Niyi Osundare at Literary Crossroads in Lagos Sings of Change

Professor Osundare, right, and Ajibade, left

Temitope Adeiye

The last edition of Literary Crossroads for the year held at the Goethe Institut Lagos on Friday, December 15, 2017. Professor Niyi Osundare and Mr. Kunle Ajibade were the guests at the event. It was attended by Friederike Moschel, director of the Institut, well-known actress, Taiwo Ajayi Lycett, Toyin Akinosho, Jahman Anikulapo, Segun Adefila, Ugoma Adegoke, Akeem Lasisi, Aduke Gomez, Dami Ajayi, and academics such as Dr. Chris Anyokwu and Dr. Lola Akande of the department of English, UNILAG, among many others.

Safurat Balogun, Head of Information and Library at the Institut, anchored the event. She began by welcoming everyone present before handing over the microphone to Mr. Kunle Ajibade.
Mr. Ajibade announced: ‘’To echo a Christian song, this evening poetry will be the master-key at this event; we shall start with poetry and end with poetry.’’ He then read out the titles of some of the poems that he had selected for the poet laureate to read. Osundare began with reading ‘I Wake Up this Morning’ from ‘’Village Voices’’. The event was also the first public reading of Osundare’s 2017 collection of poems, “If the Road Could Talk.’’

Nothing on earth could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence of Osundare reading his work. Nothing. He started by singing a song that I had only previously heard on a KWAM 1 record. The song was a call -and -response format and the response is “Agbamurere”. He started the reading of ‘‘I Wake Up this Morning’’ with that song.

“The day has woken from a night of sleep
Time for the spinner to spin the spindle
The day has woken
Time for the smith to fan smiling coals
Into hissing steel”

He ended the poem with the song again ‘kiriji kiriji kenke ri ke. Agbamu rere.
This is a poem that was written in 1982, almost a decade before I was born. He then proceeded to read ‘I Sing of Change’, a poem he wrote in 1979 after his return from Canada upon the completion of his PhD.

Again, he started the poem with a popular song that I had enjoyed before,
‘E se e re ko dara
E se re ko dara o
Eyin t’aye kan. E se aye ire’

After reading the poem, Mr. Ajibade asked: ‘’You are one of the most accomplished and famous members of the progressive and radical generation of writers after the Achebe–Soyinka –Clark generation. What was the context of your radicalisation? How did you rise to the challenge posed by the generation before you? In what ways were you inspired by that generation? How did you dissent differently from it?’’ Osundare prefaced his response with Frantz Fanon’s quote, ‘’Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.’’ Every generation, he said, must look at what it has inherited and then think of what to do with it.

“Does anybody want to ask me how much respect I have for Chinua Achebe and how influenced I am by him? I said it to his face when he was alive. Each time I told him ‘thank you for writing ‘’Things Fall Apart’’ or I would not have been a poet or I probably would have been a different poet’’ he would say ‘‘but that is fiction, that’s a novel’’ I then told him ‘‘but yes, looking at the style and pattern, you did something with the English Language which we didn’t know was possible. Achebe, Soyinka, JP Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, we had them all.”

He spoke of how his set at Amoye Grammar School ,Ikere Ekiti, was a rebellious one; the set had gone to their principal, Mr. Adeniran to tell him that they had been studying British history but that they wanted to learn African history. They said they wanted to study African history and African Literature. The first question the man asked was ‘’who is going to teach you?’’, a very valid question as African Literature as we know it today didn’t exist at the time and African history was even more absent. The principal permitted the students to study what they wanted, warning them that they were on their own.

Osundare and his colleagues studied African history on their own. They got books from different places, compared notes with other schools all around and discovered the Ashanti empire, the empire of Mali. The empire of Songhai, the Zulu, the Benin kingdom, opening their eyes to a different perspective on Africa and her history,

“I will never stop thanking the kind of classmates I had and the kind of accommodating principal we had. That has shaped my life too because I was able to discover that contrary to all the racist things we had been reading ‘‘Africa had no culture, had no language, no history’’ we discovered the richness of our culture. Then we discovered our history. This is how the radicalization began. There is nothing more important than knowledge and education in this world. Our eyes opened and I will never forget the foundation I had at Amoye Grammar School.”

The poet laureate said that he found his political mooring in York University, Toronto, at the time he was a graduate student (1976-1979) when the roaring 60s had ended but the echoes were still around. He had previously attended universities of Ibadan and Leeds.

After learning more about the world and coming back to Nigeria to teach, after looking at the syllabus, he began to reexamine and reassessing the books by the first generation of Nigerian writers. “And then I asked myself, how come virtually everybody in Wole Soyinka’s ‘’The Interpreters’’ were middle class? What about the cobblers who mended their shoes? What about the tailors who sewed their clothes? What about the farmers who produced the food they ate? When Achebe said Umuofia had made progress, there were now sales stalls and so on, and articles that had been taken for granted in the past had become articles of great trade, I was wondering, why didn’t Achebe tell us about what happened to those products when they had left us? How much the producers were paid, the differential between what they were paid and what they really cost?”

