Thursday, 29 September 2011

WordSlam V… A Weekend Of Words Feast In Lagos

By Anote Ajeluorou

It was by every measure a weekend the power of the spoken word took centre-stage and audience that had gathered savoured every bit of it. But by far the most humbling was when playwright, actor, singer and culture Journalist and advocate, Ben Tomoloju, stepped up to the microphone and took the audience into the intricate resources of the rich Yoruba oral literary performances laced by musical compositions. It all happened at Freedom Park, Lagos Island last Saturday. The theme was: Homage to the Environment
  Although it had been long he performed in public, Tomoloju left no one in doubt that he is indeed a master of the performance craft. Also pairing affably with another exceptional performer, Yemi Oyewo, Tomoloju showed that he is in a class of his own both in verbal dexterity and musical gift. For the benefit of the mixed audience, including both non-Yoruba speakers and foreigners, Tomoloju caused Oyewo to do an encore of an Ijala or hunter’s chant while he interpreted. His seamless interpretation while Oyewo chanted was a real fascination and could only have come from a master craftsman like Tomoloju.
  Indeed, as Honoured Guest Poet at WordSlam V, the poetry, spoken word, rap and music event put together by Culture Advocates Caucus with the support of the German Culture Centre, Goethe Institut, Tomoloju showed he is a deeply experienced and skilled performer. Digging deeply into his Ilaje-Ese Odo oral roots, his versatility took his audience to the heights of oral performance and he capped it up with a musical rendition with reggae accompaniment from the Naijazz band led by Oyin Ogungbade.
  At the end of his act, a standing ovation greeted the rare performance from a multi-talented artiste. Indeed, many wondered how lucky they were to have been part of the spoken word mini-festival. Younger ones would certainly take a cue from the master craftsman and learn a trick or two to better their craft.
  While Tomoloju’s performance clearly turned out the climax of a glorious evening, other younger performers showed promise as usual as those certainly coming into the ripeness of time in poetic and performance art. Culture journalist and actress, Evelyn Osagie also took a cue from her Edo, Benin roots, to give the audience something to chew about in her piece, ‘Nature’s Song’. A love poem to Mother Nature, it calls attention to the environment and how positive action needs to be taken to preserve nature from the harmful practices of man that degrade it.
  On another level and taking the earth goddess as her guide, Osagie raked up her Edo cultural riches in her soul-lifting verbal narration of the maternal relation between the earth goddess and her children, man, and how she is the mentor of lovers, who need her guidance to succeed, especially as Osamudiamwen was to find in his love quest for his heartthrob.
  Not least to thrill the audience was revolutionary reggae artist, Cornerstone (Simon Eyanam Dose). With ‘Rope of Freedom’, Cornerstone showed what a musical force his soul-stirring voice could be. Indeed, it would seem that Cornerstone has remained on the fringe for far too long. With a little help, perhaps, Cornerstone could well be the next reggae revolution the world would see. His lyrics is steeped in revolutionary idioms as he speaks with such force that could shake an inert, docile citizenry like Nigeria’s into some form of positive action so the commonwealth could be redeemed from its current socio-political malaise.
  Another culture journalist, Chuka Nnabuife, drew attention to the environmental degradation ravaging the South-Eastern parts of the country. Taking a little excerpt from his on-going project, ‘Mbize… Landslide Down the Eastern’, Nnabuife is insistent that the time to act is now to avoid a catastrophy waiting to happen, and that it would be easier to stem it now than respond to it later.
  Other entertainers included Ikuo Eke, with her ‘I set sail’, set in her kalabari native not; Amos Onileagbon, with his ‘Walking by the precipice’, Uche Uwadinachi, with his ‘Tell me why’, which is steeped in rap and musicality that showcased a multi-talented artiste. To cap a memorable evening, spoken word war was organised for young performers; in the open mic & mind segment they were scored and winners emerged. In the end Oluwakemi Islamiyat from AJ House of Poetry emerged winner; clinching N15, 000 prize from Goethe Institut. There were also  the flutist, Awoko who also lamented the fate & the environment in his emotionally-charged rendition. He was followed by AJ Dagga Tolar, a poet cast in the light of master of slam masters like mutabarnk and Yasus Afari. The event ended with Edaoto’s rooted afrobeat performance.

BUT before WordSlam V, Pulpfaction Club had its monthly Book’n’Guage reading and signing event at Debonair Bookshop at Sabo, Yaba, Lagos. But rather than the books, it was also the spectacularly spoken word poetry of Efe Paul Azino that caused a huge stir amongst the lean audience. His highly inflaming revolutionary poetry, ‘Not a political poem’, delivered with such perfect aplomb took the audience through the slums of suffering Nigerians have been helplessly thrown into, and then up to grimy, corrupt thrones and palaces of those who now hold them hostage in a land that should have nothing to do with poverty and suffering in the first place.
  And like Cornerstone, the persona in Azino’s poem is shocked at how easily the masses have settled themselves into the mental slavery trap, with the shackles cast around their necks and arms and how they have lost the voice to protest the brutish lives they now lived. Indeed, if poetry casts stones, the masses got stoned first from Azino’s poetic jibes for being irredeemably mute in the face of suffering, and having to accept it as their common lot in life. His second poem simply titled, ‘Words’, speaks about the sheer magic of words and why he is so enamoured by them as they give his fertile mind the freedom to range wide to capture phenomena.
  Four authors, Imasuen Eghosa (author of To Saint Patrick and his forthcoming second book, Fine Boys), Charles Ayo Dada (author of Ghost of Zina), Samuel Kolawole (author of The Book of M), and Chimeka Garricks (author of Tomorrow Died Yesterday) read excerpts from their works. They also gave backgrounds and inspirations to their writings. Music interludes, too, by two guitarists, punctuated the afternoon readings.
  For one weekend, therefore, Lagos erupted with a feast of words from some of the finest wordsmiths and voices emerging from the underground. This cultural bloom for the word, whether spoken or written as the two events showed, is part of the literary revival taking place all over the country. With the support of such bodies like Goethe Institut, it is hoped that other bodies will respond to cries for support from culture entrepreneurs so as to light up the different art scenes.
  The WordSlam V was as much a cultural diplomacy as the two events were avenues to create moments of expression for a number of young people and thus engage them creatively for positive activities.

