The evening was livid with poetic renditions and paeans for the poet-scholar, Harry Garuba, at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, as his colleagues, former students and budding writers celebrated his 60th birthday with gusto. Not even a rain shower midway into the celebration could silence the quivering air.
Held under the auspices of the Ibadan Poetry Foundation, the programme tagged “An Evening of Poetry and Performance for Harry Garuba @ 60”, was moderated by Dr. Dapo Olorunyomi, an academic at the university. Soon after Professor Remi Raji introduced the programme, renowned literary critic, Professor Dan Izevbaye, gave a speech that portrayed Garuba as a quintessential intellectual.
Professor Izevbaye, who taught Harry Guruba at University of Ibadan before the latter relocated to South Africa, spoke highly of Garuba, “Harry was charismatic. As an undergraduate and post graduate “Poetry came to him naturally; just as intellectual activities came to him naturally. He was surrounded by extremely gifted teachers. Harry would have blossomed anywhere. It’s not surprising that he has ended up in South Africa. Well, that’s the problem with Ibadan –too many talents. Too many geniuses in Ibadan make other schools envious.
“I was a teacher here when he brought out his first volume of poetry. Abiola Irele was excited when he was asked to do a review, and he immediately saw in Harry a talent you must not waste. There is something about Nigeria’s political environment that doesn’t not allow talents to blossom. When I heard there was a reading for Harry Garuba, I had no problem coming, not just because of Harry, but for the talents I would be listening to.”
Professor Femi Osofisan entertained the crowd with a reading of an old story “The Grammar of Easter” written by late Prof. Akinwumi Ishola. It brought to the fore the dilemma of Nigerian pupils during the colonial times who did not understand the English language spoken by a visiting white missionary. It also echoed the importance accorded to rice during festive seasons when it wasn’t yet a staple food in the country.
Cerebral poet, Odia Ofeimun, also acknowledged Garuba’s genius, applauding the abundance of great scholars during his school days at the University of Ibadan, “We had professors who were such talents that you knew, having passed through them, you could not but be up there, too. Frankly, the beauty of passing through the University of Ibadan is that you didn’t need to be brilliant; the environment made you brilliant.”
Ofeimun corroborated that Garuba had the charisma of attracting some of the brightest young writers such that “wherever you saw Harry Garuba, you knew there would be poets there. Harry was such a lovable fellow. That charisma attracted people to him, because he had a sound knowledge of books – I am not talking about literary books; Harry went to school –so that whatever we wanted to discuss, he was there with you. I saw a political science student, but I could debate virtually everything in political science with Harry.”
He heaped praises on Harry Garuba for what he did with Voices from the Fringe, an initiative of his as the general sectary of ANA, to identify literary talents nationwide. “It is something that, if we have a proper literary culture, we should be celebrating him –even if that was the only book he did. Voices from the Fringe is one of the best-sought after collections in Nigerian literature.”
Professor Raji recalled that he had the honour of being the first postgraduate student to be supervised by Professor Garuba in the Department of English. He described him, in a citation, as an internationally acclaimed Nigerian poet, scholar, editor, anthologist and resource person from Edo State but born in Akure in 1958.
“Together with his friends and colleagues, Garuba started the poetry club, which was to become one of the major platforms for a new generation of poets and activists, which have now become some of the biggest poets in the country,” he said of the University of Cape Town egghead.
The celebration continued later with in the night amid palm wine at the Senior Staff Quarters, where Professors Hyginus Ekwuazi and Niyi Okunoye, among others, tripped memory lane to recount the Garuba they knew. Professor Okunoye, who admitted being an estranged member of Harry Garuba’s poetry club, said, he was a big influence to many at UI, “Harry actually influenced people beyond Nigeria. He had a way of theorising everything. That’s why a lot of people said, if you haven’t been taught by Harry, there is something missing.”
Prof Ekwuazi recalled that part of being a poet that time was that you could drink well, yet write good poetry. “Somebody described it as a writerly attitude. That club produced a lot of good poets. That period was a period I was nostalgic about. When I see works that came out of those period, I take a bow.”
A good number of poets performed to make the soiree thick. While some read verses from Garuba’s latest poetry collection, Animist Chants and Memorials, others read their own poems. They included Tade Ipadeola, Niyi Okunoye, Niran Oewole, Rasaq Malik, Charles Akinsete, Oluruntobi, Totulope Akinrinde, Ndubisi Martins, Akin Tella, Sevio Gbadamosi, John-Paul Nwadike, Olaniyi Waheed, Soji Gbeleke Henry Atide, and a guitarist.
But it was the echoes of Dr. Dapo Olarunyomi’s We drink, we drunk… that made all drunk with joy late into the night.