DELSU @30: Abraka and the furthering of the Nigerian literary tradition

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By Sunny Awhefeada

Prof. Sunny Awhefeada

THERE exists an abiding link between Nigerian literature and the university. Although, the tendency for the university, in many parts of the world, to be the springboard for literary flowering is well acknowledged, the case of Nigeria is rather too compelling not to enable a reference to it again and again. The seminal example of the then University College Ibadan (UCI) now University of Ibadan which served as nursery for the growth of Nigerian literature remains phenomenal and significant. When the portals of the University College, Ibadan, opened to her pioneer students in 1948, one of the starry-eyed students who walked in was a certain Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. Initially admitted to study Medicine, the young Chinua switched to English and Religious Studies. He was to take the world by surprise in 1958, exactly ten years after he matriculated at Ibadan, when he published Things Fall Apart. Considered as the father of modern African literature, Achebe went on in his lifetime to become one of the most significant writers in the annals of humanity. The example of Achebe in the telling of the Nigerian experience of the nexus between the university and literature is not insular. Beside the towering achievement of Achebe, the University of Ibadan also produced Mabel Segun, J. P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Isidore Okpewho, Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, Harry Garuba, Remi Raji and others too numerous to mention.
Besides Ibadan being a fertile ground for literature, she also provided an ambience for literary criticism to flourish. It is criticism that not only validates literature, but also sustains it for all times. The University of Ibadan also achieved renown because of her many literary critics, some of whom studied or taught there. The likes of MJC Echeruo, Dan Izevbaye, Abiola Irele, Ben Obumselu, Molara Ogundipe, Biodun Jeyifo, Harry Garuba and many others gave fillip to the development and validation of modern Nigerian literature. Literature flowered at Ibadan, so did literary criticism. Hence Ibadan became synonymous with Nigerian literature. It is apt to further affirm the role of the University of Ibadan in the blossoming of Nigerian literature by once again drawing attention to the phenomenon called The Horn, a student poetry magazine founded at the then University College, Ibadan by J. P. Clark at the instance of the expatriate lecturer, Martin Banham, who had studied at the University of Leeds before settling down at Ibadan. Founded by Clark, Bridget Akwada, John Ekwere and Aigboje Higo, The Horn existed for less than a decade, but ended up publishing the poetic juvenilia of students who later became the leading lights of modern Nigerian poetry.
The foregoing testament has been replicated in many a Nigerian university with varying degrees of success. One of such instances is the story of the literary effervescence at the Delta State University, Abraka. The university town of Abraka has carved a niche for itself as a centre of learning beholding to excellence. Beginning in the 1940s as a Teachers’ Training College, it evolved into a College of Education in 1969 and later into a full-fledged university in 1992. In those days, the 1940s, when colleges were far and in between the one at Abraka attracted students from far and near and thus the name Abraka was fairly well known in many places. When it became a College of Education in 1969, it benefitted from the magic wand of then Lt. Col. Samuel Ogbemudia, the military governor of the defunct Midwest State, who turned the State into Nigeria’s most progressive state. The College of Education was designated a UNESCO Centre of Excellence with immense global influence. When eventually the institution took off as a university in 1992, it did so with uncommon aplomb. Abraka had become synonymous with tertiary education and from hence university education. Just as it has been with Ibadan and Nsukka as famous university towns so has it been with Abraka. Anywhere Abraka is mentioned what first registers in the mind is the university.
Abraka has since become the writer’s haven. Famous for her beaches with alluring blue waters, Abraka could have been home to William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. The lush green forest beyond the blue and sometimes sparkling waters of the enchanting River Ethiope could have assuaged the fears Thomas Grey expressed in “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard”. Decades of intense urbanization and aggressive encroachment has not robbed Abraka of her pristine Eden. The ambience speaks to a measure of ambivalence inherent in the hurly burly of the metropolis and the serene almost sedate allure of the riverside which is an eco-sanctuary. It is this contradictory experience and binary replication of existence that constitute the raison d ‘tre of the literary effulgence of Abraka. Reinforcing the natural inclination of Abraka to the artistic calling is the University’s Faculty of Arts especially the Departments of English and Literary and Theatre Arts.
