In Honor of Nigeria’s Literary Giants

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

Good books are hard to come by, but great authors are even rarer. The common thing of course is for one great author to churn classic after classics and embellish his or her name in the history books the way Shakespeare did and Mark Twain might have done years later across the pond in the New World. However, if there is any nation that can beat her chest and hold her head high among many as having contributed more than her fair share to world literary diction it must be my beloved country, Nigeria. The fair numbers of authors that dish out these wonderful literature is wonderment by it own self. You see, we Nigerians complain a lot about the fortunes of our country; it is easy to have daily realities almost drive one into gloom, despair, and lamentation. But beyond and above these melancholic supposition is a superficial blessing of story telling- the gift of the garb that God have endowed on us as a people. We have a lot to be grateful for in the enormous human resources and heroes of the pen that we have been blessed with as a nation. This article is devoted to their memory, their lives, and these heroes: dead, living and yet unborn in our midst dedicated to telling our story- our history.

This summer, I have dedicated my self to renewing the literary ties that bound my spirit to the black loamy soil of our land. This journey has taken me back to go through the works of those that preceded our times. Indeed, while Amos Tutola is often referred to as the first published novelist from Nigeria there is no doubt today that Oluadah Equiano a slave child born in 1745 in a village east of the Niger River in what is now known as Nigeria came before others and set a pace that will only be repeated one hundred and fifty years later by another of his kinfolk to the west of the same river. Oluadah’s book, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oluadah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African” proudly stamped with “Written by Himself” was one of such slave era works that threw spanner in the works of the racist West that sought to belittle the African as less than human. Publishing this great book some years before Thomas Jefferson made his devilish assertion of the inability of the African mind to comprehensively understand and grasp learned ways and/or mathematics, Oluadah comes across as a cosmopolitan African: a man well lettered in his own culture and grounded in the ways of the global village far removed from the miracles of the 21st century. Indeed, some fifty years later Fredrick Douglas another Negro Slave and trusted adviser to President Lincoln later made the same foray into slave literature detailing the sufferings of a poor mulatto child – a product of the white slave master rendezvous (indeed, rape) of a black slave in his book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” also stamped with “Written by Himself”

From the works of Tutola to the insightful and ever green writings of Chinua Achebe the Africaness of these works emanating from the lands that bestrode the Niger is ever telling. Certainly, Wole Soyinka embodies everything Nigerian in his newest piece (“You must set forth at dawn”); in my opinion, an addition to the trilogy that began with Ake, Isara, and Ibadan years which is now concluded as a unique quartet (or Quartology if I must add) series that in itself tells the story of Nigeria. While there is no doubt that Chinua Achebe rendered Nigerian literature accessible in his books and trilogy beginning with Things Fall Apart: undoubtedly the most read fiction till date out of the southern hemisphere in the 20th Century , it is also true that Wole Soyinka elevated it to the height of untouchables. How else do you describe a man so versed in his language and that of others that he is teaching the English how to read and write their language? Winning the Nobel Prize and carting away the coveted literary prize for the first time for Africa was just an icing on the cake for this true “shon of the shoil”. This man was not alone, for in reaching out to the little ones the matriarch Mabel Segun and Patriarch Cyprian Ekwensi excelled in uncommon ways. In classical styled poetry J.P Clarke and Mamman Vasta staked their claim; and Saro Wiwa’s works like those of Clarke, Vasta, Achebe, Soyinka and Awolowo sought to create social change and lock in the enterprise of a freer Nigeria for all.

Talking of Awo, if giants lived amongst us how else could it have come? Reading Awo’s “Thoughts on the People’s Constitution” and “Path To Nigerian Freedom” one cannot but be amazed at his clarity of thought and the authority with which he delivered political laws (so he called them at the risk of being labeled intellectually self absorbed) in ways that will even shame the best of Plato in the Republic (or the other Teratology) and those of his steward Aristotle in Politics. Short of indeed excelling beyond theory, Awolowo remains relevant till date more than twenty years after his death in discussions related to constitutional making in Nigeria and indeed Africa; more so, one in a quest for an egalitarian society in modern Africa. In his trilogy detailing his speech- Voice of Wisdom, Courage, and Reason – the thoughts of this great statesman is etched in stone and will continue to hunt the oligarchs that have constructed the unfortunate failing enterprise that we found ourselves on the eve of May 29, 1999. Many of our writers paid for it – Saro Wiwa with his life, Soyinka and others with their freedom and others forms of psychological torture from the powers that be.

