Bio David Schickele
A SINGULAR MAN By Roger Landrum (2) 61-63
David Schickele, died on Oct. 31 in San Francisco from brain cancer. He was 62 and is survived by his wife, Gail, a son Graham (Nighttrain), a daughter Laura Bissonnette, and brother Peter. He was a film director, musician and writer.
David was my best friend in Peace Corps. Our first talk on a balcony at Michigan State University during training began a lifetime of the best conversations I ever had.
Arrival in Nigeria was not auspicious. Parliament was debating whether Peace Corps was another insidious arm of colonialism and should be sent packing. Our staff doctor warned us to avoid Nigerian WHIFF—water, heat, insects, food and females. The advance man for our project rushed back to Lagos to report that our site, the new University of Nigeria campus, was infested with venomous snakes. If we survived Parliament, we still couldn’t travel until snake-bite kits arrived from the US.
We never saw a snake in two years. But the university was just a clearing in the bush near Nsukka with a cluster of buildings still under construction. We were moved into tiny dorm rooms with students. Then demonstrations began against “neocolonial spies.” Student activists stuck Yankee-Go-Home posters on our doors and chanted as they snake-danced in spectacular Ibo style down the halls. It would have been more unnerving except that they also piled into our rooms to introduce themselves, saying that the demonstrations were only political statements and we were welcome as individuals.
Students arose at daybreak, turned radios full blast to highlife music, crowded into the showers with us, and strolled into our rooms without knocking. It was all a bit jarring. Half our group moved to a nearby resthouse. David and I stayed, but the bruhaha grated on his nerves so much he holed up in his room for weeks complaining about how much he missed New York City and reading Madame Bovary.
All this blew over. We took long hikes with students into Nsukka’s beautiful domed hills to visit clan compounds with rambling gardens and yam fields tucked under patches of rainforest. Early morning and cool evening cook-fire smoke hovered under the tree canopy, mingling with sounds of village life. Strangers were welcomed with elaborate greetings and kola nuts. Portals opened to all sorts of adventures. David sweet-talked me into saving half my meager monthly allowance to join him in ordering a motorcycle from Britain through a greasy mechanics shop near the Enugu market. We shared a thousand good times with Nigerians at bars with names like Go Slow Hotel and No Telephone to God, weekends at harvest festivals and student weddings, excursions to the Cross river, and other vintage experiences.
David captured this spirit several years later in his documentary film for Peace Corps. Give Me A Riddle is about revelations to be had on entering into another culture. It is still shown at alumni conferences.
Our job was to be teachers. Nnamdi Azikiwe himself urged “you young Americans make education relevant to Nigerian independence.” Our courses became half Afro-centric, with Achebe’s early novels, Soyinka’s plays, the poetry of Senghor and Diop, and student research into their own linguistic traditions.
We bombarded our students with pop quizzes, Socratic discussions, and unorthodox writing assignments. The rest was Great Books. David and I sorted through the Western Canon for works with some plausible relevance to the students’ experience and the birth of their nation. David staged readings of King Lear, taking the role of the old King sinking into madness. He spent hours polishing lectures about Shakespeare’s plays and the works of Achebe and Soyinka.
Our shared English Department office became a lively gathering spot for students. Whatever else they thought about our teaching antics, they knew they were getting their money’s worth. David later wrote about this in a brilliant essay, When the Right Hand Washes the Left, widely reprinted as a classic of volunteer experience.
After Peace Corps, we lived on different coasts but our friendship never abated. We returned to Nigeria together in 1965 to make Give Me A Riddle. When I directed Peace Corps training programs in Boston, I brought David’s best Nigerian friend, Paul Okpokam, to America under the ruse of expertise in rare Cross River languages. My little gift to David. Paul became the star of his indy film Bushman, which won the Best First Feature award at the Chicago International Film Festival and is archived at the New York Museum of Modern Art .
David’s home was always a respite for me from battle fatigue. What a singular and wonderful man he was. David stood utterly apart from the usual conventions. He listened to his own inner music. A free-lace musician, he produced five albums of original songs. His last film, Tuscarora, was made in 1992. Although he never enjoyed great commercial success, among his assembly of friends he was a majetic presence.
David’s last piece of writing, Letter to Nighttrain, was for his four-year old son who, if he is lucky, will grow up to ride motorcycles and make music like his father.