Watching President Olusegun Obasanjo dole out national honours on
prime time television to Nigerians and non-Nigerians of all ilk the
other night, it struck you just how odd it seemed that Nigeria has
yet to say 'thank you' to him. Yet, he was here when it all began.
Not as a distant spectator, but as a prime mover, an enhusiastic
facilitator and a devoted promoter of the Nigerian letters. He is a
black man in white skin. He is a German born Yoruba man. He is
indubitably Nigerian. He is 83. He is Ulli Beier. And it is pity that
his name was not on the honours list of this year's National Merit
Professor Beier is a foremost Africanist scholar, whose arrival in
the University College Ibadan in 1950 at 28 sparked off a chain of
events that eventually led to the lighting up of the African literary
tree. As a university teacher, editor of the influential Black
Orpheus and proprietor of the catalytic Mbari Artists and Writers'
Club as well as Mbari publications, Ulli Beier found himself
strategically nestled in the fork of time. But he made the most of
it. Flapping all around him were budding writers whose creative gifts
needed stronger wings to soar.
There were Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, J.P Clark, Mabel Segun,
Demas Nwoko, Duro Ladipo, Ezekiel Mphalele of South Africa and of
course Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. It was a great moment in time all
right. The flowering of ideas that ensued marked the preparatory
stage of modern literary offering from Africa.
As you raise the micro tape recorder to his lips in this plush little
room inside the cavernous sprawl of Osun State government house,
Osogbo, you marvel at this man whose deep set eyes still sparkle
behind a pair of rectangular eye glasses at 83. In your opening
remark, you had generally alluded to his contributions to African
literature and how one of his former students, Mabel Segun had spoken
fondly of him in a recent meeting.
At the mention of that name, his powerful eyes lighted up "Oh! Where
is she? What is she doing?" he asks in quick succession and without
waiting for your reply he wades into an old familiar tunnel. "She was
one of my students in the University College Ibadan. I only spent one
year on campus and she was one of the students a saw a lot privately
to. A lot of the students came to my house; Chinua Achebe, Mabel, all
kinds of students.
It was more than just a class, you know what I mean? She was one of
the first people to write poems. She was bright and wrote some quite
good poems and I think I would have published a few. Another student
who came quite a lot was Chinua Achebe. He had quite impressive
manners. I kept a lot of contact with him in later life and when he
was working with the NBC, I did quite a few programmes with him and
he was also a member of the Mbari Clube when we founded it", he
recalls in voice that belies his age. Beier is urbane.
He returns compliments with compliments. Mabel Segun, he said, was
brilliant. A statement of fact, but he also talked about Achebe and
the Mbari Club which offers a veritable opening for a follow up
question. When did you found the club? You ask. "I think in I96o and
it was Chinua who gave it a name. Mbari is an Igbo name. Soyinka and
I were tossing around in search of a name to give the club and then
Chinua rang and said 'what about Mbari?' And I jumped at the name
because I knew Mbari Houses," he recalls with a nostalgic glint in
his eyes. Ulli Beier's recollections are incomplete without names
like Soyinka, Chinua, Okigbo Duro Ladipo etal.
In a manner of speaking his story is their story. "My whole activity
in Nigeria in the I96os was basically to help people get a better
identity by pointing out what wonderful culture they have", he had
said in an earlier comment. In a way Ulli has walked the road of this
destiny well. Along with Gerald Moore, an Englishman, who taught
extra-mural classes in Eastern Nigeria, Beier made his presence felt
on the continent, translating and publishing modern African writings
from David Mendessa Diop to Leopold Sedar Senghor, and even some
Yoruba poems. He also played a fundamental role in the conception and
nurturing of the world famous Oshogbo school of artists along with
influential playwright and gifted composer Duro Ladipo.
Story telling comes natural to Beier. He is dressed in his trademark
Aso Oke and his luxiriant grey hair has turned completely white like
a soft tassel drooping down a corn cob. You let his sweet old voice
swaddle you up with nostalgic recollections, let it carry you to a
time beyond your reach when our people still retained those things
that made then distinct. "I really loved the idea that people do
creative work that involves young people of a certain age grade and
that under the guidiance of craftsmen they created mud buildings
populated by arts figures," he says of the Mbari Houses from which
the name of his literary club was chosen.
