Olabiyi Yai: A Farewell to the Doyen of Afro-Optimism
Staring through space that drowned my muse
I fight to hide unbottled emotions with every stroke;
And every image I attempt to word
Gets lost at the tip of my quill, or worst still;
Giving life to the monster I never intended to create
As I beseech the heavens for any spark or guidance
The sky refuses to lighten the dark night
And I, a lone wolf, have lost my spark;
Mother Moon cannot lighten up even her own shadow.
I say sorry for making you read the sad story of my feelings,
But you all know Yai, don’t you?
“People come people go”
They say that is the way of life
But Olabiyi’s death remains a fallacy
Like a mirage on a sunny day
80 years seem too short
I question the brevity of life
Eternity is more apt.
At the center of Afroism, it’s you, Yai, we see,
While the throng of voices in our minds won’t let us be,
While the cage of distrust and the fear of failure
Won’t set us free…
And now we’ve got nothing to offer you
We shall stick to your rich verb.
Our eternal legacy
Even when the turbulent tide intensifies life’s ride,
I remember that you, Yai,
You invigorated me in Ogunmola’s city.
Olabiyi, the scion of Babalola is gone!
Shall you die for me to deny your existence?
Will long days’ wailings mourn
Yai, were I ever to forget all…
Not our encounter in the wine city of Paris
And the way you walked to my side
And that you asked Bolojogales
To sing sweet melodies in moonlit tales;
Could that have been the beginning of this end?
His Excellency, Ambassador Joseph Babalola Yai, a Professor of “Cultural Humanity,” passed on to the ancestral clouds some days ago, at the age of 80+. This is the type of news you can get anywhere at this moment of death’s surplus as the heavens are hungry for meat, and the world willingly obliges. Before you have the time to mourn, another death is announced. The land is famished. “The death of a thousand people,” declares one Yoruba proverb, “does not bring the world to its end.” Praying that “may the days of departure be long apart” is day-dreaming. Who is next?
Symbolically, we are also reminded that Africa has lost a giant, a global voice and cultural crusader. What you might not get however is that, at every turn of the short cycle we call life, humanity is faced with diverse challenges but fortunately graced with angelic beings to rescue it from its many predicaments. There is no question that Yai came through as one of these bodies on earth! All seasons are indeed pleasant. They evolve their own ambience. They communicate what the Chinese call “Yin-Yang”—the message of balance. But there is no balance, and there cannot be when each season is not adequately prepared for. These are trying times for those of us presently alive, especially in Africa. For obvious reasons, that is the crux of this tribute to the departed sage.
Compared to other regions of the world, the states that make up the formerly colonized region of Africa are relatively young in the comity of nations. The African states representing Black identity are plagued with poverty, character assassination, and incredible contradictions, making them readily weak in the global order of things. Yai was born into this situation. His life and career had to address them, but I am unsure if the outcome was not a disappointment to him.
Born in 1939, as the only child of his Beninise Yoruba parents in Sabe, the capital of the old Yoruba kingdom, now part of the Benin Republic, Yai was among the first generation of scholars that emerged to act as Africa’s intellectual foot soldiers saddled with the task of turning the precarious wheel. I was once with him in Sabe, and he showed me where it all began.
His experiences from the point of birth into the colonial structured world have been transnational. These would come to shape his life and career pattern, considerably. Many years later he argued that the regional integration efforts of West African countries are nothing but attempts at state normalization of what had already existed among different west African communities and peoples long before the creation of ECOWAS. This was exactly Professor Tony Asiwaju’s argument as well, and it is no surprise they were friends, until death parted them. Both are borderlanders and hinterlanders, and their experiences and writing are shaped by location. Along with Angélique Kidjo, the preeminent music superstar, Yai and I returned to the issues raised by Professor Asiwaju, and the three of us shared meals at a Candomblé house in Bahia, re-igniting, re-unifying, and reconnecting the Afro-Atlantic world. History, music, and languages became one at a distant land where the Fon and Yoruba ancestors were forcibly relocated.
In search for the knowledge to power his course, Yai went from the Sorbonne where he obtained his first degree to Ibadan where he began his graduate journey, a reverse mission with consequences. The journey of small beginnings that began at Sabe ballooned to prominence as Yai would later become a Professor of African studies as a specialist in African literature and languages, alphabetization, oral poetry, African diaspora formation and literacy, and he was a permanent delegate of the Republic of Benin to UNESCO. I am one of those few people who actually met and interacted with him in all those locations: Ile-Ife, Ibadan, Cotonou, Austin, Gainesville, and Paris, are a few places where our paths crossed and meshed. I forgot to add England!
