Excerpt from Niyi Osundare: A literary biography
The Gift of a Pen
Not a man who travelled frequently, given his overwhelming love for his work on his farms, each time Aguntasoolo Ariyoosu Osundare made the rare trip to Lagos to buy Christmas gifts for his family and himself, he brought home a few new and exciting things – things that were not readily available in the rural though multi-ethnic and multicultural town of Ikere Ekiti. Though a repository of tradition and culture, he was also very much a man of new things. It was from one of his journeys to Lagos that he brought home a gift for his young boy, Oluwaniyi, who was just in the third year in elementary school. The gift was a fountain pen. He called his young son to his room, showed him the pen, and said, “I have brought this for you to use when you have advanced in your education. It is a pen. I do not know how to use it, but I know its power. I use the hoe to scratch the earth for a living; but you will use the pen as your own tool. The way I see the world today, the future belongs to those who are able to scribble black things on the white surface.”1
For the boy Oluwaniyi, the gift of the pen was the beginning of new things and exciting aspirations. It was a recognition of his bursting curiosity and enthusiasm for the supreme art of writing. It meant his parents had been observing his habit of picking pieces of paper from the ground with the intent of poring over them. They had been observing how he used his mother’s eyebrow pencil to make curious scrawls on paper; how he picked up charcoal from the fireplace and used it to scribble all manner of things on his mother’s door and on walls around the house. They had also been making sense of his endless precocious questions about life, about things that went on around him. His drive to unravel the mystery of western education, as it were, commanded people’s attention, and gave his father immeasurable satisfaction. In his mother’s words, “Many people watched Oluwaniyi and told me he would go far in life.”2 From the very moment his father showed him the pen, his nights were populated by thoughts of when he would grow up and reach a point in his educational career when he would own many pens and wield them with the consummate competence displayed by his teachers. The gift of pen with its attendant symbolism would remain indelible in Osundare’s mind and trigger the poem “Scribbling Hoe” many years later in A Nib in the Pond, his third book of poems. One of the striking things about this poem is Osundare’s way of seeing his father, the farmer, in the metaphor of the pen – an instrument that so dazzled the farmer, which the farmer so desired that his son should live by:
The farmer/ pens the pages of earth/ with the nib/ of a forge-fresh hoe/ scribbles mounds/ between margins of blooming corn/ cursives paragraphs of legumes/ in ruled furrows/ his barn is a library/ of nourishing seasons.3
Osundare’s father instinctively knew his son would live a life of “nourishing seasons” like him but through the power of the word in the praxis of western civilisation, in the glorious prospects of modernity. It was, in fact, what had prompted him to buy the fountain pen. He was enchanted by what he knew of western intellectualism, perhaps the result of the forceful instinct in him to recognise that besides Yoruba culture and epistemology there was another system from a distant land that was sweeping across his society, and he had to come to terms with the new system that could so powerfully change human society. Modernisation was fast conquering existing ways of life. He understood it to be part of that distant knowledge that needed to be acquired. He knew that knowledge was trappable by pen and paper and collectable in the safety of the book. Books became, for him, the profoundly magical repository of knowledge; his desire for it was passionate and whole-hearted. A man of great lyrical virtuosity, he was fond of singing this oriki iwe (praise song) for the book:
Adakeja (The one who fights in silence)/ Arodudukedudu (The one who swells with mystery)/ Amarifowiketere (The one who says it all without uttering a word)/ Awilanafotolasile (The one who predicts tomorrow yesterday)/ Adubulegungbaoke (One who, while lying down, climbs a thousand hills)/ Unundidu sa geere loju un fifun (White spots gliding smoothly on white surface).4
Chances were that he had been planning to acquire a fountain pen for his son; that he had even researched it, as was his habit, by asking those who were already educated – he liked to befriend the few educated young men in the town and ensure that his son learnt from them. Aguntasoolo Osundare had a powerful instinct about the future. His children all remember his predilection for reading the weather, for making impressive predictions about the nature of farming seasons. A tall man (like his tall, outspoken and witty mother), he would stand on a clear spot on his farm, which was usually on a hilly ground, look at the sky and the movement of the clouds and gauge the amount of rain Ikere-Ekiti would see for many days to come.
