Ughelli is a historic place to continue the dialogue on African literature, says Awhefeada
Compendium of Delta state writers coming soon
By Ozoro Opute
THE first reading and conversation of the Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA), Delta state chapter, turned out a roaring success. Writers from within the state and beyond converged on the forecourt of Prof. Sunny Awhefeada’s country home in Ughelli, with a fine heavenly shower of rain ushering them into the venue in uncanny reenactment of ‘Night Rain,’ well, this time, noon rain, a poem by the legendary JP Clark. It was also for him, and the many other great writers who have passed onto ancestry – from Chinua Achebe to Clark and many others – that one of the guest poets, Anote Ajeluorou (Libations for Africa), generously poured libation with ogogoro, a pristine Delta broth, while performing his first piece, ‘As Orature’s Priest Goes Home,’ dedicated to his oral literature lecturer, Dr. Okpure Obuke and, by extension, a pantheon of great writers who have journeyed onto ancestry.
After the Caretaker Committee Chairman, Dr. Peter Omoko, ushered in the writers with his opening remarks, he yielded the floor to Awhefeada, who recounted the story of the formation of ANA Delta in 2002, with himself and the second guest poet and lecturer, Dr. Ebi Yeibo (White Mask), as driving forces behind it. He recalled that it was at ANA Convention in Port Harcourt that Prof. Gordini G. Darah proposed that Delta was ripe to host ANA Convention the following year even when there was no ANA chapter in the state at the time. With the untiring efforts of Darah and late Prof. Sam Ukala, then ANA President, Prof. Olu Obafemi and now Prof. Nduka Otiono came to Abraka to inaugurate ANA Delta chapter. Keeping to Darah’s promise, the state government bankrolled the convention and it was held at Asaba Grand Hotel, with late politician and Senate President, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, as keynote speaker.
“People came from the US and the UK. Prominent writers like Prof. Tanure Ojaide came from the US, Buchi Emecheta, Africa’s most prolific female novelist, came from the UK, and it was a big moment for ANA Delta,” Awhefeada recalled. “After that convention, ANA Delta flourished. But like everything good, ANA Delta also suffered a downturn – readings reduced, meetings reduced and ANA Delta went into doldrums. But thankfully, attempts were made to revive ANA Delta.
“When ANA Delta was active, it was among the four most active chapters in the country – ANA Rivers, ANA Lagos and ANA Oyo. Thankfully, ANA President, Camilus Ukah called on me to inaugurate the chapter, which I did in December last year, and Dr. Peter Omoko, my former student, became the Caretaker Committee Chairman. And he instructed that I should host the first meeting. So, as it was in the beginning, so it is even now. I served them peppersoup and beer in the beginning when ANA Delta was inaugurated; I’m serving peppersoup and beer now at this first meeting. Be rest assured, ANA Delta is very big, but people are not here today because of the currency and fuel crises. Many people indicated interest to attend; there was enthusiasm among our members, but they can’t make it here today for obvious reasons.
“Dr. Omoko, together with Anote Ajeluorou, introduced a historical angle to today’s event. Much of what is African poetry started at Government College, Ughelli (GCU) by JP Clark. Those of you who are literary historians might have read how JP Clark introduced Christopher Okigbo to poetry. He was a pioneer because of the many things he did for African poetry. All of that started here at Government College, Ughelli. It’s a historic place to continue the dialogue on African literature, and to also support us psychologically, Omoko and I printed a list of writers and critics of Delta state origin, for you to know that we are not a people of yesterday. Some of the biggest names you can think of in the world of letters are from Delta state. The first black man to win a Booker Prize, Ben Okri (The Famished Road), is from Afiosere in Ughelli, about 10 minutes’ walk from here. We are happy that the tradition is not going to die. With us here today are writers, critics and journalists, who are going to take us into the dialogue with their works. Ebi Yeibo is a writer and critic, having won the first ANA Prize for Literary Criticism. He has won many other literary prizes.”
