Sometime in 2006, the celebrated Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun applied for a visa to travel to Britain. The British consulate in Lagos rejected the application. The insult was compounded by a consulate official who wrote on the application: “He claims to be a writer.”
Ofeimun is a poet, dramatist, polemicist, public intellectual and iconoclast all rolled into one. Everyone knows him, except the good folks at the British consulate. He lives in Lagos in a spacious bungalow whose living room is stacked with piles of newspapers and magazines.
When I visited, there was a flat-screen TV at a corner showing an English Premier League match but with the sound muted. His private library is in another room where he fetched for me a couple of complimentary copies of his collected essays and poems.
He has inquisitive eyes that tend to be constantly animated, with a graying goatee beard and a face that can shift expression from mock anger to uproarious laughter at a moment’s notice.
Wearing a lame-green traditional Yoruba tunic and simple sandals, he pots around the spacious living room as he talks, occasionally halting dramatically when some idea excites him.
Don’t come expecting to meet the typical shy Man of Letters, or to have a give-and-take discussion with Ofeimun. Come ready for a monologue on all manner of things — the state of the arts in Nigeria, or the exhilaration of living in Lagos despite its traffic jams. Above all, he will talk of the politics of his country. Without exception, he believes all of Nigeria’s successive governments have been nothing but organised gangs of thieves.
Born in 1950 in the Edo State of western Nigeria, Ofeimun is not exactly a young writer. However, he is often associated with Nigeria’s up-and-comers, owing to the fact that he has always lived under the shadow of one of the giants of Nigerian literature, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
It was Soyinka who “discovered” him many years ago at the University of Ibadan by spotting his talent for poetry and using one of his poems in an early anthology. He has remained a protégé of Soyinka’s ever since.
Ofeimun’s most famous poetry collection, The Poet Lied, positioned him as one of the strong but controversial voices in modern Nigerian literature. The anthology didn’t endear him much to fellow Nigerian writers, given the withering criticism of the “platitudinous” attitudes he laid on their doorstep.
For years, Ofeimun was a columnist with the Guardian newspaper besides sitting on the paper’s editorial board. Along the way he has worked as a factory labourer, a news reporter, a teacher and a civil servant.
He cut his political teeth as a Private Secretary to Western Nigeria’s pre-eminent politician, the late Obafemi Awolowo. When he was fired, one Olusegun Obasanjo tried to make some political capital of the situation by taking a dig at Awolowo (he never liked him), earning a predictable tirade in print from Ofeimun.
Apart from a stint in London as an Oxford fellow and working with Adzido, the leading African dance ensemble in Britain, Ofeimun has opted to keep his feet at home in Nigeria. This is in contrast to most of Nigeria’s established writers, who prefer to live and work abroad (like Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the doyen of African writing, Chinua Achebe).
Ofeimun does not see exile as of any particular seminal influence or consequence, unless “it affects the writing negatively”. This is because, he points out, “Nigerian writers abroad still live in their societies in their writing and creativity. They remain very parochial, very Nigeria-centric.”
He goes on: “Many want to live abroad because that is where their careers have bloomed. You must also keep in mind that publishing opportunities are easier there, plus the quality of agents, of editing and so on.”
Temperamentally, Ofeimun can’t resist taking a swipe at the “exiles”, some of who he accuses of faking persecution in Nigeria to win asylum overseas. But one author he categorically exempts from the faking-of-persecution charge is Chris Abani (Masters of the Board). He was jailed repeatedly until he fled Nigeria in 1991. He now lives in the United States.
Ofeimun’s contemporary service to Nigeria is not confined to the role of being a turbo-charged public critic. His main activity is channelled through an outfit of his called Hornbill House of Culture. There are two aspects to Hornbill. One is a publishing venture which pushes out many of his books. The other is a dance-drama troupe that showcases riveting public performances.
Its first production was Feast of Return, a dance-drama that traces the history of South Africa’s struggles against apartheid.
The second dance-drama is titled Nigeria, the Beautiful, spanning the history of Nigeria from colonisation to the present. It takes an uplifting look at the mother country sharply at variance with the cynicism or despair that most commentators consider more fashionable.
The last and most recent one is the most ambitious. It is called Itoya: A Dance for Africa, and tells the story of Africa from the trans-Saharan slave trade to the African Union.
Ofeimun performs mostly to commissions. He uses his many contacts in public and private organisations who invite the Hornbill troupes whenever there are major events. But he also performs in schools and universities — and sometimes to the public, free of charge.
“Basically, our programme is part of a nation-wide campaign to give stage drama the gravity and respect due to a cultural form that envisages bringing people together for self-empowerment and enterprise,” he explains. “Our aim is to spread a message of hope, believing that theatre can be used to promote development and to effect grand cultural renovations across the country.”
Ofeimun’s visa incident at the British consulate has been a subject of much mirth in Nigerian artistic circles. “He c-l-a-i-m-s to be a writer…..” laughs poet’s friend Wumi Raji, who teaches at Ibadan University.
Commenting on the incident in 2006, another Nigerian writer, Adefayi Martins, recalled an incident where acclaimed Irish author Oscar Wilde sailed to the USA and was asked by a customs officer if he had anything to declare. “Nothing except my genius,” answered the famous wit. He was allowed in.
Martins’ article in the local press had a salutary result. As if out of the blue, the British consulate called Ofeimun back and gave him a multiple entry visa, valid for 10 years.
— Additional reporting by Funke Osae-Brown