Professor Niyi Osundare

The event was billed as the last installment of the programme ‘Literary Crossroads Nigeria’ for the year 2017.

The moderator, who would guide the discussion with the guest, was Kunle Ajibade, himself an author, a notable activist, and a prominent journalist.

The Lagos traffic was all awry, and you were running late. The conversation was well into its stride by the time you reached the venue- the Goethe auditorium up on the fourth floor of City Hall, in the heart of the city.

The turnout was remarkable, given the fact that this was early evening on a working day in a city noted for its relentless bustle. There were writers and artists of various descriptions – mostly the young aspiring members of the burgeoning creative community eager to listen and engage with one of the icons of poetic expression in the African continent.

Niyi was a local man who had made good on the international literary scene, but remained demonstrably grounded in the Nigerian reality in his mien, and in the form and content of his work. Although the clipped accent and precise intonation betrayed the owner as a professor of English, he was an Ekiti-man in every movement, every gesture.

His passions ran over, and the reply to even the most cursory of question was apt to flow into other questions, other issues.

Something his interlocutor said set him off on the subject of African Slavery and the recent happenings in Libya.

In the past, he surmised, people came from elsewhere to cart Africans off into slavery, aided by other Africans.  The slaves were looking to escape their captors and return to their homeland.

Today young Africans are trying to escape from the failures and disappointments of their homeland…today we walk into slavery ourselves…’

It was a poignant observation from a master craftsman of the written, and spoken, word. In a brisk one-liner, it cut to the depth of a matter that was apt to be treated superficially and sentimentally by people of different persuasions, whether they pronounced themselves on the right or the left of the political divide that had riven the world of Politics and Letters, coming to a head in the resurgence of a virulent nationalism in the Western world that had given rise to Donald Trump in the USA, the Brexit movement in Great Britain, and the rise of the far right in places as disparate as Austria and Romania. The received wisdom underpinning the ‘One-World’ logic that gave rise to the United Nations, shored up by the World Liberalism of the ‘New Left’ was that human beings should be free to move across borders and continents, and had done so all through history. Where such persons were seeking to escape war or persecution, the obligation was especially compelling on the host not to close his borders but to welcome the refugees with open arms.

Of course this was 2017, and sadly the world had learned through grim experience that hidden in the midst of refugees fleeing war in Syria could be ‘sleeper’ ISIS terrorists just waiting for an opportune moment to blow up everybody in sight. The world had also got to see the trauma and social divisions that could be thrown up when a society tried to absorb and assimilate all at once a large number of people of different language, culture and appearance. The society itself, typified not by the leader but by the man on the street, began to fear that its very essence was being eroded and threatened with extinction. The fear of the foreigner became a sad fact that many were too ashamed to own up to publicly, but which over and over again began to be evident in the way they voted in elections.

And of course there was the sad fact that even more than war or the threat of persecution, people – mostly young, mostly African, were fleeing failed governments and blighted futures – from Zimbabwe, from Nigeria, from Eritrea, from Niger Republic.

The people who were dying in capsized boats in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, and more lately the people who were being sold and bought as merchandise by other human beings in Libya, were not fleeing from war. They were fleeing from life in a homeland they had given up on. That meant the liberal argument to simply open the borders and let them in could no longer be articulated with conviction by even the most compassionate ‘One-Worlders’. The prospect was raised that half of the population of a country in Africa could simply up and go, shifting base to Europe if they had the chance. The solution then, it became obvious, was not just open borders, but a concerted effort to find out what was wrong with the homeland that made its children want to ‘escape’ from it, and work out how to make the homeland right.

As the conversation got animated, the poet revealed that he had  a worry on account of young writers trying to write like notable Western poets. He gave the example of the recently deceased Richard Wilbur, whose style was the subject of much imitation.

In the process of talking about the need for young writers to find their authentic voice, rooted in their culture and background, he homed on one of his pet topics – how the rude intrusion of the Military into government in Nigeria had subverted Academia and destroyed Education.

‘…We are producing hordes of linguistic morons…’

As example he cited the reports of University graduates who could not construct a meaningful paragraph.

But he rallied. Tough as it was, there was still a place for Hope.

‘…Our sleep is not death…

He made a plea to every would-be writer to deliberately seek a deep knowledge of his indigenous culture and living situation before setting out.

He recounted how a commentator at a Poetry reading in a Scandinavian country had asked him in frank bemusement why he had chosen to devote a whole poem to – Water.

The question, he had replied his questioner, showed the gulf in the living reality of the writer and his questioner. Had he – the questioner, ever walked five miles to a stream to fetch water and carry it in a pot on his head for the family’s use? Had he ever opened a solitary tap that was meant to dispense water to his household, only to have a thick brown fluid issuing from the tap? The questioner had shaken his head.

Well, said Osundare triumphantly, recounting the encounter, that was why he wrote the poem about Water.

He went on to read a poem from his Berlin 1884-85 collection.

The rationale of the collection, and the date in question, was that this was the time the European powers were parceling up Africa and creating the problems of artificial, sometimes unviable nation-states that would haunt the African person and the African continent to this day.

Our man, you decided, was an incurable optimist, despite the darkness of his portrayal of extant reality.

‘…I am old enough to remember when Nigeria was a better country…and Africa was a better continent…’

The unstated rider was that ‘better times’ could yet come again, and perhaps be etched into a permanent template for progress and social development this time round.

There were snippets of past horror experienced in the dark days of General Abacha’s murderous dictatorship.

‘…Two people came to me on the University campus where I worked after I wrote a poem to mark one year of – and here he gestured towards his interviewer – KunleAjibade’s incarceration.

He was obviously talking about members of the dreaded ‘State Security Service’.

Referring to the text of his poem, they questioned him

Who is ‘the goggled fiend’?’

His answer, in as much as he could explain it to his audience, was that ‘it’ was a fiend in goggles, no resemblance to anybody in particular.

On a positive note, he recounted the deep admiration with which he had sat, for three and half hours, to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. In those hours, the literati of Great Britain told the story of their land from its ancient roots to its modern day, culminating in the spectacle of  James Bond 007 and a look- alike Queen Elizabeth parachuting into the arena to get the Games going.

‘…They called Culture into service,

and Culture answered them…

Demonstrating his attitude as promoter of youthful talent, he described how on his last trip to Lagos, he had acquired a copy of Dami Ajayi’s new book  of poems ‘A Woman’s Body Is A Country’. He had introduced the book to a class he taught in his American University, and his students had been excited, wanting to have copies.

Questions.

Answers.

Friendly banter.

It was time to go.