He would have been 84 on Tuesday, August 30, 2016. But he missed that birthday. And missed the one before it. He went the way of all flesh on June 22, 2015, leaving family, friends and the art community in grief.
I first heard of Francis Oladele around 1995 from my friend, Lanre Oladele, who is his son. It was only a name. Then more details filled in when I saw the promotional materials of some of his works. I knew I would have to meet the legendary filmmaker who had brought cinematography to Nigeria before the Black Americans gained respectable access to Hollywood. But it took quite a while before I could tear myself from my desk to make the pilgrimage– with Lanre, of course, as the pilot.
The ancient city of Oyo is only a few eye blinks away from Ibadan. In no time we were there, and we headed for Lapiti Estate in “The Forest.” (Even as I write, I’ll need an abracadabra to find my way back to “The Forest.”) We alighted by a roadside, truly turned our backs to the city and faced the bush. We picked our way through a narrow bush path with the leaf blades on either side brushing our legs and rubbing welcome to our feet. I sank into a daydream of infant days of hurrying to the village stream to fetch water or to take a competitive bath with peers, a ritual I abhorred at home.
It was a brief passage, and yet all the street noise of Oyo died instantly in our ears. Lapiti Estate loomed ahead of us. No, it was not an estate developer’s greedy delight. No. It was a large compound dotted by trees. A perfect location for shooting films. It was also the perfect excuse Wole Soyinka and his tribe of hunters needed to sneak into the forests of Oyo. He nearly shot the partridges of Oyo to extinction. So I heard.
Uncle Francis Oladele welcomed me as if he had known me all of Lanre’s life. I had a near full grasp of his personality in an instant. A very warm and pleasant bearing, and a thorough goodness that spoke from the heart. We combed the compound, walking from room to room. A finger pointed to Prof. Soyinka’s room somewhere on the right, reserved for whenever he was able to make it to Oyo. Something was cooking on the fire. Uncle Francis had an attitude to food as he did to people. He didn’t just eat eba or pounded yam like other people; he boxed it!
I had tonnes of questions, and Uncle Francis had a lot of hand waving to do. Each wave of the hand was a chapter of Nigeria he had closed his mind to. He had a story untold, both personal and corporate. My questions had answers in printed form and in photography, and they were mostly held entombed in the boxes pushed to a corner of the room. He dared me to prise them open and see for myself. I had a good understanding of my greed. If I should open a box, I might be signing myself for a week of absence from work. And I had no alibi to give my employers.
“I will return,” I told myself. But I never did return. And now it is too late to return. Uncle Francis, the soul of that piece of real estate, is gone. Well, I returned at the apocalypse, at the hospital. He gave a shrill shout when he saw me by his bed. I saw in his wasted flesh, a vivid colour of how Nigeria wastes its best. I remembered the day he came to my office. He was working on a new film, The Eye of Life. He sank his entire investment into it. Counterpart funding was to have come from mutual funding and subscription. But the bank would not release the money without a bribe and Francis Oladele, being Francis Oladele, would not give a dime to bribe anyone. He managed to complete the shooting of The Eye but the foreign exchange crisis crippled its post-production. The film has remained till today in the studios in America.
I returned at the apocalypse, and stood by the hospital bed. I watched the whole drama of nursing, the pretended medicare, a fatuous extension of our pretended living. Nigeria is an ill place to be ill. Nigeria is a wrong place to stand in need of medical care. I saw big bills passing no parliamentary reading but still escaping the bank vaults. I saw beyond the patient on the bed. I saw Nigeria lying prostrate on a thousand hospital beds across the land. We cannot fix education. We cannot fix healthcare. We cannot fix the grinding poverty.
I left and returned again, morning or evening. Mr Calpenny had no desire to depart. He had a strong will to live. The nurses teased him and measured their physical strength against his. They asked for and got from him palm-withering handshakes. Everything was dressed up. Appearance looked like reality. We all hoped. And we prayed. My phone rang early – at 5.30 a.m. or thereabouts. My heart skipped a beat. It ought to. It was the knell. Mr Calpenny was gone!
I returned to the bedside. But he was no longer there. Only his remains remained. I stood, staring at the wrapped symbolism a long time, parched of tongue and drained of emotions. The air changed its colour and the day its taste.
It is now one year after. It is one year of whispers in my ears. We are all tenants in this world, both the landlord and the face-me-I-box-you resident. We are all tenants without any idea of the length of our lease. Some leases lapse in the morning and some at noon. Some leases are extended, and some over mature. But we all are tenants. And we have no idea how long or short our leases are. If only we can think about this as a people, then maybe our attitude to life will be different. Maybe we can make our lease a happier one. For each person and for us all.
- Edebor is an Ibadan-based writer and publisher.