Ibadan 1960 – Martin Banham

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 62-69]

[A paper given to the AHRB Centre CATH Seminar on ‘Ibadan 1960’ at the University of Leeds, September 23rd/24th, 2004. Martin Banham taught in Nigeria at the University College, Ibadan, later the University of Ibadan, between 1956 and 1966.]

running splash of rust
and gold – flung and scattered
among several hills like broken
china in the sun [1]

John Pepper Clark’s wonderful image of Ibadan in the 1960s evokes energy and anarchy in equal measure. It is an affectionate and graphic picture that anybody who lived in Ibadan in those years will recognise. My own recollections will have about them the same randomness: they are images that remain with me nearly half a century on from going to teach in Ibadan in 1956 – an innocent abroad, if ever there was.

I’m taking the liberty of interpreting ‘1960’ very broadly. My 1960 started four years earlier but I think we are looking not at a date, but at a time. What I now see marked that time most significantly for me was politics and specifically the politics of emancipation. In 1957 I stood on the Ibadan campus when, from every student and staff radio set, the national anthem of the newly independent Ghana was played at full volume, directly relayed from the celebrations in Accra. Nkrumah called for an encore and, the University College students sang and danced with their distant colleagues knowing that Nigeria’s own freedom was near. It was a time of great optimism. Constitutional conferences, internal regional self-government, political manifestos, newspaper debates, all dominated thought and action. It has to be remembered that as this new sense of freedom was sweeping through West Africa, colonial and oppressive regimes still dominated in Kenya, Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola and, of course, South Africa. I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that Nigerians saw themselves in the vanguard of the struggle for the whole continent. Political refugees from these areas found a welcoming home in West Africa, many of them as teachers at Ibadan, enriching our understanding of the continent and informing and radicalising our politics. Certainly on the campus there was a sense of confidence. The students – an elite group of 600 men and women when I arrived – looked forward to their own role as the administrators and ambassadors of the new Nigeria. No doubt there were incipient political tensions and rivalries, and indeed they were to arise only too destructively over the next few years, but they were not apparent to a young expatriate lecturer. It is interesting to note, however, that in 1952 seven Ibadan students from different ethnic backgrounds – Wole Soyinka, Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, Olumuyiwa Awe, Nathaniel Oyelola, Pius Oleghe, Ralph Opara and Ben Egbuchelam, founded the Pyrates Confraternity specifically to combat ‘elitism and tribalism’. A note in the recently published WS: A Life in Full [2] shows how the Pyrates grew nationally and internationally over the years, formally registering with the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1980 with the name National Association of Seadogs and having as its creed ‘Against Convention, Against Tribalism, For Humanistic Ideals, and for Comradeship and Chivalry’. I recall, however, the optimism symbolised by the Federal election manifesto of Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group, a democratic socialist document, directed beyond the party’s Yoruba heartland to the peoples of the East and the North, that spoke of universal health care, free education, theatres and arts centres in every regional capital! And, vitally, political emancipation brought with it cultural emancipation, an outpouring of pride in the indigenous arts, skills, languages and traditions of the nation.