Awhefeada concluded by noting that the tradition of fine writing that ANA Delta is renowned would not die with the revived state chapter of the association, and asked his guests to feast on the surfeit of books and foods and beer that would be served aplenty all through the reading and conversation event.
Ajeluorou read three straight poems from his collection Libations for Africa. Midway into ‘As Orature’s Priest Goes Home,’ the poet, with ogogoro gin in his right hand, poured generous libation to Nigeria’s literary ancestors, as he counted them one after the other in the order in which they departed, to Obuke for whom the poem is dedicated. He also read ‘Libations’ where he also celebrated his own ancestors and ‘And the Night Fell Silent’ where he laments the loss of the art of telling folktales in the face of unrelenting intrusion of alien ways that Africans have embraced at the expense of their heritage.
Darah sought to know the place of moonlight in modern terms where electricity has replaced the moon as the standard of lighting up communities. Ajeluorou said the challenge was how to transition folk narrative contents into modern visual formats like cartoons on TV and other visual platforms, so African children can still relish the educative nursery-courts that folk tales provided past generations. The idea, he said, is so as to replace the moonlight sessions that usually took place around the fire in the evenings with modern means of entertainment to continue the tradition in new formats. He challenged film producers in the country’s film industry, known as Nollywood, to rise up to the challenge in spite of the huge cost associated with it to evolve a new cartoon cinema culture, one that is deeply rooted in Africa’s rich folk narratives for Africa’s children scattered all over the world. Ajeluorou capped off his reading with a piece ‘At the Shrine’ that praises the place of valour in the African society and how communal cosmic powers provide agency for warmongering.
Yeibo gave a background to his writing that has spanned over three decades, with multiple awards as fitting accolades, noting that his writing has evolved over time from seemingly simple but imagistic poetry to the current collection, White Mask, which he said is a fairly complex work in its metaphoric and other associated imageries, adding though that it offers readers a rewarding reading experience. Yeibo said his poetic journey has been a joyful experience, as it enabled him to flesh out his thoughts about himself and his Niger Delta environment and the universe at large. Yeibo’s offerings included ‘Pagan Delusion,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘Mocking the godhead,’ ‘Timeless music’ and ‘Unheard drumbeats in the war.’
As is common with all such gatherings, the excited audience also contributed in the form of responses and criticism of the two guest poets’ offerings and also read from their own works including the chairman, Omoko, whose satirical piece ‘Songs of my Town’ recounted the lived experiences of Nigerians under callous politicians who preside over the liquidation of their fellow citizens and make leadership look like a horror show.
While the event progressed, Ojaide joined via the telephone from his base in the US, and encouraged members to be resilient in their writing career, saying Delta writers had always done well. He charged them to continue in that tradition of fine writing that stands the state out, and canvassed the need to reinvent prizes for the state chapter such as for female writing, drama and poetry. He added that he was open to assist in whatever way he was required, so as to grow the state chapter to the highest level of creativity possible. Omoko said he would intensify efforts to get the prizes on stream, and called on kind-hearted individuals and corporate organisations to support the state chapter to realise its full potential. Omoko further urged all members to be zealous and passionate about their writing and always participate in competitions that would take them and ANA Delta forward. He, however, assured ANA Delta that the tradition of writing will not die in Delta state, saying the chapter has come to stay, as the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain. To this end, Darah charged the Caretaker Committee to produce an almanac of all the major writers from the state with their photographs on it with the hope of presenting it at the next ANA Convention.
Elder Richard Maduku also gave a reading of his work besides donating copies of his book to new members of the state chapter. Other writers at the event included Dr. Boniface Anyanwu of Theatre Arts Department, Delta State University, Abraka, who is also ANA Delta vice chairman, Annette David-West of Yenagoa-based book club, 1402Book Lounge, ANA Delta Assistant Secretary, Elohor Enonera Edemirukaye, Mr. Moses Anaghogho and Ruvia Idase, among others.