ULLI BEIER: The German with Yoruba blood flowing through his veins - Global Quest Magazine


Monday, August 8, 2022

ULLI BEIER: The German with Yoruba blood flowing through his veins

Laide Gold

In the annals of modern Yorùbá history, men like Ulli Beier will forever be remembered. A culture icon extraordinaire and a frontline scholar on Yorùbá culture, he was popularly known as “Òyìnbó Dúdú” i.e “African with European skin” due to his love for Yoruba culture and religion.

Ulli Beier was born into a German Jewish middle class family in Chotwitz (today Poland). His father was a medical doctor and like many Jewish professionals, the family moved to Berlin in the hope for better opportunities and less discrimination than in the rural community. After Hitler’s takeover in 1933, the family decided to emigrate to Palestine. 

Palestine did not prove to be the promised land. Ulli Beier was interned as an enemy alien by the British, and put into a camp where he worked as stable hand on a dairy farm. He was not admitted into the secondary school system, but managed to acquire the school certificate as external student (self-taught).

Given leave to study Archaeology in Jerusalem, he found his studies abruptly curtailed when his professor suddenly died. As an unknown German he attracted suspicion, and was imprisoned, sharing a cell with the secretary of the Palestine Communist Party and members of the Jewish terror group, the Stern Gang.

After his release he took a correspondence degree in English Literature, History and German from London University, and after the war headed to the city, where, finding most academic places taken by ex-servicemen, he took a qualification in phonetics.

He was teaching handicapped children in Battersea in 1949 when he spotted a newspaper advertisement for a position as lecturer in English at University College Ibadan, western Nigeria.

Beier found the Nigerian metropolis “bursting with creativity”, but observed that the things that compelled him in the bustling streets, from barber shop signs to traditional drumming, were of no interest to the mostly British staff at the university, nor to many educated Africans.

Transferring to the department of Extra-Mural Studies, he travelled the towns and villages of Yorubaland, organizing lectures and classes and becoming increasingly embroiled in the complex culture of the Yoruba.

Making friends with traditional priests and rulers, he photographed and documented rituals and sacred festivals, translated traditional poetry and wrote articles and books on every aspect of Yoruba life, from attitudes to twins to the role of dogs.

His attempts to promote both traditional and modern African arts led to the creation of Black Orpheus, the first African literary magazine in English, which he co-founded in 1957, and to the Mbari Mbayọ Club, which fell apart when a group of members decided to move to more upmarket premises.

Meanwhile, Beier’s wife, the Austrian painter Susanne Wenger, who had accompanied him to Nigeria in 1950, became a Yoruba priestess and eventually a national figure. Her sculpted sacred grove in the south-western town of Oṣogbo, which Beier helped fund in its early stages, is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

In 1962 Ulli Beier met Georgina Betts, a spirited south Londoner who was to become his second wife. For a time Beier, Wenger and Betts shared a house, living on different floors of an extraordinary Afro-baroque residence in Oṣogbo, north-east of Ibadan.

Georgina ran art workshops, while Beier collaborated with the local bar owner-turned-composer Duro Ladipọ in the creation of the Yoruba folk operas Ọba Koso and Ọba Waja, which toured the world and were highlights of the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival. He also groomed Araba Yẹmi Elebuibọn, Kọla Ogunmọla and many others.

The Beiers left Nigeria in 1966, as the country descended into chaos ahead of the Biafran war. He returned to Nigeria for a period in the 1970s, but never quite recaptured the euphoria he had experienced there in the early 1960s.

Ulli Beier died at the age of 89 on the 3rd of April, 2011. He was survived by his wife, Georgina, and their two sons. His first wife, Susanne Wenger died in 2009.

Ulli Beier’s books include:

Art in Nigeria (1960)

Black Orpheus: An Anthology of African and Afro-American Prose (1964)

African Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional African Poems (1966)

The Origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths (1966)

Three Nigerian Plays (1967)

Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from “Black Orpheus” (1967)

When the Moon Was Big, and Other Legends from New Guinea (1972)

Words of Paradise: Poetry of Papua New Guinea (1972)

The return of the gods (1975)

The stolen images (1976)

Yoruba Beaded Crowns: Sacred Regalia of the Olokuku of Okuku (1982)

Yoruba Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems (1970) - English translations from Yoruba

Yoruba Myths (1980) - English translations from Yoruba

A Sea of Indigo: Yoruba Textile Art (1997)

The Hunter Thinks the Monkey is Not Wise - the Monkey is Wise, But He Has His Own Logic (2002)

Not Even God is Ripe Enough: Yoruba Stories (1968) - co-authored with Bakare Gbadamọṣi

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