Perhaps you have got hold of the wrong end of the stick if you think ours is a predominant literate society, given the number of schools in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. Ignorance is still a problem here, the University of New Orleans scholar-poet, Professor Niyi Osundare, thinks so; and Nigeria is paying the price for illiteracy!
It was a constellation of eggheads in the humanities at the University of Ibadan when the Department of English hosted a recent public lecture presented by Professor Osundare entitled “Nature, the Ultimate Metaphor: Literature and Ecological Imperative”.
Dignitaries included Emeritus Professors Ayo Banjo and Ayo Bamgbose; Professors Ayo Ogunsiji (Head, Department of English), Dan Izevbaye and Ademola Dasylva.
Prof. Ademola Dasylva, the author of the award-winning poetry volume, Songs of Odamolugbe, set the ball rolling, hinting on the imperative of the intellectual harvest, “We have identified a critical need in our lives: the need for education about everything.”
Above all, “Every now and then, we hear of illegal migrants perishing on the Mediterranean Sea, because they find the African continent unbearable, and they need to move out. Every now and then, we hear of killings in the Middle Belt. The bottom line is still education.”
Emeritus Professor Banjo, a two-time vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan, congratulated the Department of English on sustaining the intellectual life of the faculty and inviting a distinguished scholar, in the caliber of Prof. Osundare, to speak to the university community.
The departmental head, Prof. Ayo Ogunsiji, welcomed all, including guests from sister departments in the university and visitors from other Nigerian universities to the occasion. He described Osundare, in his citation, as a passionate teacher, a profound scholar, a humanist and a virtuoso poet, who has won many laurels and brought honour to the University of Ibadan, where he was educated and served as a lecturer for decades before relocating to the University of New Orleans, and Nigeria in general.
Before presenting his paper, Prof. Osundare regaled the audience with a short video of his nature poem “Home in the Sky”, a sequel to the masterpiece “In Eye of the Earth”, with a musical accompaniment and native Ekiti chorus, which held the audience spellbound.
The Visiting Lecturer averred, “Earth’s constituency has no frontiers; its benefactions no boundaries: as god/goddess, guardian spirit, custodian of vital values, sustainer, nurturer, catalyst, enabler, spirit of the sowing, soul of the harvest, owner of the mountains, the hills, the rivers, the lakes, mother of the towering trees of the rainforest, the grass of the savannah, the sizzling sands of the desert, the chilly expanse of icy regions…… Earth is also Mother Matron, and Mystery.
“Earth commands a reverence bordering on veneration and worship. Perhaps in no book is this more telling than Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The role of Earth as the central deity in Igbo pantheon is evident throughout that novel, in incidents ranging from the mystic power of Evil Forest to the kinds of deaths regarded as abominations that forbid the deceased from being buried in the belly of the earth. This practice of preventing cultural and spiritual pollution may sound strange to some literal, ‘modern’ zealots of the monotheistic persuasion, but its manifestation of Igbo people’s profound reverence for the earth is a lesson and challenge for contemporary ecological consciousness/ practice.”
Taking a glance at the array of eggheads seated across the table, as he mounted the rostrum, Professor Osundare admitted that he had been lucky to be taught by good lecturers, like Emeritus Professors Ayo Banjo and Ayo Bambgose, and Professor Dan Izevbaye, present. “Without people like these,” he said, “I wouldn’t have been here today.” Thus, the lecture was a way of giving back to the society. He emphasised, however, that “the writer needs nature more than nature needs the writer”.
Osundare’s lecture elicited responses from some of the scholars present and the audience. Emeritus Professor Bamgbose iterated that “when you read his writings, you will know that he is very close to his books”. He noted that everybody was proud of the poet, which attested to why the hall was filled to capacity. Professor Izevbaye added that Osundare was always a delight to read and listen to, while commending him for drawing the attention of the naysayers and the harm they will do the communities.
The famous literary critic lamented that environmental activist like Ken Saro-Wiwa spoke out, and was executed. Frankly, he would have been happier if the Nigerian government had listened to Osundare’s speech. He blamed the marauding herdsmen for destroying the lush environment of Lake Chad, forcing them to move downward to the Middle Belt and the south of the country, leading to mindless bloodletting in the country. He was afraid that “desert will soon get to Lagos if we don’t stop them.
At various times, Osundare has been described in deswerving hyperboles. Professor Izevbaye joined the praise singers when he described the poet as “Nigeria’s gift to the word”, one who has brought poetry to the roots, both in the literary and academic sense, adding that “he has revived the relationship between poetry and performance”.
Professor Dasylva would like Professor Osundare to shed light on the effects of industrialisation, which, he believed, should be blamed for the devastations taking place on the ecology at the moment. However, Professor Osundare responded that it was possible for ecology and industrialisation to live together without quarrel.
“We need stringent policy on the environment where to site industries and where not to site industries. If you can’t plan your city, you can’t plan your environment,” he echoed.
The poet disparaged the political leaders of Nigeria, whom, he said, had messed up the country. “The Nigeria that created the Soyinkas and the Achebes have been killed. Look at what they have produced! Even with their PhDs, look at what they are producing! It is not a generational problem it is a political problem.
“It is not that professors are not educated; they are underdeveloped. This city is dying. Patients are dying in the hospitals. Ignorance is a curable disease; it has to be cured. You can’t be a good writer if you don’t read. Illiteracy is killing Nigeria,” he lamented.
The vote of thanks was given by Prof Tosin Jegede, who said the Department of English was impressed with the dignitaries and crowd that turned up for the scholarly lecture.