By Anote Ajeluorou
Nigeria is not exactly renowned for celebrating its past heroes so that their exploits can be referenced and inspiring points for future generations. But Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Imo State chapter did the exact opposite Tuesday, last week when it honoured one of its own, a professor of medicine, astute administrator, playwright and poet, Prof. Anaelechi Barnabas Chukuezi. He was the first to write a play in Igbo language back in 1974 titled Udokamma, and published by Oxford University Press (OUP). Like many of his generation, he also wrote the play as an undergraduate in his fourth year, and it fetched him accolades back then.
But Chukuezi, who is currently on a wheelchair, had a moment to forget his travails with ill-health and had smiles plastered on his face as he was the centre of attention. Some of his fellow alma mater from the famous Government College, Umuahia, including chairman of the occasion, Chief Chukwuma Ekomaru were in attendance, and they all gustily sang their old school anthem to the admiration of everyone else. The association also dedicated its anthology, Ogele: An ANA Imo Anthology of Creative Writing to Chukuezi for blazing the path that the crop of writers in the state currently threads.
Ekomaru thanked ANA Imo chapter for honouring Chukuezi for his pioneering role as playwright in Igbo language. He also said he held writers in high esteem, as they were the best and richest around, adding, “They are the highest level of human beings - writers and authors - those who create ideas; writers have the highest quality of minds”.
Performance in Igbo language inevitably became part of the menu. ANA Imo PRO, Mr. Nwokedi Nwa Nwokedi became the town-crier that roused the audience with his Igbo praise performances. First, he performed Chukuezi’s poem in the anthology, ‘Aki bu ndu’. He also sang the praises of some of the dignitaries, particularly their mentor, Chukuezi. This was followed with a performance by another Igbo language writer, Nnenna Ihebom, who performed ‘A B Ch’ from the anthology also in honour of Chukuezi. These moments of celebrations in Igbo language together with Hon. Uche Onyeagucha’s flawless presentation of the anthology in Igbo were highlights of an event dedicated to honouring a man who scored first by writing a play in Igbo language.
In his welcome address, chapter chairman, Mr. Chidozie Chukwubuike urged government to promote literature as a way of avoiding the tag of a failed state, as none patronage of literature invariably deepens illiteracy in any society.
“According to him, “We intend to use this convention to draw attention of government to literature because any state without a robust literary culture is a failed state. A good literary culture gives birth to high literacy rate. And why does United Nations Organisation celebrate literacy? It is because literacy is power. Those who acquire it before others rule the world. ANA Imo is committed to the promotion of literature and Imo State Government can cash in on that to create a robust literary culture. That is the smart thing to do”.
Chukwubuike went on to list some of the chapter’s needs, which he said government could easily provide once it was ready to eradicate illiteracy in the state. According to him, “Imo writers deserve a writers’ resort, where they can go to do their creative writing and run residency programmes. Imo writers want the government to invest in the book industry and create enabling environment for major publishers to build their plants in Imo State. Imo writers need government intervention to flush out book pirates from the state.
“There is need to encourage indigenous writing by giving preference to good books written by Imo indigenes over books from elsewhere during book review for schools. And Imo State deserves libraries (not just a library) of international standard that can patronize local and foreign authors because Imo writers also deserve to be read (outside). Also, we urge individuals and corporate establishments to come out and support programmes that promote literary creativity here in Imo State as it is done in other states”.
However, in spite of efforts made by the association, the Rochas Okorocha-led administration in Imo State failed to the need to celebrate World Literacy Day and be part of the cultural effort the writers’ group was making to rejuvenating culture in the state. Only the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Theodore Ekechi made personal effort to attend; he also contributed towards the anthology presentation.
KEYNOTE speaker, Prof. Isidore Diala of Department of English, Imo State University, spoke on ‘Bayonets and the carnage of Tongues: Contemporary Nigerian Poets Speaking Truth to Power’. In his submission, Diala pit the poet against state power using the military era poetic outpouring as typical example. He argued that such poetry of protest had its founder in Christopher Okigbo, who, although refuted any role being ascribed to the poet towards society, wrote some of the trail-blazing poetry that roused his latter-day protégés into aligning poetry with the aspirations of the people.
