Ulli Beier: The man who “needed no introduction” continues to speak to many from the grave – Tola Adenle

A Book Review

Title:                Book Review

Title:                Weighing the cost of pin-making:  Ulli Beier in Conversations

Edited:            Remi Omodele

Publishers:      Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey

I had barely gone half the length of the essay by Ms. Omodele when I came to a conclusion that her contribution, a “mere” intro to the collection of conversations by others with late Ulli Beier can – and should – be worked to stand on its own not as an essay but as a book.  That opinion is not based on the lengthy 40-page introduction but its scope and depth, but first things first.

Starting the collection with an Osundare poem, and especially one in praise of the subject matter was a master stroke.  It lulled a non-academic person like me into expecting a collection of conversations that I would lay back and read for enjoyment and nothing seriously academic!

If one had never heard of Beier – pardon this, the habit of using only his last name is something I’ve absorbed as an Osogbo person of over forty years – one could not miss his many journeys through Yorubaland from Osundare’s poem:

Palaces threw open their gates/For the new and curious guest/…

            …/…/From Osogbo to Okuku

            From Ede to Ikere Ekiti/Royal drums sounded his name/…

Nor could the new acquaintances fail to grasp Beier’s goals on arrival in Yorubaland in the Early 50s, nor his accomplishments over many years;

Mbari; The Black Orpheus …

Nor his deep affection for the Yoruba language – and wit – and wisdom – that could make only an oyinbo or a non-Yoruba – in his case, a white – pick Obotunde Ijimere as a pen name under which he produced the Obatala plays.

In Yoruba language, Ijimere, baba Obo  means “Ijimere is the father of monkeys,” making this ‘by line’ for those plays a hilarious joke to those who understand the language very well.

Finally, though not exhaustively, Beier’s new “acquaintance” could not miss the Yoruba deities at whose feet (!) he seemed to have been bestowed with the wisdom of, and ethos of Yorubas which many no longer pursue, nor have bestowed on them by Yoruba’s benevolent gods and goddesses .

But this is not a review of Osundare’s Iwa l’Ewa: A Preface in Verse but one of three introductory essays the third of which I’ve already signaled an opinion that is not academic, on!  I’ve only stated how the selection of Osundare’s poem as the first introductory piece ensnared me into reading what I first put away for a few days after receiving a copy of the book as a gift.

The third introductory essay, Africa’s future and its Ancient Heart by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, an Africentrist feminist cultural historian, dwells on significant marks of Africans:  our legacy of beliefs in caring, sharing and healing and our significant relationship – just as for many indigenous cultures – and how a distinguishing mark of such people is the centering of relationships on mother and child rather than male/female as in Western culture.

Before writing a few paragraphs the glittering array of literary giants whose conversations are contained in this book, I must cast a cursory look at Omodele’s submission, “The Growing Catastrophe: No Room for wisdom.”  ‘Cursory’, I say, or else an academic review may be erroneously expected.

Ms. Omodele “studied Theatre Arts at [the University of] Ibadan, Lund [Sweden] and UCLA.  She has taught and directed plays at Calabar [Nigeria], Osaka Gaidai and [her alma mater sister college], U.C. Berkeley where she enjoys occasional stints as Visiting Assoiate Professor.  Some of her essays on Theatre Arts have appeared in African Studies Review … The Osaka University of Foreign Studies Journal, Women’s History Review …Cambridge University Press.”

Her introduction to the collection leaves no area that deals with Africa’s issues that are on the proverbial front burner untouched:  balkanization of Africa and the ever-present ills of colonial influences that continue to this day in just about all African countries, the myth of the inept African that fails to take into consideration the [kind of] “mental disorder” that the African developed through the deliberate mis-education/deficient education in colonial institutions, the separation of the African, so to say, from ways of life that have sustained his ancestors, and the consequent loss of Africa’s political systems of the past.

Ms. Omodele’s assertion that “the further a people are from their cultural traditions psychically, the rockier their road to advancement” reminds me of a kid I taught who claimed NOT to know where in Yorubaland was her hometown!  This is impossible because even those who never visits the parents’ places of birth generally know exactly where in Yorubaland the ‘homelands’ are.  I gave Peju, a high school Second Former, a mid-term assignment :  Tell Mommy that Auntie says if you do not know where you  come from, you cannot know where you are headed.  For good measure, I asked that girls who knew my birth place to signify with hands up.  All chorused “Iju”.

After half-term:  Auntie, we are from Ilobu [a small town near Osogbo that is about the size of my home-town].

Africans are taught  – or teach themselves from youth – that anything remotely related to their origin is demeaning:  their hometowns, their grandparents’ traditional beliefs, their foods and even their traditional clothes.  The wearing of imported second-hand clothing is an example of total acceptance of foreign things and a subtle repudiation of our own clothes.

How about the “vastly colonial and antiquated educational institutions” – a subject that was never far from Beier’s heart at Ibadan and other educational institutions that he worked with – as being a root cause of African scholars “creating little niches and irrelevant academic pursuits” which, unfortunately, supports the erroneous claim of “Africa [being] too big to be viewed as a unifying experience or identity” or “cohesive” while Ms. Omodele points to the global respect for “China as a geographical, cultural and political entity.”

