Onwueme: We are fast becoming a nation without memory, lost and dead
That Professor Tess Osonye Onwueme is one of Nigeria’s cultural ambassadors in faraway University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, U.S. is an understatement. In fact, she embodies Nigerian and African cultural values in her dressing and approach to global issues. Little wonder she has retained a natural hair since birth and wears an African hairstyle, as part of her identity in promoting indigenous culture. In a chat with Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Onwueme gave insight into her choice of discipline and how she has fared in the literary world
You were to study law or medicine. Do you regret your final choice in the arts?
I will not say I nurse any regret, because I don’t also know if that other tract would have got me this far either. So, I will start from the premise of being grateful to God that I have got this far. In fact, I never knew I would get this far in my life, in view of where I am coming from – a small farming village and as a peasant girl from the interior of Isah-Ogwashi in present-day Delta State. And for the path that I have taken towards the art, the fact is that even as a child, I was already immersed in the art because we produced our own arts and we lived in art as a way of life. If I had gone in to study medicine or law, I am sure that those values would still have remained in me and I would have carried them along. It is like the tortoise and its shell; the tortoise never goes without its own shell.
But for the record, let me give you a little hint about how I arrived at not studying medicine or law. As a student in secondary school, one of my best subjects was chemistry. I was strong in both arts and sciences, to the extent that I made A1 in Chemistry and A1 in Literature. At a point after the war, government of then Bendel State instituted a merit scholarship for students that excelled in the state. If you had been academically strongly and had consistently been among the best three in highly competitive schools, you will be invited to a major examination. It was the first time I remembered that my secondary school, Mary Mount, Agbor, ever had someone who passed that examination. We were about 20 in the whole of Bendel State and with that scholarship, I enjoyed free education from Form Four.
Our pictures were published in The Observers newspaper then in 1971. I became a celebrity scholar and it was difficult for me to choose a career path, whether to go for the arts or sciences. My father wanted me to follow a path that would lead me to law since he was a lawyer, but the school principal wanted me to go for the sciences.
However, the very week I came out of secondary school in flying colours, I met the man I married. Everything went so fast and he convinced me not to go abroad for study. I was an innocent young adult. He also did not want me to study either law or medicine. He wanted me to study education. I didn’t like the idea but I had to obey. But as it turned out, even when in secondary school, the celebrity status I had earned produced a major backlash for me among my friends and peers. And that hurt me so much because they said so many hurtful things against me; envy took them over and they began to taunt me. The taunting and hostility among my peers drove me to what turned out my first poem in 1971, ‘The Stinging Tongue.’ That was how I started finding some kind of voice in creative writing. By the time I finished secondary school in December 1972, I had five big notebooks full of poems. Somehow, I began the conversation that was a secret. It was like talking for your society, your family and friends.
By the time I entered University of Ife, I continued to write. During the Ali-Must-Go protest, which left schools shut for over three months, I was writing a poem but there were other voices pushing to be heard and I kept restraining myself because I wanted it to remain a poem. But the medium that was intervening was not the subject poetic voice, but it was dialogue and that was how I ended up writing my first pay, A Hen Too Soon. I was a third year student at the University of Ife.
After writing the play, I had great satisfaction. It was like I was already choking and I finally found my voice. Drama gave me more scope, but I never divorced poetry. I wrote the Broken Calabash in 1980, but all these were like private journals. I knew I was writing and I was in the midst of big time writers such as Wole Soyinka who was my professor at Ife and Ola Rotimi. So, I never thought about myself. I never liked to share the fact that I was writing anything. I didn’t consider it a level of literature anybody would find valuable. It was my therapy. It was later when I was teaching General Studies in Federal University of Technology (FUTO), Owerri, as there were no art courses, that I began to stage plays.
So, it moved from private to public. I started making a name, not only for me but also for FUTO. It was after I wrote The Desert Encroaches and it was taken on tour of universities that I won the ANA Literary Prize. It turned out that the publisher submitted the play. I didn’t know I was even being considered. It was a surprise to me because I was not even in the country then. It was at that point that the lid opened and I began to realise that I was a writer. I realised my word was no longer my private property.
Why is Nigerian arts sector not as viable as other sectors?
When the people have lost faith in themselves and they have lost steam in their own values and have turned copycats, and are constantly imitating and emulating, how are they going to create? Art is creative and it has to come from within. It is around you; it is not somewhere. You live it. I live in the art. But if that which you consider valuable and worthy is that which you consume from importation, then how is it going to thrive? If anything that is indigenous that enables you to express that sense of identity and cultural integrity are dispensed with because they are (considered) occultic, how can the art sector become viable?
Our people value foreign paintings, buy them and invest in them. But ours, which is carved and indigenous, is looked down upon, and dismissed; they don’t want to be associated with it because it is ‘crude’ and ‘occultic’. Don’t you see the Eurocentric mindset and the impact of the poisoning, the cancer that is westernization?
Rather than seeing to the development of our own art, we denigrate it. How is it going to become a source of revenue generation? How is it going to become an enterprise that is worthy? The fashion industry is thriving now because of ban on importation of ready-made fabrics. Finally, our designers are making waves because they are now looking inward and are beginning to rediscover. This is also because the west takes our own fabrics, transform them and we begin to purchase them.