"They had a figure of the earth goddess with a child on her laps, a
leopard pouncing on a goat, a school teacher with a book and a tailor
with his sewing machine. Then within a few years, this building
crumbles back into mud because it's not fired and all the figures
virtually collapse. But there's a beauty in that. The building and
artworks must give way for the next age grade to practice their own
craft, you see. And there I learnt something for the first time in my
life. Growing up in Berlin as a child visiting museums, I thought
that the older a work of art was the better and more valuable and all
the so called art treasures and worth not.
It's all because of the false values attached to art. Now from the
Mbari Houses, I have developed a whole concept of Ephemeral Art,
which means art that is not meant to last, art that is allowed to
disintegrate, art that is distroyed, burnt, drowned and art that is
shot. It is a very fascinating concept and on December, 18 at the
Obafemi Awolowo University I am going to give a lecture on Epheral
Art. And I will start with Mbari."
The incurable photographer, curator, author, translator and publisher
may be in love with the concept of ephemeral art, but he builds
eternal friendships. That is why when he talks about Christopher
Okigbo, or Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe and J.P Clark, he come
across like a teenage casanova regaling his crowd of youthful
admirers with tales of his new conquest.
"When I moved out from the University Campus, I was giving
extra-mural classes in Oyo. On the way, I used to stop in a little,
town called Fiditi," he recalls in the same pitch of voice. Wasn't
that where Christopher Okigbo taught? You interject. "Exactly! Then I
met Christopher. Well, he wasn't one of my students. So, I met him
and we developed a very close relationship. Then, when he became the
representative of Cambridge University Press, he had a big house in
Ibadan and I was living in Osogbo.
So, when I had business in Ibadan, I would just go in there whether
he was home or not I was sure of a bed and a good meal. His house was
just like home to me and we talked about art, literature and politics
and a whole lot more. Then, when the Mbari Club started, I started
something called Mbari publications which subsequently published his
first two volumes of poetry Heavensgate and Limits.
So, we were very close and I remember that he was very upset about
the way the political situation in the country was going at the time.
I was not surprised when I heard later that he was first to go to
Biafra and enlist in the army and first to die. It's very tragic," he
surmises looking suddenly crestfallen.
You sense that it may be tactless to allow this mood prevail long
enough to affect his recollections and then wonder if there are
particular things he could remember about the late poet. "Well, he
studied classics and then Greek and later when we published Black
Orphens, he would take a view and say 'I am not an African poet. I am
This was where he was different from others. He was contemporary. He
was extremely influenced by contemporary English poets. But the other
aspect of him was that his poems became more political in Path of
Thunder. It was actually inspired by some of my translations of
Yoruba poetry, some images, you know. He became more interested and
more African and finally more relaxed with his craft. One thing about
Mbari Club was that we had people who had very different ideas.
Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo never agreed on anything with J.P
Clark. But they respected each others because there was some merit in
their separate positions. And we always had a very lively
interaction. They never agreed on anything but they worked
successfully together. That was fascinating.
We had artists like Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke. But no, Beier is wrong.
The disagreement between Soyinka and Okigbo with J.P Clark did not
end on the floor of the Mbari Club. At least what Okigbo told South
African Lewis Nkosi about his resentment for Clark and what Clark
wrote in some of his civil war poems where he basically spat on
Okigbo's grave lend credence to this position. But this does not in
any way particular, whittle down the legacy of Mbari Club.
Listening to Beiers flawless English, it strikes you just how
wonderful it is that he is actually German and has a remarkable grasp
of French and Yoruba languages as well. This led to his translation
of literary works from Yoruba and French to English. But Beier went
beyond mere translation of Yoruba works. He became deeply immersed in
the Yoruba culture and worldview earning himself names like Obotunde
Ijimere, Sangodare Akanji and Omidiji Aragbabalu. His close friends
boldly refer to him as the German-born Yoruba man which he relishes
"In a sense, it was necessary for me to do the translations because
when I started teaching African literature and extra-mural classes,
there wasn't that much African literature coming out of Nigeria," he
says of what pushed him into trying his hands on translations. "There
was no Soyinka and Achebe in 1950-51, so I had to translate Sango and
Diop and Aime Cesare the Carebean writer. So, I have always enjoyed
translation for one reason or the other and I was totally bilingual
in German and English.
