I’m sensitive to
Yoruba culture and language -Professor Akinwumi Isola
By SEGUN AJAYI
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Like a dice has many sides to it, renowned writer and author,
Professor Akinwumi Isola is also a man of many parts. He is
an actor, dramatist, scholar, playwright and culture activist.
The professor of Yoruba Language is quite an impressive personality
going by his sensitivity to developments around him.
For instance, his first attempt at writing produced the epic
drama, Efunsetan Aniwura. Shortly afterwards, he came up with
a popular novel entitled, O leku. Along the line, Isola, who
hails from Ibadan, realised the potentialities of drama as
an effective vehicle of reaching the people when he stepped
up efforts at writing more plays than prose. His efforts were
rewarded with Koseegbe, Aye ye won tan, Oluomo Iyalode Egba
Versatile and dynamic, the prolific artiste in response to
his society entered into partnership with Mainframe Productions,
a Lagos-based T.V. and Film production outfit. The collaboration
gave birth to such chart-busters like Saworoide, Thunder bolt
(Maagun), Agogo Eewo, and very recently, Campus Queen which
was done in English. Now back home in Ibadan after his retirement
from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Professor Isola reflected
on his writing career, challenges of authorship, his dilemma
as a bi-lingual writer, self-publishing and why writing is
not lucrative in Nigeria:
I won’t say that there is a particular thing like an
angel or something that inspires me. The subjects just come
in the course of living and interacting with people. For example,
my very first play, Efunsetan Aniwura, came about when I was
reading Iwe Itan Ibadan, written by I.B. Akinyele around 1915.
I am from Ibadan and I’ve read much of the History of
the Yorubas by Samuel Johnson.
I saw a small section in I.B Akinyele’s Iwe Itan Ibadan
(The history of Ibadan people) which tells the history of
Efusetan Aniwura. The short story impressed me immensely and
I sat down and thought about how I could turn it to a story.
That was how I decided to turn it into a play.
I wrote Efunsetan Aniwura between 1961 and 1962. Suddenly
in 1965, I heard over the radio that there was going to be
a competition for creative writers in Yoruba in the areas
of poetry, prose and drama. So, I thought that would be a
wonderful opportunity for me to test that play. I entered
the play for the competition in the drama category. Surprisingly,
the result was announced on the radio, Efunsetan Aniwura won
the first prize in drama. It was a pleasant surprise. I was
invited to the award presentation held at Ibadan Grammar School,
At that time, I was a student at the University of Ibadan.
So, that was the beginning of my creative writing career.
The award came with a monetary prize of One pound, 1 shilling.
My student friends told me that we should wash it and we spent
a larger part of the money, drinking. After that, I wrote
Oleku, Olu Omo and so on. At a point, I started preferring
drama for the simple reason that you can easily reach the
people through drama.
You would recall that in 1981 the management of the Broadcasting
Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) sponsored the production of
Efunsetan Aniwura. Performed by the late Isola Ogunsola (I
Sho Pepper). They were to perform that play at the Trenchard
Hall of the University of Ibadan. However, they sold too many
tickets and at the end of the day, the hall could not contain
the audience. The play was shifted to the premises of the
BCOS. A stage was constructed and they announced that everybody
should come with their tickets to BCOS. Again, too many people
turned up to the extent that there was a heavy traffic in
the street. Even the governor, the late Chief Bola Ige found
it tough gaining entry into the premises of BCOS.
When it appeared as if there was going to be another riot,
the then General Manager of the station, Chief Adebayo Faleti
had to mount the stage to appeal to people to keep their tickets
and wait for further announcements. Eventually, the play had
to be shifted to the Liberty Stadium. At the end of the day,
it was reported that about 40,000 people turned up. That further
shows that you can reach more people through drama.
After that I wrote Koseegbe. I wrote one in English and another
in Yoruba. Another play that has become very popular is Madam
Tinubu - the Yoruba version of which I entitled Oluomo Iyalode
Egba- the story of Madam Efunroye Timber’s sojourn in
Abeokuta. There is also Aye Ye Won Tan, The play became popular
when we serialised it on television. So, writing drama gives
the writer easy access to the people than novels.
Eventually, when the society changed, a little bit, and night
life experienced a decline, theatre groups were no longer
recording comfortable audiences. I think that was what led
to the change in stage performances to the present home video.
