Sunday, 6 July 2014

Nigeria’s friendly literary, cultural states: How others can benefit

By Anote Ajeluorou

Culture has been described as the totality of a people’s way of life. Although culture has language as chief carrier, it also manifests itself tangibly in those performative and expressive aspects that exemplify a people’s mastery of their world. This is shown in the expressive performances as seen in theatre, literature, art, music, dance, fashion, songs and festivals. These performative and expressive forms serve as memory bank to recall past histories for reenactment and projection into the future what had gone before. Young people come to learn about their past through these performances and are thereby grounded in the lores of the land.
  While there’s a Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation that routinely undertake these aspects, as core mandate, what its affiliate agencies do serve as mere tokenism; they do not permeate to the ordinary citizenry to make desired impact. The ministry does not go out of its way to look for exceptional talents to nurture. Corporate Nigeria does little by way of support to individuals and groups promoting cultural expressions excerpt when it expressly promote their interests.
  But this is where some states of the federation and their chief executives have made a real difference. Some states have willingly gone out to look for cultural programmes that they execute yearly with considerable success. Some partner with individuals or groups to realize such programmes that throw the doors of their states wide open for visitors from far and near, give employment to thousands of youths and keep the flag of culture flying.
  These are culture-friendly states that see to it that the cultural expressions of a people are as vital as the strength of the economy, as they reach deep down to the spirit and soul of the communal experience. They believe in investing in the human capital and giving impetus to the expression of the human spirit, as perhaps the only way to build a rounded society, a society that still knows itself and is better able to resist alienation from its African roots and wholesale foreign domination that has become so pervasive.
  States in the frontline of this cultural awareness include Lagos, Rivers State, Cross Rivers State and Osun. Those on the marginal position, whose endeavours are yet to catch on, include Ondo and Ekiti States. These two states have made inroads in defining appropriate modes of cultural expressions to support and nurture, as means of creatively engaging their people in having faith in the practices of their forefathers while introducing new ones that suit modern tastes and temperaments. Ekiti Festival of Arts and Culture is in its first year; it remains to be seen what it will become as the years go by.
  Oyo State retains its position as intellectual cultural hub largely because of Nigeria’s premier institution, University of Ibadan, and not because of what Oyo as a state does. With the many festivals in its official calendar from the various communities, Oyo State ought to lead the way in annual festival celebrations, but the state views such celebrations with some measure of antagonism or disdain or both. Oyo State, just many others in the country, is simply impervious to the humanizing influence of culture and can’t be bothered.
  Foremost among the states paying appropriate respect to culture is Lagos State that has been home to come of the great cultural figures Nigeria has ever known. With the introduction of its own festival, Lagos Black Heritage Festival (LBHF) about five years ago, Lagos citizens have a yearly celebration to look forward to, as adding spice to their lives. The festival’s rich programming, especially the ones designed to stimulate school children’s imagination to give expression to their idea of their own country, gives impetus to unbridled creativity. Neighbourng states and communities find a fertile avenue to display their rich cultural heritage to enrich Lagos’ ever expanding imagination. Also, its Diasporic content also lends credence to historical awareness of the connections between Nigeria and the outside world.
  A much older festival is the Calabar Christmas Carnival. Although rooted in foreign carnival concept largely from Brazil and the Caribbean, Calabar Christmas Carnival has done a lot to infuse the spirit of sumptuous engagement among Calabar citizens. It has become the preferred destination during Christmas season and the world looks forward to it with zest. After about eight years or so of the carnival, there’s a need to reappraise it and possibly redirect it to fit local needs and tastes so the people of Calabar and Cross Rivers State generally own it as their own. Its content can be localised such that the people’s culture takes centre-stage by way of ownership. The Brazilian carnival content can be placed side-by-side local cultural and performative experiences to better enrich it and thereby highlight what’s local and pleasing among the people.
