Talakawa Liberation Courier 102
By Biodun Jeyifo
Harvard University, Cambridge, USA
That woman who swoons at every kiss/the moon watches her, a dog bays, sucks her breast/ah! It is already the seed from which the dawn takes flesh/slackly upon the road/where walks the traveler, teller of tales
From "The Dead", Felix Tchicaya U Tam'si
There was variety within the movement that called itself a collective. Onoge and Jeyifo were core radicals, although the radicalization of some of their followers, like Amuta, was formal.
D.S. Izevbaye, in an interview with Remi Raji-Oyelude
Igi nla wo; eja nla lo l'omi... [A
mighty tree has fallen; a colossal fish of the ocean depths has
From a Yoruba traditional dirge
When the news came to me of the death of Omafume Onoge, the only thing I could do to relieve the immense sadness that overwhelmed me was to reach for a mini group photograph of himself, the late Felix Tchicaya U Tam'si and myself. It is the only photograph that I have of Onoge. In the photograph, the three of us are generally facing the photographer in the formation of a straight line that is slightly indented at midpoint where I am standing in the centre. We are all smiling pleasantly and it looks like the smiles are a composite pose for the camera, but that was not the case. We were actually smiling at something funny that U Tam'si had said. The proof of this in the photograph is that Onoge's smile is directed sidewise at U Tam'si, not at the camera. This picture carries loads of memories for me about the period in which it was taken, about the intricacies of revolutionary Pan Africanism, and, above all, about the sort of comrade, mentor and activist scholar and public intellectual that Omafume Onoge was.
U Tam'si (1931-1988) was one of the great literary figures of the Negritude movement. He was from Congo Brazzaville, but his passionate anti-colonial nationalism extended to the entire continent of Africa and found particular expression in an ardent support of Patrice Lumumba in the Belgian Congo as it w as then known. Like the poetry of David Diop, U Tam'si's Negritudist poems were full of ardent denunciations of the material and psychological effects of colonialism, but in a more oblique, more playful manner that sometimes bordered on what seemed to be levity but was actually part of the arsenal of surrealist poetry in general in its deliberate attempts to be shocking and provocative. If we take note of the fact that although surrealist motifs and echoes pervade the poetry of Christopher Okigbo he is not generally regarded as a surrealist, U Tam'si is arguably the greatest surrealist poet produced by modern African literature.
The picture that had this great poet, Onoge and me in it was taken in Dakar, Senegal in 1976. We were all in Dakar at the invitation of Senghor and Soyinka, both of whom had worked together to sponsor a special conference (a "Colloque" as the Francophone intelligentsia called it) of prominent African writers, artists and academics to deliberate on the way forward for Africa through the media of the arts, the humanities, the social sciences as well as the natural sciences. It says a lot about Soyinka that he not only invited Onoge and myself to the "Colloque" but fervently urged us to come so as to inject robustly radical ideas and perspectives to the proceedings at the conference. This is because at the time, vigorous ideological battle lines were already drawn between Soyinka and us, the leftist "collective" cited by Professor Izevbaye in the second epigraph to this essay.
At that conference, Onoge and I took completely identical intellectual and ideological positions, differentiated of course by our individual modes of inflecting our words and gestures. As Soyinka had expected when he invited both of us, we stood out among the conference participants on account of our sharply critical, unflinchingly radical positions on Negritude and its legacies, these being the main ideological platforms of virtually all of the Francophone intellectuals and writers at the conference. Ousmane Sembene stayed away from the conference. The one exception among our Francophone colleagues was - Tchicaya U Tam'si. After the very first session of the conference, he sought Onoge and me out and for the entire duration of that memorable encounter, "we hung out together", especially in off-session carousals at bars and restaurants. And it is at this stage that I have to come to the significance for this tribute to Onoge of this extended narrative about the picture and the Conference.
In many, many discussions before the Conference, Onoge and I had talked a lot about modern African literature and the arts. These talks took place in the context of both classes we team-taught at the University of Ibadan where we were lecturers at the time, and private conversations. We had talked about Negritude, about the movement in general and about individual poets, essayists, ideologues and theorists. His preferred writers within the movement were Aime C�saire and David Diop. More generally among Francophone writers and intellectuals, the people he admired the most were Ousmane Sembene, Cheikh Anta Diop and Samir Amin. He was familiar with the poetry of U Tam'si and somewhat responded to the edgy, riotous humor that often inflected the unforgiving surrealist obscurities of his poetry, especially in poems of great seriousness. But try as much as I could, I failed to convince Onoge to include U Tam'si in his "pantheon" of the Francophone greats. And this is why I was deeply gratified that when we rather fortuitously met U Tam'si in person at that "Colloque", the man himself provided living, breathing proof of all I had been saying about his poetry to Onoge: the obscurities of surrealist poetry in the abstract medium of the printed page gave way to the embodied mix of ribald humor and trenchant observations of the man with whom we shared drinks and food in Dakar's social watering holes.
In the event, Onoge did not thereafter "elevate" U Tam'si to the level of C�saire, Sembene and Diop among Francophone writers, but that is not the point of this story. The "point", if I can summarize it compositely, has three aspects to it. First, is the fact that Onoge, a social scientist of the highest order, was also so immensely knowledgeable about literature and the arts that I and my colleagues in the profession always marveled at this uncommon achievement. Secondly and more pointedly, this was not encyclopedic knowledge for its own sake, as valuable as that achievement is on its own terms; rather, it was vast, polymathic learning in the service of Africa's unity, development and progress. Thirdly, there is the fact that Onoge, the ultimate intellectual driven by the power of ideas, was also a man of great responsiveness to people and persons as the final touchstones of all our ideas and theories, all our professional schemes and projects. In my opinion, only to the extent that we deeply appreciate these separate but interlocking aspects of Onoge's work and identity as scholar and activist would we be able to recognize why it was he and not others who came before him that eventually occupied the unique place in the intellectual history of our country that fate or happenstance bestowed on him. Let me explain, even if my "explanation" will be rather circuitous and will come mostly in next week's column.
For now, let me state the following little known fact or general condition: prior to the early to mid Seventies, on strictly professional and intellectual grounds, campus radicals in general and campus academics in particular were not taken very seriously in Nigerian universities. They were not unknown, absent or even invisible; rather, they were mostly considered an oddity, completely "harmless" and indeed, more like an exotic adornment to the normal complement of the "serious" and distinguished mainstream of university dons. In my own student days in the late Sixties, those of us among the students' communities and organizations who felt drawn to radical politics knew and greatly admired the Ola Onis, the Nzimiros and the Chimere Ikokus as committed and inspiring academics of the Left. But to the campus communities in general, they were perceived to pose no intellectual threats to anybody, as Leftists and radicals. Where they were respected as intellectuals, it was mostly on account of their professional work divorced from their political and ideological radicalism. All that changed completely and forever in the early to mid Seventies. And the person who, more than any other radical academic, was the most influential agent in effecting this change was Omafume Onoge. The reasons for this were his vast, encyclopedic knowledge, the mobilization of that knowledge for genuinely innovative and progressive Pan Africanist and humanistic ideals, and his deep respect for people as the touchstones for all abstract intellectual ideals and projects. This will be starting point of the continuation of this tribute in next week's column.