Rising Above the Limits of Fear: A Dialogue with Bayo Aderoju
Bayo Aderoju is a poet, essayist, fiction and non-fiction writer from Nigeria. He holds a B.A in English. His fiction, The Rainbow, was selected for inclusion in the ‘Decade of Action’ Short Stories Anthology of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. His works appear in Agbowó, Brittle Paper, Stellium, African Writer, The Shallow Tales Review, Kreative Diadem, Kalahari Review, Ngiga Review, Platform Review, Praxis Magazine, Spillwords, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. He tweets @bayo_aderoju.
BY TOM PATRICK NZABONIMPA
This conversation took place between a white painted bedroom in Gikondo, somewhere in the heart of Africa’s cleanest city, Kigali and a warm university neighbourhood in Ibadan, and a calm apartment somewhere on the mainland of Lagos, via WhatsApp and email.
Tom: Hello, Bayo. I trust you are doing well. I was privileged to read your creative non-fiction story, “Ado: Cradle, Incredulities” published in Agbowó Magazine and I would like to commend you for the remarkable work. What inspired you to write this story?
Bayo: Hello, Patrick. I am glad that you read and liked the story. Let me begin this introspective journey on an equally introspective note. I did my first piece—a preachy, sanctimonious piece that I used to call a poem—quite some years back. Today, I think it is more polemic than art. Nevertheless, I believe its motif demonstrates that my earliest perception of art’s utilitarian and that before reading the famous treatises, I had agreed with Niyi Osundare that the ideal African writer is a righter, and with Chinua Achebe that there is a moralist self-imposed responsibility hoisted on the writer by the realities of his existence. I still do. What has changed now is that I strongly believe that excellence in craft should not be sacrificed on the altar of Didacticism; while art should ideally not entirely be for art’s sake, art should first be art.
Towards the end of 2020, I learnt about the incessancy of kidnapping for ransom in the town of Ado Awaye as the case in the country, and the morbid fear it had instilled in the minds of the townspeople. Given the valiant, albeit chequered, history of the town, the news felt anomalous. It left me viscerally uneasy for days. This was at a time when the need to write about the incredulous Ado rock had also become an albatross upon my mind. The discomfiting feelings ballooned disproportionately as I embarked upon the lonely adventure. I guess it burst as I descended and I didn’t know when I began to write. In essence, I was inspired on one hand by the need to foreground Ado, and on the other hand by the more urgent need to explore the past: the dynamic traditions and rituals, the culture of bravery, etcetera in lieu of the present so that what used to be good can inform what is—the ugliness.
Tom: Such a great cause! I like this, “… art shouldn’t ideally entirely be for art’s sake; but art should first be art.” If I do understand well, art is limitless. Moving on, I am sorry to hear about the kidnapping in Ado Awaye. It sounds horrendous to me. So, how is the situation today? As someone who probably has friends in that town, are there other ways you use your art to address the issue?
Bayo: Thank you for your concern. Kidnapping in the town has now abated. I learnt that it stopped quite some months ago. The other part of the question reawakens in me the dilemma: the disheartening fact that writing: merely reflecting or critiquing issues may not always be enough. In the story, apart from mere reflection of the issue in a way that causes a feeling of unease in the readers, I hope, through a couple of allusions and subversive interrogation of status quo, to raise my audience, the townspeople in particular, above the limits of their fear. I hope to cause them to see how incongruous it all seemed, given what used to be. I think the editors at Agbowó saw this. But Literature, a naturally elitist art, tends to be even more elitist in Sub-Saharan Africa given the abysmal index of literacy and poor reading culture. More often than not, it is only fellow writers and students of literature that get to read these works. The only exception, I think, is drama. I began as a dramatist. I had authored and staged some plays back then and I have realised first-hand how really populist the genre can be. These days, I think more and more of returning to drama. However, one should still not forget that a writer is called to write. I think the ideal, as Abdulrazak Gurnah puts it, is to write the best and let the thing do its work wherever.
“I hope, through a couple of allusions and subversive interrogation of status quo, to raise my audience, the townspeople in particular, above the limits of their fear. I hope to cause them to see how incongruous it all seemed, given what used to be.“
Tom: You did great, Bayo. At least some people have read the story and I am sure it compelled them to rise above their fears. I am glad to hear that you write drama. I too have written some, back in 2019. I also found it significant especially for dialogues and shaping enormous characters and their speech patterns which can be entertaining but also convey enlightening messages to the audience. Back to the title of your story, “Ado: Cradle, Incredulities”; how did you come up with it?
Bayo: Good to hear that you have tried your hand on drama. Yes, its textual potentials are great, but what is even greater is the fact that it can be staged for all to enjoy; both literate and non-literate audiences. It blurs the barrier.
Back to your question. The title came first. It was there before I began to write. It was first my working title, but when I finished the story, I realised it was very apt and encompassing and decided to retain it. It came so effortlessly.
Tom: Interesting! I rarely start my story with a title in mind. Most of the time, it is the last part I work on before finalising a story (laughs). I would like to explore further this Ado mountain you hiked. In the story, there is where you write, “Exploring Ado, however, is more than mere hiking. It is a deliberate presentation of one’s heart on a rail paved by adventure for thorough pummelling by a train of incredulities.” This paragraph persuaded me to try hiking even though I have acrophobia (laughs). So, how can you describe your major experience of all the time you hiked Ado, and what did you learn from it?
Bayo: (Laughs) You really should hike the rock. It is, if I may reiterate, an unsung Mount Olympus. And I believe passions, especially burning, immodest passions help to silence fears.
I have never really succeeded at my attempts to pretend to be religious. I find quite impossible those audacious claims of organised religions. Their crazy logics simply gall me. Nonetheless, I am deeply fascinated by myths and I always allow my mind to wander and get lost ethereally. I make, from my daily encounters and norms, meanings that transcend the physical. Ado is reputed to be an abode of gods; benevolent gods that cure barrenness, cause rain to fall in season of drought, etc. I have always craved a visceral encounter with the gods on the rock. Something like that happened the last time I hiked. It happened around Iyake, the suspended lake—the only one in Africa—as I described in the story. I felt a mystery in my veins as I deepened my hands into the water. And to complement that, my head began to balloon mysteriously, and a wind also blew dust into my eyes as if the goddess was going to appear and I was too mortal to see her. The lake is popular for her healing power and a good number of townspeople are named after her. The experience left me puzzled: are myths truly merely there to help demystify our seemingly intractable cosmos?
Tom: That sounds like you have vastly enjoyed the experience. But, what about that healing power; do people really heal? What kind of diseases or difficulties do the lake help them with?
Bayo: It’s all a myth. You can liken it to those similar claims made by organised religions. However, like I noted earlier, Iyake, like other gods on the rock: Isage, Isata, etc, is popular for curing barrenness, and a number of townspeople are named after her. So you hear people bearing Iyake in the town, they are evidence of the benevolence of the god.
Tom: I see. Perhaps some believe it and talk about it. Back to acrophobia, have you ever experienced the same kind of fear? I believe some people fear hiking Ado or other peaks which makes them miss out on some mysterious adventures like the ones you experience in the story although they want to. Is there a way one can overcome acrophobia?
Bayo: It is common knowledge that courage is not the absence of fear. People who strike us as daring are those who have discovered some means of silencing their fears. The emotions we feed are the ones that grow and dominate, and vice-versa. For me, I usually allow my lust, passion to wax at the expense of my fear. I pretend to be fearless and always eventually end up being fearless.
Tom: That is fascinating! I sometimes try that at work or when I have to present something in front of new people. Maybe I should try the same while hiking (laughs). In your story, you talk about how eating vultures is taboo; I would like to explore more about that. What is the effect of eating vultures according to your culture or tradition? Also, are there other taboos related to eating animals?
Bayo: There are a lot of taboos in Yorùbá cosmology, and many of them are there for didactic or safety reasons. For instance, because people in the olden days lived in light-mud houses that could crumble when it rained heavily or thundered resoundingly, it’s a forbidden act to rest one’s back against the wall during heavy rains. So it is like there is tacit agreement to create fears in the mind of the populace, especially the exuberant young people, in order to forestall mishaps. Some of these taboos, however, are of spiritual imports, and are literally almost impossible to unravel. People, faithful of the Orisa religion, ritually make sacrifices to their gods. They prepare them and place them at crossroads. The bird vulture is believed to be the bearer of these sacrifices to the gods in their ethereal precinct and is revered to this extent, hence the taboo. We were warned as kids not to even by mistake kill a vulture. Each time we asked why, their response was the paradox: if you kill a vulture, you must not eat it, and you must not let it waste away, and you must not let its blood to earth.
Tom: I am amazed by how the taboos are ascertained in your culture. Well, something identical is said to have taken place in the tradition of northern Rwanda in a place called Rubaya where they speak Rukiiga which is basically a mix of some Kinyarwanda and Runyankole, a language that is spoken in some parts of Uganda. In their tradition, it was a taboo for a woman to eat goat meat. They were only for men. As the times evolved, women came to realise that the taboo was baseless and it is said that men in that area were greedy; they just wanted to eat goats’ meats, which are considered popular and one of the most delicious in Rwanda, alone. Guess what now? Women eat goat meat (laughs). It’s no longer a taboo. Moving on, I would like to know more about Gelede bands; are they popular? Do they symbolise some cultural or artistic models in your culture or tradition?
