I don’t compete with anybody except William Shakespeare — Olatunbosun Taofeek

Olatunbosun Taofeek has been longlisted in the Nigeria Prize for Literature for his play “Where Is Patient Zero?”. 

In this interview with thelagosreview, the playwright, dramatist, poet and essayist reflects on his journey into literature, which he says was not a roller coaster but rather a twist of fate, while shedding light on his play and his take on the Nigeria Prize. 

Can you tell us about your journey into the world of literature and how you came to write plays, novels, poetry, essays, biographies, and political papers? What drives your passion for such diverse literary forms?

My journey to literature was not a roller coaster but a twist by fate. I often perceived it as an implosive energy gotten from “unfulfilled desires and expectations” to explain myself and what I viewed about the world. This was birthed many years ago when I started reading voraciously for the sake of gaining knowledge. This, at all times stunned my mother. 

A classical one was when I was about 17, I took a two-week stretch of reading without a break. The only things I did at that time were eating, bathing and returning to my study. My mum would cook and drop it at the dining area and when she tried to raise conversation with me, I stylishly avoided her. In the second week, she came to my room after watching me through the window to confirm that I was truly reading. When she confirmed that I was real she came to me and sat before me. That was the first time she told me something strange about her observation and my future career as a writer. Like a cat in a strange garret she squeaked, “Taofeeki!” because I wasn’t paying attention to her. 

She continued, “I know you might not know but let me tell you this. You seem to be the reincarnation of my late father, Oguntuwase, a farmer. You don’t know him for he was dead before you were born. You know what?”

I shook my head implying no. She continued, “My father wanted to go to school in his lifetime but he failed to achieve that.” Those words came from her like a lump in her throat. “Any time he sees teachers or those coming back from school back in the village he shakes his head regretfully. One day he eventually came to rue then he took a pen and tried to scribble some things down but to no avail. In his regret, he then spoke, ‘I wish I can write. I have a lot to write about.’ Such are the words that bring down tears from his eyes. All day he regrets why he fails to be schooled. One day at the peak of his anguish, he says to us ‘If I would come to this world again, I shall come as a writer.’  Do you know that my father died the month that I conceived you? Since then, I have been thinking if he is the one now back to fulfill his dream.”  

These words sent a cold into my spine. Partly, I don’t believe in reincarnation and partly I do. After that day’s conversation something strong seats inside of me that I am a writer and that is my chosen part in life. So, I started writing plays with the intention that one day I shall beat the record of William Shakespeare. This is the reason behind my interest in playwriting. 

As a standing rule for my writing career, I don’t compete with anybody except William Shakespeare.  

Your play “Where is Patient Zero?” delves into the intersection of international politics, disease, and the economy. What inspired you to explore this complex and timely theme, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

A year after the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), I was given the responsibility to write a convocation play on this subject at my former university. I was troubled by the subject and the dramaturgy to convey the message was a major concern. The reason was that the period was a trying time for me and the entire world hovering over the inestimable loss of loved ones. 

The outbreak had not only left everyone perplexed but whether it was a pandemic or plandemic, everyone was yet to know.  The question of whom to ignore and whom to capture as well as the question, “Where is Patient Zero?” filled my mind.   

Out of all the subjects, themes and characters of the period, the whereabouts of Patient Zero, the first carrier of the virus, called more for my attention. I thought often that he/she might have existed as well as died in the silence of the science community. I was mainly concerned about how to creatively investigate and find Patient Zero. 

However, my greatest challenge was the scientific/political wherewithal to execute my concern. It would be recalled that during the outbreak of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the first carrier could not be identified and the investigation ended in scientific accusations. The same was repeated during the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and other pandemics that have ravaged the world. The consistent missing of the first carriers, which would have helped in the search for a cure, heightens the tension and speculation of the rogue scientists colluding with reprobate politicians to twist the world order through science. 

So, Patient Zero, the index case of coronavirus disease becomes difficult to determine whether due to a lack of earlier detection or a cover-up. Earlier detection of the initial carrier may be difficult, not impossible but in the case of cover-up where politics overshadows medicine then the search for Patient Zero will remain elusive. 

For Patient Zero, in the case of coronavirus disease, not to go down unknown in history, there is a need for an answer to the question, “Where is Patient Zero?” The search for this missing patient is the goal of this play. 

Your repertoire includes works like “Merchants of Trouble” and “1930: The Life and Times of Ayo Babalola,” each highlighting distinct socio-political issues. How does “Where is Patient Zero?” contribute to your body of work in terms of addressing contemporary global challenges?

