- Udenwe, Kekeghe, Nwelue, Akano, others win ANA prizes 2021
- Panel sessions, book donation make ANA @40 anniversary unique, memorable
- Auditorium named after ANA founder, Chinua Achebe
By Anote Ajeluorou (who was in Abuja)
IT was a moment of glory for Nigerian writers, as they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of Africa’s largest gathering of a writers’ body inside the Chinua Achebe Auditorium in a facility they can now proudly call their own at the Mamman Vatsa Writers Village at Mpape, Abuja. The wait and way to the writers’ village had been long, uncertain and tortuous, but finally they arrived there courtesy of the doggedness of the current executive, led by Mr. Camilus Ukah as president and his predecessor, Mallam Denja Abdullahi, and the board of trustees and advisory council that stood solidly behind the executive to achieve this milestone.
While Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan delivered the anniversary lecture which he titled ‘The Story as Escort’, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo delivered the convention lecture titled ‘Resilience and National Building: The Role of Nigerian Literature’.
When writers gathered from state chapters last week Wednesday, November 3, 2021, it was through a winding, well-paved but meandering road akin to a race course to arrive at a breath-taking spectacle of a fast-developing estate. The contractor-developer was still at work putting finishing touches to certain places, particularly the parking lot and the auditorium. A food court under a canopy had been set up to cater for the culinary needs of the writers who were arriving from their various states, and who fell to the food with zest.
That evening at the ‘Festival of Life’, a drama performance of Abuja Nunyi (This is Abuja), written by former president of the association, Mallam Abdullahi, was held to welcome writers from across the country while a cocktail was also served.
This year’s convention attracted a large gathering of scholar-writers who ranged from Idris Amali to Femi Osofisan, Remi Raji-Oyelade, Ezeigbo, Sunny Ododo, Agima, Joe Ushie, Mabel Evwierhoma, Greg Mbajorgu, Stephen Kekeghe, May Ifeoma Okoye, Na’Allah Abdulrasheed, Al-Bishak, James Tsaaior, and many others. The obvious magnet was the new home Nigerian writers have moved into. The novelty of the experience was too alluring to be told second hand news.
Even the court injunction from a minor faction debarring the writers from holding their convention seemed to have provided the fuel for the huge turnout of writers. Although some state chapters stayed away, like Lagos and Kaduna, perhaps in support of the marginal faction, the spirit of celebration was so palpable that no chapter’s absence was noticed or felt. The deft manouvering by the association’s executive, its board of trustees and council ensured that the court’s restraining order came to no effect, as the convention turned out not just smooth but an innovation on previous ones.
What made the difference
The introduction of panel discussion sessions was an obvious innovation and departure from past ANA conventions, which this writer aptly dubbed “a yearly literary jamboree that had no know benefits for writers who converged every year merely to see each”. This was in a piece for The Guardian (Nigeria) after ANA held its convention in Makurdi in 2017. The programmes that usually constituted ANA convention were the Festival of Light held on the evening of arrival of writers at a designated state capital, usually on a Thursday. The next day, a university lecturer would mount the podium to deliver a paper on a given topic. Writers then drift about or go shopping in town. In some cases, a tour is arranged for them to a historic site. Next day Saturday, the AGM would be held till late in the evening; this morphs into the convention dinner and literary prize awards. Thereafter, it’s goodbye and writers depart for their respective states only to await the following year’s convention with the same ritual.
But this year, the Camilus Ukah-led executive did something that truly bore the stamp of a literary festival or convention worth the name by introducing exciting panel discussions on topical literary issues, with an equally fine selection of experts in those fields who spoke knowledgeably to those issues to the active participation and admiration of the writerly audience.
Panel sessions that were held included the one on ‘Travelogue’, which had Prof. Dul Johnson and Prof. Mabel Evwierhoma in conversation with De. Wale Okediran moderating as chairman. Dr. Daniel Ibrahim, Mrs. Mujeeda Abdul Aleem Olagunju and Linda Mustafa who were advertised as panelists failed to make it, making Evwierhoma to step in and give proper insight into the issue of travel writing from her theatre performance perspective. The panel on ‘Children’s Literature’ had Dr. Osarugo and Mrs. Chinyere Obi-Obasi in conversation while prize winner in the genre, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo chaired the session.
However, panel sessions such as ‘Novel Writing as Art: Conversations with Veterans’ that had Prof. JOJ Nwachukwu-Agbaja, Mrs. Bina Nengi-Ilagha, Obinna Udenwe and Dr. Lola Akande in conversation, with Prof. Rezinat Mohammed as chairman did not hold. Also, the panel session on ‘Drama’ that had Prof. Sunny Ododo, Prof. Evwierhoma, Denja Abdullahi, Dr. Obari Gomba and Dr. Ojel Anidi, with Prof. Ahmed Yarima as chairman did not hold. A similar fate befell the session on ‘Poetry’ that ought to have Prof. Al-Bishak, Prof. Moses Tsenongo, Prof. Joe Ushie and Dr. Ebi Yeibo, with Prof. Remi Raji as chairman.
