Okey Ndibe’s Epiphany

Okey Ndibe, your article on how Chinua Achebe saved you from James Hadley Chase makes me put on a green and white thinking hat. Achebe you said awakened your cultural sensibilities. You regurgitated how awesome it felt to be in the midst of a culture that made you proud to be a Nigerian. You stated that the 2-day event in London “showed the potential power of rich, deep cultural production”. You demonstrated by many examples how the exchange of arts and culture has made it easy for you to mix and mingle with people from Austin, Texas, New London, Connecticut, all the way to Nairobi, Kenya and London, England. The arts, poetry, music, dance, and movies of Nigeria seem to be the consistent piercing light in the often dark and cloudy portrait of the Nigerian people. Are you calling up arms for a war of change? Is the pen the sword for a new heart?

Already, those who have eyes have seen, and those with ears have heard the call. We have had enough of rhetoric, and intense, political debates by those who claim to foresee which way Africa is going. Now are you saying that those with the pen will save Africa? Even the great scientist Albert Einstein bowed to the power of the arts. He said, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure”. If the extremely talented German composer Ludwig van Beethoven had spent his life describing the perfect combination of sound that would make a spring quartet, he would have been another forgotten head stone in the Rhine Valley. He is not. He is famous because, with his pen, he actually birthed music, an art that carved his tunes on the marble slabs of time. He etched the geography of his people. Art is the heart and soul of a man. Artists including writers, poets, musicians, actors, actresses, and dancers will restore the Africans’ place on the world map.

In the meantime, most of us agree that synchronous heartbeats maintain the life of the man. Yank it off, and a man is deeply wounded, then he dies. The literature of the pen smith, the songs of the poets and the laughter from drama, keep the sweet, thumping rhythms of the heart. In times of war, we rely on their songs to give us hope. As we celebrate weddings, their songs transform the mood to joy. When nations are built, an artist is called upon to compose an anthem, a song that pulls a group of individuals together into a nation state. The British sing, “God Save the Queen” written by a British composer, Thomas Arne. Americans salute to the “Star Spangled Banner” by the American Francis Scott Key. At school assemblies, graduations, sporting events, the people honor their nations with the deep intensity of songs and poetry. These artistic compositions of anthems and pledges are the glue that keeps nations together.

From independence in 1960 until 1978, Nigerians sang, “Nigeria We Hail Thee”, an anthem written by a British expatriate, Lillian Jean Williams, and set to song by another Briton Frances Berda. In 1978, at the ripe adult age of 18, Nigeria became agitated by the growing pains of youth, and allowed the sons of the soil, John Ilechukwu, Eme Akpan, Sota Omoigui, B. Ogunnaike and P. Aderibigbe to amalgamate a new song for the heart of the people. The indigenous Benedict Odiase and the Nigerian Police Band set the current anthem “Arise O’ Compatriots” to music. The artists established the tune for the hearty call to duty.

Therefore, the anthem builds patriotism in people. It builds the hearts of men and women who make the nation. It is impossible to build a nation without men, women and children with heart. The heart beats for the self, and then it beats for others. It leaps in joy when you love beyond self. In the same manner, patriotism builds love for country. What do parents put into a child to make patriotic heartbeats? It is memories of songs, stories, and dances—all creations of the artist.

When Okey Ndibe visits London, and his heart leaps for things of cultural value, it is the patriotic beat imbibed in him from Achebe, Soyinka and others. Those who grew up chasing Chase cannot argue that James Hadley Chase left such cultural marks on them. I can bet you twenty-five thousand naira that they are not travelling around the world getting high fives, because they were youngsters in Africa reading about a British mystery set in America.

This is not an indictment against the foreign novel. The point is simple. Artists in all forms contribute more to the sense of a historical bank in a child by encrypting songs and stories of tradition through their various art forms. It is this sense of a unique people that brings about a positive image of our culture when we travel around the world.

More recently, Africa has been led to believe that a membership in the G8 or other economic powerhouse is the most important hallmark of a great nation. The place of art in the maturity and reputation of great nations like England, China, Greece and Italy cannot be underestimated. Even where power is now old glory, it is the arts that tell the old story.

When Nigerians first visit London, they drop their bags at the front door of the family friends’ house, and rush to the nearest tube station. They head to Trafalgar Square at the heart of the city to take a picture with pigeons. It is the artistry of the sculptors (artists) that memorializes the Battle of Trafalgar, a celebration of the British victory over France and Spain in 1805. China has its Tiananmen Square, a place of important cultural gathering for the people. We can go on and on with examples from Greece, Germany, and Italy. Even modern communities in the United States are often built with central cultural centers with museums and sculptors commemorating the history of the people.

A man is his art. A man rich in his art and culture is a very wealthy man. Therefore, I am secretly wishing that Okey Ndibe is calling us to feel rich in our possession of art, and strut like proud peacocks next time we are accosted with the often caustic question, “Where are you from” while abroad. We are well-to-do sons and daughters of Africa. Oh you talented artists, preserve our stories, music, poetry, drama, and arts with class. In doing so, be mindful that it is not a light duty to be ambassadors of culture.

In all, the art movement can resurrect the heart of man, and will restore Nigeria and all of Africa to her rightful palace of glory. Like the mythical Phoenix, art will bring light back to a place everyone wants to ascribe darkness. The self is unique. Only Art expressed from within the self endures. Art is rich. Art is beautiful. Art is a song for the heart from the heart of another. Wherever you are, when you express the love of nation, it is the artistic experience of words, idioms and riddles told by your parents; stories of the masters like Achebe, Soyinka, Ndibe, Okri, Adichie, (not Hadley Chase); music of Sina Peters, Fela, Okosuns, Christy Essien, Osadebe, Prince Nico Mbarga that breath the sweet fragrance of home. It is the memories of Christmas masquerades, Eid el Fitr festivals, the art of the naming ceremonies, weddings, yam festivals, initiations, the songs, dances, the sculptors, the art of the food preparations, the art of speaking, greeting, and being with the people that rejuvenate that desire for sweet home. It is art that will bring Africans home to Africa again.

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