Archive for the ‘Nigerian arts and culture’ Category

Tongues wag – in mother tongue – at Amb. Tinubu’s investiture

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos, on Wednesday, March 5, 2008 

  

Yoruba language on parade

 At the formal investiture of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the National Ambassador for the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC), prominent Yoruba leaders came out displaying different communication skills in their mother tongue as reports Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE 

My speech was prepared in Yoruba considering the nature of this gathering. But the earlier speaker spoke in English. So I have just begun translating the speech into English. I hope you will help me.”

As the audience shouted their disapproval of such a move encouraging the speaker to deliver his address in Yoruba, the atmosphere was filled with gaiety one hardly expects from boardroom players.

The speaker was Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas who was the chairman at the occasion of the investiture of former Lagos State Governor and AC chieftain Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the National Ambassador for the forthcoming World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC). It held at the MUSON Centre last Sunday.

At an event put together for the promotion of Yoruba culture and language, it was just appropriate that people spoke in Yoruba. That was it. These were men we hardly ever saw speaking the language.

Professionals, business tycoons, academics, politicians, traditional rulers, entertainers… from all walks of life Yoruba leaders gathered to honour Tinubu. Even the part of the tribe in Benin Republic sent the Alajase of Ajase-Ile, Porto Novo to represent them.

Well the chairman finally gave his speech in Yoruba. But such expressions as describing Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) as an “excellent student” the Asiwaju as an “excellent professor” just did not come out in the mother tongue. Ditto his description of Tinubu as governor emeritus.

It was quite refreshing to see the topmost industrialist communicate effectively in the native tongue. The image of westernised corporate player might be a myth after all.

Just wait. Next in line was a “young man.”

Iwure, all who know will agree, is no business for the young in Yoruba land. It is special prayer that is more or less divine pronouncement. So, when former governor of Western Region retired General Adeyinka Adebayo was picked to perform the duty, organisers of WOFEYAC, Alaroye publishers led by Alao Adedayo, must have assumed they made the right choice.

The general who turns 80 next Sunday did not agree with them.

Iwure, is for elders not young ones like me,” he said drawing roaring laughter.

Anyway he prayed and no doubt the ancestors were listening.

Now away from one of our elders speaking the language laced with proverbs and other forms of expressions that are the jewelleries of Yoruba language. The next person to pick the microphone was one of the ivory tower. I mean a professor can speak Yoruba but it is usually laced with sprinklings of English language. Not the Director of Centre for Black and African Arts and Culture Professor Tunde Babawale.

If there was a competition in the use of Yoruba last Sunday, Prof. Babawale would probably win the prize. He spoke in sonorous Yoruba that makes one wonder when to expect his music album in the marked. The simple task of introducing Governor Fashola to unveil the WOFEYAC calendar turned into an exceptional display of Yoruba language skill with him. Whoever recommended him for his present position had good counsel.

If the prof. was qualify for lifting the trophy of use of language, Governor Fashola would not just him still the show. Far from the Latin-studded bamboozlement of the court room, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria came out smoking hot a Senior Advocate of Yoruba Language Usage. His smooth Yoruba flew effortlessly without his needing to retrieve English words that had found their ways into his short speech.

But there was a problem. The Governor had been called upon to unveil the calendar.

“I was just asking my egbon the honourable a question,” Fashola said addressing the audience. “The question is, how do you say ‘calendar’ in Yoruba language?”

Beyond the laughter he drew not a few left with the poser in mind. Maybe a word will be invented to cater for the need.

Meanwhile party stalwarts decked in the green T-shirts of the AC kept interrupting the governor by singing his praises.

“They are already spoiling for another election,” the governor joked. “Of course if one is coming up tonight we are ready.”

Recalling that Chief Okoya-Thomas had earlier said that Fashola’s term is an eight-year term, if Alausa is anybody’s target, he might have to wait till 2015!

You can bet the mood of the gathering changed when Asiwaju Tinubu stepped out to be decorated. From his sure gait, whoever calls him ato-fi’se-ogun-ran, he who can be sent to the battle front, did not make any mistake. Okanlomo of the Universe – a most outstanding son – was among the unofficial titles with which people hailed him.

When the time came for him to give his acceptance speech, the good old sing song Tinubu captivating oration came to the fore. While remembering to appeal to the Ndigbo and the Hausa community present to pardon his speaking in Yoruba the Ambassador reeled out Yoruba expression in impressive intonation.

Before it was over however, he reverted to English. There are some things that one would rather express in English. After all, what is the Yoruba word for “calendar”?

It was a fun-filled evening during which the glory and beauty of Yoruba language and culture took the centre stage. At the main WOFEYAC event in April, one wonders what it would be like.

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Life’s a party

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos, on WednesdayMarch 12, 2008. Poeple know him more in the sports arena than in any other area. He was a civil servant till he retired at the age of 60. Art is his passion. But Chief Frank Okonta believes…

Chief Frank Okonta is better known as a sports administrator than a public officer. What is less known about him is that he is a man who takes life as one long leisure cruise. He is also an arts addict whose collection is one of the most enviable in Nigeria. Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE learnt much about him in the hours they spent together at his home and galleryokonta-2.jpgokonta-4.jpgokonta-1.jpgokonta-5.jpg With wife, Patience

He’d rather be called Frank Okonta without the complication of a “chief”. So do not expect him to tell you where he bagged the chieftaincy title. But that is just one of the many things Chief Frank Chukwuma Okonta himself cannot define about himself.

Where was he born? This is a question that is as difficult for him to answer as what he did with eight years of his life in Europe. Don’t even bother asking him where he grew up.

“My mother told me,” he responded to the question about his place of birth, “that when she was eight months pregnant, my father sent her to the village to deliver. A month after I was born, she returned to Lagos where my father was based then.”

Thus Frank Okonta was born in Lagos, although the delivery took place at Ibuzo, his parents’ hometown. By the time he was old enough to begin primary school, his medical officer father had been transferred and he started his educational pursuit in Bauchi. His father, who was a nurse/dispenser, was again moved and he finally completed his primary education at Jos thereby earning the nomenclature “Dan Jos”. By the time he was entering secondary school, his parents were on their way back to Lagos where they were when he was born. Although he went to secondary school in Kaduna, he traces his living in Lagos back to those days.

“I attended St. John’s College in Kaduna,” Okonta told The Nation.

He spoke about his college days with uncommon enthusiasm. But that is the way he speaks about everything. He never believes in any negativity in life. To him, all developments contribute to the building of the whole man.

“Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was our PT captain,” he recalled. “Even then we used to call him ‘major’. He would go into the houses to ensure that all students come out for sporting activities. In fact, sports was so much active at St. John’s College that no student participated in less than three sports.”

If the sharp reporter goes to Chief Frank Okonta’s Frank Okonta Close residence at UPDC Estate at Lekki in Lagos, he would be wrong to come armed with a recorder to tape a one hour interview. This writer did not make that mistake and his gamble paid off. The appointment was scheduled for 2 pm. But considering the notorious Lekki traffic, early start guaranteed this writer got to his house before one o’clock.

What should have been a one-hour engagement did not end till more than four hours later. From his residence to his gallery, Frank Okonta chatted like an old friend. The age gap was no barrier for him at all. He spoke on different subjects with equal enthusiasm. Here is someone who loves life and does not care to hide it.

Born on August 3, 1939, Frank Okonta’s father wanted his son to follow him into the medical field. After leaving secondary school Frank’s love for the media world led him to the Radio School between 1959 and 1960. Thereafter the father thought it was time for his son to pursue a “real career”. In 1961 he was sent to England to pursue studies in the medical field. His elder sister who ended up with a glorious career in the medical field was already out there building herself up in the same field. So the second born being the first son of the family was expected to better the father’s career success.

It took the whole of between two and three years for Frank Okonta to turn his back on the stethoscope and scalpel. He had finally made up his mind that the world of television production and documentary films would suit him better.

He proceeded to attend a television and film school in England and thereafter launched into a life that the average parent would not want to discuss with his relatives and friends.

“I lived more or less as a hippy in those days,” Frank Okonta said. “I had a very, very good time.”

He did not bother to pick up any regular job. Instead, he made contributions to British Broadcasting Corporation and the Office of Information among other media houses. He travelled all over Europe generally having fun. In the process he took time to take a course in Political History at Oxford College of Technology. Although it might not appear in his CV, he also made his first forage into the high-tide world of marriage.

“I made a mistake,” Frank Okonta said in his usual jocular manner. “I thought love should be the sole basis for marriage. Love is one of the basis for marriage but it is not enough. There are other factors that must be considered.”

When he speaks about his wife Patience, whom he married much later, there is no doubt that he has made a greatly successful comeback.

“I deeply pity those who do not have happy homes,” he said. “If a man is not happy in his marriage, it is a great problem. I thank God for the woman I married. She has been such a great source of joy for me in life.”

Okonta’s first marriage was not without any blessing anyway. It produced a daughter, Nkem who became an artist. Okonta’s gallery at Lekki was named after her. As it happened, she died of cancer a few years ago. His second marriage has produced children who are doing well in their different fields.

By the time Okonta returned to Nigeria towards the end of 1972 he showed no interest in picking up a regular job. He spent a year with the Midwest TV producing a programme on farming. Then he moved on to join Tam Fiofori at Sunart Production to produce a documentary of the Rivers State people.

Recalling his days at Midwest TV, Okonta said he used to travel to Lagos every week to process his films. Sometimes, according to him, he would leave Lagos at eight pm to head back to Benin.

“Crime rate was low then,” Okonta said. “You know I have been living in Lagos for much of my adult life. Even while I was schooling in Kaduna I spent all my holidays in Lagos because my parents were in Lagos. My father was in the civil service while my mother was a successful business woman. She built quite some houses in Lagos here. I still have a place at one of houses and my brother lives there.”

To him, the freewheeling life of travelling around shooting documentaries was fun enough. The security of paid job with hope of retirement package simply did not appeal to Okonta. For him, his beer, wine, champagne, cigarette and later cigar were all that made the world go round. The night clubs where life bands played and sporting events were enough fun.

Frank Okonta’s love for sports had taken roots before he left St. John’s College, Kaduna. He recalled how he and his brothers would walk from their Ebute Meta residence to King George V Stadium, now Onikan Stadium to watch football matches.

“Lagos was much safer then,” he recalled. “Life was much sober. Whenever one walked down the road, there was no apprehension that someone might be out there waiting to snatch your bag or car. We moved around freely at all times.”

By the time the one-year project of documenting the people of Rivers State was completed, Frank Okonta moved on to another temporary engagement. This time around, he worked with Prof. Nwachi of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs as a liaison officer alongside the Yeye Oge of Lagos Chief (Mrs.) Opral Benson. Preparations were then in top gear for the Festac ’77.