“That is to say they did not really problematize our African issues enough in the works that we read. I was also reading Marxist Literature. As an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, I never heard the word Karl Marx once. I discovered a lot in Karl Marx. Frederick Engels and so on as well as the Marxist approach to Literature and the sociology of Literature. Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre etc. I combined all this with the wisdom that I saw around me and I said it is possible to be a different writer”

“We respect the first generation of writers, surely, but they all operated within the cultural and epistemological milieu in their time. Ours was a little different. I read Soyinka’s ‘’The Road’’ then I read ‘Idanre and other poems’. They were tough. Idanre and other poems, tough. I said ‘‘isn’t it possible to say this in a simpler and equally effective way?’’ JP Clark had given us some poems that actually led us effortlessly through the channels of communicability, that it is possible to really think in a way that is easily understood by others.”

“So the first poem in ‘’Songs of the Marketplace’’, ‘Poetry Is…’ is a meta criticism of the very difficult poetry before it. Poetry is not something that is hidden away. African Literature provides us so many examples. Poetry of the streets. Our problem in Africa is that we have always left what is ours, disdained it and dispossess it of all value and then hunger for something that is out there. A poem is not a poem until it is shared and the hard and fast mechanical distinction they make between song and poetry does not exist in most African languages that I know. In Yoruba, you don’t say I’m going to read poetry, you say I’m going to chant poetry.”

“Our generation saw this and we said revolution in two ways. Revolution in the subject we have to deal with. We have to move closer to the people who really suffer. Two, we can’t do this unless we speak in the language our people will understand.”

I have always thought that music is poetry and that music is another genre of Literature. Most of the Yoruba panegyrics and praise songs I know, I learnt from music as traditional musicians infuse it in their lyrics. Hearing Osundare himself say that there can be no hard and fast differentiation between music and poetry validates something I have long believed.

Mr. Ajibade quoted from the preface to ‘’Midlife’’ which Osundare wrote in 1989: “The world I see is bent. I am mode and medium for its straightening” and then asked the poet laureate to describe today’s world that is obviously bent and how writers, philosophers and other humanists can help to straighten this world that is so contemptuous of the elite.

Osundare replied, “If I were to write now, I don’t know whether I’d write it exactly the same way. There is something heady, something almost overconfident about that statement, but also something visionary and positive. I ask myself ‘’who are you to think you’re going to change the world?’’ I think it is human to ask those questions but we must never leave them there because of the trope of possibility. Is it possible? Societies don’t change in one day. I am a student of History and I know that. It has always taken a vanguard of people who think and are able to project these ideas to people to move society to change.”

“When we talk about the French revolution we say it began in 1789 but no. The French revolution began 200-300 years before then with great writers like Jean Jacques Rousseau.
“People read those things and gradually began to absorb them. What we saw in 1789 was an outburst, it was when everything had boiled over and the boil had ripened and it was about to burst. If a revolution is not prepared for, it will claim its own children, it won’t succeed. It takes a vanguard of people; this is why writing is so important. This is why education is so important. Education makes people easy to lead but impossible to enslave.”

“When I was working on ‘’Midlife’’ I was asking myself, ‘’how old is our world? What have I done in these 40 years? Am I looking forward to the next 40 years? I looked around me, particularly our country Nigeria, our continent Africa, suffering, suffering all the time and at times we manage to smile even as we’re suffering. I was asking, ‘’isn’t it possible to lead differently? To live more qualitatively?’’ All those things were in my mind when I did the collection. One of my favourite poets, Pablo Neruda, said ‘’I made a solemn pledge to myself that the people will find their voices in my song.” It is the kind of pledge I have made to myself too.

“People say don’t mind them, what are they writing? Nobody reads. It is a lie. People read in this country. Our world would have been different if we had not been writing, if we had not been shouting.”

Osundare said that so many things are happening in our world today that he never thought would happen again. He also said the the rise of Donald Trump must be taken very seriously by everyone in the world. ‘’Hitler did not happen by accident; neither did Idi Amin or Mussolini or Abacha. At the Holocaust museum, the poet asks himself if one man could have done all this. I used to be despaired but now I am passed the stage of despair, I have come to the stage of challenge. Whether the world is right and just, it is we who know, we are responsible for it. If this world is crooked and wicked, it is also our responsibility”

‘’Regardless of race or gender, we have to take our fate in our hands. Prof Osundare says the problem he has with us Nigerians as a people is that we are too indolent; any fool will rule us. We are also used to adjusting to problems. It is why Fela sang shuffering and shmiling.’’
On the removal of History from the school curriculum by the government, Mr. Ajibade asked: In your collection, ‘’Horses of Memory,’’ which is a riveting celebration of remembrances and memories, you write that ‘’We shall look History in the face, probe every pore of its shadows, thresh its depths for nomadic grains. Interrogate its silences’’ How can a large number of our people who don’t know the eloquence of our history know the silences of that history?”