The young Osundare, being the first son, was always with his father on the farm whenever he was not at school. So he often stood beside his father when he read the weather, wondering what powers the man had to predict the rain with such instinctual accuracy. Osundare recalls that the weather had never taken his father by surprise. Not even the future of his boy would take him by surprise either. In Osundare’s words, “he was looking forward to the time I would be able to do two things: read and write his personal letters for him, and write my own book.”5
Born in Time of Famine
QUIET and unassuming, Fasimia (from the Yoruba word Ifasimia, meaning “Ifa has followed me this far”) Osundare watched her son’s incredible love for knowledge and knew that he would fulfil her husband’s dream of having a child who would competently pursue western education – the practice of modernity that had unceasingly fascinated her husband as long as she knew him. She was full of gratitude to her gods, especially the goddess Osun, that the boy was not only growing well, but he was also inclined to realise the dream of the family. With exceeding fear and anxiety she had carried him for nine months in her womb.
Before Osundare she had had two children who died in their infancy. The death of a first child for the young Fasimia in her Yoruba traditional society came with a pang and with uncertainties; the death of the second child logically worsened her trauma. When she conceived a third time, her constant prayers were initially for the pregnancy to stay, especially given the famine that had struck the entire Ekitiland.
Osundare’s mother recalls that “There was so much famine that literally you had to sell a human being to buy food. A bowl of gari would cost a fortune.”6 This was in the 1940s. But she had a strong and reliable husband, a man whose preeminent preoccupation was farming, an experienced watcher of the clouds who had probably already foreseen the famine. It was however an intense famine, which belied all smart calculations and humbled all successful farmers. Aguntasoolo and Fasimia Osundare prayed hard. Ikere people made supplications to all the deities, especially Olosunta, lord of the skies, divine guardian and protector of Ikere from the beginning of time. In addition, the Osundares and the extended Ile Asa family took theirs to Osun, the goddess of fertility and mercy, who would never wait and see her people starve, the goddess after whom Aguntasoolo Osundare was named: Osun da mi lare (Osun has declared my innocence; the spirit of Osun River is on my side).
Running past the frontage of Osundare’s family house is the Aodu, a stream which takes its source from Olosunta hill and empties its water into Osun River, like a liquid thread between two divine looms. A thin, dirty string during the dry season, Aodu swells into dreadful flood with the coming of the rains.
Although, as Fasimia recalls, the famine was the worst to hit Ikere-Ekiti in her lifetime, Osundare’s household, including the unborn Osundare, survived it. Like most babies, Osundare chose to come in the night. It was around 9:00pm on 12 March 1947 and the world was very dark, thickened by the rain forest surrounding the town and the imposing rocks protecting it. The moon did not accompany the poet of Moonsongs to the world. Fasimia Osundare recalls that the labour did not take long. Thankfully, she was delivered of a baby boy. She had already contemplated the name of the child. She wanted to call her child Oluwasanya (God has compensated me for the earlier losses). Evidently, she had not got over the anguish of losing her earlier babies. And such a name which expressed gratitude to God was a way of lobbying Him not to take the new one away as well. Her husband, however, had a different name, on which he insisted: Oluwaniyi, meaning “God has honour”. But the name Oluwaniyi was to wait until many years later; the new boy was called Olomi (one whose essence is water), in honour of the goddess Osun whose gift the boy was believed to be.
The connection between River Osun and the Osundare family went deep into ancestry. Frequently, that connection manifested in the form of the river’s intervention in the life of the Osundares. There was a time the otherwise healthy boy Osundare took seriously ill. Fasimia Osundare was alarmed; here was another death and she would not take it, could not stand it. Like a stung tigress, she walked the length and breadth of Ikere-Ekiti, even beyond, calling at the doors of all babalawos (diviner-physicians) and women who could cure her boy.
