Thursday, September 28, 2017 1:36 pm
By Femi Olugbile
You have come this Saturday afternoon to the delightful ambience of Quintessence, on Parkview Estate, ikoyi, for a book reading. The book is Tunde Fagbenle’s latest compilation of his newspaper column, spanning the years 2010 to 2016. Six hundred pages, plus a few.
Quintessence has become one of the favourite venues in the Lagos metropolis for book readings and other ‘arty’ gatherings. It was founded, at its original location at the Falomo Shopping Centre, by a Nigerian man who came home from study abroad with his Swedish wife in tow. By all accounts Gabriel Oni-Okpaku was an enterprising and adventurous young Nigerian, full of life, who, after a short spell working for government, set up, in 1975, with his wife, a shop to sell hi fi equipment, exotic furniture and accessories.
There is a story, that he took up a new sport of horse-riding, bought state of the art gear, and found great joy in it.
Unfortunately shortly afterwards, he had an accident on the horse, and died.
Quintessence has continued to flourish since then, as a place for collectors of books, exotic local furniture and art objects, and shirts, kaftans, boubous and other wears made with local fabrics. It is a popular site for patrons and members of the creative industries, as well as discerning tourists.
The reading is already in progress as you arrive.
Tunde is sitting on a couch with his interlocutor, facing the audience.
He is going to be seventy in a few days, you think. He is looking youthful, with the thin grey mane being the only indication of advancing years.
The articles in the book are grouped into themes, with titles such as National Maladies, Corruption, Social and Cultural Values, State of the Nation, Personal Reflections, Conversations and Interviews, International, Religious, Reviews, Endorsements, and Tributes.
You are, of course, like many people you know, very familiar with the newspaper column, and have been over the years. Reading Tunde Fagbenle is really the same as watching and experiencing Tunde Fagbenle, you reflect as you watch him trading banter with his interviewer, Kunle Ajibade, an experienced social warrior and wordsmith himself. His language, live, as in print, is fluent, forthright, and accessible. These were the attributes that made his back-page column in Sunday Punch, the source of virtually all the compilation, compelling reading among a widely diverse cross-section of the public. They have also made Tunde a house-hold name and a commonly recognized face in society.
His responses to questions are not brief and to the point, but hot, pungent, and sequential. One thing leads to another, and before you know it he has told another story.
In literary descriptive terms, this book is a collection of Short Stories – almost two hundred of them. Short, easy to read, straight to the point, clearly articulated, with a logic that is difficult to disagree with. Not pretentious. Not overtly didactic. Only they are not works of Fiction but works of Life. You might even cite the genre ‘Faction’ – except they are not just meant to entertain, but to inform, to give an opinion, to educate, influence, provoke, change and all of that. ‘Reality Literature’, with a message and a purpose, every one.
As you read through, your impressions are confirmed. Tunde the writer and columnist is Tunde the person. What you see is what you get. Same forthrightness. Safe volubility. Same beauty and fluency of language, without contortions or undue complexity. And same boldness. Names are mentioned. Actual incidents and misdemeanours are boldly reported. From Professor of Letters to barely lettered gateman – all are able to follow the story, and participate in the drama.
The foreword is by Pastor Tunde Bakare – a man you find interesting on several levels, evoking mixed feelings. Assuredly he has a gift of the garb, and is always convinced, and convincing. If, while randomly channel-hopping in an idle moment before the television as you sometimes do, you happen upon a TB sermon, you become like a man on a fast-moving bus, looking for the bus to slow down at a corner so you can get off. But Tunde Bakare is a riveting orator. You are liable to find yourself stuck in the bus for the whole ride.
There are short tributes by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Babatunde Fashola, Kayode Fayemi and Ogbeni Rauf Aregbeshola. Fayemi’s erudite contribution calls to mind your view of him as a scholar with nuggets of arcane information in his pocket, which he scatters with insouciance on the ground as he walks past. You recall that at an international conference on The Liveable City – designed to see how to improve the liveability of the megacity of Lagos from the bottom of the international pile, which you had helped facilitate, he was a guest speaker on the Sociology of Lagos – past and present. The one thing you remember to this day from his presentation is his assertion that ‘Jaguda’ was actually the name of a family!
All the tributes refer to Tunde’s brilliance, his energy and industry, and what power of good he has been doing in enriching public discourse.
The collection’s titles are cast conversationally, without artifice. Headings such as ‘Lagos Ibadan Road – when will the agony and shame stop’ and ‘Why did this Nigerian man kill his wife’ leave no one in doubt about what they are about to read. The Lagos-Ibadan road has been an embarrassing nuisance for as far back as anyone can remember, and the writer’s irritation is as valid today as it was in 2012, when the piece was written. The other article refers to a Nigerian lady the author knew who was clubbed to death with a baseball bat by her husband in Tampa, Florida over a suspicion of infidelity.
Virtually every major public figure in Nigeria gets an airing, or a roasting, at some point.
