From Abeokuta to Ibadan: Wole Soyinka’s years of ‘dislocated’ formation

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Wole Soyinka

Wole inevitably left home in 1944, at the age of ten, to attend the illustrious Abeokuta Grammar School, Abeokuta, and of course, to commence an extraordinary transition from childhood. Abeokuta Grammar School was not too distant from home for Wole, after all. Ake, where he had lived all his life before now, was part of the wider Abeokuta political geography, and more importantly, AGS was nearly as much about his family as St Peters, Ake. The Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, his distinguished and much revered maternal uncle, was principal at AGS, and lived and was raising a beautiful, focused family consisting of Wole’s cousins –– Koye, Beko, Fela and Dolupo –– within the school compound.

As mentioned in the first chapter, any history of AGS worth the name should reserve a significant chapter for the Ransome-Kutis, who played foundational and consolidation roles over generations. Often cited as the 7th seventh oldest secondary school in Nigeria, AGS was founded in 1908 by Reverend M.S. Cole, the former senior tutor of the CMS Grammar School Lagos. Another historical distinction which AGS Abeokuta had secured was that of the ‘first secondary school in Nigeria that was not directly founded by an alien Christian Mission.’1 As Augustus Adeyinka put it in his A History of Secondary Grammar-School Education in Oyo, Ogun and Ondo States of Nigeria, AGS should be so categorized because it was founded through the combination of “local demand, missionary zeal and community efforts involving the sacrifice of time and money by both the Egba Anglican Community and the non-Christian members of the Community.”2

I.O. Ransume-Kuti’s legendary status at AGS history had its roots in 1904, when his father, the eminent J.J. Ransome-Kuti who had granted permission to his close friend, Reverend (later Archdeacon) S.A. Delumo, to take the young thirteen year-old for enrolment into the CMS Grammar School, Lagos. After about three years in Lagos, Israel had made such an impression in both academic capability and character that when the respected Reverend M.S. Cole, senior tutor at CMS Grammar School Lagos, was invited to establish the Abeokuta Grammar School, he was taken along to become AGS’s pioneer student. As we also saw in the first chapter, I.O. Ransome-Kuti’s would-be wife, Funmilayo would also attend AGS, becoming in the manner of Israel (who was the first student of the institution) six years before, the first ever female student of the school. Both would go on to have very outstanding teaching careers at AGS, famously living in the school quarters where some of the most momentous events of their lives, and Wole’s, unfolded.

Wole, both as student at AGS Abeokuta, and as relation to the Israel Ransome-Kuti family, contests for a space in this evocative history set at an exciting period of transformation for the both country and continent. Armed with a curious, questioning disposition, and the acute influence of his highly intellectual father, Wole was ready to absorb all that was on offer at AGS, and of course all that the almost mythical ‘Daodu’ had to give, and to accommodate every contribution this institution was going to make to the kind of personality he was carving out for himself, or that was being carved out for him.

Even though Wole, on arrival at the AGS, did not meet Rev Ransome-Kuti, as the latter must have been away to England, between 1943 and 1945 (within which time he served as a member of the Elliott Commission on higher education in Nigeria),3 he was a first-hand witness to the larger-than-life image that the Principal conjured within and outside the school. Israel’s reputation as an excellent education administrator and as a diligent moulder of character informed Wole’s assessment of him as perhaps Nigeria’s greatest ever school principal. To this end, Wole elected to write and publish a biography of his distinguished uncle, and hoped that this would be his first major contribution to the charged intellectual atmospheres that had produced him, that he wished to dedicate an entire adult life to.

Had he eventually achieved it, Wole’s biography of Israel would have contained some of the most important lessons in education administration and development in Nigeria, especially thematizing colonial, 19th century Nigeria. Wole had not been able to do the biography, but because “he was haunted by not just [Israel’s] personality but the whole atmosphere which he with others inhabited,”4 his admiration of ‘Daodu’ has been well-documented and preserved, particularly in the well-received memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood. Twelve years after the 1981 publication of Ake, another of Israel’s former students at the AGS, Tunde Adeyanju published The Rev. Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti: Teacher and Nation Builder (1993), highlighting many of the objects of Wole’s panegyric intentions, and paving the path for a reassessment and proper appreciation of the iconic teacher’s statemanly profile.

For the young Wole, Israel did not only represent the formidable spiritual and intellectual pillar on which the AGS (and, in fact, the Abeokuta community of the time stood, he was the great bastion of human morality, an apostle of truth and justice and a sprawling fountain of discipline. In addition, Israel was a perfectionist who took note of little details, who inspected the ceilings for cobwebs and who made sure the grass was trimmed to the right proportions. On one unforgettable occasion, he was on hand to personally discipline Wole, his own ward, for not doing the grasses to acceptable perfection.5 In Ake, Wole places Israel’s capabilities in parallel with those of Mr Kuforiji, a mathematics teacher who acted as principal in the months that the former was away in England. Wole adjudges Mr Kuforiji as coming well below par, especially in discipline and in intelligence: “…he was considered only an average disciplinarian. He could be managed, even manipulated, and many succeeded in getting away with murder with him.”6 This is in spite of the fact that Israel had done well in establishing the reputation of the institution as “a toughening school, a training ground for later survival in life.”7

