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For the earth, they gather in their voices across ages – Part 1

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Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Prof. Wole Soyinka and Bimbo Manuel

In recent times, the word ‘anthropocene’ has gained a certain fame in my cache of words – an occurrence that has stirred my curiosity. I concede that ‘anthropocene’ was not uttered on a memorable evening I reflect upon. It was a cool evening, convened at the Abora-Mazonia Hall of Eko Hotel & Suites, in Victoria Island, Lagos, by Providus Bank – a leading financial institution in Nigeria. Tagged ProvidusBank Poetry Café, the programme united poets of varied convictions and modes in one capsule and gave them a veritable platform to cross-dialogue on a vital global theme –environment and climate change. However, I felt that all the activities at the literary event were centred on the captivating word ‘anthropocene.’ It remarks the present era, human activities being the dominant influence on climate and the environment since the industrial revolution of 1760.

At the event, that viewpoint was reflected in every performance. The greenhouse effects of harmful practices were highlighted. Evident too was the conviction that humans should mind the impact of their deeds on Mother Earth, if they are to continue to enjoy the earth’s benevolence. As the earth cannot speak for herself, poets became her mouthpiece. They detailed the agonies and bruises inflicted on Mother Earth by humanity’s crassness.

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The event was designated ‘Voices in the Cause of Earth: an evening of ideas, rhymes, and reasons around climate change and the environment.’ It featured the legendary poet, dramatist, actor, and human rightist, Wole Soyinka, and five notable poets — Evelyn Osagie, Akeem Lasisi, Umar Abubakar Sidi, Reginald Chiedu Ofodile, and Efe Paul Azino. As the main act. It also embraced budding poets from a select poetry commune in Lagos – Poets in Nigeria (PIN), AJ House of Poetry, Loudthotz, and the Bariga Poets Collective. The varied poetic modes created a scintillating artistic ambiance.

The audience comprised mainly the creme de la crème of the creative and banking spheres, and literary enthusiasts. They relished, firsthand, a reading by Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka, who was the event’s ‘grand host’ and inspiration. His presentation was done in a ‘three-hander’, with the doyenne of acting, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett (OON), and the famous actor, Bimbo Manuel. The celebrated writer and intellectual, Odia Ofeimun, was the special guest poet, and he gave a good account of his renowned prowess on the poetic turf.

In his opening remarks, Walter Akpani, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Providus Bank, quoted Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize as saying: “The issue of climate change…does bring home the fact that we are on one planet, and that some of the impact of what human beings do in one corner of the world is going to affect people in a distant corner of the world. So, we may still feel very far from each other, but we are really very close to each other…”

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Speaking further, Akpani implored that issues of the environment and climate change should always be deemed of utmost importance. “They should always be a talking point and part of the conversation we have in our everyday lives on preserving the earth, which was given to us and which we will also leave for the generations that will occupy it after we have all departed.”

This was not the first occasion at which Nigerian poets expressed concern over climate change and the environment. In the past, numerous poets and environmentalists have decried environmental pollution and its dire consequences on the climate. Those versifiers in the environment’s cause included the late Ibiwari Ikiriko (Oily Tears of the Delta), Nnimmo Bassey (To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa), Professor Tanure Ojaide (The Activists), to mention but a few. They all denounce the havoc wreaked upon nature, particularly in the Niger Delta.

Voices of the mid-career bards
A CERTAIN unique feature of the event of Sunday March 21 must be remarked. It was the fusion of ideas of old, mid-career and budding poets. In singularity of purpose, they all spoke up for Mother Earth. Their voices were vehement in condemning and warning of the impact of global warming on the world and on human existence.
Evelyn Osagie’s poem took a dramatic turn in infusing this message with life. Her slouches on the stage, adorned in such non-biodegradable wastes as nylons, plastic bottles etc, created captivating imageries. They reflected that Mother Earth had managed to trudge on, despite humanity’s obstructions. Evelyn Osagie in her performance, cringed at indiscriminate waste disposal, floundered and tottered. Titled ‘Nature’s Irate Scream’, the poem highlighted the dangers of environmental degradation, envisaging its inescapable sequel. It recalled even the Amazon wildfire and the catastrophic freak summer hailstorm that buried Guadalajara, a Mexican city, under three feet of ice sometime in June of 2019.

