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Dennis Brutus




Dennis Brutus, 1924 - 2009. Writer, Activist and Humanist



photocredit: Matthew Bradley


 Losing my Great Friend  

The text message was short, sharp and to the point: “Your friend Dennis Brutus died early today”.

It was December 26, 2009, and I was in my village getting into the groove of the Christmas season. The message came from my friend and brother, Jossey Ogbuanoh, who had been my colleague in the defunct THISWEEK magazine back in 1987 when Dennis Brutus used to visit with me in the office when he was in Nigeria. Over the years most of my Nigerian friends have wondered at the letters I used to get from Brutus, the legendary South African poet, author of A Simple Lust, Letters to Martha, Sirens Knuckles and Boots. Brutus and I have travelled the Lagos streets (with him lamenting that there were still open drains on Nigerian streets). But Brutus was not all complaints and seriousness, for he once suggested that we should co-author a book of erotica!
In 1989 I was appointed a Distinguished Visitor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada. I travelled to Canada and put a call through to Brutus who was then the head of the Black Studies Department of the University of Pittsburgh, USA. He immediately invited me over to deliver a lecture to his literature students.

As I had only a single-entry visa into Canada I could not possibly travel out of the country and be allowed back in. The celebrated Zimbabwean journalist Geoff Nyarota who was with me in Canada wondered aloud why I needed a visa in the first place to get into Canada when as a fellow Commonwealth citizen he had not travelled with a visa from Zimbabwe. I simply told Geoff that the Nigerian was the exception to every rule, before travelling out of my London-Ontario base to Toronto to process the American visa. Naturally, the American Consulate in Toronto refused to grant the visa as I had only a single-entry Canadian visa (which as everyone knows, was proof that I planned to migrate permanently to the US). I pointedly told the white American visa officer that I would make him reverse his decision because of my “intimidating connections”.

Back to my Primrose Hotel lodge in downtown Toronto, I called my hosts in Canada, and Professor Peter Desbarats advised me to extend my stay at the hotel for another week while he made necessary contacts to reverse the visa refusal. I called Dennis Brutus who threatened to take his protest to the American Congress! I then called the top editors of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper and magazine, John Cruickshank and Peggy Wente, whom I had earlier interacted with. In no time at all, things started happening. The American Consulate in Toronto got more protest letters and fax messages than even their huge offices could contain. The American Consulate had the good grace to beg me to come back and take the visa!

It was instructive that a black man was on hand to attend to me when I got back to the Consulate. He made all the genial apologies and granted me a multiple-entry American visa. Curiously, when I flew into the United States in a plane named Canadian Partner I did not have to pass through the international wing of the Pittsburgh Airport. To that extent, I did not even need the American visa in the first place. It was like flying from Ikeja to Calabar: no Customs, no Immigration, nothing. I simply walked into the American wonderland without even setting eyes on the people Dennis Brutus had dispatched to the international wing of the airport to receive me!

I settled into Ramala Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh after the suspicious hotel staff had called for the confirmation of Dennis Brutus and cross-checked his credit card. The taxi man who came to pick me up the next morning happened to be a fellow Nigerian stranded in the US!

My lecture at the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Black Education and Development dwelt on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel, Devil on the Cross, comparing the wanton capitalism that America represented with the oppressed Kenyan peasantry that the heroine Jacinta Wariinga underscored.

After the lecture I helped Brutus to run his office. I sorted out his mail, tearing the useless letters of fellows asking for odd favours and filing the relevant ones for his later attention. He told me how he unwittingly used to tear up cheques sent to him without actually opening the letters! He would only get to learn much later that he had torn a cheque following further inquiries by the sender. On the many books regularly sent to him by diverse authors, Brutus said he would ask the authors if they wanted “nice noises” from him or real critiques.

His pet project then was the Union of the Writers of the African Peoples (UWAP). Our walks round the campus took us through the bar and the restaurant, the library, the conference centre hosting the Russian-American “Chittaqua at Pitt” international seminar, and the many gardens where Brutus poetically analyzed the flowers and the bookshop. It was at the bookshop that I fell in love with a dictionary – and insisted that Brutus buy it for me.

“That’s not how to ask for a favour,” said the astonished Brutus.

“But I want the dictionary just the same,” I maintained.

That was how I became the proud owner of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, which set Brutus back by almost 100 dollars! The book was so heavy that the fire which consumed my library recently could only char a handful of its pages!

I am only just coming to terms with the loss of my dear friend Dennis Brutus on December 26. He was shot in the back with a deadly gun by the goons of the Apartheid regime and he was jailed in the notorious Robben Island prison alongside Nelson Mandela. He, more than any mortal, played a pivotal role in the exclusion of Apartheid South Africa from the Olympic Games and sundry international sports. Above all else, he was the immortal poet who penned Somehow we survive. Adieu, my great friend, Dennis Brutus..

  Maxim Uzoatu  

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Uzoatu (b 1960) directed his first play Doctor of Football in 1979. He was the 1989 Distinguished Visitor at The Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Satan's Story, A Play of Ghosts, The Missing Link, and God of Poetry. He is currently writing the text for photographer Owen Logan's caricature of Michael Jackson in a Nigerian adventure entitled Masquerade. Educated at universities in Ife and Lagos, he is married with four children and lives in Lagos, Nigeria. His short story Cemetery of Life was recently published in Wasafiri. He has also published poetry and criticism in the literary press.

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