According to Diala, “The 1960s in Nigeria was not only a period of transition but also one of soul-making. The emergent Western-educated elite, of whom writers of the period have been considered representatives and mouthpieces, recognised their privileged status as both a boon and a burden. This is in the sense of their chastened awareness of their responsibility for a cultural resurgence even while acknowledging the fundamental role that English which had become the official national language played in the new syncretic culture of which they also were the makers. Writing on this history, Dan Izevbaye considers Christopher Okigbo a representative writer of this period, and observes that the guilt-ridden return of Okigbo’s prodigal at the beginning of Heavensgate epitomises the situation of that elite (15). This acceptance of social responsibility deepened as the political crises of the 1960s assumed graver dimensions and completely transformed the poetics of Okigbo and his contemporaries. Ben Obumselu highlights the political upheavals that transformed Okigbo’s poetry and in the smithy of which the emergent postcolonial Nigerian literature actually took shape”.
This protest against social anomaly of the period came to a climax in what Diala calls “the generosity of self-giving and in the process bequeathed to generations of Nigerian poets after him a creed of rebellion consecrated by his blood and a poetics of dissidence with the form and language carefully thought out. These continue to reverberate in Nigerian poetry, even if the commitment to truth unto death is often mere posturing.
“…The core of Nigerian literature is the lived experience of the people. The landmark historical national experiences in other words constitute the subject matter of Nigerian literature. The kind of literature developed around each important historical moment is determined by what I could refer to as the heroic resonance of such a moment. The civil war undoubtedly has been the epicentre of our national history. It raises fundamental questions about human freedom that have political, philosophical, and even aesthetic consequence and has resonances that are of epic, tragic and mythic dimensions. Continuing debates and recent writing on the civil war evidently demonstrate its enduring grip on the national imagination and consciousness. Military despotism for similar reasons caught the imagination of the Nigerian writer. Indeed, the militarisation of the psyche of the Nigerian public and even of the Nigerian artist may well be one of the greatest exploits of the Nigerian army. Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, and Femi Osofisan regarded as some of the most distinguished voices of the second generation of Nigerian poets are all renowned for the talent with which they have consistently spoken truth to power even when it also required great courage. But like the first generation poets, this generation lacks no commentators. I have chosen therefore to focus on the generation after them, the so-called third generation of Nigerian poets but not without paying Osundare’s Waiting Laughters fleeting attention as it seems to me to stand out by the philosophical depth and resonance of its political theme”.
Rather than review the anthology, Dr. Gbenga Ajileye also used the moment to pay tribute to Chukuezi for his inspiring and pioneering role in helping to nurture literature in the state in spite of his health condition. He said, “In Imo State, our aim is to continue to nurture creativity. Ogele was inspired by the foundational work of Chukuezi, author of first Igbo language play Udokamma, which won best prize in that category in 1974.”
On his part, Onyeagucha thanked Chukuezi for inspiring the publication of Ogele; he also thanked God for inspiring ANA. He said writing is a crucial and immortal vocation unlike other fields, where their practitioners are easily forgotten, adding that writers’ works outlast them. He noted, “It is important we set aside a moment to honour Chukuezi, a man who is accomplished in character and learning in medicine and for writing the first Igbo play. It’s important at this time when Igbo literature and language are undergoing a battle. We stand in one with ANA to help lift writers and writing and make Imo State a beacon of writing”.
Imo State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Theodore Ekechi, said students needed to be encouraged to read and write, as there was much to be desired from the performance of students coming out of tertiary institutions. He noted, “We encourage our students to read and write; most of our students of higher education leave much to be desired anywhere you encounter them, job interviews or personal interaction. They cannot express themselves properly in English. Also disappointing is their grasp of their own mother tongue – Igbo language; they just can’t speak it. Other languages, apart from English, especially Asian languages, have been adapted into technology except ours. We need to show commitment and enhance our indigenous language. I thank ANA for honouring Chukuezi, an Igbo writer. We have come to celebrate our heroes past and that their works should not be in vain”.
RECOGNITION awards were given to some deserving Nigerians, who have performed creditably in the arts, culture and education sectors. Apart from Prof. Chukuezi, others were Dr. Basil Nnanna Ukegbu, a philanthropy and human rights defender, who was award a certificate in Excellence in Pioneering Education in Igboland; Nze Dan Orji of Peacock’s International fame for Excellence in High-life Music in Igboland; Godwin Kabaka Opara of Oriental Brothers’ fame for Excellence in High-life Music in Igboland; Chief Azuka Efoagui (Ajofia Nnewi) for Excellence in Musical Poetry in Igbo Language and Mrs. Salome Okeke for Excellence in Drama and Culture Preservation (for her work as actress in Nollywood).
Also, winners of the creative writing competition were given their prizes. There were no winners in the poetry and drama categories. However, Emmanuel Ibe James won the prose fiction category with his book Under Bridge, Charry Ada-Onwu Otuyelu won in Children’s Literature with her book, Ada Marries A Palm Tree while Ben Igbokwe won Igbo Literature with his book, Ogbu Mmadu Ndu Na-Agwu.