Eriata Oribhabor is one of Nigeria’s prominent literary activists. A former Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA),Abuja Chapter, he has driven PIN (Poets in Nigeria), Nigerian Students Poetry Prize, Poetry Festival Calabar, among others, to a new height. Also one the most visible proponents of Pidgin English (Naija languej) as a as a medium of literary communication, Oribhabor is interviewed by HENRY AKUBUIRO in Lagos on his love for poetry, which has seen him channel so much energy and resources to making it endearing to Nigerians, especially, especially the younger generation. This, he admits, comes with a prize: he has to starve his family to make it possible.
You have been at the forefront of literary activism in Nigeria for a decade now. How has the journey been? I am particularly fascinated by what you have achieved with PIN within a short time…
PIN started in Lagos in October 2015, and I came to Lagos January 2014. In Abuja, prior to my chairmanship of ANA Abuja, I was deep in promoting Pidgin English (Naija lanquej format), trying to standardise it as a form of literary communication. Thereafter, I became the chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Abuja chapter. I was also the coordinator of 1000 Poets for Change, a foreign initiative. The literary activism actually predated my chairmanship of ANA, because I was doing so many things. Then I wrote a book, Abuja na Kpamgba; edited another book on Naija languej entitled If You Hear Say I dey Prison. You can see I started promoting literary activities before coming to Lagos.
While in Abuja, I encountered many people, who considered themselves the gods of ANA in Abuja, who were not comfortable having somebody they never knew well to come and head the association in Abuja. So, they were out to frustrate my efforts, but I came with new perspectives, completely different from their style, and mine became a successful tenure. My team sensitised younger ones from the city centre to the suburbs (as far as Suleja, where we had secondary schools coming from that area). We even set up a branch of ANA at Gwagwalada, which we called Junior ANA of the Federal College of Education.
So, at every reading, we had different people coming from all over the town, and Abuja became so exciting due to literary activities. At that time, we brought new perspectives to hosting authors. I spent personal resources to turn the association around, for ANA, as a body, did not have the resources. What was interesting was that we discovered that, once a credible body was in place where people could verify how their money was spent, people started paying their dues, and we made it as a rule that, if you were not financially up-to-date, you would not enjoy the same benefit as others. Finance, therefore, was a major problem. Personally, I was committed to bringing in new ideas to turn the association around. Even when Remi Raji, the former ANA President, was hosted in Abuja, he admitted that he had been hosted outside the country but not in Nigeria, even in Ibadan. He acknowledged that he had never seen that kind of hosting in Nigeria before. The hall was filled to capacity. We hosted many authors. We also utilised the social media to the fullest, creating beautiful banners that were unknown before.
The bring-down syndrome was the major problem from the otherwise gods of ANA –I don’t want to mention names; they know themselves. Some of them also felt you could not become an executive member of ANA or the leader except they endorse you. Even, if they endorse you, you have to grovel at their feet to get their full support. But I came from nowhere with the endorsement of Denja Abdullahi, who, actually, was behind my becoming the president of the association due to his determination to restore the dignity of ANA Abuja. I think ANA, as a body, helped to bring me to literary limelight in Nigeria in the sense that it also made people know you don’t really need to be a writer to manage a writers’ body. What you need is somebody passionate about what he is doing, somebody who has management skills with different bodies. Even though I had not written any book before then, when I reeled off my CV, they were delighted to have me chair the Abuja chapter of the association.
Talking about Pidgin English, you have been committed to having it as a medium of communication. What’s the latest on the actualisation of Naija languej?
The process we are at the moment is the collection of corpus from all over the country being done by the Institute of French Research, coordinated by Professor Bernard Caron, a professor of anthropology, who actually suggested Naija languej during the conference on Nigerian Pidgin in Ibadan in 2009 as the name for our pidgin English, for “Naija” was, according to him, the most popular word every Nigerian was associated with. The corpus being collected at the moment was to get the variants of the language from all over the country so that it would become really a standard language. At that time, they came up with spellings. These spellings are still being updated now to see that they will be accepted to the generality of the people.
As an individual, my work in Pidgin English started before I attended that conference in Ibadan. I was to do a dictionary of Pidgin English, which I had done. With the new perspectives coming from the Institute of French Research, I had to hold on. I have been working with a lexicographer in Benin for many years to see how I could get my own version of the Naija languej dictionary. Frankly, a lot of extensive work is ongoing by the Institute of French Research. Bernard Caron used to be the chairman, but no longer, though he had gotten some funding to keep the research going before he left. We are hoping that, all things being equal, my partnership with the Benin lexicographer will get my dictionary of Naija languej out.