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In his relaxed but highly rhythmic style, with infusions of Yoruba oral tradition, the lyrical poet, Akeem Lasisi impressed with his rendition of ‘The Divination’. Replete with precise metaphors, with generous references to the sun and the moon, the poet’s haunting allusion to a scene where unmitigated gas-flaring, as commonly seen in the Niger Delta landscape, was the reason why it took months for the sun to rise in the East and set in the West.

Nature’s routine has been greatly altered by human industrial pollution. Thus, ‘Months after departing from the East/ The sun has failed to set in the lingering West/ Blinded by vagrant smokes/A hell of turbulence from flaring gas’.

This poem captivates me on account of an unforgettable experience at a gas-flaring site in Imiringi, Bayelsa State. Evidence abounds of nature’s anger at being daily assaulted and marginalised. The bitter truth is that, while nature will surely fight back someday, we are forgetful and loath to face the repercussions of our actions. When the chicks come home to roost, we are wont to question the gods. We would whimper and plead to be delivered from the devil, failing to recognize that we are offenders, the cause of whatever retaliation the earth inflicts for our mistreatment of it.

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Reginald Chiedu Ofodile submits in the poem ‘Deadly Device’ that man’s lethal activities on the environment, which are mostly in the city, more often than not, turn around to bite him in the butt! It is what plagues man with a lot of incurable diseases and ultimately shortens his lifespan. Given the widespread belief that people in the countryside live healthier and longer than the city dwellers, this submission can’t be faulted. To buttress this is a verifiable fact: in 1795 when the industrial revolution gathered momentum, William and Dorothy Wordsworth left the bustling life of London for a settlement at Racedown Lodge in Dorset. This relocation played a vital role in the period and school of English Romantic verse that continues to enthrall us.

In his second poem ‘Deserved Appreciation’, Ofodile laments the brazen disrespect for our architectural heritage. What is held in awe as treasure troves in saner climes are downgraded and even crassly demolished. Worse still in Lagos, some irreplaceable masterpieces have been converted to inglorious spots – refuse dumpsite or a haven for street urchins and the likes. The poem is a clarion call for an immediate change in disposition and a review of our maintenance culture, which at the moment, is at the lowest ebb. More so, the disdain for architectural heritage also extends to cultural practices, some of which have since suffered demonization and neglect.

Umar Abubakar Sidi’s poem ‘Poets and Salamanders’ accorded with the event’s theme. It charged poets and writers to use their creative media to conscientise the masses on the need to protect the earth from destructive human activities. According to him, the earth is in crisis, thus: ‘let poets re-write the alphabet of Sky/ to cement the Ozone, make layers of poetry and gas to shield the souls of man and Salamanders from the angry letter of Heat’. The poets and writers do have an obligation to safeguard the earth. Since the pen is mightier than the sword, an urgent campaign is essential, or rather, the poets and the likes should, as a matter of fact, intensify their efforts in canvassing against depletion of the ozone layer.

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In the same vein, Efe Paul Azino’s ‘After the Floods’ refreshes our collective memory of the swathe of devastation, monumental damage, and death that the 2019 flood cut through Benue, Kogi, Nasarawa, Kwara, and other communities in the middle belt of Nigeria. These calamities are nature’s revenge for our disregard of her feelings. It is her sole means to exact her own pound of flesh. Azino’s second poem ‘One for the Tribe’ was like a sweet dessert after a heavy main course. It was a performance that lifted the audience’s spirit after the somberness of previous renditions.

From the young and budding voices
ON the other hand, Phebe Benjamin, a representative of Poets in Nigeria (PIN) performed a poem simply titled ‘Environmental Awareness’. The poem dwells on the inexorable influence of Mother Earth on the life of man. Since man is an integral part of nature, whatever ails Mother Earth, manifests in man. Hence, it won’t be wrong to sum it up, that man’s injurious activities at depleting the ozone layer, in the long run, amounts to self-destruct.