Ebun Clark… A pioneering spirit at 70

By Anote Ajeluorou

What special feeling does it bring being 70?
  I don’t know; no difference. No difference! Well, you get a bit older, and slower in thinking. I’ll find it very difficult going into acting right now because I can’t retain any lines; an actress must be able to retain lines. I don’t think I will be able to do that. I know there are people who continue to do it till very late but they have their own issues; I have mine.

But then you stepped off the stage a long time ago?...
  Oh yes, a long time ago. I became a scholar, not a practitioner. In fact, I became a scholar straight away, a pioneer teacher in Theatre Arts and appointed to the School of Drama, which is now Theatre Arts Department, University of Ibadan, in 1963. And that was when Ibadan became autonomous university. So, I can say that I’m actually a pioneer lecturer of Ibadan although I didn’t stay too long before I moved. I got married to my husband at the University of Ibadan; he was a Research Scholar at the Institute of African Studies and I was assistant lecturer in the School of Drama. And he was my neighbour upstairs; he was in Flat 6, I was in Flat 4. So, you can now see the history between us.

Now, how would you say life has treated you so far at 70?
  Oh, very well; I’m grateful to God. I have no complaint; yes, I’ve had knocks, lots of knocks, especially in the academia because, for a long time, I was the only woman in so many different areas. There were only five of us female university scholars at the University of Ibadan, where we started – Auntie Alele (Prof. Grace Alele-Williams), Auntie Awe (Prof. Bolanle Awe), there was one who became the director of gender issues in UNESCO and one other.
  I had quite a lot of knocks, especially from you, men, who say ‘so you want to compete with us, let’s see’. Men did not spoil me at all; I wasn’t cuddled at all. I had to fight for it. Africa is still very chauvinistic; you men are! Only that we’ve blown up a lot of mines and bombs of male chauvinism. But it’s still bad; very bad, say 70 per cent. Women still have to fight.
  That’s why my own 70th birthday will not be once-for-all affair. I want to showcase achievements of women because I pioneered so much; and pioneers are never known. Only the products of pioneers get known.
  Take Nollywood, for instance. Without the theatre, there will be no Nollywood. And without Village Headmaster and the early television drama or programmes, you will not have Nollywood. Without the Yoruba theatre movement, which moved to film, you will not have Nollywood. So, you find that there is always a beginning that produced these results. There’s always a cause before the effect; Nollywood is the effect of a lot of pioneer works that had been done before it now moved to this incredible television, film movement all over the world. Nollywood is now next to Bollywood, which is absolutely incredible. And I’m always stunned that this has happened from the beginning of pioneering works of teachers like me.
  I went from being a practitioner in London to teaching in Ibadan very early. I was appointed to Ibadan when I was very young.

And then from Drama you went on to teach English. How did that transition happen?
  Yes, I did; I’m a woman of many parts! If you’re talking about drama, it can exist in both theatre and English. I began my career as a speech person, which I am. So, I taught speech for 14 years. I think they had another woman doing it at Ibadan. All theatre departments should have a speech person, but they don’t. It’s a highly technical, highly specialised area of theatre arts and not many people are trained in it; certainly not in this country.
  And I came from abroad; and I moved the speech to English, which was very easy. The interesting thing was that I taught speech for 14 years and English Literature for 14 years. It was very interesting; I didn’t arrange it. It was divinely done.
  I was in Ibadan for two years teaching speech, and 12 years at the University of Lagos teaching speech. And the Head of Department in 1977 shifted me to dramatic literature to teach Shakespeare, mainly European literature. The HOD, being my husband, being an African writer, I was not very comfortable teaching him or the others. If I was too harsh teaching him, then I had criticism I was too hard; if I was lenient I was accused of being biased; if I was too glowing about Soyinka, I got criticised. So, I said to him, take me out of African literature; let me go to my European literature.
  So, I did very little African literature.

And you didn’t think you missed anything?
  I didn’t miss anything because my background is European literature. Like I said, I used to teach African literature but then it was terrible with students coming to me to say you were quite nasty with your husband (laughs). Or you’re biased, and that is why you did what you did. I could not be objective and a scholar must be objective; without that you can’t function. So, I put up an appeal and said, ‘no, take me off it’. And who did I come to? My Head of Department, my husband (laughs again).
  I was then taken to dramatic literature - Shakespeare; mainly Shakespeare and European literature; and Renaissance literature. And it was easy for me. Apart from having a strong European, dramatic literature background in my training, both academic and professional combined, after working on Herbert Ogunde from 1971 (I’m an Ogunde specialist; I have a book on Ogunde theatre. I did my first degree on him. And I followed him from 1971 to 1978 when he shifted to film, when I parted ways with him because I didn’t know anything about films), then shifted from Ogunde to Shakespeare was very interesting. Unknown to lot of people, the Yoruba professional travelling theatre has exactly the same feature as Renaissance travelling theatre.
  So, I was able to understand the two perfectly, and have a much deeper penetration of Shakespeare’s works because of that highly upgrading knowledge I had of Yoruba travelling theatre of seven years of just following Ogunde’s theatre. My colleague, the late Prof. Adedeji, did his PhD on Alarinjo, the professional travelling theatre; their main job was to entertain. But I told myself the story did not end there. There is a contemporary development of this ancient art, and the person who shifted that development was Ogunde. But I shifted from Ogunde since 1978 when he went into film.

