Ben Amushie sits at a table in an upscale hotel at Ikeja GRA, Lagos, having a lunch, his makeover oja (flute), nestling closely to his phones. He is sporting an Ankara shirt, and his well shaven head glistens in the light seeping in through the large window. Not much of him is known in Nigeria as an artist, but, in Italy and the US, where he has lived for over three decades, he is something of a folk hero.
Italians know him as a griot and Americans know him as a performance poet. He is also a novelist –his novel, Orie the Badger, is making waves, and he is over the moon. Tomorrow, he will be off to his base in the US, but he owes his countrymen the story of an unsung troubadour.
“My dad was a trumpeter,” he says in a semi drawl. “But when he got married, he quit the bandstand, because it was taking him away from the family. So, if you ask me where the journey began, I think that’s where I would attribute it to: his love for the art.” His father was also a teacher, and the teaching and performance streak had trickled to every member of the family.
Amushie has been away from Nigeria since 1981. He was meant to travel to the United States initially, but his brother residing in Lagos then convinced him to go to Rome and secure a visa to the US because of the long queue of Nigerians waiting for their turn to travel to the US. In the 1980s, that was possible.
“On my way to Rome, on board Alitalia Airline, I fell in love with the Italian language, and I told him, ‘I am not going to the US.’ How can somebody leave that kind of musical language and go to the US?” That brief stop in Rome was to last for fourteen years before he relocated to the States.
Italy was an unforgettable experience for Amushie. He wrote stuffs on pieces of paper, littered in his apartment, but they were not serious writings. One day, he went to town and met one Ernest at Bologna, who introduced him to a lady who came to read her poems at a poetry club. They got talking, and Amushie hinted her that he wrote poems occasionally. She invited him to bring them so he could read to an audience. He never did. It was around 1989.
A second meeting with Ernest made him to get serious, if nothing, to prove that he was a poet. Back home, he gathered the pieces together. “They were the scribbles of my pains and the loneliness I was feeling then,” he recalls. Before now, he would burn the poems he had written before moving to a new apartment as a way of getting rid of his misery. He was lucky he still had some of the poems left in his present abode, for he was yet to move on.
When he returned to the poet, she was amazed that Amushie had been wasting his talent, for what he brought ought to be put together in a book form. For the first time, he began seeing the possibility of sharing his deep thoughts with a wider audience. He was inspired to send two poems of his to a publisher of a journal in Italy, who quickly published them. The Rome based publisher gave him a lifeline: the magazine was going to feature him in the next edition, and he had to send more poems. When he did, the publisher was impressed, and invited him to Rome so they could discuss how to publish his poems in a book form. It was September 1992. Amushie was overwhelmed.
By then, Nigeria was under a military dictatorship. But, suddenly, there was a glimmer of hope when the military junta threw the door open for democratic elections. MKO Abiola of the SDP and Bashir Tofa of the NRC were the two presidential candidates. Such was the excitement and optimism that Amushie had to quit his job in Bologna, packed his bags, ready to return to Nigeria. Italy was no longer fun.
He waited for the annulment of the June 12 election to be resolved, to no avail. So he took a trip to London, and stayed there for thirty days before returning to Bologna. “I didn’t know what to do. I had no money and I had quit my job,” he recalls in a rueful tone. Realisation dawned on him, as he wondered what must have made him uncomfortable in Italy. His answer was that Italians didn’t know who he was, by extension, Africans. And there was no avenue to explain whom he was.
At that moment, he decided to take the bull by the horn by telling the Italians who he was. “It was at that point that my life turned around,” he admits. All those ideas that he had that had been stuck, he put them together. “The only way to tell the people who I was,” he explains, “was by telling them what Africa was about.”
Amushie started with a friend of his in Ferara named Robert, an English man, married to an Italian, who was organising a birthday party for his child at home. He saw lots of children at the party with their parents. “I thought that was an occasion to tell African stories to a group of children,” he says.
So he gathered the children in a back room somewhere, everybody on the floor, and started telling them stories. At some point, their parents started looking for the kids, only to discover them at the backdoor engrossed with Amushie. An invitation came instantly for him to visit a class in a school and tell the students the stories. He grabbed the opportunity. “After that, the principal called me that it was unfair that I should tell the stories to only a class and not to other students,” he says.
Amushie was still without a job by then. He honoured the invitation. To his surprise, the principal had gathered the entire student population in an auditorium, running into hundreds. It was a big challenge to Amushie, for he had to device a way to keep 6, 7 year olds quiet for an hour while the storytelling lasted. But he did it, and the reading was a success.
After that, he got a call from the superintendent of schools to come and tell the stories to different schools under his control in Ferara. He agreed on a fee, and the deal was done. He went round schools in Ferara doing what he knew how to do best. That year, he wrote a poem, “Songs from the Black Queen”, which went on to become the heart of his first poetry volume with same title, which Don Remy Jones, the magazine publisher in Rome, published in 1994.
Amushie didn’t stop there. “From that time, going to schools to tell African stories became my job,” he recalls, “up to 1996.” While presenting the book, Songs of Black Queen, Amushie got a call from another superintendent, this time, from Bologna, , who wondered while he was telling his tales in Ferara while leaving out Bologna schools where he was residing.
Another collaboration began. Together with the superintended, they created The Thinking Head, a centre where students were brought to listen to stories. Three teachers joined him, and it became an educational programme in Bologna. “The aim of this programme was meant to make the Italians understand who the foreigners were, and they had a culture,” he says. With that innovation, the African narrative changed in Italy.
Amushie went on to publish those stories in a collection, and he made history, too. “It was the first book written by any foreigner in Italian language. I wrote it in Italian,” he says. In 1995, he published The Talking King of Animals. A year later, he relocated to the United States, and never returned to Italy.
His going to American was informed by the need to have an idea of how people lived there because of a book he was writing about the Lockerby Air Disaster, which had American characters. His travel to Los Angeles brought him in contact with many poets, among whom was Malcom Wagner, who played Cosby’s son in the popular American soap, Cosby Show.
“Mixing with them, I found that there was a void in their hearts created by the fact that they were sons and daughters of slaves, who were told they never had a story. So, I had to feed that void, by telling the stories that they didn’t have, and the whole narrative at Leimert Park changed. I found that, to me, that was the main reason I came to the United States, not even the book.
“From then, poetry in Leitmert Park changed; it became African; it became drumbeats.” Billy Higgins, who owned the centre where they converged to read poetry, became a fantastic “African” drummer, thanks to Amushie.
Amushie got married in 1999, and moved to Michigan, where he started running a writers workshop, which lasted for a couple of years. In 2004, he moved to Houston, and found something else to do. He opened an insurance company, and started working for himself. From 2004, Amushie started collaborating with Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood, in Houston, fortuitously, though, after meeting with Papa G, who was shooting a movie then, Royal Dilemma.
His fiction, Orie the Badger (2017), a story of how Orie, Afor, Nkwo and Eke became market days in Igbo land, has been assessed for possible use by Nigerian schools. In all, he has five published books, including poetry collections and children’s books.