ktravula – a travelogue!

art. language. travel

At the Korean DMZ

Visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ, as it’s commonly called) was, I think, one of the most exhilarating parts of my trip. Nowhere else in the world, perhaps, is as illustrative of tension and hostility between two countries as the DMZ is. It is the world’s only remaining demilitarized zone laid bare in a 250-km long border barrier between what is now known as North Korea and South Korea.

Parts of the DMZ are open to guests, though subject to last-minute cancellations in many instances. On the day of our visit, the Olympic delegation from the North had just passed through the Civilian Control Line, on the way to Seoul on a historic visit. Had we arrived there just a few minutes earlier, we may have been delayed to make way for them.

The parts of the South where visitors can visit have a number of interesting landmarks, including an observatory post from where one can peep into North Korea and see its Propaganda Village and a flag, erected to be taller than anything else near it, placed strategically near the border. There, there is a small museum showing how the Korean conflict started, the many skirmishes between both of them over the years, and other relevant information. Over the years, the North Koreans had plotted to take over the South using many sly tactics. One of them is the use of a tunnel, four of which have been discovered before they did too much damage. Guests to the DMZ can take a look at some of them, and even take a walk in them, since they’ve been preserved for touristic purposes.

A place I thought I was going to visit, but learnt isn’t much open to the public, is Panmunjom with the famous blue house split across two national boundaries, and where most high-level diplomatic meetings between the countries usually take place. From Paju, where the observatory was, Panmunjom was a few miles out of view even of the mounted telescopes.

One thing that was exciting to discover is that, due to the state of war between the two Koreas and the untouched nature of the wilderness in the DMZ, it has grown over the years to become something of a nature park. Exotic birds and animals of diverse natures now live in the four-kilometre-wide minefield that separates the two Koreas. It has been proposed that in the case of future unification, the two countries agree to keep the DMZ as a heritage site of protected flora and fauna.

I can get behind that, as well as the idea of returning to the country after a state of peace has finally returned. Hope is frail but it’s hard to kill, as the saying goes. From the conversations with ordinary Koreans throughout the trip, it appears that I’m not the only one with at least a desire for a better future in that part of the world. May it be soon, and may the cost not be too high for the world to bear.

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Onward Aké – A Travelogue

by Torinmo Salau

 

I got to Oshodi few minutes past 7am, my plan was to take off from Lagos before 6:30 Am. Rather I found myself panting under the weight of the Khaki travel bag strapped to my back, frantic to get on the next vehicle en route Kuto, Abẹ́òkuta which finally set out few minutes to 8am.

The grey Sienna car was badly dented and its rear windscreen had a slight crack which ran diagonally across its full length. The vehicle moved swiftly, faster than I even envisaged and within 30 minutes, we were approaching the tollgate. With Ma Lo by Twa Savage and Wizkid playing quietly in the car, I tried to go through the Aké Festival program schedule on my Samsung tablet.

“Are you going to Aké too?” the husky voice who sat beside me asked, jolting me out of the thoughts which clouded my mind.

“Yes”. I wondered why he was smiling sheepishly and from the way the words rolled off his tongue, you could guess his name would either be Emeka or Ifeanyi. But I did not guess right, his name was Chike.

After conversing for some minutes, I discover that Chike is a lawyer but he daylights as a freelance writer and editor.

“Shit I forgot my drugs,” he said midway through the conversation, mumbling words I barely understood.

“I forgot my antidepressants, he continued, sounding more distressed with anxiety ripping slowly through his face. His anxiety was palpable as he shifted from left to right in his seat, visibly shaken from the reality which just dawned on him.

“Are you depressed?”

Then I realized that was a dumb question to ask, if he is not suffering from depression, then why is he is shaking like a crinkled leaf which has lost its moist to the parched harmattan wind.

“Yes, I am depressed. But I will be fine without the drugs, he said shrugging his shoulder limply. Then he turned his back towards me, looking out of the window and staring at lush green vegetation which lined the road.

We were way past Mowe-Ibafo and its environs, I knew this because there was no sight of human habitations along the road again, just signposts after signboards and signages which had rusted and were barely legible to read.

“Sorry to hear, you are suffering from depression.”

I said the word ‘Depression’ almost inaudibly, carefully curating every word I spoke like somebody walking on eggshells, eggshells which can crack just by the slightest omission of a letter.

“Please don’t be, Chike said looking away from the window, smiling, I guess he was trying to hide his disappointment.

