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Odia Ofeimun… An ode to the bard at 70

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Odia Ofeimun.

“At four, I was already in primary school,” he smiled, as he waited for the tape to roll. He was all-eager to go to school. His maternal grandfather, a cocoa merchant, was even ready to pick up the bills for his little boy to start scribbling words on the slate. The old man was a lover of education, but he was not lettered. The old man had native intelligence, which he applied to issues. However, when the new free education of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was to start, Odia Ofeimun was one of the few that couldn’t make it. He was weeded out because his right hand couldn’t touch his left ear.

“That was the most horrifying moment for me,” the writer said. “When you’re the only person in the compound and having to wait for your playmates to come back from school… you know when you have just old women as a company.”

But those harrowing years made the poet and polemicist more determined to acquire education, more importantly, he had a teacher Ado Imoisili, who was going about ‘doing good’ to the pupil’s buttocks for failing to answer his questions. He was very determined to preserve his buttocks from getting Imoisili’s daily dose of the cane. He was equally ready to carve a niche for himself as an authority.

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“All I can tell you is that, very early in my life, before I was 12 years old, I had made up my mind that I was going to be a writer, and I have managed to be almost the kind of writer I wanted to be. I have not quite finished and I hope I will have enough time to finish. I mean, not quite finished in the sense that there were other things I always wanted to do as a writer,” the poet said.

Born March 16, 1950, the author of many volumes of poetry, books of political essays and on cultural politics, and the editor of significant two anthologies of Nigerian poetry will be treated to grand intellection, as he clocks 70 years. It will be a gathering of intellectuals, scholars and academics from within Nigeria, Africa and as wide as from North America and Europe.

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Themed Taking Nigeria Seriously: A Conference in Honour of Odia Ofeimun, the symposium holds at the Julius Berger Hall, University of Lagos. The conference’s opening ceremony holds at 10:00 am. The keynote will be given by Professor Biodun Jeyifo, a reputed literary scholar and globally recognised cultural theorist, who until recently was with Harvard University in the United States of America.

Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, the Minister of Interior of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, will chair the opening. The celebrations will end with a Special Dinner in honour of the celebrant on the evening of March 17 at the Hall of the University of Lagos Guest House. Renowned civil rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Olisa Agbakoba, will chair the dinner.

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The Iruekpen, Edo State-born has been widely anthologised and translated and he has read and performed his poetry internationally. He worked as a news reporter, factory labourer and civil servant before studying Political Science at the University of Ibadan, where his poetry won first prize in the University Competition of 1975. That year his work appeared in the anthology Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka.

“Poetry gave me my first job.”

You wonder how?

As a secondary school dropout, there was no job he could easily do. He was there in his uncle house combing the entire city of Benin and pretending to be looking for a job. But he was more comfortable reading up materials In the Central Library and the British Council Library.

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Reading was he love and affair he has maintained till date. The avalanche of books in his shelf would make you think that you have missed your road when you get to his house. “I wanted to do a solid work of philosophy that will stand up to much of what I have read in the European philosophy, and I wanted to do autobiography that would explain how I navigated the waters of a very badly managed country.”

Ofeimun, who also worked as an administrative officer in the Federal Public Service Commission, as a teacher, as private (political) secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria, and as a member of the editorial board of The Guardian Newspapers in Lagos, still revere his encounter with the stage.

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“Awolowo was an important energiser and a way into the future. He will never stop being that. Because he held onto the most important things in the life of another developed society wishing to become developed,” he said.

He added, “I strongly believed that if we read Awolowo well and stop all the biases into the knowledge of our leaders, we would see that there was no problem we face that he never applied his mind to. He applied his mind in a very scientific manner.”

Ofeimun studied at Oxford University on a Commonwealth fellowship. Returning to Nigeria at the annulment of the 1993 election, he wrote columns for The Guardian On Sunday, the Nigerian Tribune, as well as contributing to many other newspapers. He was chairman of the editorial board of the defunct daily, A.M. News, as well as The News and Tempo magazines.

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Ofeimun is passionate about Nigeria. To him, there are very few countries in the world that can match Nigeria in terms of what the environment provides for rethinking ways of matching other civilisations. “It is not because I’m a Nigerian if you look at the way Nigeria is structured; it is structured like a combination of all African countries,” he said.

According to him, “this is not a country we are going to push over, it won’t happen, no matter, which powers try it. The almost intractable pattern of diversities you have across Nigeria is essentially part of what has protected us so far. We are a divided people, so it looks on the surface, but as I am going to argue in a book you are going to see on my birthday, all that diversity, all that distracted information around us, they are what makes creativity and the way Nigerians do things. We just need to firm up a corps, a Centre, not to direct, but indicate directions.”

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Ofeimun was publicity secretary (1982 to 84), general secretary (1984 to 88) and president (1993 to 97) of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). He was also designated advisor to PEN Nigeria Centre and is a founding member of the Pan African Writers’ Association.

He is, however, not happy with the present situation in ANA. He believes that the injury is self-inflicted. “We needed to go back to where we actually started in order to reconsider our grounds and in order to know that we have misled ourselves. The important way to look at it is this — we started as a very small organisation. The numbers of writers in the country were few and we knew ourselves,” he said.

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People who are not real writers or properly published now populate the body. He said in the past, “if you walked into a company of writers, you knew you were in their company and we tended to respect our zest more, but then, we wanted to expand, we wanted new people to become poets, we were helping others to become better writers than they could have been, and therefore, I wouldn’t say we relaxed but most of the people who were moving into the organisation did not acquire the discipline required of the literary arts and so thought literature could just be treated like any other area of life in the country.”

Ofeimun is the author of more than 40 works. His published collections of poetry include The Poet Lied (1980), A Handle for The Flutist (1986), Dreams At Work and London Letter and Other Poems (2000). His poems for a dance drama, Under African Skies (1990) and Siye Goli – A Feast of Return (1992), were commissioned and performed across the UK and Western Europe by Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble in the early 1990s, and his most recent poem for a dance drama, Nigeria The Beautiful, has been staged through major Nigerian cities to wide acclaim.

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In 2010, Odia Ofeimun won the Fonlon Nichols award for excellence in writing and human rights activism. He is an exemplary man in many respects and his contributions to Nigeria letters and ideas as well as public life make him richly deserving of such an honour.

For the poet, who will ask questions with stones if they take his voice, it is 70 gbosas for a life of letters, struggles and activism.

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