The multitalented artiste, Benson Omowafola ‘Kasta’ Tomoloju, popularly called Ben T in the culture sector, will be 65 on Wednesday, December 18, 2019. As part of events marking his birthday, he is set to unveil a book solely written in Yoruba as a way of promoting indigenous languages. The culture activist and former Deputy Editor of The Guardian spoke with Arts and Culture Editor, GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, on the book and other issues.
Congratulations on attaining 65
But will Ben Tomoloju say he is a fulfilled human being?
My records are there. But fulfillment is relative and the true calibration of it is in the cumulative value when one is done and gone. So what I do after every achievement – big or small – is to put it behind me and set fresh challenges for myself. Sometimes, providence does it and I take it up. What more, there are elders in their 70s and 80s who are still working hard and one is fascinated by their mettle. So one can’t afford to be complacent.
Take us on a journey from Ilajeland to the world space and how tortuous it has been. Journalist! You ask your question on a note that bad news is good news. Why ‘tortuous’? My experience as a child growing up in Ilajeland was romantic, inspiring and made such a great impact on my consciousness that I draw from even as an adult. I was born five years before the attainment of independence and had to move from one town in the old western region to another with my parents who were teachers. I mimicked the old anthem, bullied my way into having the brown plastic cup and the flag even as a five-year old. I had my primary education in various towns in the old western region and secondary education at Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti for WASC and HSC (1968-74).
Apart from my fledgling artistic talent, I was a sportsman and had the opportunity to serva as the captain the school’s hockey team in 1973. Also as an undergraduate in the University of Ibadan (1975-78), I was a member of the hockey team and Adokiye Amesiemeka of Unilag football team was a NUGA mate. I was a front-runner in campus politics, right into the historic Ali Must Go. Let’s stop there. If you are interested in tortuous experience I can readily tell you that is was in journalism. For example I once slept in my car overnight, with a reporter, Mike Bolarinwa, beside a bush along the Ota-Idi-Iroko road trying to co-ordinate border post reportage after the Buhari coup of December, 1983. Similarly in 1985, during the Babangida coup, I was manhandled by soldiers, bundled into a puddle filled with spyrogyra and slimy creatures. Those were hazards of the profession. Some colleagues, dead or alive had had far worse experiences. The bombing of Dele Giwa in 1986 and Bagauda Kaltho during the Abacha regime, among several others inflicted psychological torture in a near-devastating measure. And talking about the world space, I believe I have had a fair share of exposure either through my artistic or journalistic activities.
From teaching, to the newsroom and now cultural activism, what has been the challenge?
Okay, let’s say, from culture content creator to advocate and now an activist, what is seriously missing in this sector that has taken you to what many people consider 360 degrees movement?
Well, I was a school teacher and apart from employing the dramatics as practical pedagogy in the teaching of literature to students, I also spent most of my time in grooming young talents in theatre arts. A number of them are now renowned public figures in the arts, journalism and politics. You spoke about me in metamorphic terms – culture content creator, advocate and now activist. You also spoke about a certain 360 degrees, which means I am back to square one. This is intriguing to me because it is even like a taboo for me to try to prove for myself an old point already proven. I have always been engaged in advocacy and activism, so it is strange when you say ‘now an activist’. In what way would you then describe my activities as a student unionist in the 1970s.
Where do you place my participation in the roundtable on the National Theatre of September, 1985? Ben Murray-Bruce and I were the youngest, with elders like Pa Steve Rhodes, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Naiwu Osahon and Bala Miller as members. It was part of the recommendations from the roundtable that led to the constitution of the Bayo Oduneye Panel on Film and Theatre, which set in motion the process of establishing a National Troupe, among others. I went ahead to chair the establishment of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), the Arts Writers Organisation of Nigeria (AWON), which is now transmuted to ACWAN or the Arts and Culture Writers Association of Nigeria. I was in the vanguard for the overhauling of the copyright institution in the country alongside activists from PMAN like Tony Okoroji, Onyeka Onwenu, Charly Boy and a host of others. What about the National Troupe? There’s so much to say. What’s going on in one’s mind now is the burden of seeing all these cultural assets and values that a certain generation had put in place laid to waste. And the hope is that the chroniclers will be fair in documenting the history. In my own case, with all due respect and every sense of modesty, I have not turned 360 degrees. I have always been forward-looking, dynamic and pragmatic.