A curious piece about the incumbent President is titled ‘General Buhari ; when ‘sorry’ would have served.’ The story is about the Lagos Metroline, conceived and commenced by the Jakande government, and aborted by Buhari in his first incarnation. It was started at about the same time as the Cairo metro and some other city metro lines that have since gone on to become major mass transport hubs and centres of commercial and industrial development for their cities.
The writer’s beef is that while campaigning to be President in 2011, Buhari was asked why he pulled the plug on the metro. It is a major beef the people of Lagos have with him – the metro would have revolutionalised Lagos, created a flourish of local SMSEs and industries to support its operations, and generally leveraged a major leap forward for Lagos and Lagosians. To pull the plug could only mean a dangerous inability on the part of a leader to grasp ‘the vision thing’. To Tunde, being asked the question in 2011 was a good opportunity for the man to say he now got it, and he was sorry. No dice.
Major and minor incidents and players in Nigeria’s recent history, as well as human angle stories of ordinary people jump to life from the pages. ‘Jonathan’s Greek Gift’ refers to the controversy aroused by the ill-considered effort of President Jonathan to rename University of Lagos after MKO Abiola.
‘Achebe and his igbo warriors’ tackles the delicate task of giving balanced commentary on Achebe’s book ‘There was a country’ – itself not the most balanced of the great man’s books, and the diatribe and vitriol aroused among ethnic ‘supporters’ by any effort to discuss its flaws.
The Sense and Nonsense of Gani Adams tells the bizarre but true story of Gani Adams and his armed coterie, fresh from gaining lucrative ‘pipeline contracts’ with government, shutting down Lagos in a show of support for an incumbent President Jonathan, against the wishes and interests of the community the purported to serve.
Tunde’s life itself is every bit as dramatic as the people he writes about. The drama may get infectious when you are close to him.
You remember that you were alone in Tunde’s flat in Colindale when the 7/7 terrorist bombings occurred in London in 2005. You were CMD of LASUTH, it was back-breaking work, and you decided to get away for a four week holiday and hole up in North London, doing nothing in particular. You developed a past-time of taking an occasional ‘joy-ride’ on a double-decker London bus, sitting in front on the top deck as it lumbered through the narrow streets from Edgeware Station to the city centre. It was a leisurely journey that would take well over an hour, and by the time you arrived it would be time to seek out a chinese restaurant for lunch, perhaps take in a movie, and start the journey back.
On this day, this was what you had on your schedule when you awoke to the sight and sounds of chaos and carnage on television. London was under attack. In a few hours, you would see Marie Fatai-Williams on the screen, mourning the loss of her son, one of the sad victims of the terrorist tragedy.
There is a piece on the Ibori saga as a study in psychology and public morality. Another tells the colourful story of Great Ogboru. There are film commentaries – 12 Years As A Slave, and Mo Abudu’s ‘50’ – the latter written and directed by Tunde’s erstwhile protégé from his time as Chief Executive of LondonHome News – Biyi Bandele. Biyi has gone on to make waves as an award-winning writer, playwright and film producer. Incidentally he is present at the book-reading, to honour his old boss.
When the die is cast is a playlet and dream-sequence that paints a scenario where 500 Nigerians – ‘the ruiners of the country and their collaborators’ are herded into a warehouse by a ‘Peoples Revolutionary Group’ (PRG). There is drama in the interplay of their thoughts and conversations, with fear thick in the air.
The Lagos Carnival, which may grow to rival Notting Hill. The story of Afam, the writer’s childhood Igbo friend who lived across the street in Minna and has been lost to sight since the civil war. The colorful character of Dele Momodu – who some people see as a mountebank, running for President. Atahiru Jega addressing an admiring audience at the University of Lagos after staring down Elder Orubebe before all the world and saving Ngeria from chaos.
The writer is a fascinating man who often seems to loom larger than life. Prodigious in his generosity, prodigious too in some of his appetites, according to his close friends like Segun Odegbami. They call him ‘Shehu’, and it is not for his writing.
A consummate host with whom there is not a dull moment. At the weekend, in London, he takes you to ‘EMUKAY’- the popular Nigerian hangout where you are liable to run into a Wole Shoyinka or some other grandee of Ngerian letters or arts. Tunji Oyelana – Emukay himself – is on the bandstand. Age has caught up with him, and he is looking somewhat worse for wear. But the singing voice is as strong as ever.
He acknowledges Tunde as you enter the packed, sweltering room.
…Bo o ba o pa, boo ba di l’orun
L’omo araiye o
Enia bii aparo
L’omo araiye nfe
Enia bi olosi l’omo araiye nfe …
You are all singing together – everyone in the large room, and Tunde has not even had a beer yet…
Always kind and generous
It s an apt description for the man, as well as the book he has written.
‘And That Is Saying It The Way It Is’ is a recommended read for anyone interested in the human angle, and in the living story of Nigeria and Nigerians .
…Dr. Femi Olugbile, an award winning novelist, is a retired Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Health