A tour of friendship, art, and related matters – Nengi Ilagha

NDUKA OTIONO was excited at the prospect of presiding over the formation of a new chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, in Bayelsa State. He was even more excited when I told him that the venerable poet of the River Nun fame, Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, had agreed to be our grand patron.

Otiono and I share a long-standing friendship, dating back to 1991. I had taken my place as a staff writer in Eko, the new magazine from the Newswatch stable. Our editorial brief was to report Lagos to Lagosians. We shared offices with Quality, the better known soft-sell magazine under the pioneering editorship of May Ellen Ezekiel. Otiono was a staff writer on the Quality line-up after May went on to set up Classique.

On my first day at work along our office in Oregun, Lagos, I found myself sitting between two reporters for Quality whose names were already well known in the pages of the magazine. To my left was Paschal Anyaso, and to my right was Tony Otiono, as he was called then. I learnt a lot by merely looking at these two gentlemen. They both had this serious approach to duty, and it was good to see them write the stories that would be read all around the nation the following week.

Before long, I earned my respect from both journalists when they read my humble reports in Eko, to say nothing of my column “Street Smart.” Louisa Ayonote, editor of the magazine and daughter of Nigeria’s former military Head of State, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, had singled me out for the privilege of posting a weekly column, a seven-day digest of Lagos in all its chaotic heave of noise and brawn. I do wonder where I kept those scripts.

Nduka and I kept in touch long after our days at Oregun. He became editor of the literary pages of a foremost newspaper of its day, The Post Express, and published some of my poems on his pages. Many years later, as a simple gesture to our common love for literature, we collaborated in the publication of an anthology entitled Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria. Edited by Otiono and Diego Okenyodo, the book was published on my label, Treasure Books. Seventy Nigerian writers, male and female, cutting across prose and poetry genres, inhabit the pages of the book.

Otiono’s healthy ambition was evident in his long introduction to Camouflage. He aspired to outdo the landmark effort by Harry Garuba of blessed memory in the maiden anthology of one hundred new Nigerian poets entitled Voices From The Fringe, published by Malthouse in 1988. Otiono gave a good assessment of the dynamics of Nigerian literature from its inception to that present point in time, spelling out the steadfast ideals behind the formation of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, by its founding fathers, and underscoring the ascendancy of new voices.

When he became General Secretary of the Association, I was invited to serve as Editor of the journal, ANA Review, and I did that throughout the tenure of the Professor Olu Obafemi presidency. At that time, I came to appreciate Otiono’s sheer passion for the growth of literature in Nigeria. He believed that great literature was being written in every corner of the nation, and it was our express duty to harness it with a wholesome spirit, and preserve it for posterity.

I have lost count of the number of younger and fledgling writers I met through Otiono, especially during the ANA convention in Port Harcourt in 2001 when he ran and was elected the national General Secretary of the Association. Beyond the Presidential Hotel venue of the convention, Otiono, Dave Diai, and I had shared poetry and our love of journalism in the bustling bukkas, not far from head office of The Tide newspaper and a major motor park on Ikwerre Road, Port Harcourt.

The only time I saw Otiono out of circulation was when he lay in a hospital bed for weeks at Eko Hospital, Lagos, recovering from gunshot wounds to his upper arm inflicted by armed robbers. The experience left a hollow disenchantment in Otiono, a deep-seated distrust for his nation, but it did not dampen his crusading zeal for Nigerian literature.

From the moment he walked out of that hospital, Otiono began to plot his way out of Nigeria. In the end, he secured a place in a Canadian university, and has grown to become a citizen of that country along with his beloved wife, Onyisi, and their brilliant daughter, Kika. He remains an active literary scholar, and I see in him a good example of how to become a professor of literature in Canada.

Under Otiono’s tenure as General Secretary, five new chapters of ANA were inaugurated, the highest to have been so established in the history of the Association. I am still grateful to him for the conscious role he played in setting up the Bayelsa chapter of ANA. His involvement was complete from day one.

He made repeated visits to Glory Land ahead of the formal inauguration. In the intervening few days, we took our places behind the microphones at Radio Bayelsa, as we had done on the network service of the NTA in times past, talking literature. He spoke eloquently in that vibrant baritone of his about the need to cultivate new writers from Bayelsa, especially because Gabriel Okara was from Bayelsa.

That was all the cue Otiono needed. He went into full flight, making cross-cultural connections between the literature of Black America, and the corresponding voices from Africa and the Caribbean. He recalled a wide range of poets and critics in his free-wheeling discourse, and you could hear the names of Langston Hughes and Leopold Sedar Senghor and Derek Walcott. He spoke about J.P. Clark and Wole Soyinka and, in all of that, he was spelling out the distinguished literary company in which Gabriel Okara remains a doyen.

Not too long ago, I saw the cover of a familiar book on the wall of my long-standing friend. He was wondering if anybody still had a copy of an anthology of poems entitled 25 New Nigerian Poets. I indicated that I had a copy, so he called me from Ottawa, Canada, asking if I would let him know the poems he submitted that gained entrance into that landmark collection.

I went in search of the book in my humble library. Imagine my surprise when I found the book and turned the pages. I was listed as the first out of twenty-five poets in Nigeria. To say the least, I was suitably delighted and I remain so. I had completely forgotten about this book published twenty years ago, in 2000, by an American critic called Ishmael Reed who had taken more than a passing interest in contemporary Nigerian poetry.
The anthology was edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel. I feel like posting what she had to say twenty years ago in her introduction to the book. It’s quite short, but its perceptive insight cannot be mistaken. Toyin is the author of Naked Testimonies, her first book of poems, which came second only to “Mantids,” my first book of poems, in the keenly contested poetry finals of 1995.