At a time I didn't know which was my language any more and I had a
pretty good French. So, from that I was able to do what I did. But
one thing about translation is that you must know the language from
which you translate but turning it into poem requires a deeper
knowledge. When you are translating from Yoruba to English, you have
to realize that there's a lot of things that you can't do. You have
to make it as simple as possible but what survives adds to a unique
" Of course Beier should know. He translated the works of Bakare
Gbadamosi and Timi Lawuyi among others to wide reception. Still, it
is interesting to note that Beier, in spite of his complete immersion
in the Yoruba culture has some critics. Oyekan Owomoyela for instance
thinks that Beier's "representation of the Yoruba ethos is too often
distorted and even slanderous." But Beier is not deterred.
Even at 83, Obotunde Ijimere still recalls with enticing vividness,
his earliest impressions of Chinua Achebe at the University College
Ibadan. "He was a very calm person. And when I returned to Nigeria
after the Biafran War in 1971, I went to the University of Nigeria at
Nsukka and it was all pretty raw then. Students were trying to clean
up the mess left by the soldiers. I saw Achebe then and you could see
that the terrifying experience of the war had given him some kind of
And Achebe told us a very touching story that when the frontline
moved during the war, as it did all the time, they had to pack from
house to house. And his children said "daddy you must be very rich,
because we have so many houses.' That's a great anecdote. Great
anecdote! I learnt a lot from Chinua. Later on, he came to Bayreuth
University when I was there and gave a lecture and I later did an
interview with him which was called -
"The world as a Dancing Masquerade." The world is a dancing
masquerade, if you want to see it properly you cannot stay in one
place. This explains the Igbo ability to move and try new things.
They are a very dynamic people. Achebe's Things Fall Apart was
published in 1958 and up till today it's popular all over the world
and a recommended text for HEC exams in Australia.
It's one of the most successful books in history and it means a lot
because that's somebody looking into his culture without sentiment,
without chauvinism and at the same time showing the dignity of his
people, you see. And from him I learnt what I know about Igbo
culture. He did an interview with Georgina which was called 'Wealth
is not what you have but what you give away'. That's a wonderful
point. So we learned a lot about the Igbo culture from him and also
Obiora Udechuckwu and we learnt to respect the Igbo culture.
I realized that the culture has extra-ordinary tolerance. Chinua told
us a story of when he was in primary school. The teacher one day
moved the class out of the classroom to the shade of a tree and put
the black board on the tree and proceeded to give them a lecture on
the geography of Great Britain. Then the local lunatic walked by and
stopped to watch the class for a while and walked up to the teacher,
took the chalk out of his hand, wiped the black board and proceeded
to give the class a lecture on Ogidi (Chinua's home town) which was
more important to the children. What amazed me is that the teacher
let it happen. In Europe he would call the police. That's fantastic!
This is one of the things I admire about Nigeria, these experiences."
Ulli Beier is not only full of years at 83 but full of stories as
well; wonderful stories, exciting stories and he tells every one with
fresh candour. He is also an adventurer who left his beloved Nigeria
for Papua New Guinea where along with his wife Georgina, he repeated
the Mbari experience setting up a Center for Art and Literature in
Moresby which threw the door ajar for creative people in the region.
Almost as many books have been written on Beier as he wrote on
But Beier deserves even more books for all that he did in Nigeria and
on the continent. Beier and Gerald Moore played a memorable role in
erecting the pillars of Nigeria literature upon which African
literature stands. Beier's cultural activism in Yorubaland with all
his translations and books on various aspects of the Yoruba culture
offer deep perspectives on the Yoruba race. Now if these do not
qualify a man for a national honour I wonder what else does. You see
why Obasanjo's national honours list for 2005 was in complete?