Ulli & Georgina Beier, A rambling memoir à trois  

We first met in January 1971 on arrival at the University of Ife, looking forward to a better life in Nigeria. I was, evenso, in flight from Nixon’s America and its intolerance of dissent. I haven’t visited the land of my birth since the year 2000 when the abominable George ‘Dubya’ usurpt the US presidency and instigated yet more unjust, and unjustifiable, wars. Now there is all-out Trumpery.

The story of my appointment as Reader in English offers some context for much of what follows. Looking for a job in 1970, I asked an old friend and former colleague, then Vice Chancellor, University of Sierra Leone, if he knew of anything available. There was. Ife was looking for someone to head the sprawling and chaotic English Department which then embraced four units –– Linguistics, Language, Literature, and Use of English (a remedial programme required of every entering student, then over a thousand each year). Eldred Durosimi Jones recommended me, and I applied. The Vice Chancellor offered a Senior Lectureship which was not altogether unreasonable, but considering the administrative challenge, I bargained hard for a better deal. That summer I was in Firenze, and Professor Oluwasami invited me to come down to Ife for an interview, not only offering expenses, but also an escort at the airport to clear me through customs and drive me up-country. I arrived in Lagos at one a.m. and no one was there to meet me. Customs officers wanted to send me back at my own expense, but I kept waving the VC’s telegrams, claiming that some official or other would surely arrive in the morning, and that I was perfectly willing to spend the night in jail until rescued. They hooted with laughter, and waved me through, thinking that anyone so crazed couldn’t possibly be of any danger to the state.

A taxi driver took me to a notorious hotel/brothel where I slept unmolested and soundly. In the morning I asked how to get to Ife, having no idea where it was, nor even how far away it might be. Everyone I met along the way was extremely kind and helpful. From the central car park on the mainland, where mammy-wagons clustered, I was passed from hand to hand and truck to truck until I reached Ife after dark. I was told over and over again not to eat anything that couldn’t be peeled, and survived on hard-boiled eggs, bananas and bottled beer. When dropped off at the gates of the University, the driver simply pointed up the road, and I walked three miles to the campus. Next morning I learned that the VC was in Accra and wouldn’t be back for days. Obviously besotted by the otherness and human concern of the culture, not to mention the pungent odor of virgin forest-mould and a spectacular night sky, I knew that I wanted to live there and probably would.

The interview, itself, was distinctly disconcerting. I walked another mile from the guest house to the VC’s lodge which was designed to be as imposing as possible and was ushered through a huge entrance hall dominated by a two-story high, metal sculpture welded by Georgina Beier. The official reception room opened onto the foyer and was lined on three sides with identical divans, Ottoman style, on which sat large, solemn men in formal Nigerian robes. As I entered, a very tall and imposing figure, wearing yards of white damask and sitting in the exact middle of the long wall facing me, rose in obvious consternation and said: “I expected you to be black”. Such a greeting had never occurred to me, but I quite understood why. My CV attested to the fact that I had taught at Fourah Bay College, as it was then known, and introduced optional courses at Dartmouth College (USA) in African Literature in English as well as Afro-American studies. Then too I had been recommended by an African academic whom the VC trusted. In the end I got the job and never regretted the decision. Those were happy years.

 

As for the Beiers, I encountered their sons, Sebastian and [Ola]’Tunji, long before meeting Georgina and Ulli. The Harmatan Term had not yet begun and the Taylors were busy settling into a house, backed by the forest which separated our road from the older buildings on the main campus. One afternoon I heard loud knocking at the kitchen door and went to investigate. Two little boys were looking up at me expectantly, both very white and barefooted –– one was wearing only shorts and the other diapers with a tin can on a string hanging from his neck –– on which he was drumming. I realized that they must have taken a path through the forest and casually asked them in for a cold drink. Sebastian, however, held his ground, and said: “We’ve heard you have two little boys, our age, and we’ve come to play with them”. They grew up together and are still good friends.

A few weeks later a letter from Ulli Beier crossed my desk appointing me to the Board of Directors for the Institute of African Studies. Of course, I knew full well who Ulli Beier was. Anyone interested in African Literature in English read every copy of Mbari Publications as well as Black Orpheus, but what qualifications had I for the post? It would take years for me to master African history, mythology, philosophy, art and literatures in indigenous languages. My initial suspicion was that he just might be packing the Board, but on serious reflection I could appreciate the usefulness of an objective outsider in settling squabbles between local factions. Even after the Beiers left I was often drafted to head committees of investigation and arbitration.

A year later Peter Brook’s initial visit to Ife happened. He was reconnoitering the trans-African tour of his international theater troupe. At a dreadfully stiff drinks party given by the Beiers, I sat briefly, and uneasily, with Helen Mirren who asked what it was like living and teaching in Nigeria? Innocently I enthused about experiencing cultures so different from that of my own background and the satisfaction it gives to reconsider and reconstruct the cultural assumptions with which one had grown up. Little did I know that she and Brook were out to prove that theater was a universal experience and not culture specific.

The next year Brook’s troupe crossed the Sahara and stopped at Ife as previously arranged. The Beiers threw a splendid supper party for the international cast, local friends, and visiting academics. Ulli performed on the veranda with one of the more attractive actresses to great applause. At the time I thought him a reasonable counterpart to the young Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, but in this case Yoruba style –– with bottoms pretty close to the ground and lots of explicit movements.

