In this piece is an uncommon portrait of one of Nigeria’s foremost member of the literati, Ola Rotimi by a Nigerian academic who knew him first hand – Dr. Chijioke Uwasomba of the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.
By Chijioke Uwasomba, Ph.D
By April this year, Professor Gladstone Emmanuel Olawale Rotimi (HIMSELF, Sapele Bobo), a world-acclaimed playwright, dramatist, cheregrapher, director and teacher would have been eight-two years old. Apart from being the pioneer Head of the Department of Dramatic Arts of the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) he was also a lead actor in the establishment of the Ori-Olokun Theatre Group, a community theatrical ensemble that gave the “ordinary” people the rare opportunity of honing and displaying their theatrical skills and artistic bravura expression of drama in a Nigerian cultural context. This popular theatrical experiment has become a refence point in the practice and training of theatre arts practitioners even as it metamorphosized into the present Awo Varsity Theatre Company.
Ola Rotimi’s place in the theory and practice of drama and theatre in Nigeria, Africa and the world is indelible and redounds in its capacity of producing world-class theatre practitioners, dancers, musicians, mass communicators, literary theorists and critics, etc. What he started at Ife, he brought with all its profound refinements to Port-Harcourt, which was his second home taking into consideration that his mother was Ijaw. He was by every necessary implication a Port-Harcourt “boy” who was at home and spoke the pidgin English variant that is common in that part of the world with sophistication and conviction. It is therefore, not surprising to notice that in all his plays a creative attempt is made in the use of pidgin to deliver an artistic endeavour worthy of excellent attention.
Our ways had crossed twice – one, when I was a student at the University of Port-Harcourt where even though he was petit in structure, he loomed large and was reasonably influencial. In those days, the scholarship available in Uniport was inter and multi-disciplinary in scope. This meant that if you were in the Humanities or Social Sciences for example, you were required to do almost all the courses available in your Faculty until you got to your third year. This academic arrangement provided us with the opportunities of being taught by scholars like Ola Rotimi (Creative Arts Department), Wilfred Feuser (Foreign Languages), Nolue Emenanjo (Linguistics), Chris Nwodo (Philosophy and Religious Studies), Alagoa and Asiegbu (History) and even an extended platform to be taught by other eminent scholars in the Social Sciences – Claude Ake; Julius Ihomvbere, Eteng, Akpakpan, etc. This robust academic programming produced an outstanding corps of a generation of graduates in their chosen careers.
It is instructive to note that the cunning movement of history would bring Profesor Ola Rotimi and I again. This time around we were meeting at Ife as colleagues. He had retired from Uniport after a meritorious service to take up a contract appointment as the only Professor in the Department of Dramatic Arts. While at Ife in his second coming, he was an outstanding and committed ASUU member who would always be one of the first five to attend meetings of the Union. He always chose to stay at the back but not as a back bencher as he always spoke and intervened progressively on critical matters of discourse during the meetings of the Union from his chosen vantage point. If he knew you closely whether as a former student or a colleague, he would in his chatty manner call you “Old Boy”.
While at Ife as the only Professor in his Department, he continued with his training of many students and workers who did not have the opportunity of pursuing any degree programme in the university system. This certificate programe laced with intensive practical training has given the world reknowned theatre and dramatic practitioners and some have grown to become scholars of repute in the science and art of dramatturgy. Most of the actors and actresses of what has come to be known today as Nigerian Nollywood could trace their source to the power, imagination, knowledge and influence of Professor Ola Rotimi as a man of theatre who established and encouraged the thriving of certificate programmes in theatre and dramatic studies.
Unknown to the students of Uniport about thirty years ago when the students in their battling collectivity decided to swoop on members of the secret cult gangs, Professor Ola Rotimi was the one who wrote the speech that was read to thousands of students who had answered the clarion call at the matriculation/convocation ground of the university as part of the mobilizational programmes to continue to hunt down those “over fed boys” and their supporters who gloried in harassing and stabbing their fellow students for no just reason.
In the late 1990’s, apparently as a result of the militarization of the civil space, some misguided and ill-bred students tried to turn the campuses into a killing field in the name of cultism and became lords unto themselves but met their waterloo in the hands of conscious and enlightened students who stoutly resisted them and brought cultism to its knees at the University of Port-Harcourt in February 1991. Yibo Koko, a big name in Africa’s moviedom who benefited from Ola Rotimi’s theatrical training was one of the collective leaders of that era whose resistance Rotimi embraced and gave an anchor.
As can be noticed from the foregoing, Ola Rotimi continued with his crusading role as a friend of his students, supporter of his colleagues, activist of no mean repute and an excellent administrator with a knack for integrity and sincerity. His involvement in ASUU activities was such that the local branch of the Union at Ife saddled him with a lot of committee assignments and little wonder that the Union under the leadership of the late Prof. Otasowie Ukponmwan organised and gave him a befitting burial which attracted two dissident priests of the Roman Catholic and the Pentecostal expressions – Professors (Father) Ilesanmi of African Languages and Literature and Oyelade of Religious Studies respectively. In a burial ceremony attended by various groups and classes from within and without, these priests with eclessiastical finality pronounced that Ola Rotimi had been crowned in heaven by his transition.
It is meet to note that even in death, Rotimi lives on as a man whose legacies in all departments of life remain enviable and ever green.