Selflessness, quest for a better society as drivers of artistic spirit in Nigeria, says Oribhabor

by anote
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Oribhabor at a performance session

*‘At PIN, we use poetry to support causes’ *‘How politics is undermining arts, creativity in Nigeria’ *‘Art is about rescuing society from insanity’

Poets In Nigeria (PIN) is six years old. And in what the Sir Eriata Oribhabor-led vibrant youthful poetry group tags ‘PIN@6 Cross Country Festival/Celebration of Freedom and Creativity’, young poets, mostly those in universities and colleges, will hold a month-long celebration of poetry this October, as an expression of freedom and creativity with mouth-watering activities that include prizes, poetry book publishing, workshops, poetry slam, open mic and much more. Oribabhor tells ANOTE AJELUOROU that societies like Nigeria will be a better place with what the arts and creativity offer and enjoins government to pay more than massing attention to the arts for its rescue mission for a society tottering and at the brink.

What are your programmes from October to the end of the year?

THE programme of activities includes a literary discourse; there’s something we call ‘Literary Interview’ in Poets in Nigeria (PIN). The moderator solicits for people in the literary world, interviews them every Fridays and Sundays. The bigger interviews are mostly on Fridays, while the shorter ones are for Sundays. It’s that of Friday that is very consistent.

  What we did is to improve on what we did last year. It’s a general celebration of Poets in Nigeria at six years of its formation; so, we call it Cross Country celebration Freedom and Creativity. All the moderators at different centres will hold physical and online events. At Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, they will read poetry and have poetry performances, literary discussions and hangouts as well. So the programmes will just go on like that. There are Connect Centres in Abeokuta, Ago-Iwoye, Kano, and Calabar. We have one of the initiatives called Poets Awareness which focuses on the health of poets. Aduke Gomez, who wrote a poetry collection (On Attending My Own Wake & Other Episodes) about mental health will be featured. We also have another called Poetry Challenge, where we organize Poetry Challenge every month for ten days, and we post them online. So past winners will be interviewed, and a book on it will be unveiled, because all the poems that were contributed last year are being made into a book, which will be unveiled at that event. Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom moderates and coordinates it. Each year, we publish about eight books on the ten-day Poetry Challenge.

Oribhabor’s passion for growing poetry among the young see him giving award to a poet youngster

  Then on October 16 or so, we have something called Tongues of Poetry that is dedicated to Fulfude language that is spoken by the Fulani. So one of us even organized a workshop on Fulfude orthography that will be exhibited. We also have those who submitted poems when a call was made; so, those poems are going to be published in a book that will be unveiled on a specific day. At the Federal College of Education, Kano, there will be campus poetry reading and special reading of classical Fulfude poetry. There will be unveiling of PIN Fulfude Poetry Prize Anthology and Award. They’re going to be reading these poems for the first time in the history of that area. We need to have Tongues of Poetry. Amarachi who just went abroad used to moderate Tongues of Poetry in indigenous languages. So Tongues of Poetry offers opportunity for people to promote poetry in their various languages. So, there will be one on Fulfude language poetry.

  If you see the people that submitted poems for this project you will be shocked. They’re so excited that this is going to happen at their end. I might not be able to go to Kano but I’m happy that something is being done like that in Nigeria.

  It’s a cross country celebration, the October events. In Lagos here, we have something for children; we’re going to do something around Ajegunle axis. Funke Awodiya will do something like a writing workshop for children. Somewhere around Ojokoro, we will also be doing something. We’ve already printed the books and branded pens which the children will use to write. So, after that, towards the end of the month, it will be explosive because they will have poetry, spoken word and open mic performances.

Oribhabor with his two dynamic PIN assistants: Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom (left) and Funke Awodiya (right)

  In Maiduguri, there will be spoken word performance. In Uyo, we will have poetry performance and open mic; we have already procured a venue for it. I will anchor an open mic session in Yaba, Lagos. We will announce the winners of the Nigerian Poetry Prize in Ibadan, and hopefully winners will get their money that same day or a week after. This is what we call poetically written prose which we’ve been doing since 2017, and this year, we are taking it to the next level by publishing their works. We are collating some of the works of last year and this year. We have 20 on the shortlist or so. The prize money for that is N100,000. The winner gets N50,000, the second gets N30,000 and the third gets N20,000. It’s poetic prose that is highly embellished with poetic terms in such a way that it’s more than just normal prose. So that is the philosophy behind the challenge. We also have our very popular initiative like the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize, because when you look at the submissions, it’s always very high, and people have been following for the past four years now. The person that moderates it now was one time winner; she lives in Kano and she has been moderating it after she won. There are a lot of activities coming up.

  There are about two or three prizes to be given and three or four books to be published on various aspects of the October celebration. Where do you get the funding to organise all these? Do you have sponsors?

Oribhabor at Festival Poetry Calabar

  I would say we have support from friends, two poets who have pledged to give a hundred thousand every year. Others come from among us, we all contribute. It’s poetry for causes; we use poetry to support causes, poets, their education and all that, like the books which are being published by subscribers. They pay about N25,000 or so to the moderator to get their works edited, get graphic designers to do their graphics for them before they put it online, and those who want to do it physical can go ahead. We have not really got all these money from my pocket because if I say that, everybody involved in this will come out and say we are all contributing. I would say the sacrifices we all make make this possible.