Then came the change. Close to the age of forty, Frank Okonta finally decided there was the need for some sort of stability in his life. First he went out in search of a regular job and ended up at the Ministry of Information. Secondly he met the woman that has since remained his lifetime companion, Patience. He got married to her and the family settled at 1004 Estate on Victoria Island where they lived for several years.

At the Ministry of Information and Culture – the two ministries were one then – Okonta found a perfect home. Operating in the areas of protocol and liaison, he travelled widely. “In fact, I’ve been to virtually all the continents of the earth.”

Apart from travelling widely Okonta utilised the opportunity to pursue one of his greatest passions in life – African arts. As he travelled, he took works of Nigerian artists along using every forum to market African arts. In the same sweep, the avid films and documentary lover had more than his take as the Nigerian Television Authority among other such media agencies of the Federal Government were under the supervision of his ministry.

It was during this period that Frank Okonta became renowned as a sports administrator. He spent so much time at sports administration meetings that, according to him, his wife often wondered which came first – sports or the family. He held several positions including those of President of the Cycling Federation of Nigeria and Chairman of Boxing Association of Nigeria.

Another great change came in Frank Okonta’s life in 1999. Clocking 60 years of age, he retired from the civil service at the position of a Deputy Director.

“When I retired,” he said, “I chose to live a sober life. I wanted no more headaches. So I left the world of sports and other such things and opened this gallery.

“The world of sports is very turbulent. Sports administrators in Nigeria are hungry people. There would be five naira meant for a project and someone who does not even attend meetings would come and ask you to account for how you spent the fifteen naira you got. If you buy a new car or build a new house the suspicion is that you had stolen money meant for sport.

“The politics in Nigerian sports administration is so much that a good number of administrators have no problem moving into partisan politics. Both are about the same except that they are not sending hired assassins after themselves in sports administration politics.”

Why did he then choose art?

“I’ve always loved arts. I love beautiful things. I’ve been collecting works of arts for several years. I have works of masters like Ben Enwonwun as well as works of younger ones. I have paintings, carving mixed media works and all sorts of works.

“When I come into this gallery, I feel fulfilled. No doubt I am a wealthy man. My wealth is not in digits stored in a bank. But how can one derive fulfilment from going to the bank manager and asking him to let him sit down and watch his savings. I come into this gallery and I see things that make me happy.”

Last August 3, Frank Okonta’s Nkem Gallery hosted the opening of a one-week exhibition of painter Larry Isima to mark Okonta’s birthday. Immediately after the opening ceremony was over, the other side of Okonta took over.

His residence, a walking distance from the gallery, has a large garden. No doubt his architect wife and his partying spirit must have connived to create the fairy vista. There a lavish party was thrown where friends, especially fellow arts lovers, wined, dined and chatted till late.

“My philosophy in life is to be happy,” Frank Okonta told The Nation during the interview conducted recently. “In my house, we always look for an excuse to throw a party. If I offer to throw a party for a friend and he has nothing to celebrate at that point in time I will ask him to locate a friend of his who has something to celebrate.”

Now he has stopped drinking and smoking for health reasons. But Frank Okonta’s love for the bottle and the butt was legendary. Although he does not regret his teetotaller status he still speaks about champagne and cigar with the relish of a man who would not mind spending his entire life between France and Havana.

Well that is what he has actually done. His entire life has been spent living. While a good number of people spend their days worrying about problems that might never manifest, Okonta spends his days just being happy.

Among guests at Frank Okonta Close at Lekki on that August 3 were prime arts collectors Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Engineer Yemisi Shyllon and Chief Sammy Olagbaju and painter and arts teacher, former Lagos State Chairman of Society of Nigerian Artists, Kunle Adeyemi. The four have something in common. They are all arrow heads of the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) a co-sponsor of the exhibition. Frank Okonta is a patron of VASON, an organisation that seeks to do for visual arts what MUSON is doing for music.

At 68, Frank Okonta’s nothing of retiring into total sober peaceful life just cannot include staying away from his passion for arts and partying. Bubbly and easy to approach, Okonta radiates the air of someone whose arrival at the most sober funeral would create a cheerful atmosphere. To him, life is one long party. And the party just goes on.

Peter Igho: Long walk through the stage

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos on Wednesday, February 27, 2008

igho-2.jpgigho-1-ed.jpgIgho, the Dan Jikan Kabi

 After a lifelong career in the entertainment industry, 33 of them spent at the NTA where his network productions were household names and he rose to Executive Director, Marketing, Peter Igho is retiring at 60, moving on to…

The next level

Peter Igho bows out of the organisation on March 28 upon attaining the mandatory retirement age of 60, he would have put in 33 years into the tube industry in Nigeria. However, his romance with the stage has lasted longer just as he plans to still remain in the industry that is his life as he told Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

The Argungun Fishing Festival in Kebbi State is one of the nation’s leading tourist attractions. This year, it holds between March 12 and 15. Apart from the usual events, one special event will feature in this year’s edition of the festival. The special event is to celebrate the Dan Jikan Kabi, Peter Igho. It is the beginning of a series of events lined up to celebrate the 60th birthday of Peter Igho and his impressive career in the Nigerian television industry which winds up as 60 is the mandatory retirement age in the nation’s civil service.

A day after the festival winds up, there will be a special dinner put together by friends and associates in Lagos. The Abuja version holds on March 22. Coincidentally, Igho shares the same birthday with his alma mater, University of Ibadan which was established the year he was born. On March 27, he will be heading there for a double celebration – his and his alma mater’s birthdays. The following day, the exact birth date, his Victoria Island, Lagos home will play host to fireworks display that promises to be as impressive as his distinguished career. The following day is slated for the birthday thanksgiving service at St. Gregory Catholic Church, Obalende, Lagos while reception of guests follows at the Air Force Officers’ Mess at Victoria Island. He will spend March 30 with his friends at the IBB Golf Course in Abuja where he is a member.

Peter Igho has good reason to celebrate life at 60. When one speaks of the television industry in Nigeria, it is impossible to name the top ten people without his name being included. He has won the movie industry award. At work he won the Director General’s Best Executive Director’s Award. Nationally, he holds the National Award of MFR. Looking back at his journey through life, he said, “The people we grew up together, especially those who had more privileged backgrounds, where are they today?”

His journey in life is like a script – a lot of which he wrote. It is one of positive outlook, determination, hard work and most especially talent triumphing over initial challenges.

Peter Igho was born on Easter Sunday, March 28, 1948 in the mining city of Jos in northern Nigeria. Of Urhobo parentage, his own father had lived in Jos from his youth where he worked as a miner.

“The mining industry then,” Igho recalled, “wasn’t much better than it is today. Sometime digging would be carried out for several weeks only to find out there is no mineral at that particular site. Meanwhile one would have spent much money paying labourers doing the digging. When there was success we had good life. My father was not rich but he was comfortable.

“One thing told me how things were financially in those days. It was the state of our accommodation. We lived in this face-me-I-face you kind of accommodation. Whenever things were in good shape, we occupied four rooms. When things took a downward turn, we managed two rooms, a situation that led to our things being piled up along the passage and corridor.”

Of course, two rooms should be sufficient for a modest family. What was then the problem? Was it that his father had a large family?

Asked how many children his father had, Igho surprised this writer with his response. “When we got to around 35, I stopped counting. But I think in all we were around 45.”

Legendary wouldn’t one say? The senior Igho married four wives of which Peter Igho’s mother who had six children was the first. But the definition of his siblings is unconventional just like it is in many parts of Africa.

“Apart from biological children,” Igho explained, “there were children of my father’s brothers and other relatives who were either dead or still alive. Beyond this, we even had children of neighbours living with us. We were treated equally as children. In fact, when I was growing up, I was closer to one of my step-mothers than my mother. She had some delay in having her own children. So, I was the one who was close to her. Coincidentally, I was born on a Sunday, when she finally had her own son, he was born on a Sunday. Beyond this, when I went for my baptism, I chose the name Peter. He too on his own chose the same name when he went for baptism. So, in the family, there are two Sunday Peter Ighos. To differentiate, people refer to us as Sunday Peter Bida and Sunday Peter Lafia.”

As Igho narrated the story of his growing up, one could perceive the joy of the recollection. It was a warm morning and we endured the heat as we chatted. The idea of postponing the interview did not appeal to any of us.

The first time it was to hold the drugs he was taking for typhoid which had put him in a state in which he could not really undertake it. We only spent time in his sitting room chatting mostly about his younger days when he took time off from University of Ibadan to night-crawl in Lagos visiting leading night spots like the late Bobby Benson’s club.

Another schedule was scuttled despite chasing him to his Victoria Island residence and to the local and international wings of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. He had an urgent flight to take to Abuja. Schedules and postponements followed and at a point in time he was out of the country to attend to an eye problem that required surgery.

During this eventual session, more than once the unassumingly friendly Igho more than once expressed his appreciation “for your endurance.” As the interview ended, he was asked when he would be leaving for Abuja. The answer came without hesitation: “The moment you leave now.”

Whatever energy propelled Peter Igho through life seems not have diminished at the age of 60 – at least not noticeably. One can only imagine what the below average height entertainment legend was like growing up. He, however, spoke about his life with fervour. “My childhood years were some of the happiest in my life.” He said. “Although we were not rich, we were happy. I recall that I wore shoes only during Christmas.”

His childhood also prepared him for what he became in life. From the stories his parents told him, the books that were read to him and that he read and his frequent visits to the cinemas, Igho developed a passion for the stage. Late theatre legend Herbert Ogunde came to Jos around this time for a drama production. Igho said this production had such an impact on him that it was one of the factors that shaped him into what he later became.

After primary education at a Catholic school in Jos, he proceeded to a Catholic secondary school in Kaduna. “In those days,” he recalled, “if you attended a Catholic school, you would learn Igbo because most of the teachers were Igbo. If you attended an Anglican school, you would learn Yoruba as most of the teachers were Yoruba.”

Beyond perfecting his Igbo which he had grown up with alongside children of Igbo people whom his parents lived with in the same neighbourhood, Igho began his sojourn into the creative world while in secondary school in Kaduna. In school, he was one of the best English students. He was also active in literary and dramatic activities winning the prize in the Kennedy Essay Competition organised by the United States embassy then.

After his secondary school examinations in which he secured the much coveted division one, he proceeded to pursue higher school certificate at the same institution. When he completed the HSC, he taught for a while in the school during the months between the final examination and resumption date at the university. This period can be said to be the beginning of his career in entertainment.

