A professor of English in the Department of English, University of Benin, Tony Afejuku has put in over forty years as a scholar and is the author of three poetry volumes: An Orchard of Wishes, A Garden of Moods, and A Spring of Sweets. Also, a newspaper columnist, Professor Afejuku, has writen for more than five Nigerian media houses. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO at the University of Benin, Benin City, he frowns at the scant attention paid to reading by university administration in Nigeria, which has affected the fortunes of writers and publishers in the country.
You have been a scholar for over 40 years and you double as a creative writer with three published creative works. How have you been able to marry both, because scholarship tends to slow down a writer’s progress in the academia?
Let me state urgently that, actually, my creative endeavours died in the sense that what I envisaged was to be a creative writer through and through. I didn’t intend to go into scholarship. I went into scholarship by accident in the sense that, when I came to the university, I just wanted to be like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark without teaching. Anna Rutherford, an Australian, came to teach us in our final year at ABU, Zaria. I had, at ABU, Anna Rutherford, an Australia. She had a BA and was teaching AARHES in the Department of English in Denmark –and I said, “This is good”. So I just wanted to be a writer, backed up with an MA; after that, I didn’t want a PhD.
I, therefore, came to the University of Benin to be engaged in creative writing. Achebe had accepted certain things I wrote in my undergraduate years and published them in Okike magazine. Even Onibonoje Press, based in Ibadan, now defunct, accepted about ten of my poems, which he told me were going to be included in an anthology. Then, I didn’t know Femi Osofisan. I got to know later that he was the one who was editing the anthology.
What I am trying to say is that I planned myself to be a creative writer. But English departments, over the years, tend to look down on creative writers. When I wanted to focus on writing alone, they thought that one was trying to be lazy and didn’t want to write academic papers. But I told them I could do both, and started writing papers. Then something happened. One of our colleagues (dead now), Mbize Agbadudu, in Business Administration (he had a PhD then), a senior lecturer then, was just passing –I was in the veranda –and he made a joke of me retiring as a senior lecturer if I didn’t get a PhD. That was how I decided to get a PhD. I said to myself afterwards, “Let me also be known as Professor Tony Afejuku” (laughs).
Though I try to still do both (teaching and writing), if I had given the kind of attention I had given to scholarship, I would have become a big writer today. There was the AFA magazine edited then by Catherine Acholonu. Niyi Osundare and I published there when it came out –I think he had gotten his PhD. The point I am trying to make is that I gave too much time to scholarship. If I was in a place like the USA, it would have been a different ball game. Here, you have so many students to cope with. There, the students are few –ten or twelve in number –and they had all the time to write.
When I was in the University of Reading in the UK for for communication skills programme, I told a senior colleague that I had about 500 students to teach, he screamed, “What! How did you do it?” Then, he was not teaching more than ten, so he had time for research and other things. Everything combined weighed me down as a writer. Other extracurricular activities also contributed. Then, I was an assistant external examiner. I was very buoyant energetically, and I was doing all kinds of things. Then, too, I was also involved in journalism (in the 1980s), writing for newspapers –Nigerian Observers and Anthony Enahoro’s Sunday Graphics (as a sports columnist), combining it with literary journalism, or what I call creative journalism. I am happy I still write, but not as productive as I wished because of scholarship.
Let’s talk about your bcreative works.
I have three poetry well researched volumes. A Garden of Moods actually contains some poems I wrote as an undergraduate at ABU –I did Original Composition, which was like Creative Writing –and my collection then was called No Faith in Human Beings. I had an Irish writer friend, who was very much involved and in love in what I was doing. I was the only one who did Original Composition in my set. Everyone was running away. I was also among the only two in my set who studied Romantic Poetry, and I wanted to do Metaphysical Poetry, and the Canadian lecturer, Bruce King, said no, he wouldn’t teach only one student, and asked me to bring two students to join me to in the course. But those I approached declined, so I didn’t study Metaphysical Poetry, but I was reading on my own. I have said it several times: no member of my generation read printed matter more than I did. I was also reading almost everything in Nigerian journalism. Journalism was my interest, too. Forget what we are doing now –newspapers were always around in our halls. So I learnt through reading. Of course, I was taught Criticism and Original composition. I have also published An Orchard of Wishes and A Spring of Sweets.
