The Nigerian Max Ferguson

Segun Sofowote

(February 2018) I had to cancel a trip to Nigeria this month, and I am wistful for a few reasons.

One comes from not being able to attend my final meeting as a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU) Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science (CFRS). The CFRS pursues its mandate through advisory-style policy statements, advocacy for scientists whose rights are infringed, and scientific events. The Committee’s session in the Nigerian capital Abuja will be coupled with one such event, a workshop on “Shaping the future of researchers in developing countries.”

A collaboration with the Nigerian Academy of Science and the ICSU Regional Committee for Africa, the workshop would have been an opportunity to contribute to something meaningful, to listen to thoughtful speakers, and to learn. But looking at my resumé and into the mirror, I admit that I would not have brought much to the issue and would have participated more for my own benefit than anything other

Science in the developing world can probably adapt to my absence.

But, on a personal level, I have a harder time knowing that the cancellation of the trip erased a unique opportunity to see my friend Segun Sofowote.

To call Segun an interesting person trivializes his eight decades of life. He is a celebrated actor, poet, playwright, singer, musician, broadcaster, journalist, scholar, and, of import to me, humorist and humour writer. Because I try to learn a bit about the regional sense of humour and humour writing traditions wherever I go, a visit with Segun while in Abuja would have checked this obligation off my list in a simple and enjoyable way.

Mr. Sofowote’s humour credentials include those earned as a founding member of “Nineteen-Sixty Masks," Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s acting troupe known for biting political satire in a place that often rewarded critique with imprisonment. The Masks established its reputation for daring with the performance of The Dance of the Forest, a play that mocked Nigeria's political elites, in front of dignitaries gathered to mark the country’s Independence Day in October 1960.

My wife Michele and I met Mr. Sofowote a couple of years ago at the Gatineau, Quebec home of a colleague from work, his daughter Loradé. He has children and friends in other places, but he chose to come to Canada to live and to regroup in the wake of his wife’s passing

I was prompted to meet him, not so much by his artistic accomplishments and reputation, but because I was so moved by his country-to-country-to-country, hospital-to-hospital, treatment-to-treatment quest to save his wife’s life.

Mrs. Motunlayo Adefunke Sofowote – Funke Sofowote – was a singer and performer of a renown that rivalled her husband’s. Funke had thousands and thousands of fans drawn by her talent, but also by her generosity and application of her artistic gifts to fundraising and serving others through her charity the Glowing Channels Foundation. In September 2014, after a long ambulance road trip from Northern Germany, she ended her three-year struggle with cervical cancer inside a Spanish medical facility. She was sixty-seven. Her husband sat at her side, held her hand, and sang softly without rest for over forty-eight hours.

Last fall, after a couple of years rebuilding his emotional will here in Canada, he returned to Nigeria to live with friends, to renew professional acquaintances, and to spend the next phase of life within the embrace of the culture that formed him, continues to celebrate his wife, and better understands his passions.

With the cancellation of my trip this month, I wondered what I could do to connect and synthesize another encounter with Mr. Sofowote. I recalled that his daughter regularly used the video messaging service WhatsApp, that it was inexpensive, and that it was said to be easy. Not too easy though. My Ipod does not have a phone number linked to it and my old Samsung refused to connect so repeated efforts to access the app failed.

I shelved the idea of downloading WhatsApp and instead pulled down what was up on my bookshelf.

I thought I might be able to simulate a meeting with Segun by re-reading Three Tales of the Tortoise, the book that he gave to me shortly after we met.  I remember reading it, smiling, and thinking that it was something unusual and a window on a different culture. But I wasn’t sure I really appreciated the humour.

Segun writes in a very flowery way with extreme kindness and extravagance. His hand-written inscription calls me “One of so few such well-rounded ones to be met anywhere in the world.”

When his daughter left my employ, I tried to make her smile with a pretend letter of reference imitating her father’s style in testimonials like “she graces every room she enters.”  Loradé thanked me politely, pointing out only that I was mistaken in identifying her as a fan of “reggae rock.”  At that point, I realized that majestic courtesy might be a routine feature of Nigerian communication and, once again, that we might have different takes on what is humorous.

Three Tales of the Tortoise is different too. It is a collection of funny fables unlike any stories I have read in Western literature. Segun admitted to me that he twisted the stories around to formats, features, and content that pleased him more than their original forms.

He labelled his book as the “Retold Retouched” versions.

“It’s like a chef using the basic food materials and prescribed ingredients in his own recipe,” he said.

 So, these are fables that are fables of fables.

The first story tells how the Tortoise passes a royal test and gains the right to marry a princess: in fact, the right to marry a few of them. I knew I was reading something different when I came upon the pages calling for the storyteller and book readers to break for songs and drumming and to return to the narrative only when the drums and the singers have had their say.

“You can’t have a good African story without drums,” I learned from Segun.

The second chapter of the book tells a tale at least one, perhaps two or three steps removed from the actual storytelling. It is the story of the telling of the story complete with accounts of people interrupting the inaugural storyteller and with the current narrator questioning his storyteller-protagonist’s original account. The final tale in the book relates the unfolding of a national storytelling contest designed by a king. The storytellers in the competition were challenged to stretch their stories over three complete days with only very minor biology-based breaks. The Tortoise wins with an increasingly tedious tale that features a mouse eating a barn full of corn one kernel at a time.

When I put the book down the first time, I wrinkled my brow and thought that this was different, maybe even a little weird, asking myself “WhatsApp with this?” or words to that effect. I filed this reading experience in the back parts of my brain as a package of sensibilities with few parallels in our uncomplicated Canadian context.

