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Adalu is a Yoruba grain meal. Callaloo is a Caribbean vegetable dish. The two have more in common than the coincidence in their final flourish.
— Funso Aiyejina, The Errors of the Rendering

Ososo prepared me for the world, especially the Caribbean. At an altitude of 1,236 feet above sea level, the Nigerian town of Ososo is often described in terms of its temperate climate and its mesmerising parade of rockhills. But neither the climate nor the beauty of its landscape was the reason for its choice as a permanent abode for waves of people fleeing precolonial civil wars or spear-wielding, horse-riding, net-casting slavecatchers. Settlers in Ososo did not have the luxury of feasting on the majestic beauty of rockhills, or of luxuriating in the soothing embrace of the morning breeze. Their minds and feet were hungry for only one thing: sanctuary, provided by the many caves. Each wave of refugees contributed its language and culture to create a complex community of multiple languages and rituals. On a typical market day, you were likely to hear a good percentage of the 15 languages spoken in the Akoko-Edo Local Government Area, not counting Yoruba (the lingua franca), Pidgin, and English! As a child, I looked forward to the eve of our annual masquerade festival. My father’s ‘big room’, with its three ritual stools, welcomed relatives, friends, and strangers from the villages and towns around us. There was food, millet brew, and a riot of languages. My paternal relatives from Okene spoke Ebira; my maternal relatives from Ogori spoke Ogori; everybody spoke Yoruba, and when we wanted to exclude our visitors from both maternal and paternal lines, we spoke Ososo. That democratic palaver of languages in the ‘big room’ and the wider Ososo society prepared me for my encounter with various Nigerian languages and cultural practices at school in Northern and Western Nigeria and for the multi-cultural temperament of the Caribbean.

My conversation with the Caribbean began in the classrooms of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in the Yoruba city of Ile Ife. All English majors were required to take the Commonwealth Literature course. Edward Brathwaite, George Lamming, and V.S. Naipaul were on the reading list. The lecturer, Sam Omo Asein, had just returned with an MA from York University, Canada, where he focused on Caribbean Literature. His enthusiasm for the Caribbean segment of the course, especially for Brathwaite, was infectious. I have him to thank for my lifelong interest in Caribbean literature and culture, in the same way I owe my love of poetry, especially the poetry of Christopher Okigbo, to Imeh Ikiddeh, and my social consciousness to Tunji Adebayo, both of whom also taught me at Ife in my undergraduate years.

I am not a diarist. I only remember events that have transformed into metaphors. Like that trip from Port of Spain back to the University of the West Indies campus at St Augustine in my first few months in Trinidad in 1977. After Acadia University, Nova Scotia (1975/76), where I was in a sea of whiteness (also my first experience of winter and snow), I was glad to be in a country where my skin did not Other me. That evening, I had gone over to Port of Spain to meet with a new friend-interest. After the ice-cream-and-banana-split date, I got into a taxi at Independence Square to head back to St Augustine. I was in the back seat with two other passengers. While they were there, I could keep quiet. Halfway to St. Augustine they disembarked, and now I had to respond to the driver’s chat. The moment I spoke, he announced, ‘You is from Africa!’ Well, well, well, the colour of my accent had given me away. His questions came fast and furious. I gladly answered them. They were nothing like those I had to answer in Canada, that night on the 9th floor of Cromwell Tower, when it was our turn to host the weekend floor-party. The questioner then was a member of the football team – the Axemen. After I told him I was Nigerian, he wanted to know how come I spoke English? Where, when, and how did I learn to speak English? I flashed back to my undergraduate Commonwealth Literature course when we had to read books by Canadian, Indian and West Indian writers, among others. I took a deep breath, looked straight into his soul, and announced that just before I boarded the plane in Lagos for Canada, I was given an injection of English and by the time I landed at Halifax, I had become a fluent speaker. Never did find out if he keyed into the sarcasm, but we did become friends enough for him to invite me on a weekend visit to his family on Prince Edward Island.

The taxi driver’s questions, however, were sophisticated – about history, politics and life in Africa. He wanted to know about Nelson Mandela, Kwame ‘Nukrumah’, Julius ‘Kneeyerere’. ‘What do Africans think of us?’ As we approached my drop-off point, I stretched over to pay. The streetlights were already on, his gaze was on the road (evidence he was not keen on night driving), but his mind was on the conversation. A happy smile reflected back to me from the rear-view mirror as he announced, ‘You is the first African from the homeland to ride in my car. The ride is on the house.’ I thanked him as he pulled over to let me out, but he was off before I could get his name. I went back to the taxi stand a number of times, hoping to find him. I never did. Less than three years after that experience, I would complete a PhD thesis on ‘The Image of Africa in West Indian Literature’, but nothing in the literature came anywhere close to that episode in shaping my understanding of what Africa means to conscious New World Africans.

I had been accepted to study at all three campuses of the University of the West Indies. Until the very last minute, Jamaica was my choice. In those days in Nigeria, every West Indian was a Jamo. I considered Barbados because of Edward Brathwaite (I didn’t know him as Kamau at that time) and George Lamming, whose works I had studied in that same undergraduate Commonwealth Literature course. Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin exposed me to a range of Caribbean emotional and political responses to enslavement, colonialism, and independence. Brathwaite’s Masks showed me how to create visceral modern poetry from African history and culture and how to smash conventions. I learnt from Brathwaite that it was okay to break up words and sentences to liberate the truth buried in them. Trinidad was my third choice. Naipaul was my only reference point and our lecturer at Ife, although he praised the work, was lukewarm about him. It would be years before I could figure out his unenthusiastic attitude to Naipaul, the man.

