By Anote Ajeluorou
The chant became insistent and took a life of its own the moment erudite scholar, Distinguished Professor of English at New Orleans University, U.S., poet and special guest, Prof. Niyi Osundare, gave voice to it last Friday. It was at the ‘Voyages Around The Sahara Testaments’ colloquium organised in honour of poet laureate, Mr. Tade Ipadeola, winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2013, at Drapers Hall, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan.
It was the first time a colloquium was being held in honour of a winner of the prize that has spanned over 10 years since its inception. The colloquium was specially convened by Dr. Sola Olorunyomi of Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, with support from Ipadeola’s other friends, Director, Communication Centre, UI, Ropo Ewenla, Dr. Dami Ajayi, Dr. Niran Okeowo and Rotimi Babatunde among others started planning the colloquium shortly after Ipadeola was announced winner on October 9, 2013.
‘Let us bring Back Nigeria!’ according to Osundare, would be the fitting campaign or rallying point at this critical moment of national consciousness, seeing that the country was already missing through inept leadership and that it needed bringing back so it could be a good place for the missing Chibok schoolgirls when they returned from the hands of their abductors. Specifically, he said Nigerian was missing as a livable society on all fronts and that it needed to be brought back from the brink of collapse it seems inexorably headed.
The colloquium, which was on Ipadeola’s winning poetry work, sought a robust conversation around the phenomenal poetic journey Ipadeola has wrought and how exposing it through rigorous scholarship would help in making sense of our world in relationship to the vanishing Sahara. As would be expected, it threw up intense scholarly fireworks, with the presence of eminent literary and humanistic scholars in attendance.
But as usual, Osundare brought his critical understanding of Nigeria’s malaise to bear on the conversation. And just as another literary scholar, Prof. Wole Soyinka in April gave voice and urgency to the now famous ‘Bring back our girls’ slogan that Dr. Oby Ezekwesili later amplified, Osundare has added yet another twist for effect. For him and everyone present at the colloquium, it wasn’t just President Goodluck Jonathan’s lukewarm book that should be brought back, but Nigeria as well. Indeed, there is added urgency now more than ever before to bring back Nigeria from the woods it has wandered even as efforts were still ongoing to bring back the Chibok schoolgirls.
The accomplishment of Ipadeola’s poetic genius in this award-winning collection has continued to amaze scholars who continue to wonder how the lawyer-poet managed to evoke such poetic magic. For Osundare and many others, such feat would be difficult for the current educational set up, with its many lapses, lack of commitment, poor funding and a myriad of problems, to throw up again.
For Osundare said, “As we celebrate this book, let’s ask ourselves, as the country deteriorates, how many products from our current school system can produce this kind of book? The tradition of literary theory and criticism is dying today. No literary culture survives without a robust educational culture. You need functioning libraries, good teachers, students that are willing to read and learn. But what do we have today? Ignorance is spreading today. This book is a commentary on Nigeria today.
“We have not brought back the President’s book yet; we’re still trying to bring back the girls. This book is affirmation that it’s possible to create something good, something enduring in the land. This has to be a regular pattern. Good education, solid literary culture is what is needed. To achieve this, let us first bring back Nigeria!”
Osundare said he’d followed Ipadeola’s literary trajectory, and how it has been very progressive. He said wWhen he got The Sahara Testaments’ manuscript, he nearly fell into the same trap as Prof. J.P. Clark, who confessed to reading it all night non-stop until he finished it. But although Osundare didn’t abandon his sleep for it, he didn’t sleep until he read a third of it, saying, “You read it while sitting on the edge of your chair. Tade, this is a new voice about Nigerian poetry. I’ve never read a book with this kind of intensity. This book carries a lot of weight”.