“While teaching there,” Igho recalled, “the principal called me and said, ‘Look, you are interested in literary activities, why not organise an inter-house drama competition among the students?’ I took up the challenge selecting plays like The Incorruptible Judge for the houses. But I faced a challenge. There was a house that had no play. So, I took up the challenge of writing a play for the house. The play was entitled Gods of the Ancestors. As it happened, I left to resume at the university before the competition took place. When next I saw the principal, he congratulated me. Surprised, I asked him what he was congratulating me for and he told me that the panel of judges that sat at the competition adjudged my play the winner.”

With such interest and background one would have expected Peter Igho to study theatre arts at the university. Yes, he wanted that but University of Ibadan did not offer theatre arts as a major course then. So, he opted to study English with theatre arts among others as a subsidiary course.

There was just no way his creative mind could have rested while in the university. Even in secondary school, he had formed a music band named The Heart Renders where he played the piano and accordion and was the lead vocalist. Now in UI, he and some like minds put together what has remained arguable the greatest band in the history of UI, The Q Mark. Its inauguration which the authorities were generous enough to allow them use the famous Trenchard Hall came as a surprise to many on campus as people were wondering when they formed the band and where they had been rehearsing. “We were rehearsing deep in the bush behind the campus,” Igho said.The Q Mark performed at different occasions on campus and outside the proceeds of which went into payment of equipment rentals and a little earning that supplemented the financial base of the generally financially challenged band members.

Peter Igho secured employment before leaving the university in 1972. As it was in those days, prospective employers came to the campus to recruit. Igho opted for the civil service.

“During the interview,” Igho told The Nation, “they asked me if I was prepared to serve in the northern part of the country. Obviously they only paid attention to my name and added that to the fact that I had schooled in Yoruba land. They didn’t know I had grown up in the north raised by parents who spoke Hausa and Fulani fluently.”

They finally posted him to the Northwest State. Upon resumption at Sokoto, he was posted to a teachers training college at Bida. A sleepy town, Bida was a sharp contrast to Ibadan that Igho was coming from. But before long, he had turned the town into a hub of activities that attracted people from far and near. Again, it was his talent and interest in entertainment that gave birth to this.

Bringing in students from a nearby female school – hardly a conceivable idea then – he wrote and produced a drama piece that was to run for six days. It ended up running for six weeks. Then the community demanded to see it. That one ran for a month. By then the fame of the presentation had spread throughout the state leading to a state-wide tour. To cap it all, the state governor requested for a command performance. It went on to be the state’s entry that won award at the 1974 Festival of Arts and Culture. This feat led to its being one of the plays chosen for performance at the Festac ’77 for which the ’74 was preparatory.

Despite his promotion in the teaching sector in 1974, the Ministry of Culture which organised the festival struggled and succeeded in attracting him to be one of the pioneering staffers of the NTV, Sokoto that took off in 1975. He was the one-man drama department.

In 1977, the different television stations in Nigeria were brought together under the new name NTA. In 1978, NTA organised a competition among all the stations. Perceived as an outpost, NTA Sokoto’s entry’s winning the competition came as a surprise to not a few. The entry was Moment of Truth written and produced by Peter Igho. This led to his being selected to produce a series aimed at promoting the ideals of the Federal Government’s Operation Feed the Nation (OFN). The initial one-page material handed over to him is far from what Nigerians later saw in Cockcrow at Dawn.

To produce Cockcrow at Dawn, Peter Igho approached a village head that his father had had a relationship with as a miner. That made the series the first of sort completely on location in Nigeria apart from it being the first network soap in the country.

After producing about 38 episodes, NTA decided Igho would be more useful at the headquarters in Lagos. As a result, in 1983, he was promoted a General Manager in charge of network programmes. Peter Igho’s experience in production soon came to the fore in managing network section forever transforming that area of television broadcasting in Nigeria.

“Upon my arrival in Lagos,” Igho said, “I saw a lady rehearsing a production. I told her to see me after rehearsal. She was Lola Fani-Kayode. That was how the network production, Mirror in the Sun, came on board. I soon brought other regional productions on board the network ship. Samanja from NTA, Kaduna; The Village Headmaster from the west; and The Masquerade from the east, which became The New Masquerade.

“Others like Behind the Cloud also came on board. No doubt, 1983 was the beginning of the highpoint of network programmes in Nigeria. We ended up with a network programme nearly everyday.”

To appreciate iconic stars in the industry, Igho began the Stars of the Tube which featured musicians like Ebenezer Obey and Eddie Okonta in 1996. In 1997 he was transferred to NTA Enugu where he served as General Manager until his return to the headquarters as Executive Director in charge of production in 2006. Thereafter, he was moved to the marketing section where he handled the marketing of such projects as the English Premier League. It is from this department that Peter Igho is ending a most outstanding career at NTA.What next?

Having being denied enough time with the family and for rest due to the nature of his chosen career, Peter Igho intends to spend some time resting. Since 1972 when he joined the civil service and 1975 when he joined the television industry, it has been all work. No doubt he deserves it. Thereafter he intends to go seek other ways of, as he put it, “earning my daily bread.”

Of course, he intends to remain in the industry operating in the area of content, marketing and consultancy. As it happens, his children, all of whom had graduated, are in such fields as movies, animation and musicals.

When he was asked as a parting shot to recall any sad moment, the nature a man who has lived his life on stage came forth: “I read a lot of books while growing up – Greek classical and Shakespeare inclusive. This and other things I have experienced taught me that events of ones life cannot be isolated. The total person is a product of all he has gone through, good and bad. So, my tears and smiles all come together to make Peter Igho who he is. If you ask me what I’d like to alter if I were to live my life all over again, I’d tell you nothing.”

What a fulfilling way to end a career in a particular sector of the society. But Igho’s career is not ending yet. He is simply changing gear to move to the next level!

What’s the next level in education?

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published as a photo story in The Nation, Lagos, on March 11, 2008

eni-and-minister-2.jpg 

Emmanuel Eni is no doubt one of the foremost Nigerian artistes in Germany. A poet, playwright, painter, sculptor and stage performer, he comes home regularly to host events just as he is never less busy in his Germany chosen base of operation.

Not long ago, he appeared on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of British BBC and America’s VOA, in a joint interview with German Foreign Affairs Minister and the new Vice Chancellor Dr. Claus Walter Steinmeier to discuss new education system in Sub-Sahara Africa. Guess what the new education system is? Education through the media! Photo left shows Eni with the Vice Chancellor.

Dark days behind enemy line

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

biafra.jpg 

Title: 888 Days in Biafra

Author: Samuel U. Umweni

Publishers: iUniverse

Date of Publication: 2007

No. of Pages: 220

Price: $24.95

Prison of any form is not a desirable residence. In war time, however, the terrible turns petrifying.

Sam Umweni was heading the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Benin City when the Biafran forces overran the city in August 1967. In the confusion that ensued, he, like many top officials, went into hiding. Words of assurance from the occupational forces brought him out. Thereafter, he and some others responded to a summon to meet with the new authorities. That was on August 12, 1967. As it turned out, the “meeting” lasted till January 12, 1970.

888 Days in Biafra is Unweni’s memoir on his experience during the Nigerian Civil War that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Opening with Acknowledgement, Foreword written by Pius Oleghe in 1976 and a Prologue, the book is divided into eleven chapters. The closing part contains Epilogue, Appendix and Index. It is also spiced with photographs seasons in Umweni’s life surrounding the period and those of his “souvenirs”, mementos of his prison experience.

In the Acknowledgement, Umweni paid tribute to God and people who were helpful to him during his incarceration while Prologue gives a brief biographical sketch of the author.

The book opens with historical background of the crisis that rocked Nigeria and the events leading to the Civil War. One of the first major encounters of the war was the invasion of the then Midwest Region by forces of the secessionist Republic of Biafra. This was despite the Region’s declared neutrality in the crisis, a situation made possible by the semi autonomy the federating regions enjoyed in Nigeria then.

The declared intention of the invaders was the “liberation” of Midwest Region. Thereafter they would move on to “liberate” the Western Region and throw Head of State Yakubu Gowon out of Lagos.

With a pseudo-government put in place, a meeting of the Midwest Executive Council was summoned by Colonel Victor Banjo who headed the “liberation army” at the State House in Benin City. Being personally invited albeit amidst threat of his immediate family paying the price of his not showing up, Samuel Umweni was one of those who responded. Others who were to form the quartet that would cross the Niger in Republic of Biafra that fateful day included Mid West Region Commissioner of Police Joseph Adeola, Olu Akpata and Joseph Imokhuede. It is noteworthy that these three were Edo speaking – like Umweni himself – members of the Council who showed up for the meeting. Samuel Umweni remains convinced that he was betrayed by his Ika Ibo assistant.

The four were informed that they were to have a meeting with top officials of Biafran government in Enugu and were driven across the Niger that night.

Initially there were pretences. Top officials including rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu either visited them at their hotel or received them. The was permanently put on hold until the fall of Enugu after federal troops had chased the invaders out of Midwest Region. When they were evacuated along to Awgu, the courtesy began to dissipate. Eventually the pretence ended. They were separated and sent to different prisons. Umweni ended at Okigwe Prison.

As the war progressed and towns had to be evacuated due to pressure of federal troops, they were moved and brought together at Umuahia Prison. The author also served term at Ntueke Detention Centre which he describes as “the gates of hell.” It remained his home until the end of the war.

In war time, things are bad enough. It was horrible in Biafra. What with the federal blockade and the reality of the fact that the Igbo who spearheaded the rebellion are a landlocked people.

Right from the beginning, the crises that followed the first military coup in Nigeria and led to the Civil War had their roots in tribalism. With the declaration of the Republic Biafra, the multi-dimensional nature of the national question came to the fore. The Ika Ibo, seeing themselves as part of Igboland collaborated with Biafra. The illusion soon evaporated as the real Igbo began to manifest arrogant discrimination against all non-Igbo in the republic. The Onitsha Ibo who had always regarded themselves as not being fully Igbo suffered as well as other minority tribes of what is now referred to as South South.

As Biafra lost battles especially on these fronts, people from the areas were herded to the prisons, detention centres, firing squad and the gallows in droves.

Isolated, Biafra suffered all sorts of lack. This situation grew continuously worse as the war progressed. Commodities like salt virtually disappeared. Whatever aid agencies like International Council of the Red Cross and Catholic mission brought were fought over, stolen and rationed out in merger proportions. “Sabo” meaning saboteurs, as Umweni and his co-travellers were tagged suffered worse than the ordinary citizen.

Facing the antagonism of gaolers both the humane and outrightly demonic, forging friendship and alliances with people like Professor Chike Obi and Senator/Justice Daniel Ibekwe who were fellow detainees and other facets of prison life are documented in 888 Days in Biafra. The degradation, deprivation, filth and deaths of inmates that progressed with the war in figure and different attitudes of different prison officials are all there.

