Not many parents give their children opportunity to be what they want to become. A lot meddle in the career of their children; some meddle to the point of imposition, with the result that frustration often becomes the lot of such children. But not so with the 2012 winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature, Chika Unigwe, who won with On Black Sisters’ Street. It’s a work that deals with the obnoxious sex trade as seen from the perspectives of African women trafficked to Europe for prostitution purposes.
At the public presentation on Tuesday at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, where she studied English, Unigwe gave validity to young people being given a choice to make intelligent career choices. Unigwe’s choice of study of English has paid off with US$100,000 firmly in her pocket, as the proud winner of Africa’s biggest literary prize.
In her submission, Unigwe told the gathering of academics, politicians, students and industry captain audience gathered to honour her, “One year, I must have been about 10, I told my father I wanted to write a book. As far as I was concerned, writing a book meant typing out all the stories and poems I had collected in my journal myself. He did not laugh at me. He went and sourced a typewriter for me, and it is only in hindsight that I appreciate the lengths to which he went to get that machine….
“I remember my parents’ praise of my handwork. They were my first audience, they nurtured my belief. They gave me the gift of faith. They gave me permission to dream. They led me on the road to discovering the magic of words and claiming them as mine. For this and for so much more, I am grateful!”
Unigwe further gave insight to believing in self as first condition to success, saying, “Winning this prize has taught me that wishes come true. That sometimes when we speak our wishes into the world, they become real”.
Regrettably Unigwe is not happy that the quality of education Nigeria now offers her young ones is far from standard, far from what she got while growing up. This lament she put in the form of appeal to authorities to do something urgent to redress in practical terms, especially as quality education is a gateway for opportunities that take young people’s minds from wanting to go into prostitution like characters in her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.
As she noted, “… In the years to come quality education for every Nigerian child should be a reality. That each school is equipped with a functional library; that many more of our young women do not end up like the women of On Black Sisters’ Street, forced by lack of opportunities to spend years indebted to pimps, servicing the sex industry often under very precarious conditions”.
Managing Director of sponsor of the prize, LNG, Mr. Babs Omotowa, praised Unigwe for winning the prize, saying her victory has earned a deserved place in Nigerian and African literary space. He said Unigwe has joined the growing list of laureates such as Gabriel Okara, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Ahmed Yerima, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo,Mabel Segun, Kaine Agary, Esiaba Irobi and Adeyemi Adleke (Mai Nasara). Omotowa further said Nigeria needed to fall back on her writers and thinkers so as to lift itself from the morass it found itself today.
He also noted, “The prize helps to gradually build a crop of distinguished individuals in whom our young ones can look up to. it provides the intellectual occupation with the respect, dignity, even reverence, that it should have. In this regard, many are convinced that it is the preponderance of thinking citizens that will bring us to that lofty place where people can ask burning questions of their leaders and demand urgent answers because they are informed.
“Literacy and numeracy skills are the bedrock of progress and prosperity in the modern world. The skill of writing helps create a context in which other people can think… Because of the deep morass Nigeria is in we cannot possibly get enough of innovative thinkers, writers, philosophers, men and women who expand the frontiers of knowledge by the sheer depth and range of the questions and issues that raise. They may not, and indeed do not always, proffer the solutions, but the questions they raise by their reflections on life, force us to think a little deeper and point us in the directions where we may not necessarily have looked.”
On his part, Anambra State governor Mr. Peter Obi restated the need for Nigeria to celebrate her intellectual stars in all fields of human endeavours so as to make the country proud. He said rather than the lunatics that continue to bring the nation shame that deserve to be placed in asylum, Nigerian stars in the field of literature, science and other ennobling areas should be singled out and celebrated for the greater glory of the country and for others to emulate.
Obi said celebrating Unigwe’s win amounted to celebrating the unique process of excellence that the country badly desired but which has long eluded her as a nation, but which path she must return at once if the country was to achieve any meaningful development in the foreseeable future. According to Obi, “We are here to celebrate a process we desire for our country. Chika is that destination we wish for this country. I’ve told Chika, we’ll work with her to bring about many Chikas. People like Chika are not known or celebrated today in Nigeria. Today we celebrate rascality in Nigeria.
“But we’re looking for people to celebrate. We need to start celebrating the Chikas of this country. We need to start celebrating our stars. We must get the lunatics to the asylum”.
Obi also praised the foremost gas company for establishing the literature and science prizes and called them beacons for what Nigeria should aspire to be. He commended Unigwe for also writing a book that has documented things that could change lives for the better.
The Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academics Prof Isaac Asuzu, who represented the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Bartho N. Okolo expressed how pleased he was “to celebrate success, to celebrate achievement, to celebrate art, to celebrate Chika Unigwe. Success necessarily has many friends. And so, we are gathered here today as friends of success. But success also has the capacity to inspire. Without a doubt, many of our students, particularly the female students, have every reason to be inspired today. Hard work pays. Hard work and excellence are not the exclusive preserve of one gender only… If Chika Unigwe had believed that this is a man’s world and that her say or her effort would not matter, she wouldn’t have been here today as the winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature for 2012”.
MANY other individuals spoke glowingly of Unigwe’s win and for the support and leverage the gas company LNG has provided literary art and sued for more such support.Chairman, Advisory Board for the prize, Professor Emeritus Ayo Banjo the theme of Unigwe’s novel has great social relevance, with a superb narrative technique and rich trove of English language. He also said the choice of Nsukka to honour Unigwe was deliberate as one of the runners-up, Ngozi Achebe is also alumnus of University of Nigeria like Unigwe. He expressed gratitude to LNG for the nation of this honour in promoting a process that would spur the desire to create, innovate on writing and creativity in literature and science.
Former Minister of Power, Prof. Barth Nnaji also praised Unigwe and the gas company for doing Nigeria proud by supporting science and literature as ways of developing the human capital. Head of English Department, Prof. Nicholas Akwanya said Unigwe was a strong person, saying it wasn’t easy to live in another country and see one’s countrywomen being traded in sex and not feel ashamed. But that Unigwe rose above that sentiment and wrote about it in an admirable way that has earned her accolades.
Akwanya restated a need for the restructuring of the nation’s education in giving equal value to all disciplines rather than paying attention to science and technology only because development was a multifaceted process. He praised LNG for recognising that the arts were important and also deserved attention through support such the prize. He advocated the setting up of a Centre for Creative Writing in Nsukka, saying it wasn’t what a department alone could do. He urged LNG to help the setting up of such centre.
Unigwe’s father, 83, Ochaagha Fred Unigwe, who said how proud he was, thanked LNG for honouring her daughter; her husband for allowing her to write. He made Chika out as a gift to the world. Ungwe’s husband, Jan Vandenhoudt, a Belgian, was full of gratitude for the honour done his wife, and how he met her in Nsukka campus and fell in love.
Ezigbo and Nollywood actor Joke Silver also spoke of glowingly of Unigwe. As UN Ambassador for Trafficking in Persons, Silver expressed gratitude for Unigwe’s novel in helping to advance her work and hinted the possibility of making it into a film.
Omotowa made a gift of Unigwe’s book to 36 secondary school students of the university in attendance and another 14 for the school library.