‘Memoirs of an African Comedian’ is a beautiful collection of eclectic moments and experiences that have helped to define the life of an engineer who became a comedian, actor and all round media personality. In his own words, Mr. Okechukwu Anthony Onyegbule popularly known as Okey Bakassi takes us through the highs and lows of his journey, leaving readers with inspiring lessons at the end. Categorized into four parts, each of which summarizes key stages of the author’s development, this book documents Okey Bakassi’s life in all its beauty and humour.
Before I go into the essence of the book, let me briefly summarise the four parts. The bits on upbringing and environment in the opening chapters speak to the people who helped to shape the author’s childhood, setting the foundation for his talents and character. Becoming a man revisits jarring life events that ushered Okey into a rude awakening of his adulthood and taught him hard lessons of balancing the power of freedom with the caution of responsibility. It is in the following part about exploring possibilities that the author takes us into his career in showbiz; how he established a personal brand more by accident than by design, while still struggling to secure his livelihood, prove himself a success and make his parents proud. The timeless highlights which close the book presents an exclusive selection of the author’s most beneficial relationships and the deeply emotional stories of how they were forged.
In all, this memoir is filled with insights that all aspiring, up and coming comedians and entertainers can and should learn from. This is an enjoyable book of stories told with heartfelt honesty and, as you would expect from a comedian, a large dose of humour. In an easy-to-follow style, readers are led through the childhood, education and career path and progression of Okey Bakassi, based largely on the things that have happened to him, and the things that he has done.
While I commend Okey for this book, literary critics will see it as an incomplete version of a final draft and I don’t mean it in the sense of a memoir being an ongoing story based on the life still ahead of the author. In several aspects of the book, some of the stories were not comprehensively told, even if one can sense that the raw materials are all there. An example is the first chapter titled “A house full of girls” which describes anything but a house full of girls. We are not introduced to the author’s interactions with any other females in the house other than his mother and immediate younger sister, Ada and even that, only for brief parts.
For a chapter with such title, and given the number of female characters (sisters, aunties etc), identified by the author, critical readers who expect a narrative of how it is to live in a household dominated by female presence would be disappointed. So would those who may want to learn how that affected the author’s perspective and behaviour growing up; which is what you get to some extent, but not nearly enough. I fail to see how Okey’s experience was any different from mine, growing up with a younger sister. If anything, the gap created very early in the book shows that the author has forgotten the fundamental principles of engineering about erecting a solid foundation for whatever he might want to build. Okey is now truly an actor and comedian, professions where what matters most is not the first line but the last!
While the second chapter, which deals with the author’s childhood behavioural dynamic with his mother and a nurse, is an improvement on the first in terms of adequately addressing its title, the next chapter, “A family of clowns” is another anti-climax. You don’t truly get the sense of a family of clowns with the few instances that were described by the author. He just says they are a family of clowns but does not paint a vivid picture or compelling stories that will etch the depth of the notion to the reader. The instances provided do not seem anything out of the ordinary as would be expected from the title or someone who turned out to be a great comedian. Basically, for the first three chapters, the author is not painstaking enough as a writer is obligated to be.
However, the book really enters its strides in the fourth chapter and you start to get a better sense of the environment and experiences that really shaped the upbringing, and character of the man, Okey Bakassi. At this stage of the book, you get into the flow with anecdotes that offer interesting insights. The next chapter is even more riveting. This marks a pivotal period in Okey’s life as a university student with more freedom and independence to make his own choices. The author does a fantastic job in encapsulating his experiences and leveraging on it to offer major lessons for many of our young men and women about not being defined by the grades you score in school. Despite coming out with a Third Class degree in Engineering, the stories of his campus life left readers with no doubts that Okey had an all-round education that prepared him for the opportunities he would later seize with both hands.
Like most young men his generation, Okey Bakassi came to Lagos the moment he was done with his University education. Easily the best chapter in the book, “This is Lagos” is a story of Okey’s struggle to find a place for himself in the famous city that a former president has aptly described as urban jungle. A very interesting story that is, on its own, a fitting tribute to the author’s tenacity in the face of adversity, “This is Lagos”, I am almost certain, can easily be adapted into a successful Nollywood movie. It is that brilliant.
In ‘Bachelor and his Girls’, the author takes us through the philandering phase of his life before getting married to his childhood sweetheart. Apparently to avoid complicating the present day lives of his conquests which is a sensible thing to do, the names mentioned are not real. But the stories are. It is in this chapter that Okey Bakassi also opens up on one of the more famous relationships he had with a fellow actress which should be good for tabloid fodder to help boost publicity around the book. It must have been one of the more pleasant recollections judging by the expansive nature of the narrative.