In presenting his memoir, Samuel Umweni with the wisdom years bestow on he who has been fired in the kiln of affliction speaks rather than write. One gets the feeling of a man telling his story at the informal gathering of say contemporaries.

Beautifully packaged, 888 Days in Biafra reflects how publishing has grown in Nigeria although in the United States of America. However there are errors like capitalisation of words unnecessarily and misspelling which more careful editing could have eliminated. These slips are however covered by the flow of the story.

The author did not attempt to be an erudite analyst. He rather presents his experiences during the war as he perceives them. Things like discrimination against Protestants by mostly Catholic Igbo that someone who was not there would not have imagined were painted vividly. Although he mentioned his wife’s betrayal in the course of his incarceration, the reader’s curiosity goes unquenched as he closes the story at the point where he finally returned to Benin City when he regained freedom.

In the Appendix, Umweni presents brief information about 57 major characters in the story. The Index section too becomes helpful for the researcher. But one wonders why the chapters have titles but these titles are not written in the contents. You simply have chapter numbers.

Coming 37 years after the end of the Civil War, 888 Days in Biafra, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, is a reminder that that period of our history cannot just be swept under the carpet. Like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died that tells the Nobel Laureate’s experience in federal custody during the same Civil War, this documentation of a man’s experience tells us we must join Ellie Weisel in his “we must not forget” philosophy. Maybe then we can resolutely say, NEVER AGAIN!

An exceptional gathering

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

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Rich in distinctive cultural heritage, the Yoruba people at home and in the Diaspora often manifest their values in unique dimensions. Now, in what promises to be a celebrated gathering, they are coming together from all over the world to celebrate the first ever Yoruba Festival of Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC). The clarion call is “Let’s go home to celebrate” as Fatherland beckons

With Professor Wole Soyinka and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as ambassadors, the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture scheduled for April promises to be an uncommon gathering of the nation as the man behind the project, Alaroye publisher Alao Adedayo, told Group Arts and Culture Editor, SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

His sojourns around the world exposed Alao Adedayo to cultural trends among his Yoruba people scattered across the globe. What he saw left him not only worried but also inspired. So after sharing the vision with his top team at Alaroye, a stakeholders’ meeting was quickly summoned. The purpose of which was to work out modalities for hosting a cultural festival of the Yoruba peoples.

Legal practitioner and Islamic leader Dr. Lateef Adegbite, former Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife Professor Wale Omole, cultural icon and former Nigerian ambassador to Ethiopia Chief Segun Olusola, Oodua People’s Congress founder Dr. Fredrick Fasehun and retired General Alani Akinrinade were among personalities at the stakeholders’ meeting. All South West state governments were represented.

“The whole thing began in June last year,” Alao Adedayo told The Nation. “I was out of the country in May. During the trip, the erosion of cultural links of our people abroad came up again and again. I can’t say how it actually happened… that is how I got the vision. But it was on my return to the country after the trip that we at Alaroye decided to organise a festival of Yoruba arts and culture.”

It goes beyond cultural concerns. Alaroye is at the forefront of indigenous language print medium in Nigeria. A Yoruba language, its patronage is predominantly by the people of the South West Nigeria. In Adedayo’s words, “It is the Yoruba people who had brought Alaroye to where it is today. And it is Alaroye that has brought us to limelight both home and abroad. So, the festival is part of our giving back to the society where we got everything. It a gesture of appreciation and social responsibility.”

When Adedayo shared with those present at the stakeholders’ meeting, his proposed Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture nomenclature for the proposed event earned an addition. According to Adedayo, “Those present said if we were planning to bring organise an event that would involve people from all over the world, while no name it so? So, ‘world’ was added. Hence the name World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC).”

One of the people who could not make the first stakeholders’ meeting was Wole Soyinka who was out of the country at the time. On his return, he placed a call to Alao Adedayo to be updated on developments. After another trip abroad, one of the first things he did on his return was to call Adedayo again to get updated. The events that took place at the Ake Palace Ground at Abeokuta last October 2 therefore came as no surprise.

On October 2, 2007, the logo of WOFEYAC was formally unveiled at a ceremony the had in attendance the crème de la crème of Yoruba sons and daughters from all walks of life. The ceremony also doubled as the official announcement of Wole Soyinka as the Global Ambassador of WOFEYAC.

As the Alake of Egbaland Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, Professor Wole Soyinka and a handful of other dignitaries came out of the residential section of the sprawling palace complex to the Palace Ground, an open events venue with VIP sitting area, drumming and singing resounded in the air. The excitement was infectious. By the time the events proper took off, nobody was left in doubt of the enormity of what was happening – a landmark event that those present will proudly announce their witnessing when culture historians refer to it in future.

The front row of the seating that was several rows deep would convince anybody that the organisers were serious. If King Suny Ade represented the Yoruba musical constituency its royal sector was ably represented by the Alake and the Olowo of Owo Oba Folagbade Olateru-Olagbegi. The intellectuals? Dr. Lateef Adegbite was present while Professor Akinwunmi Isola, Yoruba author and linguist delivered the lecture of the day. Oodua People’s Congress founder Dr. Frederick Fasehun who sat alongside business moguls said the opening prayer – of course, in the traditional way. Representatives of the South West states’ governors later took their turns to deliver solidarity messages. Scintillating performances by the cultural troupes of Lagos and Ogun states gave a foretaste of what one can look up to at WOFEYAC.

This was not the first time Alaroye was gathering Yoruba leaders together. Beginning from 2002, the publishing house has organised a series of forum tagged Gathering of Yoruba Leaders. These forums boasts of having great names in Yoruba land present at different times and in different capacities. Among these are Professor Bolaji Akinyemi who delivered the lecture at the first forum, Chief Richard Akinjide, Pa Abraham Adesanya and Pa Emmanuel Alayande who sent a representative. Others are Dr. Lateef Adegbite, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, the Alaafin of Oyo, retired Generals Adeyinka Adebayo and Alani Akinrinade, Otunba Gani Adams and Dr. Frederick Fasehun who never missed any session.

“We organised Gathering of Yoruba Leaders to bring together leaders of thought in Yoruba land to ponder on issues of unity and progress of the Yoruba people,” Adedayo said. “We were concerned with creating a vision for the future development of our people.”

Adedayo said the Alaroye team was concerned by the state of affairs in the land whereby a people with great potentials for development had been reduced to their present state because of what he described as self interest of the leaders. Immediate gratification, he said, had taken the place of planning for say the next sixty years.

“It would be stupid for any set of people to start thinking of separation in Nigeria today,” he said. “We have gone beyond that level. What we are saying is that the Yoruba people have the potentials of becoming more economically powerful, politically developed and socially advanced than any other group in Nigeria.”

According to him, the reason for this is not far fetched. Its root is in the early education of the Yoruba people which produced among them professors and doctorate degree holders at a time when some other groups were yet to reach out for university education. He referred to two pointer during the colonial era. “Way back in 1945, late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote a book challenging the presence of colonial rulers in Nigeria. Education is a tool of liberation. It is a fact that because of the edge the Yoruba people had in the area of education they were the administrator running the government in the north and part of the east during the colonial days.”

Regrettably, gains of the gatherings could not be consolidated. According to Adedayo, “The gatherings brought great promises. For example, it was at the first gathering that Chief Richard Akinjide raised the issue of two thirds and called upon those who might have been aggrieved to let’s put it behind us.”

The two thirds issue was when Chief Richard Akinjide representing Alhaji Shehu Sagari of the National Party of Nigeria whose 1979 presidential election victory had been challenged by Unity Party of Nigeria presidential candidate late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In what not quite a few Yoruba consider betrayal of great mischievous proportion of Yoruba interest, Akinjide went before the election tribunal and in what would earn any mathematician a Nobel Prize calculated two thirds of nineteen states. Twelve states and two thirds of one!

Gestures such as Akinjides and promises of united front for progress ended up falling on their face as soon as political jostling for power took over.

“We had thought the leaders would steer Yoruba people in the right direction,” said Adedayo. “But we have discovered that it was wrong not to also try and carry the people along.”

WOFEYAC which is scheduled to hold in April in Lagos and Abeokuta simultaneously is an attempt at this.

Alao Adedayo went further to paint a vivid image of second motivation for WOFEYAC. All over the world, there are Yoruba people who had travelled abroad to better their lots in life. Most of them, he said, did not plan to stay long. They only planned to stay maybe five or ten years. At the end of the day, lack of concrete achievements keep them there for long.

Offspring of these Yoruba people end up growing up not as Yoruba. Apart from the fact that they are in different cultural environment, there is the problem of their parents who do not have the time to raise them. They are brought up by foster parents such as day care centres as the parents have to go to work early and return late. By the time they grow up, there is nothing in them resembling Yoruba heritage. Some, contends Adedayo, end up marrying people from other countries and getting to settle down in places like the Caribbean.

The fate of these people is different from that of earlier Yoruba Diaspora of the slave trade era. Completely uprooted in groups and settled permanently, the latter held on to their cultural heritage. The Diaspora of this age is made up of individual sojourners whose plans never went beyond going away for a few years.

To convert this disadvantage into an advantage, the Alaroye crew believe the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture is a veritable tool. Drawn back to their roots, these scattered Yoruba will become part of the movement to move the Yoruba nation forward.

While Professor Wole Soyinka who according to Adedayo hardly stays more than two weeks at a stretch in Nigeria is mobilising the outside world, former Lagos State governor Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has been named the National Ambassador of WOFEYAC. His own former presentation in this capacity is billed for next month.

Adedayo explained how these choices were made: “Prof. you know is an arts man, a cultural man. His itinerary takes him all over the world. He is therefore well positioned to spread the message. At the same time, we need someone who can take the message to all parts of Nigeria. I am talking of someone who has access to places like the presidency and national assembly because we need to present a clear image of what we are doing before people will come to the wrong conclusion that it is paganism. Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is well positioned for this.”

The event itself is billed as a cultural fiesta featuring different aspects of Yoruba life – dance, music, festivals, arts, food, just name it. While groups like Yoruba Council of Elders have representatives on the planning committee, Professor Wande Abimbola is the link with the Ifa devotees. Talks are on with Osun State government to stage a mini Osun Festival. All governors in the South West are patrons while traditional rulers are life patrons. Either as part of the steering committee or as advisers, hardly is there any part of Yoruba leadership that is not involved in WOFEYAC. Adedayo explained that this was to carry everybody along.

Egypt’s role as a base of Black civilisation brought the country in as it is expected to send a cultural team. Countries of West Africa with Yoruba presence, Europe and the Americas are sending delegates. In fact, there are groups in the Caribbean who are requesting that the dates be moved forward a little to enable them prepare better.

