Obituary: Akinwunmi Ishola, the honest man and culture icon

Akinwunmi Ishola

On Saturday, February 17, 2018, the family of renowned playwright, culture activist, actor, author, academic, and dramatist, Akinwunmi Ishola, confirmed that he had quietly passed on at his Akobo home, Ibadan, after battling an undisclosed ailment for the last two years of his life.

He was 78 years old.

A prolific writer and retired Professor of Yoruba Language and Literature, Ishola who was awarded the National Merit Award in 2000 and was a recipient of the Nigeria Academy of Letters, was the author of titles such as Efusetan Aniwura, Madam Tinubu and Belly Bellows.

Post-academia, Ishola and renowned filmmaker, Tunde Kelani entered a remarkable creative union – also including the late Adebayo Faleti – that birthed the release of classic films like Oleku, Saworoide and The Campus Queen.

Ishola may have earned his stripes as an accomplished scholar, but it was his work as a filmmaker that introduced him to a more mainstream audience.

Oleku in particular, released by Kelani’s Mainstream Productions in 1997 had a tremendous cultural influence as the 70’s era Iro and Buba costumes depicted in the film quickly staged a comeback in women’s fashion. Saworoide, a political satire released two years later, remains relevant till this day as it lampoons irresponsible behaviour among the political elite.

A cultural preservationist, Ishola considered African languages, especially his native Yoruba as endangered species and wrote primarily in his native language about figures whom otherwise may have been forgotten by history. At public events, he made attempts to speak Yoruba as often as possible and at some point in his life, discouraged his grandchildren from visiting him until they could converse fluently in Yoruba. In the movies, Ishola often had pivotal roles as an Ifa priest or culture custodian.

As a representative of the United Nation’s cultural arm, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, (UNESCO), Ishola was instrumental to the eventual selection by the UNESCO, of the Ifa divination system as one of the world’s cultural masterpieces.

He also helped set up the Ifa Cultural Heritage Institute in Oyo, sponsored by UNESCO and delivered the institution’s convocation lecture in 2013, in Yoruba. Ishola had previously delivered the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko’s convocation lecture in Yoruba, years after his request to deliver his own inaugural lecture at the Obafemi Awolowo University was turned down. “When we talk about a culture, language is the key. It is the vehicle with which culture is driven. Without language, there is no culture,” he was once quoted as saying.

Born on Christmas day of 1939 to the home of a founding member of the Methodist church in Labode, a small village near Ibadan, Ishola attended Labode Methodist School but had to move to Ibadan to resume standard three at Ibadan Methodist Primary School, Agodi.

He attended Wesley College in Ibadan and later University College, Ibadan, now University of Ibadan where he studied French for four years. In 1986, while working as a lecturer, Ishola wrote and composed the college anthem currently being sung in his alma mater, Wesley College Ibadan.

Having dispensed with his tertiary education, a certain twist had Ishola resuming work as a graduate assistant at the University of Lagos under the tutelage of Professor Adeboye Babalola, the first African principal at the Igbobi College, Lagos. He obtained a Masters degree in Yoruba Literature from the University of Lagos.

Tempted by the opportunity of joining a community of his friends, – amongst whom were Wole Soyinka, Yemi Ogunbiyi and Biodun Jeifo – Ishola transferred his services to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1974. He remained at Ife for the rest of his academic career and was promoted Professor, before retiring in 1991. Ishola was responsible for translating the Soyinka classics, Death and the King’s Horseman and Ake: The Years of Childhood into Yoruba.

Ishola’s first book, Efunsetan Aniwura, written even before he secured admission into the University, was first published in 1964 by Oxford University Press. Inspired by a book about Ibadan written by Isaac Akinyele, the novel detailed the exploits of the title character, an Iyalode of Ibadan who was extremely powerful and wealthy.

Even though Efunsetan Aniwura enjoyed a stage and small screen run, Ishola’s account was criticised for its liberties with the facts and was dismissed in some historian quarters as an unreliable account of an important historical figure. In a 2013 Punch newspaper interview, Ishola accepted the criticism in good faith and blamed his errors on youthful exuberance. He made some adjustments in the 2005 film of the same title which he wrote and co-produced.

Ishola’s second act was as a filmmaker.

He was a firm believer in Nollywood’s capacity to maintain the country’s social values and instil behavioural change as long as the focus remained on showcasing the beauty in local traditions and cultures. Three years after his retirement, Tunde Kelani came to him, seeking out methods of producing quality films purely in the Yoruba language. Koseegbe, released in 1995, was the first product of their collaboration.

He walked the talk and with films like Agogo Ewo and Oleku, was able to play his own part. ‘’My argument is that the movies should be in our own image, in terms of language, costumes, make-up among others,’’ he once said.

A lifelong Methodist, Ishola, however, believed in religious tolerance and preached respect for every way of life, every chance that he got. He once said to a Daily Sun reporter, ‘’My own belief in Christ does not stop me from being tolerant with other religion, especially Yoruba traditional religion because I know there is a lot of truth in it and in any case God made everything. He created all cultures of the world.”

President Muhammadu Buhari, through a statement conveyed by Femi Adesina, his special adviser on media and publicity, noted that the literary world ‘’would surely miss the cultural activist for his steadfastness and dedication to the promotion of the native language as a means of sustaining the culture and tradition of Africa.’’

Akinwunmi Ishola was survived by a wife, Adeshola, four children and numerous grandchildren.

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