I’ll return for a moment here, if I may, to the ‘elite’ student body that I referred to. Inevitably they were high-flyers, people who had come through the very competitive Government Colleges, or through the major high schools in Lagos. 600 students from the whole of Nigeria! But there were also students – often in their middle age – who had fought against all odds, persevering in their determination to reach UCI. I think that, at the age of 23, most of my students were my own age or older. The academic route that had brought them to Ibadan was entirely based on a traditional British schools curriculum. At the university college they got more of the same. As a recent graduate I was made tutor to a very bright student, Ben Obumselu, and we spent hours discussing T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. There were moves made by staff to bring into the English curriculum works from a more international – and specifically Commonwealth – base, and ease it away from its rather precious Oxbridge bias where twentieth century writing itself was regarded as dangerously immature. But these were generally resisted from on high. I suspect that it was the creation of the School of Drama in the early ‘60s, hosting Kola Ogunmola’s wonderful travelling theatre company in a version of Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard staged by Demas Nwoko, together with the enterprising work of the Student Dramatic Society and the Travelling Theatre (with, for instance, an adaptation of Nkem Nwankwo’s Danda) that did most to shift a focus towards Nigerian writing and performance. That and the 1959 productions of Soyinka’s The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel in the Arts Theatre. I became close in those early days with John Pepper Clark, who was then a student in the English Department and who has become a life-long friend. We were about the same age and almost shared a birthday. The ‘Pepper’ in Clark’s name was a nickname given to him by his brother on account of his hot temper, and based on the familiar name given to an equally irascible British District Officer in the Rivers, a certain Captain A.P.Pullen. Clark’s tale of how he received an education amazed me and has stayed with me always, and it heightened the admiration I felt for the students who had made their way to Ibadan. In a nutshell, Clark’s father, from his home at Kiagbodo in the Rivers, determined to obtain an education for his sons, sent J.P. at the age of 7, together with his two elder brothers, down the Forcados River in a canoe to the Native Administration School at Okrika, placing them under the guardianship of a man called Yekpe they had never met, and who, I believe, their father knew only by reputation, described by Clark as the most feared man in town. It was there I think that Clark heard for the first time the great Ijaw epic of Ozidi, a version of which he was both to record and to use as the basis of his own play of that name. I record this anecdote because it brought home to me the extraordinary cultural resources that so many students brought with them but which were for far too long ignored by the educational system to which they were subjected. No wonder that once the floodgates opened so much poured out. Clark, incidentally, has recently published a collection of new poems entitled Once Again A Child [3] which is an autobiography of his childhood, presented in verse. Typically, his inscription in my copy reads ‘with warm greetings from the stroppy one’!

I now want to try and illustrate the mood and vigour of those times, particularly in the cultural field, through looking at various publications, created in Ibadan, which flourished in the 1960s.

I start unapologetically with – in Chinweizu et al’s phrase – the poisonous Leeds-Ibadan connection which honoured me by a direct association with Wole Soyinka as joint agents of neo-colonialism![4] This was the creation of the student magazine The Horn, modelled on the Leeds Poetry & Audience, founded by myself and a group of English department students, funded by me (£1), and first edited by J.P.Clark. A simple circa 12 page cyclostyled magazine, laboriously typed on to sticky stencils and run off in the English department office, predominantly devoted to student verse and selling for threepence, The Horn went on to be edited by a roll-call of talented Ibadan students, amongst them Juliet Udezue, Abiola Irele, Minji Karibo, Dapo Adelugba, F. Onyema Iheme, Tayo Morgan, and Omolara Ogundipe. Abiola Irele, in his introduction to Clark’s Collected Plays 1964-1988, comments that ‘The Horn eventually developed into something more than an outlet for new poetic talent; it came as well to function as a medium of intellectual reflection and in particular as a forum among the students for debate about the place of culture in the new Nigerian society that we felt, as if on our very pulses, was coming into existence.’[5] It was in Volume 4, no. 1 of The Horn that Wole Soyinka’s challenge for national cultural self-confidence appeared: ‘[T]he duiker will not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude; you’ll know him by his elegant leap’. From work in The Horn I published in 1960 a slim volume called Nigerian Student Verse 1959.[6] Sadly, it contains nothing of Clark’s early work, as in true peppery style he said he wrote poetry, not verse – and I think he was right! But the collection gave rise to two interesting comments when it was reviewed in a later issue of The Horn (Vol. 4, No. 1). Wole Soyinka said ‘I can say, very fairly, that this booklet proves that the student writer at least has overcome the Golden Treasury days of his poetic formation. This is a highly cheering revelation’. Abiola Irele, rightly chastising me for being too cautious in my claims for the verse, makes some important points about the tension the young Nigerian writer often found him or herself experiencing at this period. He says ‘however conversant we have been with English, it still remains for us something of a second language, if not less. The difficulties of expressing our own national sentiment and our own native sensibility in a language radically different from ours are no less for constantly hearing the language and using it in our academic work…The truth is that we not only study in English, we study it – we do not, like an English undergraduate, come up to read it.’ Irele continues to observe that the young writer in this context is unable to avoid influences, and then goes on: ‘The result is perfunctory or an unnaturally detached treatment of the themes that should form the nature of our national literature, themes that form the centre of our myths, our folk tales, and our indigenous religions, and are expressed in our oral literature.’ Before we leave that issue of The Horn we should note that it was the 1960 independence issue. On the back page the associate editor Dapo Adelugba – now, of course, Professor of Theatre Arts at Ibadan – dedicating The Horn to the cause of a national literature, writes ‘To the fanatically negritudinous who like to assert with Roy Campbell:

True sons of Africa are we,
Though bastardised with culture
Indigenous, and wild, and free
As wolf, as pioneer and vulture
we extend our hand of welcome, no less than to those whose concept of ‘culture’ is more sympathetic….The cock has crowed: it is day: let us work to uphold the glories of the new nation.’

There were other campus based publications, including the often parochial Ibadan journal which rather gave away its other-worldliness by carrying a pretty cover design created in Ipswich. But it was in the town, and specifically at the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, of course, that publications of great richness and significance flourished, many of them the initiative of Ulli Beier and often magnificently illustrated by Suzanne Wenger. Beier is described by Wole Soyinka as a ‘wanderer who came, saw, and was conquered, whose approach to life rescued the word “expatriate” from its usual negative connotations’. The Mbari club itself was situated in the heart of Ibadan, in a district called Gbagi, close to the thriving Dugbe market. Soyinka, in his memoir Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years [8] aptly describes the members of Mbari as a ‘suspect breed of artists and intellectuals’. Soyinka’s memoir, incidentally, is a rich source of information on the artistic and political life of Ibadan in the early 1960s, ‘penkelemes’ being described by Soyinka as a ‘deliberate, populist corruption of ‘peculiar mess’.[9] A suspect breed, that is, to the Lagos-based arts establishment that was so confused by the play A Dance of the Forests that Soyinka submitted as an independence celebration that it turned it down, allowing the playwright to stage it himself with his company The 1960 Masks. Here was a play that opened with the stage direction ‘…An empty clearing in the forest. Suddenly the soil appears to be breaking and the head of the Dead Woman pushes its way up’. It then developed into what I, at the time, could only grasp as a vast kaleidoscopic pageant of Yoruba myth, history and lore, engaged with characters and events from the contemporary world. I can’t pretend I fully understood this complex play – in many ways I believe the source book for everything he wrote subsequently – but I knew that, in terms of imagination, character, language, comment and theatrical dynamic, I was seeing something extraordinary. I take encouragement from the fact that Ulli Beier had some of the same difficulty with aspects of the play. Reviewing the text in Black Orpheus [10] he comments that ‘the play is almost as obscure as the second part of Faust’. Staged as an ‘alternative’ contribution to the 1960 independence festivities the play made clear that Soyinka’s satiric view of events was a deal more sceptical than that of the official programme organisers. Here, bursting onto the stage, was theatre that, in common with so much new dramatic writing from Nigeria, made much contemporary western theatre look positively anaemic.