At these various heights, he held several distinctive roles. At one point, he was Director of Languages and Literature of Africa and Asia at the University of Florida and Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies at the Obafemi Awolowo University. At another, he was a Consultant for Culture and Language Policy in West African states of Benin (his home country), Nigeria (his second home), Burkina Faso, Togo, and Mozambique in the 1970s and 1980s, and participated at the highest echelons of the development of UNESCO’s programs regarding African languages, culture, and preservation of cultural heritage. While in Paris, he was gracious in hosting my wife and myself in his apartment where àmàlà, okro (his favorite) mixed with champagne (what he called the “appetizer to open the stomach”), and brandy to complete it — “drink the digestive,” he once told me! Once it comes to alcohol, I don’t disobey such instructions!!
At the global level, he served as the Chairman of the Executive Board of UNESCO, and shortly before his death, as a Goodwill Ambassador of the EPA. Tellingly, with this stellar record, he was at the center of the United Nations system at reaching decisions on the question of culture, cultural heritage, history, and peoples of Africa.
It was during one of these periods that he served as a prominent member of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project and President of the Culture Commission of UNESCO G77, where he and others revisited the horrific past of Africa through the experiences of slavery, political domination, economic exploitation, and cultural retardation. I once served as the Vice-President of that project and led a UNESCO conference in Nigeria, held in Calabar.
The transnationality of his background would surface again in his academic career, even before his stint at UNESCO: From Nigeria where he taught at the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University, the Mwalimu himself taught in Europe, the United States, and Asia, where his scholarship and outstanding records were acknowledged by management, colleagues, and students. But the scope of his transnational identity does not end here. The Ambassador was known to have been a polyglot speaking more than four languages such as French, English, Yoruba, Portuguese, and others. In all of these capacities and accumulated attributes Yai stood for the promotion of the role of women in Africa and the world, while emphasizing the need to rejig the United Nations system to make for a more effective UNESCO as a core agency for the sake of attaining many of the tasks set by the global body in the twenty-first century and even beyond. As he explained, the current system is skewed against this body (UNESCO), hence the minimal impact it has made so far.
At the diplomatic and academic level, Yai was on the campaign of correcting this anomaly, evident in the funding and attention given to the works of this body by powerful nations. His works on African culture, the Yoruba especially, which form his organic field of research, illuminate different aspects of advancement, limitations, and possibilities in African studies. Hence, about three decades after Chief Oluwole Delano published the first dictionary of Yoruba verbs, Yai gave to the world of Africanist scholars his Yoruba-English/English-Yoruba Concise Dictionary in 1995. Meanwhile, in one fascinating piece where he interrogated the role of interpretation and translation in understanding African realities, he referred to anthropologists as the perfect and perpetual victims of translating cultures and cultural practices in Africa because, in every conceivable way, they are translators of cultures. “An unresolved tragedy” he wrote, “is inherent in the task of the translator. She or he knows that translation is, at once, necessary and impossible. The tragedy attains heroic proportions with anthropologists insofar as they are translators of entire cultures.” This comes into the current decolonization discourse in African studies and the bid to rescue African cultures from misrepresentation. By researching and teaching African languages, literature, culture, and philosophy, Yai joined the army of Africanists who have fought in various capacities for the revival of the past and placing its present on a high pedestal.
The tragedy referred to above stares us in the face when we observe that many of these soldiers are now leaving us for the clouds to the world beyond, with their wisdom and experience carried in their pouches, some buried with them. Although some of the treasures needed for those of us remaining to soldier on have been documented in their books, articles and documents, (some of which were prepared by them), the grand problem lies in the perpetually downward spiral of the reading culture in Africa. How do we keep up with the momentum of decolonizing Africa when the knowledge of these sages in large part risks being lost with their demise? This reality was clearly not lost on Yai, and he once said in an interview:
As I said before I am an Afrooptimist. I am sure our generation are now exiting but your generation with your eyes open to what is happening in China, India with internet, you have to ask our leaders be more accountable. That is what we don’t do right now. You should say enough is enough.
Among the angelic souls that work through the earth, we have lost and now must celebrate the life of one whose life is a veritable constellation of Africanity:
Shall we pour libation to the earth-god that consumed Ajanaku?
What shall the object of libation be for Etigberi Abeni Ade who sank the body but surely not the soul of Olabiyi?
Birthed into a conflicting identity configured by coloniality
Leaving home in Benin for his father’s farm in Nigeria
Learning the path of the future from the elders
You survived the contradictions
You forged a new identity for yourself:
That of a human
That of an Afrooptimist
That of a scholar-diplomat…
When the clouds are unveiled
When the sleeping birds awaken
We offer Etigberi nothing but praises as we marvel in the outstanding life you led with our stomach heavy with palm wine.
Greet Akinwumi Isola for me, and enjoy your Stout drink together.