‘Festivals are cultural central banks of a country’s knowledge industry’
By Anote Ajeluorou
IT was not sheer coincidence that the Nigerian Oral Literature Association (NOLA) decided to hold its 3rd international annual conference in Benin City last week. The association had an eye to the working of history. Its choice of theme was also instructive: ‘The Arts and Literatures in Festivals’. Nigeria is still basking in the celebration of 100 years of its existence since 1914. 17 years earlier in 1897, the British overlords had razed the famous Benin Empire to the ground and visited all manner of barbarism on a civilization that had stood in all glory for 1000 years.
For these oral and folklore experts, modern, expressive arts and literature owe much to that vanished and vanquished past and civilization for which they are at vanguard to safeguard and preserve as much as possible. In his opening address, association president and professor of Oral Literature and Folklore, Delta State University, Abraka, Prof. Godini G. Darah, called the conference “a festival of remembrances, nostalgia and scholarship” while maintaining, “It is also apt that Benin City is the host for it was the invasion of the ancient city on February 17, 1897 that triggered the political and military actions culminating in the amalgamation in 1914, 17 years later. As historians have shown, the destruction of Benin City and the fall of the 1000-year old Benin Kingdom epitomized the conquest of Nigeria by the British imperialists”.
For Darah and others participants, the moment of remembrances and nostalgia had started, as they went on to establish the centrality of festivals in the life of Africans as they permeated every facet of communal existence. “Festivals constitute one of the most ancient cultural institutions in human history,” Darah stated. “By whatever name they are called – carnivals, celebrations, durbars, ritual events, memorabilia, or spectacles – festivals are the repositories of a people’s cultural heritage over the ages. Festivals mark moments of triumphs, travails, achievements, rites of passage, convocation of achievers and warriors guilds, agricultural, fishing, hunting expeditions, adventure, inventions, reflections, and projections of future aspirations.
“Festivals designate seasons when groups congregate to express and exalt themselves in prayer, sacrifice, song, music, dance, drama, comedy, laughing, masquerade, costume, ritual cleansing, feasting, sharing, stocking taking and planning for security and harmonious co-existence. The festival is where all the philosophies, religions, worldviews, ideologies, art forms, sciences, technologies, and organizational skills converge. The festival is an economy of its own. As African descendants in Jamaica and other Caribbean nations have demonstrated, cultural festivals are a treasure base of national economies.”
Describing it as “a veritable dynamo of festivals and festivities”, Darah called Nigeria world festival destination with its abundant tourism potentials yet to be tapped and properly harnessed for their economic benefits. He, however, said this year’s conference of Nigeria Oral Literature Association was conveyed to set things right, as it “seeks to stimulate academic and investment interest in the creative, artistic and literary aspects of festivals”. He also hoped the conference would reconnect well with the “imperatives of the Cultural Policy of Nigeria (1988)” that enjoins state governments to use festivals as means of communal interaction and cohesion of local communities and larger national interests.
BUT it was not all smooth-sailing though from the folklore expert, who is also a Marxist and social critic. He took government to task for the recently rebased economy, saying that in spite of the contributions of the culture sector, it didn’t seem to feature in such rebasing as only the polluting, extractive mineral resources were considered. As he put it, “Yet culture and its multiple industries, crafts, arts, fashions, food, consumables, and spiritual resources of joy, entertainment and peace are more valuable to the economy than pollution-generating and perishable endowments like oil, gas and solid minerals”.
Also a member of the just-concluded National Conference, Darah took a swipe at government that set out to negotiate the future of the country for failing to include culture and education on the agenda. For the literature teacher, nothing could be more criminally appalling! According to him, “It’s also regrettable that of the 20 Committees established by the 2014 National Conference, none was dedicated to culture or education this official neglect and contempt for culture and its creators and transmitters reflect the poverty of philosophy among the Nigeria ruling elite, a poverty of ideological orientation so pervasive that over 90 per cent of the basic needs of the citizenry, including food and clothing, is imported from foreign lands”.
Further, Darah hoped that the conference would serve to open more opportunities in tertiary institutions for academic programmes in oral literature, folklore, performance arts, entertainment arts, leisure and tourism and travelogue to be brought into mainstream scholarships and socio-economic planning for development. As he put it, “Festivals are cultural central banks of a country’s knowledge industry that must be explored for the rebasing of the Nigerian economy and the redemption of Africa from foreign domination and exploitation”.
IN his keynote, theatre scholar, playwright and teacher, Prof. Olu Obafemi stated that it was wrong to presume all sources of scholarship emanated from the west or Europe, especially the emergence of theatre practice. He argued that contrary to rather than look to the west as source of modern theatre in Africa and Nigeria, it would be instructive to look at local festivals as the real origin. He’d earlier stated in his book Contemporary Nigerian Theatre that the ‘dominant influence on the written and performed arts in Africa in the traditional festival and other verbal and performed arts, even though this is most obvious in drama and theatre’.
He said the three constituent parts of oral performance – oral literature (poetry and folktales), music and dance – were all inter-related and reassembled in performance in festival format. He traced the theatre traditions of North Africa and Africa South of the Sahara and argued that both theatres owe their existence to pre-Islamic and pre-Christian origins and that there had been evidences of their performative origins long before the arrivals of these foreign religions deeply rooted festivals native to the peoples of these regions.
To foreground his views, he used the theatres of four of Nigeria’s masters of the craft – JP Clark, Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Zulu Sofola – as exemplars, saying the theatres of these playwrights owe their sources of inspiration to their traditional roots – Ijaw and Yoruba respectively. As he put it in Osofisan’s theatre, “The traditional elements of oral performance of myth, folktale and magic are deployed in Osofisan’d drama to achieve a dialectic, revolutionary end… Orunmila, the god of divination and fore-knowledge, Esu, the trickster god and Sango, the god of thunder – all provide the cultural provenance and repository for his radical vision and politics”.
IN addressing the issues raised in the keynote, Darah said it was time African scholars took back what had been stolen from Africa by Europe. He said the rape of Africa knowledge system happened in Egypt during its invasion by Alexander the Great of ancient Greece, who took along with him Aristotle. After defeating Egypt, Aristotle and his pupils stayed back 18 years to steal and copy all the books in the Egyptian library and have them credited to him, otherwise how is it possible that one man alone has knowledge in all fields, he queried. He thundered, “Aristotle is a thief and kidnapper of African ideas from Alexandra city!”
He, therefore, tasked African theatre scholars and departments, that still aped Aristotle to throw off such yoke as the man was a common thief; but praised literature departments for having evolved Afrocentric paradigms of evaluation literary discourses.
But literary scholar and teacher, Prof. Tony Afejuku of English Department, University of Benin, Benin City, while not disputing Darah on his claims about Aristotle and western scholarship on appropriating Africa’s theoretical frameworks for themselves, wondered what such dire development meant for African scholarship. Indeed, Afejuku sought to know what was wrong with Africans for allowing Europe claim what was theirs to advance their civilization while the owners failed to do same with their own civilization!
Awodiya was unhappy that the conference was not a full house.