Professor Osundare, standing and Ajibade

The Professor replied that a people without memory are worse than the husk of sugarcane spread out after all the juice has been sucked from it. The reason the government took out History from the curriculum is because of the illiteracy of the people who rule us and because they do not have any values.

He recalled sometime in the late 80s when the German president visited Nigeria and asked to meet with the men and women of intellect and creativity. He and Professor Odejide of Language Arts represented the academia/Literature and they had stimulating discussions on Literature with the then German president. He had hoped that someday, we will have a president like that in Nigeria. Sadly, that day is yet to come.

If we had leaders who read, it would take them many thoughts before they put writers in jail because they know the value of the human mind. “We are ruled by illiterates”, Professor Osundare lamented. These illiterates have surrounded themselves with fellow illiterates and favoured them. When a man or woman of intellect moves close to them, they will do all within their power to frustrate and push him/her away.

“When you got to Senegal today, you will know that once upon a time, a poet was the president. If you go to Ghana, you’ll know that once upon a time, a cerebral leader was there. Education is very important. We are this way because the people who rule us don’t know the value of education.”

“The university system in Nigeria started crashing with the coming of the military. They didn’t like the university because the university people were too independent and uncontrollable. They started withdrawing funds so much so that people became hungry and many people left their desks to look for work with the soldiers and that’s where everything started crumbling.”

“we are more illiterate now than we were 50 years ago. Nigeria has hundreds of universities now but we are more illiterate than we are when we had one university or four or six. Government has supervised the decimation of education in our county. It is not their priority. Stealing money and corruption is. So what does it matter to them to take history out of the curriculum. Common sense is very far from those who rule us and the will to resistance is also far from those of us they rule”

“I used to think like Achebe that the problem with Nigeria is squarely that of leadership. That was long ago. Now it’s 50-50. We the ruled also have our faults.”
On the state of Nigerian Literature, the professor said it’s a mixed bag, a lot is happening and people are writing. He recalled spending hours to end a 16-line poem because electricity went out and then he used a hurricane lamp but had to switch to a torch because of the fumes from the lamp. The torch battery soon ran out and he continued with a candle. Eventually, he had to wait till morning. When you go through something like this, inspiration gets lost.
“The most difficult thing to do in this country today is to think. Our country makes it difficult for you to think, to stand and stare. Writing is difficult, it doesn’t get easier. It’s not like riding a bicycle. Every work you create, creates its own problem which you have to solve in its own characteristic way.”

L-R: Friederike Moschel, director of the Institut, Kunle Ajibade, Safurat Balogun, Head of Information and Library and Professor Osundare

There is also noise pollution from houses of worship. He said that we are yet to achieve the status of a country that encourages creativity, reflectiveness and meditation. “We are too loud and too perfunctory and too inconsiderate.
He said that Nigerian Literature is buoyant and that so many poems are being written which is a good thing. The quality, however, might be a problem. So many books are pushed out before they are ripe and ready.

Giving advice to young writers, Professor Osundare said, “You should be the first critic of yourselves. Be charitable too. There is a cancer among artistes and that is jealousy. When we were criticizing the Soyinka, Achebe and Clark generation, we weren’t doing that because we wanted to shoot them down so we could take their place. The sky is wide enough for a thousand birds to fly.”

“What I see in a lot of young writers is an attempt to run away from Africa and to write like Americans and Europeans so they can get their books published there. Our culture, which is so rich has been unable to sustain creativity. This is affecting our younger writers. They have lost faith in Africa, they have lost faith in Nigeria. Nobody dare blame them but I want to advise them: There is usually a day beyond today. Our sleep is not death.”

Again, the poet laureate read his work ‘’Berlin 1884/1885’’. A poem based on the Berlin conference where European superpowers took a knife to the map of Africa, and divided it amongst themselves. ‘’I studied History in Secondary School and the three topics that simultaneously annoyed and saddened me to no end are the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Berlin Conference and Colonialism.’’

The poem was written after the poet had visited Germany and seen a bit of the country including the home of Bertolt Brecht, one of his favourite writers. He also remembers answering a question on the scramble for Africa in his School Certificate examination in 1966.
‘’Why is Africa the way it is today? Save for Ethiopia, all the countries are creations of colonialists. It’s how the Niger area became Nigeria, surrounded by Francophone countries. “Geography is the first cousin of History. We don’t have to only talk about WHEN, it is also important to talk about WHERE. Africa is the way it is because all our countries are artificial.”

It was a wonderful evening of intense literary and intellectually stimulating conversation. Professor Osundare is a great conversationalist, so time flew by with the audience just content to listen. I’m certain it would be very difficult to find another edition of Literary Crossroads that will top this one in terms of quality.

The event drew to a final close with Safurat Balogun giving the vote of thanks and acknowledging everyone in attendance as well as their partners such as Bookbuzz Foundation, Saraba Magazine, Classic FM and others.