Other panel sessions were on ‘Writing on Indigenous Language’, ‘’Language and Literature’, ‘Rights of the Writer’ which had Nigeria Copyright Commission’s (NCC) Director-General, Mr. John Asein chairing a session of legal professionals, and ‘The Writer’s Responsibility in a Distressed Society’ that also didn’t hold. In view of how critical the issues in these topics are, Ukah would do well to put them forward again in next convention and secure the panelists’ word to be present so writers be the beneficiaries of their seminal minds on their contributions to these issues.
Indeed, this innovation in convention programming signals a new direction for ANA in confronting some of the knotty issues bedevilling creative writing in the country and how writers, especially young writers can find the yearly convention a literary feast to look forward to. Perhaps because of its newness, many panelists were absent. It’s hoped that future conventions will see panelists turning up. It can be reasonably argued that many festivals in the country sprang up to fill this yawning gap ANA left unfilled with many dub drab convention programming. This initiative needs to be sustained in the coming years with yet more innovative ideas and make ANA conventions the truly go-to literary festivals of choice.
40 thousand books for 40 schools
This initiative is perhaps the clincher for this year’s ANA @40 convention. Indeed, it was as if ANA had slumbered all these years and remained impervious to the acute book famine in the country especially among young people. While many secondary schools have scant books in their libraries, especially public schools, a vast majority have no libraries at all. And so most young people leave secondary school without a faint idea what a library looks like much less use one. This tragic neglect of public schools is one of the important factors that is at the root of poor educational attainment in the country. For ANA under Ukah and his team to rise up to the need to make intervention in this crucial area deserves commendation. It’s not just the donation of 1,000 books to 40 schools across Nigeria, but a collapsible book shelf also accompanies the books to the lucky schools selected.
However, a better selection modality would have to be deployed. Out of the 10 lucky schools that were handed their share of the 40,000 books, only four were public schools that usually suffer huge deficit in books while more private schools got. The percentage should rather be skewed in favour of public schools whose students come from poor backgrounds and so find it difficult to buy needed books.
Also, it was a moment of peer endorsement for Obinna Udenwe who missed out winning The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021 when he clinched the inaugural Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature with his novel, Colours of Hatred, worth N1 million. Other writers who won at the 40th anniversary convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) are Dr. Stephen Kekeghe of Department of English, Ajayi Crowder University, Oyo, Oyo State, who jointly won the poetry prize with Kehinde Akano, with Rumbling Sky and Pajepolobi respectively, just as Onyeka Nwekue won the prose prize with his novel, The Strangers of Braamfontein. For drama, The Mudskippers by Dr. Peter Omoko of Department of English, University of Africa, Toru-Orua, Bayelsa State, took the first prize while Jide Ogunlana’s A Girl Called Corona Sofia won for children’s literature prize. Kekeghe said he was dedicating his prize “to all my teachers and mentors in all the stages of my academic voyages”.
Also, seven members were conferred with ANA Fellows at the dinner and award night that brought this year’s convention to a close. They are Profs. Evwierhoma, Ododo, and Ushie. Others are Abdullahi, Bina Nengi-Ilagha, Chukwudi Eze and Hafsat Abdulwaheed who could not make the event.
Perhaps the best way to derive maximum gains from the association’s home and permanent structures still being built would be to have hired or contract personnel to properly run its affairs. With the president and his executive either holding day jobs or running businesses and living well away from Abuja, the association will always be operate its activities on adhoc basis. But with such permanent staff on ground either on salary or commission with clear deliverable mandate, ANA can then begin the serious business of implementing programmes that will have far-reaching implications for its members and allow it play roles that would impact its members and serve the body of writers well. To achieve this, ANA can borrow a leaf from the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) and modify its operational model to suit the local scene. However, this would also have to be worked into the constitution so such staff isn’t subjected to the whims and caprices of an incoming executive, so as to ensure continuity and sustainability.
Also, collaborations and partnerships are some ways ANA can realise some its activities and programmes without breaking sweat. As a residency for writers and seeking out and publishing near-extinct or out-of-print works by Nigerian writers are great ways for ANA to memorialise itself. With a hotel and shopping facilities being conceived as part of the new home, it will be easy to work out some of these programmes and strategies to reposition ANA away from where it is coming. The Lagos MUSON Centre model is a great one that ANA can tap into and endear itself to donors who can gift the association buildings and facilities that can be named after such donors.
However, while the Chinua Achebe Auditorium is a great event centre, it falls short of certain measurements; it appears not to have been well thought-out before execution. Although two plays were staged at the auditorium, the sound output didn’t come out right. It could have been designed such that it serves dual purposes of being a hall for sundry social activities as well as a solid theatre with soundproof for stage performances that would prevent actors’ voices from echoing and getting lost while speaking. But the cheering news is that it can still be repurposed to add those features that can make also serve the theatre needs both of ANA and others who would hire it for performances.