Prof. Mark Nwagwu is a retired professor of Zoology specialising in Cell and Molecular Biology. However, his love for academics did not end with his departure from the Premier University. Now at Paul University, Awka, Nwagwu has found a new love in writing. He has three works to his credit: Forever Chimes and its sequel, My Eyes Dance, and a collection of poetry Helen (Not-of-Troy). In this online interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Nwagwu talks about the need for moral regeneration and how his latest novel, My Eyes Dance, so embodies this wholesome African philosophy fast receding for a dubious globalising, modern one
YOUR recent work is deeply philosophical about African culture. How can this worldview be made universal as you proposed?
My Eyes Dance, expresses African culture in a manner that encompasses the world. Yes, in the book, I did propose that aspects of our culture could be borrowed by the West for the latter to survive. To me, Western culture, apart from the academic education it fosters, is in decay, and not worth copying by any one. I may be wrong here but the West is getting more and more materialistic with the slow, and sometimes rapid, abandonment of morals and the spirit.
Whatever one feels comfortable with, one can pursue. How would I make African culture more universal? I think I’ve done the most important thing first, and that is to write a book. What we now need is to get the book better marketed in the West. The first edition is all sold out; and we’re coming out with a second edition soon. With my publishers, BookBuilders Editions Africa, we shall make the book more available in the West through some international publishers. It would be quite invidious for me to give any names at this time.
Do you think the West will embrace such notion?
The disdain of the West may not be restricted to Africa. It is much more than that; anything of value with a high moral content is not regarded very much. I have a recent quote contained in an article ‘Christmas Tree’, by Ben Stein, a presenter of America news network, CBS, expressing his anger and disgust that the White House calls the Christmas Tree, Holiday Tree.
“Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her 'How could God let something like this happen?' (regarding Hurricane Katrina).. Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, 'I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?'”
So, the disdain of the West is a problem for us all. I have lived in the United States, which is why it is quite practical for me to place Chioma in Maryland, an area I know well and am extremely fond of. I find several attractions in the U.S. but, like Chioma, I have problems with their way of life and, as a person, I would be a lot happier here in Nigeria, knowing that the moral values of great concern to me still engage the attention of us all, even if we do so little to practice them faithfully.
We are hopeful. Who could have believed that the immortal message of Martin Luther King would come true within fifty years of his Washington address: that one day we would be judged not by our colour, but by the moral content of our character. But there you are, we have an African-American, Barak Hussein Obama, as President of the same United States, a first generation American, born of an African father, a Kenyan.
You know of a good number of successful African writers in Europe and the United States. I was extremely excited when Chioma Okereke, daughter of a dear friend of mine, Dr. Titus Okereke, visited Nigeria to promote her debut novel, Bitterleaf, short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize in the First Book Category. America, I understand, is mesmerised by the book. I do not quite know how things go in the United States but I’m hopeful that, if all goes well, My Eyes Dance will receive the sort of attention that Chioma, in the book, would love.
What exactly did you set out to achieve in My Eyes Dance?
I created Chioma as a complex character and the centre-point of my new book, My Eyes Dance. Her life, as you know, begins in my first book, Forever Chimes. Living a life of simplicity, Chioma is immersed in the world of her ancestors and their gift to her in Uzo, The Way, the prized heirloom of the Akadike’s from time immemorial; her vocation of apostolic celibacy in Opus Dei, for the kingdom of God; her devotion to her friends; her Chi; the way she teaches philosophy out of her African life as a great grand-daughter of Akadike, living Igbo traditions and virtues, making all this unique; her friendship with her students, who would love nothing better than to live in her soul, in her Chi; her students belief that the only way for them to be like Chioma would be to travel to Okeosisi, to live with her Chi right there in the Akadike mystique.
And we must not forget her persistent struggles to overcome her multitude of defects. These are all elements of character which anyone, boy or girl, can adopt. But Chioma is a girl, so her life would speak more eloquently to girls.
Thus, the central theme of My Eyes Dance, is that a talented young woman can assiduously strive to live a simple life of virtue in the world with great joy and peace, fully immersed in her African culture, and joined with her great grand-father. Furthermore, there is grandeur in the ordinary circumstances of everyday living, be they of the indigenous culture of one’s African background or of the West’s.
To marry one’s African culture and noble values and moral strength of truth and honour in everyday hard work, accepting the vagaries of life as instruments of a spiritual transcendence with American fervour for knowledge, seeking and providing answers to questions, and providing fresh questions, can be beautiful. My Eyes Dance tells us through Chioma that the real essence of life in the world is to be whom you are made to be by God; to serve him in the ordinary events of everyday, turning what seems humdrum into heroic virtues, not leaving wherever you may be, whatever you do, as long as it is honourable.
Most African youths would view Chioma as an eccentric, especially as they are in a hurry to embrace Western lifestyles. How can Chioma’s Africa be entrenched all over again in the minds of African youths?
You’ve clearly stated a major problem bedevilling our society, inside out; and it’s not only the young who are the way you describe; even some papas have joined the bandwagon of cultural abandonment. Certainly, this is a problem that Chioma takes on in the book.