In view of the intention to reach the people directly through
my works, therefore, I thought about another medium and this
lured me into writing scripts for home video. My technical
partner, Mainframe Productions, Lagos, approached me, having
read some of my plays, thought that we could work together
to produce some of these stories. So, the project started
in 1995 with Koseegbe. After that, we produced O leku I and
II. Then, I wrote a novel which is yet to be published by
Heinemann entitled Saworoide (Parable of the drum as the voice
of the people). The film was very successful and it sold thousands
of copies all over the world.
Collaboration with Mainframe
Since our aim is to promote Yoruba culture, we felt that we
should promote the language of our people. Language is the
nerve centre of the people’s culture. Therefore, we
agreed that all our scripts must be in Yoruba. That is why,
when you watch our films, you would hear no other language
Recently, my technical partner said that we should try something
for the young people. Reluctantly, I accepted, that was how
we produced Campus Queen.
Interest in women
Another aspect of my creative writing efforts is my interest
in women. You would see that I started with Efunsetan Aniwura,
then, I wrote Madam Tinubu (English) and Oluomo Iyalode Egba
(Yoruba); all because of this new European idea of the marginalisation
of women in the society.
Among the Yorubas, women have been strong and powerful and
they have played important roles in the society. So, the question
of marginalisation is out of it. And the first example that
comes to mind is the story of Oya.
There are two plays I intend to write about Oya. I have written
one in English and Yoruba. The English play is entitled Bellows
in my Belly. We tried it on stage on October 1, last year
at the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan. I
am still working on the Yoruba version. You would recall that
Oya was the founder of the Egungun cult. So, that is another
aspect of my writings.
My target audience are the Yorubas. Take as an example, Wole
Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the work
has been translated into many languages. I have added my own
voice by translating it to Yoruba.
But I always tell people that I did not translate Soyinka’s
Death and the King’s Horseman, because the original
story was in Yoruba. The event happened in old Oyo, so it
was Soyinka who translated it to English. What I have done
is that I have retrieved the original Yoruba story at the
back of Soyinka’s mind when he wrote the play. My own
play is entitled Iku Olokun Esin. We also performed the play
when Wole Soyinka turned 60 in 1994.
I have also translated and Soyinka’s Ake the Years of
Childhood. But Fountain Publishers published Iku Olokun Esin.
But Ake ni Igba Ewe, the Yoruba translation of Ake the years
of Childhood was published by Book Craft.
The launch of the book has been delayed because would be accompanied
by a CD. This is necessary to help those people who find Yoruba
This is difficult to explain. But you know, if you’re
going to be a writer. It is your mind that will start telling
you to write. Sometimes, when I read a story, something will
just prick me that, I can write like this too. I can recall
when we were reading the late D.O. Fagunwa’s novel when
we were quite young. Each time I read any of Fagunwa’s
novels, the feeling was always; ‘Yes I can write something
like this too’.
When I started reading Yoruba history and I saw the story
of Efunsetan Aniwura, I then felt that I could make it into
a play. So, it is the material you come across, or your experience
in life that will tell you, or compel you to write.
And if you’re lucky and your first story is well accepted,
it will encourage you. Just as my first play Efunsetan Aniwura
won a prize. It encouraged me to write more. Actually Oxford
University Press that published Efunsetan Aniwura wrote to
tell me to continue writing and they promised that they would
publish whatever I brought at that time. The sequel was O
le ku and other ones, which they equally published.
How I write
When a story comes into mind, I’ll start thinking about
it. I will keep the story in my mind and keep working on it.
For two to three years, I would sit down at night when there
would be no interruptions. I am alone in my room. My wife
has her own room. After listening to the Network News, I’ll
go to bed. I’ll sleep for about one hour just to calm
down. Between 12.00 midnight and 1.00p.m, I’ll wake
up and start working. I’ll work till about 5.00 am,
after that, I’ll go back to sleep. I’ll stay in
bed and listen to the early morning news and newspaper reviews.
After that, I’ll have my bath and start thinking of
what to do for the day.
Some time, visitors come, I go to the library. Apparently,
you can hardly do any serious work during the day. Unless,
of course, if you have the money and you go to a guest house,
and stay. But if you have no money to check in into guest
house. You would keep on working at nights.
