By Anote Ajeluorou
They are two Nigerians and a Ugandan (Dul Johnson, Nehru Odeh and Doreen Baingana), three writers coming together to give full expression to their muses in what is fast becoming Africa’s destination point for writers with something important to say to their generation
IN narrating their experiences in the past few weeks while completing on-going works at Iseyin, Oyo State, the three writers did not only commend the setting up of a writers’ residency in Nigeria, but also gave recipes for its continuing sustenability and success so it could serve writers better in the years to come. One of the writers, a Caine Prize winner from Uganda, Doreen Baigana, said the experience was a good one as the environment was conducive, saying, “It’s so removed from your own life and responsibilities and nothing ot distract you
It’s up to you to write something. I like the isolation, the provision, everything for you to work. It’s really good. it’s the first time I am going to a residency in Africa. I was in one in Italy, U.S. In those places, the surrounding doesn’t give you food for thought. Here, I am inbued in another culture that makes me think about my own culture in my country in Uganda. Here, I have too many things to share about my own continent. So, the environment contributes to what I am doing.
“The food is spicy, but good. of course, there is the cultural adjustment, but cultural experience”.
Although she first studied law, Baingana, who has a 3-year old son, said law “wasn’t creative enough for me; for me, law is not imaginative enough. I gave up law a long time ago”.
Growing ip during the Idi Amin Dada reign of terror, Baingana remembers childhood as normal period even though it wasn’t the best of times, as she was protected from the horrors of the period by her parents. Her first love as a writer was poetry, but she later found that her storytelling craft was stronger, which she has latched onto ever since, with remarkable success.
Her collection of short story is Tropical Fish and she is working on a non-fiction, a memoir of her stay in the U.S. for 17 years. She restated foreign publishers’ expectations of African writers to always write about the travails plaguing the continent – wars, diseases, hunger, disasters. There is always the focus on the horrors, but not on the energy and great things happening on the continent. She, however, charged writers to resist such temptation and focus on the positive things.
She admitted to her being a feminist, which she said was natural to her as a woman. So, in her writings, she stated that she was concerned about women’s issues, especially girls newly coming into womanhood. “I’m more curious about women, how we are perceived, how we respond to our situation”, Baingana noted. “But these things are of concern to men also. They are human stories.”
On how to make better the Ebedi International Residency Programme so it could serve writers, Baingana urged corporate bodies in Nigeria to support it as part of raising a crop of intelligentsia for the country, saying they shouldn’t do it for the profit to be derived, but as a way of serving a community of writers and cultural producers. To accommodate more writers from outside Nigeria, she asked the organisers to see to how writers can be assisted in their airfares to Nigeria.
Moreover, Baingana would want more involvement from the Iseyin community as direct beneficiaries of the programme. Through this, she said reading and interaction sessions should be organised for residents to get them introduced to the community for a robust conversation.
Dr. Dul Johnson is a unversity don, writer and filmmaker. He has a collection of short stories with a controversial title, Why Women Won’t Make it to Heaven. But he is working on an extended fiction, which he hopes would promote peaceful co-existence in conflict-prone areas like the Jos, Plateau. He found life at Ebedi Residency like “moving away for the madding crowd; it has been quite useful. The demands on one’s time on campus is off. It has worked, and I have had time to work.
“I came to edit the draft of a story I’ve been working on, a novel; the seconddraft, actually. It’s slow going.
“When I came in, I said, ‘the table is small, the room is big’. Well, it’s been good; electricity has been steady, unlike Nigeria. It’s been a wonderful experience. Iseyin has a great scenic environment, but the harmattan has made it hazy, which has made it impossible for us to go climbing the small mountain behind us. But the garden could be made as a sit-out place.
“All writers think this (setting up Ebedi International Residency) is even belated, but it can never be too late. We all need it. Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) should have had something like this, a writers’ village. It’s a wonderful idea in Iseyin. I only hope it grows”.
For the University of Jos teacher, it is his hope that Ebedi International Residency Programme will be expanded more than it currently is to serve writers better. First, Johnson would love to see ‘a library with the rarest and best books stocked in it’. Also, writers that passed through Ebedi should give their published works to the residency to enrich it. Eh wants writers in the residency to engage more with Iseyin community and have a proper feel of it. He also proposes that the programme should, in due course, have different phases like three, six or so to accommodate writers with varying writing needs.
The third writer at the resident was Nehru Odeh, whose creative imagination has somewhat been muted by active journalism. Now, however, Odeh would seem to have found his creative voice, and Ebedi seems the best place to resuscitate a career long repressed.
“I have not been silent. I still write. Maybe I have not been in the public consciousness because of existential reasons - work and family pressures. That was why I needed a residency programme like the Ebedi International Writers' Residency. Although while I was at the university I was known as a poet; now I write fiction. I have been honing my skills as a novelist. And with what I gained at the university and the training I received at an International Creative Writing Workshop, I think this is the right time to show the world what I have.
“Journalism has impacted on my writing positively in no small measure. First, it has taught me discipline. As a journalist, I had the tyranny of deadlines and the discipline of limited time and space to contend with on a daily basis. And every writer needs that discipline. My training as a journalist is also related to my earlier love for poetry. Both professions have taught me not just the economy but also the importance of words.
“As a journalist and poet have, I learnt never to waste words and to use them in the right manner. Words are precious to every writer. Words are to the writer what tools and equipment are to the farmers and artisans. The way a writer makes use of words goes a long way in determining the quality of his works. And I always put this at the back of my mind whenever I am writing.
“Let me confess to you, it has been great. Before I came here I had been looking forward to a place like this, a place where I could be far away from l Lagos; far away from the madding crowd; far away from the pressure of work, family, friends and society. I had looked forward to a place where I could write, write and write. And Ebedi has provided the time, space and the right frame of mind to do that. I had never had this kind of unlimited time and space before I came to Ebedi. And I want to commend Dr. Wale Okediran and the board of Ebedi for this great work they are doing.
“So far the place has been very conducive and we have been having regular power, which is one of the most important things every a writer needs.
“I am working on a novel, which I had started writing before I came here. I just needed the space and unencumbered time to complete it. The novel is woven around a polygamous family in an African society and the way the male child is privileged over the female child, the troubles families go through because of this social norm. Still my novel goes beyond that because it is a political satire and it tends to portray some of the ills in our society. Before. I came I had planned to write at least a thousand words everyday. I knew it wasn't going to be easy to achieve that”.
“On his mission as a writer, Odeh stated, “As a writer I’m trying to explore the human experience, to bring out every day experiences and cast them in a new and fresh light. Writing is a self-appointed mission. And mine in this case is to bring out the things which people see everyday but don't take cognizance of but which affect them and their worldviews in no small measure.
“I also write to shock the reader, to make him realise the evils in our society and the subtle ways he is being controlled and manipulated. So I do not subscribe to the view, which says writers should not paint a bad picture of the African society. My view is that every writer should write it the way it is so as to create the much-needed change in our society. Today the 200 years anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens is being celebrated because of the way he painstakingly portrayed the social injustice that was prevalent in the United Kingdom of his time”.