- Our writers too have lost faith in our country; want to be published abroad’
- ‘Carnival greed of the right and strong’ destroying the earth
- ‘The library is not replaceable; search engine is fast food’
By Anote Ajeluorou
ALTHOUGH ‘GREEN: Sighs of an Ailing Planet’ which makes a passionate plea on behalf of our endangered earth, was the advertised new collection of poems professor emeritus of English at New Orleans University, U.S., Niyi Osundare would read from, the lyrical poet added another one. ‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’, poems published in Nigeria’s daily newspapers, brings the urgency of his ever-new messages closer home. Inside the ample space of Roving Heights Bookstore in upscale Landmark Event, Oniru, Victoria Island, Lagos, was packed to brimming point for the master stylistician who only momentarily removed his nosemask to let those who didn’t know him much to see him properly. But he firmly clamped it on all through the reading and book signing ritual.
Osundare started reading from ‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’, so he could address the usual problems of his much beloved but groaning homeland which he said he had to run away from in spite having benefited from her benevolence, lamenting: ”How can my country invest so much in me and then I just run away?” Osundare trained as a Stylistician at York University, Toronto, Canada, on a scholarship.
For those who believe relocating out of the mess that their country Nigeria has become and envy the many others who have relocated abroad, Osundare doesn’t have a comforting word for them. He told them in plain terms: ”Diaspora is not relocation but dislocation. No gold waiting for you to pick on the streets of Europe (or America). No. Dislocation is not unproblematic, but I guess I manage it. I have seen people suffer in the diaspora. There’s so much beauty in our country (a beauty yet to be harnessed for the good of the people). Our writers have lost faith in this country. Writers want to be published abroad. If our people buy books, we will be able to set up prizes. (But certainly not in the ways African economies are rigged to impoverish a vast majority of the people).
”Four out of five young men and women I meet want to run away from our country and our rulers don’t care. And I don’t think they (rulers) love this country, and our country is bleeding. White men came and our people sold our own people away. If there were no sellers, there would not have been buyers. Now, it’s through the Sahara desert, and they die (trying to get to Europe and away from the hell at home).”
From ‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’ Osundare read ‘Wonderland’, a poem he modelled after Akeem Lasisi’s of the same title; ‘Our Dirty Currency’, ‘Third Term Blues’, ‘My Lord, Tell Me Where to Keep Your Bribe’, and ‘Black and Blue’ were the other poems he read from that collection.
Osundare also explained what he sees as the difference between ‘rulers’ that tend to populate much of Africa’s political landscape who make life miserable for their people and ‘leaders’ which Europe and America are blessed with, and who have made their countries so good many Africans are running away from Africa’s rulers to where leaders inhabit. He noted that rulers lack human compassion and sympathy and are only after their own selfish interests and exert impunity in their dealings whereas leaders operate in a different sphere, as they willingly submit themselves to be held accountable for their actions. But there is a recent exception to this leadership-rulership mix in a recent American president in Mr. Donald Trump who he still views with consternation: ”I was starting to learn and unlearn in advanced America what I had learnt back home in our Banana Republic where we don’t even have enough banana to feed our people with!”
Then Osundare turned his attention to his current poetry collection, ‘GREEN: Sighs of an Ailing Planet’, which in a way is an extension of his ‘The Eye of the Earth’, published in 1985, which he said he wrote it on the grounds of the botanical gardens of University of Ibadan amidst the early morning dews falling on him, with a flashlight, the ambience of nature fertilising his imagination. He’d just returned from his native Ikere-Ekiti and had had a cynical encounter with some timber loggers who openly asked him if the trees being cut were Osundare’s own arms that he cared what happened to the trees! It was something he needed to responded urgently, and ‘The Eye of the Earth’ was it.
”I published ‘The Eye of the Earth’ in 1985,” he told his audience. ”That was long before the campaign for the environment gained currency. Today, when I read the poems, I wonder, because environmental sanity issues and so on were not in the air at that time, but somehow they were in my conscience. I went to Canada to study, I came back in 1979 and went to visit my father in Ikere-Ekiti in the countryside. I grew up in the rainforest area of Nigeria, and I discovered that swathes and swathes of land had been denuded, because the trees had been cut, and so I kept asking people. Someone even asked if my arm was the one being cut. And I said no.
”Eventually I had to come back to Ibadan, and the first movement in ‘The Eye of the Earth’ happened in the botanical garden of the University of Ibadan. I still remember I started writing at 5:30 in the morning. I was in that garden, a flashlight in my hand. That was how I started scribbling. The dews fell on me. Now, the situation of the world has gotten worse. I think I’m more passionate about it than I was at that time, because our world is disappearing, and the denials are the ones that bother me. People are still saying there is no climate change; just the earth reorganising itself.”
Osundare recalled Hurricane Kathrina that nearly killed him and his family in his New Orleans home; he managed to escape the deadly storm with the skin of his teeth, with only a boxer and t-shirt on him, and no slippers.
”When Hurricane Kathrina nearly killed me, and Prof. Wole Soyinka sent me an email, and I still remember. He said, ‘Ayaranmo, so-so and so on… I just drove by Ahmadu Bello Way, and I’m wondering when our own Katrina is going to come. Ahmadu Bello Way. Why? Water has memory; it has patience. You may cheat it, but you can’t cheat it forever. It has a way of coming back to reclaim what you took away from it. That was what happened to New Orleans. The sea came to my house, and it is coming, going, coming to different places in the world. Coastal cities are disappearing. You cut a tree in the rain forest or in the Amazon jungle and it affects the iceberg in the Arctic and the Antarctic. People don’t see the connectedness. The enemies of humankind are people who don’t see the connectednesss. I’m looking at that, and I’m also looking at nuclear Armageddon, the way people play with it. People were talking about Chernobyl and so on, and I’m asking them to remember Free Man Island in America and Fukuyama in Japan.”