Many see you as the link between Osofisan/Osundare and Harry Garuba. The profundity of your literature was great. Suddenly, you have taken the backseat. The drama has stopped coming. What could have led to this?
Please, let me set the record straight. Professor Harry Garuba was my classmate and coursemate in the Department of English, University of Ibadan. Not many will know this. I guess he must have been the youngest then.
He was actually younger than many of us. We may talk about our set being the link between those two teachers of ours and the Esiaba Irobi set. I thank you for the compliment on the profundity of my writing. Your position that the drama has stopped coming from me may not be fair, given the fact that creative works are not like products from an assembly plant with a manufacture date and an expiry date. You should know I don’t just write plays. I also produce and direct. And I don’t direct only my plays, I handle the works of other playwrights. So, season in, season out, I can be engaged theatrically without the drama being necessarily my own play. Besides the last play I wrote was Rock Of Ages, staged at the MUSON Centre, Onikan, just about two years after a decade full of productions especially in Lagos. And it’s not just about writing but currency. My play, Askari, was the Lagos State University Convocation play for this year. Segun Adefila’s interpretation of Jankariwo has been touring Lagos for about two months. The same play was also staged at the Federal University, Oye-Ekiti barely a week ago, directed by Tolu Arise. Beyond currency, it’s also about relevance. And besides I never stopped writing. It’s my life.
From drama you have moved to a rescue literary enterprise, writing a book of Yoruba folktales titled Ogorun-un Itan Lati Ile Yoruba. What do you hope to achieve with this book written purely in Yoruba?
If you don’t mind, let us talk about Ogorun-un Itan separately. I’m happy you are bringing this up. You said I took the backseat… drama stopped and so on, while I told you at the beginning that I love fresh challenges either set by myself or through providence. This book on Yoruba folktales is one of such, a project that has taken us – sponsors, publishers and author – about seven years to accomplish.
Alright. We’ll get to that later. Now, tell us; aside from your writings, in which other areas do you mentor the young ones along cultural line so that they are not asphyxiated with cultural kwashiokor?Interesting metaphor; that one. Indeed, you are right. If care is not taken, we’ll find ourselves in a total state of cultural malnutrition. That’s for another day. Primarily, I have always been involved unofficially in mentoring young people on careers, especially in the arts just as I also trained quite a good number of them in theatre. You can also mention journalism – precisely arts and culture journalism. History is there to tell. In the church and my neighbourhood, I also counsel young people, including couples. I am not a professional marriage counsellor, but it is just in fulfillment of the role of an elder at various stations in life.
Growing up was challenging because of the movement from colonial rule to independence and eventually military interregnum. Considering the things going on around, especially in the continent, would you join the popular phrase: Why are we so cursed?
Even if it is in a different context, I respond to that question with a statement from Wole Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman by saying ‘Not I’. I am not cursed. The people I love are not cursed. The people who love me are not cursed. Anyway, I quite understand where you are coming from. The literary icon, Ama Ata Aidoo, once wrote about The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a novel by fellow Ghanaian, Ayi Kwei Armah, under the title ‘No Saviour’.
The same Ayi Kwei Armah wrote Why Are We So Blest, turning reality on an ironic twist. What he actually means by ‘blest’ is cursed,bwhich you have accurately unravelled. Armah writes about a society in a perpetual state of anomie and his colleague, Aidoo, in her essay summed it up and concluded that there were no saviours, as there are still none in most countries in Africa. Imagine, those who mounted the saddle of power democratically or shot their ways into power posing as messiahs have all ended up as huge disappointments over the decades. They are the cursed ones. You might say that the gullibility of the masses extends the curse to the wider public because the masses continually sustain the emergence of these political lepers, or if you like you call them leaders.