‘Smokes and Death’ by Bestman Michael of AJ House of Poetry, borders on the implication of environmental despoliation on agricultural produce and the resultant food scarcity, starvation, and inflation – all of which are sources of pain, tears, and death to humanity. It points to the irony that; man, in his quests to make ends meet, shoots himself in the foot by degrading nature — the fulcrum upon which his life rotates.

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Similarly, the poet Increase Nathaniel of Loudthotz, performed ‘I know What Will Kill Us First’. The poem juxtaposes the enormous danger of polluted earth and the insurgency in the North. To the poet, neither the ‘insurgency’ nor the ‘race war’ compares with the woes that the earth is unleashing. What will kill us first “is what we have done/ to Mother Earth and her other children.”

Equally interesting, the Bariga Poets Collective had a group presentation that bemoaned man’s quests for wealth at the expense of nature. Rendered with musical accompaniment, while pinpointing the consequences of these activities on the environment, the poem also sheds light on the sad reality of man’s deteriorating health, saying: “sadly/we burn/we break/we take/ till it’s too late”.

…Then comes the threesome with Soyinka in lead

HOWEVER, the climax of the event was Soyinka’s legendary appearance on stage, flanked by Mrs. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett (OON) and Bimbo Manuel, all three clad in blue astronaut fly suits, to perform the mock-heroic poem titled ‘2009: A Space Odyssey’ (for children under the age of 90+)’. Providus Bank’s CEO and chief host for the night had recalled that the night’s appearance was perhaps WS’s first (performance of his own work) in all of two decades and more. So, it was historical that the poet-actor Soyinka came on stage live, and in costume, for that matter!
At the maiden edition, the literary aficionado, often called, the ‘lion of letter’ – LoL – had read from his collection in honour of the famous Boko Haram captive, Leah Sharibu. Many in the audience at the event would remember that the octogenarian broke down in tears when he got to a certain segment of the poem. He has said a particular verse in the poem reminded him very much about the passing of his own daughter, Yetade, who passed on a few years ago.

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Just before the performance, the maverick professor urged the audience to divest their minds of the gloom that pervaded the hall. He remarked that people, especially the young, often took poetry too seriously: “…they think poetry is nothing but a solemn, gloomy and sombre preoccupation… Actually, poetry is supposed to have a sense of humour And introducing the three-some star-studded presentation of his 22-page collection, ‘2009: A Space Odyssey”, Soyinka said, “We are going to read you a kind of semi-autobiographical experience. It is written in the mock-heroic fashion just to lighten the proceedings of poetry a little bit”.

When the grand finale did come, it made the rumble and roar in delight. Divided into six segments of 27 stanzas, the poem uses the style of heroic poetry to satirise the dream of the English billionaire entrepreneur – Richard Branson. In 2019, as the founder of Virgin Galactic, Branson dreamed of making his birthday coincide with the commemoration of the Apollo II space expedition. His aspiration was to airlift people into the orbit to mark the 50th anniversary of the phenomenal feat of 1969. That was the occasion when the American crew that included Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle.

The historic event occurred on July 20, 1969. The fare for the trip was pegged outrageously at $250,000 per person. As poets cannot afford the prohibitive sum, the persona in this mock-heroic, who is the ‘Ogunkanako of NASA’, proves resourceful. He uses the power of poetry to gain a free ticket and launches himself into the pleasure of space travel alongside his fellow manqué moonwalkers. The poetic phantasia is the poet’s fulfillment of the English billionaire’s botched dream.

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Not in any way incongruous, available statistics show that space launches can have a hefty carbon footprint due to the burning of solid rocket fuels. Science Focus says: ‘Many rockets are, however, propelled by liquid hydrogen fuel, which produces “clean water” vapor exhaust, although the production of hydrogen itself can cause significant carbon emissions.’

Having undergone the mental peregrination with Soyinka as the poetic pilot, the audience left the event satiated that they had been fully fed on a full-course meal of lines, rhymes, and rhythms in honour of our so-much abused mother earth, and perhaps they left with a denouement to henceforth work for the preservation of natures’ endless, bountiful gifts.

The ProvidusBank World Poetry Day celebration truly deserves a yearly recurrence.

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In this article:
EarthPoetryWole Soyinka
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