The Department of English and Literary Studies was one of the foundation departments when the University was founded in 1992. All the lecturers in the department at inception had affiliations with Ibadan as former students. The compelling literary character of Ibadan was writ large on them and it took no time before they transposed the phenomenon on the consciousness of the students. Thankfully, the curriculum was a mélange of different literary traditions from which the eager students received lasting inspirations. Imbibed from the plurality of literary works taught to the students were the spirit and tenor of Romantic poetry which the River Ethiope provided. The Ethiope which is a predominant natural phenomenon in the Delta not only became a source of inspiration to the apprentice writers, but was also a motif in poem after poem.
The earliest recorded moment of creative writing at the Delta State University, Abraka, dates back to the decade of her emergence as a full-fledged university. The students founded a literary magazine called Afflatus in 1992 which was the year the university was founded. The maiden edition labeled vol. 1, 1992 was edited by Idowu Iledayo Ereoah. With a foreword by the Head of Department, then Mr. Dumbi Osani, the edition had in its fold, eight poems, three short stories and six critical essays. Other students who published in Afflatus in those early years include Michael Eshebinoma, Chux Ohai, Martin Ogbitebu and Bode Ekundayo Steve. The now notable poet, Ebi Yeibo, edited an edition of the magazine in 1995 during his time as a student. Some of the students whose works were published in that edition included Alex Omoni, Emmanuel Biri, Tony Jibunoh, Abel Ageh, Ebi Yeibo, etc. Some other editions were published in 1999 with Ekanpou Enewaridikeke as editor and in 2000 edited by E. O. Ichima. The poems in all the available editions reflect an emergent if not amateur poetic sensibility which is concomitant with the age and exposure of the young writers. Encoded in those eager lines are hopes, aspirations, impediments, politics, the environment, dreams, love, disappointments and other motifs incidental to their experience, age and consciousness. The river motif and other appurtenance of nature dominate the writings.
In the first decade, outside the Department of English and Literary Studies, the throbbing of creativity were also heard from the Department of Performing Arts (now split into the Department of Theatre Arts and the Department of Music). The Department had the fortune of having then Dr. Sam Ukala, already established writer, who was on sabbatical as its pioneer Head of Department. The lecturers in the Department showed commendable inclination towards writing. Eni Jologho Umuko, Austine Anigala, Dan Omatsola and Elo Ibagere tried their hands on a variety of literary genres. Chukwuma Anyanwu, then of the Department of Mass Communication when it was domiciled in the Faculty of Arts, also wrote plays and poetry. Noticeable in the creative output of the Theatre Arts lecturers was the slant towards drama unlike the preference for poetry that came from the Department of English and Literary Studies. Umuko authored The Scent of Crude Oil (2010), Anigala wrote Dance of Death (1995), Riddles of Life (1996), Cold Wings of Darkness (2006), The Living Dead (2006) and Drops of Rotten Deals (2019), Ibagere published Dusk at Noon (2013), Survival Strategy and Random Talks (2018) and Sunrise Once Again (2021). Anyanwu authored Evil Hold (2010), Another Weekend Gone (2010), Heartbeats (2011) among other titles.

