Toyin Akinosho @ 60: The Mayor of MARS HOUSE – Obi Nwakanma

After Toni Kan’s first salvo, we begin a weekly publication of tributes by friends, associates, mentors and mentees in honour of Toyin Akinosho, geologist, polymath, journalist, Lagos boy, raconteur and renaissance man . They are excerpted from a forthcoming book in his honour.

When I finished from the University of Jos in 1989, and after National Service in Benin City – Bendel State – I went home for a brief reconnaissance to Imo State. I needed to decompress before launching into the very difficult job market. The next day, on my return, my father came back from a Health Management Board meeting in Owerri and brought with him forms from the Imo State Civil Service Commission and asked me to fill it. We had had discussions of what I wanted to do with my life. I did not want to teach, that was for sure. I could return to the university and I actually thought very briefly about going back to Jos or the University of Ibadan for the English MA. But I was bored with the academy. It had been too much of an “ivory tower” where nothing actually happened.

My father’s ambitions for me were wholly traditional. He wanted me to go back and study Law, or join the Civil Service like him, and rise on to be Permanent Secretary, and do policy. He was not too keen on my taking the Foreign Service exam. But since I had a decent degree in English, he thought I could actually show my paces in the ministry of culture, and often gave me the example of Gaius Anoka, the powerful Cambridge-educated Director of Culture in Imo State, and a great civil service mandarin to whom he had apparently talked about me. And there is always something about men and their first sons: they always agree to disagree – politely in many instances. I knew I wanted something more exciting there, and it was in Lagos.

So, I came to Lagos. To Festac. My uncle kindly gave me a room upstairs in his house on 21 Road. No questions asked.

This was 1990 — thirty years ago to be exact; a most difficult period economically and socially in Nigeria. Jobs were scarce. Government service jobs were difficult to get. Merchant Banks were all the rage, and high finance seemed the way to go. But it was also a very closed field. You could cut your fingers in the air with the bullshit in the air. The Babangida regime had just deregulated the economy, and it was flush with arriviste money and shady deals were the stuff of the new economy. That was when the term, “round tripping,” came to life. You put your money in the savings of a merchant bank and your returns were guaranteed to be humongous. There were loads of money being made; new cars and new haircuts; but it was by the adventurous boys and girls with high military connections. The rest of us observed with amusement, cynicism, or increasing outrage. I was fascinated by all that. But Lagos. By the swell of its social and cultural life. The makings and the loss of fortunes. The “Ariya” mood of its weekends. New stuff happening all the time. Lagos was a massive story – a great city full of character and a lively press. I got a job in journalism – The Guardian briefly, and very shortly TSM – and was on that most sociable of desks in journalism: “The Art and Life” desk. It was from here that we reported the life of Lagos. Its art. Its culture. Its verve. It was in that circle that Toyin Akinosho’s path and mine first crossed, because you could not report Lagos, particularly its cultural life, and miss Toyin.

WHEN I first met Toyin he was living in a flat off 3rd Avenue. That’s where I met his mother, a kind, warm, flinty woman. Her devotion to Toyin had all the force of pagan-passion. She was what we these days call the “helicopter mom,” hovering visibly, and making certain that her son was not hanging out with some disreputable sort of folk. Above all, she wanted him to settle down and have a family. He was an only son! Yet she reveled in whatever company Toyin chose to keep and took in his friends as easily. I was always amused by their relationship. They were friends, and Mama was a witty, fun-loving woman. I could see where Toyin took his most important character from: the easy, careless generosity and sense of fun and openness.

He was a typical Lagosian, born and bred early in Ebute-Metta, the original cauldron of Lagos party life. It was here that he first met Simple — whose character I have been trying to appropriate and bring to life through fiction since Toyin told me about him: a lover of good fare, immaculate dresser in white, as much a neighbourhood imp who supplemented his income by renting out his table tennis board to the kids, as he was a man who would not allow the limitations of poverty spoil his style. He was epicurean. I could see where Toyin got it: the sense of a restless pursuit of the beautiful and the sensual.

Toyin Akinosho is that true devotee of Epicurus, whose liege was at the open table. He trained in Geology in Ife, but I’m pretty certain he missed his road to Archeology or Anthropology, and ended up in Geology, and settled in, since these are all about excavating and digging up stuff anyway. He settled in Geology and studied how to dig up rocks and hydrocarbon. He ended up in Journalism, first in The Guardian, and then in Nduka Obaigbena’s Thisweek. By the time I knew him he was a senior Geologist at Chevron. But I could not tell whether he was an oil man, a newspaper man, or an art collector. He was all these.