Other so-called hot-button topics make appearances in Ms. Omodele’s essay:  continued dependence on foreign languages as official language, travels within the African continent, caring for each other, the diminished role of women, a largely colonial imposition and corruption, a subject that makes her lament:  “It is perhaps necessary to note that neither the never-ending convoy of crooks who masquerade as leaders has served thus far, or will ever serve, to move the continent forward. … my ultimate goal is to share the tremendous information in this volume with the world’s youth upon whom the future depends … ‘Why does Africa continue to endure poverty, diseases, and turmoil in spite of its natural and human resources?  And what are the ways out?”

Other subjects abound in Omodele’s essay among which I cannot omit ‘wisdom’ which was much valued in Yorubaland, nay, the whole of Africa and even other cultures in the past but is now very much missing. Are people afraid of “wise” ones?  Not unexpectedly, she laces the essay, especially in the portion where she talks about ‘wisdom’ – its place in the past and its absence in modern times – with many Yoruba sayings of the ‘wise’ (ah), Yoruba proverbs and sayings of the wise from other parts of Africa.

From Central Africa comes “if your cornfield is far from your house, the birds will harvest your corn”, and this one:  “Ogbon ki I tan l’aye, ki a wa lo s’orun – the world cannot be so bereft of wisdom as to warrant a heavenly search:  … within a typical community reside the robust opportunity, mores and … wisdom that are essential for the community’s survival.”


Almost all the conversations appeared to have been enjoyable to both sides.  They are insightful and quite profound though seemingly chatty in several instances.

From Beier’s multiple days with Ibrahim el Salahi, the Sudanese artist whose citizenship, marriage, children and residences criss-cross Africa and Europe, come an in-depth essay on what “Identity” means to Salahi.  Beier is the consummate teacher and even a news reporter, probing ever gently but deeply, taking the great man down memory lane to his youth of being brought up an Arab but listening to African folk tales during the same period – to the grown man who took a Christian wife now a Muslim – and children whose identities are forged in the peripatetic existence of exile they’ve lived with their father.

Sudanese conflicts, religion, life in exile … Beier gets them all out of Salahi; actually, Salahi willingly gave.


Roland Abiodun’s conversation on “Yoruba Values” with a man who was a father-figure, is intriguing.  Beier is aware this conversation may be between two but is meant for many and so, he seems to have gone out smoking from the onset:  “I want to talk to you about your childhood in Owo … your parents, and the type of “cultural baggage” you have carried through life with you” comes like a bath-cupful of cold water on a harmattan morning but Abiodun, John C. Newton Professor of the History of Art and Black Studies; Chair of Black Studies at Amherst is not shocked but is ready with an answer.

“Well, I don’t know.  I have never talked to anybody about these.  They are very intimate”, he first demurred, but he would talk – and talk.  While the early part of the “conversation” almost seems one-sided, with Beier, the questioner needing to go into long-winding statements with Abiodun giving short answers but as I just mentioned, the artist would be drawn out by a man who knows him well.

Abiodun talks of the Egungun and Ogun and that great Owo festival, The Igogo, during which the Olowo wears female-type clothing.  He describes his earliest home, the Yoruba agbole, the traditional rectangular structure with a central courtyard which every room in the house opens to.  He talks of his fascination with traditional practices like kola nut gifts, drumming in a high chief’s palace, how the church  did not look favorably on traditional practices, etcetera.  Beier becomes the listener and offers only short questions or prods.

Abiodun credits his grandfather with many of the values that have sustained him through life, and a typical [sort of] question by Beier comes from one who knows Abiodun well.

When Abiodun mentions his grandfather’s influence on his life and states that “Most things that I achieved in the world happened through the utilization of those values”, Beier shot in with; “You were not interested in a rat race” which, actually, carries no question mark!

Abiodun also contributes another conversation with Beier on Yoruba women but I’m already turning this into a paper – at least in length, and must wrap up!

OLOWO Sir Olateru Olagbegi at Igogo Festival 1960sThe annual Owo Town’s celebration of Igogo Festival has the Olowo, the King, dressing in female outfit.  The top is a beaded blouse-type wear and an iro – wrapper of expensive fabric.  This picture was a gift from one of the Olagbegi kids – a friend (Kemi) in the 1960s. TOLA

Others in the eminent group are Biodun Jeyifo whose “Desperate Optimism” touches a favourite subject of mine, Yoruba as a Disappearing Language: “… middle class families in Ibadan [center of Yorubaland] whose children do not speak Yoruba.”  That’s the drift.

Where else could a conversation between Chinua Achebe and Beier go when the latter prefaces the encounter with a down-home Igbo proverb: “The world is a dancing masquerade.  If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place”!

Beier’s excitement about certain aspects of Igbo culture is almost palpable: finishing Achebe’s thoughts:  When Achebe says “In Igbo culture, nobody inherits the title of his father …”, Beier added, “Everybody starts from the beginning; everybody has to achieve.”