THE endeavors at creative writing in the first decade of the founding of DELSU, promising as it turned out, can be said to be a mere foreshadowing of that which was to come in the next two decades. The first decade of her founding terminated in 1999 and drew the curtain on the last century. That was quite symbolic in view of what was to follow. The next decade which unfurled in 2000 and which the world dubbed “the new millennium” not only offered DELSU new fortunes, but opened new frontiers of literary possibilities for the University. By far the most phenomenal incident occurred in late 2001 (October and November) when G. G. Darah and Sam Ukala formally joined the teaching staff of the Department of English and Literary Studies and the then Department of Performing Arts respectively. Coincidentally, this writer (Sunny Awhefeada), then a subaltern lecturer joined the duo in October. Darah had made a name as a radical scholar-critic and journalist at Ibadan and Ife and later at Daily Times and The Guardian. He was well known on the Nigerian literary scene. His presence and influence were magical. Ukala had also made a remarkable name at Nsukka, Ibadan and Ekpoma and was a notable playwright and theorist. This writer armed with a Master of Arts in Literature from Ibadan was young and sprightly and combined the burning desire to birth new vistas of creativity and criticism at Abraka. It was his lot to act on the directions charted by the two masters (Darah and Ukala) in setting a new agenda for the creative enterprise among the students.
In December 2001, through the combined efforts of Darah and Ukala, Delta State won the hosting right for the 2002 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) conference. Although, Delta State had no ANA chapter at that time, the influence of Darah and Ukala ensured that the State was given the nod to host the big event scheduled for November 2002. Since there was no State chapter anywhere in Delta State, Abraka where Darah and Ukala were domiciled with a handful of writers had to host the chapter. The Senior Staff Club of the Delta State University, Abraka, now renamed FMA Ukoli Senior Staff Club, became the hub of the new ANA chapter. It was there that one day in 2002 the Delta Chapter of ANA was inaugurated by Professor Olu Obafemi and Dr. Nduka Otiono, then President and Secretary-General respectively. Ukala became the first Chairman of the Branch with Martins Tugbokorowei as Secretary a year later with the demise of Dr. Ernest Kpeke. What followed were a series of enthusiastic monthly readings with the Staff Club serving as venue. The venue of the readings was always thronged by students and visitors from Sapele, Warri, Agbor, Ughelli, Asaba and other places. The ambience was convivial and a new spirit of creativity was born. Besides Darah and Ukala, were also the inspiring presence of Femi Fatoba and Nasiru Akanji both of them notable poets, singers and actors. A permanent testament to the creative gusto of ANA Delta was the publishing of Rumbling Creeks of the Niger Delta, an anthology of short stories, poems and plays with Sam Ukala as general editor. The anthology while focusing on the Niger Delta experience provided ventilation for teenage authors to offer poems, stories and plays to the reading public.
The activities of the ANA Delta Chapter drew people to Abraka, but greatly influenced many undergraduate students. The readings provided the students the opportunity to listen to older writers read their work and talk about their writing experience, but for them to also write and read their own to the hearing of the older writers and critics. Thus a session of artistic mentoring and apprenticeship was born. The activities complimented what the students did in the Creative Writing courses they offered in the Department of English and Literary Studies and the Department of Theatre Arts. The notice boards in the Department of English and Literary Studies became the open store or better put repository of poems, short stories and cartoons. Students like Innocent Ayabotu, Newworld Emomoemi, Zino Akpobire, Ufuoma Abudu, Linda Ikem, Tarela Emuren, Elvis Ogie, Bukola Ijagbemi, Pedro Abure, Confidence Aihiebholoria, Francis Uti, Victor Abonyi, Emmanuel Esemedafe, Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe, Ebikidoumine Ebireni, Mamuyovwi Edjeba and many others tried their hands at writing and the noticeboards and walls became their first outlet. There was always a stopover by the notice boards for lovers of writing.
