Fahamu (Oxford)

15 August 2013

Nigeria: Biko Agozino's 'Today Na Today'

opinion

In his new collection of poems in pidgin English, Agozino invests efforts in eschewing the haughtiness, detachment and pretensions of the ivory tower language in order to better address issues the way they are in Nigeria

When he thought of the book, Agozino clearly set out to write for the ordinary, everyday Nigerian. Shunning class and daring the "global" publishing industry with its demand for an elusive global language, Agozino writes in pidgin or broken English, the street language of tens of millions of Nigerians.

In an era when several African writers place their fingers on the keyboard with eyes set on the Caine prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and other awards that prize impeccable English above reality, in 'Today na Today' Agozino looks the other way and awards himself with the prize of the hearts of the Nigerian, and by extension the African, masses.

In the book, many will, perhaps for the first time come in contact with a collection of poems that could be read with a microphone and loud speaker at a commercial motor park in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Warri or Abuja.

The reading will be immediately understood and thoroughly appreciated by the mass of travelers, commercial bus drivers, conductors, food and fruit hawkers and the security personnel attached to guard the parks. What better way to capture and communicate a people's experiences than with the language in which the experiences are lived and played out?

The collection is a photocopy of the prevailing climate in Nigeria. A poem like "Na Wetin," captures the very essence of all that is wrong with Nigeria today.

For the frustrated man on the street, "na ogogoro dey clear eye"; For the police man "na kolanut dey clear eye"; For the soldier "na bullet dey give power" (policemen should now be included in this category, with the rate of extra-judicial killings that have become a daily occurrence in the country); For the "politrickshan" na "Cash for hand. Ballot for box"; For the Professor, "na handout dey give knowledge." How come Agozino forgot to add that for the male student "na money for mark" and for the female student "na body for mark?" In "Black for Black," Agozino describes what could be reality for several Nigerians resident in geographical terrains claimed by lighter skinned homo sapiens - racism.

It also explores issues of black on black violence, as manifest in the Marikana killings in South Africa. Several of the poems demand much more than a hurried reading if the depth of their essence is to be absorbed.

There is a strong inclination to classify some poems in 'Today na Today' as historical narratives. A poem such as "Too Much General" appears to fit aptly within the period of military rule in Nigeria. But one hesitates to come out too categorically in historicizing this masterpiece, for several reasons.

First, history is often known to repeat itself; one does not wish this for Nigeria and hopes that in reading "Too Much General" the grim realities it portrays would act as a fan upon the embers of every Nigerian's heart to resist a return to such era. Second, it may be the height of oversimplification to read "Too Much General" only from the perspective of a Nigeria under military rule.

Yes, army generals may have reduced in Nigeria, but in reality, more "politrickshans" have taken their place and acting even worse than the military generals did.

What needs to be demystified, however, is Agozino's ability to transform into a contemporary, everyday Nigerian despite his years of living as an accomplished professional in Europe and the Americas.

In several instances, when diasporean Nigerians who thrive in their various fields try to contribute to national development, signs of not being aware of the intricacies of unfolding realities in the nation's social, political and economic spheres often seep through. Judging by the current slangs and authentic street language employed in 'Today na Today' could lead to suspicious thoughts that the professor of criminology, with several years of unblemished academic record, had either rented a ghost writer or given in to the temptations of plagiarism, in a desperate attempt to portray the most up-to-date Nigerian reality.

However, a more than cursory glance at the words pulled together to form the lines in 'Today and Today' would immediately reveal the imprint of Agozino's intellectual expressions. In the deep, but seemingly causal, street-wise lines are messages that can be found in Agozino's more serious academic works.

The philosophy that underlies his research interests and which can be easily gleaned from much of his writings are evident throughout the poetry collection. It then becomes clear that the poet did not plagiarize the written words of an unidentified Nigerian. Nor did he exchange some dollars for words from an anonymous, more well- informed resident Nigerian.

In writing 'Today na Today', Biko Agozino simply invested efforts into eschewing the haughtiness, detachment and pretensions of the ivory tower language in order to better address issues the way they are. Agozino decided to look at the situation in Nigeria from the double points of view of a deep, well-learned and thoughtful mind and that of an everyday Nigerian; a combination that should be natural, but which is scarce commodity.

But one ponders: did it take the passing on of the great legend Professor Chinua Achebe for Agozino to release his collection of essays written in pidgin English? Agozino is himself a great admirer of the works of Achebe. Achebe, in his lifetime, vigorously defended his preferred language of writing which is English language, sprinkled with "Englishes" and generously accessorized with one's own language, in his instance, Igbo.

Agozino's work, it appears, would please Achebe's opposing camp , led by Ngugi Wa Thiongo who has since written only in Gikuyu and graciously granted his majority non-Gikuyu speakers some form of translation in English language. Pidgin is a language owned by and developed in Nigeria.

In one or two places, however, Agozino falls short of or outrightly betrays the language he set out to use in conveying his message. Either for the benefit of the unfamiliar, or due to his limited familiarity with the language, Professor Agozino here and there, throughout the poetry collection, infuses, or rather dilutes pidgin with the queen's English both in syntax and spelling.

Take for instance the line under the poem "Na Wetin" (page 29) "It no be promise them go chop" one would have expected to read "no be to dey promise dem chop".

In the next poem "To be Human," Agozino opens as if unsure of whether to write in the language of the country where he earned his Masters and Ph.D. degrees or in pidgin; "Some human beings no be human; Some human beings na just rats." But for the substitution of "are" with "na," one would have thought those opening lines were written by some English professor at Cambridge University.

In all, 'Today na Today' without being a hurting read, is a powerful evocation of how much it hurts to be Nigerian. Reading through the collection would have been sheer delight, if only the mind can be shut to the pictures that vividly emerge through the lines. The playful seriousness of the lines provoke an anticipatory mood; ending one poem with a shake of the head, a smile or laughter, the next poem is jumped into, without a break.

Agozino is an accomplished poet, although this has been overshadowed by his gargantuan academic works. It is hoped that without losing steam in his academic commitments, Professor Biko Agozino will, with the publication of 'Today Na Today', henceforth, give more attention to his poetic inclinations.

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