But you were also involved in your husband’s theatre productions, weren’t you?
  I was still with the University of Lagos as director of the Centre for Culture Studies. So, I could only do so little, help him to set up PEC Repertoire Theatre; what I did, of course, was to share my own professional experience. I only gave him my own knowledge of theatre management.
  Take the Ogunde theatre, he made his money through travelling because the volume of theatre-goers is not there, is not enough for the kind of money Ogunde made; he was a rich man. Then I thought up the subscription idea for the Nigerian theatre; that if people subscribed and paid ahead, there will be money.
  No theatre in this country can exist on box office takings alone. Take it from me; it’s not possible; not with my knowledge of it, and also my knowledge of European theatre box office. Most of the repertory theatres are based on grants from the government or the councils; even in America.
  So, theatre cannot just exist on box office alone because theatre really is something of the privileged. And to make it worse in Nigeria, it’s English-speaking theatre, which is not really understood by the masses. Although the number of theatre-goers is growing every year.

As you just mentioned, theatre groups get grants to bring theatre to the people. But it’s not so here, is it?
  It’s not so here. Government itself is competing with the people they should be giving grants because they have states’ arts councils. They have arts council, but they are not grant-giving arts council. It should not be a company with its own programmes at all; its programme is to give out money. It’s a fund-granting organisation.
  In this country and from inception, it was wrongly done by the colonial or immediate post-colonial government (one has to find out about that whether colonial or post-colonial). So, the arts council movement started from the Nigerian Festival of Culture, which predates independence. The arts council was set up immediately to be able to carry out its own programmes.
  So, it’s very difficult to change it now. They should be giving out grants. People like my husband - well, he’s old now - but people now doing all sorts of arts matters – theatre, music, literature, name it – should benefit from grant-giving arts councils, and not arts councils competing with practitioners. Each state has its own theatre artists, troupe, drummers, dancers culminating in the National Theatre itself; National Theatre is all right. Arts councils fund National Theatre; and, Lottery also funds National Theatre and other charities.

There has been so much talk about falling standards of education. As a pioneer scholar in the academia, what do you make of such talk?
  Well, it’s an issue. When I retired, I became a banker for three years. Very interesting, but I didn’t retire to become a banker. I had no idea what I was going to become when I retired. I just knew that I had to leave the university because I didn’t like the environment anymore. I felt that the falling standard you’re talking about had already started at that time. It was a time all universities, not just University of Lagos, were having a lot of armed robbery activities by students.
  And there were other factors; I felt that students were becoming far too young. I was having 15, 16-year olds who tell me to slow down, that I was going too fast. Why do I have to slow down? Are you writing down what I’m saying? You do not know how to write notes? You go to tutorial class then.  And then in 1991, I also returned from a fellowship at Cambridge, England. A friend advised me that if the standard wasn’t up to anything I was used to, especially after coming back from Cambridge, I shouldn’t hesitate to resign.
  Then something happened five months later that finally decided for me. Also, the library wasn’t what it should be anymore to support true scholarship, even at Ibadan. I told myself, in 1991, I couldn’t continue to write a paper with 1971 notes; you have to be current. And to be current, you have to go abroad, and I didn’t have the money.
  Then I wrote that letter. But I didn’t hear anything for two months. Then the vice chancellor called me and said they received a strange letter from me, which they hadn’t responded to. He said he had the right to say no; but I said no; he couldn’t refuse. I had cleverly given them six months’ notice. At that time I hadn’t even done 35 years. And I had to look for a job. So, I went to an uncle, and got a job in a bank. So, I brain-drained in, and not out, because I didn’t go abroad. I was pioneer head of human capital at Magnum Trust Bank. Then I left after the three years’ contract to set up Lagos School of English and Mathematics (LASEM). We’re like a nomadic school. I deal with big organisations and coach the staff for three days.
  So, that leads up to your question, which I’m very well positioned to answer. I don’t just teach undergraduates; I also teach graduates and post-graduates from all disciplines. I have students from all over the country and outside. Now, to the complaints about standards, I say no!
  Not quite; not quite. Spoken and written English is very bad; that’s why I’m there. I cannot change everything overnight, but I can sensitise you to what you should do.
  Now, let’s get something clear. My generation was taught directly by the colonial office. I keep imagining my husband and myself; my education was British because I schooled abroad. But my husband’s education was one step down to the one I had. And we now have only Nigerians as speakers and teachers of English. So, you cannot expect the standards to be same as before. We don’t have the native speech or environment. I had both. Although the Nigerian environment has influenced me; I don’t regard myself as a native speaker anymore as I used to be. I was once winner of the 1960 gold medal of Britain and Ireland. I was nine when I left to complete primary school, and then on to attend secondary and university abroad.
  We’re not totally gone; no, we’re not. I think we do too much self-beating in this country. We do; we’re too negative. We criticise too much. And when you say we’re bad, we’re bad; of course, we’re going to be bad. If you say it all the time, yeah, you’re going to be just that. A lot of us are what we are because of what we have turned ourselves to be. That is not to say that we do not have faults; I do not mean to say that.
  I think the new, private universities - they are not as good as they should be. One, because they don’t have enough teachers; we cannot continue to pioneer. And those who are going are retirees. If you ask me to teach now, I’ll knock my head around to do research, write my paper. If you ask me to come teach, I’ll tell you, ‘no; I don’t have a head to carry anything’.
AFTER my time as director at Centre for Cultural Studies, which became Creative Arts Department, I had to go and teach after six years. My first day in class, students had no books. I said I was not going to teach; go and buy your books. They were looking at me as if to say, ‘where had this woman been’? Second day, no books; I said go and buy your books. Then the class governor came to me and said they had no books; that they photocopy. I said, how can that be?
  When universities were just three – Ibadan, Lagos and Ahmadu Bello – there was complaint that there were no teachers. Now we have over 30 universities with states’ and private universities; where do you find the teachers, the personnel, human resource to manage them? Where are the libraries? They are not there the way they used to be to do research. They are too old for research; they need to be brought up to date. So many reasons why I left; the system I helped to pioneer isn’t there anymore.
  My work at LASEM has also brought me into contact with graduate and post-graduate students from other West African countries. So, for instance, I can say the standard in Ghana is still very good; they speak better English than we do. It didn’t used to be; we were on par. You couldn’t say one country was better than the other. But when you look at the number of educated professionals around, we’re still good. We’re mixed because of the population. And the very good ones try to go out.
  So, I brain-drained in. I couldn’t say it was my own making but my husband’s; he will not leave this country. I can’t leave either; he is like the Femi Osofisans, who are here.
  Although I could have gone, and tell him, I’ll see you in six months (laughs). He was responsible for my moving from Ibadan to Lagos; he got a job in Lagos and I had just been promoted in Ibadan to full lectureship. We had a one-year child. And I said, ‘what am I going to do, commute?’ I had to come to keep the famous Lagos women away (laughs).