Next day the players performed magnificently. Between them and the director a combination of mime and ritual had been worked out, masterfully conceived and executed. Unfortunately, it was more or less incomprehensible to both University colleagues and village audiences. Drama, as are all other literary forms, is nothing if not culture-specific and requires an understanding of both particular conventions and historical traditions.

The stage was a rectanglular, earthen courtyard in the open air backed by a waist-high wall along the side opposite the bleachers on which the University community sat. The performance began with actors jumping up from behind, onto the wall, preening themselves as chickens will, flapping wings, crowing, clucking, etc. Others surged out from around the ends of the wall, pecking the ground and constituting a community in which specific relationships, even personalities, and a sort of social structure materialized before the actors suddenly rushed off stage as though under threat.

In the second scene the cast returned with decidedly human characteristics, but their interaction mirrored that of the birds. Suddenly into their midst a cardboard box was placed center stage, and the man who had carried it in, backed away in fear. The onlookers were aghast and formed a distant circle, miming their various reactions. Slowly, very slowly and tentatively, one man edged towards the box –– curiosity overcoming fear. When close enough he darted at it and threw open the flaps. On looking in, he froze in the posture of a slender tree, arms raised and outstretched. Slowly, very slowly, a man rose up out of the impossibly small box, imitating the movement of a serpent and neither using hands nor arms, wound himself, snake-like, higher and higher around the body of the man/tree, defying gravity, then circled its head and wound down again. Evil had entered inhabited earth. The crowd was mesmerized, as was the audience, but ultimately terrorized, and ran off in all directions.

The next scene was even more spectacular. A mountain of jumbled sticks was created center stage, and a community of rational creatures entered in high spirits –– laughing, joking, and obviously enjoying themselves. When faced with that impasse, they were disconcerted, but took it in their stride and began to climb. At first, they helped and encouraged one another, but as the climb became more arduous and life threatening, they began struggling violently, crawling, and eventually turning on one another. Vicious self-preservation prevailed –– the former social contract had been eviscerated. Those who survived and reached the valley below, slowly regained their humanity and re-established fragile conventions.

The final scene was one of pure ritual, based on an ancient Persian text, The Celebration of Fowles –– which sets out to present a mystical exploration of human mutibility and transcendence, but one needs to know that in order to make sense of the whole performance. The cast were evenly and widely spaced across the playing area in strict lines, both vertical and horizontal, moving rhythmically, hieretically, but not exactly dancing –– more akin to the lyrical movement one associates with classical Greek choruses. The choreography was emphasized/accentuated by flowing tunics with long, bell sleeves.

Shortly after that spectacular event the Beiers returned to Papua New Guinea after their brief return to Nigeria. In both cases the relocations had to do with job offers, but leaving Port Moresby the first time was as much occasioned by racial prejudice under an Australian regime as by a desire that their sons grow up in a society the Beiers loved and where they felt perfectly at home. When the University of Ife offered Ulli the directorship of a newly founded Institute there was no looking back. Similarly, when Papua New Guinea became self governing, a delegation from the new government made him an offer that could not be turned down. Through those years Ulli kept in touch, sending poetry booklets and graphics from his Institute of Cultural Studies.

By 1980 I had already settled in Bayreuth, where the University had a special interest in African Studies, when they turned up as short-term guests of the University. I remember a hilarious evening at their temperorary flat in the Alexanderstraße when Georgina flounced into the sitting room brandishing a basket of black bread, with a platter of sliced cheese & cold cuts, as well as great mugs of beer, announcing that she was practicing for the role of the ultimate Bavarian Hausfrau.

A year later Iwalewa Haus was born, and it turned out to be a healthy and vigorous child –– although hardly conventional. It was always lively, and had fellowships for musicians, dancers, artists, and craftsmen who actually created there, performed and held exhibitions. Some time after its inception, an old friend from London visited me, and I took him along for an evening in the Münzgasse. He was rather taken aback by the infectious enthusiasm, ethnic food and a Magreb film, as well as other exotica. That night Kauage, an artist from Papua New Guinea, was there in traditional dress; bare chested and in full feather with a bone in his nose. At dinner Georgina came up to our table with Kauage’s wife who was busy knotting a string bag and asked me to make incisions in her scalp in order to release an evil spirit which was giving her persistent headaches. David’s eyes nearly popped out and he never quite got over the experience. For years he talked of that extraordinary evening at ‘Eager-Beaver’ House. Actually it wasn’t at all extraordinary.

The magic of the cultural center that the Beiers had created, lay in its extra-institutional character. The events that took place there –– as well as its predecessors at Ibadan, Oshogbo, Port Moresby, and Ife –– were lively and personal, provoking spontaneous interaction among different cultures. Exhibition openings in Bayreuth were significant events –– ‘happenings’ as the buzz-word of the 1960s and ’70s had it. The setting was perfect, a long, rectangular, stone-built mint founded by an early Margave of Bayreuth. The uneven flooring was original as were the stair wells, and the maze of rooms equally irregular. Physical presence was part of the message as was the deliberate distance from institutional academia –– a lived experience.

For a long time I couldn’t quite put into words how such a strong bond between the Beiers and myself had come into being. Little by little, however, it began to make sense. We were, all three, alienated from those very different societies/cultures into which we were born, with all their restrictions and narrow mindednesses, but the end-effect was the same. We were drawn to other cultures and world views, and lived happily among various artifacts and mindsets with which we were intimately familiar and had become part of our lives. Ulli and Geogina, however, were genuine bohemians and I merely an eccentric anarchist.