OPINION – Biyi Bandele and the heart of the matter

Biyi’s life tells a tale, a tale about giving one’s best in everything. He was a great writer. He was a great director. He was a great photographer. He was a great playwright. He was a great screenwriter. He was, in the main, an all-round great man.

By Olukorede Yishau

The heart toys with human beings. The worst it does is when it decides to suddenly stop functioning, when blood refuses to flow into it. When this happens, the hearts of the ones close to the one whose heart has stopped are broken, tears are shed, teeth gnashed and things fall apart.

But, some people have devised means to beat the heart to its games. Inventors, writers, musicians and other creators are on top of this list.
Years before Biyi Bandele’s heart (all of a sudden) ceased functioning, he began the journey of not dying, of being alive forever, of being forever remembered and studied.

He wrote a book, then another, and then another. He wrote scripts, plays, and directed movies and took great street photographs. He touched lives. And so death will be shamed in the end. It has only taken the body, one of the things that make up life. Every other thing remain because Biyi wrote himself into eternity.

His journey into greatness began when he won a huge contest in his early years in the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University. He went to London to receive his prize and stayed back to complete his university education, and went on to direct great plays, including an adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’.

Biyi’s love for historical work shines in ‘Burma Boy’ and it will light up in the forthcoming ‘Yoruba Boy Running’.
‘Burma Boy’ benefitted from Biyi’s family history. His grandfather served in the British force in the World War, a war Africans had nothing to do with but were coerced into and maimed, killed and wasted in hundreds, if not thousands.

Another novel he wrote, which I picked up and read after he joined the ancestors, is titled ‘The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams’. It is a novel narrated by a nameless man who has a brother named Rayo. When the narrator is told about his brother’s condition, he bursts into laughter. Their mother knocks on his door with the announcement that Rayo had gone insane.

She tells him: “Mama Titi and our neighbours in the backyard have just returned from the market. They saw him there. He was stark naked. Right in the middle of the market.”
The narrator had got home late the previous night. He’d been out on the town until well past two o’clock, and had come back with a friend. He’d had no sleep until she left. Half an hour later, their mother comes bearing the news.

“Have you gone there to see him for yourself?” asks their mother as his head clears and he begins to register the shock.
What really shocks him isn’t the fact that Rayo had finally gone over the edge, but that he had gone to the market to do so.
Their mother replies that she had not seen him, “That’s why I have come to wake you up. Or, don’t you think we should go together?”

Rayo is a rebellious soul, one who considers it his responsibility to rid the world of evil people, including corrupt leaders. In secondary school, he tricks a senior student who is fond of extortion. Senior Toshiba is offered a drugged wine, which he describes as ‘another token of appreciation of your lordship’s protection’.

Toshiba drinks it declaring: “It’s a source of great joy to one to be told that one’s hard, self-denying work is appreciated by at least one or two reasonable people.” He adds: “I must say, my dear man, that this gesture of abiding loyalty and great devotion shall not go unrewarded.”

After tasting the wine, he declares: “Uumh Great wine. Real vintage ’55 Burkina-Faso, I must say. Last time I tasted wine of this quality was when my father went to receive his seventy-seventh chieftaincy title in Tangalawaja. Or was it when he was made Grand Patron of the Koma? Anyway, this wine is of rare pedigree. And I say that in all earnestness.”

He oversleeps after that and Rayo and his gang use a cart to drag him to a cemetery and leave him there naked. By the time he returns to the hostel, he is looking like a mad man and would have been taken to an asylum had Rayo not confessed. Bullying stops in the school after that and Rayo escapes expulsion.

He fights other battles after that. But then he loses his head. He has always been crazy. When he is going to be circumcised, he tells the doctor: “Doctor, I was wondering, this business about being put under anaesthesia while the surgery was being done… I was wondering – what if I wanted to watch it, what if I didn’t want to be fast asleep while it’s being done…’

“Don’t listen to him, Dr Dakwa,” says Mother, pulling Rayo’s ear. “He doesn’t mean it.”
Rayo insists: “On the contrary, sir, don’t listen to Mother. I do mean it.”
Rayo gets his wish but Bandele’s friends and family do not get to see him live beyond his 50s and well into his 90s.

They would have wished that Biyi would have lived to see his adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and on Netflix.
They would also have wished his novel, ‘Yoruba Boy Running’, his fictional account of the life of Samuel Ajayi Crowder, will not be published posthumously, that he would be here to answer questions about the process and procedures of getting such a work of art done.

I remember ace journalist Tunde Fagbenle writing eloquently about what a great asset Biyi was when their paths crossed. Fagbenle was publishing a magazine then and Biyi was a reporter in his employ.

My final take: Biyi’s life tells a tale, a tale about giving one’s best in everything. He was a great writer. He was a great director. He was a great photographer. He was a great playwright. He was a great screenwriter. He was, in the main, an all-round great man.

Yishau is a newspaper columnist and author of’In The Name of Our Father’and’Vaults of Secrets’.

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