  Rivers State has, perhaps, redefined the concept of cultural promotion in a Nigerian space where culture is viewed with suspicion or distrust. The state government has helped to midwife Garden City Literary Festival, now Port Harcourt Book Festival, which is in turn is hosting UNESCO Port Harcourt Book Capital 2014. Also, the state organises CARNIRIV or Rivers State Carnival that promotes the diverse cultural expressions of the people. These two events put the state in high estimation among cultural enthusiasts, who see it as sustenance of society’s humanistic tendency without which society is stifled to death.
  The continuing promotion of Osun Osogbo Festival in Osun State has served the state and its citizens well. It is the only festival that hosts the largest number of visitors every year. Sustaining the festival is in the interest of the state that hopes to rake in billions of naira from it. But the festival needs a face-lift, especially the Osun groove, with more content added to make it more appealing to visitors from all over the world.
  These states or cities that have become home to one form of cultural expression or the other have continued to rank high in the estimation of Nigerians. Culture is how the people express themselves; a state giving its people such expressive avenue would rank high. Such state understands the hunger of the human spirit and proceeds to feed it with tangible and intangible soul food that only culture can provide.
  Apart from what Lagos State Government does with LBHF, several other cultural expressions find outlet in the city. Although paltry, the city as Nigeria’s commercial hub, has aided various cultural expressions that need some form of sponsorship or support to go on. The relatively well off citizens have also aided the promotion of cultural expression. Because culture is not necessarily a commercial product, but a humanistic one, it needs support for it to grow. It’s the reason why philanthropy is key to cultural flowering or growth. While Nigeria lacks the public-spiritedness of America’s Rockfeller, Ford and other philanthropists that support culture, states are perhaps the only ones with more than enough resources to promote culture, as the examples of states mentioned above indicate.
  There’s the yearly Lagos Books and Arts Festival organised by Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) that brings lovers of books and arts together in conversation and Nigeria International Book Fair. Abuja also has some individual and group festivals mainly book-related to stimulate citizens of the capital city; but no input yet from its authorities. Abeokuta now hosts Ake Books and Arts Festival that started last year; it is hoped that it will be sustained to add yet another dimension to the book and art life of the country. Another individual effort in Enugu is the Coal City Book Convention, which has suffered hiccups for lack of funding. Enugu State could adopt it instead of looking to start something new; it has structures on ground to build a first class book and art convention.
  Indeed, more states need to do the same or surpass existing ones. Sadly, some states are yet to wake up to this reality. It’s on record that no state in the South-East does anything in the area of cultural promotion. Anambra State with its wealth of writers and other cultural creators does not have any avenue for its people to express themselves. This also goes for other geo-political regions. Only Niger State holds a colloquium in honour of the current governor of the state, Dr. Muazo Babangida Aliyu, the MBA Colloquium on Literature that draws visitors to the state in a two-day celebration.
  Although Delta State has propounded the mantra of ‘Delta Beyond Oil’, it’s unclear the direction the state is being driven in this noble vision. A culture producer and performer, Mr. Richard Mofe-Damijo, has been in the saddle of the culture ministry in the state yet there’s nothing to justify his occupancy of that position. There’s no dynamism of any sort that he has brought to bear on his job. As the only state with a claim to the rainbow mix in terms of peoples, cultures and talents, Delta State ought to show the way to many others how things are run. But there’s no cultural expression of any sort that brings this huge amalgam of peoples, cultures and talents in celebration and advertisement to the rest of the world. The ‘Delta Beyond Oil’ mantra in the absence of culture promotion would appear a huge joke.
  The same applies to neighbouring Edo State. With the state’s rich cultural expressions it would have been expected that the state would explode culturally; but this hasn’t happen and may never happen.
  Culture is people! States that have tapped into the culture of their people and are celebrating it will continue to be at the forefront of development. They are states that understand the humanistic needs of the people and are creatively responding to them. Other states would do well to walk in the same path to douse the tension that is building up in many parts of Nigeria’s national life – be it unemployment, youth restiveness and insecurity!

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