From the 4th to 7th chapter the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read but in the 8th chapter titled “The engineer who lost his way into Nollywood”, the author also literally lost his way in telling his story. The chronological flow and transitions are disjointed. But because the tales are good, it is not beyond redemption. A bit of re-ordering of the paragraphs within the chapter would greatly improve the flow of the narrative and make it easier to comprehend. As it stands, the chapter reads like a number of independent anecdotes that are not well integrated to form a holistic story. Furthermore, Okey’s relationship with his chosen career feels a bit loveless and flat due to the way he takes the reader through the journey. Basically, none of the projects he featured in are described with any nostalgic detail as was the case with his actual memories as a child or becoming a man.
Considering that the core audience of this book would be fellow showbiz professionals and those who aspire to be, Okey needs to provide better insights into how he was able to accomplish so much as well as the compromises he has had to make along the journey. For a young man who by dint of hard work has become a veteran in his chosen profession, the lack of clear answers to such pressing questions will be disappointing for many of the young people coming up the ladder.
Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is the one titled, “The business of comedy” which chronicles Okey’s rise in the then budding industry of stand-up comedy. This is a welcome return to normal service of the author telling a coherent and interesting story. There are a few profound statements in this chapter that are quite quotable. The first is about an admonition, based on his experience that it is not advisable to mix friendship with business.
This is the way Okey puts it: “The friendship that trusts itself too much for the signing of contracts will soon become a victim of its own overconfidence. For money is the madness that strips sane people naked. It is what it is. And when you are very close to someone, you have the more reason to formalize your business and protect what you share; exactly — what you share, which includes money.” The second is about the contradictions inherent in comedy as a profession: “In this business of laughter, the mandate is to produce happiness even when you don’t know it. How you feel backstage must not interrupt the entertainment to which the audience is entitled. They don’t know your story, nor should they be short-changed for it.”
Sadly, towards the concluding paragraphs, complacency crept in again. The last two brief paragraphs read like an endnote and really do no justice whatsoever to the weighty issue of self-censorship as a comedian in an oppressive and conservative society like Nigeria, that the author highlights only in passing. The last part of the book “Timeless highlights” is a fitting collection of Okey’s most crucial experiences and relationships. Here we see the sacrifices his father had to make on his behalf before moving to the 3 F’s of showbiz, a tribute to family, fans and financiers. There is also a fascinating account of his misadventure in politics where he learnt his lessons the hard way. The love story with Ezinne is captured in “Who marries a comedian?”, as Okey recounts the critical moments in a long courtship that eventually ended in marriage to his childhood sweetheart.
The final part of the book is a flourishing finish by the author in terms of its flow, consistency, attention to detail and depth of storytelling. It is in this ending that you know Okey Bakassi is now truly a comedian. He gets the applause here.
Overall, this is a highly entertaining book with fluid writing and a good balance of humour and candour. Regardless of the glaring imperfections of a few chapters, Okey’s effort is a worthy contribution to understanding Nollywood and standup comedy in Nigeria. It is a fascinating collection that reminds readers about where the man now known as Okey Bakassi is coming from, the mistakes he has made along the journey, the lessons he has learnt and the choices he has had to make.
From a childhood spent almost like a nomad, because his father was in the military, to a rewarding career in show-business, The ‘Memoirs of African Comedian’ follows an encouraging trajectory. Despite facing several obstacles, Okey has emerged from them stronger and wiser such that today, he has become a household name in the country and one of the pathfinders in a thriving profession. At the end, what the author says most clearly is that if we stay true to our convictions and we work hard, there is no limit to what we can achieve in life. It is a timely message for members of the coming generation, many of who believe they can ‘hammer’ without work.
‘The Memoirs of an African Comedian’, in the words of the award winning writer, Tony Kan, “is an honest exploration of Okechukwu Anthony Onyegbule’s journey from a barracks boy to becoming Okey Bakassi, one of Nigeria’s most popular comedians. It is a story of love woven out of lack, of resilience forged in the smithy of adversity and a man whose gifts have taken him before kings. But it is just a memoir, an unfinished story. We hope to read another.”
Thank very much you for listening and good evening.
Olusegun Adeyini, the chairman of the ThisDay Editorial Board, presented this lecture at the public presentation of Mr Okey Bakassi’s book, ‘The Memoirs of an African Comedian’, in Lagos on 27th October, 2019.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.