In the entrenched Yoruba cultural habit of wrapping even the most serious notions in fun and excitement, the payoff of the festival is Omo Yoruba, e je ka rele odun o. Yoruba sons and daughters, let’s go home for festivities. Homeland beckons. No doubt millions are bound to respond.

Isedale’s journey to Christmas Eve groove

February 26, 2008

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos

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Isedale 

Last December, Isedale and De Cowries and other artists go on stage launch the next level of their musical pursuit. His is a fusion of traditional rhythm and elements of classical jazz. Alliance Francais first put him on stage. Then Felabration at the Afrika Shrine last year confirmed his worth. The crooner cum instrumentalist spoke on his journey so far with The Nation Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

When his name was announced as the next performer during last year’s Felabration, an event set aside to celebrate the life of late Afro beat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti, hardly did anybody know what to expect. He was billed alongside other artistes both worldwide famous ones and obscure ones. But what kind of name is Isedale? Could it be another imitation of Lagbaja?

The opening glee was a fast rush of heavy African percussion reminiscent of acrobatic masquerades’ shows. It is a hot charge that seemed a thunder on assignment in the dry season. The musicians, instrumentalists and dancers skimped onto the stage with the same gusto skipping like dervishes. The choreography reflected coordinated complex moves that could only have been born out of rigorous rehearsals.

At the head of the team was Isedale himself. Standing at six feet, dark skinned and well built, he was the archetypal African male image. Surging with energy that befits a poster boy of African personality, he moved so deftly that at times members of his Cowries band had difficulty moving with him as he changed from one mode to another.

The fast tempo drums work lasted only a few minutes. It was brought to an arresting halt that created an eerie silence. The audience did not know what to do – applaud or wait for the next. Before anybody could resolve what to do next, the musician changed gear.

Blaring horns ushered in the mellow ballad that followed. Lagbaja has succeeded in incorporating traditional drums into his Felaresque Afro calypso. But this was something else. Both the rhythm and the predominance of percussions in their raw forms spoke of deep-rootedness in African tradition.

Then the lyrics.

Any child who grew up in traditional African village knows about the folklores the entertained, enlightened and instructed young ones in Africa of those days. One form of folklore is what the Yoruba people call alo apagbe in which call and response songs go with the tales. Imagine presenting it through a modern musical orchestra ensemble and you would begin to perceive what Isedale is all about.

The king put together a special reception to receive a unique guest. The festive gathering was to welcome Isedale. No, not Isedale the musician although pun was intended. The Isedale is :tradition” personified in the track, Teremina. The difference between sweet potato and Irish potato is as clear as that between the heads of an elephant and the buffalo. Thus Isedale blended witty lines with mumbling additives to chart out his conviction that African traditional culture remained superior to modern pop culture.

He is actually a product of the tradition he celebrates. His father was a peasant farmer and the mother a petty trader. They could hardly afford to train him and after his mother died an aunt took him to a neighbouring West African country where he had a first taste of people often encounter when they stake their destinies upon promises of mortals.

His father was also a musician who had his own band. “He played molo,” Isedale said, “which some people sometimes call sakara. It is a genre that has more or less disappeared completely by now.

“My father taught me to play drums when I was eight and a half years old. In those days, someone would actually carry me on the shoulder while another would hold the drum for me to dish out my stuff.”

Even at that early stage his prodigious talent was manifest. The community had a number of were bands that would go round in the morning to rouse up Islamic faithful early to prepare sari during the fasting month of Ramadan. The leader of one band took particular interest in young Isedale. He would take him out to perform with his band even that early in the morning. Isedale’s father was not happy about this development. He had lived a hard life and concluded that life as an alagbe begging minstrel was not for his son. Although he taught Isedale to play drums he insisted the young boy must aspire to acquire western education and seek career far from the music industry.

Primary school was at the village while secondary school he began there was concluded at Ota when he went to stay with one of his sister to get exposed to life beyond the limited horizon of hamlet – more or less a farmstead – where he grew up. Thereafter he headed for the technical college to study computer. This he did not conclude as an aunt resident in a neighbouring West African country invited him over with the promise that he would continue his training there in a better set up.

Isedale soon returned to Nigeria as the promises made were nothing more than empty shells. Frustrated, he drifted up and down swimming in the slime of lack and emotional pain. Depression was his daily companion.

A friend he had known before leaving Nigeria introduced him the his brother who was a sailor. Without any maritime training, he was brought on board as a cook. In the course of this, the friend’s brother who was the captain started breaking him on the rudimentary principles and practical of handling a vessel. It was when he moved to another sea-faring fishing vessel that fate brought him in contact with a captain who himself was a saxophonist. The man encouraged him not to abandon music and so when the crew of the vessel were dismissed alongside their captain Isedale came back home to turn to music.

Meanwhile, an incident occurred upon his return from his first sailing trip. When he was leaving home to pursue his career, his pauper father was able to put together 300 naira for him to transport himself from Ogun State to Port Harcourt where he was to report. Upon his return, a mysterious eye problem made the chairman of the company give him money and put him on a flight to Lagos from Port Harcourt to go and treat himself.

As he landed in Lagos, the eye problem just disappeared. “It just disappeared. It was as if it was never there.”

Well he was home anyway. So he headed for Agege where his fiancé, a lady he had met during his computer training, lived with her family. It was upon getting there that he was met with the devastating news of his father’s death. Having lost his mother much earlier in life and seen what the father had to go through to make sure he became something in life, it was difficult to handle. The 5,000 naira he had packaged as a gift for his father now went into funeral expenses!

Isedale was trying to put together a demo when fate brought in contact with the man who would become his manager. Together they have put together a formidable band of trained professionals and cut at least three solid tracks.

It was the manager who introduced him to the French Cultural Centre in Lagos where he was first given an opportunity to perform live on stage during their celebration of Fela. Incidentally his next engagement was Felabration at the Afrika Shrine. He could not honour invitation to perform at the World Music Day concert put together by the French Cultural Centre as elements within PMAN insisted only “registered” artistes could perform.

Tonight, Isedale goes on state at the Community Hall at Alagbado, a suburb of Lagos that is the location of a major railway station. Other upcoming artistes too will be on stage with him.

“What we plan to do,” he explained to The Nation, “is to try and raise fund while at the same time creating more awareness about our music. We need the fund to put finishing touches to and get our first work into the market.”

‘I wouldn’t write what I write if I had remained in Nigeria’

February 26, 2008

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos, Nigeria 

Chika 

Chika Unigwe is a Belgium-based Nigerian author with highly priced awards in her kitty. Last December, she came into the country to promote her first full-length novel, The Phoenix. She took time off to speak with The Nation newspaper of Nigeria’s Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE on her art, life as a Nigerian married to a Belgian, life of Nigerian writers abroad and state of Nigerians in Belgium

“I travelled down to Antwerp to research my forthcoming novel,” Chika Unigwe told The Nation with a sense of discovery. “Do you know that I went into a café to get information about the lives of Nigerian prostitutes there. I met a good number who spoke openly about their profession and what life is like living in Belgium as a prostitute.”

The forthcoming book is entitled A Tale of Choices and Displacement. Its theme is the lifestyle of Nigerian ladies plunged into prostitution in Belgium. Chika could not have carried out the research at Turnhout where she lives with her Belgian husband and four sons and where she is also a councillor. The town is a smaller one and the Nigerian population there is small. More so, Turnout is not the primary setting of A Tale of Choices and Discipline quite unlike The Phoenix, the book Chika is currently in Nigeria promoting.

Chika Unigwe believes Belgium has been good to the teeming Nigerians resident there. A good number have of them, according to her, have valid papers and have good jobs and live good lives. Others, of course, entered the country illegally or are there with expired visas. As a result, there are engaged in cat and mouse game with immigrations officials.

The subject of prostitution is a major preoccupation with Chika. She had always been interested with the plight of women. Living in Belgium now, she has continued to explore the subject. In Belgium, prostitution is legal. As a result, those engaged in the business have no need to fear the law.

“When I walked into this particular café,” Chika continued, “the ladies I spoke with freely gave me information. I discovered for example, they were not ashamed of telling me their places of origin in Nigeria. I found out that most of them were from Edo State. I asked one where she came from, she replied, ‘Edo State, of course” as if I must have been uninformed asking her where she came from.”

Chika met her husband at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in her undergraduate days. They got married just before graduation and moved on to Belgium soon after. If she has risen to become a city councillor, no doubt she had integrated well. More so, she writes first in the Dutch language of her husband’s homeland. The Phoenix was released in Dutch 2005 as De Feniks. Even her parents-in-law had learnt English language to be able to communicate with her properly.

Yet it must have been a daring move for her to just pack up and move to a strange land. What was her parents’ reaction, for example? “Oh, my parents said they had always known I could make such a more. You see, before I met my husband I had gone out with an Indian.” Chika explained with a mischievous grin.

Oge, the main character in her The Phoenix did not fare as well as Chika although they share far so many resemblances one is tempted to think the author had set out to write a biographical novel.

Like Chika, Oge grew up in Enugu. She met a Belgian there and married him and they later moved to Turnhout, the city where Chika lives. But there the similarities end.

The Phoenix is at once arresting and haunting. The entire story takes place in the course of a train trip from one town to another within Belgium, a country not reputed for large landmass. Oge was on her way to keep an appointment with her surgeon. On the way, a fellow passenger, a white woman who said she had been to Africa although she could not understand while an Igbo speaker would not be able to speak Swahili, kept pestering her with questions about her continent, herself and life of the Africans in Belgium.

In the course of this questioning, Oge’s state of mind was revealed. She was just to preoccupied with her personal burdens she was in no way interested in listening to any small talk or answering pointless questions. As she ruminates absent-mindedly, flashbacks take the reader to the events of her life in both the recent and far past. Of course, with author’s style, things do not follow logical sequence. The story goes back and forth floating with the subject’s mental journeys.

The book opens in the first person narrative form. As soon as Oge’s inner man took over, the narrative shifts to an unusual second person. Consumed in the bipolar manifestations of her life, Oge, living in self denial following her only son’s death, began to refer to herself as “you” as if the subject was an individual not connected with her.

When Oge met her husband, it was a tale of love at first sight. He was working in Nigeria as an expatriate oil worker. They later got married and moved to Belgium. Even then, crisis did not begin until Oge got pregnant. Her husband told her he was expecting her to go into motherhood that early in their relationship when he still enjoying his new status as a husband. Why bring a stranger in between them?

When pregnancy did not destroy his wife’s stature as he feared Oge’s husband began to soften. By the time the scan of the pregnancy presented them a preview of their baby, he began to fall in love. By the time the baby was born, they both fell in love with him and set out the business of parenting. Then at the age of five, death struck. The baby died as the result of an accident at his school.

