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Niyi Osundare - Meet The Poet Who Hates War-The POST, Cameroon

December 30, 2008
A few days before winning Africa’s highest award for poetry, the 2008 Tchicaya Utamsi award, Niyi Osundare was in Buea, Cameroon, as a special guest for the inaugural EduArts literary awards ceremony, a celebration of  literature by English speaking Cameroonians.   Osundare landed at the Douala International airport on Wednesday 16th July 2008. On hand to welcome him was the founder and CEO of EduArt Inc USA, Dr. Joyce Ashuntantang, accompanied by a Nigerian delegation led by the Consul General of Nigeria to Cameroon in charge of the South West and Northwest provinces (English-speaking Cameroon).

During the one hour plus ride from Douala to Buea which necessitates crossing the Moungo bridge which separates  the English and French  speaking sections of Cameroon, Osundare  got a mini history lesson on the postcolonial entity now called Republic of Cameroon. A drive through the banana and rubber plantations which flush the highway from Douala to Buea inevitably led to discussions on Cameroon’s triple colonial heritage, Germany, France and Britain; a colonial heritage which has now divided  Cameroon into Francophone  and Anglophone Cameroon. 

In the course of his five-day stay, Osunadre held group talks and one-on-one sessions with a cross section of Cameroon men and women of letters. With the students on vacation, Osundare had a meeting with the English faculty at the University of Buea. The head of department, Prof. George Nyamdi highlighted the rare privilege of actually having a distinguished African author whose works are  taught on campus to visit in person. The discussions took off from Osundare’s numerous literary and critical publications to encompass African Literature in general. Members of the History faculty also joined in welcoming the Poet and professor, prodding him this time with questions on the vicissitudes of the African continent. In the lively discussion that followed, Osundare proved that beyond poetry, he is a reservoir of Africa’s turbulent history and equally possesses a fine dose of humor.

Another highlight of the visit was what one can term “Media extravaganza”. Osundare visited the Southwest Provincial Radio station, Buea, the oldest station in Cameroon and the new Buea Mountain F. M Radio.  Here he met with a cross section of  radio journalists notable amongst them, Sammy Bokuba , Evelle Cool Mbua, Njomo Kevin and Quinta-Rita Edang. He recorded interviews for news and various cultural programs. In a rare moment of a shared historical/cultural heritage between Nigeria and English speaking Cameroon, Prof. Osundare and journalist Njomo Kevin sang high life songs by Rex Lawson and  Victor Uwaifo while discussing Njomo Kevin’s “old timers” show organized annually in Buea.

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Osundare was also received by the Publisher of Summit Magazine, Mr. Kange Williams Wasaloko. The most recent edition of the Summit magazine carried an exclusive interview with Achebe on the 50th anniversary of his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, so it was not surprising that Wasaloko is planning a cover story on Prof Osundare in the coming months.
The Newspaper medium was not left behind in this media fiesta. The veteran journalist, Charlie Ndichia and Walter Wilson of The Post, Nkeze Mbonwoh of Cameroon Tribune also organized a 2 hour marathon interview session where the subject matter spanned topics like the Bakassi dispute, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Hurricane Katrina which almost claimed the poet’s life.
Interestingly, Osundare on discovering several talents in Cameroon decided to write two stories for the Nigerian Newswatch magazine, one on Cameroon’s pioneer dramatist, Victor Elame Musinga who has been running the Musinga drama club for 40 years and has over 60 plays to his credit and the other on the pioneer Eduart Awards for literature, the purpose of his trip to Cameroon.
The climax of Osundare’s visit was of course the EDuART awards night where he presided over the launching of Their Champaign Party will End: Poems in honor of Bate Besong edited by Joyce Ashuntantang and Dibussi Tande. Dr. Bate Besong, Cameroon’s fearless playwright and poet who died in a car accident last year, was Professor Osundare’s student at Ibadan University. In a rousing presentation, Osundare described Bate Besong as a writer who was “impatient, honest and was never afraid to call a spade a spade”. He also added that “What people like Bate Besong are telling us is that if we can make it blaze why must we produce a flicker?” He concluded by declaring that the published volume on Bate Besong is proof that Bate Besong is still around and Cameroonians should not allow Bate Besong to die.
But Osundare’s visit was not all work related. Osundare had time to do some sight seeing. He visited the following tourist attractions: Limbe, a beach resort near Buea where he savored grilled fish fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, Bakingili, the site of the volcanic lava flow during the 1999 Mount Cameroon eruption, Debuncha, the second wettest place on earth and Idinau, an unofficial  sea port between Cameroon and Nigeria.
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From Left to Right: Prof. Osundare, Dr. Nsor, Nigerian Consul General, and Dr. Joyce Ashutantang, Founder and CEO of EduArt Inc.
To crown his visit, Osundare was received at the Nigerian Consulate in Buea where he met the entire diplomatic and lay staff and thereafter a reception was given in his honor at the residence of The Consul General to Cameroon, Dr. Kenneth Nsor. Dr. Nsor explained that it was every diplomat’s pride to be placed in a position to receive a dignified and world renowned guest like award winning Poet, Prof. Niyi Osundare. Dr. Nsor thanked the founder and CEO of EduArt Inc, Dr. Ashuntantang who made Osundare’s trip to Cameroon a reality. In a reflection of the high regard the diplomat, Dr. Nsor placed on Prof. Osundare’s visit he was personally at the airport to bid the Nigerian luminary farewell.  Osundare claims it is a trip he will remember for a long time and one he is bound to repeat in the very near future.

Interviewed by Charly Ndi Chia, Sam Bokuba, Nkeze Mbonwoh & Walter Wilson Nana

Osundare Just days before it was announced that he had won the prestigious $10,000 Tchikaya U Tam'si award for poetry, world renowned Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare, was in Cameroon to take part in the inaugural EduArt Awards for Cameroonian Literature in English. The Post newspaper seized the opportunity to conduct an exhaustive two-hour interview with the award-winning Poet. During the interview, Osundare answered questions about a wide variety of issues including the transfer of Bakassi to Cameroon, Mugabe's Zimbabwe, his nightmarish experience during the Katrina floods and, of course, his award winning works.
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Here are excerpts of our fascinating interview with the venerated poet and university don:

You're a world acclaimed literary colossus; an award-winning poet. How were you introduced into poetry?

I wonder whether I chose poetry or poetry chose me. I come from the western part of Nigeria and Yoruba. Yoruba is music, real music. In Yoruba we say, 'I chant poetry and not I read poetry'. The word read doesn't go with poetry in Yoruba. What we have is song and music. I grew up in a very culturally sensitive family.

My father was a farmer and my mother a clothe weaver. In the sidelines, my father was a song composer and a drummer. So, I grew up seeing different types of drums in the family house and I watched my mother as she knocked-in the thread at the loom, to the sound of music produced by her.

The sense of patterns, the shapes of the season and the rhythm of colour; all these things shaped my poetic sensibility. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, Nigeria still had her head standing squarely on her neck. That was before the coming of the first coup d'etat and the political crises.

It was a very rich environment indeed, with different festivals. I was born in Ekiti, the northern part of Yoruba land and Ekiti was like a melting pot for different ethnic groups in Nigeria. In my family compound we had Igbo farmers, palm wine tappers; we had people from Calabar… Efiks, Ibibios, Hausas, Edo and more.

 We lived like brothers and sisters and exchanged ideas, skills. The sense of colour and rhythm and traditional Yoruba festivals were also present. There were also satirical songs. There were no law courts; the tradition provided its own checks and balances. I grew up appreciating melody but also realising that art matters.

All these things shaped my attitude towards literature. I started on the stage and I'm still very much there. It was about late 1970 that I took on writing poetry, seriously. After graduate work in Europe and the US, I came back to Ibadan and discovered that there was some kind of vacuum in poetry. I started practising it and I was writing plays at the same time.

But you are equally articulate in prose, going by your writings in Newswatch magazine.

Basically, I have a strong poetic sensibility. I believe that good prose has to be poetic. A selection of my Newswatch contributions has just been published under the title "Dialogue With My Country". Every word comes to me through a process of elaborate sweat and reflection. I think very hard before putting the words down.

I write drafts but not many. I write slowly but surely and deliberately. Some elegance has to be there. My academic specialisation is stylistics; so I'm in a position to look at language and consider the inner workings. How does the adjective relate to the noun? What happens when an author's adjective begins to quarrel with the noun?

It doesn't come easy. When I write, I don't know whether it is ink that comes out or blood. It takes me a long time to write. I don't want to write perishable prose, when you read and you just dump. Prose has to be evocative. Good prose makes my heart throb. Writing has to be figured. There must be some colour to it. I'm not a patron of blank prose.

It is that that intensifies the emotive power of the word and through that the message. We carry people along not only through the matter but also through the intricacies of the manner.

How do you view the problem between Nigeria and Cameroon over Bakassi? Do you see it being resolved on August 14 2008, when Nigeria officially hands over the rest of the Peninsula to Cameroon?

Very, very important! I must tell you that there was a lot of intensity about it in Nigeria. Some people were angry; letters written to the editors, there were magazine columns, programmes on radio that Bakassi is Nigeria's, we should take it. I was very disturbed, disgusted and amazed when people said, 'let's go to war'.

Nigeria, go to war with Cameroon? If Germany, France and Britain hadn't come, how am I sure that where I am in Nigeria, wouldn't have been part of Cameroon? How am I sure that where I am now talking in Cameroon wouldn't have been part of Nigeria?

Who drew this artificial border? I'm a student of history. I know how Nigeria came about its borders; Cameroon to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Benin Republic to the west, Niger Republic north/central, Chad to the north/east. This big British sphere of influence, right in the centre of these so called Anglophone countries.

Is this how we're going to see ourselves forever? I must tell you that I feel uneasy when people call me Anglophone or when people call my friend Francophone. Why should we keep on projecting this kind of thing? Go to war? I wrote a satirical article; Let Peace Break Out!, which I sent to newspaper houses… My opinion about it is that, our people are one. It is a delicate issue, no doubt.

Oil has been discovered in the Bakassi Peninsula, but you also know that Bakassi presents a classic example of casus belli, that is a case of war. War never happens without its share of irrationality. Whatever happens, it is left for Cameroon and Nigeria to sit down and thrash it out. We have no business going to war.

Sincerity and justice are the two things we need in Bakassi. Cameroon and Nigeria sitting down and discussing the issues politically and diplomatically. If the leaders are able to do this, then the people will follow. Some people are even suggesting that there should be a plebiscite in Bakassi.

This is not a situation of Nigerian soldiers and French gendarmes. The people who live there must be our first priority. They are not just statistics. They are Cameroonians, Nigerians but beyond that, they are people, human beings. So, every political and diplomatic measure must be taken so that our people live together.

Before the issue became touchy, nobody asked questions of who comes from where? I'm told that about five million Nigerians live in Cameroon. If you declare war in Bakassi, what is going to happen to them? Irrationality is one of the major causes of war. When people stop thinking, they begin to rely on the power of their arsenal. It is not a case of war. It a case of diplomacy and it is a human problem that requires a human solution.

What about the other war of football between Cameroon and Nigeria?

I don't have any problem with that kind of war. I'm looking for that boy called Sam Eto'o. I want to box him. Each time we say Nigeria will have its revenge against Cameroon, he is the one who taps the ball into the net. What kind of legs does he have?

I hope you also know that the Indomitable Lions are a source of inspiration to Nigerians. At the international level, when Cameroon goes to the World Cup and performs well, you should see the way Nigerian football fans team up for Cameroon. All the national boundaries disappear and the Indomitable Lions become our team (Nigeria) and vice-versa, I'm told.

I would love for you to kind of go to war with your peers. Would you dare to challenge the likes of Adebayo Williams, Kole Omotosho and even the great Wole Soyinka...?

I'm sure you that it will never happen. You want to play the devil's advocate? How can I go to war with Kole Omotosho, my bosom friend, Adebayo Williams, one of our most astute prose stylists and Wole Soyinka, who was, and is still my teacher? No!

I've learnt a thing or two from each of them. And I tell you, I see all of us performing complimentary roles, both culturally and artistically. Of course! Bayo and Omotosho are into prose and Wole Soyinka is so multi-dimensional. Each person has a niche, wherever he stands. So, no war with them.

What's the significance of an award in the life of a writer?

Awards have a way of reinforcing the confidence you have in yourself. Nothing could be more gratifying and more emboldening than somebody else out there going through your work, in the company of so many other works and saying that there is something in this work that surpasses what we see in others.

It makes you feel that the effort is well worth it and creating even more. When it comes with a financial reward, it is only good and gratifying. That satisfaction is more spiritual and psychological. Awards also bring recognition and visibility. So, you have to learn how to manage it tactfully.

What would you say of the Western media that portrays Robert Mugabe as the devil and most Africans who see in this Zimbabwean a hero?

You are absolutely right there. The Zimbabwe situation is a complex one. President Mugabe doesn't go without blame. There is no doubt about him; he has shown all the traits of the typical African despots, who are afraid of the opposition.

The unwillingness and total failure to groom his successor and the stay-put syndrome of dictators. I think he has tampered with the constitution once or twice. He has his own terrible responsibilities, to a large extent, to what is happening to Zimbabwe and Zinbabweans.

Should Mugabe buckle under Western pressure and quit?

Mugabe doesn't look like the kind of person to give in. What bothers me is the situation of Zimbabweans. The way Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed will show you how dependent it was on the West. All the West had to do was to pull the plugs and the economy came crashing. It is a great pity.

The West should also look at the way they are exercising power in Zimbabwe. I'm tired of the skeletons I see on television. That is what Mugabe has done to Zimbabweans. They have been turned to skeletons; some of them are chasing lizards, the Zimbabwean economy has depreciated to beyond one million percent inflation.

There is something gory in the gluttony of Mugabe. We're talking about human beings and not statistics. What are conscientious people in the West doing? How many millions of people in Zimbabwe do you want dead because of hunger, simply because of the tyranny of their leader?

The people of Zimbabwe today, suffer a terrible double jeopardy; they are suffering under the dictatorship of Mugabe and they are suffering from the neglect and punishment of the West. Of course, the question may be the people deserve the kind of leadership they get. In Africa, it is not always true.

 Or if the people of Zimbabwe don't like Mugabe, why don't they throw him up? It is like saying if the people of Germany didn't like Hitler, why didn't they throw him up? It is not easy. I come from a country where we have had so many military dictatorships. There are people there who control the reigns of power, who control all the weapons of coercion.

It is very difficult to throw them away. The army is solidly behind Mugabe. If the West keeps the situation as it is today, more and more people will be dieing of hunger in Zimbabwe. The unfortunate situation as it is in other parts of the world is that the political elites always know where to butter its bread.

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Where is the African concept of solidarity, of being one's brothers' keeper?

What countries are we talking about? These other countries are as dependent as and as fake as Zimbabwe itself. I hope you that know nobody stays in the state house in Africa today without the blessing of France, England or the US.

When you talk about independence in Africa, we talk in hyperbolic terms. There is no African country that is really independent. How can you be an independent country when you don't have an independent economy?

African countries have flags …

Oh yes, flag independence we do have. We can put all the colours there. The IMF and the World Bank sit on the neck of most of these countries. Most often, African economies are under receivership. You cannot take any decision without the blessings of Paris Club, Tokyo Club, London Club and more.

This is why it is so easy to pull the plug under any of these economies. I'm not saying that African countries should support Mugabe's tyranny but I'm talking about principles. Does one country have the right to dictate to another? There is a lot of moral hypocrisy happening in the world today, and the West is the leader of this moral hypocrisy.

That is the problem South Africa is facing too. People have been saying, 'why hasn't Thabo Mbeki used his leverage to call Mugabe to order?' Zimbabwe is an independent country, no matter what people say. Remember, the past influences the present. South Africa still remembers the role Zimbabwe played during the liberation struggle.

Angola remembers, Mozambique remembers. The situation in Zimbabwe is very similar to the situation in South Africa. You go to South Africa you will see that Uhuru is not yet there. The economy is not fully in the hands of the majority. The situation is complex, no doubt about it.

The kind of moral authority we are expecting from other African countries and leaders has not been there. Each African country and leader has their own problems to face.

You survived the Katrina disaster in the US. How dreadful was the experience?

Katrina was war by water. I will never recover completely from the Katrina losses. It was August 29 2005. I had just returned from Nigeria, since I split my time between Nigeria and the US. I hadn't even unpacked my bags, full of books I brought from Nigeria, when the Katrina disaster occurred.

A lot of people were asking us why we didn't evacuate, when the disaster signalled. What took us to the US is the need to take care of our daughter, who is deaf. She can't speak and is just wasting away at home. After some difficult weather conditions we noticed during the week, the wind began in the evening of August 28 but about midnight of August 29, it intensified.

A colony of tornadoes came of course with the hurricane. It was about 120 miles an hour. It was horrible!!  But somehow, we survived the night. We thought we were going to survive and lost just a few shingles. But at about 10 am, we looked through the window and we saw water galloping towards our street. Our house as well as the University of New Orleans was on the bank of Lake Wanchatrain. This is one of the biggest lakes I've ever seen.

The lake has a 26 mile bridge over it. The levee broke; that is how the water overflowed. Before we knew what was happening to us on the drive way, water came under the house, started lifting the carpet. The books we had were all wet. Despite all attempts to rescue some of the items in the house, nothing worked.

The water submerged everything, rising above our belly. My wife indicated that we were drowning and the water currents in the house were very rapid. The shelves were literarily lifted, smashed on the water and their contents fell into water. Everything in the house was soaked and refrigerators were floating.

We were being tossed around in our own bedroom by water and I asked myself, 'are we going to drown like this?' We looked through the window; it was an extension of the lake. So, my wife said let's go into the attic. We've never opened the attic, but the test control officer used to come around and check and I watched him once how he did it.

So, we tried and fortunately, we pulled down the tear wall and we moved up to the attic. There were eight rungs on the ladder but the water swallowed six. So we perched up there but our legs were still in water and we were holding on to the roof. Nobody knew we were there. We were between the roof and the attic and the water kept on rising.

If our house was not raised by three feet, the water would have choked us there and killed us. That was how so many were killed. But I insisted on an elevated house, that was what saved us. We had the advantage of a three-foot house but nine feet of water in the house.  That is why the water could not get to where we were and to our neck.

There was no food, water for the first day and in the second day, no air. And the day after the hurricane is very hot. The hurricane takes all the cloud. There was no oxygen; we were choking. I thought death had come. A neighbour came from where I never knew. Who sent him, I never knew, but I knew no human being sent him.

When my wife said she was hearing something, I thought it was hallucination because she was already gasping. The man came and said; Professor are you here? He was Cuban-American, who spoke very little English. I said "yes". He added; "I bring boat for you, come".

"How do we go", I said to myself. Fortunately, the Cuban-American had live jackets, without that, we would have drowned in the attempts to get to the boat outside. So, my wife took one and I the other, then we swam towards the boat which had very little fuel into it. We were wondering where to go since New Orleans was under water.

The immediate stop that came to our minds was our Catholic Church centre, which had 18 story-buildings. The first story was already taken by water. A ladder was put on the boat and we went right up to one of the buildings. That was where we spent the first night, with hundreds of other people, standing only, with no food.

The second day, we were taken to another evacuation centre, where we stayed for two days and we were wondering where the government assistance had gone to. There were dead bodies all over the place; no doctors, no hospitals. It was complete apocalypse. On the fifth day, the helicopters began to fly around and to take us to different places.

We landed in Birmingham and we were handed to the Red Cross. That was the eighth day, when I brushed my teeth for the first time. I was given a pair of shoes, a shirt and had a shower. It was a horrible experience.

After the Hurricane Katrina experience, you published a book, Tender Moments-Collection of Love Poems. How lovely was the Katrina experience to the point that you were inspired to do love poetry?

I've answered that question several times. The most terrible thing to an artist is to loose his or her manuscript. That happened to me. All my books and manuscripts got missing. I lost over three hundred poems, in different stages of completion. These love poems have been with me for a very long time.

I was planning to work on them in December 2005, but Katrina came in August 2005, just eight months earlier and took them away. For a long time I couldn't sleep. There were bouts of depression but I discovered that the poems I remembered most fervently were the ones I had just completed.

Incidentally, it's a poem about Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet. Between 2:30 and 6:00 pm every day, I would lock myself up and try to write and recollect. Somehow I was able to recollect a substantial part of the poems I lost and in the process, I wrote other poems.

That is how Tender Moments came about. I was finding it difficult to write about the Katrina. So, Tender Moments could have been some kind of psychological escape. I've written many poems on the Katrina but the prose about it has been difficult. If I had to psycho-analyse myself, I'll say may be there is something about love that also tenderises the mind.

That makes you do something when you are vulnerable. I did Tender Moments at my most vulnerable moment.

You've been writing to the President of Nigeria, quite often. What has been the content of your letter? And what do you expect?

I write not just to put pen on paper, not just the exploration of new words, although it is also a very important reason. I also want to be able to intrude upon the world. I want to say a word or two about how our country is been ruled. I'm not a politician, I'm not a pastor. I'm not a military man.

I don't have a gun, a bible or a Koran. I can't proclaim a decree but I'm a citizen of a country, a continent and a world. I believe that I should have a say in the way our country is been ruled. Not only that; I should be able to help others have a say in the way things are happening.

In addition to my column in the magazine Newswatch, I also have a poetry column in the Sunday Tribune. I started it in 1983, rested it for a while and now, I've resurrected it. The fourth anniversary was July 2008. Every Sunday, I have an elaborate poem in there. I tell you, there are very satirical poems about thieving politicians, vote riggers, hypocrites, religious fundamentalism and more.

I also want people to read in-between the lines. Countries that are ruled well are countries where people asked questions. Many of our people don't know their rights. Often, I'm called a political poet. My existence as a black person is political. If I didn't write political poetry, my silence itself will be political.

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