Osundare, a first class scholar, one of those who should never have been allowed to leave Nigerian shores for greener pastures abroad, said there were fallouts about Nigeria’s academic conditions that Ipadeola’s books evoke that need addressing. According to him, “We shouldn’t only talk about the book but about the fallout. What we have here is a compendium of metaphors. Could Ipadeola have produced this kind of panorama of African history, philosophy and geography if he wasn’t exposed to history? If there is any continent that needs history it is Africa!”
He also used the opportunity to look at the essence of The Nigeria Prize for Literature and what he said could be its continuing resonance for winners. “How many times do winners enjoy their fame?” He asked, “It’s twice the value of the Caine Prize for African Writing. What about the resonance? It’s the gravitas attached to it that matters. We have to make sure that winners survive beyond its first three weeks of winning. A literary culture is not created by the amount of prize money attached.”
ANOTHER special guest, who served as chairman in place of Prof. Ayo Banjo and prize governing board member, NLNG-sponsored The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Prof. Ben Elugbe, noted, “People should be proud to win a prize when they write a book. But not often is it remembered that a winner is a source of pride. As the prize’s board member, our gathering here is evidence that it’s a mighty piece of work. We’ve rarely seen that kind of oneness of voice regarding the work’s outstanding nature to warrant its endorsement by Profs. JP Clark and Dan Izevbaye”.
In 2012, Elugbe disclosed that prize jury head, Prof. Abiola Irele, used superior argument to win the prize for Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street. He, however, noted that while “Tade is very proud to have won the prize, but the prize is very proud that Tade won it!”
Elugbe used the occasion to call on critics to partake in the competition in the Critical Essay category, a prize designed for academics and scholars, where a critical work published in a reputable journal is entered for the prize worth N1 million. He noted that poor awareness about this prize has not generated enough entries for it since initiating it two years ago.
Director of Institute for African Studies, Prof. Dele Layiwola, who also represented the Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, Prof. Isaac Adewole, expressed his pleasure in celebrating Ipadeola, whom he said he knew from his toddler years at Fiditi Grammar School, where senior Ipadeola taught him English and French. He recalled how Ipadeola senior told him about renowned poet, Christopher Okigbo, an unusual poet, with amazing love for football, how he left Ibadan for Fiditi to teach.
Layiwola said he carried Ipadeola as a toddler, and described him as an inquisitive and active child, adding, “They are a family of great poets; they have drums. When I learnt Tade was reading law, I felt he strayed a bit; but he has come back. I know he still does bread and butter law. But he’s still a poet.
“Now, Africa begins and ends here. By the grace of providence, we will be able to celebrate more. It’s a great joy to see that you excel. You didn’t only win the prize, you also allowed the prize to win you!”
Then there was a brief interlude in which Jumoke Verisimo read an excerpt from the collection “?????”
One of the jury members for the prize in 2013, gender expert, feminism theorist and poet, Prof. Molara Ogundipe, also gave testimony about Ipadeola’s outstanding work and the unanimity of the jury’s verdict including that of the external assessor and Ghanaian poet, Prof. Kofi Anyidoho. Ogundipe said it was educative and enlightening to have been a judge of the poetry prize last year, adding that Ipadeola “you made us proud as Africans, writers and critics”.
KEYNOTE speaker, doyen of African literary criticism and Dean, Faculty of Humanities, Bowen University, Prof. Dan Izevbaye delivered a paper titled ‘The Sahara Testaments: Poetry as Centre and Circumference’. In his usual cadence, Izevbaye looked at the role of poetry in Nigeria at the present time with Ipadeola’s collection as example, by looking at the intellectual context of the collection, saying, “The book keep you. I was roped in by the quality of the writing, the fascinating diction. This is creative writing of high quality. The poet at this point is God’s rival in the creation story. This is a candidate for the canon of Nigerian literature!
“There’s a blend of oral and literate, western and middle easterner style of writing. this breath of vision and style is Miltonic, so mush so as to say, Tade represents a poetic personality. This poetry of the first water!”
Izevbaye also took his audience through English literary history and how poetry came to be seen as the centre and circumference of all knowledge and social relationships with the failing of religion and economics to bring order. He said, “When there’s anarchy in the polity and economic sphere, you turn to poetry for order and structure; when there’s chaos it’s the poets we turn for vision and direction”.
The eminent critic argued that it was for this reason that Chinua Achebe took his famous title ‘Things Fall Apart from W B Yeats, who had a vision of order. He also restated Matthew Arnold’s position that with the rise of science and the failing of religion, it was that poetry to people turned to get a grip on reality. Ipadeola has also done the same thing with The Sahara Testaments in his epic journey through the vast landscape of humans and nature that the Sahara represents in the abysmal neglect it now suffers.
For Izevbaye, Ipadeola, having considered all the African ideologues finally settles for Pan-Africanism, as the best political ideology best suited for African in the race to resolving the continent’s manifold conflicts.
According to Izevbaye, “The Sahara has been marginalized in our literature. We have treated the Sahara that way not just physically but culturally and spiritually. We don’t see it as anything of value. It’s the same as the colonial error that posits that Africa has no history. By omission, we have treated the Sahara that way. Tade overcame his physical limitations about the Sahara and ventured into it. The knowledge of The Sahara Testaments does not come from western tradition”.
Izevbaye also recalled Room 32 of English Department of University of Ibadan, where poetry performance and reading used to take place just as he said he wasn’t the performance type like Osundare, as he best enjoys poetry in solitude. According to him, Ipadeola’s poetry “is of great technical scale; it’s fluid; it flows. This text will find its way into the canon of African literature. It will force our students, however lazy, to read the poem. It gives enlightenment.
“History and literature have been marginalized. Literature may not produce a car, but it has profound cultural effect. Ipadeola’s poetry is both and contemporary in range. It’s a very valuable addition to our intellectual condition”.
In his response, Ipadeola expressed his gratitude for the honour done him, saying, “I never imagined in my life that this was going to happen. This is a story unforgettable. I’m never going to forget this!”
Poor funding for scholarship, education in Nigeria
The colloquium gathering also afforded the academics present to examine the state of funding for scholarship and education in the country. They came up with a damning verdict, which was singularly held for the poor showing in the educational sector.
First to fire the first shot was Ogundipe, who recently returned to the country, University of Port Harcourt specifically, to teach after many years of teaching in universities in the U.S. and Ghana. According to her, “Poor funding is a bane of scholarship in Nigeria. Government has to put more money in education; condition in universities is terrible. Ghana here puts 31 per cent of its budget in education; South Africa puts 39 per cent, but Nigeria only manages 8-9 per cent of its total budget in education”.
She blamed Nigerian parents for not insisting on quality education being given to their children. She also blamed student’s poor attitude to learning, saying that the students hardly use the smartphones the students carry for research work, as they hardly went to google education to consult educational materials that are available for free online.
Apart from poor funding, Ogundipe also criticised the attitude of Nigerians towards fellows like her who have taken the hard decision to return to offer their scholarship and time to the fatherland. According to her, “There’s exclusionary attitude towards those who want to return from overseas to offer their services”.
Also, she found placing a ceiling on the retirement age for academics ridiculous, arguing, “Retirement age for academics is wrong. A teacher should teach till he or she drops dead! They have vast private libraries students can consult for enriched scholarship”.
She also sued for the reintroduction of history as a subject in schools, saying, Let’s fight for history”.
Izevbaye also joined the call for better funding of education, arguing, “The present National Conference doesn’t have a committee on education; it’s stuck somewhere on social issues. Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) that is supposed to monitor standards and quality control should be interested in asking hard questions about university funding, that investment in education is too low. But NUC is only interested in going round in trips collecting money”.
Elugbe said even the so-called 25 per cent supposedly allocated to education “that didn’t come to education doesn’t mean that it went to something good to the people’ it simply disappeared into some people’s pockets”.