You know, many years ago, in 1975 I think, my wife and I were in Accra to visit a close Ghanaian friend of ours. I shall never forget this incident: we had just stepped into a hotel for some drinks when our friend, Reggie Anteson, accosted a young man who wore a T-shirt sporting New York Jets. My friend was infuriated and asked him what he knew about the Jets, and he said nothing, that it did not matter.
Reggie is normally cool and calm and does not say much but on this occasion he let the young man have it – how he despised his own culture while accepting another’s that he knew nothing about; that he was unworthy of being called Ghanaian, and so on. And this was at the time of Murtalla Mohammed in Nigeria, a time of spirited cultural pride in Africa. Now, what do we have? More and more of this tomfoolery masquerading as a cultural acceptance to what you term, ‘modernising society’. People who have not seen Lagos, not even the slums of Tolu, can be seen touting wears that advertise foreign companies, goods, clubs, or even foods. God help us!
Yes, Chioma could be considered an eccentric for wanting to fully live the life of an African in her noble traditional values. We have many problems. When you interviewed me after the presentation of My Eyes Dance, on January 11, this year, a date our late daughter, Mrs. Onyema Eseka, to whom the book is devoted, would have been 40, I told you that after my retirement, I did not want to teach, ‘at all at all’, as we say in Nigeria.
The last 20 years or so of my teaching-life at Ibadan had been totally consumed in post-graduate research on trypanosomes and malaria. I could not see myself in front of ‘salad’ undergraduates! I was burnt out and wanted to devote my time fully to writing. But when the call came from Paul University, Awka, my wife and I now find ourselves teaching again, and first-year undergraduates at that!
How is this related to your question of Chioma being regarded as an eccentric if she still proudly enunciated her beliefs in the African way of life? I would say, a lot: if we abandoned anything, whatever it is, because we find it unsuitable, or undesirable, then who would attend to it, and make it better? If we all left Nigeria because of the moral squalor of corruption, and the perennial no-light, no-water, no-hospitals, no-schools, no-universities, or no-anything, then who would put something there?
Surely, our culture is in dire straits. As far as I can make out from my readings especially, the culture of a people is maintained by the elite – and here by the elite, I mean, the intellectuals and persons of goodwill who see what is good and try to preserve it. Intellectuals, as you know, are not necessarily the academia; no, they are people who think, enjoy thinking, and strive to find the meaning of things. As I was saying, our culture is being swept away by the wind of a senseless adoption of what is Western, and, therefore considered ‘modern’.
The book makes American youth to see Africa differently through Chioma. Is this even remotely possible in non-fictional situation?
The answer is a simple one: because it is extremely desirable, it is possible. Now let me tell you why I say so. The important personality of change and transformation here is Chioma herself. You may, therefore, ask the question, can one person change the course of events? I am sure you will easily answer yes to this question because you know of individuals who in history have produced change where this seemed ‘remotely possible’. The scripture is replete with such individuals.
But let’s leave Christ and the apostles and saints aside for now and let me ask you directly. Is there anyone alive today, or has there been anyone you know, or have known, or have heard and read of, whom you would follow wherever this person lived, wherever they went, that you might live as they live, attempt what they do, or did, and, thus, change everyone else around you according to your new conditions of living? I believe you have and I believe many people have too.
I would follow my good friend, Prof. Louis Munoz, wherever he went; I would attempt whatever he does, and did; and I would want to create a whole new world that would suit his taste in tradition and traditionality, in the virtues, and in transforming the ordinary events of my life into heroic virtues. He is a remarkable man. And there’s another. In fact, as I think further I can easily think up four or five names in this rare category. Life is for us to ever strive to overcome our limitations and soar to the moral heights of honour and love – love for everyone.
Yes, Chioma is simply spectacular. You don’t have to read my book too closely to understand this; but if as you say the book is deeply philosophical about African culture, then you will have so many questions to address; and though the answers are all there, we may need a fine tooth comb to discern them and pull them out of our conscience and consciousness.
Kindly remember also that though I wrote the book, the characters themselves emerged out of the very pages of the book, and they have a life of their own and much of what I’ve done is simply to listen to their voices, their cries, their feelings, their aspirations, and above all their weaknesses that make them so human and, in a sense, admirable. So, I, Mark Nwagwu, did not, as you say, ‘convert a bunch of American youth to see Africa differently through Chioma’.
No; what happened is that a bunch of American youth taught by Chioma and impressed by the style of the African teacher, developed such liking for her and trust in her character that they felt like adopting her personality and were convinced that the only place where their teacher, Chioma, really came alive was in Okeosisi the land of her great grandfather.
Don’t you think you are being over-idealistic?
This is the simplest question for me, or anyone in my position to answer. I am an optimist and everything good must come (as Sefi Atta reminds us in her novel of the same title). Again, Chioma tells us in My Eyes Dance,
Nothing good ever dies
what’s abandoned is not lost
nature’s pot’s eternal joy.
And I’m a university teacher ever seeking the truth about things.