THE ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIAN AUTHORS or ANA, LAGOS, I LOVED
Word count: 7,688
By Omohan Ebhodaghe
I have two major talents. They are in teaching literature and being paid and in writing works of literary fiction and non-fiction alike that are published, amongst other talents. Somehow, both of these talents have become to me a way of life of which I cannot do without.
Around the year 1994, as I could recall, professor Olufunke. O. Lawal, then a senior lecturer, had told me that I carried the affairs of ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos state chapter) on my head, and for far too much as it were, instead of securing for myself a daytime job. She seemed to have known better. She meant well for me also. After all, she was once my lecturer at the postgraduate level. She taught me literature at the Curriculum Studies department of the faculty of Education of the University of Lagos. She was the person who first gave me a British pound sterling coin in her office. She later gave me a twenty United States dollar cheque also as an entry fee for an American literary competition in the United States of America. But she could not however envisage, back then, that I was to benefit from ANA Lagos state chapter which I so much loved to serve in. If that acronym ANA, for instance, was translated into a woman’s first name so as to mean Anna or Anne or Hannah or simply Ann, I should have fallen in love with her all the same. After all, I was all out for a lady who is academically fit and morally upright as Soulmate a column for lovers in the Guardian (UK) newspaper would later articulate my words correctly. What professor (Mrs) Lawal did not know was that my eventual breakthrough would come through my ANA activities within weeks of our last meeting. Through a co-edited anthology of literary short stories and poetry of members and non-members of ANA Lagos chapter, my several publications of articles, poems and literary short stories in newspapers and a magazine in Lagos and Kaduna, my part-time teaching of English and literature and my status as the publicity secretary of ANA, Lagos state chapter, the British Council, Lagos, aided my smooth transfer from Lagos, where nothing works for an honestly disposed writer, onwards to London, where writing was and still is a recognisable profession, a financially feasible alternative profession for many people. That is London for you: London that is a part of Europe. And Europe where the Frenchman Alain Rene Lesage (author of the picaresque epic GIL B LAS DE SANTILLANE, first published in 1715) became the first person to earn a living by the pen. He was to the French people what Shakespeare was to the British people or what Miguel de Cervantes (the author of DON QUIXOTE, that was recently voted the greatest book of all time) was to the Spanish people. In North America, the author of SEX AND RACE amongst other books, Joel Augustus Rogers, who was born in Jamaica in 1883 but became a United States citizen in 1917 and died in 1966, was said to have made his living and reputation entirely amongst the negro press and the black communities in the United States of America, according to Rol Ottley in his 1948 book BLACK ODYSSEY: THE STORY OF THE NIGRO IN AMERICA. And some writers in living in London today live by their writings, or so I have been told more than once. So, I got my travelling expenses, an air ticket, a rail track express train ticket from Lagos and a £500 (about 120, 500 naira today) basic traveller’s allowance as a start up money on arrival in London. Back then, I knew nobody in London apart from a letter from the then assistant director, Education, Dr Andy Thomas to an official at the British Council office in London and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ address at the back of an issue of the Watchtower magazine in their London headquarters. All I had was an address of a Londoner given to me in Lagos by Mrs Aishatu Rimi, my erstwhile course mate who had already contacted her business partner, a male British Jew; and the other things I had were hope, talent and the determination to be a writer possibly on an international level. So the money I got from the British Council in Lagos was the largest single, lump sum of money yet, apart from my part-time teacher’s wages in Lagos and the stipends I collected for my poems, articles and short story in newspapers and a magazine contributions in Lagos.