Almost twenty years after the formation of ANA Bayelsa, from 2001 to the present, a number of high points stick out like milestones in the journey of the writers’ body. New writers have emerged, new books from Bayelsa are on the shelves, and Otiono is suitably gratified at how giant oaks have grown from little acorns.
But the single most significant event in recent times may well be the passage of the great bard, Gabriel Okara. It is an eventuality that needs to be recaptured in all its dizzying colours, one year after the event, and Otiono is all for it. If he had his way, in fact, he would have come all the way from Canada to attend the final burial rites of Okara in Yenagoa and Bomoundi.

Even so, Otiono maintains, the brochures are still there to consult. They offer timeless encomiums to the memory of the father of modern Nigerian poetry as we know it today, the first African poet to break the rules about rhyme and rhythm, insisting and demonstrating that a poem does not have to live within the margins of a strict syntactic bracket, that man does not go about speaking in rhymes all the time, that every day conversation, even though poetic, is free of metrical encumbrances.

Every day conversation can be elegant, for all it may be worth. It can contain the finest elements of poetry, too, but it does not have to end on a rhyming note. Shakespeare wrote sonnets, but did he always speak that way? It doesn’t have to be heroic pentameter all the time. It doesn’t need to come in octaves and sextets. The sentiments of a poet should gush forth, and speak of freedom in human terms correct to the next phrase. A poem should reach out and raise the heartbeat of man. Poetry should speak to the heart of your neighbour without being adorned in tailor-made garments of metrical propriety.

Otiono could not but agree that this was virtually Okara’s thinking when he set out to write poetry, breaking away from the pattern set by Dennis Osadebey and the pre-colonial poets of African descent in the Caribbean and the Americas, and their unrelieved indulgence in rhymed verses that sounded like hymnal compositions. Okara, in short, was the first African poet to write free verse and still command the attention of European critics.

Nduka Otiono has come a long way from that newsroom at Oregun where our paths as creative writers crossed. Thankfully, there was space for short stories in the two magazines, and we both set about publishing isolated pieces. But Otiono was quick to put his first book together. He did so before me. The sheaves of paper he was carrying around then turned out to be the early sketches of the stories he later published in his first collection of short fiction entitled, The Night Hides With A Knife. The book went on to win the ANA-Spectrum Prize for Fiction a year after its publication, and Otiono was duly encouraged. But his prompting took a different course in the direction of poetry when he assembled his first book of poems under the title, Voices In The Rainbow, which also went on to earn honourable mention in the ANA-Cadbury Poetry category.

His second collection of poems, Love In A Time Of Nightmares, won him the James Patrick Folinsbee Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing. It is remarkable that, many years later, Nduka Otiono has seen it fit to revisit both collections and add a few recent nuggets of gold in a new book of poems with an introduction by Professor Chris Dunton, notable critic of African literature.

When I look at my friend’s profile today, I marvel at what possibilities the mind can attain when it is fully awake and committed to an idea. Today, Otiono is the graduate programme coordinator at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He is the two-time winner of a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship, and he ranks as the co-editor of six books so far, the most recent being his thoughtful tribute to his personal friend and colleague, the inimitable Professor Pius Adesanmi, entitled Wreaths For A Wayfarer.

Otiono is proud of the experience he gained working as a visiting Assistant Professor alongside the distinguished novelist, Chinua Achebe, at Brown University in times past. Otiono still talks about that experience as a worthwhile apprenticeship at the foot of a master craftsman, and he may jolly well be right.

A few days ago, Professor Nduka Otiono sent me a photograph that took my mind back to a time when we were both active members of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos State chapter. I remembered our meetings at the Surulere residence of a respected member, at the Bode Thomas secretariat of ANA, and at the Goethe Institute on Victoria Island, Lagos.

I remember one particular event where I delivered the famous poem by Olu Oguibe from his first collection, A Gathering Fear. The author himself was there to shake hands with me for taking his long poem, “I Am Bound To This Land By Blood,” with the authority of a primary witness. I remember Otiono himself playing host to writers at his home in a brotherly and convivial setting that enabled me to meet, for the first time, with young writers like Sanya Osha, David Diai, and Chike Ofili, to mention but three.

And this picture before me confirms even more surely what happened that distant day when I drove out of Yenagoa, and flew from Port Harcourt to attend an ANA meeting at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. My good old friend, Nduka Otiono, was there to welcome me against a backdrop of art works.

In the middle of our felicitations, my phone rang. I flipped it open, and heard the voice of Alamieyeseigha—my principal and governor of Bayelsa State at the time—rebounding over the distance, directing me to write the next speech for a forth-coming event. I didn’t tell him where I was, or who I was with. I simply assured him with a smile that he should consider the script done.

After the call, between pleasantries and so much back-slapping, Otiono and I walked into the hall and joined other writers in the deliberations of an Association that used to speak with one resounding voice.


Nengi Josef Owei-Ilagha, also known as Pope Pen has worked as a journalist (broadcast and print), publisher, public relations consultant, and former speech writer and Special Adviser on Research & Documentation to former Governors of Bayelsa State, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. He is the author of over a dozen books including Mantids, his first collection of poems, which won the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Poetry Prize in 1995. His collection of poems, January Gestures, was long-listed for the NLNG-Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2009. He is the editor of The Navigator, journal of the Nigerian Maritime University, and publisher of Coastline News Network (CNN), a monthly newsmagazine focusing on the Niger Delta. Also, the Founding Chairman of the Bayelsa State chapter of ANA, he is married to the award-winning novelist and broadcaster, Bina Nengi-Ilagha.

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