again introduced myself and reminded him of our meetings first in Kano and later in Minna! He remembered those two occasions very well and asked further about my writings and I told him as a journalist I consider myself a writer already.

I then reminded him of the debate between him and the late Giwa on whether a journalist is a writer or not. The argument had been conducted between him and the late editor when he was writing his travel pieces for the Sunday Concord. He had written that Giwa was a journalist not a writer and Giwa had lightly engaged him that both a journalist and a writer are engaged in writing and are therefore writers, though in different forms!

 His death at eighty has left a chasm in Nigeria and Africa’s literary landscape. His books and plays are testaments to his faith in the country and the place of humanity in the world. Most especially his Just Before Dawn which is categorized as faction- a mixture of fiction and facts in fictionalised form. I stand to be corrected that he was the pioneer of this genre of writing in the country, and to his eternal credit, the book remains an enduring legacy that should be read by any literate Nigerian. His other works Memories of Our Recent Boom (Longman), To Borrow a Wandering Leaf (Fagbamigbe), The Combat, The Edifice (AWS) etc. were books that speak to our current conditions in the country. It also needs to be said that the late Omotoso and Prof Femi Osofisan and a few others made our local publishing environment to flourish by publishing most of their books at home even when they could have been first published abroad.

It is left to history to give a verdict whether the Nigeria that Omotoso and his ilk fought for is what we have today; a country they so much loved but had to leave because of the Philistines presiding over our affairs. After his tour of duty around the world, he briefly returned home and was still said to be teaching in one or two universities before he had to leave again and then die abroad. What a country.      

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