Débọ̀ Awẹ́ is a writer, a retired secondary school headteacher and a minister of God in Praise for Christ Ministries International. He is also the CEO of Elyon Publishers, a publishing company in Iléṣà, Ọ̀șun State, Nigeria, where he lives. He has been writing since 1983, and he writes in the Yorùbá language, which he studied to Master’s level at Obafemi Awolowo University and the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He has published nearly a hundred books, ranging from non-fiction texts on the Yorùbá language to plays, poetry and novels. He spoke to Africa in Words about his career in writing.
Thank you very much for talking to us. Could you please begin by telling us a bit about your writing?
I have written a lot of prose, poetry, and drama, all in Yorùbá language. The issues therein centre on the happenings in our community and the entire socio-political set-up. Our community being heterogeneous and facing many challenges, we have many issues at stake to write about. And being a social critic, I write on anything that I feel is against the norms of a good society.
I have written almost a hundred titles. Some are texts on grammar, like Òǹkà Yorùbá Lákọ̀tun, which centres on Yorùbá numerals, from oókan (one) to àádọ́ta ọ̀kẹ́ (one million)! I also wrote three sets of Yorùbá grammar books for new or foreign students who want to learn Yorùbá language as a second language.
Ààrẹ-ọ̀nà kakanfò traces the political era, from pre-independence to the 1st Republic, and the political upheaval between Awólọ́wọ̀ and Akíntọ́lá, the then premier and deputy premier of the western region of Nigeria.
Another prose text is Kannakánná. I used it to question what led to the death of Délé Gíwá, a reporter who was assassinated with a letter bomb in Lagos.
Ẹkún Elédùmarè is a collection of poems that enumerated the deplorable situation of Nigeria under military rule.
Dìgbòlùjà is a prose text based on the annulled election of June 12,1993, and the resultant murder of many of those in opposition and human rights activists. The death of Abíọ́lá and Abacha was the ultimate end of the scenario.
A number of your books refer to contemporary political or social issues. Could you tell us about some of the issues you’ve addressed through your writing, and that you plan to address in the future?
This is very varied. It ranges from the pre-colonial era to post-independence. I have placed much emphasis on the corrupt practices of our leaders, and on religious bigotry. In the nearest future, if God permits, I intend to write on the effects of this coronavirus and the lockdown – both in the world generally, and its pronouncement in our cultural setting in Nigeria in particular, how our governments are trading with it. Also, I am proposing to write on the negligence of this ruling party in Nigeria, touching on Boko Haram and on raids by Fulani herders in our land.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work, or your life generally?
The COVID-19 pandemic really affected me, both positively and negatively. It affected my business in that schools were closed since early March. No sales, everything became stagnant. Everybody became poor to the extent of going begging.
On the other hand, the lockdown afforded me an ample chance of writing four new literary works. One in prose form is titled Àmọ̀tẹ́kùn. The other three are in drama form: Àjíún, Arídìí pọ̀tẹ̀ mọ́lẹ̀, Ìyá Tóńkán, and Ẹrẹ́jà.
Can you tell us any more about these new works?
Àmọ̀tẹ́kùn is about the traditional security guard instituted by the governments of Yorùbá-speaking states to curb killings, maiming and kidnappings by Fulani raiders and other related political offences.
Àjíún, Arídìí pọ̀tẹ̀ mọ́lẹ̀ is a drama about a princess who was a regent after the death of the King. Her reign was peaceful and high-achieving. But the kingmakers, the Ọ̀yọ́mèsì, wanted to plot against her dynasty. One of them eyed the throne, claiming that a female regent cannot become a king. But the woman magically turned herself to male to beat the kingmakers. And “he” became the Aláàfin of Ọ̀yọ́.
Ìyá Tóńkán is also drama. It centres on a woman who is a food vendor, but who did some jùjú with a human concoction so as to sell better. But at last she was detected, arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment.
Ẹrẹ́jà is about a misinterpretation of a street called ‘Ẹrẹ́jà’ which means a place or location where the warrior called ” Ẹrẹ́” fought. The people misinterpreted it to be a market place.
