10 August 2009

Nigeria: Otiono - Celebrating a Cultural Ambassador

The role of intellectuals in nation building cannot be over emphasised. It has often been argued, that if the Nigerian nation can explore a fragment of its intellectual deposit, it will be ranked on top of global records in terms of peace and development.

A particular Nigerian writer who has distinguished himself with his prolific skill but appears to be on reserve bench as an activist until probably recently, is the Delta-born poet, author and editor, Nduka Otiono. He emerged as the first guest writer of the newly founded Delta Literary Forum, inaugurated on Thursday July 30. It is apt to say, therefore, that with the combination of Delta-born intellectuals and literary icons like Professor Tanure Ojaide, Isidore Okpewho, the latest winner of Caine Prize, E.C. Osondu and Nduka Otiono, recently described as "cultural ambassadors" by foremost Nollywood star and Delta State Commissioner for Tourism and Culture, Richard Mofe-Damijo, the Niger Delta region has a lot to celebrate. Therefore, with the establishment of Delta Literary Forum (DLF), a new literary association, believed to have been formed according to its chieftains, "with the objective of opening up the literary space in Delta State, enhancing the advancement of literacy and the literary culture and giving literature and the literati a visible place as important stakeholders in the cultural and democratic development of the state," the great brains of the state, scattered home and abroad, can be raked to develop the state and prove to the world that intellectualism is the bedrock of political stability and good governance. Those who attended the DLF event expressed their satisfaction at the grand comment of the big masquerade of the ceremony, Nduka Otiono as it affected the community. He lamented the unfortunate claims that the people in Niger Delta region, his home place, are presently caught in a vortex of youth restiveness and militant activities and enjoined writers to ensure that literature and the literati are celebrated as a way of representing the Niger Delta in better light.

Otiono observed that Oma Djebah and Mofe-Damijo in government have critically bridged the gap of the metaphoric "We and Them" mindset that existed between people who hold political offices and those regarded as intellectual elite, especially, the literati.

He also appraised the appointment of Paul Odili and Dr. Hope Eghagha by Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan as recognition of the breaking down of such "we and them" boundaries and barriers and enjoined governments to involve more literary people in their cabinets in future. This claim, seemed to strike with the countenance of the members of the literati at the event. He described Nigerian writers especially those of Delta State as arrowheads in the "efforts to re-brand Delta State and the Niger Delta region through information dissemination, culture and tourism."

There is no doubt that the event would bring a radical change to the political history of the state going by the response of the commissioner for tourism and culture, Richard Mofe-Damijo, who incidentally, was a colleague of Otiono at the **Classique** magazine.

The commissioner noted that writers and indeed the entire arts community, especially those who have found themselves in the ambassadorial role, were in a unique position to help propagate the positive initiatives of progressive democratic administrations, while also positioning themselves at the same time to become key drivers in the formulation and implementation of policies as public office holders.

He advocated the need for more literary personae to be engaged in the administrative processes, not only to enable them achieve clearer understanding of how the wheels of government grind but indeed to offer governments the privilege of having alternative approaches to social development outside political solutions.

Delta State Commissioner for Information, Oma Djabah who spoke on the topic The Literati as Stakeholders in the Advancement of Democratic Culture in Delta State, stressed the relevance of the media as a crucial constituent of literature, considering its strategic place in the dissemination of information.

Djebah insisted that Art (Literature), very central to life, has meaningfully affected the democratic tradition in the country through purposeful discourse and agenda setting as envisioned by literary works of Arts, such as that of Nduka Otiono and other celebrated Deltans.

The commissioner also expressed the determination of the Delta State government to reposition the state electronic and print media organs, Delta Broadcasting Service (DBS) and The Pointer Newspapers to serve as boost in repositioning the literary comity in an articulate and intellectual regard as key stakeholders for social development in Delta State.

In the words of Paul Johnson, he said, "the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key factor in shaping the modern world...men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better."

Otiono has used his rare prowess to create a deep hole in the heart of those who appreciate creative writing and those who see poetry as a language of the wise.

He is currently FS Chia Scholar in the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Canada, and Fellow, William Joiner Centre for War and Social Consequences, University of Massachusetts, Boston. He was involved in writing politics as a former General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Flipping through the tens of his books as an author, the first he ever wrote was The Night Hides with a Knife, a collection of short stories that jointly won the maiden ANA/Spectrum Prize for fiction. His second book, Voices in the Rainbow, a collection of poems was runner up for the ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize.

His pen as an editor has flown in several magazines and newspapers. He is co-editor of We-Men: An Anthology of Men Writing on Women. He is also co-editor Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria (2006), and founding editor of The Post Express Literary Supplement (PELS), winner of Literary Column of the Year 1997 and the first ANA Merit Award winner in 1998. Before consulting as literary editor for NewAge, Otiono was on the editorial board of Thisday Newspapers.

His second collection of poems, Love in a Time of Nightmares, was published in 2008.

Regarded by literary critics as "an original and remarkable poet, essayist and short story writer," Otiono has been at the front seat in the mobilisation of literary cruise in Niger Delta. He is not only the founder of the Niger Delta Writers Network, but also the initiator of other literary bodies across the area. He is currently the publisher of Flashpoint Newspaper, the leading regional newspaper in Delta State. His recent work is Ashflakes, a collection of poems while working on an anthology of short stories titled: I Need a Wife and Other Stories.

Nduka Otiono has written pieces that have influenced his literary disciples in the past. In March 2005, an excerpt from one of his articles, Voice of Lagos, reflects the image of a lone ranger who wants liberation for his people through reading:

"Lagos is made up of people stranded in the city. They work here but cannot go home. Most people live in squalor and cannot imagine any other life. They get so used to the bustle. You would think that people so exposed to such chaos would want a less urban environment, but Lagosians can't stand other places. Nightlife is a shadow of what it used to be. When it is nightfall now people hurry back home. It has led to many more neighbourhood bars, especially when there are power failures. We have what appears to be an upsurge of activities. Every weekend there are festivals but there is an absence of publishing infrastructure."

From another angle, the writer perceives the stigma of vacuum in a paradise. In soliloquies, he felt disappointed about his world, which failed to deliver its exploits.

"I come from the generation that witnessed the complete waste of our resources like oil. Our life was marked by military dictatorship. One would have thought with the dawn of democracy there would be a revival in the arts. There is, but there is an overtone of hopelessness. There are a great number of cultural activities going on, but below the surface, there is a grim feeling of where we are going, a great disappointment in the ruling class. Against this background of cultural renaissance is despair. The writing today is about survival, about lots of people not having jobs, no safety nets, about the huge investments being made in children. The most positive news from Nigeria comes from the arts, being recognised across the world. The most negative images come from the business and political class. The painful thing is that the political class does not read. It has a very narrow worldview. Sadly, the intellectual class has simply fled. For a country that needs all of its brains, it is tragedy. The west absorbs our most distinguished intellectuals. Civil liberty groups are growing in confidence and stature. So what keeps me?"

Otiono, a widely travelled intellectual and associate researcher for the Chinua Achebe Foundation, has served as founding member, Advisory Board of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, Chairman, Publicity Committee of the Nigeria International Book Fair, and member, National Committee on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A fellow of the British Council Cambridge Seminar, Otiono has also been a grantee of the U.S. Department of State's International Visitor programme, the French Embassy in Nigeria, and Goethe Institut also in Nigeria.

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