Both parents were devastated no doubt. But Oge went to the extreme. She insisted her boy was not dead. For a whole year she bought his Christmas gifts and birthday gifts. The pyjamas were laid out for the dead boy every night and neatly folded at dawn. The physical evidence of the cremated boy’s ashes poured into an urn that was in the sitting room did nothing to make her face reality.

When Oge met a Nigerian at a supermarket while shopping and that one invited her to a church where miracles happen on a regular basis, she jumped at the opportunity. Special offerings, fasting and prayer accompanied with reading of prescribed Bible passages daily did nothing to reverse the situation. When she told the pastor her son was not yet back he simply replied that it was because her faith was too small. She walked away from the church but with nowhere to turn to.

With the death of their son and their resultant opposite poles acceptance of the situation, husband and wife drifted apart. The love that bound them together evaporated and bickering ruled the home. Cultural differences between the two came to the surface and Oge would have returned to Nigeria but for the fear that her parents – her mother in particular who was a devout Catholic – would not accept her divorcing her husband.

One blow knocking one down is not the same as being hit after taking the fall. Son dead, marriage turned into a nightmare, Oge would have thought that was enough. Then the discovery of a lump in her breast which turned out to be cancer. Oge refused to share with anybody including her husband and even the pastor of the church she attended and the only person she has close to a friend in Turnhout. Her mental torture snowballed into frenzied search for a way out of the hell hole. Suicide seemed the best option.

When Oge received a letter from his father in Nigeria, she knew it was something odd as it was the first letter from him in her eight-year stay in Belgium. Skilfully Chika Unigwe steers the reader back to Nigeria. In fact the ruminations of Oge’s husband is another such “intrusion” at this stage of the narrative. In this particular “diversion” the crises rocking the Niger Delta zone of Nigeria became the setting.

Her mother who although married to an Igbo man hailed from the Niger Delta joined other agitators to protest a new pipeline project that was going to further adversely affect her hometown. In the course of the peaceful rally, the police moved in with batons and guns. Some died but Oge’s mum only escaped with major injuries. His father then persuaded both mother and daughter for the mother to visit Belgium for a short rest.

The mother’s arrival was the turning point. On arrival, she was moved into the only spare room in her son-in-law’s apartment. It was the late son’s room which Oge still preserved proclaiming that her son needed to meet his things in proper state on his return. When she suggested taking his clothes back to Nigeria as gifts for a needy child, Oge flared up. What would her son come home to meet? The mother was flabbergasted. With a child dead for a year how could it have been impossible for someone to come into terms with the reality of his eternal departure?

This was the time Oge came to accept the reality. That night too, her husband turned to her in bed and held her as of old. Healing time one might say. It was then the story reverted to the first person narrative.

Although the problem of cancer persisted till the end of the story it was not a major problem if the doctors assurances were anything to go by.

Can a Nigeria-based author create the kind of stories told by Nigerian authors in the Diaspora? That was the question The Nation put to Chika Unigwe after discussing her novel. Her response was that the experience of relocation from one’s homeland is a peculiar one. The sense of loss of roots forges in the writer what no other experience can achieve.

Hear her: “I wouldn’t have been able to write The Phoenix is I had not left Nigeria. The theme and story line are just in line with my experiences gathered in the course of living in Belgium for years. I have no doubt it is the same with other Nigerian authors based abroad.”

Based on this premise, one was tempted to conclude that home-based writers were at a disadvantage. Not so.

Chika Unigwe was flanked by Anwuli and Eniola of Farafina during the course of the chat. Farafina is the publishing house that published The Phoenix and organised the book tour that brought Chika to Nigeria. As we chatted sitting opposite each other on low stools separated by a low table, Muktar Bakare worked at one section of his office. Farafina is his brainchild and he runs the outfit. The section had normal working table while this side had a relaxed curio-filled furnishing. Both sides boasted of exquisite art works hanging on the walls most being paintings of another Nigeria author and painter, United States of America-based Victor Ehikhamenor.

The journey started three years ago. Today, not only Diaspora-based authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe are enjoying Farafina’s commitment to the book industry.

“Our mission and commitment is telling our own story,” Farafina’s Anwuli said quoting the company’s pay-off line. Qualitative publishing of books by Africans is their commitment. The editing and printing of their books leaves no one in doubt of their commitment. From new authors to established ones, the work only needs to be a good one to attract Farafina’s attention. From Kenyan Ngugi wa Th’iongo to Nigerian Ben Okri, Tanure Ojaide to Segun Afolabi, they have been shunning out works of fiction of high quality. Even now, as reflected in the list of coming works in The Phoenix, at least four books by Maik Nwosu are in the pipeline. Beyond fiction, they are moving into school books and other areas of publishing.

No doubt one of the greatest problems of Nigerian authors is that over the years there had been a dearth of committed publishers. This resulted in many writers having to publish themselves – a shoddy arrangement, to say the least. With the entrance of committed publishers like Farafina, aspiring writers now have hope.

Farafina does not just publish, they take the books and the authors to the reader. Last weekend, Chika Unigwe had readings at Quintessence at Ikoyi, Lagos and Bookworm at Victoria Island also in Lagos. A week before that she was at Jazzhole at Ikoyi. Months earlier, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was in town to promote her Half of a Yellow Sun.

Were these readings organised to expand the reading audience? “No,” Farafina officials said. “That comes with it but it is not the main objective. The main objective is to introduce out authors and their works to the reading public. It does not make sense if an author’s work is released to the market and those who actually read are not aware of it. So, the readings are interactive sessions between the authors and the reading public.”

Is Farafina interested in expanding the market? You bet. Part of their efforts at expanding the reading audience is the ongoing Farafina Read and Rule campaign. It started on December 1 and runs till January 15 next year. During this period, anybody purchasing any title on the Farafina stable enjoys between five and ten per cent discount. There is also gift vouchers valid for purchasing their books which one can give out as season’s gifts.

“This is a season of giving. This is our way of giving back to the society while at the same time growing the book market.” Definitely a reasonable combination. Despite its commendable success in three years in the business, it is in the interest of Farafina to grow the market.

“Being an author is Nigeria is not the same thing as publishing abroad,” words of Chika Unigwe. The Phoenix, she said, passed through close to ten re-writes. “Over there, you have editors and all sorts of people to work with. This is both an advantage and an irritant at times. It enhances the quality of the work you finally produce but at the same time their insistence on some changes can be difficult to swallow at times.”

Chika’s stories have been broadcast several times on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria and many other Commonwealth radio stations around the world.The author won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her story Borrowed Smile and a Flemish literary prize for her first story written in Dutch, De Smaak van Sneeuw. She was also a nominee for the 2004 Caine Prize. Her short stories Dreams and Thinking of Angels were short-listed for the Million Writers Best Online Fiction in 2005. The same year her story Confetti, Glitter and Ash came third in the Equiano Prize for Fiction.This beautiful, married mother of four began her foray into the world of Arts with a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and holds a Masters of Arts from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Chika Unigwe also holds a doctorate from University of Leiden, Netherland with a thesis tracing the antecedents of Igbo women’s art of writing as a form of setting things right.

Having to take care of four boys, Chika explained, was responsible for her wearing simple braids – dreadlocks. Asked what her odd traits were as all creative people manifest different such traits, Chika answered with a low laughter. She cannot burst a balloon. She does not wear wrist watches. Throw in a couple of such oddities more and the image is nearly complete.

Physically, the slim fair-skinned beauty hardly manifests traits of someone who had given birth to a child let alone four boys. Artistically, The Phoenix reveals her and a highly observant and deeply meditative writer. Her use of language is simple without being simplistic. She picks her words carefully and the story flows fluidly with considerable use of similes.

As Chika heads for Abuja on the next phase of her book tour, one gets the impression of some whose only destination is upward. Does she plan to go into other things in life other than writing?

“No. Although I intend to obtain a PhD in Anthropology,” she answered with a giggle.

No doubt a digger – into the souls of men and the past.

 

On the road less travelled with Kongi

February 26, 2008

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This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s new memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn is more than an individual’s life history. It encapsulates our collective journey in Nigeria as a people tracing painful steps and tumbling in our chequered history as The Nation (Nigeria) Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE writes

What would you give to spend time with your hero?

He is someone you greatly admire, but from afar. His person is an embodiment of your greatest dreams and aspirations. To just get into his presence would fill you with so much joy and fulfilment that money cannot buy.

People get trampled upon and die in attempts to catch glimpse of their heroes. Be it a football star or a political juggernaut, a business tycoon or a religious leader, heroes all over the world are desired – nay, coveted – objects of their admirers.

The Queen of Sheba of old crossed a long distance to reach King Solomon’s court. Julius Caesar’s victorious return and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem albeit atop a humble ass were hailed. In the same manner, when Wole Soyinka returned from four years exile at the demise of late dictator General Sani Abacha, Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos became a potential death ground due to the number of people who gathered to welcome him. In fact, Arthur Nwankwo, of the pro-democracy activists on the official welcome list had to be taken aside and resuscitated when he passed out due to the suffocating crowd.

He had not just won the Nobel Prize for Literature being the first Black man to win it. That happened in 1986. Yet it was a heroic welcome for a worthy leader. The truth is that that return was actually a summation of the nation’s struggles of recent years. Yes, the first fruit of the labour of our heroes past.

So, what would you give to spend time with this genius cum activist extraordinaire? What if he invites you to accompany him on a journey during which he is willing to talk about his escapades, trials, travails, tribulations, temptations, triumphs… the truth and nothing but the whole truth?

 WHEN THE DAY BREAKS

When the lion roars, the whole jungle goes quite. When a writer of Wole Soyinka’s status picks up the quill, it is time to pay attention. Yet it is difficult to pay attention to this complex man. This writer has read a lot of reviews of the book, You Must Set Forth At Dawn. In the same vein, he has asked many learned Yoruba speakers to translate the title into that language in which Soyinka thinks before writing in English language.

The truth is that Soyinka’s writings are difficult for many to understand because they approach them from the angle of English literature. As Yoruba linguist and distinguished writer Akinwumi Isola told Soyinka when the former was translating one of the latter’s works into Yoruba, it was a retranslation. In other words, the original work, Death and the King’s Horseman was composed in Yoruba and translated into English in the process of writing.

You Must Set Forth At Dawn is not just a title. It is, like any good book title, a summary of the thematic essence of the memoir. Owuro l’ojo. That is the way Yoruba since ancient days expressed it. Life – whether of an individual or a community – is a journey.