Successive governments have also been very intellectually lazy in that regard. Their intellectual engagement of those they put in positions is very limited. Nobody is trying to interpret and create new ways, in creating higher goal. Rather than do that, they sleep on it and everything decays. We are all looking for foreign exchange to buy that which has been done elsewhere so that we can boast at home that we got it from Milan, from Dubai and from China. The problem is that people are looking for instant gratification and instant padding of their pockets so that those put in different ministries would be thinking of what they will import. People are not thinking of legacy they will leave behind and even when they leave any, the legacy is imported. It is through art that people inscribe and store their individual and collective memory and history. We are fast becoming a nation without memory and a people without memory are not only lost, but dead!
How much of Africanness do you impact on your students abroad?
Besides the academic contents of the literary works that I teach, that may be from Africa, such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others; aside the intellectual contents that have to do with Africa, the teacher is not just neutral. I am coming with my own sensibility, my own worldview and my own ideological leanings. All these things colour my insight and perspectives. Then, I am also a woman, the feminine sensitivities that I might have will all be integrated in my teaching. The way that I will teach my literature may not be the same way that a male Nigerian that does not see anything wrong in beating a wife will teach it. Aside the intellectual dimension to it, there is ‘me’ as an individual.
Nigeria, to me, is not 1,000 miles away. Anywhere I am, Nigeria is. I carry my cultural identity with me. So, when they see me, they see Nigeria, they see Africa. I live it. I breathe it and I eat it. And that is the reason I was able to raise five little children in America and still enforce every opportunity available to make them live Africa; I live the values. I feel a sense of pride being an African. It depends on the way you carry yourself, too. If you are apologetic about who you are and your sense of identity, how are you going to teach it to anybody? When I walk around the city of America, I walk tall as if I am 100 feet tall because I have no apologies of who I am. But that is not something we find these days. Some may find me backward.
How do your students react to your Africanness
The students are very excited about it. There are people here who will pay to take a course on African culture. There is that curiosity because they want to know more. They want to learn ideas and values that are authentic. They are very intrigued and they are all ears when you start telling them about our ways because those are not things they see or hear on television. All they see is negative or stereotypical. There are many students who sent me ‘thank you’ notes for opening their eyes. Our biggest problem at home is the loss of sense of self, the loss of our own cultural identity and pride. We don’t have it anymore at home and it is disturbing.
The most disturbing is the fact that the younger generation doesn’t speak their languages. They get culturally displaced in their land. The children grow up as cultural bastards, imitating whites and the west. Unfortunately, they can never be whites and the whites will not consider them one of them. So, where do they end up?
Do you intend returning home soon to impact younger generation of Nigerian writers?
I have never left Africa and Nigeria because they live in me. The younger generation might not know me. That is of concern because they don’t know me physically but even if I live in Nigeria, how many of them can I see or interact with everyday? It is through my works that the consciousness, interactions and role modelling can be facilitated. And the physical absence is not everything. Sometimes, the physical absence provokes greater presence. The younger generation might not be familiar with my works anymore because Heinemann that was the biggest producer and publishing company for the literary works of our generations has not been active anymore.
So, a lot of the publishing companies have not been promoting creative writings as they used to do in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The exigencies of profit-generation has driven a number of them into emphasising textbooks production, so that all those literary works and the works of the older generation are not as prevalent as they used to be, because of the new tendencies to produce textbooks that will bring instant profit. At the time Heinemman, Macmillan, Evans and all those older publishing companies invested in creative literature for the development of the mind; it was not so much in terms of instant profit that they would generate, but the legacy.
Also, then, the quality of the creative work determined whether or not it was accepted for publication. I agree that there is the need for the physical presence to help serve as physical role model for the younger generation. I look forward to a time I would be able to be there physically, but I speak through my works and anywhere they are being studied, I am there speaking.
You flaunt your natural hair as part of your identity. How have you been able to maintain it?
I did not start life in America. I was born and brought up in Nigeria. And I have plenty of hair. Why would I want to make it straight like whites? It is about cultural pride we are talking about. At some point in the 1970s, there was afro hair style. It was part of the cultural resistance against westernization, against Eurocentricity, to look at everything white, as the yardstick for measuring beauty and aesthetic. It was the cultural resistance that engendered afro, but it is like we have lost that one also.
What is your take on the putting culture under Ministry of Information?
They don’t need to have a ministry devoted to tourism. All these compartmentalisation of agencies do not necessarily make them better. One ministry can function with sub-divisions. If we recognise tourism as a viable and worthy enterprise and medium for showcasing ourselves, our world our identity and our society, then it becomes one of the sub-entities of that big umbrella ministry. But what are we showcasing there? Tourists are not coming to watch people who have no pride. Why would you want to pay to see the imitators of you? It is because we have not evolved to that point.
Whosoever they have appointed to the ministry, the focus should be to interpret how we can use what we have with pride to change our cultural and social orientation. Colonisation of the Nigerian mind is the biggest disease that is eating into the fabrics of the nation.