He was a man of many parts. Born Bankole Ajibabi Omotoso, but known as Kole Omotoso, he was a renowned writer, university teacher, actor, columnist, literary critic and known in South Africa as the Yebo Gogo man in adverts. Omotoso, who turned 80 on April 21, would forever be remembered for his trajectory as a writer. One week after, the Nigerian literati are still mourning his passing. In this report by Evelyn Osagie, the literary intelligentsia led by Professors Niyi Osundare, Biodun Jeyifo and Femi Osofisan, remember Omotoso and his muse.
It was on June 27, 1981, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, that the nation’s writers first gathered in what became the maiden conference that birthed the over two decades fraternity of the literary intelligentsia under the auspices of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
It was at this gathering that Prof. Kole Omotoso was elected the first general secretary of ANA, under the leadership of the late iconic Professor Chinua Achebe from 1981 to 1986.
Omotoso went on to serve as president and one of the association’s trustees before his passing on last Wednesday.
Omotoso, who turned 80 on April 21, would be remembered, particularly, for his contribution as a writer, among other spheres of influence, which his creative muse traversed. Nigerian writers are still mourning the passing of the distinguished writer and critic.
Top writers recall their memorable moments with the late writer.
Among us, Kole was the freest of spirit – Jeyifo, Ogunbiyi, Ohiorhenuan and Osofisan
The Positive Review Collective made up of Biodun Jeyifo, Yemi Ogunbiyi, John Ohiorhenuan and Femi Osofisan, described him as being of a free spirit, in his departure, the free spirit has been true to the form to which Omotoso belonged.
They stated: “The death of our friend, compatriot and fellow writer, Kole Omotoso, came to us with a great shock. But, in our sadness we give thanks for his life and his work.
“We” here refers to the moribund Positive Review-Ibadan Ife Collective. By a few years, Kole was the oldest among us. He also came to writing as a serious, committed and life-long project before all of us. But, among us, he was the freest spirit, the most maverick and unpredictable in his positions and actions! These facts are reflected powerfully and ineluctably in perhaps his two best-known and most controversial works, the masterpiece of the hybrid genre of “faction”, “Just Before Dawn” and “Season of Migration to the South”, a searing political and intellectual reminiscence on the historic emergence of the Nigerian Diaspora in Africa and the rest of the world. There are, of course, his other works. And there is his family, the centering, sacramental core of his life: Akin, Pelayo and Yewande, words cannot express our solidarity with you in your loss.
“Kole is the first in our group to go, absolutely without our permission and thus in his departure, the free spirit has been true to form. But you were here, Bankole Omotoso, you were here!”
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Kole’s departure painful – Osundare
Celebrated poet and scholar, Prof. Niyi Osundare, who wrote a poem to celebrate the late writer on his 80th birthday last April, was too sad to react when this reporter reached out to him for a tribute in Omotoso’s honour. Hear him: “Painful, really painful, Kole’s departure. I feel too disturbed and too incoherent to compose a fitting tribute for him right now. So, here, is the attached poem, which I wrote for him some weeks ago upon his attainment of the age of 80.
For Kole Omotoso at 80
(With the world still learning how to borrow a wondering leaf)
That number sounds so heavy
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I can hardly lift it with my tongue
Its span springs a distance un-measurable
By the stretch of any ruler
The sun’s silent steps across
The infinity of the sky
The concourse of the clouds
Which drill and drop the rains
Night after night after night
We sleep in the songs
Which sleep in us, dance with the dawn
Whose drum provokes our day
We rise, unaware,
As those songs sizzle into see-suns
Stir into seasons when the tree’s green promise
Yellows into edible consumations
And the seeds which broke the sod
Laugh soundlessly at Harvestide
Time always tells its story
Even when our ears are usurped by jubilant echoes
Those dusky days in Akure Oloyemekun
When Dawn lifted its delicate dust
And a new and complex day was born
We called ourselves KOMFESS Artistes’
A friend and colleague of the late scholar, Prof. Bode Sowande, who belongs to another collective together with Omotoso, said: “We were four and we called ourselves KOMFESS Artistes, individually named Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Sanmi Ogunjobi and Bode Sowande. KOMFESS Artistes as a collective appellation summed up our dreams to be relevant and excel in our artistic creativity. Kole went to Kings College Lagos, Femi Osofisan, Sanmi Ogunjobi and I went to Government College, Ibadan.
In the late 60s we were budding writers. Kole was the oldest and rallying point. He published short stories in magazines.
“Sunday Times published my short story when I was in Form Five, Secondary School. Femi Osofisan won the T.M. Aluko Prize for creative writing, a year before I won the same prize. I won mine in 1966. Sanmi Ogunjobi was most omni- directional. Sanmi was a poet, and visual artist mounting exhibitions and he designed clothes for men and women.
“Kole spoke French and would earn a Doctoral degree in Arabic. Sanmi taught French. I earned my first degree in French and taught French. Femi earned his first degree in French.
Kole became a lecturer at the University of Ibadan. I got my Doctorate in Dramatic Literature before the age of 30 and taught at UI. Femi earned his Doctorate and taught at UI. We were theatre artistes. Wole Soyinka was our brilliant beacon and his Orisun Theatre was the centre of our creative expression at one point.
I established ‘Odu Themes’ in 1972. Kole published his novel Combat and we celebrated this to no end. Femi Osofisan and I would soon follow with our published works. KOMFESS Artistes are friends bonded by artistic creativity and dreams. Flashback delights with relevance. Two gone! I am sure that Kole Omotoso’s Homecoming is a heavenly delight.”
