Just returned from The Jazzhole on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi where a book reading was organised by Dr. 'Yemi Ogunbiyi's friends and peers to celebrate his 60th. Obviously a happy day for the great man, it was made even more poignant for the intensity of the gloss the stellar retinue of his friends imbued on the occassion.
In attendance were such luminaries as Abiodun Jeyifo and Femi Osofisan, Stanley Macebuh, Ahmed Yerima, Olu Agunloye, Odia Ofeimun and Audu ogbeh. To be coy, it was a gathering of the usual suspects as far as Nigerian/African Literature in the past forty years is considered. Amongst those men they had singlehandedly contributed or inspired virtually every considerable expression of Nigerian letters in their era beginning from the freewheeling sixties to the somnolent seventies, through the ribald eighties and the decade of the end to chastity - the nineties, of Ibrahim Babngida's oily seduction and communal complicity and the brutish shortness of Sanni Abacha.
I realised while sitting in that room how intimately interwoven our Letters were with our protest. I thought back to the times of other cultures' greatness; the United Kingdom in the times of Henry James, who in spite of having been born American, lived their art in the most genteel of manners, being more certain of the road to Buckingham palace(Tipperary, anyone?) than of the road to Hyde Park, and of course T.S Eliot, another American Expat, whose closest to outright, clear and unambiguous protest as far as I can remember was probably the moving passages of The Wasteland. In any case his seemed to be a slight, easy railing against not just the two great contending forces of the period after WW1 i.e. Fascism and Liberalism, but a railing against contention of any kind that would likely result in friction and destruction of the civilization which he and his peers had come to so love and sing odes to in their works.
Never mind that it was this system that had metastasized into the Berlin Conferences of 1884 and was preparing to hand power to the Minority Boers in South Africa in defiance of the black majority, and would ultimately turn a blind eye while Mussolini ravaged Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
It is therefore easy to conclude that right from the beginning we had received a heritage of recognising our art, especially our literary art, to be a pure, potent weapon, and to constantly hone it and press it into services other than pleasure to the senses and worship of the hubris which being able to compare it to, for example the exertions of the Etruscans(who by the way are long dead and gone) might encourage. And those men in the main floor of the Jazzhole had made sure of this by more than half.
In that room today at the jazzhole, I felt a slight dizzying tremor as one after the other each speaker rose to his or feet and related an anecdote, generously infected with a dash of humour here and a pinch of history there, in which the celebrant Dr. Ogunbiyi himself was either the subject or an active participant.
Of course the evening would hardly have been complete if Wole Soyinka had been around and not put in an appearance. He was around and he did put in an appearance. In his unassuming manner, he had strolled in quietly, and when given the floor, had spoken clearly about not only his relationship with the celebrant but had also, by developing links amongst virtually all the friends of Dr. Ogunbiyi, clearly fleshed out the places in each others life which they individually occupied.
I got the impression while in their company, of a metazoic, living thing, this assemblage of men still holding up torches even as they bravely headed into the twilight. A substantial life form capable not only of surviving but generally of prevailing; of carefully nurtured relationships shaped by both trial and triumph but sometimes, severely tempered by the challenges which they have had to confront. And for all that I was very proud of them.