But the mere mention of Israel’s impending arrival from England radically adjusted the consciousness of both staff and students at the AGS, a vivid testament to the influence he wielded in the school. According to Wole “… attitudes changed. Class teachers were given instruction. Many hitherto neglected chores and rituals were re-introduced.”8 For Wole and his group of new students who “had never encountered Daodu professionally” it was unbelievable that a living individual could fit into these profiles. Upon encountering Israel, the impression that nothing had been exaggerated about the famous teacher hit Wole. “Everything that Daodu did was not merely larger than size, he made trivia itself larger than life and made drama of every event.”9 This was the very same disposition which earned him unprecedented stardom at the Ijebu-Ode Grammar School, his immediate past school, where he was principal for thirteen years beginning from 1918. According to legend, the Ijebu people would always say of his successor, “this new Kuti is not as the old.”10

Although Wole may not have lived with the Ransome-Kuti family, he must have also been affected by the sheer arrangement and temperament of it, especially as he was always called in to perform tasks and take messages to his parents at Ake. To the young Wole, the proximity between and, of course, virtual interaction of the ‘home’ and the ‘school’ was an undisputed marker of the household’s devotion to the business of raising the critical human resources for postcolonial Nigeria and producing young men and women that would make all the difference in their world. The Ransome-Kuti home must have been a model weaning ground of highly motivated young individuals. Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba, biographers of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti observe that the comprehensive ‘life’ training that is prescribed for the students of the AGS found a veritable rehearsal ground at home, particularly given the fact that every child of the family was an AGS student. For instance, prayers first thing in the morning and last thing at night was compulsory; except when entertaining a guest, the Ransome-Kuti family took their meals with the boarding students; every child of the family, irrespective of sex received basic domestic orientation which ensured that they performed all house chores, cooking inclusive11 (Perhaps Soyinka also benefitted from this training, as he himself also enjoys cooking even today).12

Israel’s perfectionist attitudes meant he demanded nothing but the best possible from everyone around him. As Tunde Adeyanju points out, the Reverend Ransome-Kuti’s “avowed policy of excellence” is justified by his own “high standard of performance and excellence” as demonstrated by “the excellence of his method of approach and the outstanding nature of his work of development.”13 Olukoye Ransome-Kuti, Israel’s first son, remembers his parents’ premium on standing out, and on standards that were nearly impossible to achieve, and how he always felt an overwhelming pressure to produce sparkling academic peformances.14 His life outside the AGS also bore testimony to a life that abhorred mediocrity. One striking example as recorded by Wole in Ake was in the episode where Israel strolls into the meeting of the women group convened by Wole’s mother to charge them towards greater literacy. He challenges them: “If you set aside half an hour of these meetings, you could end up making all the women in Egbaland literate by the end of the year,”15 As National President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, his passion saw the union grow in leaps and bounds for all through the 22 years he served. He had to stay that long in the saddle because “no one could match his record, and political or national forces pressured potential successors out of the pictures, or else they expressed their delight in him by declining to contest the position.”16

Israel provided the young Wole with his first really sensational image of national heroism when the former received a most auspicious reception on his return from England. For one who would go on to become a significant reference point in his country’s rich narrative of greatness many years later, this event sealed for Wole the imperative of attaining national and international distinction:

He was welcomed into Abeokuta by crowds, which must have emptied every home in the town. Daodu rode on a white horse into Ake for a thanksgiving service at St Peters Church, flanked by royal buglers, drummers, and a column of boy scouts. His agbada looked, if anything, more voluminous than usual, as if it had been designed especially to arc outwards on the broad back of a horse… His exploits in England had become known largely through word of mouth––how he had forcefully ranged himself against the British plans to establish only one university for all of their West African Colonies, he insisting on one university for each country. His stubborn, nearly isolated opposition was highly acclaimed; only Daodu could have done it.17

Now Israel’s membership of the Elliot Commission––a fourteen-person panel set up in 1943 “to report on the organization and facilities of the existing centres of higher education in British West Africa, and to make recommendations regarding future university development in that area” was a huge achievement by the standard of those days, and even the present time. It was the findings and recommendations of this commission––also consisting of Dr K.A. Korsah of Gold Coast, Dr. E. H. Taylor-Cummings of Sierra Leone, Dr Julian Huxley, Mr Arthur Creech Jones and Dr Margaret Read from Britain––that led to the founding in 1948 of the University College, Ibadan.18

Wole’s seeming overt sensationalization of the event is forgivable, not only given the enormity of ‘Daodu’s’ accomplishment within the colonial context, but more so, for the fact that, as many have observed, he tends to be the least celebrated in a dynasty of great achievers. As Michael Omolewa contends, one reason for the relative invisibility of Reverend Israel Oluduton Ransome-Kuti, could be that “he was outshined by an extraordinary lineage that produced his father, Rev. Canon Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, accomplished clergyman and musician, wife Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, celebrated women rights activist and politician; son, Fela, Afrobeat superstar; sons, Olikoye and Beko, distinguished medical practitioners and his nephews and nieces, most of whom are similarly dignified in their fields.”19 Omolewa must also have Wole, who has turned out to be arguably the most distinguished of the Ransome-Kuti clan, in mind here. For Wole, Israel’s role in his life and in the lives of the pupils of Abeokuta Grammar School between 1932 and 1955 could be described as nothing short of seminal.

