By Anote Ajeluorou
When Hurricane Katrina hit the United States city of New Orleans on August 29, 2005, the world held its breath at the magnitude of disaster it left in its trail. Lives and property perished. One of Nigeria’s leading academics, award-winning poet and public intellectual, Prof. Niyi Osundare, was at the centre of the tragedy. He and his wife miraculously survived. Now, he has recorded the harrowing incident in a new book of poetry, and he was in Lagos to last week to share the experience with his core constituency, the literary community. But trust the activist poet, the reading session was also an opportunity to review the state of the nation.
Reading from the new collection, City Without People: The Katrina Poems, Osundare gave a moving testimony on his encounter with the ‘Katrina dragon’ that nearly swallowed him and his beloved wife. In particular, he said writing the poems in the collection was his way of slaying the dragon; a form of release from the dark episode.
The event held last week Wednesday at The Life House, Victoria Island, Lagos, was graced by fellow writers, culture workers and some childhood friends of the poet, who though must have heard or read about his experience during flood but could not have felt the magnitude of the danger the poet and his family faced until they heard him narrate same.
Indeed, the ‘Katrina dragon’ produced such a monstrous torment in Osundare’s soul that he felt ‘naked’ afterwards. But he needed to slay that ‘dragon’ that kept recurring in his dreams and waking moments for six long years until he was able to write City Without People: The Katrina Poems.
Recollecting, Osundare said, “The Hurricane Katrina experience was different from any I’ve had. It was why it took me six years to write these poems. After it, I finished Days, and Tender Moments (my first love poems). It (the Katrina experience) really rendered me naked. My wife and I were stuck in the artic for days; if we dropped, we’d be dead. Then she said she heard footsteps on the roof. I thought she was hallucinating…
“The details of the disaster brought terrible moments to me; I had nightmares, of me being surrounded by water. Then I said I was going to slay the ‘Katrina dragon’. (Thereafter,) it was cleansing. Without it (writing this book), I would have run mad”.
While the storm raged and the rising water started inching up and swallowing him, his wife and his home and all they had, Osundare, the bookman, was busy saving his books, shifting and taking them further higher up the shelves until his wife tapped him on the shoulders. Then he realised with a shock how close to death they were. Then the scramble for the artic to safety began. His wife held her phone between her teeth while he held a transistor radio between his. And for days, they were stuck there, with no food and water, and growing faint from the exertion of clinging on to dear life until a kind neighbour, Plasido Sabalo, miraculously arrived to save them from death.
“I was trying to save books while the water kept swallowing up everything we had right before our very eyes,” he recalled.
HOLDING the packed audience at The Life House spellbound with the magic cadence of his voice that teased through the innumerable word plays and sound images, and lacing them up with folk songs from his native Ekiti root, mostly in call and response fashion, Osundare’s performance was the master craftsman’s; flawless and impeccable. He conjured varied images of the Katrina tragedy, taking the audience by hand, as it were, through the labyrinth of New Orleans, of nature roused, angry at the puny rites of man and making mincemeat of him.
Through Osundare’s masterly reading, the audience was transported back in time to the heart of the storm that flattened an iconic, cultural city.
So spellbound was the gathering that as Osundare went from one poem to yet another in his talismanic rendering, the audience forgot itself, as it gasped at the man, who escaped from the jaws of death by water, numbed and silent, soaking in the sheer magic of the man and the equally magical spell of his poetry. His escape, was indeed, an affirmation of his name Osundare, proclaiming as he did, his victory from the water, although not in the typical osun tradition in Yorubaland, but water all the same, in faraway New Orleans!
Also in tune with environmental concerns like his earlier work, Eye of the Earth; City Without People: The Katrina Poems speaks of concerns about how incident was as much a natural as well as ‘man and woman-made’ disaster through the greed of billionaire developers that encroached on the wetland, buffer zone between the sea and the city. He called the disaster ‘careless consequence of a disaster long foretold’.
A YEAR after the incident, on August 26, 2006, University of New Orleans, where he teaches, asked Osundare to write a poem about the hurricane. He wrote ‘Anniversary’, which he said was both interesting and symbolic.
The renowned academic received a lot of goodwill and sympathy from friends and acquaintances from all over the world. But some have remained indelible in his mind; these he has since immortalised with his fertile poems. But Chinua Achebe’s message seemed to have taken deeper root in his heart; and he was to transform it into a poetic anthem of sorts, as it rends, ‘What the storm took away, friendship will restore; Katrina will not have the last word… Katrina will not have the last laughter!’
Although Osundare has since sufficiently recovered from the storm and the ruin it brought upon him, he stated that there were some scars that have refused to heal six years after. He lost rare books and manuscripts in various stages of completion to the storm. But one irreplaceable tragic loss was the tape-recording of his mother, which he was yet to transcribe before the storm came and took it away. In the recording was a retracing of his early childhood, how his parents met, who they really were when they were young, and how they lived before Osundare turned 12. It was to have been his autobiography.
And then, in the inconsolability of the days that followed the devastating storm, with the final awareness that he would have to start life without those rare possessions, stranded in a refugee camp, especially his precious recording, his mother appeared to him in dream to retell him everything in the tape in a consoling way. I consolatory tone, Osundare said, yes, he would never recover the tape and write his cherished book from it, but books do not tell anyone ‘good morning’!
