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In the course of Professor Ulli Beier’s research into the Yoruba culture in the 1970s, he met and interacted with a number of Nigerian dons, including Professors Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, among others.
These interactions were, however, the subject of a new book, Weighing the Cost of Pin-making, which was edited by Professor Remi Omodele. Adewale Oshodi writes on the book presentation.
It was a gathering of eminent culture producers, workers and scholars at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, on Tuesday, July 24, 2012. The event, organized by Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU), Osogbo, in collaboration with the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, celebrated another of Ulli Beier’s unique and original contributions to our apprehension and further understanding of contemporary Yoruba culture — and African cultures in general. Present at the occasion were eminent Yoruba scholars like Professors Jide Adamolekun, Sophie Oluwole, Niyi Osundare, Dele Layiwola, Gbemisola Adeoti (the Director, Institute of Cultural Studies, OAU, Ile-Ife), Niyi Okunoye, and several other young scholars. Others were Professor Agbedana from the University College Hospital (UCH), Dr. G.A. Akinola, and Mr. Kunle Mosuro, the CEO of Booksellers, Jericho, Ibadan.
The occasion was the presentation of a book of conversations with eminent Nigerian authors and thinkers (Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Sophie Oluwole, Rowland Abiodun and Biodun Jeyifo, among them), which Ulli Beier had with them from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The editor of the collection, Professor Remi Omodele, was, of course, also present, as the star on the occasion.
After a few preliminary remarks by Professor Wole Ogundele, the Director of CBCIU and whom Professor Niyi Osundare jokingly called the only expert on Ulli Beier, Osundare himself went on to recount his first and subsequent encounters with Ulli Beier in Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany. He then proceeded to read, in his usual dramatic and sonorous voice, extracts from the poem on Ulli and Georgina Beier that he had written upon those encounters, but which Hurricane Katrina destroyed in 2005.
According to Osundare, he could not remember a single line of the poem to start him off on it again until around 2008 when Professor Omodele told him how far she had gone working with Ulli Beier on the conversations. The poet then started reworking the ‘lost’ poem and, judging by the extracts he read, it is a case of ile oba to jo, given more poignancy by the fact that Ulli, the main subject of the poem, passed away last year.
It was then the turn of Professor Sophie Oluwole, retired professor of Philosophy at the University of Lagos, and one of those with whom Ulli had those leisurely but searching conversations, to recount her own meeting with Ulli. Spritely and straight-to-the point as ever, Professor Oluwole regaled the audience with chosen anecdotes from that encounter but, more importantly, she delved into what African philosophy should be but is not. “My aim was not to discover African philosophy,” she declared, “but to reinvent it”! This declaration, at first, astounded the audience, but when she explained, succinctly, that one could not do African philosophies in any but African languages, the audience was wowed. She went on to give examples of words in Yoruba which are essentially philosophical concepts, and which, if followed, would enable us to begin to understand Yoruba philosophy as well as enable Yoruba philosophers to philosophize rather than merely teach philosophy or engage in the endless argument whether African philosophies exist or not.
Finally, Professor Omodele, the editor of the book, took the floor. Like all good scholars, it was in the process of searching for answers to why things had gone so wrong with the Yoruba society that she came across the name Ulli Beier.
She asked Professor Osundare about this mysterious man, and the latter gladly linked the two of them.
Thanks to the internet, the two started exchanging e-mails and got talking almost on a daily basis —across the Pacific Ocean. And too, Ulli Beier, in his old age, became more eager to meet new Yoruba people, hear fresh voices, and pass on the huge wealth of knowledge he had accumulated in five decades.
Finally, the idea of a book of conversations crystallized (the conversations had been printed singly in Iwalewa-Haus in-house publications, but were neither circulated nor collected under one cover).
So much had Professor Omodele and Ulli known each other in cyberspace that the idea of going to visit him and his wife in Sydney did not start occurring to her till 2010.
But she had to wait until she could take time off her teaching schedule in California, and was planning to do so in the summer of 2011. Sadly, before she could make the trip, Ulli Beier passed on in April 2011.
The main clause of the title of the book being somewhat mystifying—Weighing the Cost of Pin-making—she was asked to explain it. As related to her by Ulli himself; when Ulli started teaching at UCI in 1950, he sought every opportunity to engage the students in debates outside the Phonetics course that he was employed to teach, trying to make them see that there were things of great value in the various African cultures which they now seemed bent on throwing away in exchange for things of the West. The students always dismissed their entire cultural heritage with one recurrent refrain: ‘We can’t even make pins!’
Finally, the book was unveiled. Published in the US, the cover-design itself is elegantly simple and attractive, and also a sort of tribute to Ulli Beier, who was himself a simple man in all things. Mr. Kunle Mosuro did a good job of presenting the book, telling his audience that once he ‘made the mistake’ of just trying to browse in it so as to read himself to sleep as usual, he could not drop it until the wee hours of the morning—as a result of which he went to work three hours late the next morning. The event was rounded off by Dr. Sola Olorunyomi of the Institute who, in his vote of thanks, was as humorous, irreverent and irrepressible as ever. The audience and passers-by were then entertained to an hour of Kwaghir puppet theatre, led by no other than Dr. Charles Uji, a lecturer in the Theatre Arts Department, OAU, Ile-Ife. All in all, everybody had a good time.Share