Pace Setters: A father’s tale
DAD, I don’t know why I went straight to your library when we got back from the cemetery that dreary day in the spring of 2007. Could it be because I rode back home in Dr. Wale Okediran’s car and we still managed to mention one or two books even in the context of my grief?
He was then National President of the Association of Nigerian Authors and had flown in from some assignment in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, taken care of some business in Abuja where he also served as a member of the Federal House of Representatives, before heading out to Isanlu to be by my side as I buried you. Dad, he did that just for you and it went without saying that I would ride in his car in the long procession back home.
My hand still felt moist and grainy as I entered your sanctuary of books – the particles of fine Isanlu sand in my fingers sharply reminding me that I had only just spread a final blanket of earth on you till eternity. I was afraid to wash the sand off my hands. I thought of the rosary and the Bible we left on your chest six feet down below.
Now, surrounded by volumes of books in the family library you spent your entire life putting together, I wondered why it had not occurred to me to add a book to the rosary and the Bible on your chest to complete the ensemble of papyrus sashaying with you to the Roman Catholic heaven. All your university degrees being in African history, I should have placed your copy of Michael Crowder’s A Short History of Nigeria in your casket.
Although you spent the last twenty-two years of your life slipping away gradually from us as diabetes pursued its inexorable course, making a mockery of the money and medicine we threw at it, you never stopped expanding the family library – that space of domestic intellection that ate up so many hours of my first twenty years on earth.
I practically grew up in that thick forest of books at home. This, perhaps, explains why I squirm in horror today whenever I visit Nigerian homes in Canada, USA, Britain, France, and South Africa and discover that Nigerians abroad have no culture of the family library – unless they are academics. The osmotic and psychic value of children growing up in a domestic atmosphere suffused in books is lost on the broader membership of this community.
Dad, I couldn’t appreciate the head start that so much reading was giving me back then. All I saw was you, the “tyrant”, denying me valuable play time with my peers. Your timing was always horrible. I would spend an entire evening waiting for my turn at “set”, that five-a-side soccer game common among school kids all over Nigeria.
Just when it was my turn, your call, more trenchant than the call to prayer of a Moslem muezzin, would cut across the street, over the cacophony of hundreds of pestles and mortars preparing the inevitable evening pounded yam. Only missionary-colonial secondary school principals of your generation had that trenchant and authoritarian voice:
“Bola”! A hush would fall on the ongoing game of set.
“Bola”! Anxiety. Tension. Some of my more audacious friends would mutter: “Baba yi tun de”!
“Adebola”! Bad news. That you had to transition from Bola to Adebola before I answered you already guaranteed me a few strokes of the cane.
“Pius”! Disaster. That I allowed you to move from Adebola to Pius meant that my share of the evening pounded yam was also now threatened in addition to the strokes of the cane I already earned when you got to Adebola.
“Saah”! And I would scurry home to you, hoping in vain that mom would stand between me and the punishment that awaited me.
Once with you at your study desk, your grave face told stories of my never-changing crimes. It could be that Reverend Father Gérard Fournier or Léo Leblanc had just visited you and reported that I still hadn’t quite memorized the Act of Contrition or Act of Adoration; it could be that I missed confession last week; it could be that you had just discovered evidence that I still hadn’t read some abridged version of Grimms’ fairy tales, Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, some simple prose versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey or some version of Tales from the Arabian Nights that you had instructed me to read.
You assigned weekly readings, oscillating between African texts and the great texts of the Greco-Roman/western tradition. Mom would sometimes complain that you were exposing me to texts way beyond my level and age but you would quip that you were already reading Latin texts at my age. You would grumble about the intellectual laziness of the “children of nowadays”, your face registering the supreme contempt you reserved for what you called “the unread mind”.
Once my crime for the evening had been ascertained from this list of possible offences, I would then wait anxiously for the language in which you elected to conduct the solemn lecture that would precede my punishment. Good news if you spoke Yagba (light offence, light punishment); bad news if you spoke Yoruba laced with torrential proverbs (medium-scale offence, medium-scale punishment); horrible news if you spoke your impeccable colonial Queen’s English laced with lots of Latinisms (father of all offences, father of all punishments). You belonged in a generation of Nigerian missionary-colonial teachers that insisted on impeccable grammar.
Some of your students in Saint Augustine’s college or Saint Kizito’s college remember being at the receiving end of your famous ‘back hand slap’ for stressing the wrong syllable or pronouncing “t-o-t-a-l” with every syllable stressed and too much Yoru-amala emphasis on the last “al” instead of “totl” which sometimes appeared to sound like “totol” when you corrected them. Behind your back, some of them swore that you pronounced “toto” – Nigerian pidgin for “cunt”.