“I get a little cranky when I miss my medication but I will be fine, it’s just for two days”.

This was the second time he was saying, “I will be fine” within the space of five minutes.

While he sounded fairly reassuring, I still felt worried. Worried by the fall in his countenance and the dark shadow cast over the bubbly persona he exuded at the onset of the journey. Wondering what the resultant effect of missing a pill or two could be, wondering why he had to repeat himself if he would really be fine?

Then the journalist in me kicked in.

“How long have you been feeling depressed?” I asked with my curiosity etched up, hungry to dig down the layers of this story, hoping it is not what I think it is.

“Two years thereabout”.

“Besides antidepressants medication, why didn’t you explore other means of managing this condition?”

“I did. I tried therapy first but it was quite expensive. Then I switched to a psychiatrist, the doctor placed me on drugs which have been more effective than therapy”.

“But contrary to what I am aware of, therapy works best, better than tying your daily existence to a bottle of pills?”

“Yes it does, for some people. But the antidepressants help to balance my moods, keeps me from bouncing from one end to the other.

“Are there any side effects to antidepressants?”

“Yes of course, especially the withdrawal symptoms which varies among individuals, ranging from anxiety, insomnia, nausea, fatigue amongst others. It can either be mild or severe.

Chike turned his back to me again, but this time, he wasn’t looking out of the window. Rather, just staring at the brown threadbare carpet on the floor of the car, which was caked with red sand. By then the song playing in the car was ‘Joromi’ by Simi, with light chatter from fellow passengers, some talking about the Spanish La Liga while others were lamenting the epileptic power supply across the country. But for few seconds, there was a transient suppression of verbal expression. The gulf of space between us was taken up by silence and it stood there for what seemed like an eternity.

Though I pretended to read a book, Chike’s words kept throbbing my mind. His mental health struggles mirrored exactly what I was going through but what I was also denying and the more I looked in, the more I saw a reflection of myself.

On some days, I am just floating through space, watching my life from a distance as my dreams and ambitions vapourize into thin air, without any drive to rescue them.  Though I feel sparks of euphoria and drift to a different time space with my heart clustered with sugary fantasies tickling my taste buds, it is not for too long. Reality always lingers and thoughts of pulling the trigger moonwalk across my mind often. I want to run away, yet I am too scared to die.

I was excited as the car approached the ‘Welcome to Ogun state’ signboard. I could feel its momentum rising to 120KM/H, as the driver drove past the Governor’s Office which was painted in the colours of the national flag, heading into town.

***

While this was my second visit to Abẹ́òkuta, the city of rocky hills within the space of a decade, it was my first time at the Ake Book and Arts Festival, the fifth edition of AKEFEST. An annual literary, art and cultural event which pools authors, creatives, writers, artists, musicians, activists to share their work and ideas. It is no doubt a booklover’s dream as it offers the opportunity to interact with some of the major voices in the contemporary African literary scene.

I found the theme for the 2017 edition of Ake Festival, ‘This F-Word’ really intriguing, this was undeniably a profound time to have this conversation and stanchly confront the issues revolving around it. But the big cherry on the cake was the headliner for the event, Ama Ata Aidoo. Renowned poet, novelist and feminist. My favourite amongst her books is Anowa, a Ghanaian play about a young girl who rejects suitors proposed by her parents and marries a stranger, Kofi Ako. Kofi is angered by Anowa’s attitude of being a modern women and asks her to leave when she could not conceive a child. But Anowa discovers later that her husband had lost his ability to bear children, so the fault was his not hers. This discovery of the truth forces Kofi to shoot himself while Anowa drowns herself.

The trip ended at Kuto, it lasted for about 90 minutes. As luck would have it, the location of the literary festival, Arts, and Cultural centre was situated right beside the bus park, along Ibrahim Babangida Boulevard, Kuto. Chike and I were the last passengers to highlight from the car, I mumbled a short prayer to the heavens, grateful for the miracle of surviving the road.

Though the literary festival was a weeklong event, precisely five days from November 14th – 18th, 2017, I arrived at AkeFest on Day 4, Friday, hoping to still maximize the best of the event within the last two days. Chike and I exchange phone number and parted ways, promising to stay in contact with each other. He wanted to hear Toni Kan speak but I ran off to the current session underway, Book Chat with Alexis Okẹ́owó and Dayọ̀ Ọlọ́pàdé.

