By Dapo Adeniyi
What would make up an entire day with Biodun Jeyifo, BJ, also known in our own circle of literary friends and contemporaries as Bamako Jaji, actually spans some three days.
Bamako Jaji, since leaving the literature department of the Obafemi Awolowo University had been teaching in the United States, first at Oberlin College, Ohio and afterwards at Cornell University in Ithaca. Before we bumped into each other in the office of one of BJ’s own “circle”, Dr. Ogunbiyi, I did not know that the literary critic’s mother had died and that he had arrived town for the burial.
Immediately after I surfaced Dr. Ogunbiyi announced, “come in Dapo, BJ is here.” So, I found myself in the very presence of Biodun Jeyifo, the radical critic and literary denizen of Ile-Ife. BJ was every inch the same old Bamako, as dark as ever with balding scalp and thick grown beard, features which he shares with Femi Osofisan and Kole Omotoso members of the “circle.”
BJ swelled in full inquisitorial vigour, eager, alert, plumbing the reporter for nuggets of literary news. Amid this effusive liberality, Dr. Ogunbiyi looked briefly up from his desk. He had been busy all this while preparing the script for the burial programme of BJ’s mother. He was being especially attentive to hymns which he recalled that BJ’s father and his own father used to love, making sure to include the same in the programme. He also launched into a narration of how his father (Pa Ogunbiyi) had stowed away in a steam vessel to Europe and was already given up for dead, a funeral mass already held in his memory before he showed up again!
BJ was hardly listening to all this; he kept all his attention to me and kept demanding to know what occasioned my change of faith. We would agree to adjourn on the subject till a more appropriate moment but BJ would come back to it.
One of Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi’s staff looked in and asked what we would like for lunch. Pounded yam got the vote but I indicated my unwillingness to partake and again BJ again exploded, “It is this born again virus! He is fasting!” , thus forcing me to withdraw my resolution and to vote in favour of pounded yam and melon seeds soup.
On the eve of the burial at the Jeyifo’s family compound, Oke-Bola, Ibadan, the “circle”” members were in full attendance, even its “ex-officio” members complemented the literary court. Under a tarpaulin canopy in the house frontage, Tunji Oyelana and his “benders” were already blaring away into the night on trumpets, saxophone and the key boards with in – built electronic percussion. Under the shed were Professors Wole Soyinka, Akinwunmi Isola, Femi Osofisan. There were: Niyi Osundare, Olu Agunloye, BJ himself, Dr. and Mrs. Ogunbiyi, Mrs. Oyelana and many others. The tunes from Oyelana’s band were deliberately bringing back memories of the early and late sixties.
Agunloye was BJ’s able guard, warding off incessant streams of visitors distracting him from his meal with protests of “Let him eat, he hasn’t eaten all day! “Unlike in those wild early days in the 60s when in palm fronds sheds the whole night would be worn off with drinking, bickering and singing alongside juju band stands, most could hardly surpass 10p.m. Professor Soyinka was the first to “evaporate”. Next were Professors Isola and Dr. Osundare, and all the others followed, and like Daisi, the juju band leader in Ake, the Years of Childhood, Oyelana too packed in readiness to go.
The service at the Anglican Church Cathedral, Oke-Bola wound up before 1 p.m., leaving its marks of a double faced incongruity. The first was the preacher’s call to BJ to join one of the church’s societies, especially where his late parents had been active. How far this prospective member of the church society was from God did not occur to the priest, flanked by the massive stained glass windows which are symbols of derision and iconoclastic kicks against the church in Soyinka’s The Road which is BJ’s favourite. The second incongruity was BJ’s appearance in shiny green aso-oke. He was to mock himself afterwards as “Professor Pella”
While the interment went on in the church cemetery, overgrown with weeds, Dr. Ogunbiyi and I docked out of procession whence he proceeded to show me the tomb of the late Pa Jeyifo – and you can predict this! – commenced another round of reminiscences on the idiosyncrasies of the fallen sinew.
First published Saturday, 9 January, 1993.