Meeting my husband, J.P Clark…
‘First he was loud… then I met him quiet and alone...’

How have you coped being married to a famous, iconic African writer and the first African to be appointed professor of English?
  How do I cope? Well, first of all, remember that I married him as a lecturer myself. That’s number one; we were in the premier university together. He was already famous, by the way; he was very well known, particularly because of his plays, Song of A Goat (for which I did an annotation for an edition) and The Raft. When I met him, he was writing America, Their America, and he was doing his research on Ozidi. However, in this house, he is not the big writer; he is just the husband and father that he is.
  In fact, a little digression will be good here to complete the story. When I was given my appointment, I was also given accommodation. But when I arrived, I was told my accommodation had been given to an expatriate and was asked to stay with my father. But I didn’t actually want to stay with my father; he was so protective. He literally drove me to work. If he didn’t drive, he would be in the car that followed me. So, I shared a flat before I got my own flat.
  I was at a colleague’s place when I suddenly heard this yell outside. I looked out of the window; I had met him before. And the noise was too much. And I said, ‘who is this guy?’ What is this obnoxious, loud-mouth character doing here? She said, ‘you don’t know?’ I said, ‘what don’t I know?’ She said, ‘Clark’. And I said, what? Well, I wasn’t amused. Anyway, fortunately, there was no more noise. Probably he was more out than in; I didn’t know. And I forgot about him, and went about my own life.
  Then a colleague at the Institute of African Studies came to me and said, ‘sign’. And I said, ‘sign what?’ Then she said, ‘Miss Odutola, do you realise that our rent is higher than a similar flat at Nnamdi Azikiwe Flat by one pound?’ I said, ‘that is outrageous; we must do something about it’. She took the petition one way and I went the other way to get those in the block to sign it. My colleague’s flat was number two, I was four, so I skipped mine and went up to six, Clark’s and eight, Auntie Alele’s flat. I knocked on his door; he said, ‘come in’, and I went in. There was this man sitting down alone. Totally alone, and quiet! I said, my goodness, he is not so loud after all; he is very quiet, probably shy.
  So, I explained to him what I had come for. Then he said something very bad. And I gave it back to him very bad, and he was very shocked. I was a little girl that could not take that kind of verbal assault; and I gave it back to him well and good (laughs).
  So, we talked for a while, and I told him I was a professional verse speaker; that I read poetry - I don’t write it but I read it. I was preparing actually for a kind of freelancing job in England. I wanted to freelance with poets and read their works because they had to listen to the sound, the rhythm and cadence of their works. I had been doing this since I was about nine to reach that level of gold medalist in Britain and Ireland, which was pre-professional training. I got to the top of the amateur and then went professional.
  So, one of the things I wanted to do was freelance and read for poets because poets are terrible readers; they are not trained. You should listen to my husband (laughs). So I said, ‘oh I read’. That was the error I made, telling him I read poetry. I know you’re a poet, I read poetry. I didn’t say I’d like to read his. So, I got his signature.
  Then, I went to Auntie Alele; well, she was quite a character herself. She was Dr. then. There was a time when she thrust a piece of paper before me and said, sign it. I said, what am I to sign? She said, ‘did you know that your husband and mine, and all husbands, are paid our leave allowances?’ I said, ‘what?’ Then, she said, ‘you didn’t know?’ I said I didn’t know. My 60 pounds that I would have at the end of the year, that I was looking forward to, is going to my husband because I am married? She said, ‘if they pay it to them this year, we’re going on strike!’ We were just five of us women. So, I signed and she took it to the bursar and it was put right.
  That was how Alele stopped that practice in the civil service in 1964. I had just got married, and didn’t know about it; she had been long at it
  Coming back, I went back to my flat, and what did I hear? Knock, knock, knock. There was my husband with a sheet of poems. Then he said, ‘start reading’. I said, ‘no; you haven’t got an appointment! Take your things back and have an appointment’. I was busy writing a paper.
  Up till now, he would say that I have always seen my wife work with papers all over the place.
  That was how I met him. Now, we’ve been married for 48 years.
  He has his problems, no doubt about it - because there were a lot of in-fighting; there were good friends; as the same group, they were jostling to see who was going to make it or not make it. And they all made it.

