Toyin Akinosho @ 60: Being Citizen Akinosho – Tade Ipadeola

The mind that chronicles runs steady still

at sixty, satisfied with nothing but the entry

of those things we miss because we’re ill

prepared for moments which the sentry

by long habit captures as they come,

little or large, ugly or handsome.

WHAT books might be on his nightstand? His table? These are good guesses at any point in time and a great way to begin exploring the theme of being Toyin Akinosho. A veritable reader of rich picks, eclectic to the elastic point of variety itself, his intellectual roaming skirts the turf of randomness but a careful look at the stack will show a curious mind at work, an expansive imagination at play, a consciousness in lockstep with the state of the world and its reinvention according to the best thinking happening anywhere on the planet. As for his bookshelf, the guess is easy. Every book is on the shelf. This is conjecture backed by primary evidence and not mere hearsay. Citizen Akinosho, our toast at sixty, avuncular and graceful, has ascended what the Yoruba call the Heights of the Elders in matters of the mind. 

           There is a quality to the way Citizen Akinosho relates to issues of art and culture that is almost alien to the contemporary Nigerian way. Where the Nigerian is loud, he is laconic, where his countrymen are reckless, he is mindful, where they are sold on the foreign, he is invested in all things of value wherever they come from on the map of the world, home or away. He is one of those men who accomplishes far more with a whisper than crowds do with all the jostling and shouting. There are lenses through which, as perhaps the quietest curator of our culture into the 21st century, the works of Mr. Akinosho enable us to make discoveries that are of epiphanic dimensions. To possess sensibilities so fine, literal artistic antennae so keen and a faculty for the relevant so broad are things which, with due respect to all recipients of contemporary scientific education, we seldom associate with geologists. We fully expect these things from professors of art history, yes — with archeologists, rightfully so, but hardly ever with practitioners of the natural sciences. Citizen Akinosho is our own Helen Vendler with the distinction of belonging very prominently in the Town section rather than the Gown section of Metropolis.

           As broad and wide-ranging as his engagements with culture have proven to be, he has shown consistently that the same focus that made him a geologist is actually still at work, working over material. I find a parallel, curiously, only in the labours of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther who worked quietly for four decades before gifting his people and culture with the unforgettable document known as the Bible in Yoruba.

          Fortunate indeed is the man who finds direction early in life and Mr. Akinosho is one man who did and, what is more, never strayed. From his days at the university, he had decided that the highest and best of all that his culture produces will form his provenance and that his dealing with the minds and imagination from within his culture must extend to what other minds and other dreamers and visionaries are doing elsewhere in the world. Much has been observed and recorded on this binocular vision and quality of seeing but perhaps in no other person are the finest ideals of this disposition better realized than in Citizen Akinosho who not only exercised his mind in the sciences as a geologist but as a memoirist of culture as well.

            In the midst of a culture as extraverted as contemporary Nigerian culture has become in the late 20th to early 21st century, it becomes clear that the culture needs not one-man armies but a core of people that share Mr Akinosho’s sensibilities. To participate in a CORA event in the last 20 years is to get a feel for what is possible when there is such a critical mass — even if Citizen Akinosho and his confederates do their best all the time to saunter into their own events and mix with audiences the way any regular attendee or guest would. It is one of the charms of Citizen Akinosho and a trait many observers have made comments upon — this involvement in the zeitgeist that is free of proprietorial reins. The gathering of like minds in CORA has given Nigeria a most unique event on the culture calendar most notably in LABAF, the Lagos Book & Arts Festival, where the book and culture take centrestage rather than personalities or egos.

II

A PERSON sometimes embodies the finest values of his age (as some no doubt embody the worst vices). Such persons are products of both personal drive and specific nurture.

       What are the chances that the same individual will know where in a large city such as Lagos Dede Mabiaku is playing at the weekend? Which year PEC Theatre staged the last performance? When Angola began awarding its major literary prizes? Which minnows are in the running for Mozambique’s oil and gas fields? Why the rig count of the majors is shrinking in the Gulf of Guinea? When the conversation between Tony Allen and the Lagos crowd took place? The new poets to whom South African culture circles are turning for enlightenment? What culture events will be happening this coming week all around the country and when? Who and who are the best Afrobeat dancers left in the continent? The obvious answer is that the chance is very slim, and one would be right except of course for Citizen Akinosho. He has maintained an amiable nexus of contacts and information flow in the lines of his preoccupation such that it is actually quite natural to turn to this fount of Nigerian cultural information.

       When the Nigeria Magazine went out of print after going and coming over several seasons, the loss of that institutional presence on the landscape was deeply felt by everyone concerned. Into the void stepped Citizen Akinosho and with steadiness he has over the course of decades proved that he is no flash in the pan but in the running for the long haul. It is the rare educated Nigerian to whom one can turn for Nigerian books whether published by Fourth Dimension or Onibon-Oje, Drum or Spear. What is it that makes a man a collector of all these artifacts from within his own culture and the rest of the world?

        Public contributions to culture generally and Nigerian culture in particular abound in newspapers, periodicals and recorded appearances in notable art projects in the past four decades. What distinguishes Citizen Akinosho’s unique fingerprint is the very quality that is almost laissez fair but which is nevertheless meticulous. Beyond strictures of scholastic aptitude or cultural impositions, some individuals through sheer force of personal drive emerge in every generation to embrace the totality of who they are and what the world into which they were born is. We know them fairly readily because their interests as well as their contributions are characterized, even marked by a certain boundlessness of plenitude. Out of these numbers, however, are a subset which in spite of their outstanding gifts and perspectives, court simplicity and even anonymity. I have sometimes wondered whether this tendency in Citizen Akinosho is his ploy to escape writing a memoir. If it is, he is hereby put on notice that we have seen through the very clever attempt, but we insist on a memoir. There is perhaps no better time than now to make a request of Citizen Akinosho regarding a memoir. He owes the culture one or as many as he can now bring out in the coming years.

III

I WILL conclude my appreciation of just what kind of impact Mr. Akinosho has had on the imagination of his times by relating a personal experience. Sometime in the year 2009, I began writing my volume of poetry, The Sahara Testaments, in earnest. I had a rough map of the journey in my head, but I knew I needed guides. I turned to Mr. Akinosho and discussed my broad plans for the volume with him. He liked the idea of a chronicle of life in the desert. I then asked him what he thought I needed to keep in mind when tackling a geologic phenomenon such as the Sahara Desert. His answer remains as memorable in my mind today as when he first delivered it over drinks more than a decade ago. Have I considered the particular impact of the Aeolian in sculpting landscapes and human behaviour? Have I tried to map human migration – voluntary and involuntary – across the Sahara? Have I retrieved any stories, myths, legends of note from the desert? Have I compared the features of the Sahara with other deserts in the world?

     It was the ease with which Mr. Akinosho rolled out his checklist that intrigued me. It was as if he had anticipated that I would ask the question. I was glad I asked him the question and can now disclose that of the few people whose opinions I sought during that period of seeking a structure for my work, his questions proved invaluable in not only providing alternative pathways to neural nuggets but also in interrogating motive and drive. We need more pillars for our culture. We already have the template in Citizen Akinosho, Borokini awon Publisher, Eegun senujeje muti, all-round gentleman.

Ipadeola, poet, lawyer is the author of the poetry volume, The Sahara Testaments, winner of the  Nigeria Prize for Literature 2014.

Essay excerpted with the kind permission of the author from “Poblishaaa…The Man, His Arts, The Myth: Dissecting the interventions of Alfred Oluwatoyin Akinosho in the enterprise of Culture Production, Art Advocacy & Criticisms”

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