The book business is slow in terms of sales, and publishers complain that patronage is slow, which is why the big publishers, like Heinemann, Macmillan and Longman, left off publishing creative works, coupled with the issue of piracy. So one wonders that we have over a hundred universities that teach English yet publishers say fiction doesn’t sell
Pirates undercut them –that is true. But, are pirates not undercutting those publishing fiction today? I will leave you to answer that. But the real issue is that the Nigerian condition. Truly, people are not reading the way they should. If people were reading now, maybe children’s book. I just ordered for twenty children’s book, which I bought for my grandchildren. But there is always a way out. The libraries in the universities can buy books and store. They (publishers) can even make their money through the libraries. But the copies they send to libraries, to get back their money is a problem; many (libraries) don’t make returns. Even colleagues you give books in universities sell your books and pocket the money.
….You are right; it has happened to me, too.
It is a Nigerian condition. Again, university administrators don’t make things easy by saying you (lecturers) shouldn’t compel students to buy your books. If my students don’t buy my books, who will buy them? If I recommend your book, for instance, to my students, they (university authorities) will say take them to the bookshop. The books will be there for ages, and you won’t get your money as when due when the bookshops sell them. So everybody run away from the bookshop. You don’t trust them. So it is a Nigerian condition; they don’t make anything better. For me, they (university authorities) should make it compulsory for students to buy books, because our students are not reading. Because of this kind of order, students, who, ordinarily, should buy books, are not buying books.
I built my library right from secondary school days. I would use my chop money to buy books. When I went to the university, I bought books, too. Some of them are still valid till today. It is a big problem. I query the big publishers in Nigeria –they only publish educational books. Why are they not using the piracy excuse to decline publishing them? But the big blame must go to the administrators of universities in Nigeria, as well as our colleagues who misused the opportunities they used to have by compelling students to buy books; not everybody will buy books; some will; others may not. It is wrong for a lecturer to want to make profit from the sales of his books immediately; it takes time. But, then, how many universities today have standard bookshop?
Then, we were getting books from all over the world. Today, it is no longer the case. That’s some of the challenges we are having. If the administrators say today, ‘Buy books… read books,” things will improve. Now, they (students) depend on notes, which is wrong. Even, if you give handouts, fine; but you can’t give handouts to students because the facilities are not there. In my university days, I never bought handouts; they were part of the university budget. They were prepared and given free to all students.
People say we are churning out students who cannot even write their names; it is true, but it is better than churn them out. Out of the lot, if one or two can make the mark, fine: we are still making some contributions. In my place in Delta, we try to encourage people to go to school, but they will point at some people who have made it, and ask you, “Which school did they go to? Are they not swimming in millions and billions?” Late Allison Ayida, before he died, wanted me to look for Itsekiri students who would travel to Portugal to study the culture of the Itsekiri on scholarship, I didn’t find any student who was interested. All of them wanted to “hammer” in the oil industry. Those days, they were rushing to the banks. Today, nobody wants to even go the banks anymore. And we don’t have leaders who are giving us the right direction. We do not only have rudderless readers in Nigeria; we also have rudderless leaders in Nigeria; they don’t have direction. The direction they have is: how do I grab? They are grabbers!
Your generation of literary critics will soon phase out. Do we have capable replacements in Nigeria set to keep the momentum going?
Ours is still a very illiterate society. If you look at our population –if what they are saying is right –we should be running towards 300 million Nigerians now. We have a 100 million Nigerians who are lettered. We need more universities. They may be bad, but a time will come when the illiterate percentage will drastically reduce. They must learn. The way our generation was taught is not the way we are teaching the students. That’s the truth.
What’s the difference?
The difference is that, first, my generation was far more serious; we did our assignments on time. When I came to this university, the pass mark was 40 percent. It doesn’t happen anymore; they tell you to upgrade, and the students know this, and don’t worry because of waivers. In your own time, it wasn’t like that.
You are right…
Then, I would give you [his students] your script to look at to see how you fared. But, today, if you do that, it is even more dangerous from what I have seen. It is happening all over the universities –they tell you to upgrade the marks … this is the last year. In my time, I had classmates who failed out in final year. One was expelled for exam malpractice. It can’t happen now. Because of over population, those who don’t come to class have assignments done for them. Some even import people to write for them, not to talk of masters and PhD –people write for them.
Everybody now wants to be a professor, including those who don’t have anything to offer. But there are professors and there are professors; there are lecturers and there are lecturers. That’s the point. Because of titles and philistinism, we have a huge problem. Unfortunately, we now have a certificate-less president. I was one of those who taught the army was trying to deny him the certificate when Goodluck Jonathan was in power. But his classmate, Paul Terfar, came, and said, “Nothing like that”. So we have a huge problem.