“Writers and critics are too close here…”

  The only thing that I would like to re-evaluate is the relationship between writers and critics in this country. The critics and the writers are too close. They know each other; they hardly know each other abroad.
  I came back to this country with that tradition. Whether writers, visual artists, musicians, they do not necessarily know the people who are doing the critique of their works either in the university or in the press. Whereas here, they know each other very well; to make matters worse, they even started together. Both the scholar and the artists were together. And if they have a quarrel, it will show in the work. I find that very sad.
  It was another reason why I checked out of African literature and went to European. I found that too incestuous; I hope I’m not shocking you. It was too incestuous; they knew each other too much; and it can make or destroy. There is no objectivity whatsoever in the whole game. That is what I think is the sad part of African literature culture and its growth; and I have seen it from the inception of modern African literature. It wasn’t only national literature, even in cross-national literature, it was there.
  At the University of Lagos, I could go to class and come back and find Koffi Awonoor, and the others and they’re going to a workshop in Ibadan or Ife, and they’d say, ‘let’s check in with J.P. Clark’. At one time, I had about eight or nine writers in my sitting room. Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o would stay for several days; I would just spread a mattress on the floor for them to sleep on.
  It’s not so bad now, but it’s still there.
  And I think that when you take a stand that others don’t like, it will affect you. My husband’s stance during the Nigerian Civil War affected both us. But you knew what he stood for; there are people who admire him enormously for that. And I think it’s my grand-children or great grand-children who will be able to objectively look at the works of my husband’s generation.

Why we eloped to Cotonou to marry

One would have thought that living with a great writer for over four decades, you would have been infested with the writing bug beyond critical works…
  WELL, I’m writing my autobiography; it’s coming little by little. I have an interesting story to tell… One has gone through a lot of pain, essentially because of the civil war, the lies that had been told about my husband. A lot of things have passed under the bridge. Like my marriage to my husband; I didn’t go to his village until six years later. I didn’t know the place; I had no idea. When I told my father I wanted to marry, he said, ‘yes, but to who?’ I said his name; he said, ‘where?’ I told him it’s Ijaw; he said never!
  And we eloped to Cotonou to get married. And we eloped; that’s another story. I had six people in my wedding. My father didn’t know I was married until three months. So two years ago, I told my husband I’m an Anglican and because I married you in the registry office and not in the church, I’m not allowed to be a member of the mothers’ union until I got to church, which we did it two years ago.
  Yes! But that inter-marriage was something else in our days. You don’t understand it now. It was a big issue back then. I was cut off from my people.

Blame Parents, Curriculum Planners For Youths’ Poor Perception Of African Cultural Values, Says Ogundipe

By Anote Ajeluorou

Parents, who daily lament how Westernised and un-African young folks have become in their hurry to shun everything African, should first count their teeth with their tongues and blame themselves instead for young people’s preference for alien cultural values. Also, those designing the nation’s educational curriculum since independence will have to take a share the blame why the nation’s youth are not grounded in their roots and do not feel any qualms about it.
  These were the submissions of literary critic, writer and gender expert, Prof. Molara Ogundipe, at the just-concluded Garden City Literary Festival held in Port Harcourt. It was day two of the festival and a panel of writers was responding to various questions on writing and Africa’s eroding values, especially among young people. Ogundipe said young people’s choice of lifestyles, particularly their inability to speak their various Nigerian mother tongues in preference of a poor version of spoken English language, choice of religion and dress styles were products of parents’ inability to ensure a continuum in African ways of life even at homes so the young ones could continue to emulate.
  Recalling how it was while growing up, she said even as children of early missionaries and parents that were educated, they were taught only in the mother tongue, which was Yoruba language, until they were in Standard Two, and eight or 10 years old. By which time, she said, they would already have been firmly grounded both in the speaking of Yoruba and being grounded in the local lores that established them firmly in the ways of the community.
  Ogundipe’s submission was a reminder of late Prof. Babs Fafunwa’s experimental model of exposing children only to their mother tongues at the early and primary stage of education so they could learn with it, especially as it enabled them to grasp concepts a lot easily than a foreign or second language.
  For Ogundipe also, a child need not be exposed to a second language that he or she would learn to master later at the expense of his/her mother tongue, which should come first. Even as the children of the clergy that had assimilated foreign or western education and religion, she said her parents were not in a hurry to disinherit them culturally even at that early period when it was fashionable or even required that parents distanced themselves from anything that smacked of heathen practice.
  Indeed, language being the major carrier of culture, she argued that parents’ inability to bring up children in their mother tongues in recent decades was akin to disinheriting from their cultures and their wholesome values, seeing that the basis for children to be culturally grounded would have been taken away from them at their formative years.
  Furthermore, she submitted that the erosion of mother tongue became worsened in the grammar schools that children graduated onto as it helped to erode whatever confidence children had in the mother tongues they had earlier acquired. At the grammar schools or Kings or Queens’ Colleges or even Unity Schools, Ogundipe stated that mother tongues were derogatorily branded ‘vernacular’ or languages of bush people, and the British-inspired teachers sought to make ‘little Etonians’ out of Nigerian children as these schools were modelled after the British public school system.
  Nevertheless, not even after the colonialists had long left Nigerian shores did this warped practice change as Nigeria’s various local languages or mother tongues were still considered vernacular for which students were punished if they spoke them in school. Ogundipe, therefore, insisted that the time to exhibit a strong will had come for a redesigning of the nation’s school curriculum in such a way that children could once again be exposed to their different mother tongues in the early stages of their development.
  It is only by so doing, she argued, that the threat of extinction facing many of local languages would be reversed. More than this, young ones would also rediscover a renewed interest and passion for their culture and its values through a proficient use of their mother tongues.
  She also said she was interested in the inter-generational handing over of values between the old and the young, saying there was a need for various generations to start talking to each other so as to foster understanding of what their problems and anxieties were and how to find a common ground.
  The gender scholar, therefore, stressed a conscious determination to re-evaluate the country’s education curriculum, and charged educational managers to re-align the curriculum along with the nation’s cultural ethos with a view to redressing the inherent imbalance towards Western lifestyles to which the nation’s youths have become hopelessly addicted.
  The gender expert also took a swipe at the two dominant foreign religions - Christianity and Islam -, saying that their adherents should desist from demonising and branding every African cultural practice or tradition demonic. She affirmed that there are some traditional practices that have wholesome values that must still be protected or maintained, noting that such was the training that her parents transmitted to them even as church planters during the colonial era.

