Thursday, May 29, 2014
‘My life and River Nun’ At 93, he walks around unaided. His sight and senses are still very sharp. In a conversation and booking signing session in Port Harcourt, River State, Pa Gabriel Okara recalled his life as poet and writer, and what motivated him to write The Call of River Nun, The Voice among others, reports Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME. FOR over 90 minutes, two literary giants, Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka and Prof J.P Clark sat side by side listening attentively to a friend and author of The Call of River Nun, Pa Gabriel Okara. Shortly before the conversation, the two writers were consumed in deep discussion and smiling intermittently. Also in the audience were renowned historian and Prof Emeritus, Prof A J Alagoa and Prof Chidi Maduka of University of Port Harcourt among others. Minutes later, guests were asked to rise and welcome the celebrant, Pa Gabriel Okara, who clocked 93 years on that day. The gathering, Meet The Author (which also featured conversation/ book signing and cake cutting),was held penultimate Thursday at the Royal Banquet Hall of Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, River State capital. It was held to honour Okara on his birthday and as part of activities marking Port Harcourt as United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organsation (UNESCO) World Book Capital 2014. But for the eulogies from Prof Maduka, Okara’s 93rd birthday would have gone without a word from older generation of writers. The duo of Soyinka and Clark declined to talk when requested by the compere, Anote Ajeluonuo of The Guardian for a comment on Okara. With nostalgia, the Ijaw-born poet spoke on his growing up, his works and why he wrote The Voice, a book that promotes the Ijaw cultural heritage among others. Specifically, organisers of the Port Harcourt Book Capital celebration dedicated the evening to celebrating the life and works of the Ijaw-born poet who was found to be exceptionally active with sound memories at 93. Telling his childhood story almost in poetic manner, he said: “I grew up with the water, fishes and trees. I attended Government College, Umuahia where I was introduced to literature. We were compelled to read one book per week and to make presentations to teachers afterward. From there, I developed the passion for writing. I was in the Gambia for sometimes. I also did printing press in Lagos. I was in the civil war and also had opportunities to go for all manners of training within and across the world. I won many awards in the civil service including that of Rivers State and national honour of OON from the Federal Government. I am happy to take part in the celebration of my 93rd year on the planet earth. I am grateful to God for good health and for strength even to climb up the high step of this podium. I appreciateall my friends.” Like how much did he make from his first published work? Okara said: “One thing I will like to make clear is that it may appear strange to non-creative writers. I wasn’t taking money when I started writing. I created passion for writing , especially with the conflict in the society. There was a time that the British Council invited me for a poetry programme. I was so happy when it was broadcast. Later, I was asked to sign for the money for the service. I was shocked and I asked, ‘which money?’ I was happy for the joy of being heard. It was 10 pounds then. That was a big money then. All I wanted was a forum to express my feeling. I was driven by the muses. That was writing then. I was also happy with the Commonwealth Prize when it came at last. I was paid N500,000 as a joint winner. The joy was in the acceptance of what is written by the generation of loving people of Nigeria.” What then was the concept behind the writing of this sage? “The concept of my writing is feeling, sensitiveness to situation, peculiar thought which others may not have. To me, what keeps me in writing is the desire to express the scene around me. I am driven not by fame or money but by share desire and pleasure for writing. Sometimes I write on what makes me angry as well especially in my poetry.” He also used the forum to explain what motivated him to write his popular poetry collection, The Call of River Nun. “I was in Enugu when I wrote the book. The concept of the poem came to me when I climbed to the top of the hill and watched the insects, the soldier ants, in group, carrying their loads. I began to wonder on such a territory and such preservative manouvres these insects were demonstrating. Also, I thought about my childhood; how different was the atmosphere in the Creek compared with my new abode at Enugu? I began to think about my life journey in the River Nun. I remembered my early childhood. The Call of River Nun may be described as a poem of remembrances, desire tolive freely without any fear, without any enemy. I remembered all that happened in the decade that you might have achieved,” he said. Though he started his career in writing as a playwright but he later dropped the idea. Why did he quit? He said: “I cannot remember any more. It proved to me that I was on the wrong path of my creative writing. I discovered that poetry was my calling. I also wrote short story.” Some young writers in the audience wanted to know under what influence he writes. He said: “Comedians are the most serious people. They make you laugh but are serious and collected. They invent situation to make you laugh. Poets are not made to write when they are drunk especially in Ogogoro. Some writers may be inspired by taking alcoholic drinks but not all. Some are drunken and brave in battle field. Some may be inclined to drinking, others don’t, so it is in creative writing. They make people, sometimes, to weep and sorrowful. They express this through their writing. Some sing and some play music.” At the early stage of his writing what occupied his mind before he wrote? “What a writer does depends on what happens in the society. Politics