Beier’s conversation with Wole Soyinka are on “Yoruba Religion”, “Death and the King’s Horseman”, “The Crisis of Yoruba Culture” and “Identity”.  We all may claim to know Soyinka’s religious views but this conversation contains revelations and insights not found in Ake or You must set forth at dawn of the older years.

And there are still others, including Sophie Oluwole, Olu Obafemi and Femi Bodunrin but I really have space for one more great entry, Richard Olaniyan’s  “The Process of Rediscovery”.  I’d like to take permission – ? –  to end this with the first few exchanges in the conversation between two Osogbo people!

“U       I know that you were born in Osogbo.  What is the name of your compound?

RO       My compound is Ile Onisigidi.

U         A dangerous name!  How did your people acquire it?”

He knows what Ile Onisigidi means and, perhaps, even Olaniyan’s agbo ile which is THE question Osogbo people always ask first if you claim to be from the town:  ‘Bo l’agbole nyin – where is your compund?

I’m sure Beier was merely playing the devil’s advocate here!

Tola Adenle

Akure, Ondo State, Nigeria

September 27, 2012

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9 Comments on “Ulli Beier: The man who “needed no introduction” continues to speak to many from the grave – Tola Adenle”

  1. Helane Zeiger Says:

    Helane Zeiger, The Yo-Yo Lady

    October 24, 2012 at 9:38 pm
    Dear Remi,

    Tola Adenle’s insightful comments about the essays and your introduction has to make you feel that the project was totally worth your devotion to it. She gets it! Her review could very well be an introduction to your introduction! Congratulations on receiving such a fine, in-depth, and intelligently written review.

    Helane Zeiger
    (Author of “World on a String: The How-to Yo-yo Book.” Zeiger has been a professional yo-yoer for over 25 years and has appeared on The Dinah Shore Show as well as several morning and news shows.)



    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Ms. Zeiger,.

      My most sincere thanks for the reception to the review. I’ll be glad if it can contribute to helping Remi make up her mind about a book.




  2. Lucia Birnbaum Says:

    Dear Remi,

    Tola Adenle’s insightful comments about the essays and your introduction has to make you feel that the project was totally worth your devotion to it. She gets it! Her review could very well be an introduction to your introduction! Congratulations on receiving such a fine, in-depth, and intelligently written review.

    Helane Zeiger, The Yo-Yo Lady,
    (Author of “World on a String: The How-to Yo-yo Book.” Zeiger has been a professional yo-yoer for over 25 years and has appeared on The Dinah Shore Show as well as several morning and news shows.)



  3. Lucia Birnbaum Says:

    An extraordinary review! I hope you are keeping your essay, Cara Remi, as the outline for the book you must write!
    xo Lucia



    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Ms. Birnbaum,

      A million thanks for stopping by and more than a million for the v. generous words. I enjoyed the book and it made the review for someone unschooled in such things easy and fun – to borrow a modern be-all word.

      Sincere regards,



  4. Remi Omodele Says:

    I can’t resist sending these few words to express my appreciation of your electrifying review of “Weighing the Cost of Pin-making: Ulli Beier in Conversations”. Your enthusiasm delights, and one can only hope that it becomes infectious!

    You’ll be glad to know that among many others, Dr. Musuro, Prof Ogundele, and those brilliant folks at Unibadan’s Institute of African Studies are working hard to promote the book throughout the continent. So far everyone who has read it agrees readily that it needs to gain wide readership particularly among the youth. Thank you for adding your magnificent vote!



    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Ms. Omodele,

      What a “magnificent” way to get introduced to one whom I hope to meet in person some day! I’m sure I’ll say with great satisfaction that your reputation -as the saying goes – precedes you.

      The pleasure of working on the review has really been mine as a few of the conversation people are known to me personally or through their work: Prof. Olaniyan, Dr. Abiodun, and of course Beier even though he would leave Nigeria before a line of communication opened; AND, who does not know the Nobel Laureate who graciously showed his culinary skills in barbecuing for my rested EMOTAN MAG about 30 years ago. And the book does delight as it brings what could have been academic yawn-yawn to non-acada types like me – big so-whats!

      I’m sure the book will be very successful and I do hope you will bear in mind my suggestion – perhaps ‘uninformed’ in acada circles that you consider a stand-alone book based on your submission which I can’t believe, I omitted its title. I’ll go back and do that today.

      Sincere regards, and good luck on the book and other endeavors.



  5. Olajumoke Says:

    As usual, an inspiring piece. Would wish that every nigerian youth gets to read this book and your review.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Jumoke,

      Thanks very much for weighing in. I agree that our young ones should get to read all the essays for guidance and, hopefully, inspiration. I hope widely-read pop magazines in Nigeria would serialize this book so that more could have access to its wealth of information and wisdom; cooperation of the author and publisher would be needed.

      Even though the essays are all written by academic heavy hitters, they are not hard nuts to crack.




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