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Biyi Bandele – A Personal Appreciation

By Onyekachi Wambu

It was on Facebook that I first discovered with disbelief that Biyi Bandele had died in Nigeria on 8 August 2022. It was on Facebook that much of our ‘friendship’ had been lived. So this is where the processing began, after his daughter Temi confirmed the shocking news of his passing on his newsfeed. I responded immediately on my own Facebook newsfeed with the following tribute:

 

‘What a life, lived so creatively to the full, all genres and forms tackled fearlessly – plays, novels, scripts, films, documentaries, photographs. The burst of energy and furious pace of the last few years was simply amazing and a joy to behold. For me perhaps his most enduring creations were the Lagos photographs – they appeared suddenly out of the blue – the most amazing natural modern Nigerian paintings, humanising the everyday people of that pulsating city in loving portraits. I suspect this photo side hustle, carried out while he was filming a major series, was inspired by the way that Sousa Jamba documented his local community, in rural southern Angola, through some wonderful portraits. But he used his spare time and restless creative energy to engage with his environment, producing a different and empowering narrative about the great city. The fact that Biyi’s own Lagos subjects allowed him to so intimately ‘camera’ them demonstrates something of the trust and warmth he generated amongst his creative collaborators, whether actors or everyday Lagos folk. He always made sure to tell us the story of the subject of each portrait. Profound respect. ‘Condolences to his family, who so generously allowed him the time to share his incredible talents. Biyi, the fine chronicler of Lagos life, is gone!‘

 

I later read other tributes from many of the 4,500 Facebook ‘friends’ he had accumulated (173 of them mutual) and 25,000 followers. Facebook pages are now increasingly a communally curated space for a lived life, followed by the hard stop of death third person postings by the next of kin, like Temi, passing on news, sometimes of the funerals, at other times of dignified respect for family privacy – then the page fossilised for eternity. Future proofed.

Months later, I am still astonished at how much I rail against this abrupt ending in the case of Biyi, this silencing of a unique personality and artistic sensibility. As a follower in the real sense, death is cheating us of new creative bulletins of activity and output. Shortly after his death, his last film, Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman (2022), an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), premiered on Netflix. But there were also rumours of other works in development – a posthumous novel, now in preparation through Penguin Books, Yoruba Boy Running, based on the life of Bishop Samuel Crowther, who was pivotal in introducing Christianity to Southern Nigeria and who produced the first translation of the Bible into Yoruba. Other rumours included a possible exhibition of his wonderful Lagos photos. But these are only two of a number of other projects that he would surely have been working on, given his restless energy and curiosity. After his death, the Angolan novelist Sousa Jamba revealed that Biyi had plans to visit Angola on another project.

Beyond Facebook, I had only ever met Biyi three times. We were South London neighbours, fellow Nigerians abroad, interested in many of the same areas of creative endeavour. During those times we were always in company, a third person there, ensuring that the conversation remained a general one, without the depth that would uncover any of the more fundamental truths we sought. But in many ways those one-to-one conversations were not only unmissed, but also unnecessary – the themes and issues that seemed to interest and obsess him were ones that were instantly recognisable to and shared by me: Nigeria. Identity. History. Narrative. He had successfully developed the forms for handling these themes through a series of powerful and original poems, short stories, novels, plays, films and photographs (see below for a selection of his key works in different genres, courtesy of Wikipedia; and a short commentary on his own photography, courtesy of Facebook.)

In all of this, the Nigerian story was perhaps his greatest concern – as it has been for all of us who are part of that huge, multi-ethnic, querulous stew of massive potential and stunted ambition. Born Biyi Bandele-Thomas in 1967 to Yoruba parents in the northern railway town of Kafanchan, Kaduna State, speaking a number of languages (Hausa, Tiv, Yoruba, English and local Kafanchan languages), he was emblematic of the truncated construction of the country. The British had built the railways not to create internal cohesion, but to extract resources from the interior to the coast. Nevertheless, his grandfather who arrived in Kafanchan as a railway man and his father, a wounded Burma war veteran, were the generations of state functionaries who would begin to look beyond their ethnic identities to construct new national identities. 

This would involve a head-on collision with British ideas for the country, culminating ultimately in the struggle for independence. How to imagine and build a network of emotional tracks to link the country in new, intimate human relationships and shared purpose, rather than exploitative British extraction, was the quiet work underlying Biyi’s output. Biyi Bandele, like Chinua Achebe and Fela Kuti before him, shed the English part of his name.

In his work, Biyi always expressed the sense of being an insider/outsider – a Yoruba with a Christian name growing up in the Muslim north of Nigeria, singled out for speaking Yoruba with a Hausa accent whenever he returned to his father’s hometown in Abeokuta, and in London, when he arrived in the early 90s on a British Council scholarship, carrying the draft of his first novel and determination to both master new techniques in script writing, radio and film making and to subvert the colonial gaze. It was also why he loved cosmopolitan Lagos – a city of anonymous outsiders.

This insider/outsider perspective (a kind of tropical, Du Boisian double consciousness) shaped his sensibility, triggering a surreal take on unfolding events, but more importantly enabling original interrogations and interpretations of totemic cultural and literary figures such as Samuel Crowther, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti, Chimamanda Adichie and others who have engaged in their own ways of imagining Nigeria into being.

There is no doubt that Biyi saw himself as an inheritor of Achebe and Soyinka, the giant twin literary sensibilities of Nigeria, but unlike those twin towers, he was armed with the popular weapon of film production, enabling a different conversational story with ordinary people. The Lagos photos were another discovery in how this conversation could be extended, developing new connections and intimacy with ordinary people.

In the end, he had a fundamental understanding that everything comes down to story. And a mastery of technique. These combine to inform what Chinua Achebe described as ‘vision’, taken from the biblical proverb, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. This is a statement that Biyi made, where else, on his Facebook page: 

 

‘The only difference between good directors and the other kind is that good directors know they are, before anything else, writers. The art of writing as a director doesn’t necessarily involve writing a single syllable. It is often no more than imposing a vision on a story idea.’

 

The man is gone. The newsfeed has ended. We miss the continuing contributions to the conversation. The vision and the stories, however, survive – inspiring others to continue the task of imagining. 

 

Camera Me’ – Lagos Facebook Story

3 July 2022

I was walking past this young lady’s perfume stall in Jankara market when she called out to me, “Cameraman,” she said, which is what a photographer is called on these here [Lagos] islands, “Come and camera me and my boyfriend.” 

Here they are. I camera’d them.

— in Lagos Island.

Biyi Bandele – A Life of Stories

Short Stories & Novels

  • The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond, Bellew, 1991
  • The Sympathetic Undertaker: and Other Dreams, Bellew, 1991
  • The Street, Picador, 1999
  • Burma Boy, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007. Published as The King’s Rifle in the US and Canada, Harper, 2009

Plays & Screenplays

  • Marching for Fausa, Amber Lane Press, 1993
  • Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought, Amber Lane Press, 1994
  • Two Horsemen, Amber Lane Press, 1994
  • Death Catches the Hunter/Me and the Boys, Amber Lane Press, 1995
  • Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (adaptation),1999
  • Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (adaptation), Amber Lane Press, 1999
  • Brixton Stories/Happy Birthday, Mister Deka, Methuen, 2001

Films & Television 

Half of a Yellow Sun – feature film, 2013

  • Fifty, feature film, 2015
  • Shuga, television series, Season 3 (Shuga Naija), 2013
  • Fela Kuti: Father of Afrobeat, Arena BBC, 2020
  • Blood Sisters, Netflix Nigerian Original series, 2022

Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, feature film, 2022

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