With over 40 published works and a name that rings a bell in the literary world, Odia Ofeimun made a roaring entry into the septuagenarian club on Monday, March 16, 2020, amid paeans and clinking glasses.
Working in concert with the Odia Ofeimun @ 70 Committee, the Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, last Monday, rolled the drums for the bard at the apex institutions as friends of the writer, family members, fellow writers and academics converged to celebrate the iconic writer predicated on the theme “Taking Nigeria Seriously”.
Professor Biodun Jeyifo, who gave the keynote speech based on the theme of the two-day conference, said Ofeimun was among the great men in the world, including Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with a strong distaste for accumulation of wealth.
The scholar explained further, “There are many other things Odia has given up: he doesn’t smoke; he doesn’t drink. Indeed, I have always meant to ask him how he is able to go through life always completely sober. I haven’t been able to do it. Most people I know, especially writers, artist and members of the tribe of actors, are not able to do so either. I haven’t asked Odia this question, because I already know the answer: he has a world; he has books –what need does he have of the bottle and dubious, endless pleasures of cigarettes fumes?”
As a matter of fact, the bard was one of those “who have chosen to live out their days with certainty that the only way to be truly wealth is to want and need people as much as possible. Odia has found abjuration of the pursuit of wealth the means with which to fulfil his destiny of being born to write, of being burn a servant and a master of the word.”
Beyond the audacity of announcing at age 7 that he was going to be a writer, Jeyifo said Odia was possessed by the Dionysian spirit of the word. “At the most direct and unmediated level, these factors show up in the works of Odia in the sheer number and range of his writings, in poetry, nonfiction, prose, polemics, dance drama and cultural journalism. But this is not a game of numbers,” he noted.
Making a comparison between Ofeimun and late Pius Okigbo, Jeyifo said both writers were noted for sublimity, “What unites Okigbo and Odia is the fact that the presence of their poetry: you have a distinct feeling that you are in the presence of the company of a possessed poet. Sometimes, this takes the form of a modulated incantation or an outburst of lyricism that simultaneously draws attention to his self or gestures towards an epiphany or daring act or utterance that rings together radically different or diverse authentic and semantic face.”
Jeyifo is categorical that “Odia is one of the most revolutionary poets and writers of our continent across many generations of modern Nigeria.” In his plays, too, this cannot be gainsaid.
It was a happy day for the celebrant as he addressed the gathering. He wasn’t expected to live this long, he said. “I have always wished to be an old man.” When he was a little boy, his mother was told his son wouldn’t come to anything. She was so frightened that she spent much of her youth trying to get a second son, but all they ended as miscarriages.
Young Ofeimun was aware of the badge he carried as an only son with a mountain to climb to live and remain relevant in life. He recalled, “So it became my responsibility to try to become something bigger than what one son could have been. I have not quite done it, but, seriously, I had to look her in the face after one very bad miscarriage, and said, ‘Mama, I won’t die.’
“Even if every leaf in all the trees around this town can be climbed by witches and wizards, they won’t be able to touch a hair on my head. But I begged her to do one thing: ‘Don’t beg any medicine man; don’t beg any pastor; don’t beg any babalawo, because I will survive it’; and I have managed to do it.”
His 70th anniversary wasn’t just for him alone. “For me, being 70 is trying to celebrate all those Nigerians who have gone through the rough edges of the Nigerian life and managed to survive it,” he echoed.
He used that opportunity to relive a misreported old story of his when he was compelled to travel to Germany without passport and visa. Don’t get it twisted: he wasn’t a stowaway. It happened in 1993 when his visa expired while at Oxford in London, and he needed to renew it or leave the country.
Then a golden opportunity presented itself: a forthcoming poetry festival holding in Germany, which he was being invited. But without an international passport and visa, the possibility of making his voice heard in Deutschland was more of a remote possibility. But the organisers were still on having him around.
He recalled, “The Germans insisted that I would enter their country without a visa or a passport. They wrote me a letter and said I should take it to Lufthansa that “we need you in our country for a conference”. That did the magic. He was given a waiver to fly to Germany, thanks to genius.
“I toured Germany for two weeks reading poetry, and really got paid for reading poem, I mean, for fun: myself, Niyi Osundare and several other African poets. This book that came out of it, Imagination and the City, is about how we develop big beautiful cities and how we may always build one,” he said with glee.
“It is also about my visit to Karakas, one city that is very much like ours. If you put the map of Africa and that of Latin America together, we discover that Colombia and Venezuela are actually Nigerian countries; and you can go to Venezuela today and see a kingdom that is properly a Yoruba kingdom.”
Hence, the writer would like a closer tie between Nigeria and Latin America. He said, “The relationship between Latin America and Nigeria is too weak for what it is or what it should be. It is important that we remember that those people hunger for our country without minding the problem that people raise about what Nigeria is, who Nigerians are and how it’s really going.”