Sometimes I think that my friend, Farooq Kperogi, Nigeria’s internet grammar “tyrant”, must have been raised by a “tyrant” like you. I sniff the handiwork of a member of your generation in his own allergies to bad writing.
And there I was in your library, moments after planting you, coming to terms with the fact that books and your clean name were the only things you left me – apart from your brain that they said I inherited.
My eye caught your Lobsang Rampa collection and I was about to reach out for The Third Eye when I saw a little sealed box on the table. Mom had packed too many of such boxes in the past for me not to recognize her imprimatur on this one. She brought it to my bedroom on the eve of my return trip to Ottawa. Her instruction was solemn: open it only when you get back to Canada.
I brought that box to Canada with me alright but a subsequent three-year nightmare would make me forget all about it. I never opened it. Dad, you are all-seeing now wherever you are and I’m sure you understand the monumental distraction I’ve suffered that made me forget that box until last week. I don’t even recall how it found its way to the bottom of the mountain of clutter in my car garage.
Something took me to the extra storage room behind the car garage last week and for once I wasn’t discouraged by the cartons of books that I still haven’t arranged in my bookshelves in the house. A lot of unfavoured books make it to the basement or the garage of Nigerian academics in North America.
I found mom’s box from three years ago beneath that rubble and screamed. I brought the box upstairs and opened it. The sight that greeted me was not just about memory and the human interest narrative of one Nigerian man’s relentless efforts to festoon the mind of his only son with books and ideas but also and, very importantly, about the intermesh of such little narratives with Nigeria’s social history.
In that box were eighteen novels, all in impeccable condition, and one exercise book. They were not just novels. They were all titles from the famous Macmillan Pacesetters series. Macmillan had introduced that series in 1977 for young adult readers, publishing the bulk of the novels between 1979 and 1988 before the series went the predictable and sad way of everything that is good in Nigeria: decline and decay in the 1990s. The series was dominated by Nigerian authors but a few Kenyans, South Africans, and Ghanaians made the cut.
I immediately understood why Mom had packed them. Those pacesetters novels carry with them the history of my first serious rebellion against you. You started collecting titles in Heinemann’s African Writers Series around 1978-79 and by the time I enrolled in Form One at Titcombe College, we had as complete a collection as was possible then. African Writers Series was complemented by the titles in Fontana African Fiction: from Cameron Duodu’s The Gab Boys to Adaora Lily Ulasi’s The Man from Sagamu via Obi Egbuna’s The Madness of Didi, you bought them all.
In your methodical structuring of my reading, you had planned that the Heinemann and the Fontana series would be my transition to what you called “the proper books” – my diet till then having relied heavily on abridged versions of the world’s great texts that you made me read and even write essays about. I had to summarize the storyline of every book in a juvenile essay format that you graded.
I got to Titcombe College and fell in love with James Hadley Chase. That love story became quite an obsession in my first two years of secondary school. I read Chase like there was no tomorrow. Your aim was to be able to boast to your peers in the community of principals in the old Kwara state that your son had read the entire collection of African Writers Series and Fontana African Fiction by form two or three. You were even audacious enough to start buying and stacking up the 19th century Russian greats, telling mom to my hearing: “Bola should be able to start reading these ones when he gets to Form Five”.
These ones? Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol. Yes, you had already determined that I would start reading these Russians by Form Five – and I did – but Hadley Chase was now threatening that dream of yours. Things Fall Apart stood no chance against The Flesh of the Orchid or The Way the Cookie Crumbles. You weren’t going to have any of that. The way you saw things in that patriarchal cultural context of ours, your daughters may be allowed the indulgence of reading “inferior books” in the Mills and Boon series, your only son had to read the big and proper books. Luckily for you, the Bible told you not to spare the rod. And you didn’t.
But even colonial-missionary secondary school principals of your generation knew when the rod had been defeated. Your generation was the master of the face-saving concession or retreat in disciplinary situations in which you still appeared to be the absolute, undefied master. You started buying pacesetters novels to wean me off Hadley Chase and redirect me gradually to serious African fiction. Your trick worked but not in the manner you had envisioned. Nothing was going to stop me from reading Chase. Even today, Chase remains my regular relief from heavyweight reading.
What I did was to modify my reading schedule to make room for your pacesetters collection. My Chase titles moved quietly to my locker in school, never to make the return journey home. I would tell mom loudly to your hearing that I’d given all my Chase away to my friends. We would notice a smirk of satisfaction flash across your face. Mom allowed me the occasional, constructive white lie. Lying to you that I had stopped reading Chase didn’t qualify as one of those red-flag pre-teen lies that could land me in serious trouble: being taken to the white Reverend Fathers for further punishment after being punished at home.
Now, I look at the titles scattered on my coffee table in Ottawa. I open Helen Ovbiagele’s Evbu my Love, fighting back an impertinent tear that insists on gaining its freedom from my eye. I don’t know why they say grown men don’t cry (apologies to Tim Mcgraw).