Everything failed and she grew more horrified. Then she turned to River Osun as her last resort. She was set to collapse into the river, which, as the name Osundare translates, had surely known of the family’s innocence. Either Osun healed her son or took her and her son away. As long as she knew she had not committed any sin or taboo to deserve all the losses that had hitherto plagued her life. Uttering words of supplication, she bent, took water from the river and gave the boy.
Osundare recalls the story: “I was told they gave me some to drink, used some to bathe me and poured the rest on what is called awuje, the very centre of the head.”7 Surprisingly, the boy instantly regained his health, and in no time, he was kicking. In gratitude to River Osun, Fasimia presented the river goddess with an eyele (pigeon) and seven kola nuts. Her son had justified the meaning of his name, Olomi; water was not only his essence, it had become his rescue. Osundare, as a child of water, was barred from swimming as he grew up for fear the river spirit might decide to take back her gift. Fasimia would again invoke Osun later in her life when Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans almost took the life of her son.
A petite, introverted but vigilant woman, not anywhere near her husband’s height, Fasimia was professionally involved in cloth-weaving, helping on her husband’s farm occasionally. Baby Osundare, on his mother’s back, often played with her hair, while she worked, singing along. Like her husband, she had a deep flair for music. She sang songs either to herself or to her baby at work time and at relaxation time. Osundare as a teenager came to deeply cherish the oriki (Yoruba traditional praise song) his mother sang for him in order to make him feel good or to spur him into doing what he ought to do. He would later recall one of the oriki songs his mother used to sing for him:
Oh this is my son/ This is my favourite son/ Son of Osun, the flowing River whose water/ Spreads blessings across the earth/ Son of the little hut which breeds the gentle giant/ Son of the elephant which pulls up the tree with one hand/ Son of the lion, king of the forest/ Son of the great father whose yam is as big as the mountain/ Oh, no little space can contain you
No little space can contend with your fortune/ You are born to travel the world/ Your legs are strong.8
Fasimia Osundare was a constant source of traditional poetry for her son who, as predicted in her song, would grow up to travel the world as a renowned poet.
He Had a Drum Called Bata
WITH his passion for farming, Aguntasoolo Osundare spent most of his time on his farms. The usual practice was for the entire family to go to the farm in the morning and return late in the evening. Baby Osundare knew his father’s farm even when he was still in the cradle. When he attained school age, he had to go to school. His future was in schooling. For the pupil Oluwaniyi, one half of the day was spent in school where he learned to read and write and the weekends and holidays were spent at his parents’ farms where he constantly renewed his contact with nature and with the traditional wisdom that came from his parents. He grew up in a polygamous family so the farm was always full of people, especially during the yam harvest season or during many of the tedious sessions on the cocoa farm. Osundare’s closest companion at this time was his half-sister, Omoidu (meaning ‘black child’, a name she got as a result of the depth and beauty of her skin when she was born; she later took on an additional baptismal name, Victoria). She was older by three months and prodigiously wise and hardworking.
Aguntasoolo Osundare, as his family and friends remember him, had tremendous bravura and vivacity in anything he chose to do. His sense of artistry was deep and he interpreted the world to his children through proverbs and wise sayings. His humour and open-mindedness earned him popularity and the name Ariyoosu (One in whose presence we rejoice as we do at the sight of a new moon). But it was by far his skills in drumming and singing that drew people to him. He was a descendant of the Asa clan. Asa is the assistant of Olukere, the spiritual head of Ikere-Ekiti. It is a clan that has continued to be the repository of the cultural heritage of Ikere-Ekiti in matters that concern the worship of Olosunta, the rock revered and worshipped by Ikere people. Aguntasoolo Osundare’s skills in drumming, singing and other cultural displays, therefore, had an ancestral root. Fasimia Osundare says, “My husband was very lively and humorous. He loved both the old and the young. He was always invited to sing and dance when people had things to celebrate. He had a drum called bata.”9 By all accounts, he was an oral poet who commanded the respect of his people.
