By Sunny Awhefeada
“Farmer born peasant bred,” Isaac Oluwaniyi Osundare clocked three score and ten on March 12, 2017. He attained global limelight through the rigour of intellectual labour and an exceptionally profound creative gift, which is manifested in his poetry. His profile as a human being, teacher, scholar, poet and public intellectual is ennobling. His has been an infectious life, inspiring the young and the old alike.
Born on 12 March 1947 at Ikerre-Ekiti, Osundare grew up in an agrarian setting where life was poetry. The hills of Ikerre, the rivers, the lush green flora, the fauna, and even his family engagements as represented by his parents resonated with a kind of poetry that permeated the family DNA. It was in that ambience of earthy and folkloric existence where everything including the air exuded poetry that Osundare grew up.
As Osundare turns 70, he definitely would look back, smile and let his heart glow and then shed tears for Nigeria, the country he loves. Yes, he would smile remembering his parents, growing up and the many paths and possibilities that opened before him. He would smile and grin remembering his alma mater, the University of Ibadan which not only gave him a degree and a profession, but also gave him his soul mate and wife, the then Miss Adekemi, a woman with an infinitely beautiful heart. Yes, he would smile and grin thinking of Moyo (Biggest Mo), Tola and Bayonle, their children.
Osundare would then blink again and again and shed tears for Nigeria and Africa, a country and a continent, that refuse to grow to fulfill their manifest destiny. Nigeria, and to a great extent Africa, remains the subject matter of Osundare’s poetry and interventions, as a public intellectual who held sway on the pages of West Africa and Newswatch magazines. Osundare’s poetry carries the burden of Nigeria’s perennial underdevelopment. However, his creative tentacles did not leave out Africa in his poetic articulation. He has had cause to interrogate the fate of the continent in many a verse.
Osundare’s engagement with Nigeria brims with an uncommon patriotic gusto. His worries are boldly inscribed and rendered in a tone that is as strident and searing. Nigeria’s lot of bad leadership and associated ills, socio-economic malaise and the ever worsening condition of the masses constitute the anchors of Osundare’s aesthetically sublime poetry. The same preoccupation fills the journalistic columns he penned for West Africa and Newswatch for many decades.
Many readers and critics consider Osundare as a revolutionary. The rebellious streak in his poetry tallies with his allegiance to Marxism as an ideology that best suited his proletariat sympathy. His identification with the masses is woven around the dialectics of struggle, which will ultimately be resolved in favour of the downtrodden. His denunciation of bad leadership and malfeasance is reinforced by his undying hope that the people will in the end retrieve their country. His poetic output, which includes Songs of the Marketplace, Village Voices, The Eye of the Earth, etc, can be read as a poetic configuration of Nigeria’s and Africa’s history. The critical reckoning of Nigerian literature ascribes to Osundare the evolution of the poetic creed of a new wave of poetry in Nigeria in the early 1980s. This is in addition to his fostering the newspaper/tabloid poetry tradition on the pages of the Ibadan based newspaper, Sunday Tribune.
While writing for West Africa and Newswatch, Osundare cut the picture of a patriot angry with the nation and continent. The essays in both magazines are central to understanding the praxis of Osundare’s poetry as they navigate similar concerns aimed at remedying the Nigerian project. Osundare considers his journalistic enterprise as a dialogue with his country. Those essays still speak to Nigeria and Nigerians as they did when they were written decades ago.
Osundare taught for many years at his alma mater, the University of Ibadan from where he graduated in 1972. Upon graduation from Ibadan, he proceeded to Leeds University in the United Kingdom for an MA, which he obtained in 1974. He began teaching at Ibadan and then proceeded again, this time, to York University, Toronto, Canada for a PhD, which he clinched in 1979. Back again to Ibadan, he settled down to life, as a university don and rose to become a professor and Head, Department of English of that famous university. His former students remember his classes for the lucidity of delivery, clearness of thought, scholarly content and the many political and civic lessons he infused into his lectures. Beyond the classroom, Osundare has been very constant in the public lecture circuits, nationally and internationally, as a most informed and authoritative speaker interrogating Nigeria, Africa, poetry, politics, culture and life.
His assiduity has been rewarded by other scholars who have made his poetry and life a subject of academic research. He has also received multiple awards including prizes, honorary doctorates, the most recent being from his beloved alma mater. He is a recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit. Osundare exited Nigeria in the nightmare hour of the nation in 1997 and settled down at the University of New Orleans in the United States of America. However, his magical poetry and even more magical presence did not take leave of Nigeria. He is probably the most studied poet in Nigeria today. As he turns 70, his long time friend whom he once described as ‘the fertile minded don from Ife,’ Professor G. G. Darah, myself and Emmanuel Oritsema Ikomi are bent over as the latter researches to earn a PhD in literature based on Osundare’s poetry. Surely, the critical dialogue with Osundare, Nigeria and Africa shall continue beyond 70 for as long as life endures! Once again, from Abraka, sends 70 gbosaaa…. for Professor Niyi Osundare as he turns 70!
• Awhefeada teaches literature at the Delta State University, Abraka.