In Southern Cameroun, Pidgin English is already a lingua franca. Would you like such a replication in Nigeria?
That’s the goal: to make Pidgin English the official lingua franca. In fact, Pidgin English is already the unofficial lingua franca, but becoming the official lingua franca, it requires government buying, because the people will not force the government to do what it doesn’t want to do. It is those in government who will decide that it will be the official lingua franca with the required statistics to make it so. Yes, that’s the goal for any promoter of Pidgin English to see it becoming the official lingua franca.
Why do you support it as the official lingua franca?
This is so because more Nigerians speak Pidgin English more than the official lingua franca itself. Of course, millions of Hausa speak Hausa language and some people who are not Hausa understand Pidgin English; the Igbo and Yoruba –the two other major tribes –speak their languages, but they also speak Pidgin English. Pidgin is more at home south of Nigeria than the north. So, if it becomes the official lingua franca, it means that many people won’t have the tension and struggle they go through to communicate with one another. It is already a language of communication that should be endorsed by the government. It shows –even in the National Assembly. Outside the formal sectors, everybody speaks Pidgin. It’s just like you came out from the classroom, because you didn’t understand what the lecturer taught you, then someone else who understood it started explaining it to you in Pidgin English. So, why didn’t the lecturer teach you in Pidgin English?
The truth of the matter is that Pidgin is what runs this country –everybody knows that. Its value economically is so wide that, if you look at it in the area of translation, there will be a lot of translators; people will get employment. Translators either from Hausa to Pidgin or Pidgin to Hausa. The same goes for other languages. I know of a female poet, a Mexican-American, who lives on translation, translating from Spanish to English and English to Spanish. How would it look like to have thousands of Nigerians translating Pidgin to English –they may be doing it unofficially –and we have teachers of Pidgin English in school? Honestly, the country will be better off. What of in tourism? What about the music industry or comedy?
For most plays that are run on the television, whenever there is a spice of Pidgin, everybody is elated. This is the language that runs in the vein and blood of the people. Why should government turn a blind eye to it? The blue chip companies –MTN, GLO, name them –all use pidgin to drive their products. It, then, means that Pidgin is not something to be treated with levity. Look at what the comedians are doing with Pidgin! There are so many reasons why Pidgin English will be made the official lingua franca, especially when it is standardised in the Naija languej version. It will not only be widely spoken but will be used as medium of communication.
You are the brain behind the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize –the second edition was held in Enugu this year. How has the fire caught up with budding bards in the universities as expected?
Nigerian Students Poetry Prize was an initiative of a young man called Kolade Olarenwaju Freedom, who sold the idea to me, and he wanted it to be driven by PIN; and I bought into the idea, because I felt, if you wanted to promote writing or performance of poetry in this country, it was better to go back to tertiary institutions. We could have gone to secondary schools, but we settled for tertiary institutions. To the amazement of many people, they never knew a host of students write poetry. They felt poetry wasn’t popular. What inspired this was to take poetry to the younger generation and to see a day will come where we will not only be talking about Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and others. We also have create platforms for the younger generation to hone and showcase their skills. So, with this kind of initiative, we believe that the younger generation of students will be thrown up as poets, who could hold their own when we talk about poetry and literature.
PIN caused a stir during the recent Lagos Book Festival with the unique programme on the poetry of Chris Okigbo…
According to the call, it believed that after fifty years of Okigbo’s death, there should be young poets who have read his works and should write adaptations of some of his works. When I announced it, young poets were excited at the invitation and, within a month or two, they started turning in their entries, which were published in the anthology presented at Freedom Park, Lagos, during the book festival. J.P. Clark, who was present that day, was delighted with the performance of these poets that he kept referencing them in subsequent events at the festival. The vision of PIN is to be Nigeria’s foremost literary hub driven by poetry, and the mission is to provide easily accessible literary form dedicated to poetry and poets in Nigeria towards enhancing the reading and performance of poetry and connecting poets for business.
The PIN Quarterly, our literary magazine, is now in its eight edition, and is available online, with people sending entries from different parts of the world. It is considered a major reference material. According to reports from the secretary of the organisation, students’ feedback suggested that it is being used in the university to make references.
What keeps you going as a literary promoter, because you are involved in some many activities at the same time?
Most of these events are financed by me. I starve myself and my family to keep them going. If my immediate family members know what I put in for poetry, it may startle them. But the truth of the matter is that I still meet my domestic needs, and they encourage me, because they also see that I derive happiness from the things I do. So my happiness becomes the happiness of the family. I am also grateful to having young, committed people around me. Right now, we don’t get any support from corporate bodies. Sometimes I get support from individuals. The Nigeria Students Poetry Prize will be hosted by Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, in 2018.