But before leaving Lagos, I had encountered Bernth Lindfors, a white American professor of African and English literature at the University of Texas in Austin, USA. He was a guest at our monthly readings that were held at the Goethe Institut, on Victoria Island. After the readings, and in his rounding off speech, he had hinted that one or two writers from the ANA Lagos branch would rise to the level of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe in the near future. Well, back in my secondary school days, at Evboneka Anglican grammar school, while I was still in class three, in the 1970s, I had come second in a poetry competition that was held at the divisional level at Iguobazuwa in the present day Edo state. It was a long poem about the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed and Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, military governor of Kwara state; it was a dirge modelled after the lamentation of the future king David over the untimely death of Jonathan the son of king Saul in the Bible. That was my first attempt in 1976 at writing any kind of poetry. Also at the time, I was able to read all the short and long short detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As the person who cleaned up the room of my senior uncle, I came across those books in his bookshelf, placed by the wall inside the room. I sneaked back now and then and got each book out until I finished reading all of the Shylock Holmes series. To me, it was a magic world. It fired my imagination to write for myself. It was however not a direct influence on me to write. But, later, when I read other articles on the life and letters of doctor Doyle, I was surprised to find out that, besides being a medical doctor and a popular writer, he rather saw himself as being unsuccessful in writing, all because he could not write serious literary fiction. Well, unlike Doyle, and as an incipient platform to launch my writing career, I immediately took to the highbrow type of serious literary fiction. And I am glad about that unique choice. A year after I left secondary school education, I received a letter from alhaji Abba Dabo, the then editor of the Sunday New Nigerian newspaper stating that he was going to publish my short story “ Only Fools Die “ under the names Emmanuel Ebhodaghe. I came across the story by accident at the reading room of the Bendel state library situated near the Eghosa grammar school in Benin city or just around the corner by Okhoro road junction. It was my first published literary work in the early 1980s. Ebhodaghe was however misspelled as Ebhoghe. Commenting on the first draft of my first novel manuscript, the then publisher of Heinemann African Writers Series, Vicky Unwin, in her letter sent to me in the mid 1980s, in 1987 in fact, said amongst other things that I was certainly a talented writer and one who should be encouraged. I could not follow up on that interest as I had other urgent matters to deal with at the time. Besides, who would step into my high heel shoes? I had done my groundwork: my kind of a pair of shoes was too high for a normal male to wear, yet women could not use the shoes that belonged to that kind of a unique man. The shoes are raised a level higher and above other contemporaries or compatriots. The polish to be used on the yet roughened pair of shoes was of a brown colour. Most Europeans are white, nearly all Africans are black and Asians are brown in colour. So, I neither preferred the white colour that could turn neutral nor accepted the black colour as it darkened one’s vision. As it were, my kind of pair of high heel shoes belonged to the middle class Asian category that is a class on its own. Therefore talent or genius is already there; it is the polish that is lacking. So like a pair of shoes, creative writing tutors could not afford to buy shoes and polish for aspiring writers who could do it by themselves anyway; and also, they could not teach such writers as to how to wear such shoes. They could instruct budding writers on how to better polish their shoes in a more professional way so that they glistened in the rising sun. But purchasing the right shoes for would-be authors, just like wishing to bestow original talent on the vast majority of people I see at creative writing centres, is a no-go area to waste time talking about really. Do I have other ambitions then? None that I know of. I am already who I am no matter. At the time Vicky Unwin made that statement, therefore, my kind of shoes in the literary history of our country were already assured but they were still very rough. My manuscripts were still at the draft stages and needed some serious black and white mixture that could become a brown colour or an Asian polishing. A couple of years before, when I applied to study at the university level through JAMB (the joint admissions and matriculation board), the body that regulated admissions into institutions of higher learning in Nigeria, God, in His infinite mercy placed me at the University of Benin. I was amongst the first batch of students to be so admitted, although, I had chosen as a first choice the University of Nigeria, Nsukka because of Chinua Achebe and the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) because of Wole Soyinka as second choice. English and Literature was my first course of study and philosophy was the second option, as I had been reading a lot of novels and textbooks on philosophy, mostly foreign works prior to my eventual admission on my first attempt through the University entrance examination. I only ticked the University of Benin because there was a third choice as at that time. But, now, on hindsight, I am glad not to have been a past student of either writers made mentioned of above but to be as equals as I am one of the possible third option and recipient of a forthcoming glory, an edifice of a gargantuan proportion: the University College Ibadan or as it is now known as the University of Ibadan produced Chinua Achebe who is mostly known for his 1958 novel THINGS FALL APART and also Wole Soyinka who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. And, today, the third option of course would be that person who could both be known for his or her books and equally as a winner of a global prize in literature such as the Nobel Prize or its worthy alternative? I have earned my keep. I am a product of the University of Benin (as an undergraduate) and the University of Lagos (as a postgraduate diploma student). I had bought my first typewriter at the University of Lagos, while working as a part-time teacher at a private school nearby. So, with a typewriter at home, according to the playwright, professor Femi Osofisan, in one of his vitriolic articles directed at the former associate professor of English, critic and writer Chinweizu, only as a reply to the other’s initial launch of some scathing remarks at his person through the pages of our national newspapers, I was no longer one of the crowd so to speak. This, however, if professor Osofisan was to be believed. So, to fast forward and return to the relative present, and on that fateful day, at the reading section at the Goethe Institut, four or so of my students had read my poems in their former version. Months later, the poet Uche Nduka was to leave for Germany courtesy of the Goethe Institut in Lagos or so. I was next to leave for London in the United Kingdom. A few years later, Sola Osofisan, a poet and novelist, departed from Lagos to resettle in the United States of America, a United States of miracles, a place where you are either made in your field or you are sunk by the sheer size of the country into permanent oblivion.
But I was leaving behind the ANA Lagos chapter to which I had contributed to its growth and development around the Lagos metropolis. As a branch, we were the most powerful of all ANA branches nationwide. Amongst other dignitaries, we got professor Bernth Lindfors to grace our monthly readings on Victoria Island. I was able to bring my students to the meetings and they were those who read my poems to the gathering. Dr Karen King-Aribisala, then a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos, detected that move and Dr Tolu Ajayi, who was then the Lagos state chairman, intervened and put a stop to that temporary dominance. All sorts of people, the aspiring writer, the little-known poet, university lecturers, a medical doctor, students from secondary schools, civil servants and journalists – all joined in our meetings. Products of the Universities of Ibadan, Ife, Nigeria at Nsukka and Lagos dominated the scene. And, although, as it could turn out to be, most of the people in the gathering of like minds would not make it to the professional stage. In spite of this fact, we were happy just being together. We also held the meetings briefly at the house of Dr Tolu Ajayi, a medical doctor who had lived in the United Kingdom for some eleven years or so before returning back home. Over there, at his place, we started off with an anthology of literary short stories and poems entitled TWENTY NIGERIAN WRITERS: PORTRAITS, ANA, Lagos, 1993, co-edited by myself and the gangling poet and academic Dr Victor Ayedun-Aluma as publicity secretary and general secretary respectively. Some copies of the book I later hawked on the streets of Lagos and quite a number of people bought copies, including students, lecturers and other workers. Dr Andy Thomas, a one-time assistant director, Education, of the British Council got a copy. We later moved to the house of Mr Eddie Adenirokun, our next vice-chairman when the novelist Mrs Bunmi Oyinsan was the chairperson. Mr Eddie Adenirokun was once an editor, a past president of the Nigerian Volley Ball association, a patron of the arts, a poet and a businessman. At Eric Moore close, on Eric Moore road, Surulere, we had a lively monthly reading with light refreshments to round off our meetings. Each month, as it were, I looked forward to being at the meeting. Together with Victor Ayedun-Aluma as at that time a lecturer at the Mass Communication department of the university of Lagos and a doctoral student at the University of Ibadan, we would trek the long distance between Abule Oja, close to the gates of the University of Lagos to Eric Moore close in Surulere. On one occasion, Dr Rueben Abati of the editorial board of the Guardian newspaper, Mr Afam Akeh, then the literary editor of the Daily Times newspaper, Victor and myself made the long journey on foot, walking through streets and roads from Eric Moore close to the gates of the University of Lagos where we parted company for that eventful day. Most of the times when we do meet, Victor and I would often talk for hours about literary matters, both local and foreign. He would visit me at my place while I do not fail to contact him at his own house. I remember that, through him, I first got to know about and actually read the works of the Guardian (UK) newspaper award-winner Dambudzo Marechera from Zimbabwe and the Polish-born American citizen and Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. I later reviewed the short story collection THE HOUSE OF HUNGER by Dambudzo Marechera for the Nigerian Guardian newspaper. A final year student from the University of Ilorin, Kwara state, was to pay me a surprise visit at my place. As such fictional works are hard to find in the country, he had come all the way from Ilorin, he had said, so as to get hold of a copy of the collection of stories that was published by Heinemann African Writers Series in Oxford, United Kingdom. It was part of his dissertation, he said. He had visited the office of the Guardian newspaper in Lagos, from where he traced me. As that particular copy of the book of short stories did not belong to me, I directed him to Victor at the department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos, where Victor, the owner of the book, HOUSE OF HUNGER, was a lecturer. I never heard from him again. Together with Victor, and as part of our leisure time, we heard about the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and his Booker Prize. We rejoiced with Mr Ishiguro, yet we did not know who the man was. Victor would switch on his portable short wave radio and we would listen in to Meridian books and other arts programmes on the BBC World Service. Earlier, as an individually separate experience, we had held that Chinua Acbebe was amongst the six shortlisted candidates in the year of his entering the Booker Prize draw with his novel ANTHILLS OF THE SAVANNAH in 1987, thus becoming the first Nigerian but third African to be so nominated. The novel MOON TIGER by the British authoress Penelope Lively was to win the award that year. We waited. We could do better, we agreed. And then in 1991, Ben Okri was not only shortlisted so as to equal Chinua Achebe, as it were, but actually won the award with his magic realism novel of some 500 pages long THE FAMISHED ROAD. Thus, he became the first Nigerian to actually do so, and although he was the first black African, he was nonetheless the third African. Mr Chris Joslin, of the British Council told me about the news of Ben Okri’s success as I waited at the receptionist office of the British Council, Lagos. Two white South Africans, Nadine Gordimer (a female) and J M Coetzee (a male) had previously won the prize in 1974 with THE CONSERVATIONIST and 1983 with TIMES OF MICHAEL K respectively. Professor J. M. Coetzee of the then University of Cape Town in South Africa was to win it again in 1999 with DISGRACE. But, well, yet again, we compared notes. South Africa had in 1991 won the Nobel Prize once, the Booker Prize thrice, the Commonwealth Prize once and other prizes. Nigeria had won one Nobel Prize, as the first African nation to do so in 1986, one Booker Prize, three Commonwealth Prizes in prose and in poetry categories and other prizes. In 1988, Egypt had also won the Nobel Prize once and as well as other prizes. Thus, in the African continent of some fifty-two nations or so, Nigeria was second in literature matters behind South Africa, just as it was in politics when Nelson Mandela came to power and Nigeria slipped back to the second place following June the 12th annulment of election results by the power-hungry and semi-illiterate General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993. Egypt came third in that order. So, we listened to the BBC World Service radio. And when I got back to my residence, if I am not switched on to the weekly book reading programme on Ogun state radio or the Lagos-based Ray Power Radio so as to listen in to all sorts of local and foreign music, I am on to the BBC World Service as well. As with Victor, I would listen in to the foreign service programmes. Or read some of my books. Victor does too. He had a large stock of books, of both fiction and non-fiction, at home and in his office. And at his office, I do recall one sober moment when, on reflection, Victor said that he had thought all along that when a person becomes a writer or a poet, that people, students, members of staff and the general public alike, would automatically mug him or her, invade the office, ask for autographs and so on and so forth as was the case with top musicians or film stars. But, located in Nigeria, it was never to be so in his case. It was like the Christians of nowadays who claimed that once saved by the blood of Jesus Christ and all that stuff that such converts always remained saved; in a way, it was accepting the fact that once a poem or a fictional work has been written, that was it. Thereafter, that one has become a writer to be celebrated. It is not so nowadays. In the Nigeria of the 1960s and early 1970s, it used to be that publishers looked out for potential writers and headhunted them as it were. Both local and foreign lecturers were out to grab a budding writer so as to get materials for their articles and essay meant for promotion purposes. Postgraduate and undergraduate students alike sought such writers out for their final year long essays. The novelist, professor and a former state commissioner of education in his home state captain Elechi Amadi made mention of that in his book SUN SET AT BIAFRA. A publisher visited him while he was in prison, he said. Unlike the fruitful experiences of our past and immediate predecessors, who were of the oil boom era, one has to work very hard if that one wants to be in the news nowadays and so be celebrated. Nonetheless, we aimed for high culture of the African sensibility and not the elitism of the western world. We celebrated the artist in our midst. In our own way, we celebrated the putative canons of our fatherland. As it were, we feasted in Ojo Ladipo theatre, Hubert Ogunde’s theatre, the cast of the television series Hotel de Jordan from Edo state, Bini folk dancers, the incantations of the music maestro Umobuare Igberaese who was also a bard from Esan, the Asono and Ijeleghe dance groups from Esan more than we did Picasso, the grand opera houses or Beethoven concerts via the short wave radio. We did so without Victor and myself being accused of ethnocentrism or gender bias in great books, arts and music coming from Nigeria and elsewhere. At first, I read foreign literatures, but I became more and more involved in studying African literature. Victor, who studied linguistics for his first degree but who later on read journalism at the postgraduate level for his postgraduate degrees, concentrated more on foreign literatures. Somehow, he was kind of standing out as being more of a Eurocentric while I was more and more of an Afrocentric sort of person. During my undergraduate student days and shortly afterwards, the biggest literary find in novels has been for me THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah: unlike other books, I read that novel more than five times.
Working alone, also, and as the publicity secretary of ANA, Lagos, I visited the British Council’s Lagos office fairly regularly. I used to collect the BBC World Service magazine Focus on Africa or so. Mr Chris Joslin then at the British Council’s Lagos office, who was later transferred to Peru, made sure that I got my copy of their newsletter Literature Matters whenever it was available and through the post. Later, his successor, Dr Andy Thomas was to give me a copy of the first anthology of the British Council sponsored NEW WRITING series, edited by the now late Malcolm Bradbury and Judy Cooke. The second book of NEW WRITING, edited by Malcolm Bradbury and Andrew Motion, the then current holder of the laureateship of Great Britain. Dr Thomas affixed the official seal of the council to it and gave the copy to ANA, Lagos as a gift. It was made through me and which I also promptly handed over to Victor as the general secretary. In London, Mr Jonathan Barker, the deputy director of the literature department of the council, was to give me a copy of yet another NEW WRITING book, edited this time by Christopher Hope and Peter Porter. Mr Barker was the person I made frantic telephone calls to pleading with him to get in touch with the Lagos office so as to renew the British Airways half ticket I had earlier on sent to them in Lagos and so as to enable me to return back home. I could not stay in London at the time. But, after some years, I got used to it and decided to remain. In my further attempts at promoting ANA Lagos, while still in Lagos, Nigeria, I visited the French cultural centre, the Russia embassy, the Austrian embassy, Canadian High commission, the Saudi Arabian embassy, the Goethe Institut of the German embassy and the United States Information Service (USIS) amongst others. Amongst others, also, I used to read the Chronicle of Higher Education and two Writers’ magazines at the USIS library called the Whitney Young Resource Center. At USIS, it was an altogether wonderful experience for me. The then female cultural attache of the Austrian embassy, Ms Aluosia and whose surname Wongetein I had misplaced, together with officials of the German embassy was to attend one of our readings.
We invited the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, Odia Ofeimu, professor Adimora Ezeigbo, Mr Adewale Maja-Pearce amongst others to give readings of their works. I used to go to the various newspaper houses within Lagos to place an advertisement regarding such meetings. The Guardian newspaper and the Daily Times newspaper were very much willing to promote us. I succeeded in having an interview at the Radio Lagos station and spoke about the aims and objectives of ANA, Lagos. Some of my pre-university students were to tell me that they heard my voice on Radio Lagos. I recalled one student who said to me that she called the attention of her father that morning and said, That is my teacher speaking on the radio. In addition, members of other branches, who got to know about our activities through the newspapers mainly, attended our monthly meetings. The then chairman of Edo/Delta branch of ANA, based in Benin city, Mr Nnimmo Bassey, an architect with the university of Benin as at that time and a poet, the writer Mr Onaiwu Osahon and Mr Lanre Adebayo, a journalist with the Daily Times of Nigeria, amongst others, attended our meetings. I was to later speak on behalf of Mr Nnimmo Bassey at the office of London PEN (writers in prison committee) when the former co-ordinator, Miss Mandy Ganner was planning to contact him in Nigeria and arrange some financial support for his family. He was in hiding from the then Edo state government, the reason of which was known to himself and the state government at the time.
At the national convention of the ANA, that was held in various locations within Nigeria, in Lagos, Abuja, Benin city, Akure, Ilorin and Calabar amongst other cities, I was present at some of them. I was then a fully paid up member. It was a good time of my life. I voted in one of the elections. In fact, I put forward the name of Odia Ofeimu and, together with other supporters, he was elected president that year. Also, I had travelled to the city of Calabar to attend one of the conferences on African literature and languages with professor Ernest N Emenyonu as the convenor. There, I met professor Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, then from the university of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, United States of America. We had a short chat at the office of one of the male lecturers. Later, in his reply to my initial letter to him at Pittsburgh in the United State, he promised to take care of my expenses if only I could make it to the US. Back then, around 1993, I could not travel to join him as I had no money and the visa requirement handy. Together with Victor, I attended one of the occasions marking the 60th birthday anniversary celebration of Wole Soyinka held at a busy nightclub on Victoria Island. That was the first time I read a poem of mine at an international gathering, that included the Ghanaian poet Atukwei Okai, president of PAWA, (the Pan African Writers Association), the director of the British Council and the ambassadors of France and the United States of America to Nigeria amongst other people in attendance. Mr Walter Carrington, the African American, was then the American ambassador.