But my argument is that the masses are not cursed. They are a deliberate creation of the powerful minority that constitutes the political leadership. They create the gullible masses by denying them proper education, by shutting them out of the spheres of enlightenment, muzzling the media and promoting debilitating ethno-religious sentiments that tend to cripple the rational order of things. Think, for instance, that a country whose constitution guarantees civilian democratic governance can be so manipulated to become a dictatorship or something of a diarchy? It is those who are behind this kind of ma
Now to the book, Ogorun-un Itan Lati Ile Yoruba. It appears to be your first book in the Yoruba language?
Yes, my first book in Yoruba. But I have been a Yoruba lyricist for a very long time. You will find my Yoruba lyrics in my plays. One of them, Epo Biriki, is almost an anthem of theatre artistes countrywide. My song, Aja Kubo, was recorded by the late Ras Kimono and it won him an award. Mine was the first face on the screen when the defunct NTA Channel 10, Tejuoso, was being officially commissioned by the Second Republic Vice-president, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, in 1981. My performances in the first few years of the station were in Yoruba. However, Ogorun-un Itan is my first published book in Yoruba. It is a book comprising a hundred folktales collected from various parts of Yorubaland. And it is sponsored and published by the Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation.
While you were asking your questions earlier on, especially concerning my plays, what was going through my mind was what it entailed to turn out this type of literature. For instance, the project has been on for about seven years. The Dr. Bukar Usman Foundation invited folklorists from various parts of Nigeria to embark on fieldwork collecting folktales of indigenous people. I was in charge of the Southwest, supervising ten people in the field. We recorded the tales in Yoruba and trascribed them. Thereafter, a hundred tales were selected for publication and they went through a comprehensive creative process without obfuscating the traditional nuances of oral delivery embedded in the text. Part of the essentials of writing in Yoruba, which we have painstakingly applied in Ogorun-un Itan is the tone-mark otherwise known as accent, Yoruba being a tonal language. It is the tone-mark that distinguishes between one word and another that share the same spelling. As such, the author has to meticulously apply the accent on over a hundred thousand words as I have done in the book. Not one word is left out. And that’s what makes for beautiful and easy reading in Yoruba.
What do you want to achieve with this new book that is written purely in Yoruba?
Ogorun-itan is part of a comprehensive project of the foundation which kicked off in 2013. This was after Dr. Usman’s pace-setting publications of Hausa folktales and those of his native Biu in North Eastern Nigeria. You know, he is also the President of the Nigerian Folklore Society. After his private project, the foundation thereafter extended the project to 10 communities spread across Nigeria. From records so far, about 4,000 folktales have been harvested — to use the words of Dr. Usman — from all the communities. Just as this Yoruba aspect has been published, the foundation has lined up others in the respective communities’ laguages for publication.
Are you expecting government’s endorsement to make this book in Yoruba get to as many readers as possible?
Would be nice. The government is key in facilitating cultural re-orientation in the country and mobilise resources for its actualisation through the educational system. You’ll be surprised that the Yoruba marks I spoke about I learnt in the primary school in the 1960s. I wish our children would be enabled to attain that level of competence.
And talking about government, I would like to draw attention to the salutary efforts of the Lagos State House of Assembly who made a very bold effort to promote the use of the Yoruba language. They even went to the extent of engaging the late Professor Akinwunmi Isola, one of the greatest literary icons of Yoruba expression to give some talks in this connection. So far, I don’t know how far they have gone with it in terms of legislation. But I encourage them to pursue the promotion of Yoruba language vigorously and win the support of the public to bring about a piece of legislation that is culturally relevant.