Every town or community has its shining stars, that would etch the name of the community or town in the heart of the people – Awolowo’s Ikene, Samuel Ladoke Akintola’s Ogbomoso, Tafawa Balewa’s Bauchi, Jonathan’s Otuoke and William Shakespare’s stratford – upon Avon, United Kingdom and Fagunwa’s Okeigbo. Daniel Orowole, later (Olorunfemi) Fagunwa, was born to a family of Christian pioneers in Okeigbo, in present day Ondo State, in 1903, Aderinsoye Ologbenla, an Ooni elect who had reigned in Ile-Ife for eight years and continued in this capacity until his death in 1893, was a scion of the Giesi ruling house, Ile-Ife.
His name was Aderinsoye, but popularly called Derin. The short form of his name,”Ologbenla” is one of his praise names, meaning-”a person who inflicts heavy wounds.” After Derin Ologbenla’s army, in his war expedition, had conquered the Ondos, he left Ondo to pitch his army in Olori-Igbo, seven miles to Ondo. Later, his army decided to found a town, in memory of their conquest and chose the present Okeigbo site, where they first passed their fateful night; “let’s move to this hill in the bush.”(Oke Igbo).
Okeigbo is a hilly and thickly forested environment. Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, attended St. Luke’s Primary School, Oke Igbo, from 1916 to 1924 and then taught there afterward, as a pupil teacher for a year. He then trained as a teacher of St. Andrew’s College Oyo, from 1926 to 1929.
He was the foundation Headmaster at St Andrew’s Practising Primary School, Oyo from 1930 to 1939. It was in Oyo that his writing skill blossomed, most especially in folk philosophy, which draws heavily on folk tale traditions, including supernatural elements,gnomes, witches, wizards and Yoruba hunters who were usually his heroes.
He pioneered Yoruba Language novel and remains the most widely read Yoruba language author and major influence on other writers like Amos Tutuola, author of “The Palm Wine Drinkard”. In 1938, he entered a literary contest with his first major work-”Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo in irunmale” which was widely considered to be the first novel written in any African language. The Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, translated this book into English Language in 1968 as “The Forest of a Thousand Demons.”
His later work include “Igbo Eledumare” (Forest of God) in 1949, “Ireke Onibudo”(The Sugar Cane of the Guardian) in 1949, “Irinkerindo ninu Igbo Elegbeje” (Expedition to the mount of thoughts) in 1954 and “Adittu Olodumare”(The Secrets of the Almighty) in 1961. He was also writing Part 2 of “Adittu Olodumare” which he called “Ireola Olodumare” (Experience the Land of the Almighty), before his demise. Unfortunately, nobody could trace the manuscript, after his passage.
Writers are usually strange people. William Shakespeare married at the age of 18, to 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. Due to the haste in the marriage, the marriage ban was read once, instead of the usual three times, perhaps as part of episcopal conspiracy. He died within a month of signing his will, on the 3rd of May 1515 at the age of 52 years. While William Shakespeare, as an English Poet, Playwright and Actor could be regarded as the greatest writer of English Literature, in the same way, Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa could also be accorded recognition, as the greatest writer of the Yoruba Language Literature.
Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa wrote “Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale”, while serving as the Headmaster of St. Andrew’s Practicing School, Oyo, from 1930 and 1939. In the course of writing the book, Fagunwa like a mystic, had to look for a bush path. He left Oyo town and moved towards Ibadan road. Somewhere along the road, he created a path, through a bush, to a very big tree, which was so huge, that one could not see sun-rays under the tree. He brought a small table, a chair and books underneath the tree, to begin writing his first novel-”Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale”.
He did not know, that opposite the bush path he created, there was a woman selling yam and other things in a kiosk. He did not know that the woman was suspecting that he was not a human being. He used to come out of the bush to buy yam and returned there. The bush path did not lead to anywhere. The woman then contacted some hunters and villagers to search the bush. God saved him, the period they came was when he had gone to buy yam, otherwise they would have searched the place and could have killed him. He was returning to the bush after buying yam when those men stopped him.
They asked him where he was going and where he came from, he said he told them story about himself. They asked-”you say you are writing a book, is it in the bush that writers work?” They followed him inside the bush and behold, they saw a chair and table and books on the table. They asked him where he originated from, he told them that he was the Headmaster of St. Andrew’s Practicing School, Oyo, that was how they spared him. After he had finished writing the book, the problem of printing and publishing then arose.
Being his first outing, he could not make headway, until someone told him to go to CMS in Lagos. CMS Bookshop was then into book selling and publishing. When he was on holidays, he went to Lagos. He met with the General Manager of CMS and told him about his book. The General Manager asked a Yoruba staff to study the book. The Yoruba man, after assessing the book for about 30 minutes reported to his boss, that “Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale” was a master piece.
CMS accepted the manuscript and Fagunwa was shocked when they asked him how much they should pay for it. After a little bargain, they offered him £20 which he declined and later settled for £25, which he accepted. They asked him-”do you want cash or cheque?” he said cash, because cheque was not popular then. In fact in Ibadan, there were only two banks- Barclays bank and Bank of British West Africa which has now metaphorsised into Union BankPlc and First Bank Plc respectively.
