It is open to debate if Veritas University, Abuja has had anything intellectually charged as the nearly four hours of spurts of literary sparks when US based Nigerian poet, Prof Tanure Ojaide came calling June 23rd, 2021. Even the students from two secondary schools – Madonna Model School, Garki, Abuja and Saint Theresa Catholic Secondary School, Bwari, Abuja – who participated in the literary festival came with their own sparks, putting up brilliant poetic and dramatic performances that spoke to serious issues as gender inequality.
Prof Ojaide rendered, among others, an uncommon portrait of colonial warfare in his poem ‘Orukuruku’ but would not accept being labeled a postcolonial voice in African Literature. Prof Chimalum Nwankwo swaggered unto the stage with the claim that there are certain things writers inject into creativity that (careless) readers do not pick or interpret carefully enough. He was expatiating on the problem of meaning in Literature, illustrating with the lines in Igbo language in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart Ikemefuna sang in his melancholic flashback at the initial stage of his travail when he wondered how his mother and 3-year old sister might be. Dr. Emmanuel Egar equally sauntered in with his optimistic contention that the next generation of leading poetic voices will be coming from Africa because, as he sees it, Europe has had its bout. Asked what will provoke that African primacy in poetry, he answered: necessity. If he gets it right, it would mean that the successors to WB Yeats, TS Elliot, Alexander Pope and so on would be Africans. Only Prof Hyacinth Ichoku, Veritas University, Abuja Vice-Chancellor did not spark. He was too absorbed in the entire spectacle to strike when he took the microphone except his sentence that could be taken as a hint that he might be going after Prof Ojaide. The VC has a knack for attracting scholars of such standing to the university, with about five former VCs, including his predecessor, already in the kitty.
It was a case of fame as a shy girl that Ely Obasi, the late editor of the late The Sunday Magazine, (TSM) popularized in the 1990s. Fame doesn’t show in the face and famous people could be so outshone by their fame. Apart from the eye glasses, Ojaide has no airs about him. None of the grey hairs ala Soyinka or bald headedness that signposts such big names is part of him. Prof Ichoku who, for instance, expected those features saw none of that. Ojaide is very ordinary until he enmeshes in the literary, especially if he is reading from ‘Orukuruku’ or the one titled “If Only They Know”. These poems belch fire at colonialism. “If Only They Know” could be said to be also a reminder of the paradox of disunity across African countries among victims of colonialism who seem to have forgotten spaces of ultimate humiliation such as ‘the gate of no return’ or ‘the slave cargoes’. In those poems, his literature or poetry begins to function as disciplinary moves within the logic of words, power and reality, with a poetic line as “… kneels on somebody’s neck and remain unmoved’. It is an expression that can refer to slavery as it could to more recent moments of ‘I can’t breathe’. Indeed, “if only they know what history has done on them”. Will they ever know, with what politicians, political leaders and nation breakers can do with the modern media?
Of course, he is a Nigerian from Delta State. His story as dramatically presented by Gabriel Onwu of the Department of English at Veritas University credits him with winning a large number of awards in Literature. He is now at the University of North Carolina in the United States where he occupies a professorial Chair that he says grants him ample resources to breathe, academically, such as travelling.
He would like Nigerian universities to come to grip with productivity as what makes a university. In other words, academics who publish and who bring awards to a university constitute the defining elements. For him, number of years or merits should count too but it is not the number of years an academic has spent on a rank that is important. And everyone doesn’t have to wait for everyone to be promoted. It is an academic’s publications that should decide promotion.
Prof Ojaide expressed happiness with what he saw from the secondary school students vis-à-vis the promise of Literature and the future. He took youngsters into consideration in his selection of readings, celebrating how youths have no regrets, being still on top of their lives as opposed to oldies.
He was similarly happy meeting his friend, Prof Chimalum Nwankwo, another sojourner in the US but who is now back in Nigeria. He credits the Catholic Church for a share of what he is today, recalling being an Altar Boy in his secondary school years or how he imbibed the culture of waking up 5/5.30 am till today from the Catholic school orientation he got.
All of us are poets, he said, except that only few manage to manifest that. In his own case, he can write poetry out of anything. Poets, he also said, are like musicians. Unless a poet is read, his message suffers a crisis of going out. Hence, his happiness in being at Veritas University and among youngsters and the future poets. Interestingly, Professor Gabriel Egbe, Veritas University’s Dean of Postgraduate School asked the students to preserve the privilege of meeting Prof Ojaide in body and soul by taking pictures with him. Egbe is sure that, soon, there would be a robust ANA chapter in the university.
Although, it does not speak English, kola nuts put up a strong presence at the literary fiesta. Prof Chimalum Nwankwo calls it the symbol of welcome for the August visitor who came in June. Professor Olaoye, Head of Department of English and Literary Studies at the university and who was to ask Ojaide later if he has encountered the rough arm of the state on account of his literary exploits echoed the received wisdom that whoever brought kola brought life. It went round when it was broken into pieces.
Many themes and things came up that have not been captured in a rather journalistic post on such an intellectually stimulating four hours of a conversation that offered something for everyone at every stage of it, be it the squad from the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA) led by Barrister Ahmed Wada, the president; Halima Usman, the Chairperson of Abuja chapter, Jerry Adesewo of Arojah Theatre and another lady writer with a pen name. There were also Dr. Mrs Angela Dick, Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at Veritas University, Abuja and her counterpart from the University of Abuja, Dr. Mabel Evwierhoma.