Professor Remi Raji is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the University 0f Ibadan. He is also an accomplished poet, essayist, scholar and incumbent President of the Association of Nigerian Authors. In this interview, he spoke om the history, present and future of literature in Ibadan.
What in your view has built this city into our hotbed of literature? What makes Ibadan tick?
Well, it is just about the geography of things as well as the history of the foundation of South Western Nigeria as a region of a young Nigerian federation. The establishment of the University of Ibadan in 1948 led to the cementing of the status of Ibadan as the culture capital of the nation. This was not just of the book industry. but scholarship in general which is related to it, and then entertainment, highlife, the proximity to Lagos, and of course there were the young Turks – the young intellectuals then – who established the Mbari Club which was actually the hotbed for the first generation of serious Nigerian writing.
Then also, Nigeria seemed to be the melting pot for other African writers and scholars, especially from East Africa – Kenya, Uganda precisely and also South Africa as well as Zimbabwe. It seems like they would come to Nigeria first before they then set forth to other countries, say for example, Ghana or the US. That spirit of renaissance was very much around in the sixties but then it started two or three decades before.
And of course the Alarinjo Theatre was one of the other unsung factors for the emergence of the literary tradition because there was that synergy between dramatists, performers, writers, painters, etc. Ibadan was also not far from Oshogbo,( another important place is the Cultural Centre at the time) and Ibadan was also the capital of the Western Region where all the firsts, in terms of buildings, in terms of institutions, etc were established. It was therefore then just the natural watering hole for writers, for dancers, for other artists, including painters and so on
This is a worthy legacy indeed and we may add: Obafemi Awolowo, the government of that era, the libraries and the Free Education programme, but it looks to me more recently that there does not seem to be that synergy anymore between the governance systems and the literary systems of the city and of the state.
I think it goes more than two decades back. You know, because I became a student here in the 1980s and that is now three decades or more and I didn’t feel that kind of synergy between the government of the day and the writing community. I mean we only just heard of it and we saw the evidence of that connection between the leadership of the Western House of Assembly and the Premiership and the writers.
I think it has to do with the charisma and visionary disposition of the leader of the day because once you do not have someone who prioritizes education, there is no way that literature can then really thrive, in terms of, I mean, getting patronage from government and now Nigeria is struggling under the weight of a very minute percentage of budgetary allocation to the educational sector.
It is said that the country is only contributing 8.43 per cent of its total budget to education and if we go down to the states, we also have to find out what percentage of the budget that each state is devoting to education. But in the 1950s and 60s, in the time of Obafemi Awolowo, the story had it that the man was contributing well above the 26 percent that was suggested by UNESCO. He was contributing 32 per cent to education.
Something of about one-third of the budget was going to education under his leadership because he believed that education is a key entrance to development because once you educate the mind all other things would follow. He was even reputed to have said that if he had his way, he would devote 50 percent of the total budget of the Western region to the sector!
Now our country is giving 8.43 percent of its budgeted resources to education whereas a country like Ghana is giving 31 percent and South Africa is giving 26 per cent and the end result is that, very shamefully, our students, not just in the universities, but now at the secondary school level, are migrating to South Africa and Ghana! And when you don’t have a concentration of young blood around the city and they are all scattered abroad by their rich parents or even those who are just struggling to get money for them to get to all of these places, there cannot be a well developed youth culture back home. And it is the youth culture that encourages a very robust literary culture!
Very interesting perspective; can we take it on now to the issue of libraries. Going around our cities, we find that unlike in the past where we had provincial and local government libraries, today, libraries almost do not exist, or where they do, there are no books
Are there really things like provincial libraries again? Maybe there are state libraries. You see when I was growing up, we had one very close to the Mapo Hall here in Ibadan and it was run by the Ibadan City Council. And it had all the books, even hardback texts, to the extent that some of us used to go the library frequently. We would borrow books and would return them and indeed the loss rate was very minimal.
At a time, we even created a Mapo Library Readers Association and I happened to be the Secretary. At the time we were doing this, I didn’t know that I would one day be in line as a voice for literacy, reading and so on. But we were doing it only because we wanted to pass and pass very well. Indeed, going to Dugbe where the library was located from my South East end of Ibadan was like going to Lagos – where you have skyscrapers and choice vehicles and all that. So we grew up in an environment where you could stay put within your locality and there was a library near you. I really don’t know what has happened to our psyche about intellectualism.
And by this I do not mean going to the University and getting a degree but simple, basic intellectualism. Just to learn, just to know which essentially is what reading is all about. The prov
erb says ‘reading maketh a man.’ If you do not read, how can you know and then go on to achieve, properly speaking? It is really sad.
In the midst of all of these we have also had some positives. For example we have the Association of Nigerian Authors which you preside over currently. Founded since 1981, it has survived and this is despite this overhanging despondency. What has ANA done right?
Well, over time ANA has survived and the survival came with a lot of sacrifice, a lot of struggle and I would still say that like a bird flying with one wing, we have still not pushed the deepest potential that writing could do for us in terms of its contributions to national development.
One area in this regard is in the membership spread. Myself included and indeed most people who are ANA members today would either be university graduates or those who are about to get into the university. It is still some kind of pseudo-elitist association in spite of the fact that it is the biggest writer’s body in all of Africa. But what we are trying to do now is to break that myth, and it has been done in the past, by going a little down the ladder, I mean to secondary schools, and maybe someday we will start from primary schools, and that is to teach people the importance of reading and the dignity of self-expression.
And of course there are years that it has been done and you have school’s outreach and different organizations do their own bit. In the past two years for example we have been lucky to get a grant from an individual, a Nigerian who is really supportive of ANA, and with that we have been able to get to an average of 150 secondary schools in all of the federation per year. But that is still a pilot project.
And here indeed is the other problem: that we seem to be running pilot projects year after year! I am hoping that someday there would be well established residencies that will be able to support writers who are willing to go to say, twenty secondary schools within a term and not worry about how to survive.
There is the Ebedi Residency not too far from here. We also have in this month of November quite a number of Book events. There is one in Enugu, the CORA Festival in Lagos, and the Ake event in Abeokuta and of course, the Annual ANA Convention. Could all of these events not have been better spaced?
Yes, you are right. For example, ANA is finishing on the 10th, then by the 12th there is the Mu’azu Babaginda Aliyu International Literary Festival in Minna, Niger State and you only have one night of rest before you get to the next event. You see, it is a reflection of how things are today. We are seeing here the indomitable spirit of the Nigerian, whether in sports, industry and even literary culture.