The tear gathers because I know what I will find on the first page of the novel I just opened. Your impeccable cursive handwriting always scrawled this inscription on every book you bought: “THE ADESANMIS’ FAMILY LIBRARY”. You also dated every book. Evbu my Love you bought on February 27, 1982 (probably a birthday gift for me). Joseph Mangut’s The Blackmailers bears the same inscription: THE ADESANMIS’ FAMILY LIBRARY, Feb, 1983. You did not indicate the day of purchase on this one. Dad, why did you sign every book in capital letters?
I run through other titles, all collector’s items now. There is kalu Okpi’s Coup!, Sunday Adebomi’s Symphony of Destruction, Joseph Mangut’s Have Mercy, Helen Ovbiagele’s You Never Know and A Fresh Start, Agbo Areo’s Director!, Mohamed Sule’s The Undesirable Element and The Delinquent, Ibe Oparandu’s The Wages of Sin, Dickson Ighavini’s Death is a Woman, Philip Phil-Ebosie’s The Cyclist, David Maillu’s For Mbatha and Rabeka, Sam Adewoye’s The Betrayer, and Victor Ulojiofor’s Sweet Revenge.
My intention is not to cite all the titles I have here in front of me on the coffee table as I write these reminiscences. I am now more detained by the questions your pacesetters collection (my collection now, I guess) raise about the road taken and the road not taken by Nigeria –apologies to Robert Frost.
The price of each of the novels is scribbled in pencil at the top right corner of the first page. You bought Agbo Areo’s Director for seventy-five kobo in 1980. All the titles you bought in 1982 come at N2.50, an indication of price stability at the time. The 1983-84 titles are all just shy of N3.00.
Then I notice a sharp spike in price starting from 1985. Things climb very rapidly till the very last title you bought in 1989 for N10.00. A huge slice of the life of Nigeria lurks in the interstices of this movement of pacesetters novels from seventy-five kobo to ten naira.
Dad, something as mundane as your pacesetters collection has come to me in Ottawa bearing the tragic tales of Babangida and SAP. Nigerians love to discourse Babangida in terms of the big picture of the defoliation of our lives and values that he inaugurated and supervised. Perhaps we should also invest in micro-narratives of what he did to simple things like the pacesetters novels?
Do Babangida and SAP have a hand in why one cannot account for what subsequently happened to all these brilliant Nigerian novelists? Some are dead: Mohammed Sule (?) and Kalu Okpi (?) Where are Agbo Areo, Jide Oguntoye, Mohamed Tukur Garba, Dickson Ighavini, Philip Phil-Ebosie, Ibe Oparandu, Rosina Umelo, Sunday Adebomi, Victor Ulojiofor and so many others? That’s an entire crop of writers who were then the future of Nigerian writing. Where are they? What happened to them? We can of course account for Helen Ovbiagele, Buchi Emecheta, and my good friend, Chuma Nwokolo, whose Muses are still very active in London.
There is more to this pacesetters phenomenon. Reuben Abati has often asked a fascinating question in some of his op-eds: how did we live without cellphones and how did Nigerian youth survive without Facebook, Twitter and the like? What was the picture before the advent of these things?
I think he will find part of his answer in the phenomenon that was the pacesetters series. They are an invaluable source of information for students of Nigeria’s youth history and culture. Pacesetters was the Facebook of its time for a generation of Nigerian youth. It was an imagined community that functioned pretty much in the manner later theorized by Benedict Anderson in his famous book, Imagined Communities.
You plugged into your pacesetters novel, conscious of the fact that hundreds of thousands of readers in your generation were also doing the same thing all over Nigeria. The social-realist narratives of the novels became not just collective imaginaries but part of youth holiday lore that defined specific socialities of Nigerian youth-hood.
I look at the exercise book that Mom had packed with the novels. The tears threaten to come again. It’s the very first of the notebooks – there were several of them – you bought for me to summarize the things I was reading. Dad, you preserved those notebooks! I had to write an essay for you after reading a book. I open the notebook and my juvenile handwriting jumps at me: “This book tell the story of…” That was me summarizing stuff for you from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.
I see your vigilant red ink all over the page, starting from the “s” you added to “tell” to make my sentence read, “This book tells the story of…” I probably got a knock on the head for that serious error. I don’t remember that now but I won’t put it beyond you. As usual, you wrote the day you marked that essay: December 21, 1981. Dad, so I was doing a summary of Shakespeare for you three days to Christmas in 1981 when I should have been discussing the forthcoming rice and chicken with my peers?
Dad, thank you for being the intellectual “tyrant” that you were. Today, I receive so many emails from folks asking: “where did you learn to write the way you write?” I think the answer is in this notebook right here before me. I didn’t learn to write at school. Dad, it was you!