An interesting tale he regaled the audience was how he survived in the UK without a work permit. “I have no work permit to live in Britain for four years, but I survived it, because I wrote reviews and poetry for dance drama,” he said. He was a bibliophile who bought stacks of books such that he had a roomful of books in Oxford. “But for the fact that I bought too many books, probably I could have lived very well.”
Sadly, when he left Oxford in a hurry, he left behind his most prized possessions, and never returned to collect them. It wasn’t until Dr. Kayode Fayemi, the current Ekiti State Governor, completed his PhD in London and was about to return to Nigeria that a glimmer of hope presented itself.
“The books stayed there for about 10 going to 11 years, and did not return to Nigeria until Kayode Fayemi, who had finished his PhD, was returning to Nigeria, and told me he was returning. I told him to go to Oxford and bring me a house full of books. He chattered a car to Oxford and brought the books home,” he recalled.
The first session of Odia @ 70 Conference was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Professor Femi Osofisan of the University of Ibadan. Professor G.G. Darah of the Delta State University, Abraka, spoke on “Odia Ofeimun and Dialectics of the Nigeria’s Long Revolution.” His paper was a reaction to one of Ofeimun’s 40 books entitled The Nigerian Agenda, in which the writer made for a new Nigeria, a follow-up to his earlier book, Taking Nigeria Seriously.
Darah, however, contended that “it is a wrongheaded aspiration for anybody to take Nigeria seriously. Maybe Odia and his co-organisers are the only ones who can courageously say that we should take Nigeria seriously.”
He lamented that the Nigeria Delta where Nigeria’s oil wealth comes from, is the most underdeveloped oil producing area of the universe. Unlike Ofeimun’s position in that book that Nigeria is beautiful and should be taken seriously, Darah disagreed.
He said, “50 years since the civil war ended in Nigeria, we have lost more human beings than we lost during the war. Civil wars have taken place in Africa –Sierra Leone, Liberia, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Uganda, South Africa, Namibia, Congo, etcetera. The casualties of people who died in the 30-year war in South Africa is less than the number that died in Nigeria.”
He noted that Nigeria had many cultural festivals, and watching them from Argungu to Anambra, with all their splendor and aesthetics, one might think “Nigeria is a beautiful country, but Nigeria has deteriorated and becoming worse. Why is it going worse? We are no longer under colonialism. The British have gone.
“When the five majors overthrew the government of Tafawa Balewa in 1966, they accused that government of corruption. With what is going on in the country now, what adjective will you use to qualify it? If the country is going worse from year to year, from regime to regime, the explanation cannot be that human being and the leaders are the ones who are bad. There must be a system that produces these capacities.
“My disagreement with Odia in that beautiful book is that Odia Ofeimun does not examine dialectically the structures of the Nigerian state that produce only bad leaders. Professors are part of those who took part in this. In the past 15 years, professors have been heading our electoral commissions, from Nwosu to Jega.”
Professor Okome Onokome, who spoke next, said, “Odia Ofeimun stands out from writers and artists of his generation as the only one who, in spite of what BJ has now referred to as ‘the choice of poverty’, has consistently done his writings and other part of the making of Nigerian cultural history, without the self-taste of the university.
“In order words, the choice to do what he has to do, first without thinking about the economic and culture placement of the university that would ordinarily give him some kind of social gravities.”
As a public intellectual, Onookome said Ofeimun had done what many academics in university couldn’t actually do in terms of quality and number of works produced. Again, “Odia Ofeimun addresses what I call ‘people who live at the bottom of the truth –the populace – people who suffer the micro pain of living in a ‘lottery economy’, as well as the macro pain of not living in the republic. These are the people that Odia Ofeimun deals with.”
Onookome added, “He is not just part of the literary tradition in the last forty years. He has written some of the most inspiring ideas that contains many of the main scholarly possessions that exist in our literati today.”
Dignitaries at the opening ceremony included Rauf Aregbesola, the Minister of Interior; Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, former Ondo State Governor; Femi Falana, famous Lagos lawyer, (SAN); Sam Omatseye, Chairman Editorial Board, The Nation; Professor Hope Eghagha former Head, Department of English, Unilag, among other scholars and writers. Activities marking Ofeimun’s 70th anniversary climaxed the next day with a dinner at the University of Lagos.
Odia Ofeimun was born in Iruekpen-Ekpoma, Edo State, Nigeria, in 1950. He studied Political Science at the University of Ibadan, where his poetry won first prize in the University Competition of 1975. That year, his work appeared in the anthology Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka.
A former private secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he studied at Oxford University on a Commonwealth fellowship. Also a journalist, he wrote columns for The Guardian On Sunday and Nigerian Tribune. He also chaired the editorial board of the defunct daily, A.M. News, The News and Tempo magazines.
His published collections of poetry include (1986), Dreams at Work and London Letter and Other Poems (2000). His poems for dance drama, Under African Skies (1990) and Siye Goli: A Feast of Return (1992), were commissioned and performed across the UK and Western Europe by Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble in the early 1990s, and his most recent poem for dance drama, Nigeria the Beautiful, has been staged through major Nigerian cities to wide acclaim.