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Politics of poetics in Nigerian academia as Ushie celebrates 60

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Professor Joseph Akawo Ushie

He is a modern-day poet of no mean repute, solid in the literary world. Little wonder that at 60, colleagues, friends, and loved ones gathered recently at the Senate Chambers of University of Calabar to honour Professor Joseph Akawo Ushie.

It was a two-day celebration put together by The Calabar Study Group in collaboration with the Vice Chancellor, University of Calabar, Professor Zana Akpagu. There was also a book presentation to celebrate one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary poets from University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.

It was an intellectual birthday celebration that brought together eggheads from many ivory towers and other domains. The equally ‘intellectual birthday,. cake designed as a book for Ushie, provoked the reviewer of the book Hill Songs, Dr. Sylvester Agu, to call for “a minute of applause when alive” for the poet.

Chairman of the event, Dr. Sandy Onor, said, “It is better to celebrate men of distinction when they are alive instead of eulogising them with kind words when they are dead even when those kind words are lies.

When we leave this earth, there are a few things that stand against our names; there are a few things that are held to our memory that will stand till the day Christ comes and one of those things are books, ideas, journals published locally and internationally… Whether you like Professor Ushie or not, when you are researching into his area, you will find his books or his books will confront you… Joe Ushie, you are a complete and solid scholar!”

Vice Chancellor of University of Uyo, Professor Aniefiok Essien, who was represented by the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), Professor Inyang Udofot, described Ushie as “a fine poet and a star whose poem won an entry in Montreal.”

Essien reminisced on their good old days of smiling and hardship while driving his (akpagu) old beetle car with gear three, for 10 years, always cramped with Ushie and friends, frolicking the nooks and crannies of Akawa Ibom State while burning the late night oil as Graduate Assistants at the University of Uyo.

According to him, “I used to call him ‘Akawo.’ He has suffered through thick and thin. He has come a long way. I admire your scholarship; you are an intellectual friend and a man of many parts.

He has a cultural group and he is a grassroots man well entrenched in his culture and tradition. It is best when we celebrate when we are alive than when we are dead because it will encourage us to do more.”  

While referring to one of the poems ‘Oppressor’ in Ushie’s Hill Songs, one of his friends, Joe Agi (SAN), said, “Ushie was an oppressor in school academically and has lived up to expectation as a fine poet.”  

The high point of the day was the Keynote paper, ‘English Studies: Territoriality and the Discontents in the Politics of Knowledge’ by Professor Obododimma Oha of the University of Ibadan, who decried the high rate of mind colonization in the study of English and literary studies in Nigerian universities.

According to him, “An overhaul of the curriculum to reflect more local contents in the light of our local and cultural diversity and to also see how they are relevant in the labour market” has become indispensable.

“Human beings are territorial animals and in English the sub-disciplines are territories, hence in the domain of English language, people use words to colonise. So, there is need for the decolonisation of the mind.

“Look at specific illustrations used in the classroom as well as the language of discussion. In that way one continues in a seeming innocuous way to consume and perpetuate most of colonialism by oneself.

It is the colonisation of the mind of the colonised person. The teaching of English is an international language and has been channeled towards the advertisement of silent colonilisation in education.

Unfortunately today, most of us do not know whether we are using American or British English; it is from one colonisation to another.

“But I want to say that we even extend it to internal colonisation because Ushie and others are being discriminated against.

We feel free to list Wole Soyinka on our reading list of African poetry course but we fail to list Joseph Ushie on simple reason that he is on the margin. 

I am happy that one pointed out that Ushie’s book is on the reading list in New Orleans. What of Nigeria?

“If you are teaching African poetry, are you also playing the subtle politics of sidelining Ushie because he is a new generation writer or he is not as consisting as Soyinka or as Okigbo? You are practising politics… and doing a big damage to English studies in post-colonial context.

Worse still, when we are teaching poetry in a place like University of Calabar, Ibadan or Port Harcourt, and we cannot reflect the various geographic and cultural diversity of Nigerian poetry on our reading list, we are actually failing…”

Oha, whose 65 minutes’ presentation attracted a pin drop silence and an occasional applause from the audience, said, “not listing Ushie in Nigeria is politics!” 

ANOTHER serious factor militating against progress in the teaching and learning of English, Oha said, “is the tendency that lecturers recommend the work of their friends and students are made to learn from foreign illustrations that do not improve on the quality of what we teach. Students can understand better with local illustrations and be relevant in the society.

But in a situation where students are meant to learn what apply to foreign situations or other ethnic environments or illustrations that are not closer to them, we will not only have poor result but poor application in society.

We impose theories that are not relevant to us and examples are foreign theories. We need to reformulate them (theories) to be relevant to us else we will continue to suffer from mind colonisation and imperialism.”

He also pointed out that there is need to have growing diversification by introducing new courses and programmes that relate to needs of students and employers, discuss new research direction, change of identity in sub-disciplines of English.

On redesigning curriculum, Oha said, “Things are changing and curricular are also changing and this therefore calls for an overhaul of the curriculum to reflect more local contents in the light of our local cultural diversity. The mismanagement of diversity in English studies was not too good and having undue competition among the sub units is not healthy for English.”

He added that today, there are different nomenclatures for English studies as a course like English and Literary Studies, English and Literature, English and Communications and others, saying it has to some extent changed direction and “how I wish we are serious with these things and not just to make our products desirable and attract more customers to our universities to get more enrolment and you don’t offer much to really equip people because you are supposed to prepare them for the workplace and make them attractive to the workplace…We need to create programmes to diversify or modify existing ones in order to meet diverse needs or tastes in a competitive market.

“We need to have creative writers and make our work relevant to our time. We have to control wrong use of stylistics in English else it will destroy English because English as a course should be relevant to the things we do professionally.”

Oha cited example with Ushie, who has interacted with culture by introducing two traditional dance groups.

“English Language in Nigeria today”, Oha said, “is divided against itself and this is not good. It is not enough to paraphrase foreign authors; we should be original… We should avoid stereotypes and students should be able to formulate their topics” and compete favourably in the society. He asked, “Do our products (graduates) get enough skills for the labour market? It is important that we overhaul our curriculum to see how they are relevant in the job market.”

Head of Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Professor Niyi Okunoye, presented ‘The Character and Makers of Third Generation Nigerian Poetry” while the lead paper ‘A Text of Words, Context of Battle: Joe Ushie as Literary Stylist and Social Crusader’ was presented by a professor of stylistics, Asomwan Sonnie Adagbonyin of Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Edo State.

One of the cultural groups, Litong Dance Group of Akorshi-Bendi in Obanliku Local Government Area, where Ushie hails from, thrilled the audience with an electrifying performance in a ceremony that attracted former speaker, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Mr. Bassey Essien, Mr. Enebong Abang from the Presidency, Chairman of Bendi community in Calabar, Mr. Jerry Ashipel, Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Calabar, Professor Godfrey Ozumba, National President of Association of Nigerian Authors, Malam Denga Abdullahi, Head of Department of English, University of Uyo, Dr. N. Udo, a former Commissioner for Finance, Cross River State, Elizabeth Adede and others.
 
The two-day birthday and academic celebration ended with a dinner at the University of Calabar Hotel, Calabar.


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