He was in love with Bisi Silva. But it was the Toyin Akinosho kind of love – “ah, mama yen serious o!” he would say to me about her with a laugh. She was, in other words, a serious woman doing serious and pathbreaking things. That was what Toyin loved. He admired people with intense talents. Then he moved to Mars House on First Avenue. Mars House reminded me a lot about the poet Okigbo’s Cambridge House. It was an open house. At Mars House, like most of Toyin’s friends, I had access whether he was home or not. You could drop in, and there was Chika Okeke staying over the weekend from Nsukka, on his way to some exhibition in London or Berlin; the film director, Tunde Kelani; Uche Nduka, Uche Nwosu, Jahman Anikulapo etc, the Photographer, botanist Kole Ade-Odutola; the poet Sesan Ajayi or Akin Adesokan. As a matter of fact, I remember my last conversations with Sesan who was sick but had visited Toyin at Mars House and died not long after. Actors, painters, musicians, poets – Mars House was their hide out. You could always get coffee and Ewa Agonyin; or a hearty breakfast, some mornings after crashing from a night out at say, Jazzville in Yaba.

It was the 1990s, remember, and the soldiers were in power, and quite vicious about it. Some of us hid from them in Toyin’s house, no questions were asked. And when the true story of Nollywood is finally written, it will be told how Mars House became the clearing house for the promotion of these indigenous movies and actors. We were at the center of it long before folks began to pay attention. Toyin had started publishing his community paper – Festac News – from his flat on 3rd Avenue, and moved the operations to Mars House, where he converted the downstairs living room to a functioning newsroom.

Again, it was the dexterous Toyin – he was publisher, managing editor, Advert manager, and operations manager all rolled in one – until he began to have a few young men help out. We, his friends in the media, did what we could pro bono, now and then; I remember very clearly correcting the very first issue of Festac News, over hot fish pepper-soup and beer in Toyin’s poky 3rd Avenue apartment. I was then working on my biography of Okigbo. The paper appeared sporadically, and soon developed a very small coterie of faithful readers. But Toyin was a careless businessman and ran the stuff on shoestrings. But he loved to be Publisher – and he indeed published the poet Uche Nduka, who was also very briefly, appointed editor of Festac News, before vamoosing to Germany, and years later to New York.

Toyin Akinosho’s work and quiet impact in the development and flowering of the Lagos culture scene will require a very elaborate account, and might perhaps have to wait for my own memoir of my Lagos days someday in the future, but for right now, it is only just fitting to say, Akinosho has been a most memorable catalyst and mediator of Lagos cultural life. He built up a broad and intriguing network that he tapped into very effectively to ginger Lagos into its own self-discovery. That, I could say. Since the Lagos public responded sluggishly to high culture, Toyin decided to bring it to them through his Committee for Relevant Art (CORA). It began like most of Toyin’s things as a one-man “ways and means” committee: he secured the venue through his contacts; arranged the publicity; staged vigorous outreach, arranged for light snacking, and brought the likes of Steve Rhodes and Ambassador Segun Olusola, and other crème- de la-crème of the Lagos Culturati to come. That was essentially how CORA began. Of course, his man, Jahman Anikulapo, then at The Guardian was always close by, shadowing things quietly from left-right and-center. It was always a fascinating collaboration to watch between them too. I like to think of myself as an intellectual stimulus to the ideas of CORA too, through my many discussions, debates, sharing of ideas with Toyin about the world in which we thrived – that core of artists, writers and intellectuals that made Lagos tick through the late 80s and ‘90s — a very memorable period in our transition.

Toyin loved Lagos. It was his world. He embodied its festive spirit. Its cosmopolitan character – for indeed, his truest friends have no region or religion – other than art, and the beauty of the mind. But he loves Lagos also, because no other place can contain him so tolerably, and he could not live anywhere else, because, aside from the fact that Toyin Akinosho hates to fly, he is at the very core of his soul, a Lagos boy. It is amusing to see him turn sixty. Who would have thunk, publisher? Anyway, happy birthday to my friend and brother.

Nwakanma is Professor, of English at the University of Central Florida, Orlando Florida, USA

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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