Most challenging work
When you’re creating, there are some delights in your
mind. But when you write a sentence and it doesn’t really
fit into what you’re writing, you would drop your pen
and for a whole hour think about how to go about it. I think
that the work that has given me the greatest challenge so
far is my yet-to-be- completed work in English- the Campus
Queen story. It also happened on the Madam Tinubu (English
When I am writing in English, it becomes more challenging
to me because the words do not flow unlike when I am writing
When I write in English, I create my own images and when I
want to express it in English, I’ll start wondering
if I can say those things in English. So, most of the time,
I’d have to start looking into the dictionary to see
if such a statement is acceptable. So, it takes me longer
time to create in English than in Yoruba.
Writing in Yoruba
I won’t have any serious challenge in expression. The
story itself may give me a challenge. The challenges of creating
in English are different from writing in Yoruba.
My favourite work
I don’t know. Perhaps, the question would have been,
which of my works is the audience’s favourite. Efunsetan
Aniwura is loved by the audience very much. But some people
also love O le ku more than Saworoide. Actually, it is not
for the author to pick a favourite work but the audience.
I don’t deliberately switch off. But what I am saying
is that, if you have a story to tell, but you may keep working
on that story allowing the story to emerge. When you start
thinking about it, the story may move in a particular direction,
which you don’t like and you may have to think about
it again. When such a situation occur, I would wait, keep
Suddenly, some twist in the story comes to your mind, and
you would say oh yes! That’s the way it should be. Then
you should pick your pen and start writing again. In one day,
you may write many pages, whereas in a whole week, you may
not be able to write two pages. When you are convinced that
the story is going in the right direction, you can go on writing,
but when you don’t know which way to turn, you could
Choice of themes
They just occur. It may be something happening in the society,
like in Saworoide story. My themoss are influenced by what
I read, what I listen to on the radio. When such issues strikes
you, it may be that you want to discourage a particular thing
or you want to encourage it. When I wrote O le ku, for instance,
many people wrote me letters, asking me while I allowed the
man character again to die.
Other people wrote me tell me, Oh, this is your life story.
We know that you like women. But I am just a man who would
react to women like every other men. I am not particularly
a casanova. Writers collect experiences from different angles.
You have your own personal experiences, other people have
their experiences, and in the third category are the experiences
that you read about or stories that you hear on radio or reports
coming from everywhere.
A writer can select from those categories and weave the story
together. If the story that comes out of it is nice, when
people are reading that story, they may believe that, what
you have written, really happened. That was what happened
about O leku. Many people tend to believe that was what happened
to me when I was a student at the University of Ibadan. I
was not even married at that time, I got married after graduation.
But some of the events in O leku happened to my friend. So,
that is the way writers weave their stories.
I have not written comic plays but I have a collection of
Yoruba jokes. They would soon be published.
Oh yes, I make use of humour. If you want people to enjoy
your works. If you want to sustain people’s attention,
you have to create comic relief for the audience. But it’s
the readers who must identify the use of humour in my works.
It’s not my duty to start analysing my writings.
Financial reward for writing
There is no money in it. Hook! Don’t let me mention
a particular publisher. Currently, I have about five books
with publishers and in a year, I may receive just about N25,000.
When we were spending pounds, my royalty in a year never moved
near 1000 pounds. In fact, with one particular publisher,
all I got in a year was N2,000.
It may not have been rewarding financially, but I was not
writing to make money, but mainly to promote Yoruba culture
and bring up the younger generations to the use of Yoruba
Making a fortune out of writing
For example if one of my books is translated into English
or any other international language and it is sells all over
the world, you can make real fortune. A novel can make you
a millionaire if it is written in English.
In other countries, writers who have written what some of
us have written would have become millionaires. But I did
not start writing in English just because I want to make money.
The Yoruba people deserve their own literature. If I write
in English and become a millionaire, well, there is nothing
wrong, but I will be shirking my responsibility of giving
something back to my society.
In any case, if writers don’t struggle to safeguard
their culture, it would be difficult for others to do so.
It is not good because the standard may not be very good.
If you give your book to a good publisher, he will send it
to other readers who would carry out a correct assessment
of it. I know that today, writers want their books published
while publishers are not publishing many books, many writers
have gone into self-publishing but it is not the best thing