A saying talks about what happens when the day breaks in Africa. The antelope needs to run faster than the fastest lion to stay alive, otherwise it becomes food. The lion has to run faster than the slowest antelope to stay alive, otherwise it has no food. So, when the day breaks in Africa, whether you are a lion or an antelope, you must start running. You must set forth at dawn. Owuro l’ojo!

 A COMPLEX TALE

Decades after breaking free from the shackles of colonialism, most African nations still grapple with the elementary stages of development. Natural and man-made hurdles make self fulfilment a near impossible task for the average African. Conflicting opinions struggle for space on the pages of newspapers just as machine guns and tanks reverberate in the jungles and on the streets. Theorists and analysts give different interpretations to the root causes and solutions to the continent’s myriad of problems. It is such a complex web, an enigma shrouded in mystery.

How then does one tell the tale of Africa?

Wole Soyinka.

Nigeria is symbolic of Africa’s complexity. In size, diversity and complexity, Nigeria has manifested about all the woes of the continent – and some more. From the days preceding her independence from Great Britain in 1960, Wole Soyinka has been part and parcel of this giant of Africa’s story. So, in telling his story, Soyinka tells the story of Nigeria. In telling the story of Nigeria, he tells the story of Africa. It is like a fiction character presenting the story of a people. Only this is a real character telling a real life story.

Whoever designed the book cover was really in the mood. The illustration portrays an abstract image of the writer’s bust. Yet it is deeper than that. It is actually silhouettes of four acrobats, two head up and two upside down. Paired in twos, their ecstatic body juggling create an outline of the drama icon.

 THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

From undergraduate days at Leeds when he joined the officer training corps in 1955 with the intention of marching to South Africa to break loose the bonds of apartheid, Soyinka takes the reader on a journey. We follow the footsteps of the writer even up to the level when as a “senior citizen” he had to escape into exile on a motorcycle fully armed with a pistol. The crisis in the land has dictated that his coming of age precludes “T’agba ban de, a a ye ogun ja – as one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles.”

Now he did not fight in the kraals between Pretoria and Johannesburg. Rather, the Royal Government summoned him to take up arms against Egypt in the Suez Canal crisis! Such is the history of Africa. Take up arms against your brother! Of course, he declined renouncing his former oath of commitment. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, he would rather not decline the call up. But Essay – his pet name for his father, S. A. Soyinka – reprimanded him. “Come home and fight if you must die on the battle field.”

Fatherland beckons. So arm in arm with arms we go marching. Such is the journey of Africa, nay, the Black race as Soyinka tells it from the 1950s.

No, it predates even that. The story goes back to the dusty road that linked Isara, his paternal hometown, with Abeokuta, his maternal hometown, where he mostly grew up. The same Lufthansa airline that conveyed him along with a dear friend of his Femi Johnson’s corpse from Germany years earlier brought him home from exile.

A full circle? Life out of the deaths we had recorded?

Pained by the many deaths of colleagues and students along Ife-Ibadan road through motor accidents, he pioneered the Federal Road Safety Corps collaborating with dubious military dictators in the process. Yes, on this road, we must find a way of making our corpse walk. The blood shed in the course of the revolutionary struggle must make the land fruitful.

From the dusty paths to unsafe skyways, from prison custody to audiences with the world leaders, Soyinka has travelled Africa’s tortured road probably more than any of her citizens. Who then is better equipped to tell the tale? Rather, whose tale better tells the tale?

 WHERE ARE THE GODS?

Atop Temple Mount, Wole Soyinka received a “revelation” as he tells it in You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

It was in the course of his last preparations to return to Nigeria to further ruffle Abacha’s feathers by stirring the protests within the nation’s boundaries after playing junketing the globe – everywhere but Nigerian soil – for four years. On the eve of his departure from Israel, he visited the Temple Mount, that much disputed ground that is regarded as most sacred piece on planet earth by adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.

“There is a most eloquent spirituality about that much fought over land – I, an adherent of none of the three principal faiths that inhabit it, testify to this.” His words. There he received a spiritual shower of peace that informed him deep in his entrails that peace had come – at last. How, he could not tell. He writes, “But I felt no more anxiety, only a quiet trust in that moment, a serenity that transcended questions and uncertainties, as a pilgrim might who finds the mundane substance of his quest subsumed in a vision of eternity.”

Straight from Temple Mount, he went to the house of his host for a reception. There a persistent journalist trapped him for an interview. On his way home the journalist heard a news report on his car radio that made him return to Soyinka who was still at the reception. Abacha had died!

This came at the brink of actual armed struggle. Soyinka and other democracy activists had struggled with the idea for years and it seemed there would be no other option. Now on the brink of the nation plunging into civil war, the man leading all to Armageddon whom Soyinka referred to as Triple “D” – diminutive, demented dictator – became Quadruple “D” – diminutive, demented, deceased dictator!

Divine intervention? So many believe.

Africans always wonder, where are the gods? Or where is God or Allah? It all depends on one’s spiritual position. Raised within the premises St. Peter’s at Ake in Abeokuta, Nigeria’s first church location, Wole Soyinka never followed the footsteps of his mother whom he calls the Wild Christian. His paternal grandfather set his feet on the path Ogun very early in life. He himself has come to identify with the deity. If not Ogun reincarnate, he is at least Eni Ogun, he who belongs to Ogun. “My adopted Muse would remain Ogun,” he decided early in life.

Ogun is the Yoruba god of iron. He is the god who protects from metallic weapons as waste in battles and on the roads. All the hunter’s exploits are attributable to him. He is also the creative muse, father of poetry. His flirtations are legendary. Soyinka is all Ogun is and thematic explorations in his works reflect these right from his early writings to You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

The truth is that the complexity of Ogun is a reflection of the path Nigeria, nay Africa, has travelled. We have been on the road. We have encountered all sorts of turns and tumbling. Some can be explained but a good number of our fortunes are mysterious. So, we often wonder where the gods are when people like Idi Amin Dada reign while people like Patrice Lumumba are wasted without recompense or retribution.

In this book, Soyinka does not claim to have the answer. His position is that of ancient African belief. Those things we can control we must seek to control. Those that are beyond us, the gods will handle. Armed with the faith of a man on divine mission, he moves into every battle believing nothing is impossible. BENEATH THE MASQUERADE

At a reception for Soyinka as described in You Must Set Forth At Down a masquerade did the unusual. It swung its massive covering over the celebrant showering prayers as the spirit spit chewed kola and sprayed mouth-rinsed drink over his head. Now the masquerade is the spirit of departed ancestors on visit to the living. So, no one is supposed to behold he who is beneath the mask just as no stranger beholds oro, the more mysterious masquerade that alights only at night.

Soyinka also had an encounter with oro. On his way into exile, he stopped over at a town in Benin Republic in the night while the festival was on. The oro masquerade showered prayers on him and gave him a “sacred” kola nut.

Eniyan ni n gbe eegun, ara orun o w’aye ri. Beneath the masquerade is a human being, the dead do not visit the physical world. That is a Yoruba proverb that unmasks the mystery. Yet the mystery persists.

Where was Radio Kudirat operating from? Who and who played what role in the June 12 crisis and the Abacha conflict years that follow? How has Soyinka related with Nigerian rulers over the years? What roles did foreign nations play in the democracy struggle? There are many questions the curious would love to get answers to when the issue of our recent history is raised.

In this memoir, Soyinka confirmed that the masquerade is actually a covered human being and yet retained that mystery behind it. A good number of names are revealed and their different roles tabled. Radio Kudirat, for example, was transmitting from the Scandinavia! A strictly confidential letter from then South African President Nelson Mandela to Sani Abacha as well as the latter’s replay are reproduced in the appendix. Roles of different governments – who gave money, who offered military training support, etc. – are presented. For example, while Burkina Faso was ready to be the launching pad for armed insurgency and Sierra Leone rebels offered collaboration, Ghana’s J. J. Rawlings was no only an Abacha collaborator but was actually on the hated dictator’s payroll.

Who is Longa Throat? Don’t expect to find the answer in You Must Set Forth At Dawn. Named after American Watergate scandal’s Deep Throat, he is the deep source of information at the topmost level in Aso Rock who revealed, for example, that M. K. O. Abiola was going to be murdered. Stating that preventing the president-elect from ascending the throne was “a pre-conceived plan of the new regime” of Abdusalaam Abubakar, the source informed the movement that there were forces within the army that were “hell bent on destroying the corporate existence of Nigeria than see Abiola become the president.”

In the same vein, while referring to the Pirates Confraternity and roles of its members and even publishing a photograph of its founding members, Soyinka refrains from revealing identities of members directly. BEYOND THIS STAGE

The path of the road is deep. Under the ground it rumbles. The enshrouding forests tell tales of passages and passengers gone by. The sky bear witness of current traverses. Bends and curves, slopes and plains speak of endlessness of not only the road but also of passengers.

In Petals of Blood, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Th’iongo tells centuries of history of a people in the course a story spanning a few days. In the same manner, in You Must Set Forth At Dawn, Wole Soyinka took the years of June 12 struggle and in it weaves the tale of our history up to May 29, 1999.

The street protests that immediately followed the annulment is used to cast the reader back to Operation Wet E election protests of Western Nigeria in the mid-1960s. Abeokuta women’s reaction at the same time is linked with Egba Women Riot led by late Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Horrors of penetrating violence ridden Lagos from Benin Republic by the author recalls similar experience along with Bola Ige in the 1960s along Sagamu-Lagos road.

Apart from brief mention of Olusegun Obasanjo becoming a civilian president and mention of post-May 29 events like the murder of Bola Ige, Soyinka virtually closed You Must Set Forth At Dawn with his return from exile.

When he published his first autobiography, Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka promised he would not write another like it. Why? He believes no biography that goes beyond “the age of innocence”, which he puts at around 12, is accurate. Then he returned from exile to drop Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years on our laps. Does the ending of his latest work mean he is planning another one?

This might be so or might not be so. In his ruminations on years following the Nobel Prize when he could not write, Soyinka revealed that he writes as moved by the Muse. If it comes, good. If it does not, there are other things to do.

Beatification of the Area Boy was originally the story of Lagos and Ibadan street boys and girls. But it found home in Kingston, Jamaica and became the launching pad for a theatre movement there. In the same vein, Soyinka’s sons, Olaokun and Ilemakin, had become path of the struggle in the book. So, maybe Soyinka reserves the documentation of our history as it continues for coming generations.

His faith in the next generation is revealed in an encounter at Wimbledon soon after the demise of Abacha and he was now free to breathe the air of freedom. Accompanied by his first son to go and watch a tennis game, Soyinka was confronted by a young lady who upon recognising him rushed forward to enthusiastically greet him. Soyinka said he later regretted missing the opportunity of buying a drink for the lady whom he had never met before and telling her her generation holds the future.

