By Anote Ajeluorou
IT was a harvest of accolades for Nigeria’s poet laureate and winner of Nigerian National Merit Award 2014 and Distinguished Professor of English at New Orleans University, U.S., last week when colleagues, former teachers, scholars and friends gathered at University of Ibadan, Oyo State, to celebrate him in a festival in his honour, The Niyi Osundare International Poetry Festival (NOIPOF 2015). It was the maiden edition and designed to celebrate the cerebral poet, scholar and public intellectual, who has revolutionary marketplace evokes the days of ancient Africa’s griots and storytellers.
The organisers envisioned the festival as “A conscious blend of art, culture and tourism deliberately set within the university community in the historic city of Ibadan… to celebrate this icon as a worthy role model for the younger generation to aspire to acquire knowledge, because knowledge is power”. Students from Government College, Ibadan and Osundare’s alma mater, Amaoye Grammar School, Ekiti, were in attendance to give effect to a generational shift and role modelling. But University of Ibadan students stayed away from the festival because they were largely unaware on account of poor publicity.
Some renowned scholars present included the keynote speaker and Vice Chancellor of Kwara State University, Malette, Prof. AbduRasheed Na’Allah, Emeritus professors, Ayo Banjo, Ayo Bamgbose and Femi Osofisan, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, Prof. Abiola Irele and guest speakers, Prof. Isidore Diala of Imo State University. Others were Deputy Vice Chancellors –Administration and Academics - University of Ibadan, Profs. Ambrose Aiyelari, who represented the Vice Chancellor and Gbemi Oke, Prof. Sonnie Adagboyin, Prof. Segun Ojewuyi, Dr. Sola Olorunyomi, Dr. Niran Malaolu, MD, Booksellers Ltd, Mr. Kolade Mosuro, filmmaker, Mr. Tunde Kilani, Mr. Tunde Adegbola, Chairman, HEBN, Mr. Ayo Ojeniyi and Dr. Kunbi Olasope of Classics Department, University of Ibadan.
Oyo State Cultural Troupe kicked off proceedings with a vigorous performance. Thereafter, chairman, Banjo, Osundare’s former university teacher, who replaced absentee Mr. Femi Falana, expressed his joy at being a part of Osundare’s literary and academic journey. “It’s always a joy to be part of anything involving Osundare. He’s an exceptionally different and gifted scholar and writer. Osundare came to us with a load of talent. We have been catalysts of the development of that talent. He’s a source of joy and pride to University of Ibadan. He’s a gift to the whole of humanity. He’s still young and we’re going to hear much about him. I wish him all the very best in future”.
Deputy Vice Chancellor, Aiyelari, had earlier spoken in the same vein when he called Osundare “our pride in this university”. Oluwole Afuye then did an Ikere-Ekiti chant, which touched a nerve in Osundare, an illustrious son of Ikere-Ekiti.
Na’Allah didn’t start his delivery without performing a Yoruba folk song in call and response fashion. Although the audience was a bit reluctant at first, but he got them to the groove and it enlivened the hall. A poet himself, Na’Allah took the audience through Osundare’s special place in the hall of global poetic and traditional oral performance from which he derives most of his source materials. According to him, “Osundare is celebrated both at home and abroad; he won the NNMA 2014”.
Na’Allah then traced the trajectory of Africa’s modern written tradition from pre- to colonial and post-colonial eras. He said shortly after colonialism, the works of English poets like Shakespeare and others were the norm, noting that Africa’s literary revolution started with such equally revolutionary writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose writing was consciously polemic in nature in taking on the establishment, a mold Na’Allah said Osundare followed in his own revolutionary poetic rendition. “African literature began to be incorporated into English Departments, including African culture, which the new writing embodied. We need the people to deepen this cultural revolution like Okot p’Bitek and even Wole Soyinka have done. Their poetry is about our culture, our traditions.
“Then came Osundare; his is poetry that incorporates African traditions, African medicine, African religion and spirituality, which were captured through chants, narratives and incantations. We need Africa’s young people to be part of this cultural essence for continuity value-reorientation”.
Also for the Vice Chancellor of the state-owned university, Osundare’s poetry is a rebirth of ancient African poetic tradition, being an accessible poetry. This, he said, sets it apart as poetry belonging to the people and for the masses for whom African poets of old used to compose and render their special crafts. As he put it, “Elevated idea of poetry is a western concept. African ways of life are expressed through poetry, which the commoners understood. We needed poets to sing to us in elementary and secondary school levels. Then came Niyi Osundare; his poetry was so powerful for me. They were the moonlight songs we used to sing as children, this new poetry of Osundare is closer to us. At the same time, he is speaking to us in our daily lives, to our spirituality, speaking truth to power; it’s the kind of poetry we could relate with.
“We need to understand the poetry that came to us, that of Osundare. This is what Nigeria must be doing, to celebrate our own, the likes of Soyinka, Osundare, Osofisan; we need to celebrate them”.
NA’ALLAH also took a swipe at government policies that tend to downgrade literature as a lower cousin to science, technology and engineering. He condemned the recent calls by Tertiary Educational Trust Fund (TETFund) for application for National Research Grant only for science, technology and engineering and omitted literature from benefitting from such funding opportunity. Na’Allah argued, “They forgot that poetry is technology, that humanity is the mother of technology! We need to make the point about Nigeria being celebrated around the world not because of science, technology or engineering. Nigeria got the Nobel Prize in Literature, not in Engineering. And we will get another Nobel Prize through Osundare very soon!
“Nigeria cannot succeed if we silence poetry that expresses our inner feelings, that carries our traditions and illuminates our world. Poetry isn’t just the arts; it’s encompassing. Literature is everything”.
Na’Allah said Africa’s folk heritage needed to be studied to unearth their scientific worth, adding that the folk narratives and moonlight songs educated a whole generation of Africans on self-sustaining values for nationhood. He condemned what he called ‘Cyber Personalities’, a product of technology that was corrupting young people and alienating them from the reality around them. “Old values are not part of the cyber world; we need to go back for balance in the values in poetry and those of technology. Our poetry contains the technology we need to advance in society. Through Osundare’s poetry we can reevaluate ourselves; it illuminates us”.
He emphasised the need for the festival to continue so it could propagate the ideals Osundare stands for, adding, “We must have major thinkers of our nation who represent us, who stand for vision in our lives. We must bring literature to the centre, even as people tend to degrade it. What we’re doing today is exceptionally different because it is what determines our values. More of this festival must be borne. We already have Wole Soyinka Festival, Niyi Osundare Festival; we must also have Femi Osofisan Festival and so on. At Kwara State University, we now have Abiola Irele School of Theory and Criticism, which will begin from June through August every year. We must create theories that centre on our values and explain ourselves to the world”.
WHILE responding, Osundare thanked everyone for attending in spite of difficulties arising from acute fuel shortages in the country, saying it wasn’t the best of time to organize anything. He read a piece ‘Death came calling’, an except from his Hurricane Katrina collection City Without People after Oyo State troupe had performed another piece. But he read it after regaling the audience with a folk song. He said writing the volume six years after the hurricane that nearly killed him and his wife “was a healing process; it came to me as therapy”.
On his alma mater, Osundare said, “Amaoye Grammar School is where it all started. I’m happy to have my fellow students coming to celebrate with me. In 1962 our principal, Chief Adeniran brought us to this Trenchard Hall to see a Shakespeare play performed. I saw television for the first time, too, in Ibadan. Teachers matter and they matter so significantly. I’m asking our teachers to be more honest with their work. Our students must challenge our teachers. The international standards our universities used to enjoy have eroded. And I should know. We must go back to where our universities used should be”.