What made you start writing?
Even though I am a scholar of the Yorùbá language, I never set out to be a writer. Becoming a writer was the result of an awkward and bitter incident that happened to me: the mysterious death of a younger brother of mine. It touched my emotions, and in an attempt to let the public share my experience, I decided to try putting the matter into black and white, in the form of creative writing.
Do you see any relationship between your study of Yoruba language and your literary writing, or do you consider them separate endeavours?
Yes. In the first instance, I use Modern Yorùbá Orthography which I learned as Yorùbá scholar. I learned about different types of prose, drama and poetry. I learned about stylistics, I learned about socialism, Marxism, and other theories in appreciating literature. And genres of novels such as detective stories, comedy and tragedy. All these helped in deciding the type I want to write.
What is the situation for Yorùbá-language publishing at the moment?
The situation here for publishing Yorùbá-language writing is not too bad. People are getting used to it. And we have a lot of Yorùbá books and more are still being attempted. Where the problem lies is the reader; the general reading habit in Yorùbá is very low. However, nearly every Yorùbá scholar, from primary to university level, reads my work in all Yorùbá-speaking states. My books are included in the curriculum, and they buy an average quantity of it. Other interested individuals also buy my books, but their number is very low.
How would you characterise the style of Yorùbá you use in your writing?
I mix up the type of Yorùbá that I use. At times, I use dialectical Yorùbá to drive home whatever I need to emphasise. At times I use songs in the dialect of the area in which the song is common. But generally, I use standard Yorùbá, written with accepted orthography.
Which other authors’ work (in Yorùbá or any language) do you enjoy?
As a writer of many books in Yorùbá, I enrich my creative work by reading non-fiction books and novels both in Yorùbá language and in English. In Yorùbá language, I enjoyed Akinwumi Ìsọ̀lá‘s novels, such as Ògún ọmọdé, Kòseégbé, Ẹfúnsetán Àní wúrà. I also read all of Ọládẹ̀jọ Òkédìjí’s work: Rẹ́rẹ́ rún, Àgbàlagbà Akàn, Atótó arére, and Àjà ló lẹrù. I also read some of the writings of Kọ́lá Akínlàdé and Afọlábí Olábimtán, to mention a few.
Apart from that, I used to buy books written by African writers such as Chinua Achebe, T. M. Àlùkò, and Ahmed Yerima. There was Othello, a play by Shakespeare that Ahmed Yerima re-wrote in modern-day English. I bought the book and found the story therein very interesting. I reset the story to meet Yorùbá culture and traditions. The title of the adapted drama is Lágídígba.
I also read a long, non-fiction work on Moremi, written in English, in which I discovered a lot of hidden facts about the legendary woman of Ilé-Ifẹ̀. It gave me the idea to write a Yorùbá novel to showcase Moremi’s efforts in liberating women in general from the bondage they were in then. And also to expose how Moremi used her beauty to gain freedom for the Ifè people from the Ùgbò who were terrorising them.
Do you write your plays to be performed, or primarily to be published in writing?
I write my plays primarily to be published and read generally, but some of them have been performed as plays on stage. The first one that was performed was Àpótí Alákàrà. The other one that was performed was Lágídígba, performed by students of a secondary school in Èkìtì state. Work is going on to produce Mọrèmi Àjàșorò as a play by a performing theatre group in Ìbàdàn.
For readers who are unfamiliar with your work, which of your books would you suggest they start with?
I will recommend my grammar books to start with. From there, the student will learn about the Yorùbá alphabet and tone marking. Later, I will recommend Ọmọ Àjẹ́ Ọ̀run, Kékeré Akàn, and Ta ni gbọ́mọgbọ́mọ. They are short, so the new reader will enjoy them and finish within a few days.
Where can readers buy your books?
They can find them at Bẹẹrẹ market, Ìbàdàn, the University book shop at OAU, Ilé-Ifè, or the University of Ìbàdàn bookshop. Work is also currently ongoing to make them available to download as e-books.