By Wale Okediran
MORE than 40 years have passed since I met Professor Bankole Omotoso, distinguished short story writer, novelist, dramatist, critic, actor, biographer, founding General Secretary and a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), who sadly passed away on July 19, 2023 at the age of 80 years. Throughout those years, I had the honour of attending several local and international literary events with this brilliant, kind and thoughtful man who went on to become a mentor as well as a great and loving friend.
When I first me Omotoso in the early 1980s, I was a young medical doctor/writer in the grip of some unforeseen forces, which were intent on tearing me away from a relatively stable medical profession into the uncertain terrain of writing. Even though I was enjoying my private medical practice, I found myself drawn more and more into the circle of writers, artists and left wing ‘kaftan and jeans wearing’ radicals rather than my ‘shirt and tie’ medical colleagues. Matters were not helped by the fact that some of these newfound friends of mine were well known ‘troublemakers’ who had at one time or the other had issues with the establishment.
Although I felt at home in this literary circle with most of them loving my writing and benefiting from my occasional free medical consultations, doubts still abound on whether I was doing the right thing spending more time with books rather than I spent with my patients. Luckily, I met some hard-nosed and critical thinkers such as Omotoso, who were able to assure me that I wasn’t doing anything abnormal. Apart from being reminded of a long list of medical doctors, who had successfully combined medicine and literature, I also recollected several medical doctors who have had outstanding careers as statesmen, revolutionaries, innovators among other human endeavours.
Prof. Kole Omotosho
Even though I did not find talent and tenacity of purpose in short supply, I could not have gone far in my long and lively literary career without the support and guidance of people like Omotoso. As a mentor, he was there every step of the way for his mentees. He had the ability to render criticism with a sly smile or laugh without causing a fatal blow. All he cared about was whether the work was good enough. He was also the sort of wordsmith that many writers would love to emulate. His writing was often so transcendent it might take flight from the page at any moment, buoyed by the profound goodness, honesty, and beauty he possessed.
Although he was away from the country for some time in South Africa, we kept in touch and got together anytime he was around to play ‘catch up’. I recall that to mark his 70th birthday anniversary in 2013, a series of activities were lined up in his honour. One of the activities was The Kole Omotoso Exhibition: Akure to Jo’burg which was on display from April 19, through April 21, 2013. The exhibition, which showcased his contributions to civic education and development of popular culture in Nigeria and South Africa, was donated to a cultural establishment in Ondo State after the celebrations.
In addition, I was also his guest at Elizade University, a private university located in Ilara-Mokin, Ondo State when he came home briefly to take up an academic position. The visit enabled me to visit him in his house on the outskirts of Akure where I enjoyed a hearty lunch prepared by his adoring wife, Bukola.
In addition to a moderate literary production, I also followed the footsteps of my mentor by taking up some literary administrative positions such as the general secretary and later the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors. However, when in 2007 he proposed that I should relocate to Ghana to take up the position of Secretary General of Pan African Writers Association (PAWA), I thought it was a joke. I promptly rejected the proposal. It was our first major disagreement and it caused a little strain in our relationship.
When in 2020, I finally found myself as the Secretary General of the same PAWA, I called Omotoso to announce my new position. He only gave his trademark chuckle and congratulated me. It was obvious that the mentor had now become a seer.
It is a thing of joy that his children are also building legacies of their own, with some of them, especially Akin, who’s a filmmaker and Yewande, who has followed his literary footsteps. Yewande, who now has three award-winning novels to her credit, was once a resident at the Ebedi International Writers Residency in Iseyin, Nigeria. I was a very happy man when Yewande sent me an email about three years after her residency to inform me about the success of her book: The Woman Next Door, which she completed at Ebedi Residency.
As she put it: “I am writing simply to thank you and acknowledge the Ebedi International Writer’s Residency in supporting me with the completion of my novel The Woman Next Door which was released in South Africa and the UK in May 2016 and will be released in the US next year in February. I want to sincerely thank you for providing me with a residency at a crucial time of writing the novel’.”
My happiness was two fold. I was happy to see the emergence of another successful young writer and that I was able to also pay back my mentor albeit in a small way, what he had done for me. My only regret was my inability to see Omotoso during my last visit to South Africa early this year. Although I was prepared to make the trip from my Cape Town base to Johannesburg, my mission in Cape Town eventually did not make this possible.
It is late in the day as I write these lines in far away Somaliland where I have come to attend the Hargesya International Book Fair. Its a windy night and I could hear the wind howling outside my hotel window like the evocative strains of a funeral dirge.
Just Before Dawn, I finally complete my assignment. I take a final look at my lecture which I would deliver in a few hours time at the Book Fair. I am sure that Omotoso will be in the audience in his trademark face-cap listening with rapt attention to the submission of a mentee.
I will look out for him.