Echoes from Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt

Stories by Anote Ajeluorou and Gregory Austin Nwakunor

(Just back from Port Harcourt)

How oral literature shapes modern writers’ sensibilities

It was literary icon, Prof. Chinua Achebe, who set the tone for the robust discussion that kept everybody thinking all through the six days that the 4th Garden City Literary Festival held in Port Harcourt.
   Titled ‘Literature and Ethnicity: To what degree is all literature shaped by the cultural contexts of the authors?’, Achebe argued that though ethnicity had long acquired derogatory racial and cultural political connotation, it nevertheless holds promise for those who remain true to its original form.
  For writers and well-meaning individuals, Achebe said ethnicity pertains to “matters, which reach back to the beginnings of a people as a people, the earliest memories, which they consider important and wish to preserve and so recount in well-chosen, pleasing and memorable language, which are about the beginnings of literature… Needless to say that these origins did not involve pen and paper or their ancestors of clay and Papyrus”.
  In his view, this is where oral literature plays its part. Achebe stated that this interventionist's role is still perceived with suspicion or reluctance in many quarters.
  For some, oral literature has long ceased to make meaning since the beginning of written literature.
  But Achebe affirmed that this was far from the truth as oral literature still shapes modern literary engagements. He averred that all literature are shaped by the cultural contexts that give them life, which should also be the concern of writers, whose sensibilities are a reflection of those contexts or environments.
   He stated, “The creative enterprise is a magical space onto itself ––the mind in mutual collaboration with the world and its elements produce something of aesthetic value. Creative writers are like painters, using words to paint a literary tapestry. I think that words have a magic, that human situations–– one’s environment, culture, ‘ethnicity’ as we have spent time rediscovering – can be unburdened to enjoin other factors wordsmiths use to create literary magic – that extra dimension that the writer can conjure up by placing ideas about the human conditions side by side on paper."
  The erudite scholar added, “I suppose that cultural context is another name for what we have so far been calling the factors of ethnicity. Quite clearly these factors do shape literature. The cultural context within which a writer finds him/herself is relevant in so far as it brings something of literary value – contributes to the world story – and does not claim superiority over, deny, obscure or jaundice, even oppress other perspectives or stories."
  Having said that, Achebe admitted, "there are other factors and not least among them is the genius and free-will of the author. Good literature, whether oral or written, will bear the marks of the author’s cultural as well as his or her personal signature”.
  While discussing the notions of oral and written literature in a panel, several views were posited regarding this, especially in a modern world that is far removed from when those oral stories originated and their implication for an era  and a people that are in desperate search for the right directions.
  Literary scholar and gender expert, Prof. Molara Ogundipe, while commending Achebe’s paper for its gracefulness, depth and devoid of pomposity, said ethnicity was used to discriminate against coloured peoples and those in the third world.
   She noted that an author could not avoid being who s/he is, especially his or her culture.
  Ogundipe, however, cautioned Africans on the emerging neo-colonialism dressed in the garb of globalisation, which makes sure that person does not know his/her culture, as it interfered with people’s appreciation of their own culture in preference of supposedly global one.
  Ogundipe also warned against post-colonial studies, which she said is a way of suppressing African cultures, and a kind of European celebration of Africa, and how they conquered Africa.
  She contended that reasons for the failure of Nigeria and other African countries is the lack of control of their own economies as they should do.
  The gender expert said, “We focus too much on micro-politics and fail to be part of politics outside Africa. Macro-politics enables us to see the antics of those creating puppets, dictators, wars and chaos in Africa like International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, like the IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in the 1980s, which caused obstruction of growth in the country”.
  Ogundipe argued there is a more constructive relationship between ethnicity and literature, especially oral literature as it could help to develop a national language.
   She stressed the need for African people to decolonise their minds and begin a conscious programme to educate their young ones in the different local languages or mother tongues.
  However, Prof. Femi Osofisan disagreed with Achebe and Ogundipe and stressed that “the oral past is simply no longer sufficient in dealing with modern reality because of the complexity and contradictions that abound in ethnic equation."
OSOFISAN said that celebrating the oral past would amount to a glorification of what was mostly the setting of precedents that are hardly palatable, particularly in the shameless profligate way such characters as the great king of ancient Mali Empire, Mansa Musa, squandered the wealth of that nation on a spending spree and pilgrimage to Mecca.
  Osofisan contended that that example, set way back in time by an African king, is still the trend in modern political culture.
   And since oral literature is mostly a glorification of the past with its strong leaning to praise singing, which was usually to kings and their baggage of spend-thrift courtiers, then such genre should be suspected.
  Osofisan also stated that the views Achebe usually explore in his essays are in opposition to the ones in his novels, a contradiction he found hard to believe or accept.
  The renowed dramatist also took the extreme view that some ethnic languages that had outlived their usefulness should be allowed to die, saying that what is expressed in them is hardly worth listening to.
FOR public commentator and writer, Lindsay Barett, there is still a place for oral literature because it provides a bedrock for written literature.
  Barret called for the translation of oral materials into written forms for a wider audience.
  He also suggested that great literature from other lands should be translated into the different ethnic or local languages as a way of enriching the local languages and as incentives for young people to develop interest in them.   
  Barett argued that orality is essential to modern literature, especially African literature, because telling stories didn’t start with the written word but through oral narratives told to children and communal gatherings.
    He, therefore, suggested that such stories, particularly folk narratives told in the different local languages, should be retold in written form for young people to read.
  Literary critic and teacher at the University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Chidi T. Maduka, countered Osofisan both on the usefulness of oral narratives and his assertion about some local languages that deserve to die.
   He said such extreme views are counter-productive, as oral narratives would continue to be a communal experience and that no language deserved to die even if it is spoken by two people.
  To this end, Maduka proposed the imposition of Nigerian languages on every Department of English in the country’s universities as a way of making young people to be proficient in indigenous languages so as to avert the threat of extinction hanging over many of them.
  Former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who chaired the event, hinged the nation’s growth on the appreciation of the power of words.
  He said Nigeria’s quest for development would be far from achieving its objectives if it lacks literary culture.
  Anyaoku said politics would be hollow if it is not inspired by intellectual expressions. 
The elder statesman, noted that practitioners of literature and politics live in their different habitats, but observed that politics need literature because the two reinforced each other.
  He stated, “Good politics of democratic governance creates the infrastructure and environment where literature flourishes. But politics would be hollow if it is not inspired by intellectual expressions”. 
  Anyaoku also stressed the importance of mother tongue, especially in the arena of international politics, where he had operated for the most part, saying, African leaders seemed to have continually failed to make impact. 
  Anyaoku contended that having a grasp of one’s mother tongue “gives the individual confidence. You suffer the handicap of being diffident, and global competition rests on confidence. Our leaders don’t have the confidence to relate well with politicians from the developed world at the global arena”.
RIVER State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, also took active part in all aspects of the discourse, making useful contributions and asking the professors questions. It was he who had proposed the theme of this year’s GCLF, ‘Literature and Politics’ in the hope that a symbiosis of sorts could be found between the two as they seem to stand in diametric opposition to each other.
  Amaechi, a graduate of English from the University of Port Harcourt, argued that literature doesn’t just have to be a source of entertainment alone but that it should bear some moral responsibility to society and how such is organised, especially in helping to shape the values in that society for its health.
   For Amaechi, literature should tackle the realities that daily confront society, as a result, writers need not be sycophants to those who hold power as that would diminish their roles and reduce them to court jesters.
  He expressed happiness at reuniting with his lecturers again at the University of Port Harcourt, where he trained in the Department of English Studies, saying he felt humbled seeing the teachers who made him what he is today.
  He enjoined the students to use the occasion of the festival wisely because it isn’t commonplace for a large array of writers to gather in one place to discuss literature, saying it is a rare treat in his time as a student.
  Amaechi charged the students to interact with the writers and be in fellowship with them.
  He revealed that he was discussing with festival director and organiser of Rainbow Book Club, Port Harcourt, Mrs. Koko Kalango, to find ways to institutionalise the GCLF and make it independent of government sponsorship so it could stand on its own even when he would have left office.