What clinched it was that 1977 was the year of FESTAC, the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, an ingathering of the African family. Many Caribbean islands came home to Nigeria. The West Indian community at Ile-Ife invited the Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra for a weekend performance there. It was a small audience of mainly West Indians and their friends. I was one of the handful of Nigerian members of the audience who went on stage at the end of the performance to ascertain that that sweet music actually came from oil drums. There was more to Trinidad than Naipaul. The following Monday, I mailed my acceptance letter to the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies!

As my return to Nigeria approached in 1980, I decided to visit Jamaica before returning home. I had done Barbados several times and St Lucia once. As part of my research, I had communicated with the Jamaican writer Vic Reid about his novel on the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, The Leopard. In our exchange, he revealed that he had never been to Africa and had based the Kenyan landscape in the novel on the landscape of Jamaica. I wanted to see this landscape that was evocative of Africa. However, what sealed the deal was the fact that my girlfriend, later my wife, had lived in Jamaica before returning home to Trinidad. She suggested that if I were going, she would factor Jamaica into her own vacation itinerary so she could show me the place. She left Trinidad for Mexico and Miami and I for Antigua and Jamaica. I arrived in Jamaica a few days before her. Her friends, the Brooks, met me at the airport and settled me in the guestroom of their campus residence. By the time she arrived, I knew I wanted her in my life and proposed to her, with the proviso that she should give me an answer after visiting Nigeria to see if she could live there. Once I returned to Nigeria, she visited, said yes, returned to Trinidad to resign her job and relocated to Nigeria, where we got married. The rest is history, as evidenced in A Letter to Lynda and Other Poems, and two sons. We would live happily in Nigeria until the oppressive dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida forced us to relocate to Trinidad and Tobago in 1989.

There was too much romance in the air on that first visit to Jamaica for there to be any sightseeing. It would be years later that I would get to see the inspiring landscape of Jamaica, especially the magnificent Blue Mountains and the hilly terrain of the Cockpit Country, home to the Maroon warriors who defeated the British army in the seventeenth century.

Guyana was the other Caribbean trip I had planned in that year of 1980. You do not read the mythopoeic, visionary writer Wilson Harris and neglect to develop a desire to see Guyana! On one of my research trips to Barbados, my Nigerian colleague, novelist Kole Omotoso, who was married to a Barbadian, informed me that the historian and political activist Walter Rodney was transiting through Barbados back to Guyana. We went to meet and share a drink with him at the airport. He was on his way back from attending the Zimbabwe independence celebration. He had left Guyana surreptitiously and was going to re-enter the same way. I expressed my desire to visit Guyana before returning to Nigeria and he extended an invitation to me to be his guest. Before I could take him up on his offer, he was blown up in his car by agents of the state.

One reason the sun never set on the British Empire was because it replicated itself all over the world: New England, New York, Victoria Falls, Victoria Island, London, Ontario, Little England, etc. But Africans also had their own naming agenda. Place names like Congo Hill, Majuba Street, Ibo (Igbo) Gully in Tobago; Yarraba (Yoruba) Village in Port of Spain, Trinidad; and Bekuta (Abeokuta) in Jamaica tell stories of the vitality of human memory and how it can overcome the most brutal attempts at erasure. African spirituality survived through religious and dance practices, such as Orisa, Kumina, Vodou and Winti, naming and evidencing itself in movement.

Let’s tarry a while on Bekuta. The Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka beat me to Bekuta by two trips. Not surprising; he is a son of Olumo Rock, Abeokuta and I am a son of Orukwu Rockhill, Ososo. Like Ososo, Abeokuta was a place of refuge. So, too, was the Jamaican Bekuta. Enslaved Africans who escaped from the oppression of the plantation system found refuge and ancestral echoes in the rocky landscape of Westmoreland, where Olumo Rock, having failed to protect them from slave raiders in Africa, had come to atone for its ancient failures. It came to protect them from their evil slave masters. The founders of Bekuta were the ancestors I would have had if Orukwu Rockhill had not stepped forward to protect my ancestors from the Ijalomo slave raiders.

These days, my dreams are populated by shapeshifters and identity benders. No sooner do I enter a dream than its citizens begin to transform from one nationality or ethnicity into another, and back. The only stable character in my dreams is Funso Aiyejina; born like me in Ososo, a Nigerian. But what does that mean? The one time I felt totally and truly Nigerian in Trinidad was that night in 1977, in that taxi with that Trinidadian driver who wanted to know about Africa. Now, in 2020, after a combined total of 33 years in the Caribbean, stubbornly holding onto my sole Nigerian citizenship, how Nigerian am I? In my first two collections of poems, Africa and the Caribbean often occur as discrete entities, with history as a bridge. By my third collection, The Errors of the Rendering, the presiding energy is as much the New World trickster, the Legba of Haitian voudou, as it is the Yoruba Elegbara of Nigeria, as much the Osun deity of Salybia in Trinidad as it is the Osun of fertility and creativity of Osogbo in the Old World. The grammar is at once Ososo, Yoruba, English and Trinidad Creole. Old World. New World. No longer purely a Continental African writer, my sensibility is a hybrid. My imagination shuttles between Badagry and Bridgetown.

Funso Aiyejina

Funso Aiyejina is a poet, short story writer, playwright, literary and cultural critic, and biographer. He is the author of three collections of poetry: A Letter to Lynda and Other Poems (winner of the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize); I, The Supreme and Other Poems, and The Errors of the Rendering. His play, The Character who Walked out on His Author has been performed in Jamaica, Nigeria, and Trinidad and Tobago. His collection of short stories, The Legend of the Rockhills and Other Stories won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa). He has published extensively on the works of Earl Lovelace, his latest publication being Earl Lovelace (2017) in the Caribbean Biography Series from the University of the West Indies Press. He is Emeritus Professor of Literatures in English, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.

© Funso Aiyejina