Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Fatima Seck
Bankole Ajibabi Omotoso, more commonly known as Kole Omotoso, was born in Nigeria in 1943 to a traditional elite Yoruba family (Stellenbosch Writers, n.d). He was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother as a result of his father’s early death (Africultures, n.d.). After completing his secondary education at King’s College in Lagos, Omotoso attended the University of Ibadan, from which he graduated in 1968. He then went on to pursue a doctoral degree in Arabic Literature at the University in Edinburgh, and received his PhD in 1972 (Britannica, n.d.)
Omotoso returned to Nigeria, first lecturing at the University of Ibadan in its Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies until 1976, then teaching at the drama school at the University of Ife until 1988 (Britannica, n.d.). Alongside his career in academia, Omotoso worked extensively in fiction, drama and literary criticism, drawing often on both the Yoruba folklore he grew up with and the Arabic and English studies he pursued in his higher education. In his plays, short stories and novels, his work was the manifestation of a desire to seek refuge from the social and political decay of Nigeria over the course of the 20th century. But it was also a way to explore and examine alternative possibilities (Africultures, n.d).
Literary success and controversial writings
These grounded experimentations were central to Omotoso’s numerous novels. The Edifice, which explores the lives of students in late 1960s Edinburgh, recounts the deterioration of a marriage between the protagonist, a Nigerian overseas student in the UK, and his white, English wife when he takes her to his home country. Not only does this novel express ideas of cultural displacement and gendered ideologies, it also offers insight into the experience of African overseas students studying in the UK at the time.
Omotoso’s next novel, The Combat (1972), a historical novel that was a memorial to the Biafran War, narrates the (increasingly broken) friendship between two people fighting for the paternity rights of a market girl (Centre for Creative Arts, n.d.). Omotoso’s historical novel Just Before Dawn (1988) was both factual and fictional, examining the trials and tribulations of Nigeria’s first century: it told stories of uprisings, coup d’etats, riots and violence. For its innovative writing style and major impact on the African literary canon, Just Before Dawn was awarded a Special Commendation in the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.
Despite its cultural and literary success, Just Before Dawn was not received well by much of the Nigerian population – in fact, the novel was so controversial Omotoso had to flee Nigeria and resettle in South Africa (Stellenbosch Wrtiers, n.d.). Since then, he has held positions at the University of Stirling, the University of Lesotho Roma, Tawala Theatre, the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University (Britannica, n.d.).
Since the 1980s, Omotoso has been a prominent and public African intellectual, and actively contributes to the (pan) African cultural and academic lexicon — contributing to nonfiction collections like The Form of the African Novel (1979) and writing Seasons of Migration to the South: Africa’s Crises Reconsidered (1994). Drawing his title from Tayeb Salih’s famous Seasons of Migration to the North, Seasons of Migration to the South discusses the need for African models of history and literature to follow Arab ideas, finding that Arab historiographies have been able to “accept and integrate all kinds of cultural and historical material.” (Omotoso, 1994, p62). Throughout the novel, Omotoso reflects on the merits and shortcomings of African cultural leaders and intellectuals over the century, in particular in the era since decolonisation, and in doing so seeks and calls for a better African condition.
He notes that “cultural leaders in Africa…have failed to prove such an umbrella to resolve the tension between the various independent states, between different ethnic groups within one country, between the ethnically bound and the detribalised, the traditionalists and the pan-Africanist.” Omotoso believed that African leaders had a responsibility to create the conditions for unity, and to do through forging new historiographies: “the more [he] travelled in these countries the more [he] found that the future was not really Africa’s problem. The past and what it should signify in the present is the battle that Africa must win.” (Omotoso, 1994, p62).
Indeed, the project of unearthing and (re)imagining Africa’s history and culture is central to Omotoso’s ethos as a scholar, teacher, writer and person. He is committed “to fusing a socio-political reprisal of Africa [with a] respect for human dignity” (Foresight for Development, n.d). Professor Kole Omotoso is a scholar, a critic, and a playwright; through his words and thought, he strives to push the boundaries of African being and possibility. He writes with a moral, social, and political responsibility to the African continent. And through his words and thought, activates and imagines new and better possibilities for Africa and its people.
Read about other African alumni:
Africultures, N.D. “Kole Omotoso.” africultures.com
Britannica, N.D. “Kole Omotoso, Nigerian novelist.” britannica.com
Foresight for Development, N.D. “Kole Omotoso, Futurist Profile.” foresightfordevelopment.org
Stellenbosch Writers, N.D. “Kole Omotoso.” stellenboschwriters.com