Literature and the Niger Delta

America civil rights activist, Rev. Jesse Jackson,while delivering his address said there is a need for an oppressed people to develop a ‘passion for justice’ and that ‘education is the key to liberation’; and ‘strong mind break strong chains’.
  And this seemed a perfect starting point for three young writers with telling fictional works on the problem of the Niger Delta to start a discourse on how their works reflect the issues of the region and how fiction offers the best platform to write on such issues.
   The three discussants were Chimeka Garricks (author of Tomorrow Died Yesterday), Kaine Agary (Yellow Yellow) and Ifeanyi Ajaegbo (Dead Men Walking) in a session moderated by Nigeria’s former CNN reporter, Femi Oke.
    Garricks and Ajaegbo’s morbid titles seem fitting testaments to the horrendous issues in the Niger Delta they reflect upon.
  Garricks’ submission seemed like an antithesis, when he asserted that he did not subscribe to all the views held by characters, especially militant figures, in his novel, Tomorrow Died Yesterday.
  His argument was that the fight for the right to control oil resources or for greater attention to be paid to the development of the oil-rich region was wrongly designed
  For Garricks, “The Niger Delta struggle, for the most part, is a sham because many of the politicians and militants do not have the moral authority for the fight. The politicians still steal from the people; those given amnesty are not the real militants. By the way, are the objectives of the struggle to gain amnesty? Have the objectives of the struggle been resolved apart from amnesty granted a few so-called militants? What have the politicians done with the resources (13 per cent derivation) so far received? Who is the oppressor of the Niger Delta people? Is it the oil companies, the government or the people of the Niger Delta? These are issues to look at critically.”
  Garricks cited the case of a community neck deep in legal tussle over who should be in control of the money an oil company offered them to develop their community.
  On his part, Ajaegbo said he resigned from the employment of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) because “I couldn’t stomach the ‘madness’” of the policies of the oil giant to the host communities it was operating. “I couldn’t store those images of environmental degradation and violence against the people in my head. But I needed another voice to tell the stories, another voice demanding the change that hasn’t come to those unfortunate communities, anyway”.
  Ajaegbo submitted that the literature that has come out of the Niger Delta could aptly be regarded as a genre in its own right as a “whole lot of writers have been writing on the region about the hopes, dreams and struggles” for a better society.
  For Agary, there are different weapons to fight the Niger Delta cause, ranging from militancy to research documentation, analytical writing (which she was doing before seeing its futility and changing gear to write fiction), and news stories. But she said she found the literary weapon more potent as the other options soon became spent or forgotten.
  But literature, she affirmed, enabled a writer to “reach many people that he/she can’t reach with the other weapons. People can connect with literature; it can bring the issues closer to the general public by tying them up with a character, a memorable character that people love or empathise with. Moreso, literature creates a memory that stays with people much longer, touches them more deeply than any other weapon used in fighting oppression”.