OSUNDARE read evocatively and widely from The Katrina Poems and gave his audience first hand glimpse of the gamut of experience that the storm was. He also showed his audience the beauty of New Orleans, particularly how famous a city it was before the storm on account of its cultural life and living art performed on the open streets, somewhat like Lagos owambe parties. He reminisces on how welcoming the city was before the storm and its ruination.
‘The lake’, ‘The Katrina anthem’, ‘Emergency call’, ‘City without people’, ‘Post mortem’, ‘Lesson’, ‘Plasido’, and ‘Death came calling’ were some of the engaging and heart-rending poems Osundare read from City Without People: The Katrina Poems.
And in the course of the reading, the poet raised salient issues regarding the importance of culture, in the life of a civilized nation. He took direct shot at the Nigerian political leaders who regard the art as an anathema; saying that they feared art and artistes because they always want to protect their corruptive tendencies.
DURING the interactive session that was moderated by dramatist, culture activist and former Deputy Editor of The Guardian, Ben Tomoloju, Osundare traced his creative genius to his roots in Ikerre, Ekiti, Christ School, Ado Ekiti, particularly how the two rocky hills, Olosunta and Oro-ile, played a significant part in it. “I grew up revering nature… I grew up enjoying Olosunta festival. I went home last August to witness Olosunta, but it was sad it has been deserted…”, said Osundare, suggestively attributing the trouble of the festival to incursion of the western faith. He declared sternly, “All religions are valid… I’m very skeptical of religion of every persuasion. There should be room for agnostics; diversity is very important. I’m a humanist!”
Writer and lecturer at the University of Lagos, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, took the author’s mind back to how tragedy and pain have over the times, inspire great poetry and writing, with her own experience of the Nigerian Civil war that recently gave birth to Roses and Bullet, and wondered if such was same with Osundare’s case; and other writers in New Orleans had been inspired to also document their experiences.
The poet replied, “Painful situations will always lead to great literature, not just poetry. It reminds us that cataclysmic events usually engender artistic outpouring like we’ve seen in New Orleans. Yes, many poems have been written about the storm. People see us as people that should not forget. New Orleans University has done two books, one of them Katrina Rising on it. People have been writing about it. You see, history is never told in one lump; rather, it is told in bits, told in unexpected turns. Hurricanes and wars often excite this kind of writing… Journalism and literature are close together. There is a way the two professions actually fish in the same pond.”
There was also the African political dimension to the reading session. And as a public intellectual, Osundare in response to a question from the journalists, Dimgba Igwe, addressed the issue of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe; wondering how the African statesman and patron of cultural ventures could have turned into what has come to be regarded as a monster. Observed Osundare, this was in stark contrast to how he started, lending his support to writing and cultural matters shortly after becoming president in the 1980s, especially his support for the defunct Harare Book Fair, for which he was a patron. It was Mugabe that handed Osundare the Noma Prize.
“Mugabe has become a very complex thing. At the Harare Book Fair, he was very bibliophilic; he went from stall to stall asking publishers questions about the publications. He arrived an hour early so he could go round and see the books on display”, recalled Osundare.
He continued, “We need to look at Mugabe very critically. The British has not done their part well to the Lancaster House Agreement. To single out Mugabe and demonise him is doing a disservice to Mugabe and Africa, although he should have left power. The unequal coverage by so-called world media like CNN is out of context. Who dictates world discourse? The land issue is a big one. Zimbabwe belongs to white and black people…”
OSUNDARE praised the crew of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) who put the reading session together for nurturing the artistic soul of Nigeria with their unrelenting offerings and activities.
He said, “The renaissance of this country we talk about will really happen. Culture and art do a lot for the progress of a country”.
In stating the purpose of convening the 13th Arthouse Forum for Osundare, Akinosho said the poet more than deserved to be so honoured having done Nigeria and Africa proud with his sublime writing. He also stated that hosting Osundare was remarkable and interesting for CORA and all the people that enjoyed culture productions
Akinosho had further mused, “Osundare is one of those Nigerian poets that most qualifies for the Nobel Prize. He has created a kind of poetry, a sub-genre, which, when you hear of it, it is English but very much with Yoruba phrases, such as ‘to utter is to alter’.
As is traditional with Akinosho, he read a poem from the collection. But this was after D-Tone had performed songs from his upcoming albumaccompanied with a guitar. Then Segun Adefila, Ikuo Diana-Abasi Eke and Ropo Iwenla also read from the collection. Afrobeat artist, Edaoto Agbeniyi also performed, while Akem Lasisi performed his tribute poem to Osundare contain in his album currently in the market.
Personalities present at the event that held The Lifehouse included Profs. Biodun Jeyifo of Harvard University; Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo of Unilag; Ben Tomoloju, the dramatist, culture activist, who as junior student had shared creative moments with the then budding poet, Senior Osundare, in their days at Christ School Ado Ekiti; Prof. Karen Aribisala; Amb. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, who recalled how Osundare had contributed selflessly to the projects of the Awolowo Foundation; the near Siamese journalists, media entrepreneurs Dimgba Igwe and Mike Awoyinfa; Executive Editor of TheNews magazine; Kunle Ajobade; publisher of Position magazine, dapo Adeniyi. There were also Osundare’s childhood friend, Ebenezer Babatope Ojo, who came with his partner in his law firm; as well as the writers Daggar Tolar, Kunle Ajibade, Toni Kan, Nike Ojheikere; Funmi Aluko; Jumoke Verissimo; and Ayo Arigbabu, publisher of Dada Books; among others.