That day was the second of November 2012. Ayodele Olofintuade had put up on Facebook an invitation to a reception for Rotimi Babatunde, 2012 Caine Prize winner, at Drapers Hall, Institute of African Studies, University Of Ibadan. It was tagged, An evening with Icarus and Friends.
Prior to this I had not met Rotimi Babatunde, or so I thought. But when he won the Caine Prize, I was so excited. We – my literature-inclined colleagues and I ─ discussed it several times. It was as if we knew Rotimi personally.
The writer in me got activated. Afterall, they said if God had answered your neighbour’s prayers; God was in your vicinity and your house might just be his next port of call. I felt like going to tap into the Caine anointing. Alleluia!
I mentally examined my weekend; I could skip some of the programmes I had earlier on scheduled. So I sent Ayodele an inbox message. She replied immediately that it would be sweet to have me around. Whew! Did that burst my head!
On Saturday morning, by 6.30am I left Benin. The programme was to start by 4pm. So I had more than nine hours to get there. I was going in a private car. The owner was driving to Ibadan and wanted extra cash. I sat beside him and two other women sat at the back. Orange FM was blasting from speakers somewhere on the dashboard as we drove through Lagos/Benin expressway.
The early morning sun was calm and playing a silly game of hide and seek with the clouds. As the breeze blew into my ears, I read Everything Good Will Come by Seffi Atta. Later, the driver tried to engage me in some meaningful conversation. He inquired about my tribe, as though it would determine whether he would talk to me or not. I told him to take a wild guess while I kept a wry smile on my face like a mischievous child. In my mind, I was rolling my eyes. Did my tribe really matter? Did we not call it one Nigeria? Must we rubbish the supposed unity in our diversity? From his accent, I knew he was Yoruba but I did not speak Yoruba to him. Rather, I kept my pidgin distant with a south-southern flavour.
My friends were right. They always teased me about the deficiency of an average Yoruba person in pidgin English. And there the driver was, struggling through his pidgin like a blunt knife; jerking, stammering and forcefully emitting it.
When the discussion ended abruptly, I moved onto something more interesting. My former classmate was the presenter that day on Orange FM, so in-between the music he played on air, we pinged each other. I contributed to the discussion on air and he mentioned my name, so I was feeling so cool. Duh.
Later, the numerous drugs in the driver’s car initiated another conversation. And I plunged into how drug abuse was not good and all that jazz. He smiled. Brown teeth. He could engage my grandfather in a kolanut-eating- competition and win. The silence relapsed after I had finished the health talk. We only spoke in Ile-Ife when one of the women at the back seat alighted.
In Ibadan, I was chilling somewhere on campus when I got a call. I ran to Agbowo – the community just opposite UI – for akproko. For carryover gbeborun. The gist was so fiery that I did not know when it was 4.30pm. Oops! The programme I came for was supposed to start by 4pm.
I flew back to the Institute Of African Studies. It was past five already. Thankfully, the lady at the entrance told me, as I wrote my name and email address that they had just started.
The first thing that struck me was the size of the hall. Drapers Hall is so compact. But built in my favourite style; the lecture theatre model, in which when everyone is seated, the person behind you is taller than you and he would not have to stretch his neck to see the rubbish or whatever else you are writing in the exam hall. You grab? Don’t ask me why it’s my favourite.
I sat beside a middle aged man who I was to know later – during the introductions – that he was Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Oyo State chapter chairman. I can’t remember his name now.
The man with the microphone introduced himself as Ropo Ewenla and the literal meaning of his name dawned on me. I was still thinking about it when something made my neck turn and I recognized Ukamaka Olisakwe and Emmanuel Iduma. Facebook pictures no dey lie. On the front seat of the other side, was Ayodele Olofintuade, looking hotter than fire in her usual dreadlocks, glasses (or goggles – I no know o) armless top and fitted jeans.
Ukamaka and Emmanuel came forward to read from their debut novels: Eyes Of A Goddess and Farad respectively. Ukamaka looked stunning in her red jacket and jeans. Tall. Graceful. Shapely. Let me not say more than this before some people accuse me of …em…em… I thought I was the only one who noticed until Ropo Ewenla stepped up afterwards and said the men in the hall were partial. The applause for Ukamaka was more than that for Emmanuel for obvious reasons. The hall erupted with laughter.
For the second time running, I found myself turning back. I saw the face I had seen everywhere online. Rotimi Babatunde in his unique grey lenses. And I remembered I had seen him before, albeit, briefly – during Eghosa Imasuen’s launch of his second novel, Fine Boys, at Quintessence Falomo, Ikoyi, Lagos. Rotimi had come at the tail end of the programme and looked much younger than he did online. Facebook pictures lied to me. His fleeting presence did not make it register in my brain that I had seen him before. Besides, we did not interact.
By the way, the author of Fine Boys was supposed to read from his novel that evening. But he was not there. Eghosa did not turn up that night. Do I need to say that we have something in common? We attended the same University, studied the same course – though he was several years my senior – and we are both writers. Ok. He’s a writer and I’m still trying to write. Isn’t that wonderful? Grin. Duh.
A young girl, Iwalewa read Rotimi’s citation. I loved her head tie. And hey, I’m a chronic African – a head tie lover. Head ties in every size and shape. Oh. Do I need to say that Rotimi and I also have something in common? Ado Ekiti. Rotimi is an indigene of the city I am a citizen of. Abi was I not born there? Later, Ropo said that he was proud to be an uncle to Iwalewa. Nice.