For obvious reasons, the students of the Department of English and Literary Studies plunged into the creative enterprise with an uncommon zest. Prodded by this writer they formed the Creative Writers’ Workshop in 2003. Darah, Ukala and this writer exposed the eager students to poets outside the ones taught in the curriculum. Knowing that the students were already familiar with poets anthologized in West African Verse, Poems of Black Africa, A Selection of African Poetry and other related anthologies, they brought them collections by writers that got published from around the 1980s. Interestingly, the emphasis was on poetry. Thus all the noticeboards in the department always had poems posted on them daily. The Creative Writers’ Workshop met weekly and students read and criticized poems, prose and drama. The Department of English and Literary Studies played host to the internationally acclaimed poet, Tanure Ojaide, at the invitation of Darah. The encounter, in the students’ own words, “was mind blowing”. The highly regarded critic, Professor Romanus Egudu, who supervised this writer’s first degree project at the University of Benin, was also hosted by the department in 2002. Two years later, the department, faculty and the university rose in celebration when the prodigious poet, Niyi Osundare visited in June 2004. These encounters left significant and lasting impressions on the young students. The flurry and fury with which they wrote henceforth was unprecedented. Buoyed by the exposure, their creative instinct went many notches higher.
The icing on the cake of the foregoing encounters was the setting up of a new literary magazine decidedly named Abraka Voices in 2005. The magazine, so named Abraka Voices in order to give it an undisputed identity, was a huge success with an inaugural edition published in 2005. When the editor, Emmanuel Esemedafe, put out a call for entries, poetry, prose, drama and essays, the response was overwhelming. It took the excited editor and his editorial crew weeks of leafing through innumerable entries before selecting what they considered publishable. Some of the aspiring writers whose works appeared in Abraka Voices were Dorothy Nakpodia, Davidson Ojagbigwhruu, Charles Ayidu, Ofie Chukwuka, Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe and Michael Onuegbu. This writer published a well-received review of the maiden edition of Abraka Voices in The Guardian.

THE years 2004 and 2005 were quite instructive to the evolution of literary consciousness at Abraka. Besides hosting Osundare in 2004, the Department of English and Literary Studies became a sabbatical destination for some writers and scholar-critics from within and outside Nigeria. The two years saw Professor Aguonorobo Eruvbetine and then Dr. Hope Eghagha berthing at Abraka for their sabbatical leave. Professor Benji Egede also arrived at the same time. From the United States of America and Canada came Professors Tanure Ojaide and Onookome Okome respectively. The department never had it so good. It became a vortex of ideas and the lively bonhomie associated with writers and literary scholars was unmistakable. The students did not have to look too far to see models and mentors. They encountered them in the classrooms, on the corridors and just everywhere. This created an instant artistic ferment.
Another significant fillip to the literary flowering was the Diaspora influence pioneered by Tanure Ojaide and Onookome Okome. This manifested in the form of two international conferences in honour of Tanure Ojaide in 2005 and 2008 respectively. The well attended conferences enabled the students to meet and interact with different writers and critics they had read about. Jonathan Haynes, Harry Garuba, Odia Ofeimun, Tony Afejuku, J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, Chinyere Nwahunanya, Tayo Olafioye, Emevwo Biakolo, Bate Bisong, Niyi Okunoye, Nduka Otiono, James Tsaiaor, Femi Shaka, Tam George, Benjamin Ejiofor, Senayon Olaoluwa, Austen Akpuda, Anote Ajeluorou, Chux Ohai, Kalu Uduma, Idom Iyanbri, Henri Oripeloye among others thronged Abraka during the conferences, presented papers, spoke about their works and freely interacted with the excited students. They also gave out many autographed copies of their works to the students. The effect of the conferences and the encounters they enabled further deepened the enthusiasm of the students who actively participated in the events. The students got inspired meeting the writers and critics in flesh. What followed were lively debates during the meetings and readings of the Creative Writers’ Workshop. Choices were made regarding what genre to write in and what style. Poetry topped the list. Osundare and Ojaide were easily the models of the students and the Niger Delta predicament popped up as motif. Further entrenching the Diaspora influence was the recent book donation exercise undertaken by the family of the late Professor Isidore Okpewho as facilitated by Dr. Chiji Akoma.