It should be pointed out that the qualities, even attitudes, of a hardworking farmer and those of an oral poet, in some African traditional societies, do not go hand in hand. A farmer sees himself as the serious type, engaged in a more noble profession of providing food and wealth; and, as a result, regards the oral poet or griot as effeminate. Poetry and music are regarded as a domain for women or men who are too lazy to engage in masculine occupations such as farming, fishing and hunting, or in a manly pastime such as wrestling or esoteric arts. This is remarkably depicted in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where the character of Unoka serves as a foil to that of his son Okonkwo. Okonkwo, priding himself as a real man, is in a perpetual fear of being seen as resembling his father in any form because his father is a mere flutist, an artist, and therefore a never-do-well. But the reverse is the case with Aguntasoolo Osundare who distinguished himself as a farmer and a musician and entertainer. He was said to fit easily into any group, either of children or adults, of women or men. One of his favourite sayings to his children was, “I’m not afraid of offending older people but those younger than I am because I don’t know what they would turn out to be tomorrow. You outlive the older ones and their grudge, but the younger ones will outlive you and keep remembering your offence against them.”10 He played his drum, sang and danced to the delight of all.
At one moment he would be seen in merriment with people; at another moment he would be seen on his farm, working, compelling his children to work, his countenance that of a tough man. One would not expect a strong sense of discipline from a man who played so much with children and adults alike, cracking jokes. His children remember him today as not only a severe disciplinarian, but a man of strong will. He always chose the most difficult part of the land for his farm. It was, for him, the most fertile part. Osundare recalls that in most cases his father’s wives literally dragged his father off his work to rest and eat. He hardly got tired. He would frown and bawl at his children for getting tired easily. While walking with their father to the farm, they could incur a knock on their heads if they stumbled and fell on the treacherously rugged road. Father would insist that the children fell down because they were not careful enough.
For the child Osundare, every moment with his parents fired his curiosity. They were the greatest influences on his life. For music and song or traditional poetry and wisdom, he had an inexhaustible source. He played with his father’s bata, an instrument that would feature prominently in his future poetry. He also learnt the art of spontaneous rendition from his father and mother. He followed his father to performances, learnt from him, and to his father’s great delight, took an interest in drumming and singing as well.
His father allowed him to play with other children, to listen and watch other people and to generally benefit from the cultural dialogue necessitated by the increasing number of people from other ethnic groups in Ikere-Ekiti. The Hausa came from the far north, often with whole families, the husbands operating the micro business of selling tea and/or steak (such a person is usually referred to as maishayi or maisuya), the wives selling the Hausa native bean cake (akara Gambari). The Tiv, the Ebira, the Idoma, the Agatu and the Igede came from central Nigeria, mostly settling down in Ikere-Ekiti as farmhands, providing all kinds of manual labour in addition. The Igbo and the Urhobo on the other hand, who came from other southern parts of Nigeria worked mainly in the palm groves, the former mostly engaged in the production of palm wine, the latter of palm oil. The child Osundare also saw the world through the eyes of these diverse peoples and took pleasure in sharing their languages and cultures. Fortunately, many of them had children of Osundare’s age, a situation which facilitated this cultural and linguistic exchange and exposed him so early in life to the beauty and complexity of these different languages and cultures, and one that would have a lifelong impact on him as a writer, teacher, scholar, and multicultural humanist. The hilly town of Ikere-Ekiti, sandwiched between the pyramidal rock Oroole and the sacred, spread-topped Olosunta, embraced these peoples and more. It was a time of harmony. It was also a time of diverse festivals.
• Professor Egya teaches African Literature at the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida University, Lappai, Niger State.