Osundare recalled how his own mother, like many other Africans, used to venerate the earth each morning when she woke up by calling on the earth priest or priestess through invocation of peace even when there was no war or hostility. He now wonders why man treats earth with so much cavalier attitude.
”Early in the morning, my mother never failed to trace patterns on the earth with her middle finger,” he said, ”and the song she usually sang was: ‘The days of hostility and war, it is the earth that ‘oloba’ (the earth priest or priestess) invokes.’ That is, the earth is so important to us. So the first one here is, ‘Owned In the Sky’. What happens on the earth affects what happens in the sky, and vice versa. Again, that connectedness, not just connection, but connectedness!”
From ‘GREEN: Sighs of an Ailing Planet’, he read ‘Main Street’, ‘Amazon Burns’, and ‘To Kamingo’, a poem dedicated to his Sierra Leonean friend and fellow wordsmith, Syl Cheney-Coker who grew up beside a river long ago but which has not been ”killed by plastic waste.” Coker has also written an epic novel in memory of the his childhood river now lost entitled ‘Sacred River’. Osundare also read ‘For World Food Day’ (‘oriki oonje’), also in praise of planet earth for sustaining man who still impudently destroys it in his ribald bid to exploit its resources for mega profits. Coker had shown Osundare the dead river when the two of them were the subject of a documentary film by some Americans and he marvelled that a river once ran through such a desolate place.
He also read ‘Stubborn Hope’ in honour of eminent South African poet Dennis Brutus who was imprisoned for fighting against Apartheid government alongside legendary Nelson Mandela. Osundare ended the reading session with ‘Still We Sing’, a celebratory poem in spite of the bleakness that tends to pervade the subjection of the collection, that indeed man and earth will some day surely triumph.
Deeply steeped in his native Yoruba lore, Osundare sang and read poems in Yoruba to the delight of the audience who he made to also participate in the songs in call and response fashion. There’s a poem he dedicated to the memory of the late writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, teased along the lyrics of Wole Soyinka’s 1980s track, ‘I Love My Country I No Go Lie’ in the ‘Unlimited Liability Company’ musical LP album.
The multiple prize-winning poet also touched on other current subjects of interest to writing and literature generally. For instance, in his response to the use of social media and how search engines now rule the lives of many writers, Osundare said search engines have their own limitations that a library does not have, and advised writers to shun the notion that the library is dead as a result of search engines.
”If you live your life on search engines, your life will be fat but empty,” he asserted. ”The library is not replaceable. Search engine is fast food. No depth and no indigenous knowledge there for you to see. It’s something childish and artificial. Perhaps, the Third World War might be declared by someone who reads something on social media.”
Also, Osundare has words for proponents of radical ecology, saying such extremity in pushing environmental action might be misplaced, as was and still is radical feminism to which he subscribed until he arrived the west and saw firsthand its total male annihilation proposition and he recoiled from it, preferring instead a middle course like ‘womanism’.
EARLIER, Osundare commended the indefatigable duo of Jahman Anikulapo and Toyin Akinosho of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) for keeping the country’s literary ship from sinking deeper and deeper into the turbulent socio-political and economic sea that Nigeria has become.
”In a country as materialistic and philistine as Nigeria,” he said, ”this is not just a job; it is a vocation, almost monastic in its import. Art dies when it doesn’t get a response, and CORA has made sure that that catastrophe has not hit Nigerian art, particularly, literary art. They started in Toyin Akinosho’s backyard when he was young, and little by little, a man who studied geology, and I used to read some of his Artsville articles to my classes at the University of Ibadan, they have grown this big. Most of the students believed he was a lecturer in one of our universities. Thank you! Nigeria doesn’t know how to say thank you to us writers, unless when it is time to hang us. I will sing a song for Ken Saro-Wiwa as we go on. You celebrate us and we should also celebrate you.”
He also praised Roving Heights Bookstore for the ambience it provides for book events.
”This ambience is unique,” he said. ”When I was an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, I used to go to the University Bookshop every morning. I loved the smell of new books. Then, there were always books on sale; that was then, a long time ago. Here, you see books in different categories: children’s books, poetry, business, self-help, then literature, literature, and literature; I think they are biased in our favour. Thank you, Roving Heights. May your heights keep getting higher. Please, don’t relent in your effort. I just want to say thank you to my publishers, too.”
Osundare also expressed gratitude to the Nigerian media ”for what it is doing to keep shinning a light on the rulers. ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Punch’, ‘The Nation, and ‘Sahara Reporters’. So what we have here (‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’) are selections from the different media.”
A man who grew up on the healthy diet of literature and history and how the two interconnect and interact in telling fuller stories about a country’s past from the future, Osundare said, ”Let’s begin with the idea of literature and history. Often, people draw lines between them. What I see are interconnectedness and bridges. Any writer of consequence is a historian of a kind, and any historian of consequence has to be a literary artist, too. Literature is visionary history and I think historians know this too, in making sure that the future does not forget, especially in a country like ours and a continent like ours, where we are like the nanny goats, beaten countless times for same offense.”
Before he signed copies of his books for his eager audience, Lasisi, who Osundare praised so highly for his poetry-music and how he has digitised his art to make it available to a global audience, performed his usual poetic fares, with Edaeto in tow leading the band in chorus, all in honour of the eminent bard of Ikere-Ekiti lore.