Martin Banham, the retired drama scholar at Leeds University in Britain, turned eighty on December 8, 2012. I have never met Banham, nor even had a formal contact with him, either by phone or in writing. Maybe I have seen a picture of him, a black-and-white image of a plain-looking academic, in a denim or khaki shirt, caught staring at the routine duty of a camera clicking for official use. If, in spite of a lack of personal connection, I choose to write a birthday tribute, it is because of what I think he represents for the intellectual vibrancy of modern Africa.
Given my background in theater studies, I’ve had to know Banham intimately, through his work. The University of Ibadan’s theater arts department began as the School of Drama. This was where he started in 1956, before the requirements of higher education in Britain led him, upon return to Leeds, to develop programs in Workshop Theater. In a heartfelt email to friends and colleagues acknowledging their tributes, Banham wrote: “My going to Ibadan in 1956 [meant] a discovery, for me, of an exciting and vibrant theater culture that…made much contemporary Western theater look positively anemic.” Indeed, he is one of those largely unsung heroes of Nigeria’s liberal arts, including Geoffrey Axworthy, David Cook, Brian Crow, Michael Etherton, Carole Dawes, Karin Barber, Dexter Lindersay, Chris Dunton, and, of course, James Gibbs.
These writers and administrators are a departure from the standard image of the “white man/woman in Africa” as an oppressive presence—explorer, freebooter, missionary, soldier, and colonial mandarin. They were associated with the more liberal phase of Britain’s historic involvement in Africa and, working through the university, were able to relate to their new contexts with empathy. They treated Nigerians as equals. This might have been because even as teachers they were barely older than their students who would soon become their colleagues, or superiors in some cases, but there are other factors involved.
First, there is a sense in which, unlike the colonial administrators of the half-century prior, these figures were themselves strangers to privilege. Emerging from the working classes of the Midlands we know from the writings of Allan Sillitoe, Raymond Williams, and E.P. Thompson, and at a time the glorious sun of Empire was fast receding into a dim haze on the tropical horizon, they could not really be cultural snobs.
Second, they were teachers in the humane letters, in which the meaning of a work between teacher and student is, if ever certain, a result of thoughts in dialogue; and in theater, which is premised on expressive socialization and finding out about things as you go on looking at and thinking about them.
Finally, there is the matter of the United States of America. Britain was Nigeria’s colonial overlord, but I think that Nigeria’s genuine intellectual orientation is toward the United States. Even during colonial rule, the US always made its presence felt in many African countries, through commerce, science, missionary work, and education. Generous America, land of endless vistas is viewed as a more approachable partner than parsimonious Britain.
Yet America’s generosity often carries a price tag. The land of endless vistas is also an assembly-line operation where many things, including the work of scholars in the humanities, are tabulated and dutifully recorded in annual reports. Thus, a young American scholar arriving at Legon or Makerere is not only looking for kindred spirits in this incipient journey of self-discovery, but also stepping out the door for another day at the office.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but experience has shown that British scholars in African universities tend to exhibit greater attitude of intimacy than their North American colleagues.
This is why intellectuals of Banham’s generation and background deserve a special recognition; the importance of their dedicated contribution to African and postcolonial arts and letters should be carefully understood.
Banham is distinguished in this respect. He wrote insightful essays about dramatists like Soyinka and Clark-Bekederemo at the beginning of their careers. Recently, he has worked with younger colleagues such as the dramatist Femi Osofisan, James Gibbs and Jane Plastow, as co-editors of the journal African Theater. In an engaging recent essay, he cleared the air on Soyinka’s famous “tigritude” retort. What the young writer actually said was, “A duiker does not have to paint ‘duikeritude’ on its elegant rump; you know it by the quality of its leaps.” Everyone has come to regard “a tiger does not have to proclaim his tigritude, etc., etc.” as having a Delphic accuracy.
The kind of archaeological work evident here is definitive of that generation and remains alive. In the work of younger writers like the journalist Jeremy Harding (and in the tradition of the historian Basil Davidson), one observes a contemporary example of this dedicated spirit of the intimate, sympathetic outsider.