A Letter to my niece: the writing life & saying ‘goodbye’

July 7, 2011

Newspaper Columns

by Tola Adenle

Yewande, dear,

“How did you decide to be a writer, Auntie”?

Interesting question, dear. In 1970 during the age of the Dinosaur, I fired a letter off to West Africa weekly, U.K. from Florida and several weeks later, it appeared in the ‘Letters’ column. I had been outraged by the sham that late Jean-Bedel Bokassa was staging in his Central African country when he crowned himself ‘emperor’ and invited world leaders. Professor Kole Omotoso, an Edinburgh University doctoral candidate, saw the letter and fired his to me. I do not remember the exact words of my ‘letter to the editor’ now but I carried that first writing around for so long that much of it remains intact in that part of the brain where really important things, events, etcetera, are always frozen. It went something like this: It matters little if South Africa is guilty of apartheid. It matters even less if Heath [British P.M.] aids apartheid. What matters most is when someone like Bokassa …
Omotoso, though Akure, grew up with the Adamolekuns spending many holidays at bucolic Iju, and has always been like an older brother. After reading the Bokassa contribution, he had written: “start writing … anything. Keep reading …” I kept that aerogram letter with the West Africa letter for years before losing both for I’ve led a very peripatetic life than most of my generation from these parts! An M.A. (Oxford) English teacher nun’s remarks on my English essays had always been very encouraging but much as I tried hard to tell myself it was an impossibility – especially not knowing anybody who had written for a living – I secretly believed Bra Kole. In my little corner of the world, you went to school and if you were lucky, you went to a university and became a professional. By 1970, five older brothers and a sister had actually completed the university route but to think I could write what others may be interested in reading belonged more in the great works of fiction I had been devouring since my last year in the primary school, thanks to a sister who gave me Jane Eyre!

A weekly newspaper platform is not only an honor but a big responsibility – and a challenge. It allows a columnist to inform, bring clarity to some national discourses which can often benefit the essayist by being cathartic, and entertain. I hope I’ve been able to do a little of each of these and more although, dear, I must report a sadness I feel at 14 of a group of 21 kids I volunteer to teach English at an Ibadan primary school. Of six who have mixed origins, e.g. Yoruba/Delta, none speaks either Yoruba or the language of the second parent. The only pupil with Ibo father and mother speaks Ibo, a bit of Yoruba and wait for this – her English skills are not worse than the English-only group because the 14 pupils with Yoruba parents (fathers/mothers) cannot express themselves in Yoruba or in correct English! This is contrary to the reason many parents speak English to kids at home. My series on Yoruba as a disappearing language did not change even Yorubaland but it’s a bit consoling that they did convince at least you – as you never stop telling me – to speak Yoruba at home to your kids and have their other social communities: playgroups, schools, friends and – television – teach them American English. I haven’t completely strayed away from ‘the writing life’, dear because what I’m supposed to help those pupils with is ‘Writing’!

There are newspaper essayists here and abroad that I admire and I’ve often been particularly attracted to good essayists who, from the narrow-minded Nigerian mindset, are not journalists because of non-journalism training. While it is as shallow as some print journalists of my days at The Daily Sketch pooh-poohing the idea of radio and television broadcasters “considering themselves journalists”, it is destructive to the profession’s development.
Meg Greenfield, late editorial page editor at The Washington Post and Newsweek columnist was a favorite. She studied English Literature at Smith College and Cambridge, and took up Greek in her 50’s. While I’m naturally NOT a Washington Post’s Canadian-born Charles Krauthammer fan (his abode is the extreme right of American political spectrum), he comes with impeccable non-journalism background: honors degree in political science & economics; was a Commonwealth Scholar in politics at Oxford before Harvard Medical School.

Still from The Post, one of my two ‘hometown’ newspapers: Ben Bradlee former executive editor and now vice president at large, never saw the inside of a journalism school except, possibly as a commencement speaker! He led The Post for over 23 years, including its perhaps most glorious and tumultuous years during the Nixon presidency when he challenged the US government over the paper’s rights to publish ‘The Pentagon Papers.’ I’m not sure Bradlee has a college diploma but George F. Will has many: two B.A.’s, including one from Oxford (B.A., M.A.) and M.A. and Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University.
On the other American coast is the Las Vegas Sun (LVG) a paper which I read for years and still check out on the web. Its late founder/publisher, Republican Party member, Hank Greenspun who used his liberal paper to fight not only his many battles but Vegas’ detractors, was a respected/feared columnist. Greenspun was a lawyer, a decorated World War II army Major before venturing into newspapering. LVG’s late Joe Delaney, whose backgrounds were record producing jazz trumpeter was a lawyer all of which predated his becoming the “dean” of entertainment writers in Vegas, the world’s entertainment capital; he was a favorite during my Vegas sojourn.

I’ve gone to this length on these great essayists, dear, to show that a sound education as well as varied experiences are the most important tools that journalists need. Of course, reading wide is also a must to avoid the shallowness that is evident in Nigerian newspaper reporting and column-writing. Journalism schools are very important but I believe their positions are over-rated in Nigeria. And as Greenfield’s resume shows, a journalist – like everybody else, anyway – must never stop learning, even if not Greek!

Yes, dear, I know from “a letter”, rather than “letters” before taking in ‘goodbye’ from the title, you must have guessed this letter was up to something. I’d rather these letters end when we can still keep on chatting by phone than wait till, like mine with my “Aunt Fola” ended without a so-long. As I put an end to these letters that we’ve kept up for about eight years, I request you adopt a niece with whom you can share the experiences and world view you’ve acquired. She will renew you as you have renewed and even educated me.

I will always remain well, dear, as long as you do.

And to my dear readers – as to mythical Yewande – I say it’s not a ‘goodbye’ because I’m sure some will keep up with me. After all, there is an “Ugochukwu” and a “Soul Sista” out there on whom I “eavesdropped” on the web quite a while back while researching a subject. In one, Ugo asks for Sista’s “your article on feminism” which he had tried to get on the web unsuccessfully. Then, in one, this:
“…Wait a minute! There is one gracious lady that writes a column in The Nation on Sunday, Tola Adenle. I started reading her, in the defunct Comet On Sunday. Try and read her this Sunday. Maybe, you may or may not agree with me, after reading her, that there is someone out there who shares an identical style with you…”

And then, Sista: “… Of course, it should come as no surprise to you that I read Tola Adenle. I have known her for years … probably in the late 70s to early 80s, she used to publish a women’s magazine known as Emotan. I was much younger then … but judging by the women that I know that read it, I think she had something interesting to say. She also used to spot the meanest Afro in the planetary system … I will go read her again now to see whether I agree with you on sharing her style …”

After about nine years back in the weekly essay writing business after the Daily Sketch apprenticeship through Emotan, four books, to The Comet, and then working with a wonderful bunch of people in the most dynamic of Nigerian newspapers, The Nation, it’s curtain call time. If you’ll excuse me, dear friends, I have some things – though not necessarily any more challenging or interesting than these essays – that beckon, and must say farewell!

The Nation on Sunday, December 26, 2010.



Nigerian newspapers and online news sources
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