From those £25, he prepared for the wedding to his first wife. He bought a brand new bicycle, gramo phone with some records, iron bed, mattress and so many other things. He was sufficiently buoyant enough from those 25 pounds, to hire a vehicle from Lagos, to bring him to Oyo with his treasured luggage. When he got to Oyo, his dumb founded fiancée, asked him where he got money to buy these treasured items; and that was how the encouragement and inspiration to write further books started.
“Ogboju Odeninu Igbo Irunmale”, an epic folk-tale novel, dealt mainly with the adventures of Akara Ogun (the hunter’s saga) about witches, monsters, gnomes, magics and witchcrafts. His language was vivid-”a sad man a liar” and also pungent- ajepo n bele ni iya mi (my mother is a first class witch)
Fagunwa in his writing saga, had very little time to himself, even though he was married to two wives. He used to get up in the night and drive out. He went to cemeteries and other places, sat there and thought of what to write with an expectation, that perhaps a spirit would come up and say something to him. His Personal Assistant/ Confidant, Anthony Olajide Fayemi-an indigene of Ile-Ife, recalled that if you travelled with Fagunwa from Ibadan to Lagos, when there was not much traffic gridlocks, you wouldn’t arrive there until about 3pm or 4pm… Why?
He never went straight to his destination. If a rabbit ran across the road, he would ask the driver to stop, he would check where it passed and ask what it meant if a rabbit came from the left side of the road to the right side. He would query himself. If it was a bird, he would stop and if the bird flew or ran somehow, he would have something to put down.
Fagunwa was always constantly researching and writing. He was always with a pen and paper in his car, while sitting comfortably at the back of his car while being driven.
As an iconoclastic Yoruba writer, he was chief interpreter (from English to yoruba), to the Premier/Governor of the Western Region, while in government service. When you read his book, you would think that the book was written by a demon. He left government service in December 1961, to work as the first Nigerian Manager and Representative, to establish the Nigerian Office of Heinemann Publishers and he started Heinemann Publishers from his House in Ojanla Street, Oke-Ado Ibadan.
Anthony Fayemi, his Personal Assistant/Confidant, also, had to retire from the government service to join Fagunwa in Heinemann Publishers. Unfortunately, Fagunwa died at the end of the second year and was succeeded by Aigboje Higo. Fagunwa’s last voyage was equally interesting and mystical. His boss in Heinemann London had sent him a cablegram, that Alan Hill and Chris Ambrose were coming to Nigeria and that he should fly from Ibadan to Kano, to meet them at the Kano Airport. The driver took the car and left in advance to Kano from Ibadan.
Fagunwa flew to Kano and met them. After meeting the Heinemann duo, of Alan Hill and Chris Ambrose, they discussed the growth of the Publishing House and how to source for good writers in Nigeria. Allan and Chris returned back to London and Fagunwa had to come back to Ibadan by road. Fagunwa was stopping on his way back to Ibadan to visit schools, ministries of Education, until he got to Bida. It was late, so he slept in a hotel. The following morning, he left because there was a river Wuya on the way, that had no bridge.
There, they had to take a ferry, conveying people and vehicles across the river. He woke up early, because he thought he was going to queue at the river, but when he got to the bank of the river, they were disappointed, because there was no one there at all. He told his driver, James, an Ibadan man, to wait, while he followed one path by the bank of the river. The driver shortly after Fagunwa left him, started hearing splashes of water, only to realize that Fagunwa had slipped by the river bank into the river.
The canoe by the river side had also unfortunately tumbled on Fagunwa, thus the efforts to swim across the river and also rescue him, failed, because it was dawn and hammattan was also at its peak. Fagunwa’s body was discovered three days after. According to the villagers, if an elephant fell into the river, after one night, it would not be found again. But there was no scratch on Fagunwa’s body when he was discovered the third day. He was found fresh, erect and was also still holding his eye glasses. His wrist watch and other accessories were intact. He still had his cap on his head. He still had his shoes on and also his complete agbada.
Fagunwa’s remains were buried at the cemetery of the St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Oke-Igbo- his home town on the 10th of December, 1963. His body did not disappear as was being speculated. He was from a Christian home. His father was the Baba Ijo of Saint Luke’s Church (Church Patriarch) in Okeigbo and his mother at a later date also, became the IyaIjo (church matriach) of the same church. He was a regular member of the Saint James Anglican Church, Oke-bola Ibadan (now Cathedral) and also his home church at Oke Igbo.
Despite being an imaginative writer, writing about bizzare and fairy tales, about “iwin” and demons, he was certainly not one. He was married to two wives and had five children- two from the first wife and his last three, from the second wife. His first wife was from Ode-Omu in Osun State, while his second wife is from Oke Igbo, in Ondo State. Daniel, the first Yoruba writer, perhaps after Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowder interpreted the English Bible into Yoruba Language, should be recognized, applauded and celebrated always.
He was a holder of the M.B.E (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1959 and was also awarded the Margaret Wrong Price in 1955. The contemporary World should, apart from just naming a high school in his honour- Fagunwa Memorial High School, Okeigbo, extend his recognition, beyond the frontiers of Oke Igbo- his home town, Fagunwa should be regionally and nationally applauded.
By Femi Kehinde
(Hon.)Barr. Femi Kehinde is a former Member, House of Representatives, National Assembly, Abuja,