Omotoso was a dignified figure – Ajayi
Former ANA Lagos Chair, Dr. Tolu Ajayi, said: “With the passing of Prof. Kole Omotoso, the Nigerian writing scene has suffered a very sad loss. He was a dignified figure, and an affable personality, who was a joy to interact with at the Writers’ Conferences. He’ll be sorely missed. My condolences go to his family, but they can take solace in the fact that their patriarch has come, seen, and conquered – and then passed on the baton, not only to them, but also to all those he had mentored and inspired. May his soul continue to Rest in Peace.”
He introduced me to the great Ghanaian playwright, Ama Ata-Aidoo – Yerima
Playwright and theatre director, former Director-General, National Theatre, Prof. Ahmed Yerima, who was a former student of the late Omotoso, spoke of his teacher-student relationship.
“Prof. Kole Omotosho was a very quiet person, very reserved and often always thinking about a new play or novel. Or better still, an academic justification of a rumbling thought. As a student of his, I always watched out for his mood before starting a discussion with him. But when he liked you, he did. I will, like most of his students, miss him. I remember when we met after about twenty years. He had become a big face in South Africa and I had seen him in the TV series, Jacob’s Cross. I was very happy because the last time I saw him on stage was with me and many other great actors in Wole Soyinka’s, “Opera Wonyosi’’, when he played “Prof. Bamgbopa.”
“The last time I spoke with him was after as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Elizade University, he produced my play Igatibi and he forgot to inform me. I said you forgot to invite me, Sir. And he answered, “It was a good play. Kongi came to give the convocation lecture. The audience enjoyed it. After all, I taught you how to write good plays.” He hung up. Indeed he taught me “faction”. In a heated discussion on the mixture of facts and fiction in his book, Just Before Dawn.
“I am happy I sent him this at the last Teacher’s Day: ‘The father of a million theatre sons, including me. God bless you, Sir.’ As usual, he must have read it, a little smile between the white beard and switched off his phone. Not a word. The most important thing about my relationship with him as a teacher-student took place recently when I was trying to find a book, and his book, The Theatrical into Theatre fell off the shelf. I remembered he made me pay for it. But it was what he wrote on the cover page that made me shed a tear for him tonight. In his handwriting, he wrote. “To Ahmed (who paid for it) for a former student and a present colleague and a future great – with compliments from Kole. Ile-Ife. 25/1/85.
“I saw this respect manifest itself when he introduced me to the recently passed great Ghanaian playwright, Ama Ata-Aidoo. I had never seen that excited about knowing me. No doubt, l will miss him for different reasons. Goodnight, Sir. African literature will miss you.”
Omotoso was a mentor and seer – Okediran
“General Secretary of Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA), Dr. Wale Okediran, described Omotoso as a “brilliant, kind and thoughtful man who went on to become a mentor as well as a great and loving friend”.
”More than 40 years have passed since I met Prof. Bankole Omotoso, a distinguished short story writer, novelist, dramatist, critic, actor, biographer, founding General Secretary and a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
“Throughout those years, I had the honour of attending several local and international literary events with this brilliant great friend. When I first met Omotoso in the early 1980’s, I was a young medical doctor/writer in the grips of some unforeseen forces which were intent on tearing me away from a relatively stable medical profession into the uncertain terrain of writing. Even though I did not find talent and tenacity of purpose in short supply, I could not have gone far in my long and lively literary career without the support and guidance of people like Prof Omotoso.
“In addition to a moderate literary production, I also followed the footsteps of my mentor by taking up some literary administrative positions such as the General Secretary and later the President of ANA. However, when in 2007, he proposed that I should relocate to Ghana to take up the position of Secretary-General of the PAWA, I thought it was a joke. I promptly rejected the proposal. It was our first major disagreement and it caused a little strain in our relationship.
“When in 2020, I finally found myself as the Secretary-General of the same PAWA, I called Prof Omotoso to announce my new position. He only gave his trademark chuckle and congratulated me. It is a thing of joy that his children have also built legacies of their own, some of them, especially Yewande following his literary footsteps.”
Omotoso affected how my generation of writers saw the book, says Ipadeola
For NLNG prize laureate, Tade Ipadeola, the late writer had an immense influence on writers of the poet’s generation.
“Prof. Kole Omotoso profoundly affected how my generation of writers saw the book. He’d written “Just Before Dawn”, which at the time caused such a stir in places high and low that no literate Nigerian could fail to notice that there was something seismic happening.
“He personified the idea of the author as a force that shapes the world a book at a time. At the peak of his writing powers, he brought us something of the old Russian respect for writing, which authors like Tolstoy, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, brought to their people. Getting to know him in person in the house of Odia Ofeimun in Lagos revealed a man of deep humour and humongous capacity for the joys of life…”
My last encounter with him at the Oliver Tambo airport in South Africa is still fresh in my mind. He asked the folks back home in Nigeria by name, and in a few instances, he was even the one who told me what was happening to some folks. He was always rooted even as he always travelled. I’m going to commend his body of works to younger African writers for their range and variety, their texture and their truthfulness to the African experience. I’m going to miss him”
A dazzling star has fallen – Dafinone
A Nigerian author of 10 books of poetry, based in the United States, Wisdom Dafinone, said: “Another dazzling star has fallen from our dwindling firmament of literary giants – Prof Bankole (Kole), Ajibabi Omotoso, quintessential intellectual, novelist and playwright who succumbed to the inevitable blows of mortality; thereby transcending to the pantheon of literary immortality. Our prayers are with his beloved family. Prof. Kole A. Omotoso, rest in perfect peace.”
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