Thirty years after the founding of the Delta State University, Abraka, stakeholders can look back and attempt a reckoning of her literary engagements. The harvest has been impressive and remarkably so. The seminal efforts that ran through the better part of two decades have started yielding dividends which manifest all around. The doyen, Sam Ukala went on to win Nigeria’s most prestigious literary prize and Africa’s biggest in monetary value the LNG Prize for Literature with Iredi War in 2014. Abraka’s biggest poetry brand Ebi Yeibo won the prestigious Association of Nigerian Authors’(ANA) Prize for Poetry that same year with his highly acclaimed The Fourth Masquerade. It was double celebration for DELSU and the Department of English and Literary Studies organized a symposium to mark the achievement. That feat was not Yeibo’s first or last. He had in the year 2000 won the Oyo State ANA prize for poetry. Other notable prizes attesting to his poetic virtuosity include Delta State ANA Prize for Poetry (2003 and 2004), Bayelsa State ANA Prize for Poetry (2008), Isaac Boro Prize for Niger Delta Literature (2008) and quite significantly he won the maiden ANA Prize for Literary Criticism (2018). He has also made the long list for the LNG Prize. Yeibo’s published collections include Maiden Lines (1997), A Song for Tomorrow (2003), The Forbidden Tongue (2007), Shadows of the Setting Sun (2012), The Fourth Masquerade (2014), Of Waters and the Wild (2017), White Mask (2019). Yeibo’s contemporary in his undergraduate years, Alex Omoni has also published Morontonu (2006) and The Ugly Ones (2011).
It is apt to mention here that the writers coming out of Abraka find in the experience of the Niger Delta a rich mine for creative engagement. Besides the phenomenal presence of Yeibo in the articulation of that experience are other writers like Ekanpou Enewaridikeke, Emmanuel Esemedafe, Peter Omoko and Stephen Kekeghe. By far the most prolific, Enewaridikeke has published over ten collections straddling prose and poetry. Besides being shortlisted for the BBC International Playwriting Competition in 2003, he has won the Isidore Okpewho Prize for Prose in 2004 and was first runner-up for the Tanure Ojaide Poetry Prize the same year. His published works include: The Road to Ken Saro-Wiwa, Sandbank in River Forcados, The Honourable Commissioner (2005), The Lot Against My People (2005), The Chisel and the Pen (2005), The Imprisonment of Ebi in the Coven (2005), The Strong Blood (2005), The Raffia Palm Tree (2005), A Forest of Thorns (2005), A Forest of Animals (2005), Metamorphosis (2005), The Wanted Man in Camp Four (2012), Baida: A Family of Imbeciles (2012), You Must Leave Ekameta Tomorrow (2012), King Maika (2012), etc.
Omoko whose artistic sensibilities are conditioned by folklore, history and contemporary incidents has published six plays and three poetry collections: Battles of Pleasure (2009), Three Plays (2010), Uloho (2013), Crude Nightmen (2015), Majestic Revolt (2016), Herding South (2019), River Song and Testament (2020), A Requiem for the Gods (2020) and The Mudskippers (2021). His arduous application of the intellect to the creative enterprise has earned him honourable mention in the LNG Prize as well as being first runner-up in the 2021 ANA Prize for Drama. Kekeghe has also earned plaudits for his profoundly inspiring poetry and play. The playwright and poet of Pond of Leeches (2015) and Rumbling Sky (2020) respectively won the 2021 ANA Poetry Prize. This feat not only marks the affirmation of the coming of age of the works of writers from the Abraka axis, but serves as an attestation to the artistic validity of these works in themes and techniques in their attempt to configure the Nigerian experience. Emmanuel Esemedafe who seems to have anchored his creative impetus on prose has published three narratives with two of them located in children’s literature. His titles range from NYSC at Abugi (2009), The Schooldays of Edore (2013) and The Fly Book (2019). He was shortlisted for The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by NLNG, with the second work.

