IT IS NOT ONLY BOOKS YOU FIND IN A LIBRARY
By Erelu Bisi Fayemi
Love is the basic need of human nature, for without it; life is disrupted emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically – Karl Menninger
When I was doing my masters in the history department in the Rain Semester of 1986, I took an elective in the Department of International Relations. Dr (now Professor) Toyin Falola gave me a note to Dr (now Professor) Julius Ihonvbere to look out for me and help me with anything I needed. One day I was talking to Julius about for thesis. He said I need to introduce you to someone.
He introduced me to Femi Taiwo, who had just returned from Canada where he had done his PhD. Femi was a philosophy lecturer and had done some gender studies when he was in Canada. He gave me my first feminist book the female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. He told me, if you want to do the kind of work you want to do you have to understand certain concepts, you need to read widely and be very critical not only of what you read but also of things going on around you. That is how Femi Taiwo (also known as ‘Malam’) became my first Feminist teacher.
I then went back to Dr Adediran and told him that I wanted to write my thesis on women’s social history in South West Nigeria. He asked me if I was sure I could find the data I needed. In Dr Adediran’s case, he framed his concern as a question he expected me to figure out, but one of his more conversation colleagues said, you will never find data. That upset me because I felt that instead of encouraging me to break new grounds he was throwing obstacles in my way.
This was the time I grew to appreciate the critical importance of feminist mentoring and solidarity. I developed a close friendship with Dr Folabo Ajayi, who was a lecturer in the Theatre Arts department. She is also Professor Wole Soyinka’s younger sister. Auntie Folabo felt that I was quite brave, wanting to write a thesis on women in such a male-dominated department.
Throughout my years as a female undergraduate and as a post-graduate student, there were no female lecturers or role models in the History department. When I had to defend my thesis topic at a department seminar, Auntie Folabo came to give me moral support. She was the only female teacher in the room that day, and her presence gave me a lot of confidence. In the discussion that followed, she made it quite clear to my professors that she felt my work would be a very good contribution to knowledge.
She also took time out to drive me around for my fieldwork for two and a half weeks, travelling through the then Ondo State and what is now Ekiti State of Nigeria while I interviewed women in several towns and villages and gather data. I did extensive fieldwork and spent a lot of time in the archives at the University of Ibadan. In August 1986, the History department of UNIFE organised an International colloquium to mark the centenary of the end of the Ekiti Parapo Wars which raged for almost 70 years and ended in 1886.
The activities involved not only a three-day seminar held on the Ife campus but there was also a visit to Okemesi, now in Ekiti State, the place where the famous warriors of old led by Ogedengbe strategist to prosecute the war. I found all the activities very interesting, especially an exchange that took place one afternoon during a session on historical narratives through the lenses of popular culture, Professor Akinwunmi Isola, the famous playwright and Yoruba scholar was taken on by two women, Professor Bolanle Awe and Professor Omotayo Olutoye.
The two female scholars challenge Professor Isola to explain why he had distorted the narrative of Efunsetan Aniwura, his famous play which became the basis for many local productions of the same name, and which was also a prescribed school text. Until that session, I had no idea that the description of Efunsetan as immortalized by Professor Ishola, was a fictitious one. Professor Isolas’s Efunsetan was a wicked, barren, mean and power-hungry witch who killed her pregnant female slaves and challenged constituted authority.
The production ends with her being overpowered by the righteous King Latosa, the Olubadan of Ibadan. The two female scholars pointed out the true story of Efunsetan, as told in Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas, paints the picture of a very hardworking, resourceful, self-made woman who was originally from Abeokuta, but in recognition of her industry and philanthropy, was made the Iyalode of Ibadan. She did own many slaves, but she resisted the president’s demands of King Latosa to have his war machinery serviced in perpetuity. It was this resistance that caused her assassination at the hands of killers hired by no other than King Latosa himself.
Professor Isola’s response to the two scholars was that he did not set out to write a historical drama but a play simply for entertainment. Those familiar with Yoruba popular culture know that the fictional character of Efunsetan Aniwura created by Professor Isola is synonymous with evil and pride. This is an unfair legacy for a woman who, from reliable historical accounts, ought to have gone down in history as a role model.
Witnessing this exchange had a tremendous impact on me as a young female post-graduate student. First of all, I discovered that it was possible to challenge the construction of knowledge and ‘given’. I also learnt that it was important to understand that the stories that get told and remembered are those told by the ones with power – the power to write, speak and publish. I also took away the wonderful feelings there were women who were as knowledgeable as men, and therefore, I should not accept that there could be limitations to what I could know or theorise on.
Till today, Professor Olutoye remains my hero and I will be forever thankful for their example of feminist scholarship. Professor Olutoye also helped me a great deal with my fieldwork, and today, her daughter Funke Olugboji, is one of my best friends.
There was a conference on Women’s Studies organised by the Women’s Research and Documentation Center(WORD DOC), the University of Ibadan in November 1987. Dr Femi Taiwo suggested that we write a joint paper for the conference. By this time my thesis was at an advanced stage and I had started to appreciate the need to decode a lot of what I had read from the handful of writers on women’s studies or social history. That was my first feminist conference, and my experience of writing the paper with Dr Taiwo and the interactions at the conference left me with a life–long passion for feminist theory and analysis. In my class on Nigeria Foreign Policy taught by the late Professor Olajide Aluko, there was a quiet, soft-spoken and very good-looking guy.
One day I was reading at the Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library, and when I was about to leave, I found out that I did not have my library card on me to take out the books I needed. I looked around to see if there was anyone who could help me, and there he was, the shy guy from my class. I walked up to him, said hello, and asked him if he had his library card on him and if he could help me take some books out. He nodded and smiled, showing a cute gap in his front teeth. I gave him the list of books I needed and promised to pick up the books from his room later.
As I walked away, he called out, Please don’t forget to come. I smiled to myself. Of course, I would not forget, they were my books! I went to his room that night to pick up my books. As I was leaving, I asked him if he was free the following evening and if he wanted to watch a movie, he flashed that lovely smile again and said yes. Later on, I discovered that he had no interest in movies. His only interest was me. That is how I met Kayode Fayemi.
Kayode (JK to me) was like a dream come true. He was loving, respectful, well-spoken, brilliant and kind. He did not say much in the company of people, he came across as shy but everyone found him pleasant. With me, he was not quiet or shy. We talked a lot because we had many things in common and he had a great sense of humour. Till today, we sometimes stay up till the early hours of the morning talking and analysing, and we finish each other’s sentences metaphorically and literally. Jk did not feel the need to control me or lord it over me. He allowed our relationship to grow on the basis of mutual respect and support. He had my back and I had his. After I had completed my coursework and fieldwork and submitted the first draft of my thesis, I was able to leave for Lagos to start work. An uncle of mine, Femi Bakare, had just set up a pest control company and wanted to offer me a job as a sales executive.
He was offering N300 a month plus a 5% commission on any business I brought in. JK thought it was a good idea, especially since it would bring me closer to him in Lagos. I discussed this with my father and he agreed to it, so that is how I started work at FEMBAK, based in Ebun House, Awolowo way, Ikeja. Jk was working for sonata Olumhense’s City Tempo at the time, which was ten minutes walk away from my office. We would meet up after work to have a coke somewhere, before going home. We had a plan. After completing my Master’s degree, we would go to Uk together for further studies and work. JK wanted to do a PhD, I wanted to work.
I defended my thesis in July 1988. Dr Hakeem Danmole from the University of Ilorin and Dr Simi Afonja were my examiners. I had written a very good thesis, and my professors were all very pleased with what I had achieved. After my thesis defence, I went to Dr(Now Professor) Femi Taiwo to thank him for his guidance. He smiled and said, I knew you could do it. We remain good friends still today. In September 1988, I left for London.
Culled from Speaking Above A Whispers (Autobiography)by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi (2013).
This Book was given to me by the Author, the Mother General as a Gift and complimentary copy of a Trilogy on Wednesday, January 27, 2021.