The lady? Zainab Abacha – daughter of his dead enemy!

Igun Eronmwon: Guardian of ageless tradition

September 25, 2007

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Eric Ogbemudia

Ancient bronze casting

For centuries, Igun Street in ancient Benin City has been the home of famous Benin bronze casting. When The Nation Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE visited the street some days ago, he found the street and its art tradition much unchanged. Descendants of the originators of the sacred craft still operate in close knitted communal exclusionism

Multi-coloured interlocking bricks cover the street. Much like ancient Benin City streets, it is a wide road. Should the government decide to dualise the road, there would be no need for demolition of buildings. The setbacks between the covered road-side gutters and the buildings make enough room for that.

The buildings themselves reflect the character of the street. It is a collection of bungalows that few living would dare boast of sharing the same age with. Rusty corrugated iron roofs all, they are all bungalows except for a couple of storey buildings. Built in the days of mud structures, their pillars stand firm as if defying change and modernity. The same sense of solidity creates an atmosphere whereby no structure needs a fence.

To grab the essence of Igun Street, one needs to enter from the imposing King’s Square via Sakpoba Street. A mammoth arched gateway welcomes the guest to the base of Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild.

A guild it is in the deepest traditional sense of the word. Igun Eronmwon as its Benin name is has been there for centuries. Membership is restricted to Igun Street indigenes who are in the art of bronze carving. The only other members from outside Igun Street are descendants of the original carvers who had moved on and settled in other parts of town.

More rusty than the dirt-brown corrugated iron sheets that shield the bungalows from torrential rainfalls and sunshine are the prescient precious pieces adorning the shops that line up the street. They attract attention of seekers from far and near. Whites travel across the oceans to acquire. Blacks travel across bridges to admire. For centuries, Benin bronze casting has been in a class of its own.

The Benin monarch, Ovonranwen Nogbaisi was in one of his most sacred retreats during which he was not supposed to receive any visitor when British expeditionary force leader Captain Philips rode into town demanding an audience with the former. Of course, the impossibility of granting his request – no matter what mighty empire he claimed to represent – was made clear to him.

Who were these barbarians in the deep heart of darkness resisting a “legitimate” request of the Crown representative for an audience with their man on the “stool”?

A force was mobilised. Captain Philips led an expeditionary force whose attitude Wole Soyinka described in You Must Set Forth At Dawn as:

“His Majesty’s Britannic servants were not to be denied however, and they forced their way into the city, with gruesome consequences. Such insolence was not to be countenanced! Orders were issued to mount a punitive expedition, and they were carried out with equally gruesome efficiency. Numerous treasures, the spoils of war were shipped back to England – to offset the cost of the war, the British dispatches stated, with admirable candour. Among them was the ivory mask, the alleged head of Benin princess.”

The ivory Idia head that later became the icon of the Second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ’77, was just one of the numerous artefacts the British stole during the expedition. The stolen works were predominantly bronze works. Their origin? Igun Street, the home of ancient Benin bronze casting mystery.

How did it all begin?

In those days when Benin knew no Oba – so far, there had been 38 Obas in the kingdom – the Ogiso reign supreme. The days of Ogiso Uwas was credited with being the beginning of the ancient art. That was sometimes around 300 to 500 BC. However, its specific roots can only be traced back to 1280 AD.

“In every invention,” Eric Ogbemudia, the Secretary of the Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild told The Nation, “there is always a point at which a man’s name is associated with the new invention. This does not necessarily mean there was no such an invention can undoubtedly be ascribed to the person.”

An HND holder in sculpture from The Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, Eric Ogbemudia is the poster boy for Igun Street bronze casting tradition. When The Nation entered the street, the very first gallery owner directed the writer to him. “He is the one who can give authoritative information about the Guild and its traditions and operations.”

Born into bronze casting family, Ogbemudia traces his lineage back to Igwera. Igwera it was who was documented to have brought the bronze casting art to Benin in 1280. From where is a question nobody can really answer.

“There are speculations that it was brought from Sudan or Egypt,” Ogbemudia said. “We are researching that now. But there is the possibility that it could have been evolved in Benin here. There were many metal craft shops in Benin then. Metal workers made arrows, swords and daggers for warfare long before the Europeans came. In the process of metal smelting this particular metal could have been detected.”

Scientifically, this is a great possibility. Bronze melts faster than iron. In between, iron stands suspended above bronze liquid – the only condition in which the heavy metal stands suspended on the surface of any liquid – thereby producing a distinct raw material for any creative metal worker.

One way or the other, Igwera is credited with the exalted status of bronze work in Benin.

“The Oba of Benin blessed the Guild,” Ogbemudia said. “There are other guilds such as the metal fabricators and carpenters’ guilds. They are either extinct or in the process of becoming extinct. The Bronze Casters’ Guild remains because it was blessed by the Oba.”

Igwera’s son, Inneh, became the head of the Guild. To date, the Inneh remains the head while the Oba of Benin remains the grand patron. Closely related to the Oba both biologically and in physical location, the descendants of Igwera had carried on the tradition of being court artistes for these centuries.

When the British came calling – or shall we say stealing? – I 1897, what they picked were mostly small sized bronze works. According to practitioners of the art The Nation spoke with at Igun Street, the forage was more or less a mixed blessing. Generally, works were about 18 inches long then. Now they reach as tall as eleven-foot tall statue of the leader of Nigeria’s first revolutionary putch, late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu which stands on a four-foot platform at his Okpanaku hometown near Asaba in Delta State. Executed by the same Eric Ogbemudia, it is a testimony to the coming of age of Benin bronze tradition.

In vain Nigeria waited for the return of the Idia head for the FESTAC ’77. The cunning British denied the entire Black race even its symbolic presence at the opening ceremonies.

Exceptional the British thought – and still think – their illegal acquisitions to be. No doubt they are of unquantifiable value. These are part of a people’s heritage for the sake of all that is good and sacred. Talking of sacred, these are sacred pieces. More on that later. Yet, the pieces they took away measured average of about 18 inches. Compared to what their arousal of interest had generated in Benin bronze artecraft, new works virtually dwarf their predecessors; if only in size!

From all over the world, arts lovers, historians, ethnologists, anthropologists and indeed all categories of tourists troupe to Igun Street to behold the marvel of Benin bronze culture. “They come here with high expectations,” said Ogbemudia, “only to behold our humble dwellings and wonder if truly all they had heard about emanated from this rustic settings. Not a view pay for a foundry demonstration of the production process.

Who blames them? Just a while ago, an Idia head sold for N6.6 million out there in the world market. Mark it, without any reparation paid to the original creators and inheritors of the artefact!

The curious can still experience the good old bronze casting process. Little had changed over the centuries. The lost wax method still reigns supreme.

Clay is moulded into desired shape. Then the envisaged object is shaped in wax. Another layer of clay coats the well-shaped artistic design. The next step is the firing stage. As the heat rises to up to 700 degrees centigrade, wax of course disintegrates into nothingness literally evaporating into thin – or thick – air. While this is progressing, the bronze is being heated. At 800 degrees, it melts. The molten bronze is then poured in to replace the absent wax through a funnel space created in the moulding process.

The entire thing cools down and there emerges the precious object. Cleaning, filing, scraping and other finishes complete the process after the clay that had fulfilled its part of the creative process has been dislodged, crushed for tomorrow’s production schedule.

To date, women are not allowed into the ogun ogwa, the foundry where the production of Benin bonze takes place. They can purchase products for further marketing anyway or assist their spouses, parents and relations in the later stage of the creative sojourn. Women’s presence at the foundry is a taboo kept over the centuries.

In the same manner, children get initiated into the production process early in life. From around the age of four, they are sent on petty errands such as fetching clay for the mould. As they grow older they naturally grow into the production system. It is natural and ritualistic.

The Benin bronze casters do belong to the Guild Igun Eronwon, no doubt. But each person chooses what God to worship. While someone like the secretary of the Guild boasts of four generations of Christians in his lineage, others adhere to traditional religious practices.

Yet they preserve some deep-rooted traditional rituals no one can breach. For example, be you an inquisitive journalist or a researcher in quest of facts, you have to donate something to the Guild. There is no fixed price but you would need to remember that the smallest figurine on display in the average gallery goes for not less than N6000.

Their lifestyles are generally normal. A good number are craft artists who reproduce existing figures and figurines. Those who are really creative types who delve into experimentation in new forms and shapes tend to have the nature of all artists worldwide. Isolation is a good companion in the creative process!

Their assignment, right from ancient days, had been a sacred one. No one cast any object without the permission of the Oba of Benin. The Igun people, led by their 12 titled chiefs at the head of which is the Inneh, served as the camera that documented important occasions at the court of the Omo N’Oba. When such an event is considered worthy of documentation, they are then commissioned to execute the project.

At the beginning, most of Benin bronze works were the kings and queens and other notable royalties. There were those that documented in one sweeping montage the story of the entire reign of a monarch. Such can be found at the National Museum at Onikan, Lagos and the Benin Museum. In the same manner, non-bronze products such as word carvings and paintings can now be found at the average Igun gallery.

As the British raid exposed the Benin bronze art to worldwide limelight, themes began to change. Today is not unusual to find Ife heads – an old theme, some of the practitioners argue – and other modern designs among the products on display in the some 200 retail outlets and galleries that line Igun Street. Next to the ancient images such as the abe and ada ceremonial swords, you would find images of Jesus on the cross and other artistic motif from other cultures across the land and beyond. Even abstract expressionism find its place in the creative foundry of Igun Street.

“Often times,” Ogbemudia said, “we receive commission from other states. They tell us what they want and we cast it for them.”

Patronage has grown beyond the traditional court collection circle. From all over the world people come to acquire Igun bronze works. Apart from direct collectors, there are arts dealers, especially those located within big hotels and other such outlets frequented by tourists and collector, who come an purchase in bulk for retailing.

In the same manner, battery-propelled bellows had made inroad into the once purely hand operated types. The yearning of the practitioners of the ancient art is that light would be stable. At least that would help propel their bellows. Beyond this, they aspire to using modern high tech bellows and cleaning machines.

If only the government would heed their call.

Walk down Igun Street. Where the road is intersected by First East Circular Street, the dream evaporates. The tile pavement of the road ends. What one is ushered into is muddy gullies dominated road that is practically out of reach bounds to vehicles.

End of the ancient dream that had been preserved over the centuries? Hardly. One only need to be reminded that one of the young “practitioners in training” is a medical student of the University of Benin. If an HND holder from Auchi Polytechnic returned home to take of the profession and a medical student is still growing within the family tradition, Igun Eronmwon, Guild of Igun Bronze Casters, surely has a future!