When Nigerian literary giants are brought up in conversations and publications, it is usual for Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, Buchi Emecheta and even Chimamanda Adichie’s names to come up more often.
One name that is often conspicuously missing in the all-time greats’ list is D.O. Fagunwa.
The man, Fagunwa
Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, a native of Oke-Igbo in Ondo State who was relatively unknown until his first book, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, first hit the shelves in 1938, was a special breed. He was born to the family of Joshua Akintunde Fagunwa and Rachel Osunyomi Fagunwa in 1903, and had his education at St. Luke’s School, Oke-Igbo, and St. Andrew’s College, Oyo. He would later become a teacher himself.
Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, which told the story of seven brave hunters in the deep forests occupied by evil spirits, immediately became a bestseller, gaining recognition across different continents. In the book, Fagunwa wrote as if he had deep conversations with the gods and evil spirits in the thick forests of Yorubaland, and led many to believe in the powers of the forces that can’t be seen with the naked eye. This was despite his strict Christian background (his mother and father held high positions in the church).
In one of the chapters, he wrote about a demonic newborn child, Ajantala, who spoke on the day he was born and gave priests and guests that gathered at his christening the beating of their lives.
Fagunwa’s second book, Igbo Olodumare published in 1949, was even more well received across the world. The book has been translated in over 40 languages. His vivid but unusual storytelling style quickly earned him a moniker as ‘Nigeria’s Shakespeare’.
The books, which were the first to introduce Heinemann publishing company to the literary community in Nigeria, immediately became highly recommended in classrooms across all levels of western education, and were adapted for plays by numerous theatre groups.
By the time Fagunwa published his three other critically acclaimed books – Ireke Onibudo (1949), Irinkerindo ninu Igbo Elegbeje (1954), and Adiitu Olodumare (1961), he had become a spirit in the minds of his hometown locals and a section of the people that read him across the world.
Fagunwa’s mysterious death
It was why many locals found it hard to believe that he died under natural circumstances when he drowned in a river on December 7, 1963. Surely, the gods and evil spirits must have had a hand in his death, they believed. Some even believed Fagunwa was swallowed by the snake with a human head he so gleefully wrote about in Igbo Olodumare.
But he had drowned while waiting to take the ferry on his way home from an assignment in the Northern part of the country, where he had gone to advertise Heinemann books to schools and also search for great writers like him.
His wife, Mrs Elizabeth Adebanke Fagunwa who died in 2018 at age 85, told Tribune in 2017, “James (Fagunwa’s driver) said the canoe turned upside down and covered him, he shouted for help and people came to rescue him but Fagunwa was nowhere to be found. While the people were still searching for Fagunwa in the river, a message was sent to Ibadan about the incident but I still had the belief that he would be brought home alive because he was a great swimmer but to my surprise, he never came home alive.”
On the third day after his disappearance, Fagunwa’s lifeless body was found floating at the exact spot where he drowned.
“What surprised us is that he had his shoes on, with his cloth intact as well as his cap and had his pair of glasses firmly in his hand. This was told by people who saw him at the river and people who saw his corpse when he was brought home,” Fagunwa’s widow, who was barely 31 at the time of his death but never remarried, said in the interview.
Fagunwa was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1959 and in 1965, two years after his death, was awarded the Margaret Wrong Prize. His tombstone remains at St. Luke’s Anglican Church cemetery, Oke Igbo, where he was buried on December 10, 1963.
When conversations about the greatest Nigerian writers are had, it is only right that D.O Fagunwa’s name appears at the very top of the list.