I Remember You, Biyi Bandele

By Olukorede Yishau

On November 4, your last cinematic effort debuted on Netflix, days after it had limited cinema runs in Nigeria. While I was seeing it and throughout that day, your name, your face, your dreadlocks, your smile, your books, everything I know about you kept coming to my mind.

I remembered your adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. I remembered the controversy it generated with the Censors’ Board, which felt uncomfortable with a scene on the Biafran war. I also remembered how I was pained to see a vendor hawking pirated DVDs of the film inside a traffic gridlock in Maryland, Lagos, and how I screamed at him and wished him evil.

I remembered your role in Netflix’s first Nigerian original series, ‘Blood Sisters’. I remembered ‘Burma Boy’. I remembered ‘Yoruba Boy Running’, your last novel based on the life and times of Bishop Ajayi Crowther which will be published posthumously.

I remembered how you used to call critics ‘awon pundits’. I remembered what Toni Kan wrote about you as ‘Fabu master’. I remembered Jessica Craig’s piece on your death, which detailed her journey as your literary agent among others. I remembered Olongo publisher Kola Tubosun’s evocative article on your passing. I remember your novel, ‘The Sympathetic Undertaker: And Other Dreams’, which tells a story of a man who readers would think had a brother only to find out at the end of the novel, edited by respected Adewale Maja-Pearce, that the brother existed only in his sick mind. I remembered culture activist and writer Molara Wood’s piece on your outstanding life and times.

I remembered ‘Fifty’, that movie you made for Mo when she turned fifty. I remembered what ace columnist Tunde Fagbenle wrote about your time with him as a reporter in a magazine he published in London. I also remembered your daughter’s terse statement announcing your passage. And I remembered Britle Paper’s tributes to you, which featured 100 writers. I was just remembering things about you.

The melancholic music, which accompanies the Elesin Oba’s story, perhaps put me in a reflective mood. As I watched on, it occurred to me that you must have striven to retain much of the source material in this tale of interrupted tradition.

You chose to name yours ‘Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman’ instead of the original ‘Death and The King’s Horseman’ given it by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka; it tells the story of a Yoruba chief in British-occupied Nigeria whose plan to commit ritual suicide is resisted by the colonial authorities, you left no one in doubt that this was a celebration of, as well as elegy for, cultural autonomy.

The play Soyinka wrote, which you made into a film for Mo Abudu, was about real events in Oyo Kingdom during World War II. At the time, Nigeria was still a colony of the British. The Alaafin just died and one of his chiefs, the Elesin, was supposed to die and accompany him on the night of his burial. The chief was a known womaniser and since he was on his last days, he decided to enjoy the frills and trills of the female folk. He did it to the extent that he demanded to marry a virgin already betrothed to the son of the Iyaloja. He was obliged. And this was what gave enough time for the colonial administrators to try to control what they didn’t understand.

The colonial administrator of the kingdom saw no sense in the tradition and arrested Elesin to stop him from performing the death ritual. This angered the people of the kingdom who heaped the blame on the chief’s questionable appetite for women, as well as his loss of focus and ‘greed’. They blamed him for allowing the ghost of the Alaafin hover instead of resting.

Your choice of Odunlade Adekola as the Elesin Oba is, to me, a brilliant one. Shaffy Bello as Iyaloja was also a good one. The district officer, Simon Pilkings, was well delivered by Mark Elderkin. Deyemi Okanlawon played Olunde, the Elesin’s medical doctor son, brilliantly. I can’t but smile at what you made Brymo do both in acting and soundtrack.

I love the fact that right from the start of ‘The King’s Horseman’, tradition and spiritual beliefs are celebrated. I cannot but be grateful to you for retaining the dialogues, which show the clash of cultures without portraying one as superior to the other.

I love the dialogues between Olunde and the district officer’s wife. I love Olunde’s queries on the West’s penchant to condemn what they do not understand, his comparison of ritual murder and mass murder, his stance on the Colonial authorities holding a party when World War II was raging and lives were being lost on the war fronts and so on.

And, lest I forget, I will always remember these lines from Olunde to the district officer’s wife: “You forget I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered you have no respect for what you do not understand.”

It is sad you are not around to answer questions about Elesin, but I am consoled by the fact that years before your heart (all of a sudden) ceased functioning, you began the journey of not dying, of being alive forever, of being forever remembered and studied. You wrote a book, then another, and then another. You wrote scripts, plays, and directed movies and took great street photographs.

You touched lives. And so death will be shamed in the end. It has only taken the body, one of the things that make up life. Every other thing remains because you wrote yourself into eternity.

You were a great writer, director, photographer, playwright, screenwriter and was, in the main, an all-round great man.

I end this on a note that your last film emphasizes that no culture is superior to the other. What is barbaric to one race is some other people’s way of life, which they can refine with time if they no longer feel comfortable with.

Rest on, kindred spirit. Till we meet to path no more.

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