• Controversies still trail legendary Yoruba author, 50 years after death
From Bamigbola Gbolagunte, Akure
The late Daniel Olorunfunmi Fagunwa widely known as D. O. Fagunwa was a great writer, author and researcher. He became popular through his great literary works in Yoruba Language. His name still rings bell not only in his Oke-Igbo hometown in Ile-Oluji/Oke-Igbo Local Government Area of Ondo State, but across the length and breadth of the country as many still make reference to his works.
He was one of the first indigenous authors to pioneer writing of Yoruba novels. His major work is Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale. It shot him into instant limelight and placed the agrarian community of Oke-Igbo on the world map. Other books by the legend included Igbo Olodumare, Aditu Olodumare and Ireke Onibudo, all of which remained enduring legacies even after his death 54 years ago.
As a result of his creative writings bordering on unseen forces and mysteries of life, there were lots of controversies surrounding the death of the foremost writer. These have refused to be laid to rest despite the family’s efforts to dispel the stories. The stories, the rumours are in various shapes and dimensions.
Some believed Fagunwa disappeared shortly after he kicked the bucket. Some others said he was drown in river and his corpse was not found, just as there was also the rumour that he was taken away in a whirlwind as a result of the metaphysical powers he was said to possess.
But the widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Adebanke Fagunwa, insisted that her was buried like every other human being: “His death was like that of a great man, as he died when we expected it less.”
She described her husband as a good Christian who lived like every other human being and had no inkling that death was at hand when he gave up the ghost:
“My husband was buried in this town, his corpse was brought to his family house in Oke-Igbo. He was buried in the church, St. Luke’s Anglican Church cemetery on December 10, 1963. The records are there in the church. His resting place is still there, so the myth about his body disappearing was only an imagination of some people. My husband was a good Christian.”
She explained that her husband had no premonition of his death. She confirmed that he was drowned in Wuya River in Niger State, while returning to Ibadan, Oyo State, from a book tour of Northern Nigeria, adding that his body was found at the bank of the river three days later.
Fagunwa was a representative of Heinemann Publishers in Nigeria. He was so appointed after writing four books published by the publishing company. His mission to the North was to scout for writers for the company before he met his death:
“He initiated the establishment of Heinemann Publishing Company in Nigeria and Heinemann published his last official book. I call it official because he was writing one, which he couldn’t complete. I regarded Aditu Olodumare as his last official work, it was published by Heinemann.
“Through him, the company decided to come to Nigeria so that they could have many writers and authors from Nigeria and publish their works. My husband was appointed as the manager of the company in Nigeria. He travelled around the country marketing Heinemann books to schools and in search of great writers like him.
“He left for the northern part of the country on such assignment on November 16, 1963. He was away till that fateful day, December 7, 1963, when he planned to come back to our home in Ajanla Street, Oke-Ado, Ibadan. We had planned for his arrival but on his way back, he stayed the last night on earth at Bida, Niger State, in an hotel.”
She explained that Fagunwa and his driver were waiting at the riverbank to be ferried across the river in the early hours of that day when the late author decided to take a walk and unfortunately got drowned in the process. She added that the driver, James, who was a native of Ibadan, said they were the first to get to the riverbank that day:
“He (the driver) said they left their hotel around 5:00am and the people to ferry them didn’t come until around 6.00am. When they got to the riverbank, Fagunwa decided to take a walk around before the people would be ready. While he was strolling, it was not yet daybreak he said he just heard a sound in the water.
“He looked at the direction and his master was nowhere to be found. He ran there and before he got there, he found a canoe, which had turned upside down. He guessed that it was not unlikely that Fagunwa had a slip as he walked too close to the bank of the river.
“He said the canoe turned upside down and covered him. He shouted for help and people came to rescue him but Fagunwa was nowhere to be found until the third day. While the people were still searching for Fagunwa in the river, a message was sent to Ibadan about the incident. I still had the belief that he would be brought home alive because he was a great swimmer but to my surprise, he never came home alive.”
Mrs. Fagunwa said this made her to subscribe to a Yoruba adage that says “Iku ogun ni npa akinkanju, Iku Odo ni pa Omuwe,” which literally means that the brave dies in the battlefield while a greater swimmer is killed by drowning:
“Indeed, Fagunwa’s corpse was found floating on the third day in what continues to baffle people and add to the myth surrounding his death. He was found at the exact spot where he got drowned some 72 hours earlier with his cloth and cap intact and his pair of glasses in his hand.
“What surprised us was that he had his shoes on, with his cloth intact as well as his cap and had his pair of glasses firmly in his hand. This was told by people who saw him at the river and people who saw his corpse when he was brought home.
“The whole thing was natural. But if it were now, we might suspect that maybe somebody pushed him but in those days, there was safety. No kidnapping, murder wasn’t as bad as this, and the country wasn’t bad as this in terms of security. So it was natural.”
Fagunwa’s widow said her late husband had no mystical powers. He also had nothing to do with any occult group as he was a Christian though most of his writings laid much emphasis on demons and fairies. She said all the characters in Fagunwa’s books were his imagination:
“My husband did not believe in native medicine, he was a Christian and from a Christian home. His father was the Baba Ijo of St. Luke’s Church, Oke-Igbo, the mother also became the Iya Ijo of the church.
“He didn’t believe in belonging to any cult. He believed in his God but his books as you said are based on mysteries and demons. I am happy you are in Oke-Igbo now. Oke-Igbo is surrounded by hills and forest. The town has extensive land, though there were not as many villages as we have now. In those days, they had villages and at weekend school children would go to their parents in the farms after school lapsed on Friday.
“Some of them would go to farms, about six to twelve miles away from the town. They normally visited the farms during weekends to help their parents in the farm. At night, they would hear sound of animals, birds and so many others. From those things that he saw, he had his inspiration and he started writing.”
The 85-year-old widow was barely 31 when she lost her husband and did not remarry: “There could never be any man like D. O. Fagunwa again in my life. What else can I get from any other man? He was always there to shower me with love and affection.
“He made me laugh because he was humorous. He pampered me with love. He was always there even when I did not need him, always providing a shoulder for me, encouraging me. Fagunwa meant love to me. The only honour I think I can give him is to forget another marriage. To God be the glory, I have been able to do that for over 50 years.”
A niece to the late Fagunwa, Isaac, described him (Fagunwa) as a man of the people and a man after the welfare of his people: “Oke-Igbo would have developed more than this if he were to be alive because he valued education more than anything.
I appreciate the late Fagunwa’s wife for being the link for all family members.”
He said the burial place of Fagunwa is at the cemetery of St Luke’s Anglican Church “for anyone in doubt to see. Though we didn’t know when he died, but we know where he was buried and I have been there several times.”
Oke-Igbo has a road and a primary school named after him. Fagunwa who was the Bogunro of Oke-Igbo remains a household name in the town. At the final resting place of Fagunwa in the church premises, a guard was seen. He refused to speak with the reporter, even as efforts to see the priest in search of the church did not yield result.