During the Emerging Aesthetics in Nigerian Literature discussion, the only female member of the panel was Jumoke Verissimo. Another name that struck a chord in me. She looked shy. Reserved. Looking at her, I could swear by a bowl of eba and by my grandmother’s legendary slippers in Ile Oluji that she could not finish a spoon of rice. I never got the opportunity of speaking with her so my diagnosis was not confirmed. The panelists – Kola Tubosun, Tade Ipadeola, Niran Okewole, ANA Oyo state chapter Chairman, spoke glowingly about the award winning story – Bombay’s Republic. They said fiction should contain both factual and emotional truth; that theme, language and perspective matter in fiction. The panelists spoke a lot of oyinbo, especially Niran Okewole who I later realized is a senior colleague; a psychiatrist. My best specialty. I was floating in the realm of the Englishes when I heard a voice behind me, don’t tell me you are sleeping! And I really thought I heard the voice in my hypnagogic state. When I looked back, it was Ayodele crouching behind me and laughing. My laughter – the hehehe type – wanted to finish me but I stifled it.
Question time. The men shot their hands up. Their questions were answered. Ropo asked the few females to ask questions. To my surprise, shyness locked my mouth and threw away the keys. I wanted to say that Bombay Republic is about the Burma war; Half Of A Yellow Sun is about the civil war. When are we going to start writing contemporary stories? Who would tell twenty first century stories? Have we not told enough historical stories? Are modern day happenings not more than enough stories? Instead, I locked up. I particularly loved the spontaneity of the programme. Once in a while, people at the back threw jibes that had the hall in stitches.
Later, Ayodele read from her upcoming work about Michael Jackson and I particularly loved the steps and the sounds she made. Exactly like MJ. Of course, people found it so hilarious.
The man of the night, Rotimi, came up and said so many things. I can’t remember all now. I was busy taking pictures jo, from where I sat. But he talked about how he came about the name Icarus and appreciated everyone for coming.
A dreadlock-wearing four-man-band sang a song titled Hero. Before they started, I had thought it was Enrique Ingresias’ Hero. And I was expectant. But it turned out it was not. Instead they sang a song about Heroes and dedicated it to Rotimi. The lyrics and the imagery remained with me after the performance. Lyrics, because I loved it. Imagery, because I kept on wondering if there was something between artistes/writers and dreadlocks. I can’t forget too, that Elnathan John, Nigeria’s Igwe of satire mentioned it in How to be a Nigerian Writer.
At about 8pm, I was sorry the programme ended. The final words were that a reception like that would be held when we won the Nobel Prize again. That parting line gave me hope for Nigerian Literature. I went through the copy of Farad that was beside me. The part I loved reading the most in any book: Author’s bio and From the Author/Appreciation. Afterwards, I stayed glued to my seat wondering if I should interact or just form Stone Cold and move out. But then it was dark and my closest home was UCH. At least I would talk to Ayodele about how to get a bus to UCH.
Then the interaction started. I went to form talking to Ayodele and she was with Tosin Kolawole and she introduced us. Tosin was at the last Nigerian Breweries creative writing programme coordinated by Adichie. That was how I met and met and met people. Funmi Aluko, Niran Okewole, Emmanuel Iduma, Ukamaka Olisakwe and Rotimi Babatunde. Emmanuel said he knew my name. He had seen it several times online. Ok. Rotimi said he knew my name very well. He had seen it online several times. So he was finally meeting the owner of the name. I went shu, okay o and told him I wanted to be like him. I can’t remember his reply. But it was encouraging. He thanked me profusely for coming all the way to Ibadan and my toes started to blush. Anyway, Rotimi struck me as an easy, calm and cool headed person. Like we say in Benin, an I-no-fit-shout person. Later, I started thinking about how I would reduce my presence on social networks o, ha.
The two things I’m forever crazy about. Travelling. Pictures. So, the paparazzi started and trust my camera. Standing beside tall Ukamaka for a shot, I used that opportunity to measure my height and see how far I still have to go. O boy! I short sha.
I can’t remember the mischievous person who asked me if I was sure it was the programme that brought me all the way to Ibadan or if em…em…em… Oga was in Ibadan and I used the opportunity to see him as well as attend the programme. Trust my laughter; it came out in thrusts, hehehe. I did not even know why I laughed. But I knew the laughter evaded the question and the answer for me.
At the end, some of us got into Niran Okewole’s car and drove to another part of UI for the after party. No. After parri, Ayodele called it. I was to laugh later when Ayodele said good bye with a hug and a pseudo kiss and said she would see me on the social networks. It was then that I began to wonder how social networks have changed our twenty first century lives; how much we relate daily and feel one another’s presence even when we can’t see face to face. I remembered how a friend, shortly before Ibadan, said he had not seen me in a long time. I told him it was not true, before I realized it was true. I thought I had seen him recently because he’s on my BBM contact list. He’s always changing his display picture.
I got back to Benin in high spirits. Nothing could take my shine – not even the wakawaka from Agbowo to Iwo road, to Challenge, to New Garage, searching for a bus to Benin, as if all the buses were lost. And the sleep that dealt decisively with me during the four-hour journey ehn, haba. No be from this planet o.
@fiyinsiku, reporting for naijastories news.