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Osundare’s sighs of an ailing planet

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
13 March 2022   |   4:15 am
Jahman Anikulapo, former editor of The Guardian on Sunday, will admit that the Committee for Relevant Arts’ (CORA) decision to have a writer as Prof. Niyi Osundare headline its 2022 CORA season is a perfect decision. He and his comrade at arms, Toyin Akinosho, have always lined up great writers to unveil the season, and…

Osundare at the reading

Jahman Anikulapo, former editor of The Guardian on Sunday, will admit that the Committee for Relevant Arts’ (CORA) decision to have a writer as Prof. Niyi Osundare headline its 2022 CORA season is a perfect decision.

He and his comrade at arms, Toyin Akinosho, have always lined up great writers to unveil the season, and getting the professor emeritus of English at New Orleans University, U.S., this year was no joke. It was one way to announce the culture mission’s activities for the year, which started on March 1.

Already, it has dedicated the year to celebrating the exemplary life and illustrious career of the grand patriarch of Nigeria’s visual arts, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, as he enters the nonagenarian age in August. ‘Baba Bruce’ will be 90 on August 30.

A statement from the programme’s directorate of CORA says: “Just as we dedicated the 2021 Programming season to celebrating the life and career of the theatre matriarch, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, we are dedicating this year fully to honouring Onobrakpeya.

“We shall in due course be releasing the details of the programming content of the celebration, however, our prime project, the 2022 edition of the yearly Lagos Book & Art Festival (LABAF) holding November 14 to 20, will be fully dedicated to honouring Onobrakpeya.”

On other key items in the programming season, the CORA directorate also revealed that it should equally be involved with honouring some other eminent artists who are coming into old age in the course of the year.

“We shall celebrate: The veteran journalist and photo-artist, Tam Fiofori @80 in June, the multi-skilled performer – actor, musician, storyteller, visual artist, Jimi Solanke @80 in July and the veteran actor, Olu Jacobs @ 80 also in July.”

The statement said, “We shall also be honouring other eminent artists who come into their 70s and 60s in the course of the year.”

This year, CORA got more than it bargained for in the Book Trek: A good dose of literature, intellection, and above all, political activism. Yes, Nigeria actually needs this now that it is on the march again looking for new political actors.

Anikulapo had told The Guardian, beyond the lined-up activities, “Osundare, widely revered for his lyrical lines and verses, and about the most laureated poet of his generation, has published over 18 collections, four plays, a book of essays, numerous monographs and articles as well as over 70 journals and magazines across the world. All these you must take into consideration.”

If you can’t make the venue, Anikulapo said, “there will be virtual broadcast of the event. Get somebody to be part of it. It will also be recorded.”

Titled, An Evening with Professor Osundare, the event, which held at Roving Heights in Victoria Island, LagosSunday, February 20, 2022, was jointly organised by the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA and Roving Heights Bookstores.

And really, it was an evening of poetry, songs, dance and laughter. Dagga Tolar, poet and activist, set the tone of the literary event with a scintillating poetry performance, while Akeem Lasisi, poet and journalist, alongside his retinue of dancers, singers and drummers, also regaled the audience with his performance.

Akinosho had set the ball rolling by reading one of the poet’s poems, For Tai Solarin and delivering a brief speech stating why CORA organises the book trek, an important programme in its yearly activities, which the organisation uses to keep Nigerians reading.

The Trek is part of efforts initiated to ‘bring back the book’.

“And the idea was that when you are selling books that is not necessarily engaging anybody. When you have the author’s physical presence, reading excerpts from his own work, discussing the book and getting feedback, that is the whole idea. And a lot of books in Nigeria don’t get to do that. That is probably part of the reason why a lot of people don’t get to know about these books.

“The book reading idea is a very popular one elsewhere in the world. So, we say ‘Oh people are not reading.’ But we also don’t know that people don’t even know what books are out there. There are lots of exhibitions in Lagos. There are lots of concerts in Lagos. Those are promotions. The book reading is the main promotion of books. So, where are we at this point? So, we think it is one of the most powerful tools. In a library you sit by yourself, at book clubs you discuss the books and wonder why the author wrote what he did. But nothing beats a book reading, an event in which an author sits with readers in a room. You get the chance to interrogate the source of ideas of the book,” Akinosho said.

RELEASED in January, the anthology, Green: Sighs of our Ailing Planet and Snapsongs, published by Commonwealth Books in conjunction with Black Widow Press, is a compilation of poems reflecting on the environment and current spate of odds and challenges facing its survival, especially with the perennial disrespect visited on it by humans.

Inspired by the spate of environmental crises hitting the world, from the Amazon wildfire to the desert encroachment in North Africa to the shrinking of the Lake Chad basin in his home country Nigeria, the collection urges readers to reflect on the endangered beauty of nature.

The collection, in a way, is an extension of Osundare’s The Eye of the Earth, published in 1985. The Eyes of the Earth was published before the campaign for the environment gained currency.

According to Osundare, the earlier collection was written on the grounds of the botanical gardens of University of Ibadan amid the early morning dews falling on him, with a flashlight, the ambience of nature fertilising his imagination.

He’d just returned from his native Ikere-Ekiti and had had a cynical encounter with some timber loggers who openly asked him if the trees being cut were Osundare’s own arms that he cared what happened to the trees! It was something he needed to respond urgently, and ‘The Eye of the Earth’ was it.

