Daniel O. Fagunwa

D.O Fagunwa pencil drawing
Source: Guardian NG

Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa; popularly called D. O. Fagunwa; Nigerian novelist of the Yoruba genre. With the publication of Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole in 1938, Fagunwa initiated the art of creative writing in Yoruba-language, which quickly generated a tradition within Nigeria and beyond the language. His other novels include Igbo Olodumare (1949), Ireke Onibudo (1949), Irinkerindo Ninu Igbo Elegbeje (1954), and Adiitu Olodumare (1961).

For about a quarter of a century from 1939 to 1961 was the well-known of all writers of fiction in Yoruba language. His first work, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, a didactic fantasia of a novel published in 1959, established him as a great writer, excelling in the path trailblazers like J. Oyewole, author of the series, Tenimasunwon-kingbo who was famous in the 1920s, threaded. The richness of Fagunwa’s language, the familiar folklore, and the theme of this first full length Yoruba novel helped it achieve instant success. A story of similar theme, medieval English novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which chronicles a man’s journey from this world into a celestial city, had been interpreted into Yoruba by missionaries in years before. Fagunwa published other novels such as Igbo Olodumare (1949), Ireke Onibudo (1949) Irinkererindo Ninu Igbo Elegbede (1954) and Aditu Olodumare (1961).

It was as a novelist that Fagunwa won the prime place among the writers of his time. By his beautiful expression and his vivid descriptions of events and places, by his ability to blend romance with realism adequately. and his use of both traditional materials and borrowed elements with outstanding success in his novels, he towered above all creative writers in Yoruba before him, and won for himself a prominent place among all Yoruba writers.

Fagunwa's work shown at Oke-Igbo forest
Baba Onirugbon (Bearded man): At Oke-Igbo forest, Ondo State, tourists enjoy the vivid representations of D.O Fagunwa’s narratives in his book. Photo: Tribune NG

Born in 1903 at Oke Igbo, in Ondo State, Fagunwa’s greatest asset in his literary work is probably his admirable use of traditional materials to create situations which are meaningful to members of the Yoruba community- apart from his language his use  of cultural and traditional elements enders him and his works to general readers. He draws freely from Yoruba folklore, English and classical literature and Christian religious literature. But irrespective of his sources, Fagunwa invests his plot with fictional aura adopted from Yoruba folk-tales. He makes the world of his novels a fairy world in which fact and fiction are blurred and the supernatural is as common as the natural.

Ogboju Ode

Fagunwa made efforts to buoy his imagination while working on his first novel, by writing from the bush, and on other projects by visiting cemeteries. For one who made a name writing about demons, he felt a real encounter with one wouldn’t be a bad idea. To his disappointment, none came forth, but he managed to earn enough to lead a decent life from his craft.  After his retirement from public service in 1961, Fagunwa took an offer to man the Heinemann publishing Nigerian office. In December 1963 he lost his life to a mishap at a river bank in Bida on his way to Ibadan from Kano where he had gone to meet with his visiting Heinemann bosses.  His Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Olodumare was translated to English by Wole Soyinka in 1968 as Forest of a Thousand Demons.
Literary Success

The success of Fagunwa’s five novels, the last of which was published in 1961, was phenomenal. By 1986, Ogboju Ode had gone through 24 reprints and several Yoruba authors were publishing novels in the genre of spiritual adventure-cum heroic quest which he popularised. The career of Amos Tutuola was in fall swing, while Wole Soyinka’s translation of the first novel would soon introduce Fagunwa to the English-speaking world. Fagunwa did not just write novels, he also wrote travelogues, essays, petitions, and translated other worker into Yoruba. The tradition thus initiated has shown remarkable resilience and continued to influence different categories of intellectuals in diverse disciplines. At the last count, there have been four translations of three of the novels, and numerous works of scholarship continue to be published on the novels.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer