To many who were fortunate to be present at the Ijaw National Academy, Kaiama, Bayelsa State, venue of the event that brought Nigeria’s best minds together recently, it was a moment of awe, a mix of reverential fear and a feeling of disbelief.
They had read their books, both young and old, watched their plays being re-enacted on stage and even seen them on television, but being under the same roof with this waning generation of Nigerian writers, its finest breed yet, was a dream come true for many in the gathering.
It doesn’t happen often, but when it did on July 14, 2017, the coming together of Prof. Wole Soyinka, Prof. John Pepper Clark, Dr. Gabriel Okara, Dr. Odia Ofeimun and one of Nigeria’s finest historians, Prof. Joe Alagoa, to interact with over 1,000 students of Ijaw descent was described as ‘historic’.
For some students in the audience who had the privilege of asking questions that had bothered them about these seemingly ‘mysterious’ men for a long time, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would be cherished for a long time to come.
And why not? It is a difficult task bringing such great and accomplished elders to speak on the same podium. Okara, a renowned Niger Delta-born poet, popular for his poem ‘Call of The River Nun and The Voice’, a novel he wrote in 1964, is already 96 years old.
Interestingly also, the session held a day after Soyinka’s 83rd birthday and a cake was promptly cut to mark the auspicious occasion at the venue of the colloquium. To add to the list of sages was, of course Prof. JP Clark, born in 1935 and who is already 82.
Completing the company of ‘wise old men’ was Alagoa, who is 84 and then although far younger, Ofeimun, a poet and brilliant polemicist, 67 and author of ‘The Poet Lied’ is by any standards not a young man.
So, it was not just a gathering of brilliant minds, it was one where men with decades of experience in the world of arts came together to light the torch for the next generation.
The British-born Principal of the school, Mr. Charles Johnson, set the tone for the meeting when he told the students that the conversation they were about to have with the men of letters was not ordinary.
“Very often, we can learn an enormous amount from great men. And we are going to hear from lots of great men today,” Johnson told the audience.
He continued: “I think there is a real difference between the idea of being clever and the idea of wisdom. The ability to be clever is something you have all got.
“You have all passed quite a hard and competitive examination to get here. You are some of the most able children of the Ijaw tribe. But the difference between being clever and being wise is the application of the cleverness.”
It was then Governor Seriake Dickson’s turn to encourage the youngsters and remind them of the rare opportunity of a lifetime they were about to encounter.
“Listen and learn from the wisdom of these great icons not just of our own country, but world leaders in their own right.
“These great men don’t pay too much attention to mundane things as you can see. You have seen them. They live simply, yet profoundly. Living lives of great impact,” he informed them.
In his speech which was punctuated by resounding intermittent applauses, the governor quickly drew a line between himself and the literary icons, rather modestly, revealing that he intended to go back to school after his second term.
“Today’s event is not for me. I am not one of these giants, but I intend to go back to school after my service and also aspire to be a professor because that was really what I wanted to be; to teach and write and contribute to the body of knowledge, but I am not yet qualified to join them,” Dickson said.
A visibly excited governor added: “When we were your age, we read their works and got inspired. They are here to talk to you and expand your horizons. My charge to you is to ask you to soar as high as your dreams can take you.”
He assured them that many more dignitaries, including former and serving presidents will come to have uplifting interactions with them.
“Many more presidents will be here, and you know in this great state, we also have a former president (Dr. Goodluck Jonathan). He too loves education, I know that. We have discussed it. At the appropriate time they will come and interact with you,” he noted.
The occasion provided the students an opportunity to ask the veterans any question bothering them and find answers to them.
Tagged ‘A Day with the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka and Ijaw Literary Icons”, members of the audience, mostly secondary school students were itching to know how many books they needed to write to win a Nobel Prize like Professor Soyinka.
They wanted to know the best time of the day to write an award-winning work of art; they wanted to take Soyinka back to how he felt on winning the Nobel Prize 31 years ago. And as it turned out, the elders were quite ready for the torrents of questions.
But before then, a question was thrown at the octogenarian historian, Alagoa on the right time to write award-winning books.
Do you have any specific (best) time when you feel you should write? , fired one of the anxious students.
“I think every writer should develop a pattern of work,” he began. “For me, waking up very early in the morning before others wake up. That’s about the best time for me to write.
“As a historian, I do tell the stories of our people. But not in as engaging and clear and visible and affecting the different emotions of people like the literary people. There is a magic that they can bring to the story,” he said.
This was quickly countered by Ofeimun who described Alagoa, known for his seminal works ‘A History of the Niger Delta’ and ‘The Practice of History in Africa’ as a ‘stylist’ and not just a run of the mill historian.
Alagoa continued: “This is because the historian has to rely on evidence, something that has come from the past, to interpret and tell the story of humanity; who we are and expecting to give us some wisdom.
“For example, our cultures are inextricably linked and joined and we find that we have relations with communities right across the River Niger up to Sokoto.
“From excavations that were done in Sokoto and in the Niger Delta, even to Lagos and beyond, I believe our lives, our fortunes, our destinies are all united. That’s a story that we historians can tell,” Alagoa said.
Juliet Johnny, a JSS 2 INA student, Stephen Praise, Ikede Majesty were some other students who were asked to grill the sages.
Johnny fired the second: Sir what does it take to be a Nobel Laureate and how many books do I have to write to have the award?
“I can assure you that it is not the quantity,” Soyinka started. “It’s the quality and very often the relevance and finally the literary taste of that particular work. Because literature is very subjective and very often a lot that happens depends on the taste of any jury deciding on the work.
“So, yes, it might be the quality, it is also the relevance, but ultimately, whether we like it or not, it is the taste of the jury which is deciding on the work of art,” he explained.
Little Miss Praise was next. “I have a question for my mentor, Prof. Wole Soyinka,” she quipped. “As a writer what comes first, the title, story line or just a word?
After a long pause, the professor responded, “It’s a very difficult question” even as he attempted to explain his point.
He told the students of the school, a free-boarding, free-tuition institution that how literary minds decide to go about their works depends on the individual.
“It’s a very difficult question. Sometimes an idea sticks in the mind and it continues to gestate and you may even think you have forgotten about it, but it’s actually operating in the subconscious.
“You go out and do other things, but one day you get the structure through which to narrate the idea and the two things come together. But the idea is (always) there. It may be at home or something you read in the newspaper,” he explained.
But has being a Nobel laureate changed Prof. Soyinka in any way? Asked Ikede Majesty, one of the senior perfects in the school.
“The answer is very straightforward,” he said. “Yes, and in a negative way. Very often I cannot do the things I really want to do because I have lost what is one of the greatest gifts, and that is anonymity.
“It means one’s constituency has been enlarged. Your priorities change not because you want to, but because of the pressure,” he added.
While paraphrasing Bernard Shaw, a 1925 Laureate himself, Soyinka explained that while the effect was not always negative, it had nevertheless created its own challenges.
“Let me summarise by quoting Bernard Shaw when he was awarded the Nobel Prize very late in life: ‘It takes a devilish mind to invent such a destructive thing as dynamite , but it must have been a diabolical thing from hell who invented the Nobel Prize, and I agree with him sometimes , not all the time’, he added.
With most of the posers directed mainly at the celebrated Nobel Laureate, he said the award had robbed him of his privacy and anonymity.
Answering a question asked by one of the students, the Ogun-born playwright noted that the pressure as a Nobel Laureate had made him reorganise some of his priorities.
But how did he feel when he won the coveted prize as Africa’s first Nobel Laureate and how long before it began to dawn on him that his life had changed forever?
“It’s a very long and interesting story, though we don’t have much time. But let me say that it was totally unexpected and I couldn’t believe that it was happening and when I came back home was really when it began to sink in.
“I was met at the airport by my colleagues, including JP Clark. And everybody got excited and that was when it began to sink, but then there was still something woozy about it at the time,” he said, eliciting plenty excitement from the crowd by his use of the word “woozy” in his usual manner of expressing himself in somewhat unconventional English grammar.
It was a day that many thought should never have ended. And it did not go without thrilling performances including reading of some poetic works written in the past by the elders.
From the recitation of ‘Season’ by Soyinka to ‘Call of the River Nun’ by Okara and ‘Casualties’ by Clark, the students showed that the investment in their training was not wasted.
There were also dance performances from the school’s dance troupe and the Bayelsa Council of Arts and Culture which did a rehash of ‘Abiku’, another of Soyinka’s works.
Then the train later moved to Yenagoa, the state capital, where Soyinka and his colleagues were made special ambassadors for education in Bayelsa, where they are expected to use their international goodwill to leverage on the various ongoing reforms in the sector.
For many it was a time well spent with the icons, to others it was an opportunity to engage directly with great men that had mentored them from afar, yet for a handful of people, it went beyond the razzmatazz.
It was a day to ‘commission’ the next generation of great minds; those minds that would proudly fly the nation’s flag and propagate its enduring, but seemingly elusive ideals.
The ideals of fairness to all, sacrifice and selflessness as well as ensuring focused and steady progress of Nigeria, the seemingly dwindling motherland.