Memory, identity take centre stage at Ojaide, Omatseye reading in Ibadan
Although Nigeria’s Niger Delta has produced some of the finest writers in the country, there seems to be little conversation going on among them or cross-conversation between them and writers from other regions. This gap was bridged recently when Ibadan-based literary and culture group, Artmosphere hosted scholar and poet, Prof. Tanure Ojaide and journalist, poet and novelist, Mr. Sam Omatseye to a conversation titled ‘Writing Back to Home’ at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan. Mr. Ademola Adesola and the Curator, Artmosphere, Mr. Femi Morgan moderated the session that had students, lecturers and writers in attendance.
For Ojaide, the event was a homecoming, as he went on to describe his student days at the University of Ibadan. He said memory plays a key role in a writer’s work. “I think that for every writer memory is very important; you can’t write without memory and one of the roles of the writer, the poet especially, is to keep the memory of the age, of the community. I have a very clear memory of UI. It has not changed too much; there are a few new things. I told you that about ’69, ’70, Niyi Osundare, myself and someone else, we found the poetry club. The buildings are the same in that place. At that time, we did not come together that we wanted to form a school. We are products of Soyinka, Okigbo, Clark and those people were around at that time. But while we respected them, we did not want to write like them. And I still remember Dan Izebaye, Theo Vincent, and others, and of course, Ayo Banjo, was in language at that time. I still remember them clearly.
“One of the things we did that I can’t find in this generation is that I read all of Okigbo, all of Soyinka. In fact, my PhD Dissertation is on Soyinka’s poetry; I read all of Clark. I think you need to read the generation before you to have a good grasp of the tradition. This was the time of Chinwezu’s Towards the Decolonisation of African Literature and part of Franz Fanon’s theory, too, ‘Native Resistance,’ that after a people have been colonized they go through different stages and that was what we were doing till globalisation came in. The intellectual here was so active, so virile at the time and people will label you, ‘oh, you are an Okigbo person, you are a JP Clark person.’ I don’t know whether such things do go on now. My first collection of poetry, Children of the Iroko was written here in this university”.
Also for Ojaide, the memory childhood of his growing up years in his native Delta, the fishing and the farming in an unpolluted environment and all added to the charm of his youth; all now eroded by oil exploration activities. As he put it, “I think wherever you grow up, the years leading up to 16 are always very important.
“I was raised by my grandmother on my maternal side. My grandfather was a fisherman, my uncle a fisherman. I followed them to fish. I went to set hooks myself. They tapped rubber; I tapped rubber. Those creeks in those days, you jump across them everywhere. The rivers were beautiful. Whenever my mother wanted to prepare some food, she will literally put a pot on fire and literally go scoop net out of the water and just get the crayfish, just enough for the meal. She didn’t catch to sell; everyone was doing the same thing, and the farmlands were fertile. I am trying to restore that lost Eden, which we had; the rivers were clean. I was there, about 1958 when Shell came in. I can still remember clearly; there were people wearing yellow or white aprons coming in with jeeps and nobody knew what they were looking for and then we began to see fire burn in the night.
“Many years ago, we used to sleep outside the compound when it was hot, before Shell came. So that memory, I carry it everywhere I go. I have memories of other places but you see that land which was so pristine was damaged by oil corporations and also through the cooperation of our chiefs and that is why I draw attention to it”.
The result of the oil degradation in the Niger Delta and the injustice of it, especially the judicial murder of Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa, according to Ojaide, is a poetry that finds expression in anger at the Nigerian system. “I think most young people are angry,” he stressed. “A contented young person is not too good. If Delta Blues was angry The Fate of Vultures was even angrier but this the time after Ken Saro Wiwa was killed. I don’t want to talk too much about Nigeria politics. If the Delta produces so much crude oil, the country depends on it. They held FESTAC, they built 3rd Mainland Bridge, they built a new capital, Abuja and yet you want to use the resources from that area to build the North East. I’m not saying such things should not be done. Why are the people in the Niger Delta still so poor? I think if you were the one, the question is, if this oil was gotten from Sokoto area alone, the Borno area alone, the Oyo area alone, the Enugu area alone, we won’t be discussing this.
“There is a sense of injustice that we are discussing here. It is the environmental degradation and quest for environmental justice. It tallies with our minority status; it tallies with injustice, lack of fairness. I think I’m still angry but more over socio-political issues. A writer should always be angry in many ways, I think”.
Omatseye raised the question of identity in My name Is Okoro, and suggested that crisis was currently plaguing Nigerians with schisms all too evident in all spheres, leaving only President Muhammadu Buhari to be alone in arguing for one Nigeria. “That is exactly the problem today in Buhari’s Nigeria. You have IPOB, you have MASSOB, you have Avengers, you have herdsmen, you have those calling for restructuring; you have all sorts of contending voices. You say we belong, and we say we don’t belong.
“It is the same kind of ambiguity of identity that led to the Nigerian Civil War and that continues to afflict us as a people. When we say we are a people, you almost are not sure and you tremble at that word because you cannot find the vocabulary to articulate who we are as a people. And, that is part of the problem why his name is Okoro and he cannot say his own name correctly because he grew up outside the country. But he has a sense that he wants to live in Nigeria as an adult. When he marries, he marries the person he loves, who happens not to be an Urhobo woman. He marries an Igbo woman. He has to contend with his own identity and survival. His survival becomes tied to the name to which his connection to home is tentative”.
Omatseye argued that Brexit provides illustrative example for the country, with Buhari daily fanning separatist embers with his immature handling of the political process.
“There is no way you can ask people to live together and not have a reason to live together,” he argued. “If they don’t have a reason to live together and there are, either there is slavery, tyranny or they are going to go their separate ways. This is the place we are in the Nigerian history. While Buhari is saying that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable, he should be listening, but he is not doing so.
“When he announces 10 appointments and eight belong to a certain portion of the North West, the Katsina-Kaduna axis, it becomes the case of arrogance for him to just say that Nigeria is non-negotiable. There is nothing that is non-negotiable; marriages are negotiated everyday. The way you talk to your wife everyday, you are negotiating the marriage. So, you cannot say that Nigeria is not negotiable. Look at NNPC; so, Northerners will decide oil and then you say that Niger Delta Avengers should be quiet. It is not tenable. So, with Gowon’s mantra ‘Go On with Nigeria,’ he probably was telling us, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Go ON with One North.’