and reactions generally, especially the impact such action or change has on him. I keep on saying that a writer or a poet can’t just stop writing. He writes because he wants to express his feelings. Those who are familiar with classical music use that to entertain too. But most importantly, it is the expression of feelings.” He moved around the venue without the use of a walking stick; climbed the podium unaided and responded fast to all questions. Okara disclosed the secret behind his super soundness. “Every drug has expiry date. Some foods also have. Can you accept that you have expiry date? One is kept alive through his activities and strength. He begins to wear away at certain stage. That depends on the state of his mind to start with. What is in the mind affects your age. Many of us have read about creation in the Bible. God made man in his image and likeness. It is spiritual. Does God ever die? Does he ever grow sick? Therefore, you will not grow sick or die. What we experience at death is what we believe. What is in the mind affects our life. That is the secret if it is a secret at all. What you think you are will determine what you will ever be. There is no short cut. You work hard.” On the need to protect indigenous language and African culture, Okara said: “In what language do you read? Is it the language of your colonisers? Language grows with the culture of the people. You are known and identified by the culture of which you are nurtured and in which you grew up. So, in Nigeria, we have several languages. The common language is English. If you want your writing to be read and appreciated outside your enclave, you have to write in English language. While doing that, you have to give some sacrifices to your culture too. In Ijaw, when you say somebody is afraid, you say the person has no chest because we believe it is the chest that gives courage to struggle for livelihood. If someone has no chest, it means he is a dead person or can someone live anatomically without a chest? This symbolises the kind of life people live in riverine area. You have to fight and struggle. Bravery, strength is embedded in ones heart. Without bravery, you cannot live in those days. I have to write the way I did to maintain certain elements of Ijaw culture in the story. The language that is not used vanishes. If you don’t reflect in the language of your expression, some elements of your culture will soon disappear as we find in this country. Those who speak English are mechanised people. In villages, those who live with old ideas can easily be influenced by those who speak foreign languages like English. If we don’t revive and keep alive that aspect of our culture, we will lose our identities and we will join those people who have lost their culture. I hope we will be civilised as I do myself,” he said. He was later treated to a rousing birthday song and warm embrace by his friends. Prof Maduka used the occasion to present a book on the symposia that were held years ago in honour of the celebrator, saying he was the first writer to be honoured with the honorary Doctorate degree of Letter by University of Port Harcourt. The evening was rounded off with a birthday cake. Present at the cake cutting were Soyinka, Clark, Mrs Koko Kalango, Molara Wood, who represented President Goodluck Jonathan and members of his family. On Friday, it was the turn of another renowned Ijaw-born writer, Prof J.P Clark. Like his kinsman, Okara, he took the seat at the Meet The Author forum, during whiuch he shared his experiences as a writer. He said he does not beleive ‘we are a wasted generation.’ The ineraction was preceded by a poetry performsnce by some budding writers coordinated by A.J Dagatola. He asked: “How can we say we are wasted, if we produce the literature we are celebrating today?” But, he observed that there is a dysfunctionality now, which Prof. Wole Soyinka described as a waste. On whether poetry can serve as tool for a social change, he said:”Poetry doesn’t change a politician. Today, politics is for contesting elections even four years ahead. Every child knows our problems. Politicians spend their time and energies on winning elections. You can write all the poems, it will not change them”. Clark recalled that during his school days, Nigeria heavily subsidized those who went to school. But, that “we were trained to be in civil service and not in politics”. According to him, Nigeria had no oil then, but proceeds from oil palm were well spent. Nigeria has money, but not well managed. And it is in the hands of the wrong hands… If I had joined the military, I would have been dead now. What is going for the west is that politicians there went to school, and are able to manage the military”. Colonial government did not hand over Nigeria to those who wanted independence, noting that Nigerians who also fought for independence have been forgotten by Nigerians and “they were in Lagos and Calabar”. “Only a hollow crown was given to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. If political power was handed over to the varsity graduates of the University College, Ibadan and others, we would have been greater. Unfortunately, they were drafted unto civil service. It is the political class that got the power in the darkeners. Those in public service were distinguished Nigerians”. He urged young writers and poets to do their apprenticeship and know the language well. Clark also described poetry as the highest point of any language (both written and spoken), however, expressed worries about the qualities of content. “What worries me about poetry today is that I don’t think many practitioners take the academics seriously; be it Queens English or Warri pigin. Don’t forget the syllabus… the poet is a poet; he delivers his works for the public to enjoy…There are new voices around, and am not disillusioned by all poets of today. Not everybody that says he is a poet is a poet. I am for a thousand flowers blooming but, let them be well fed from the soil”. On his strong passion for writing, even at so, Clark said; “Sometimes I write a dozen versions of poems a day before I am happy. I am not an entertainer”. Molue: From scrap to vehicle of knowledge The Goethe Institut in Lagos hosted Emeka Udemba’s Witness, an exhibition of Molue, as an interactive way of taking art to the people while interrogating critical issues in the society. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME reports. IMAGINE the popular Lagos yellow passengers bus Molue, parked at a busy bus stop on a Lagos road during peak period of traffic on Monday morning. An army of anxious commuters rushed to the bus struggling to gain entrance into it. Workers, market women and students were all part of the mad rush. “Hey stop. This is not a passenger bus, please all of you get down,” a voice from one of the few seats at the back end of the bus shouted. Surprised and shocked, the frustrated commuters wore long faces as they looked out for the real Molue. However, they did not leave until they discovered that the refurbished and attractive bus was a Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Nigerian Art with a vehicle registration number LND 100 XF. Inside the bus is a medium-size flat screen television screening a documentary on the operation of Molue on Lagos roads, food and drug hawkers, newspaper vendors and shouts from the unfriendly conductor form the staccato of noise from the documentary. There were also four paintings of faceless figures (two on each side) of the spacious bus. Also arranged on a platform at the back end of the bus are copies of journals, books, brochures and hand bills on art. It is a mini-library of sort, which is serviced by 10 comfortable covered seats Apart from the footage, the narration of the documentary is a historical journey of when Molue bus came to be, its challenges, characteristics and mode of operation among others. Welcome to Molue Mobile Museum of Contemporary Nigerian Art, which hosted its inaugural exhibition titled Witness by Germany-based Nigerian artist, Emeka Udemba at the City Hall premises, Catholic Mission Street, Lagos. It was organised by Goethe Institut, Lagos and supported by the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany, Lagos, Mercedes Benz, British Council and Ayenibiyi Limited. The mobile exhibition which will run till July 26 will move round some major streets and neighbourhoods in Lagos. Present at the opening included Muson Centre’s Artistic Director, Thomas Kanitz, Chinwe Uwatse, Ndidi Dike, and representatives of British Council, Lagos. To the organisers of the exhibition, the refurbished Molue, which costs about N2 million is a rare symbol of public transportation system in Lagos after the scrapped Bolekaja, a wooden commuter Bedford truck. Witness according to director, Goethe Institut, Lagos Marc- Andrea Schmachtel, is not only a way of addressing the public through art but also to take the art to the people. He observed that the medium became necessary in Nigerian fine art scene, though novel in this part of the world as a way to promote art. “Fine art scene is greatly influenced by physical gallery space. But, there are other forms of presenting art, this is one. Molue is iconic in Lagos transport system. But it is going out of use soon hence we are interested in transforming the popular bus to other uses. The Molue don’t need to be demolished and scrapped as it can be used for different purposes such as mobile museum or library,” he said. There are many aspects to the Witness project. Through it a serious missing link-a befitting art gallery- in a mega city like Lagos is being brought to the fore. And the medium being used to draw attention is an iconic object such as Molue. According to Emeka Udemba, one of the major challenges facing contemporary art, especially in Africa today is the issue of the context, representation, presentation and documentation as well as the question of how to map the evolution of contemporary art in Africa. He raised the following posers: “How can we engage or appropriate a critical form in the way we show and interact with contemporary art to suit our local environment and in so doing make culture more accessible to the public? “To what extent is a museum of contemporary art capable of interrogating real issues that affect us? How do we engage the public in a more participatory and collaborative way as part of the creative process? How can we generate more interdisciplinary exhibitions that are focused and in multiple spaces,” Udemba wondered. But importantly, the primary concept behind Witness is hinged on reinventing space while simultaneously preserving an icon of the Lagos city urban transportation heritage- the Molue. It is the hope of Udemba that this iconic means of moving from point A to B, (which is being phased out by government), can serve as exploratory exhibition spaces, host exhibitions, educational programmes, screenings, performances, discussion sessions,music and workshops. “The goal is to shift from the static to the flexible, harnessing the opportunities of social mobility within the urban space,” he noted, adding that art is not complete without the participation of the viewers. On the characters of the operators of the buses, Udemba said: “The questionable technical condition of most of these Molue buses and the recklessness of the drivers is a constant threat to other road users. When Molues breakdown, as they often do, the drivers and their conductors often abscond leaving the passengers to their own devices. “Like bullies on the road, Molue drivers epitomise the broad culture of impunity in the larger Nigerian society. They are always impatient, they frequently flout traffic rules, and they stop to pick up or drop off passengers outside designated bus stops. This often exacerbates the perennial traffic jam and traffic chaos in the city.” However, the Molue bus, to some extent, captures the spirit of optimism, resilience, and adaptation to the daily challenges of survival of the ordinary Nigerian citizen.