Storytelling with Mara Menzies on The illusion of the Truth was an enthralling moment as she told a Kenyan story of how Gikuyu women were not permitted to eat meat. Mara’s undulating body rhythm and the subtle tenor in her voice added more spice to the story. The fork in the road was one woman’s search for the truth and determination to fight the cultural stereotype which beleaguered women in her community. The day ended with a stage play by Yolanda Mercy on Quarter Life Crisis, a monologue which mixes expressions of spoken word and addictive baselines infused with a side dish of comedy. Most individuals go through a quarter-life crisis, but they don’t know it. Just like Alice, the main character in the story, we are swiping from left to right. Young, exuberant yet confused, not knowing what to do with the blank cheque called life, given to us. Though everyone around her thinks they know where they are going in life, the stage play which shows Alice trying to find ways to cheat growing up ends with a hilarious climax. However it doesn’t end without asking the audience with these two questions, ‘What does it mean to be an adult?’ and ‘When do you become one?’

Dusmar Hotel

I retired for the night at Dusmar Hotel, situated next to the Art and Cultural centre which saved me an extra cost of commuting within Abeokuta to the literary event. The hotel’s reception struck me with a major throwback to the mid-90s, refreshing fragments of my memory littered here and there. The furniture and furnishings were quite antique. The windows, still the same old model fitted with louvres reminded me of an incident I did not want to remember and I would rather not talk about it. But I found myself wondering why a hotel bore this type of window fittings even in the year 2017, though mildly nostalgic yet largely traumatizing.

Day 5, Saturday, the event was winding down but more people were still pouring it. As the literary festival teetered towards its climax, everything became fast paced. People frantically buying discounted books and F-Word books from the bookshop. The flashlight of cameras everywhere you turned to, as people tried to seal the memories and friendships formed within the space of five days. There was a book signing spree, authors inking their thoughts on books purchased by readers and their fans which was consummated with the millennials’ trademark autograph, Selfies!

My highlight of the day was the Life and Times session on Ama Ata Aidoo. The renowned author who has been writing for over sixty years spoke liberally about her life, work and feminism. It was an emotionally charged atmosphere for many in the hall as she paid an emotional tribute to Mariama Ba, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and other women pioneers of African writing.

“I hope you will extend the love and appreciation, you have shown me to my sister writers – living and past.” But what stuck with is the last line of one of the poems she read, “A girl’s voice doesn’t break, it gets firmer.”

***

I returned to Lagos on Sunday morning with a belly full of feisty aspirations, determined to change my misconceptions about feminism. Also to commit myself to unlearning and relearning, as the words of Mona Elthaway persistently rings in my ears, ‘Fuck the Patriachary’. Part of the main insights gained from the Ake festival is the universality of our experience as women whether black, white, or queer and why it is critical to challenge the elephant in the room, especially peculiar societal norms and beliefs which have repressed us decades.

____________

Torinmo Salau’s work has been published online and offline in literary publications, magazines, and anthologies.

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My Korean Nostalgia

It has been about two weeks since I returned from the Korean Peninsula as a guest of the Ministry of Culture for the PyeongChang Humanities Forum, a culture Olympics of sorts, but my heart has remained in the country. It had dawned on me, long before I got on the plane that took me out of Incheon Airport, that this is a special place. From the first welcome, through all the stops at Seoul, Pyeongchang, Busan, and other places in-between, the country warmed itself (a curious word since it was freezing cold in the subzeroes for the duration of my trip) into my bones. And now, I realize that I will never be able to read any news story about the Korean crises without a personal pull.

There is a story in the Wall Street Journal this morning about a successful concert at the at the Gangneung Arts Center by the North Korean orchestra attended by an audience of South Koreans of all generations in which the prospect of peace and unification again came within reach, even if only sentimentally. While I was in Korea, we had taken a trip to the Demilitarized Zone and learnt through a television in the bus, right before entering the Civilian Control Line, that a delegation from the North had entered the country through the same entrance just a few minutes earlier. They had been sent by Kim Jong Un as an advanced team to prepare grounds for sending the athletes that the North had agreed to have participate in the Ice Hockey event under the same (unification) flag along with the South, and in the same team. It warmed my heart up. (This has happened, by the way).

Almost everywhere we visited in South Korea, but none more pronounced than the DMZ areas, there is a palpable sense of hope for an eventual unification of the two countries under peaceful terms. It sometimes felt too jarring when compared to the rhetoric I’d been familiar with, from outside looking in, about a prospect of war that appeared real almost every day and with every tweet from the POTUS. Almost everywhere at the DMZ had something about ‘unification’ or ‘freedom’. The road we were on was called Freedom Road. There was a house at Paju that had boldly written on it “End of Separation, Beginning of Unification” in English, Chinese, and Korean. It’s unlikely that any North Korean would see it from across the border a few miles from there, but it showed an attitude that permeates everywhere I looked. The people of the South would want nothing more than a chance to reunite with their long lost national siblings.

A question I’ve been asking since I’ve been back is not just the North feels the same way (we have seen many defections to know that some appetite for this exists) but whether the outside forces will let it happen. In this case, we have China on the one hand whose communist hegemony is threatened by a unified Korea under capitalistic/democratic terms, Russia (which, to my surprise at its enormous size, does share a national border with North Korea as well) on another who has formed an inscrutable relationship with Kim Jong Un and would want nothing more than another outpost with which to poke the US, and then the administration of Donald Trump in America who have done nothing more than stoke flames of war in a transparent attempt at shoring up support for their unpopular domestic and conservative agenda. Listening to the media tell us about the possibility of peace, it comes through an inevitable path of war or denuclearization where America wins and Kim Jong surrenders to the will of Mr. Trump. The latter seems improbable, leaving us only the possibility of war. But the situation on the ground didn’t seem to offer only this binary. Watching Koreans live their life as normally as anyone can, with nothing resembling the worrying anticipation with which others around the world look at the peninsula brings up the possibility that some other less inflammatory resolution to the conflict can be found. I don’t know what it is, but maybe we should ask the Koreans rather than saber-rattle from afar as we’re wont to do. By ‘we’, I mean Donald Trump and the US.

In any case, this was supposed to be a recollection of my fond memories of Korea, and not a rant on global politics. When I watch the winter games on television today, I will remember walking through the ski village in Pyeongchang, watching the workers prepare the venues for the athletes, and wondering why anyone will leave their house to come compete in such a cold weather. But I will also retain a hope for the eventual unification of the country on more favourable terms to those who live in it and whose futures are tied to its peace and security, away from the many competing interests of the global powers.

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NLNG presents $200,000 to 2017 Literature, Science Prizes winners

Nigeria LNG (NLNG) Limited, yesterday at a Public Presentation in Lagos, formally presented The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science, which come with a cash prize of $100,000 each, to four winning entries that emerged from the 2017 cycle.

Author of the winning entry for The Nigeria Prize for Literature, The Heresiad, Ikeogu Oke, was awarded a $100,000 cheque, while joint science prize winners Ikẹ́olúwapọ̀ Àjàyí, Ayọ̀délé Jẹ́gẹ́dẹ́, Bídèmí Yusuf, Olúgbénga Mokuolu and Chukwuma Agubata were awarded the Nigeria Prize for Science, with a cash prize of $100,000, split evenly.

The science prize sought to find solutions to malaria through its theme for 2017, Innovations in Malaria Control.

The joint winning entries for the science prize were “Improving Home and Community Management of Malaria: Providing the Evidence Base” by Ikẹ́olúwapọ̀ Àjàyí, Ayọ̀délé Jẹ́gẹ́dẹ́ & Bídèmí Yusuf; “Multifaceted Efforts at Malaria Control in Research: Management of Malaria of Various Grades and Mapping Artemisinin Resistance” by Olúgbénga Mokuolu; and “Novel lipid microparticles for effective delivery of Artemether antimalarial drug using a locally-sourced Irvingia fat from nuts of Irvingia gabonensis var excelsa (ogbono)” by Chukwuma Agubata.

The 2017 cycle of the science prize ended a seven-year drought of winners. There had been no winner since 2010.

VIPs who were present at the high profile event include the Executive Governor of Lagos State, Akínwùnmí Ambọ̀dé, represented by the Commissioner for Special Duties, Honourable Olúṣẹ̀yẹ Adédèjì; the Honourable Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, represented by Dr (Mrs) Julie Momah; Honourable Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, represented by Mrs Elizabeth Ibezim; the Obi of Onitsha HRH Nnaemeka Achebe; Egbere Emere Okori 1 Eleme, His Royal Highness Appolus Chu; Paramount Ruler of Ondo Kingdom, HRM, Oba Dr Victor Adésìḿbọ̀ Kiládéjọ Jilo III; members of the NLNG Board of Directors; members of the diplomatic corps; members of the Advisory Board for Literature and Science; members of the panel of judges for both prizes; the media; the academia; as well as invitees from the Nigerian literary community and secondary schools in Lagos.

Tony Attah, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of NLNG, in his keynote remarks, said “The question is often asked, why Nigeria LNG Limited chose to honour writers and scientists despite its huge basket of Corporate Social Responsibility programmes that include the provision of roads, light, water and wide-ranging education intervention scholarship schemes.

“Our answer is very simple. No business can exist in isolation and be sustainable. Just like the adage says, “If you want to go fast; go alone, but if you want to go far; go together”. And for Nigeria LNG Limited, as a company, we have chosen to walk together with Nigeria.

“In Nigeria, we have the intellectual capability, we also have the resources; what we need is the will, and together we can all continue to progress the reputation of Nigeria in these spaces,” he added.

The Deputy Managing Director, Sadeeq Mai-Bornu, also remarked: “The Science and Literature prizes have come this far because stakeholders, especially the advisory boards, the panel of judges and our very distinguished guests have shown rare commitment towards making the prizes a success and one of the most prestigious initiatives of its kind in Africa.

“It is important to highlight here that Nigerian Scientists have continued to demonstrate that they can defend their space against the best anywhere in the world. So we look forward to more entries to provide solutions to issues classified as Nigerian problems in our subsequent competitions to enable us actualize this lofty ambition to speed up Nigeria’s socio economic advancement,” he said.

He announced that 2018 literature competition would be on Drama while the science prize theme is Innovations in Electric Power Solutions.

Accepting the award for Literature, Oke said: “In a world in which we do not always get what we deserve, and fortune does not always favour the most qualified or hardworking, I think we should all feel humble and appreciative for any success we achieve. This, besides happy, is how I feel as the recipient of this honour. To Nigeria LNG Limited, the members of the Advisory Board of the Nigeria Prize for Literature and the award-giving judges, I say, “An award-winning poet salutes you!”

The winners of the science prize also commended NLNG for instituting the prize and urged the academia and innovations to have more interest on the prize to showcase Nigeria’s talent.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers such as Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (2016, Prose) with Season of Crimson Blossoms; Sam Ukala (2014; Drama) with Iredi War; Tade Ipadeola (2013; Poetry) with his collection of poems, Sahara Testaments; Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sister’s Street; as well as Adeleke Adeyemi (2011, children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock.

Others are Esiaba Irobi (2010, drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Kaine Agary (2008, prose) with Yellow Yellow; Mabel Segun (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Ahmed Yerima (2006, drama) for his classic, Hard Ground; and Gabriel Okara (co-winner, 2005, poetry), Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto (co-winner, 2005, poetry).

The Nigeria Prize for Science has also been awarded to science laureates such as Professor Akii Ibhadode (2010); the late Professor Andrew Nok (2009); Dr. Ebenezer Meshida (2008); Professor Michael Adikwu (2006); and joint winners Professor Akpoveta Susu and his then doctoral student, Kingsley Abhulimen (2004).

The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science are some of Nigeria LNG Limited’s numerous contributions towards building a better Nigeria.

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A Poem as a Dreamer and Pacifist

By Ikeogu Oke

(Being the Acceptance Speech for the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature)

 

The Way I Want To Go

What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write

for the joy of it.

– Seamus Heaney, “Station Island”

 

Father has called and warned me not to go

The way I want to go:

“It is no life you spend among the trees!”

Mother as everyone at home agrees.

And good opinion says the trend of the era shows

That those whose pen must feed must write in prose.

 

“To write in verse,” they say, “is agony.

For poets,” they press, “do not make money.”

 

And I have given thought to what they say,

While alone and headed on my way.

The wisdom of the world and age apart,

The truly wise must listen to his heart.

And yet the poet should not deny his pain,

Or fail for lack to stress his fair bargain.

 

For if poets do not make money,

Then, neither does money make poets.

 

O World, Thou Choosest Not

O world, thou choosest not the better part!

It is not wisdom to be only wise,

And on the inward vision close the eyes,

But it is wisdom to believe the heart.

Columbus found a world, and had no chart,

Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;

To trust the soul’s invincible surmise

 

Was all his science and his only art.

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine

That lights the pathway but one step ahead

Across a void of mystery and dread.

Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine

 

By which alone the mortal heart is led

Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

 

– George Santayana

 

Let me proceed by thanking all of you for honouring the invitation to attend this event, and the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Limited without whose commitment to the growth of Nigerian Literature we might not have gathered here.

I am grateful to the panel of adjudicators for the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature for pronouncing my entry, The Heresiad, as the winner, vindicating my expectation. I believed the entry rule which stated that the adjudication would be based on merit. Merit is a value to which I am strongly attracted and cherish highly but which, alas, Chinua Achebe described as “quite often a dirty word” in our country. And I believe its entrenchment in the affairs of our nation, beyond such adjudication of literary prizes, can have far-reaching transformational effects.

In a world in which we do not always get what we deserve, and fortune does not always favour the most qualified or hardworking, I think we should all feel humble and appreciative for any success we achieve. This, besides happy, is how I feel as the recipient of this honour. To the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Limited, the members of the Advisory Board of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, and the award-giving judges, I say, “An award-winning poet salutes you!”

I thank my publisher, Kraft, our chef of delicious books, for indulging my insistence on perfection. I thank my fellow poets for a great contest, especially my fellow finalists whose calls to congratulate me for winning was for me the hallmark of literary sportsmanship, a profoundly moving gesture. I thank my father, an unceasing fount of fond memories. He taught me the virtues of hard work, steadfastness, self-belief, self-denial and sacrifice. Without his lessons I might not have devoted twenty-seven years working on The Heresiad, running a compositional marathon and expecting no reward beyond the satisfaction, after crossing the finish line, that I had run a good race. I thank my family, especially my wife and children, for enduring the quirks of a restless poet.

The first of the poems I have furnished as an epigraph to this speech has served me as a literary manifesto since I wrote it about fifteen years ago, as a response to the concerns expressed by those who thought my career choice of poetry was a waste of time and tantamount to entering into a life-long pact with penury. Poetry is the only healthy narcotic on earth. I am happy to be addicted to it as shown by my refusal to be swayed by such concerns. I have invoked the poem here hopefully to arouse the contemplation of how one’s resolve to pursue one’s dreams in spite of such concerns is the best decision that can lead to a fulfilled life.

The second, a sonnet by George Santayana, is my polestar of inspirational poetry. I have invoked it here because I believe its cardinal themes of vision, faith, self-belief and resolutely acting on one’s dreams reinforce and anticipated similar themes in my own poem.

That way, we can all see that if I were to say, as part of the use to which I wish to put this historic opportunity to speak to you, that vision, faith, self-belief and resolutely acting on one’s dreams are virtually all one needs to attain one’s purpose in life, and perhaps inspire those among us who still have the courage to dream dreams, especially the young, I would not be a solitary voice in some poetic wilderness.

So you can see that some master, far wiser than I, had said it before me. And that the veracity of his words, even when subjected to logical scrutiny, is proof that the poet does not lie whether he speaks for faith or reason, or in any circumstance whatsoever. And that he perhaps deserves our attention more than we are currently inclined to give it to him – in our own interest.

And need I, as one of such other circumstances of proof that the poet does not lie, point out that the experience I relate in “The Way I Want to Go” regarding my family and “good opinion”, took place only in my imagination, even though it hints at real behaviours? My family members will disavow it if their idea of truth is confined to the literality of events, and infer that the poet lied, and if they lack the understanding that the truth as spoken by poets may be but need not be literal, in the sense of being a rendition or reflection of a physical occurrence or phenomenon.

In the wake of my announcement as the recipient of this honour, I spoke with someone who shared with me the challenges he is facing in becoming a successful writer. From our conversation I drew a hint – I believe rightly – that he would like me to lead him into the secret to success in the literary vocation.

I have also been asked repeatedly, “What kept you going all these years?” by various individuals, some of whom are interested in becoming writers. I believe the question seeks to elicit a similar response from me to that of the acquaintance who shared his challenges about succeeding as a writer with me.

Unfortunately, I do not know the secret to success. Nor do I think that writers would have a different secret to success from the rest of humanity. If I knew such a secret, I would readily reveal it to end the difficulties we all face as human beings in making our dreams fructify. And, not knowing any such secret, I offer these admonitory words, drawn from the depths of my personal convictions, in lieu of my ignorance.

Believe in yourself. Commit to a dream only you have the last say in its survival, so you may not despair even if you must stand alone in its pursuit, ignored by the rest of the world. If they tell you that your dreams are impossible, ignore the first two letters and move on with your dreams. Give all you have to what you do and love it with all your heart. Do it with your whole heart, with integrity, seeking first the kingdom of excellence for which other things should be added to you. But still plan to end up only with the satisfaction of having laboured for the love of your vocation, in case nothing more is added to you. Time is too precious to waste doing something you do not love even if it brings you fortune.

In life you will meet people who will try to snuff out the candle of your dreams. You will meet people who will help to keep it burning. I have been fortunate to meet more of the later type of people and I hope that becomes your lot too. But you have the final say as to how long the candle of your dreams will keep burning, regardless of what others tell you. And never forget that the fruits of vicious dreams often harbour the bitter taste of comeuppance.

There is no greater mission in life than making others genuinely happy, bringing them healthy joy. You are a success however you are able to accomplish this. Those you bring true happiness will ensure your success by patronising the means by which you do so.

Never accept the circumstances of your birth as a limitation to the realisation of your dreams, even if they are more fraught with lack, more underprivileged, than mine. From the age of twelve, in secondary school, I was constrained to earn all the money I paid as school fees from menial jobs because my parents, though responsible and firm in their resolve to give all their six children a good education, could never have earned enough to do so owing to inhibitions imposed by their own underprivileged backgrounds.

I can even say that I am proud of my heritage of an underprivileged background for teaching me the invaluable lessons of self-denial, of delayed gratification, and the transcendence of hard work, far better than I might have been taught had I come from a privileged background. And these, in my view, are important lessons for success.

And if, in spite of the privation associated with being lowborn, I can arrive at the privilege of being the recipient of this extraordinary honour, so can any child born of poor parents, any parent in fact. It can be any child who can set forth at dawn1, set their goals and priorities right, pursue them with single-mindedness, and be ready to crack their palm kernel if no benevolent spirit2 shows up to crack it for them. It can be any child who understands that, as Thomas Carlyle said, “Perseverance is the anchor of all virtues.”

Also, that I stand here today disproves the charge that Nigeria does not reward merit, excellence or hard work. My experience that culminates in this event is proof that it does, that it is actually a land of possibilities in which even improbable dreams can come true in spite of the crying need to make it “a more perfect union” as the former Unites States President, Barak Obama, once said about his country.

It is an experience more sour than sweet, more painful than joyous. It includes waking up one morning about sixteen years ago to realise that my severance benefit from my first job from which I was retired prematurely and placed on pension at thirty-three years, after fifteen years’ untainted service, had been trapped

– and it remains trapped – in Savannah Bank, following its closure for an alleged breach for which the depositors who bore the brunt of the precipitate closure by the authorities were not responsible. It includes being persecuted out of several jobs by bosses averse to propriety in the workplace.

But what does my current experience say? The same land that can rip hope out of your breast can restore it in manifolds if you will not give up on it.

 

I have a story,

I shall tell it without vainglory,

A story to inspire,

And light men’s souls with fire.

 

The primary role of the poet is to create beauty with words, like other types of artists whose primary roles are to create beauty through their various mediums of expression. Yet, we know that art is hardly, if ever, unalloyed with functionality. That it is almost always applied and hardly pure. That even its affective function implicates inherent applicability, if utilitarianism. That it is hardly ever strictly an ornament.

And, as poets and other forms of artists, I think we should never cease to ask ourselves if we should be satisfied with merely creating beauty through our work in a world in which ugly occurrences constantly threaten such beauty. To pose it as a question: Should we plant gardens and allow them to be overrun with weeds, or adorn our world with our work and overlook its being blighted by injustice and other ills that may threaten its peace? Or, put differently, can we not be cultivators of beauty as well as what Niyi Osundare calls “the eye of the earth,” using our work to police the earth against harm, while engaging in other possible activities to improve its lot and cultivate its wellbeing? If we say yes to the former and no to the latter, which should be surprising especially for the former, then why do we praise Pablo Neruda’s Spain in Our Hearts3? Why do we commend Pablo Picasso’s Guernica? Why do we acclaim Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, Wole Soyinka’s A Play of Giants, and many more of such remarkable works of art which meld their originators’ love for creating beauty with their interest in championing a better world? A Stradivari violin, an Amati, are beautiful objects. But from that beauty we extract music, and our world is better off for it. Art is basically an instrument for transmitting aesthetic pleasure. But it can transmit more. And artists can consciously make it transmit more for the betterment of our world.

If permitted a singular use of metaphorical license, I would describe The Heresiad as a mirror of a poem as a dreamer and pacifist, among other germane inferences that may be drawn from the work. For while defending the various freedoms I think we should all uphold as humans, those freedoms that form the bedrock of liberal values, especially freedom of expression, it urges their exercise with sensitivity to the legitimate feelings and interests of others. And even in the face of an offensive breach of such sensitivity, it encourages supporters of the offender to pacify the offended by acknowledging the offence. It then urges the latter to show leniency, as in the last of its following couplets spoken by one of the loyalists of Reason seeking to prevent the execution of the death sentence pronounced on the author accused of heresy in the poem as an aftermath of his exercising one of such freedoms:

 

And though I have the will to face their five,

And help our protégé to stay alive,

I’ll rather urge their anger, just but high,

To view his error with a lenient eye.

(Canto II, lines 197-200)

 

And even in the face of an imminent armed confrontation, the poem creates a hero, Reason, who makes a personal commitment to pursue his interest in saving the author without recourse to arms. Thus:

 

And Reason, mounted on a higher ground,

Waited, as his anxious thoughts unwound,

And while he waited muttered to himself

 

(As he focused on a granite shelf):

“I still think that strife cannot be proper;

No weapon fashioned for my use shall prosper;

I’ll go, unhurried, with the one they seek,

Though his hope may now be worse than bleak;

 

If the power of thought cannot avail,

Then the force of strife must not prevail;

If persuasion cannot help our cause,

Nor, I think, can any lethal force.

To explore the argument of grace – I go,

And take my thoughts for arrows and for bow!”

(Canto III, lines 607-620)

 

Here, then, lies the essence of the poem as a dreamer and pacifist: its simultaneous envisioning of the de-escalation of conflicts strictly by conciliation and their resolution through personal commitment to eschew the use of arms. In fact, it offers these, within and beyond the bounds of verse, as general principles for engendering peace in the world. They are also reflections of my belief that, though as artists we must fulfil our primary obligation to create beauty through our work, we can also make art more useful by using it to stimulate the evolution of a more liveable world. The poem does the latter by promoting peace (in a context that integrates respect for life) among countless options of such engagement open to artists across the world. And I have tried to do the former by creating such a book-length poem whose every line can be sung and set to music, making it a book-length art song, a musical epic in four cantos that may also be described as a literary symphony in four movements. I call it operatic poetry, a new genre of poetry intended to open new frontiers for its enjoyment. For I consider its action, drama and music primed for realisation – and to be realisable and awaiting realisation – as opera. And I clearly anticipate the materialisation of this artistic vision like the world which, as Santayana reminds us, Columbus found without a chart.

I might not have entered for let alone won this prize but for a friend and fellow writer who read the manuscript of The Heresiad and asked me to submit it for the prize, describing it as “a magnum opus”. Though flattered by the description, I hesitated, explaining that it was unpublished and needed more work before I would consider it publishable. He later wore down my resistance with his gentle insistence. Would we have been here today, I on this side of the proceedings, but for his special encouragement? I doubt it.

To this inspiring friend, Wale Okediran, I dedicate this prize, and to many others like him who offered various forms of encouragement for the twenty-seven years I worked on The Heresiad.

“We must always give back,” Nadine Gordimer, my friend and mentor, said to me at our last meeting before her demise in 2014. To this friend I have given back a token of a poem, entitled “Goodwill and Destiny”, that is also a song. But I have modified it to the following lines for the purpose of this speech and have had it set to music, which I consider the worthiest companion of poetry.

 

I crave your indulgence to rise and join me and let us read and sing it as believers in the value of goodwill, friendship, gratitude, and as a song of universal brotherhood, and to the glory of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Limited, my Muse, the Ebony Pearl, and Nigerian Literature, addressing the fourth and sixth lines respectively to the male and female next to us as we read and sing:

 

We are what we are because of others

With whom the heavens steer our lives like rudders.

And may the heavens gift your life a rudder

Like this brother from another mother;

And may the heavens gift your life a rudder

Like this sister from another mother.

 

________

Footnotes

  1. The phrase “who can set forth at dawn” alludes to a title of a memoir by Wole Soyinka entitled You Must Set Forth at Dawn.
  2. The phrase, “ready to crack their palm kernel if no benevolent spirit shows up to crack it for them”, alludes to a remark by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart about those whose palm kernels have been cracked by a benevolent spirit not knowing that the cracking of palm kernels is hard.
  3. A translation of Espana en el Corazon (Spanish), the original title.

_______

Ikeogu Oke is the winner of the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature (Poetry) for his volume The Heresiad

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