Dul Johnson was born in a small village called Zamlaka in the present day Langtang North Local Government Area of Plateau State. He is the fourth of Kongdak’s ten children. Her bigger, and official name was Fakat, which, by tradition, was used by her husband and her mates who also had another name for her – Saḿbò. “My family was beautifully polygamous”, says Dul.
At age 3 or 4, he had fallen in love with his father’s small plantation of sugarcane and bananas interspersed with huge mango trees. “The impregnable mangoes have survived everyone, and will survive.” Having defeated the sugarcane and bananas the mangoes grew into a cluster, a mini-forest, to which Dul performs a pilgrimage once in a while.
He had started to learn the art of farming – “my Dad ensured it” – when he was taken off the sweet and sour routine of eating sugarcane, bananas and mangoes. The family had to migrate from Zamlaka in the north, the heart of Tarokland to Gina, a new home in the south of Langtang. But he was glad to escape the hard labour of the swampy plantation and the itchy, salty sweat that the sugarcane leaves and the hot sun caused.
He was only five years old when they migrated to the south. There were more lands to cultivate; flat, fertile lands, but with more scorching heat. It was a new farming experience. Added to this were two new arts he had to learn: shepherding and blacksmithing. But he was soon yanked off these for a new life back in the North. He had to go to school.
“The first five years of primary school (1961 – 65) were more hell than fun,” he said. Literally enslaved in the house of a stranger-relative, food, rest and recreation were as rare as diamond. The result was a terrible sickness that sent him back home in the South towards the end of 1965. School had to be suspended for one academic year.
When he returned to school in 1967, his Dad, who had earlier feared his being spoilt by a grandmother, sent him to his maternal grandmother at the foot of the mountains at Timwat. If a little spoiling could help him recover fully, so be it. A bit of the sweet life in Timwat is captured in his story, “Living with Shadows” in his short story collection entitled Shadows and Ashes.
Blacksmithing (and its allied arts) is a vocation, was indeed a profession from his early age, which Dul Johnson would never forget, and would love to return to any time.
Being an apprentice blacksmith had a seminal influence on Dul’s life and career. In secondary school, one of his best subjects was Metal and Woodwork. At graduation from secondary, he was almost sent off to the polytechnic by his teacher, to study Woodwork. But over the two or three years he studied the subject, he had taken home a few items of wood and metal he had made in the school. “Some of them still exist today,” he says. “At least I saw the small spherical table a couple of years ago.”
But blacksmithing it was, that connected him with the first story that set him to work: You could write too, this is your life also. The story was Camara Laye’s The African Child , which he had read in Form Two, or the early part of Form Three. This triggered the interest to start writing about his own life. Like him, Camara Laye was the son of a blacksmith and his story exuded the imagery and atmosphere of the hearth and the sounds of bellows, the anvil and the hammer, the stone and the mighty metal stick (or mallet), as well as the smell of the yellow-white metal and flames.
It was in the secondary school also that he started to act on the stage, participating in the production of one of Ngugi ’s early plays, either This Time Tomorrow or The Black Hermit, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This interest increased with his entry into the university, where he did not only act, but also wrote and directed stage plays. Obviously, this was the foundation of Dul’s sojourn in the screen industry. Today his name is one of the most respected in the Nigerian film industry, as a Scriptwriter, Director and Film Critic.
The practice of writing and Filmmaking have given me tremendous joy and fulfillment. They have opened doors. They have taken me to lands and places I would never have gone. In 2010, Dul won a writing fellowship to Brown University in the US, where he did most of the writing of his first novel, Deeper into the Night. Brown provided a most conducive atmosphere and workspace. It was also an opportunity to meet great writers he had read but never dreamt of ever setting eyes on – George Lamming , Chinua Achebe , John Edger Wideman , Ama Ata Aido and the indefatigable writer and director of the INP, Robert Couver .
While in Brown he had an opportunity to stage a mini Nigerian festival in which he shared his works of fiction and a film in progress with American audiences. One of his most memorable moments in Brown was a visit to Harvard University in Boston to have a talk with a “writing” class. He fielded questions from about 30 students who had read his works before the meeting.
Later the same novel would earn him a Residency at Ebedi in Oyo state, Nigeria where extensive editing work and rewriting took place.
A sponsored visit to the historical city of Goa for the International Film Festival of India in 2012, and to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2013 where his film “There is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle ” was in a festival, and to other African countries is all part of the benefits filmmaking has brought to Dul.
So, from the romance with the stage, Dul went into writing, but not just plays. Although he wrote more plays than anything else, he also tried his hand at poetry, journalistic writing and short stories. From the mid to the late 70’s he wrote plays for radio (Rima Radio, Sokoto) and for the stage – some of which were produced in his undergraduate days. He recalls that one of his productions received such a scathing review from one of his lecturers that he hid himself in his room for two days and refused to attend the lecturer’s classes for a week. “All of those early plays are now lost – for good.”
Dul was a member and strong writer for the campus gossip magazine known as “The Spark”. He was something like the Production Manager or so. With poetry he confesses that he was never good at it. “I produced many trashes in the name of poetry, some of which have survived till date.” But he has a few pieces published here and there, even in reputable collections.
Dul Johnson has five major works published; Shadows and Ashes, Why Women Won’t make it to Heaven (short story collections), Ugba Uye: The Living Legend (a biography) Deeper into the Night (a novel) and Melancholia (a play). The last two, the most recent, will be presented to the public on 28 October 2014. There are two other major literary works in progress, a novel and a play, drafts of which have been completed. The working title of the novel is Tomorrow will Come, while the play – about the plight of the Nigerian academic – has not taken any title yet. Time, he says, is the most expensive commodity he needs to complete these and other works – in literature and in film…
The story continues on Wikipedia…