Israel was, however, only one part of Wole’s experience at the Abeokuta Grammar School. His wife Funmilayo was definitely another, and in as much a highly explosive sense. As we saw in Chapter One, this remarkable woman contributed to the founding of the girl’s wing of the AGS in 1914. Her teaching career, which began in 1917 as a pupil tutor, and was punctuated by her 3-year sojourn in England, continued in brilliant flourishes upon her return to Nigeria in1922. Armed with an exposure to the Marxist doctrines increasingly gaining grounds in the early 20th Century Europe, and an explosive sense of nationalism which enlightenment endowed, Funmilayo’s return to Nigeria would mark the beginning of an era of stoked socio-political sensibilities, especially for the Nigerian woman’s perspective. And the situation of colonial exploitation, still in full force in her homeland, provided the platform for these persuasions to assume evocative expression. A competent mobilizer of people and resources, the great Funmilayo formed the Abeokuta Ladies Club, consisting of “western educated middle class and mostly Christian women concentrating on learning handicrafts and etiquette.”20 The range of engagement and membership of this group would soon be expanded, and by 1944, the year Wole entered AGS, women of much lower social classes ––mainly the peasants and the market women –– began to be accommodated mainly for educational reasons. Soon the operational mantra of the ALC promisingly read “to help in raising the standard of womanhood in Abeokuta… to help in encouraging learning among the adults and thereby wipe out illiteracy.”21 Wole, alongside Dalupo and Koye, the two eldest of Funimulayo’s children were conscripted into this pedagogic project, where they gave a good account of themselves.

It was this already existing machinery of mobilized and sensitized women that Funimulayo, before Wole’s ‘very eyes,’ converted into an opposition army against the colonial masters who operated a wholly oppressive manner of indirect rule, which involved gross over-taxation of Egba women through the agency of the traditional rulers. Such factors as the colonial annexation of Egbaland towards the end of the 19th century and the British imperial First World War project had set in motion a number of socio-political variables which made the women of Abeokuta targets of exploitative taxation by the colonialist and their local cohorts. This repressive enterprise was not just considered another irritable strategy of economic disenfranchisement; it was also seen as a direct ‘sexist’ affront on womanhood. Gloria Chukwu notes that the methods of forced collection of these taxes included invasion of homes and physical assault of women, “including being stripped naked on the pretext of assessing their ages to determine their eligibility for taxation.”22 This indiscretion of the colonial administration had the texture of what had happened in the East roughly a decade before,23 a landmark event which forever changed perceptions about the Nigerian women’s propensity towards necessary militancy, and probably set the agenda in the 20th century African feminist conversation. Perhaps with consciousness of a successful antecedent in the 1929 Eastern Nigerian women riots, and the morality of their agitations, the Abeokuta women uprising took a feminist outlook from the outset, even though the women drew substantial sympathy from their men.

As part of the Ransome-Kuti family, Fumnilayo’s activities, in their audacious infectiousness, almost comprehensively engaged Wole, especially since the compounds of the AGS served as the venue of the women’s meetings. As Funmilayo’s organization grew in population and vociferous intensity, metamorphosing into the dreaded Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), their activities seemed to merge with school business. As Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba write in their biography of the redoubtable Mrs Ransome-Kuti, “The School and the family were also drawn into the Ransome-Kufi political orbit. Women’s meetings were held in the school courtyard, and the inner circle of the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) convened in the Ransome-Kufi living quarters, which also served as a headquarters for the women’s demonstrations.”24

Wole also became the link between “headquarters” and the Ake arm of the women organization, moving between the two bases as an information courier. No doubt, he enjoyed the sense of responsible engagement, and of course the high dramatic quality of the unfolding series of spectacle. It may be fairly difficult to ascertain the degree to which what Wole saw of the energetic enterprises of the enigmatic Funmilayo helped to inform the uncompromising activist posture of his adult years, but he most definitely must have taken cogent, life-long notes on justice and fair play, anti-establishment politics and the interventionist imperatives of the mediator who sets out to save defenceless humanity from the mendacious sub-species.

TO BE CONTINUED

• Ezenwa-Ohaeto, late professor of English at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, is also author of ‘Chinua Achebe: A Biography’
• Ezechi Onyerionwu, doctoral candidate at Birbeck, University of London, is author of ‘Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Life and Literature’
• Ngozi Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Associate Professor of English, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka

Culled from ‘Wole Soyinka: Genius of the Unconventional’ unpublished biography of Wole Soyinka