THE recrudescence of Nigerian literature at the turn of the century also accelerated the evolution of the Abraka artistic enterprise. Some of the younger lecturers, this writer and Dr. Enajite Ojaruega, as well as the Diaspora scholars earlier mentioned, from around 2005 began to populate the students’ reading list with the works of new writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta, Kaine Agary, Helon Habila, Ogaga Ifowodo, Lola Shoneyin, Tade Ipadeola, Jumoke Verrisimo, Obari Gomba, Chika Unigwe, Igoni Barret, Eghosa Imasuen and many others. What confronted the students were lived experiences depicting contemporary realities. Reading and evaluating what they encounter in real life in novels, plays and poems instilled in the students the confidence that they can also convert their lived experience into literary works. They wasted no time in doing that. The Creative Writers’ Workshop held readings after readings and even initiated literary prizes for the three genres of poetry, prose and drama.
The rejigging of the content of the stylistic course by Professor Macaulay Mowarin and Dr. Richard Maledo also enhanced the students’ creative and critical gusto in their engagement with artistry. Stylistics was no longer a bogeyman’s tool of mental affliction, but a course which mediates the link between language and literature. Mowarin and Maledo demystified Stylistics and made it a tool of literary engagement that it really was meant to be.
Some of the younger lecturers such as Aghogho Agbamu, Mathias Orhero and Prince Ohwavborua have had to intervene in making sure that the Workshop continues to run. New buds are evolving in Godspower Oburumu, Favour Nwanne, Daniel Ojomi, Prosper Ifeanyi, Fortune Aganbi, Emmanuel Olugua, Elizabeth Eke, Emoghene Oghentega and Tejiri Egheneji. For two years running, the Department of Theatre Arts under the headship of Chukwuma Anyanwu has stoked the embers of the pleasure of stage plays on campus. Anyanwu, Ibagere, Godfrey Enita and the choreographer Awele Odunze have lit up the stage with performances that make theatre goers ask for more. An added boost to this theatre awakening is the interest the Vice Chancellor, Professor Andy Egwunyenga and his wife Professor Ebele Egwunyenga have for the stage. They are a theatre-going couple. Their patronage of the theatre gave the stage a boost.
The Abraka School of Literature is evolving and there are strong indications that it will emerge with a distinct character which, while focusing on national cum global issues, reframes the experience of the Niger Delta locale as its motif. Another emergent feature of it is its cosmopolitan outlook arising from the diverse background of the lecturers. Besides the noticeable Ibadan influence are also strands from Calabar, Nsukka, Maiduguri, Benin City and Port-Harcourt represented by Professor Simon Umukoro, Ojaruega, Karoh Ativie, Karo Ilolo, Anthonia Eguvbebere, Susan Ilechukwu and Ogochukwu Anigala. The literary offerings of Abraka to the world have been variegated and rank high in aesthetics and functionality. Works from Abraka have found new outlets in anthologies and online media. The literature is pulsating. For now it is a literature of despair and hope, tears and laughter, death and life, exploitation and plenitude, ruins and growth as it embodies the many contradictions the region’s experience typify. To inspire and entrench creative writing the present Head of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Dr. Ojaruega, has re-introduced literary prizes; Drama Prize sponsored by Professor Hope Eghagha, Poetry Prize sponsored by Dr. Ebi Yeibo and Prose Prize sponsored by Dr. Benson Omonode. The Abraka artistic flowering will be incomplete without mentioning the phenomenal visuals coming from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts under Dr. Ese Odokuma-Aboderin. Giving inspirational rhythms to all these are the unending encores from the Department of Music propelled by the deft fingers of the impresario, Professor Ovaborene Idamoyibo. The Afflatus will continue to inspire Abraka Voices to sing in furthering the Nigerian literary tradition. Thirty years look like a short time, but Delta State University, Abraka, has registered her luminous presence in the unfolding enterprise of Nigerian literature. Abraka has furthered the tradition.

* Awhefeada is a professor of literature and Dean, Faculty of Arts, Delta State University, Abraka

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