Although my novel manuscripts and literary short stories were in their first stages as drafts, my poems were not. I had mastered the sonnet form already. After all, I was still honing my literary skills in other aspects of creative writing. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who was born in December, 1918, published his debut novel manuscript ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, an autobiographical account of Stalin’s gulag, in 1962 at the age of forty-four. At that date, I was only a year old toddler. Time is still on my side.
And to add to that last statement, a certain male journalist, writing in one of the national newspapers in the United Kingdom, advised up-and-coming politicians here in London to choose to be Mr Rupert Murdoch, the global media giant and not elect to be a prime minister whose term of office does not seem to last. He was dead serious about it. A few million viewers say in Australia, his original home; a few millions in the United States, his adopted country, where he became a citizen; a few millions in the United Kingdom, where he got his university education; and, a few more millions in each of the countries his creative industrial media empire covers and he is a president presiding over an international body of countries, under his media control, just as the president of the European or Economic Union is to the affected European countries and his directors in each country become the commissioners or goodwill ambassadors of the strength and powers of the United Nations. I would have added that it was better to be known through my works as a writer than being an executive director of a merchant bank. And I am at par and total agreement with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who once said that a great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones. Come to think of it, would a serious writer truly accept such a position from African military rulers who later turned up in Europe as university students? Take General Yakubu Gowon for instance who later studied at Warwick university in the United Kingdom after he was toppled in a military coup. There was this other army officer and erstwhile head of state from Sierra Leone or so who provoked the anger of some African lecturers in Great Britain. They refused to teach him on enrolment at university because of his human rights records as they claimed. The human rights abuses are both from the government soldiers and rebels alike. They were those who sliced open the wombs of women at various advance stages of pregnancy. They raped women whether married or not. They captured girls as young as ten years of age and subsequently forced them into being their bush wives, this, after killing their parents. They either amputated arms and legs or killed suspected opponents outright. They plundered the gold and diamond-based economy that left tens of thousands of their people unemployed, homeless and starving to death. He is not different from others in Sudan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Liberia and Uganda. Take the other case of Valentine Strasser who, at the age of twenty-five years, took power in a military coup d’etat in Sierra Leone in 1992, a country that is said to have the lowest life expectancy in the world. On an average, men from Sierra Leone die at 35. 9 years of age and their women die at 39. 8 age bracket. Not surprising therefore, four years later Valentine Strasser was overthrown also. And, today, with no motor car or a house of his own, he lives with his mother. Unemployed as he claimed, he wandered about Freetown, a place where nothing is ever free. He claimed to indulge in drinking palm wine, a reminder of the opening sentence of Amos Tutuola’s THE PALMWINE DRINKARD. Like other past rulers of his type, is he still a treasure trove of a nation-building asset with or without the phalanxes of journalists as hired speech writers or an aimless pastiche of a military kind who could still want to rule his country as a civilian leader? The former USSR leader, Mr Mickail Gorbachev gets £100,000 for his lectures. A one-time prime minister baroness Thatcher of Great Britain earns some £25,000 for each of her lectures, apart from her £3. 5 million two volumes book deal in the early 1990s. So is Mr John Major, her successor, another past Tory party leader and prime minister of the United Kingdom, who had a school certificate and worked briefly in Lagos state as a banker or so. In his early thirties, the erstwhile United States president Bill Clinton was an assistant law professor. In addition to his £7 to £8 million book deal with an American publisher, he is also on the lecture circuit. Yet, our so-called leaders only surfaced in industrialised countries of Europe and North America as university students. In an intellectual fudge the other day, president Olusegun Obasanjo was said to have jokingly asked Mr Gbenro Adegbola, the current managing director of Evans publishers (Nigeria) about his royalty payments, when we all know that Nigerian publishers do not pay up. Apart from Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, as most people still believe, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, other past leaders either claimed to be unemployed (as is the case with the self-promoted field marshal Dada Idi Amin of Uganda but now of Saudi Arabia or rather dead) or are protected for life by the huge amount of money they stashed away while at the helms of affairs of their respective countries (as it was General Sanni Abacha of Nigeria) or they sought parliamentary legality for their self-styled stewardship to their people (as president Daniel Arab Moi is about to