Returning to Mbari, the club, though Ibadan based, was both national and international in its membership and significance. In addition to Beier, Soyinka, Clark, the poet Christopher Okigbo, the South African writer Ezekiel Mphahlele and artists Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke were founder or early members. Wole Ogundele describes the founding and early years of Mbari in some detail in his tribute to Beier, Omoluabi: Ulli Beier, Yoruba Society and Culture[11] recently published by Bayreuth African Studies. The early days of Mbari were packed with artistic action – exhibitions, readings, discussions and productions, the last famously – or perhaps infamously – including Soyinka’s production on Mbari’s open courtyard stage of J.P.Clark’s first powerful play Song of a Goat in which, at least in early performances, an attempt was made to sacrifice a live goat on stage. The line by the character Zifa – ‘My wife, see how with one stroke of my knife/ I sever the head from the trunk’ – was not always successfully followed by the action, but no one could fault the director on his demand for realism! The lasting legacy of Mbari may well, however, be its publications. They ranged from the magnificent Black Orpheus – which though officially published by the Ministry of Education in the Western Region had its spiritual home in Mbari – to exuberantly produced collections of poetry, plays, art and cultural commentary. The production standards were confident and ambitious. This was probably one of the most exciting and concentrated publishing ventures in the arts that one can imagine. A novel, A Walk in the Light by Alex la Guma, Drawings by Uche Okeke, Clark’s Song of a Goat and Poems 1962, Heavensgate and Limits by Christopher Okigbo, African Songs by Leon Damas, Oriki by Bakare Gbadamosi, Three Plays by Wole Soyinka, and so on. These publications not only celebrated Nigerian arts, but also introduced, through translation, work from other parts of Africa or the diaspora. And this latter quality was one of the defining attributes of Black Orpheus and of Mbari, and one of the great influences on the arts of Ibadan in the ‘60s. In the first issue of the journal in 1957 the editors, Beier and Janheinz Jahn wrote:

”The young African writer is struggling hard to build for himself a literary public in Africa… It is still possible for a Nigerian child to leave a secondary school with a thorough knowledge of English literature, but without even having heard of such great black writers as Léopold Sédar Senghor or Aimée Césaire. One difficulty, of course, has been that of language; because a great deal of the best African writing is in French or Portuguese or Spanish. ‘Black Orpheus’ tries to break down some of these language barriers by introducing writers from all territories in translation………[W]e shall not forget the great traditions of oral literature of the African tribes. For it is on the heritage of the past, that the literature of the future must be based.”[12]

The subsequent handsome issues of Black Orpheus were astonishing in the range of writers introduced, in the vigour of critical debate, the promotion and discussion of traditional and contemporary arts, and the encouragement of new, specifically Nigerian, writing. Appropriately the journal celebrated independence in its 8th issue with a poem translated from the Yoruba of Adebayo Faleti by Bakare Gbadamosi and Ulli Beier:

There is nothing so sweet as independence.
It is a great day on which the slave buys his freedom.
When a slave can go to fetch water
And nobody will tell him: you are coming late!
When a slave will fetch firewood
And use it to cook is own food!
No day is like the day when the elephant served under the duiker.
Duiker sent elephant to the river,
But elephant did not return in time.
Duiker beat elephant until he was unable to shit!
Duiker beat elephant until he was unable to piss!
Duiker abused elephant on the bridge.
He reminded elephant he was rich enough to own him.
But the elephant accepted the punishment with love.
He said: it is not because I am stupid,
Or because I have not grown up.
If the slave moves carefully,
He may still buy his freedom after a long, long time.
It is not too late for the elephant
To buy himself free and become head of the animals.
Let us learn wisdom from the elephant.
Let us shake off our suffering with patience.
Gently we will kill the fly on our own body.
Let all of us get ready to buy ourselves back
After all: we have land, and we have hoes.
We have cocoa trees and we have bananas.
We have palm kernels and we have groundnuts.
Let us fight, so that we may cultivate our own farm
To escape from being slaves and pawns
Let all our people be free.[13]

Finally, a thought about the outside world, from which Ibadan was by no means isolated. I have recorded the fact that political refugees from other parts of Africa homed in on Ibadan, conscientizing both students and staff. External events were reacted to vigorously, whether protesting Britain and France’s invasion of Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1956, or the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. On the latter The Horn[14] carried a poem by Akpan Esen graphically accusing western powers of complicity in his death and anticipating a revenging Russia:

Rape, ravish, grab!
Till that Red Eagle from the Ural Heights
With beak of Hammer, claws of tested brass
With vengeance swoop upon your murderous heads
And raise the fallen.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) lobbied energetically, with phone links to protest meetings in Britain and the US: this, you will recall, being the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Russia’s achievement in sending the first satellite into space caused astonishment: The Horn, ever in the forefront of comment, carried Ralph Opara’s light-hearted Ballad of Sputnik in which the imagined Russian inventor, Professor Shinksy, unable to buy whisky from America, gives his wife an alternative birthday present:

‘Take this, my dear, your birthday gift;
‘Tis SPUTNIK’, he did croon;
‘Though WHISKY cheers, yet Sputnik, dear,
Trajects you to the moon!!’

In May 1964 The Horn[15] editorialised against the banning by the Western Nigerian government of the Hubert Ogunde Concert Party with their play Yoruba Ronu! (Yoruba Awake!), saying that ‘their only crime is that they have not been chanting hallelujah to a crippled and blinkered regime’. The then editor said ‘Politics is outside the authority of The Horn’ but the fact of the matter was that in one way or another politics, in one guise or another, dominated the period around 1960, and astonishingly often found its most vigorous expression in the arts.

Martin Banham

Martin Banham, Emeritus Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, was the Director of the Workshop Theatre from 1966 till 1998. His publications include Osborne (Edinburgh, 1969); ed., with John Hodgson, Drama in Education: The Annual Survey (London, 1972, 1973, 1975); African Theatre Today ( London, 1976); ed. Plays By Tom Taylor (Cambridge, 1985, one of 17 volumes in the series British and American Playwrights 1750-1920 of which I was general editor together with Peter Thomson); ed. The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre (Cambridge, 1988, 1990, awarded the Barnard Hewitt Award of the American Society for Theatre Research, later reissued as The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, 1992, 1995, 2000); ed. with Errol Hill and George Woodyard, The Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre (Cambridge 1994, 2004); ed. with Jane Milling, Extraordinary Actors: Studies in Honour of Peter Thomson (Exeter 2004); ed. A History of Theatre in Africa (Cambridge, 2005). I am also editor, with James Gibbs and Femi Osofisan, of the annual book/journal African Theatre (James Currey, Oxford, annually since 1999).


[1]Clark-Bekederemo, J. P., ‘The Poems 1958-1998’, Longman Nigeria, Lagos, 2002, p.23.
[2] ed. Bankole Olayebi, ‘WS:A Life in Full’, Bookcraft, Ibadan, 2004, p.137.
[3] Clark-Bekederemo, J.P. ‘Once Again A Child’, Mosuro, Ibadan, 2004
[4] Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike, ‘Towards the Decolonization of African Literature’, Fourth Dimension, Enugu, 1980. pp.196-7.
[5] Clark-Bekederemo, J.P, ‘Collected Plays 1964-1988’, Howard U.P., Washington DC, 1991, introduction by Abiola Irele, p. xvii.
[6] Ed. Martin Banham, ‘Nigerian Student Verse 1959’, Ibadan University Press, Ibadan, 1960.
[7] Ogundele, Wole, ‘Omoluabi: Ulli Beier, Yoruba Society and Culture’, Bayreuth African Studies 66, Bayreuth, 2003, p. 9
[8] Soyinka, Wole, ‘Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years. A Memoir 1946-65’, Minerva, London, 1995, p.302
[9] Soyinka, 1995, p xiii
[10] No.8, pp.57-8
[11] Ogundele, 2003, pp.104-26.
[12] ‘Black Orpheus’, No 1, September 1957, p.4
[13] Vol.4, no.3
[14] Vol.4, no.3
[15] Vol.3, no.3