But this week when I broke open the pages of Three Tales of the Tortoise for a second time, I had other knowledge and experience to frame my reading.

A few months after I first read Segun’s book, I gave him a couple of books that I had written. One was a story collection that parodies Machiavelli’s The Prince. The other attempts to delineate a Canadian sense of humour with reviews of all of the winners of our country’s national award for humour writing, the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal. I wasn’t sure how my African friend would react.  Although I like the Leacock Medalists a lot, they have been criticized by some as a compilation of white-bread humour and the veneer on the bland, innocuous, anglo-oriented (non-African) side of Canadian culture.

So, I was a little surprised and confused when Segun told me he had read the book and shared his reaction.

“When I read it, I said to myself – this is my story !” he said.

My first thought was that he must have been talking about a different book.

But Mr. Sofowote explained that my chapter on the 1968 Leacock Medal winning book, And Now … Here’s Max, an autobiography by the late Canadian broadcaster Max Ferguson described an experience he had had around exactly the same time, but in Nigeria. Segun said the parallels were uncanny and undeniable.

My book review covered Ferguson’s account of his early days at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

There he fell into the role of performer rather than announcer when he was told to host a “cowboy” music show called After Breakfast Breakdown. Ferguson told of his distaste for this kind of music. He was embarrassed and decided to cloak himself on air in the persona of "Old Rawhide," an elderly cowboy who ridiculed the music he was playing. To Ferguson’s surprise, Rawhide was a hit. Thousands of listeners believed the character to be real and wrote to CBC requesting photos of Old Rawhide. The program and its host moved to Toronto and the national stage.

Through the 1950s and on, Ferguson, as Rawhide, anchored one of CBC Radio’s most popular programs. Yet, as the Leacock Medal book reveals, he was not paid a cent for his Rawhide work during those glory days. Formally, Ferguson was just a regular CBC staff announcer then and thus paid only for routine on-air duties at union-contract scale. In a circumstance many in government bureaucracies would recognize, CBC management said his job classification would not allow for a raise or any incremental money for this “optional work” though it was for one of the network’s most popular programs. Ferguson decided to test the “optional” nature of the arrangement by staying home. 

With his termination in the works, a CBC executive suggested that he leave his job, become a private sector producer, and provide the Rawhide show to the network as a contractor and non-CBC employee. Ferguson took the advice - and immediately received a fee that was four times his former CBC employee salary.  The deal also gave Ferguson the freedom to move his family back to Nova Scotia and to mock his meal ticket, now as an outsider.

This story and the irony around it have become firmly entrenched in the annals of Canadian broadcast history and are considered as iconic of funny Canadiana.

So, when this elderly West African claimed it as his story, I was unsure.

But I became convinced as Segun slowly described virtually the same experience. We worked  as a staff announcer at the Nigerian national broadcasting agency during the same era as Max Ferguson was playing cowboy music for listeners in Canada. Only in the Nigerian case, the music was Latin American, and to hide himself, Segun assumed the on-air persona of an elderly, crusty Latino that he christened “Fernando Martinez.”

Just like Max Ferguson’s Rawhide, Segun’s Fernando was presumed to be real by thousands and attracted a following for his mix of music commentary and humour. Demand eventually compelled the visibly African Segun to take his imagined Latin American persona on the road in stand-up performances at venues across the continent.  The in-person performances in turn amplified the popularity of the radio program. The position of Fernando as an icon of a nation's sense of humour and a peculiar element of West African culture told hold. Just like Canada’s Rawhide did in our country.

With this knowledge, I thus re-read Three Tales of the Tortoise last week through a different lens, one not distorted with bias or the assumption that it was the product of something foreign and unrelated to Canadian sensibilities.

Michele and SS
Now when I read the opening chapter with the drums, I recalled how African drumming had been recognized by Canadian students of the information age as a sophisticated early form of distance communication, one capable of nuanced messaging including jokes and satire. I now saw the drums and singing as integral to the stories, as adding colourful layers of information, and as embellishments to the humour not disruptions to it.

The second story, the story of the story being told two steps removed, struck me now as something closer to a truth. The challenges from listeners and the narrator’s queries made the tale more believable than a simple, unfettered recounting of a folk tale.

It also made the story a lot funnier.

In the final chapter, the descriptions of a mouse slowly eating kernel after kernel in order to consume a barn of corn now seemed logical and the only way to convey the sense of the story, to describe the reality of the momentous task, and to properly exploit the three-day story format. The process embodies a broad concept and a technique that could enhance writing in any language and in any land.

Closing the book yesterday, it also struck me that Segun’s Tortoise echoed a device used in many of the Leacock Medal books, in the narratives of Indigenous people across Canada, and in stories told throughout the world.

The Tortoise is just another “Trickster” – a character that literary scholars like to analyze and to classify, but has many forms. He can be a she, can be human or animal, can play tricks or be tricked, and can be silly or smart. In whatever guise or role, the Trickster gives writers an outlet to think outside ordained norms, to absorb a different persona, and to comment on society in a mischievous way.

Rawhide and Fernando, Segun Sofowote and Max Ferguson were Tricksters just as much as the Tortoise and were more alike than not.

Album Cover - CD by Daughter Loradé
I will give WhatsApp another try. But whether I connect with Abuja or not, I am going to think of those various Tricksters, what we all have in common, and what we can learn from each other whenever I hear country and western songs, Latin American music, or from my Nigerian friends.