“Today, when I read the poems, I wonder, because environmental sanity issues and so on were not in the air at that time, but somehow they were in my conscience. I went to Canada to study, I came back in 1979 and went to visit my father in Ikere-Ekiti in the countryside. I grew up in the rainforest area of Nigeria, and I discovered that swathes and swathes of land had been denuded, because the trees had been cut, and so I kept asking people. Someone even asked if my arm was the one being cut. And I said no.

”Eventually I had to come back to Ibadan, and the first movement in ‘The Eyes of the Earth’ happened in the botanical garden of the University of Ibadan. I still remember I started writing at 5:30 in the morning. I was in that garden, a flashlight in my hand. That was how I started scribbling. The dews fell on me. Now, the situation of the world has gotten worse. I think I’m more passionate about it than I was at that time, because our world is disappearing, and the denials are the ones that bother me. People are still saying there is no climate change; just the earth reorganising itself.”

Osundare recalled Hurricane Kathrina that nearly killed him and his family in his New Orleans home; he managed to escape the deadly storm with the skin of his teeth, with only a boxer and t-shirt on him, and no slippers.

“Of all my 20-something books of poetry, none has confronted me with a more challenging combination of urgency of content and complexity of execution than this new one,” said Osundare.

Said Osundare, “I daresay the existential imperative of its content has been responsible for the pain that came with its composition and the uneasy relief I now feel upon its completion.

“There is something deeply spiritual, almost religious, about the mission and the message of the poems, and the many ways they have turned out to be denizens of that vital interface between the ecological and the cosmic.”

Osundare got the audience roaring with laughter when he said, “Nigeria is a banana republic, but we don’t even have enough bananas to eat.”

Osundare started reading from ‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’, so he could address the usual problems of his much beloved but groaning homeland, which he said he had to run away from in spite having benefited from her benevolence, lamenting: ”How can my country invest so much in me and then I just run away?”

For those who believe relocating out of the mess that their country Nigeria has become and envy the many others who have relocated abroad, Osundare doesn’t have a comforting word for them. He told them in plain terms: ”Diaspora is not relocation but dislocation. No gold waiting for you to pick on the streets of Europe (or America). No. Dislocation is not unproblematic, but I guess I manage it. I have seen people suffer in the diaspora. There’s so much beauty in our country (a beauty yet to be harnessed for the good of the people). Our writers have lost faith in this country. Writers want to be published abroad. If our people buy books, we will be able to set up prizes. (But certainly not in the ways African economies are rigged to impoverish a vast majority of the people).

Osundare also read ‘For World Food Day’ (‘oriki oonje’), also in praise of planet earth for sustaining man who still impudently destroys it in his ribald bid to exploit its resources for mega profits. Coker had shown Osundare the dead river when the two of them were the subject of a documentary film by some Americans and he marvelled that a river once ran through such a desolate place.

From ‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’ Osundare read ‘Wonderland’, a poem he modelled after Akeem Lasisi’s of the same title; ‘Our Dirty Currency’, ‘Third Term Blues’, ‘My Lord, Tell Me Where to Keep Your Bribe’, and ‘Black and Blue’ were the other poems he read from that collection.

He also read ‘Stubborn Hope’ in honour of eminent South African poet Dennis Brutus who was imprisoned for fighting against Apartheid government alongside legendary Nelson Mandela.

Osundare ended the reading session with ‘Still We Sing’, a celebratory poem in spite of the bleakness that tends to pervade the subjection of the collection, that indeed man and earth will some day surely triumph.

”Four out of five young men and women I meet want to run away from our country and our rulers don’t care. And I don’t think they (rulers) love this country, and our country is bleeding. White men came and our people sold our own people away. If there were no sellers, there would not have been buyers. Now, it’s through the Sahara desert, and they die (trying to get to Europe and away from the hell at home).”

OSUNDARE also explained what he sees as the difference between ‘rulers’ that tend to populate much of Africa’s political landscape, who make life miserable for their people and ‘leaders’, which Europe and America are blessed with, and who have made their countries so good many Africans are running away from Africa’s rulers to where leaders inhabit.

He noted that rulers lack human compassion and sympathy and are only after their own selfish interests and exert impunity in their dealings whereas leaders operate in a different sphere, as they willingly submit themselves to be held accountable for their actions. But there is a recent exception to this leadership-rulership mix in a recent American president in Mr. Donald Trump who he still views with consternation: ”I was starting to learn and unlearn in advanced America what I had learnt back home in our Banana Republic where we don’t even have enough banana to feed our people with!”

BORN in Ikere-Ekiti, Ekiti State, in 1947, Prof Osundare was educated at the University of Ibadan, University of Leeds and York University, Toronto, Canada.

His poetry collections include ‘City Without People: The Katrina Poems’, ‘Random Blues’, ‘Days’, ‘The Word Is an Egg’, ‘Midlife’, ‘Waiting Laughters’, ‘Moonsongs’ and ‘The Eye of the Earth’ among others.

In January, Osundare was selected as cover poet and headliner on World Poetry, a magazine of the World Poetry Movement.
The fifth edition of the magazine and is the first African to be so chosen.

Published by Commonwealth Books alongside Black Widow Press, the anthology is Osundare’s compilation of critical pastoral poems concerning the environment around the world.

He has received many prizes and awards, including the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) prize, the Cadbury/ANA Prize (twice), the Commonwealth poetry prize, the Noma Award, Tchicaya U Tam’si Prize for African poetry (Africa’s highest poetry award), among others.