Like most of my works that are politically motivated, “Where is Patient Zero?” is also a strong political question but this time around directed to the politics of disease control; rogue scientists and global conspiracies. This is done deliberately to call attention to some negative energies discharged against our collective good as human beings. Somehow, I want humanity to prevail against rogue and clandestine interests and those who use them to profiteer. My gospel is to free human beings through my texts from the chains we put on necks consciously or unconsciously through systemic ideologies with negative impartation. 

The synopsis of “Where is Patient Zero?” introduces us to a character named Dr. Damsi and the notion of a rogue scientific network. Can you share more about the creative process behind developing these intriguing characters and the complex network they operate within?

“Where Is Patient Zero?” describes the attempt to cover the initial carrier of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) known as Patient Zero. With Dr Damsi parading himself as the messiah of the period, he skits and rolls with the rogue scientists covering their iniquitous in ASTRONAUT 666: a lethal potent network prepared to be inserted into humans as a form of vaccine to have access to human brains as a motor neuron control to the billions of people inhabiting the world. The aim is to connect every human brain in a single interface at the speed of billisecond

In their scientific exploration is the intrusion of Thanatos, the spirit of death and his brother, Hypnos in escalating the negative part of their experiment and the eventual emergence of an uncontrollable virus. The virus quickly spreads down to Africa where we have Babanka the sitting president of a populous country in Africa. He messes up the entire plans against the virus in his country as he uses the plandemic to get aid and grants hence threatening to permanently lock down his country’s universities and by extension researchers he accuses of not being cerebral like their western counterparts. He declares lockdown and encourages spiritual procedures to fight the virus. 

Things are not working while government agencies use the lockdown as a cash-out to the detriment of the masses. The masses eventually revolt against the lockdown out of hunger and frustration. Johnson and Sadiq, who are foreign agents sharing contraceptives to the masses to avoid population explosion, face the masses’ wrath. 

Eventually, Babanka gets Dr Damsi to his country to help him smuggle the latest vaccine for himself and other politicians.  He gets infected and later survives. Then he concludes on the entire virus prevention while talking to his Minister of Health: “The government will give you money to build a laboratory. You guys will also create a virus. Then we spread it. Later, we bring our vaccines out. We make billions of dollars through our vaccines. We shall do it in a grand style. The virus business is not for ‘those guys’ alone. After this conversation, you move into action. I want our own version of COVID that we shall use to freeze the whole world.” 

The Minister is not really convinced about the project, then Babanka declares the name of his new virus as zazuvirus boasting that the virus has the potency of disturbing anybody anywhere in the entire world. However, he warns his Minister and “his scientists” that as no one uncovers Patient Zero of coronavirus no one should know the source of zazuvirus when out from Africa.

The play seems to intertwine drama and humour while addressing serious topics. How did you manage to strike a balance between these elements, and why do you believe this combination is effective for conveying your message?

You have to feel it, then you know it. Greatest messages sometimes are sarcastic, humourous and hilarious. The reason is that you can tell the truth and insult without necessarily offending those you are rebuking with humour. This happens to be one of the best elements of drama. 

“Where Is Patient Zero?” features the infiltration of Thanatos and Hypnos, representing death and sleep, into the scientific exploration. How do these mythological elements enhance the narrative and themes of the play?

Thanatos and Hypnos are spiritual elements from Greek myth. The former helps in dying and the latter in the sleep that would lead to death. Both of them help in transition or transitory process to prove and show the scientificity of death. Death is a process but a complex one. There are causes and effects; there are procedures and consequences attached to each stratum in the strata, etc. Thanatos and Hypnos make it clear that death can be tamed and controlled if only we are sincere and ready to objectively respond to interaction with nature.

With the spread of the virus to Africa and the involvement of Babanka, the sitting president, your play takes on a broader political dimension. How does the play comment on African leadership and the continent’s response to global crises, drawing from both real-world events and fictional storytelling?

In the play a lot of jabs are thrown at Africa and the cacophonous leaders we have on the continent. Much as Babanka is intelligent, he can’t do jack because his citizens are as complicit as himself in the mud of greed and ignorance. 

Do you have any plans for the $100,000 prize money, should you win?


How, in your opinion, has the Nigeria Prize for Literature impacted writing in the country?

To me, this prize is good but so far, the aim of this prize is yet to come to fruition in the lives of those who have previously won it. 

Many of the writers after winning, they left the trade; many travelled abroad and abandoned the eagle that laid their golden egg—serious writing. I am yet to see anyone among the previous winners whom this prize has given birth to greater writerly inquisition by matching unto the Nobel Prize in Literature, Booker or other grand standing writerly stardom. It seems more like a curse than a blessing. 



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