A piece by James Eze from a few years back gives a flavour of the man:
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 had 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 enthusiastic 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 a pity that his name was not on the honours list of this year's National Merit Award recipients.
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 I 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 Club when we founded it", he recalls in a 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 196o 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 196os 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 his 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 luxuriant 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 guidance 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 destroyed, 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 Ephemeral 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 comes 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 Orpheus; he would take a view and say 'I am not an African poet. I am a poet'. “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 other 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 of 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. However, this does not in any way in particular, whittle down the legacy of Mbari Club. Listening to Beier’s 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 with pride. "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 Caribbean 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 anymore 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 a 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 philosophy. "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 strength.
“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 everyone 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 African literature. 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 Nigerian 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?