A praise of the written art will never be complete without looking the way of journalism in Nigeria. How else can one classify the early works of the Great Zik in his pioneer newspaper in the road that led to independence; a man blessed with uncommon cerebral capacity, the Great Zik wowed the colonialists and distinguished himself among his peers: most of whom had just returned from abroad with various degrees ranging from economics to law. Zik’s writings in the newspaper heralded the birth of an organized body of thought on the independence of the Nigerian state and remain a treatise for “freedom and a common federation of multi-cultural people united in the economic sense for political viability” (that was a Zikspeak). This tradition was transformed to social criticism in the works of Tai Solarin years later and then Uncle Bola Ige that filled in the brief interregnum before the cold hands of death snatched him away from us. Who can match the Cicero’s flair for words and beautiful cultivation of language: from the classics to the native. He, Uncle Bola, was a truly global in the wool of Equiano. Today, we are not short of giants among us. Reuben Abati is one man that stands out in today’s literary cum journalism world: for many, his opinion simply counts. I understand there is a new brigade of haters, but any writer without such detractors must be writing gibberish. There is no doubt that Ben Okri the Booker Prize winner also belongs to a proud generation of Nigerian writers along with the more recent entrant: Ngozi Adichie, who was also short listed amongst a vast field for the same special prize (second only to the Nobel).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A cursory look at the internet will reveal a coterie of distinguished writers that continue to avail themselves of writing about everything from love, mystery, humor, pain and even the ills that bedevil their beloved country. How can you miss Vera Ezimora? A lady with an uncommon understanding of man-woman relationship or my dear friend Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

a man I like primarily to cast as a dreamer. Sabella’s dream extend evidently beyond visions (not as if he will ever transform to becoming a prophet if you ask him to) but stands him clearly from the pack with his ability to bring forth ideas couched in simple yet forthrightly succinct words that cut at the heart of the discuss (I mean what else can I say of a man that have written classics like Nigerian Men and their Foreign Wives or Why Do African Men Go Home to Marry?). Another man yet not given to messing around is Paul Adujie. Hated by many, but loved by some, he has carved out a niche for himself in seeing his country and her rulers in the positive light no matter what. He plays to the gallery to wow supporters and thump at the heart of his detractors like no other- he has proven he is not one scared of criticism no matter how harsh. Time and space will not permit me to detail the great contribution of Uche Nworah the beer inspired master of the letter, and Michael Ewetuga a namesake worthy of his name. What of Professor Aluko a man devoted to churning out concrete plans worthy of his last name – you know what I mean. There will be no match for humor when it comes to Ikhide I., (Nnamdi) – none. How about Soul Sista? Soul Sista’s delivery is reminiscent of the works of other great women that can bring their stories to the world flawlessly in many ways that will make the best of the West green with envy. 

To those telling the stories of our days through all media, I say keep on keeping on. For those keeping the media that disseminates these stories alive, we say thank you. You belong to a proud heritage of writers and facilitators, that sought to effect social change in their times. Men with uncommon gift of the garb; whose thoughts and philosophies not only transformed their generation but reflected on a literary tradition (though grounded largely orally) of the past and visions transcending the future remaining ever green with us till this day. It is for this reason that you cannot drop your pen or fail at the railings of the critics, for when in hundred years time people shall ask your descendants what good have their forefathers done this land of ours, they will refer back to your off the cuff commentary that brought smiles to despaired souls, drew just one more good person closer home or drove down farther the dwindling fortunes of tyranny and graced our immaculate land with uncommon fervor of hope, bliss and eternal adulation. Bravo

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1 comment

segun akinyode June 18, 2006 - 3:56 am

Any celebration of Nigeria's literary excellence that ignores the likes of Niyi Osundare,Okinba Lauko,Bode Sowande,Festus Iyayi,Maiki Nwosu,and Ohaeto is suspect.


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