Biyi Bandele, a serial storyteller who elevated Nigerian culture

THE writer, film-maker and theatre creator Biyi Bandele has passed away at the age of 54, news that has stunned the West African arts community where he was a creative icon who told classic Nigerian stories, sometimes in the Yoruba language, to a global audience.

He was the creator of modern Nigerian classics – co-directing the popular Netflix TV series Blood Sisters and writing the coming-of-age war novel Burma Boy. He was as well known for adapting Nigerian literary classics – a film version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic Half of a Yellow Sun and a stage version of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. He had just completed Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, a film based on the famous play by Wole Soyinka.

A true-born creative, Biyi was a serial storyteller and Renaissance man, who explored a variety of creative avenues in order to share his vision and voice. He started young, winning his first literary award at just 14.

For the next four decades, he worked tirelessly and with enthusiasm, becoming one of the most visible and exceptional storytellers of his generation. He understood how to work across the media, making Nigerian stories relevant and in the process elevating Nigerian culture, playing it out in global popular culture.

The person

A film poster showing an orange sunset and a couple kissing
Half of a Yellow Sun film

Raised in the north of Nigeria, schooled in the south and resident in the UK, Biyi was an (inter)national Nigerian. Or an insider-outsider, as he would say. Despite his international renown, he shamed a good number of Nigerian creatives with his willingness to mentor others.

He was always ready to offer support to whoever he met – young and established artists, industry hopefuls, scholars like myself.

In our last correspondence in May, Biyi noted he was occupied with writing a new book with a looming deadline. He had a reputation for being a dogged worker, tenacious and dedicated. His extremely busy film-making schedule was full until December.

A true African thinker with a fierce spirit of independence and creativity, Biyi was driven by a love for culture and story.

The writing

An indication of Biyi’s impact as a writer – and the vacuum he leaves in the literary space – was a tribute published in the online literary mag Brittle Paper. In it 100 African writers celebrate his life and work. Adichie writes:

We’ve lost a real star. Too (unbearably) soon. A humane human. A true artist.

Biyi was prominent for his 2007 novel Burma Boy, a tale of African soldiers in the second world war fighting on the side of the British colonisers against Japan. Burma Boy was personal to Biyi, a novel he had always wanted to write. It reflected the stories of experiences during the Burma campaign as told to him by his father and his father’s friends who fought there.

A book cover with an illustration of a dark-skinned young man in a hat holding a rifle, a palm tree and fighter planes in the distance.
Jonathan Cape/Penguin Books

Although criticised for not holding together particularly well as a novel, Burma Boy achieves its purpose. It breaks ground in offering a lived African perspective of the conflict, contributing to the African history archive. Characteristic of prominent Nigerian tales, Biyi punctuates the seriousness of his story with African proverbs, anecdotes and idioms.

In this and his other published works – The Street (1999) and The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams (1991) – he dwells on everyday, real people and their lived experiences.

The TV, film and theatre

Newer generations will know Biyi for his TV work, but he first made his mark in film in 2013 by choosing an ambitious project – the multi-million US dollar budget Half of a Yellow Sun – for a directorial debut. He displayed exceptional talent and proved an ability to draw great performances from his cast.

Many challenges beset the film – delayed production and censorship dramas in Nigeria, mixed reviews from critics, piracy, and a low return on investment despite setting a box office record in Nigeria. Even so, Biyi had cemented his mastery of adaptations and historical rendition.

He had previously adapted Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart for the stage and published plays of his own. He directed a documentary on legendary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Biyi created numerous popular dramas on TV. He directed the 2013 season of the MTV drama Shuga, which follows the real-life challenges of young Africans.

His glossy 2015 film Fifty explores the many binaries faced by middle-aged women everywhere, but especially in Lagos. Here he again highlights the multifaceted yet beautiful Nigerian megacity, the place where he was again working and where he would end up dying.

Working tirelessly, he co-directed one of Nollywood’s most sensational miniseries, Blood Sisters (2022). According to my analysis, it’s a story which x-rays the anguish of gender inequality while extolling sisterhood and challenging taboos. Blood Sisters drew global audiences and within a week of its release, it was on the top 10 most-watched shows on Netflix.

The final works

Biyi had lofty plans for the future – stories to write and films to create. He is deeply missed, especially with mounting anticipation for the Netflix and EbonyLife production Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman. Billed to premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, it is scheduled for release in September and could yet be his finest adaptation. https://www.youtube.com/embed/t6um8V1jLU0?wmode=transparent&start=0

Based on the play by the Nobel Prize-winning Soyinka explores true historical events. For a continent and a Nigerian society becoming increasingly spread across the diaspora, there is a continual yearning for a (re)connection to roots and heritage, Elesin Oba will be an attraction. For students who find the play hard to read, and I was once in this category, Biyi’s version will provide a pleasurable alternative. He will help keep alive and relevant the great works he adapted.

Biyi mentioned other works in the making. He was going to adapt Burma Boy into a film. He reportedly spoke of a new book billed for publication in 2023.

We know that in Death and the King’s Horseman, Elesin sacrifices himself for the safe and onward journey of the Oba (king). What we do not know is why Biyi left just before the unveiling of this monumental recreation. He will be remembered as a tremendously talented writer and filmmaker, a hard worker, mentor and mensch. His creative works now outlive him, engraving his name in the sands of time.

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