Interplay of gender, politics and literature

Another sub-theme discussed at the festival was how the interplay of gender, politics and literature shaped social discourse in Nigeria and Africa. Gender politics, it was agreed, has always been a contentious intellectual issue with a large body of written literature on it.
  Such literary heavyweights as Prof. Molara Ogundipe (based in Ghana), Profs. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Karen King-Aribisala (both of English, University of Lagos) and Prof. Julie Okoh (Theatre Arts, University of Port Harcourt) with Ghanaian writer, Prof. Ama Ata Aidoo as lead speaker, though flight problems made her arrive late, made useful contributions to the issue.
  The chairperson of the session, Ogundipe, got the session going with her incisive remarks about what gender is and how it has wrongly been perceived as the fight by women to dominate men.
  She said, “Gender is not just about women and children, but about total society – men and women – and how society determines the sex of people due to the roles ascribed to them and how their sex is perceived."
  The gender scholar continued, "gender is not just about men and women. There are instances of ‘male daughters’, who are made to bear children for their fathers in some societies, and female daughters. Society places, determines what gender is, what manhood and womanhood are. We need men and women to decide what gender is in society; roles are constantly changing."
OGUNDIPE added, “Gender is also about the politics of power between men and women. Who is controlling the money? Who determines what education children should get and where? How does gender play itself out in Nigeria and the literature being produced? There are some practices that are not wholesome towards women. We should think of how to bring the best aspects of the past to bear on modern society. We should look at roles ascribed to men and women without undermining the rights of the other, especially women. What is our attitude to gender politics in society? Nurudeen Farah is the first African writer to write a sympathetic novel about women. Women should be seen as fellow citizens with equal rights and not people to be patronised or people in need of patronage”.
  In his intervention as moderator, Dr.Seyeifa Koroye said he was happy that it is only in Ijaw that the idea of a supreme deity is seen and named a woman, Tamara, thus making the Ijaws the only people in the world that do not discriminate against women, at least in theory.
  Playwright and teacher, Prof. Okoh, lamented that gender politics, especially as it is skewed against women, is very much a problem in contemporary society and that it has to be dealt with for women to find a space to fully blossom as human beings with rights to be respected.
  Okoh argued, “Gender is a social construct but there is ambiguity in this construct. However, there is gender discrimination in this part of the world. A woman becomes genderless after attaining a certain age, usually 60 years, when she is regarded by men as a man and accorded respect and some rights in male-oriented activities”.
   Okoh, however, narrated how her own mother, apparently a princess accorded full rights as a man when she attained 60 and above, was denied such rights when she passed on. The male folks decided to bury her in a three feet deep grave and not the usual six feet for men. But Okoh and her sister insisted and a few paces more were dug but not the exact six feet before she could be buried. For her, this was a horrendous example of a society that starkly discriminated against women.
  “So, there is discrimination in Nigeria, but there should be equal treatment for women,” she stated. “African women writers have been writing about it in different societies, representing women as strong, positive and resilience. We also talk about awkward widowhood rights in Nigeria. But male writers portray shallow images of or representations or their own vision of women, particularly of subservience. I write books or plays that conscientise society about women’s rights.
  “Sadly even in intellectual society, there is discrimination against women. Literary critics hardly pay attention to women writers or what they are writing; younger women writers are hardly known, but they should be critiqued and their works made public, especially female dramatists”.
   On her part, Prof. Ezeigbo, who was also a resource person in the fiction workshop class for young writers, said she shared Okoh’s sentiments on gender politics and how society still discriminated against women. In a previous paper she wrote on gender discourse titled ‘Politics of Exclusion’, she stated how women had been on the receiving end of gender equation.
   More often than not, Ezeigbo said, “Women suffer more than men; it’s why women tend to write about gender issues. There is politics everywhere. Women have been marginalised in politics in Nigeria. It’s why there’s talk about affirmative action to consciously get women into positions of power after many years of exclusion. South Africa did it for blacks after the fall of Apartheid regime to incorporate blacks into mainstream society. But very little change has happened on the gender front. Nigerian politics has been so violent, corrupt and dirty for women to be able to participate in. Women are trying to empower women so as to include them in politics.
  “But women have been writing about political engagement, too. And literature can be used as a strategy for gender activism to fight for that cause, that vision to reduce the imbalance in power, to reduce the agency that hampers women’s ascendency. Flora Nwapa’s play, The First Lady, prophesied that one day a woman will be president; we look forward to it happening. What is evident is that older Nigerian writers have begun to realise that they had been harsh on women.
    “What most people don’t know is that gender in literature is not about presenting women characters in positive or good light, but making them active and assertive characters and not as dummies that have no say in what is happening to them or around them”.
   And for King-Aribisala, gender could only be accounted for in a world composed of duality in nature, of light and darkness, off earth and sky. She stated that some of this duality is concerned with gender, where there is a struggle for dominance in a given sphere and the need to institute balance to ease conflict.
   According to her, “Things fell apart in Chinua Achebe’s famous novel, Things Fall Apart, because of the duality and the divisiveness in things in men and women’s sensibility. Dominance of male ethic made it easy for the colonialists to invade and destroy the community with Christianity and the cutlass or guns as tools to destroy the male society. We need to undress issues such as race, ethnic, sex and group so we can see things as they are. We need to work out spheres of influence and see how we can balance the power equation”.
  Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo dedicated her lecture on ‘Gender Spaces in African Politics’ to Nigeria’s late female author, Flora Nwapa, who she said was her friend and a huge influence on her life as a writer. She said African women occupy a dual yet contradictory space, saying that although she comes from the Akan ethnic group in Ghana that is matrilineal in nature, women still do not occupy the prime position that they should be as the birth of a female child does not attract the same excitement as a male child.
  Rather than dwell much on the lecture, Aidoo chose instead to read from one of her latest short stories, ‘New Lessons’, to dramatise the gender politics as she sees a slice of it being practised on the continent. In the story, an older man is in a relationship with a much younger lady to the horror of an older woman who has been observing the goings on.
  But before reading to her audience, she observed that a trend is fast developing in Africa, where writers tend to write with a white audience in mind, and the white audience expecting that the writing would be about misery or the conflicts on the continent blown up for their reading pleasure to further reinforce their set minds that nothing positive could come out of Africa.
   Aidoo also read a poem, ‘The Days’ for children to the delight of the audience. She gave her appraisal of literary engagement in Nigeria, saying things seems to be a lot bettering Nigeria than in her native Ghana, where support for literature and the arts was yet to take root. She said, “Nigeria is definitely leading the way; we only get grants from outside Africa to get things done. But Nigeria’s example is a wonderful affirmation. In Ghana, we’re not used to such open support and love for literature like the Rivers State government is supporting this festival”.