Have you thought about having a small marketing unit or getting corporate bodies to support these initiatives?

  We are considering that, but you see, if you set up anything, people want you to pay them, rather than then bringing in businesses for you and getting commissions. That has always been a challenge. I don’t want us spending money when we don’t have the assurances of getting something back. Most of them who work with us don’t go out for this because they don’t have that free time. Most of them are students. I believe with time, after a while, because all of them are dedicated workers, I think when they are out of school, some of them would want to give it a go.

What’s happening to poetry tourism this year?

  We planned on doing it but funding is a challenge, and the people we sent to get details of how we can get discount for the halls and rooms were a little bit slow. They saw the marketing manager who promised to see the director on our behalf. In fact, the thing kept dragging. If you want to key into a project, the period of notice should be wide. Where we wanted to go was at the outskirts of Ibadan, a very nice place. If I want to do something, I need to give it a wide period of time, because a lot of people don’t have money, and again, there are people that will augment their expense. I just told them to drop the idea for now. We did it last year, we skipped this year. If we start early next year, it will be fine.

This October event is the 6th anniversary, right?

  Yes. Basically, we declared that PIN will be celebrated every October as the month of freedom and creativity.

Why do you tag it like that?

  We tagged it that way because as poet we believe that in a particular month we will give full blast attention to poetry and to what poetry can do for the society, and we use our writing to promote freedom and creativity. If we say we are promoting freedom, we want the society to be a better world, and we do it all year round, but we wait to give it full focus. It’s just like celebrating a particular thing like World Press Day. It’s not like nothing is being done in journalism before that day, but on that day, everything, all the talk is about journalism. So, that is why we dedicated the month of October as the month of freedom and creativity.

What do you see as the biggest challenge of creativity in the country?

  The biggest challenge is lack of attention by the authorities, because if government gives the kind of support that is expected, everything we ask will thrive. If that government’s attention isn’t there, nobody will give poetry attention. Corporate bodies will not show support. Whatever government gives attention to corporate bodies will also play along. Sadly, government doesn’t give attention on what merits being given attention. If organizations that are supposed to support don’t play their roles, everything will collapse. So, I will always want to look at it from the point of politics. Major funding should come from the government. If the government shows support, corporate bodies will toe that line. They should prioritize their attention in such a way that they give attention to the arts and creativity.

Oribhabor posing with his teeming young poets from across the country

But some argue that the art community does not support government or support the process that leads to governance, because some don’t participate in politics and many don’t have a voter’s card, and they’re so distant from the governance process. How do you respond to these?

  I would see that as an allegation. For me, if you play your role as a writer and you support government through your writing and artworks, it’s not exactly a support but the idea of saying… But how can I determine who is a registered voter? I can’t determine that, because when people go up to vote, they don’t carry signs to show their occupations; so you can’t determine if writers don’t go out to vote. I know writers play their roles in society and over the years, these roles are also appreciated, because encouragement from government is also part of the things that affect people’s participation in governance. Apathy cuts across all segments of society, not just writers. Some of the people who led the #EndSARS protest had been disgruntled over the years by the bad governance.

People in government have the perception that writers and artists are always criticizing them, good or bad, branding everything government does as never right. Don’t you see that as a challenge?

  It is a challenge that the writers have to also display their own activities in such a way that government must see them as co-workers. So when you have a job where writers are fighting each other, how do you think the government would take writers? There are lots of things that happen behind the scenes. Some people end up saying writers are their greatest enemies. It would be nice for us as writers and creatives; we have opportunities to start any process, a process where government that comes and goes will know they owe the community a duty to make things work. When I visited Long Beach in California, when I saw a theatre there, I said this is how it should be. Look at our National Theatre; there are different stories whether it has been sold or not, I don’t know, but it seems there is some work ongoing there or work is about to start. When we do all that, what happens next?

Talking about challenges which artists and writers face, funding and lack of venues that are not readily there… In spite of all these, people, creatives like you have not relented. What is the driving spirit?

  It is because the bottom line from the onset is selflessness. Selflessness drives us. If you believe in the fact that in the maddening society, there is a small space for people who will not belong to that maddening crowd. We must rescue people from that crowd. You will not be able to do all but that little contribution will mean a lot, because many years after, some people who benefitted from that will say that because of the association with this group or persons that made me know the difference between this and that, and made me believe there is sanity in every insanity and I am happy to belong to that group that has contributed to rescuing society. People in the primary or secondary school, remember then, we were part of drama and debating society; we would go for press club and quiz and all that. Many years after, some of these things don’t happen again in schools. If you could bring back those things to schools, they would feel fulfilled. That’s just the way of following your passion, knowing that God will always keep you happy, strong and you can feed yourself.

‘The biggest challenge is lack of attention by the authorities, because if government gives the kind of support that is expected, everything we ask will thrive. If that government’s attention isn’t there, nobody will give poetry attention. Corporate bodies will not show support. Whatever government gives attention to corporate bodies will also play along. Sadly, government doesn’t give attention on what merits being given attention. If organizations that are supposed to support don’t play their roles, everything will collapse. So, I will always want to look at it from the point of politics. Major funding should come from the government. If the government shows support, corporate bodies will toe that line. They should prioritize their attention in such a way that they give attention to the arts and creativity

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