do when the Kenyan house of parliament proposed for his retirement seven chauffeur-driven motor cars, thirty-four staff, a 12-bedroom mansion and a pension equal to 80% of his present salary. He has also sought to promote the political fortune of the son of the late Jomo Keyantta so as to protect him from any legal prosecution as it were). This, in professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s country, where an average Kenyan lived on a British pound a day. Yet agreed in addition to the above statements, for instance, that none of us watchers of world events and who are also complaining have helped the pygmies within and outside the Cameroon, according to the assertion of Mr Louis Raets, the organiser of the exhibition of eight pygmies in a pygmy-like village in Belgium to sing and dance, but was that why in his blurb Mr Raets wrote amongst others that people should: “ Help these people who live at the start of the third millennium as we did 2,000 years ago? “ Does that boils down to the intransigence of our so-called rulers in gross mismanagement and embezzlement that we are according to Mr Raets some 2,000 years behind Europe or was Mr Raets a man whom Gabriel Garcia Marquis’ novel ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE could placate or what? Now, from hindsight, therefore, is it not true that only minor writers accepted jobs from such military leaders? After all, professors of English and literature teach and write about the works of such authors as Ben Okri (being one of three major Nigerian authors of note in the western world, with such mainstream British publishers whose books are readily available as Methuen Wole Soyinka; Oxford University press Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emechata, J P Clark-Bekederemo; Jonathan Cape Ben Okri; Penguin Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa; Phoenix Ben Okri; Weidenfeld Ben Okri; Secker and Warburg Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka; Faber Amos Tutuola; William Heinemann Chinua Achebe; Heinemann African Writers Series Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emechata and others, and who are on the international circuit at the moment) and his major works are taught in some institutions of higher learning in Europe and North America, just as it was with other key writers from Nigeria, to a lesser extent. Lord Hattersley (Roy Hattersley) the conservative member of the British parliament amongst other people had written about Ben Okri on a full page in the Guardian newspaper, United Kingdom. So I should say again in effect that I would be much more happier as a porter who loved his job in a mainstream publishing house of literary works than be a commissioner for education in my state. Not after I witnessed Ben Okri as he stood up and left his seat when Mr Odigie Oyegun a former executive state governor from Bendel state, well, Edo state, to be precise, and who was on exile at the time, approached him during a get-together meeting to celebrate the late Ken Saro-Wiwa here in London. And for far too long, it has been the case that it is in countries like Nigeria that a lecturer or professor with one or two fringe books becomes a spokesman for serious writers whose main vocation is creative writing. Not so in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe and North America. Over here, top-rated writers are not necessarily professors. They are professionals who append professorship as just one of other minor titles to their accomplishments. As in politics, where the best known politicians are not professors or lords, as a title, so also the best known writers here are writers first and foremost. It is unlike in Nigeria where avaricious cum indolent chiefs or alhajis or professors who are experts of regurgitation of other people’s books dictate political lines of actions in an already jaded economy. It is also a country where the British Council in Lagos state tended to consult with university academics with regards to the future of literary works and the lives of creative writers within and outside the country. It is understandable, as the country is a developing one. But Ben Okri for example is known in key academic centres throughout Europe and North America and some places in Nigeria and that erstwhile executive state governor is known mainly within Edo state and to his fellow political party members. Both of them, therefore, could not have been bedfellows. One is only on some local history textbook and perhaps taught to students in Edo state while the other is himself a literary history in the making and whose works are probably taught in selected colleges and universities around the world. The only similarities between them being that both are of some historical importance to their respective field, state and worldview. The constant sabre-ratting of military and police officers on innocent civilians aside, knowledge of and from books is a permanent source of power; political office power or power of military coup rulers is transient. Professors, who teach the English language and literatures of different nations the world over, and literary or arts journalists alike are paid monthly salaries to write about novelists, poets, television and film actors and actresses and works of playwrights from the theatres. It is the other way round for authors, except for such people to feature as character types in books, television programmes and films. What a transmoglorification of our lecturers therefore into becoming emergency authors all for the sake of egunje or bribe! So up-and-coming Nigerians in whatever field of human endeavours should get their bearings right as early as possible.