Bayo: It is strange how gluttonous the men of Rubaya were. It is just certain that time would catch up with such callousness. Even here people have their doubts about the taboos, although there is no proof that they are motivated by avarice or such other debased human instincts. There is a saying that mortals, not the gods, determine what a taboo is as well as what is sacrilegious and what’s not, which is essentially the basis for the pithy poetic featured in the story: “…it doesn’t matter that you hunt vultures/ if you have to/ it doesn’t matter that you make a delicious meal of your kill/ if you have to/ just be sure to keep your escapade a secret/ for the gods, you see, are silent to sins no man complains about.
Moving on, the Gelede bands or cults perform their moralist artistic duties for both entertainment and traditional purposes. Fame or popularity is never really a concern for them as they are naturally accepted as a necessary element of culture. They have a duty to uphold high moral standards in the town. And to this extent, they sing to chastise crooked elements, no matter how highly placed.
Tom: I like how Gelede is not motivated by fame but conserving culture which I find significant. Nowadays, in Kigali, most artists, especially the young, rarely care about tradition or culture. They just adopt their art from modernity and most of the time, it dominates and yet abolish the profundity of their identity. I hope they can learn something from Gerede bands.
Moving on, in your story, there is where you talk about an itinerant magician who came forth in a bar and was doing some “cool” tricks though he later caused trouble and was about to be choked. So, in your society or culture, what place do magicians have?
Bayo: It was not a bar. It was an open space; a square. It happened several years ago, before I was born; remember I said something about collapsing time past with time present in the story. In my culture, just as in other cultures, magicians are entertainers. They are respected and sometimes feared for their wizardry.
Tom: Same here although we do not have a lot of magicians. Most people fear them. They say they use dark power, but at the same time, enjoy setting eyes on what they do. I have realised that you write fiction too. What do you think is the advantage of creative non-fiction over fiction?
Bayo: I think the difference, not really an advantage, is the proximity of non-fiction to us. I mean how immediate, how easily relatable, how evocative of known spaces and times it always is. You know it’s normally our consummate truth or reality, albeit presented with artistic embellishments. Chew this: “The sprawling, undulating terrain is all of Ake”, or “The man dies in all who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”. Of the books I read as a teenager, I think Wole Soyinka’s non-fictions: Ake, Ibadan, The Man Died, etc, left the most enduring impressions upon me. This, however, is not to suggest that I consider fiction to be inferior; neither am I oblivious to the fact that fiction writers first have to excel in making their works read as true to life as possible. And that’s even basic. Chew this from Bessie Head: “It is lonely at the lands where people go to plough”, and this from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: “Princeton, in summer, smells of nothing…” So even though I love the constant traceability of real-to-imaginary or literal-to-metaphorical progression of non-fiction, there is this tardiness, especially with facts, that fiction allows, which one does not get to enjoy while writing non-fiction. But, again, there’s the straddle: making fiction read realistically and non-fiction read novelistically, attendant to which is the blend of the two genres, the emergence of a confluence. I’m talking of the nascent autofiction.
Tom: The proximity really makes the difference. I too find creative non-fiction significant especially when talking about real-life events but inducing creativity within. What are you working on nowadays?
Bayo: One never really stops writing, although I have been preoccupied with some other engagements lately. I think I have a poem forthcoming in Kreative Diadem. Mainly, there is this story, fiction, that I have been working on half-heartedly for a couple of months now. I hope to complete it by the end of the year and hopefully find it a home early next year.
Tom: That is great. Keep writing more. I hope to read them once they are published. Thank you Bayo. It was fantastic to have an insightful conversation with you.
Bayo: Thank you for having me Patrick. It’s been an interesting moment with you.
Tom Patrick Nzabonimpa is a writer from Kigali. He writes creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and screenplays. He was a resident at the 2020 Pen Pen African Writers Residency, second edition in Nairobi, and has won the 2020 Empower Africa Now Writing Contest in the short story category. Tom’s works have appeared and are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Twaweza Anthology, African Autograph, HQAfrica and WSA Magazine, among other places. He is a columnist at The New Times and the Country Coordinator of Writers Space Africa, Rwanda Chapter (WSA-R). He is also working on his debut novel. When he is not writing, you can find him drinking chai.
One thought on “Rising Above the Limits of Fear: A Dialogue with Bayo Aderoju”
Aderoju, my smart friend. Thank you for a quality time on here: and memoir of the teenage readings…