All these aspects of my writing and literary associates I left behind as I travelled out to London, hoping, as it were, that I could at least return to Lagos, a home to all sorts of commercially successful crooks as business people, a jungle of a place which, unlike the comparatively comfortable London base, is no sanctuary for the poor or struggling writer. Yes, I hoped to return once in a while to re-unite with my fellow members and attend the ANA annual convention if possible.
Furthermore, I wondered aloud. How come there are no other Nigerian Nobel Prize winners in economics or in medicine and physiology? How come professor Wole Soyinka is that developed intellectually and in industry as a world-class citizen, while Nigeria, his country of origin, is an industrially underdeveloped so-called third world country of grafts and endless corruption? Yet, it is not that professor Soyinka made the nation to be better known to the outside world, but that like chief M K O Abiola, Chief Peter Enahoro, professor Chinua Achebe, Ms Buchi Emechata, Dr Ben Okri, Mr Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chief Cyprian Ekwensi, Dr Festus Iyayi, Mr Amos Tutuola, Miss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and a handful of other people, the country is taken rather seriously in the family of nations the world over. So, could such a person like professor Soyinka had remained like the politically sick Nigeria if he had allowed its military and civilian rulers to direct him in life? Is it the individual as a micro element of some sort or the mighty state apparatus as a macro factor that eventually shaped the destiny of a nation? How could ANA therefore produce more world-famous citizens or was it the other way round; that is, certain single-minded ANA members of great renown who could elevate ANA into a global organisation I am afraid?
Yet, here in London, there is a great difference between the ANA Lagos I left behind and the Society of Authors, one of three major literary societies in the United Kingdom, I had wanted to join. The Society of Authors has over 7,000 paid up members and I do not think that they all do meet at the same time. After all, I had bought my first computer, a Dell second hand model in 1999 and a brand new printer in 2000 or so and as a result I got myself ready for the business of writing as a way of life.
Yet, the warmth, the joy and the friendship of Lagos ANA were all but gone. In its place, and like wintertime London to the sunshine of Lagos, swinging individualism and extreme commercialism are the norm here in London, UK. Apart from a borrowed coat from a friend (for my matriculation at university) and another from my uncle for use during my university convocation, it was in London that I actually bought two coats and was forced to wear them. Here in London, wearing a coat or an overcoat during wintertime is the norm. And when I observed these men and women in suits, they reminded me of those pastors of the Christian Pentecostal movements whom I left behind in Nigeria. As the black men and women especially looked just like some kind of a new age religious group in my eyeballs, I stopped using a coat altogether in summertime without coming to grief. It was unlike Lagos where anything goes, except for some inner circles of associations that are small and far between. What kept ringing true was what an American poet who later became a naturalised Briton also observed years and years before and to the effect that in London, death has undone so many. The poet in question T. S. Eliot, however, could not envisage that when it came to the spectators at football matches or the Wimbledon Opens in Lawn tennis championship games and the stock brokers and other allied workers at the occasionally vibrant London Stock Exchange, death seemed to be put at bay at such festive moods. Warmth and not the look of death used to radiate so many faces I see. The nine to five daytime workers are a different story altogether. Individualism is felt everywhere. And, on the literary scene, one ought to have been published and or recognised by the media houses here in London before one could enjoy the same level of participation in a literary organisation that we of ANA Lagos took virtually for granted.
There is much more money here in London and in the business of writing. There are literary participations everywhere. There are constant readings and the giving of lectures in colleges and universities around the world. But it is love above all else that is found in abundance within the ANA Lagos I loved and left behind that matters the most to me.
Omohan EBHODAGHE – BA, PGDE
Poet and Novelist
Omohan Ebhodaghe’s works are TWENTY NIGERIAN WRITERS: PORTRAITS, co-edited, 1993; HIGHTOWER, 2007, Africa World press, USA; and, IN THE MIDST OF LOAFERS, 2011, Chipmunka, UK. His forthcoming works are PHOTOCOPIES & ORIGINAL, A HEALING FREEDOM and ONLY FOOLS DIE and other stories. He lives and works in London, UK, courtesy of a British Council, Lagos office assistance. His email is: email@example.com OR firstname.lastname@example.org