By Anote Ajeluorou
Distinguished Professor of English at New Orleans University, U.S. and award-winning poet Prof. Niyi Osundare was the toast on Sunday in Ibadan, when the chairman of University Press Plc and Kakanfo Inn, Dr. Lalekan Are and his wife held a special luncheon in his honour for being the winner of Nigeria National Merit Award (NNMA) 2014. Many distinguished academics and writers turned out in large numbers to celebrate Osundare’s excellence as a writer and public commentator.
Among those present were two Emeritus professors and Osundare’s teachers Ayo Banjo and Ayo Bamgbose (Bamgbose also being a former winner of the academic award), Ambassador Olusola Shanu, Profs. Dan Izevbaye, Labode Poopola, Agboola Adesonoye, Segun Ojewuyi, Dr. Kunbi Olasope, Kolade Mosuro, Tade Ipadeola, Joop Berkhout, Ropo Iwenla, Femi Morgan and many others. The event was held at Kakanfo Inn.
As always, just as the accolades came fast for Osundare so too were the lamentations for a country that once flourished and its universities that were once the pride of the African continent that attracted scholars and seasoned teachers from all over the world. Osundare likened what has happened to his country to the current political situation in his Ekiti State since the emergence of the enfant terrible, Mr. Segun Fayose.
“Ekiti of those days used to be the one of mental infrastructure,” Osundare said. “Today, it’s one of ‘stomach infrastructure’”.
But first he commended the organiser of the luncheon in his honour, Are whom he said “does things in almost non-Nigerian ways; it was how the colonial period was, very efficient. One woman sat in England and ruled half of the world with such mental accuracy. I wish Nigeria is being administered the way Kakanfo Inn is being managed. This is a celebration of excellence, which Are is. He has an agile mind and tells you how it is – forthright!”
Osundare then recalled his days a student at University of Ibadan, with his teachers and the drilling they went through in their hands for them to come out excelling in life, their austere, cerebral lifestyle and how they dreamed of modeling their own lives after them.
According to Osundare, “No week passes without us writing essays for Izevbaye and Banjo. It’s not so anymore. I’m so happy they are still alive today. They are my inspiration. I was in Banjo’s class on Stylistics; it was my foundation. I told myself I would study Stylistics further. There’s no way I could fail to pass on to the kind of virtues and benediction I got from banjo and Bamgbose; they never came to class late. They taught me the grammar of values. Our country, our universities once knew better times.
“We will need to go back and see what went wrong with our universities, our country. Our students are not really bad; it’s the system that cheats our students. Nigeria helped me; I believe in the Nigeria, Yoruba I grew up. I don’t know if I’d grown up in Nigeria today whether I would have achieved the little I’ve done. Integrity and hard work were the values that were preached to us in our days. I consider myself a lucky man, an absolutely lucky man. The achievement is not mine alone to share”.
EARLIER, Are said Osudare’s winning the NNMA award was on merit strictly based on his scholarship and devoid of any political leaning or geographical spread. According to the onetime academic turned businessman, “Nigeria is yet to have 70 people being conferred with the honour. It’s on merit and not geographical spread and not political. It’s our equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Only Osundare won it last year. The assessors are people of integrity. It’s for the works you have done that speaks for you”.
Banjo, who chaired the event also said, “Ibadan is the intellectual capital of Nigeria. I’ve watched Osundare’s progress since he entered University of Ibadan. He became a budding writer and afterwards to a celebrity. We’re here because Nigeria has made a claim to him. Osundare is unique among our writers. He has written some enchanting love poems; his nature poems are authentic and charming.
“He’s written a lot of satire on his country, Nigeria. He has a habit of producing thunderous essays about Nigeria; he has a voice that is distinctive among his peers. He doesn’t follow literary fashion. His is distinctive poetry that is accessible. He’s firmly of the Nigerian soil and has gone abroad to do exploits. He has won a lot of awards, but this one is the icing on eh cake. It’s not tainted with all types of trivialities. If government had any hand in it Osundare would probably not have won it given that he does not spare them. He’s a charming person and he’s very respectful. He listened to my lectures at a time; now I have to study him. That’s the joy of being a teacher. We’re waiting for the Nobel Prize from him!”
Amb. Shanu said he sneaked from his sick bed just to see Osundare whose reputation he said preceded him. Also, the fact that Osundare has been to Harvard University, a university he attended some 62 years ago, “and the trail of being a back man; I pray Osundare continues to be our hero”.
Another of his former teacher, Bamgbose also commended Are for his knack for celebrating achievers that are not tainted with the rot that Nigeria has become known in recent times. As he put it, “There’s something beautiful about what Are is doing. He never left his roots – academics. He derives joy in seeing the progress of those in academia. Osundare was my student at UI; he went on to distinguish himself.
“Poetry is a genre many students are afraid of. When it comes to poetry, many students are scared. What you interpret may mean something different from intended meaning. But Osundare has made poetry something reachable, something interesting. He sees poetry like performance. Added to that is that Osundare is rooted in his culture. He defers to us his teachers. It makes us proud and we are proud of you.
“We ought to commend Osundare for being able to speak truth to power, as Americans say. That’s because he’s not looking for appointment; he’s not that kind of person”.
Poopola praised Osundare’s humour and how he has coined ‘unarrestibility from ‘impunity plus immunity’, twin evils that make nonsense of the rule of law and a sane society.
Adesonoye said he and Osudnare are advocates clean English and shared the same views on the new generation of poets who turn bland and badly written prose into poetry and lament their inability to win prizes as a result. “To be a good poet,” he said, “you ought to have mastered good English prose. Poetry is prose distilled into refined lines. Most poets just break bad prose into lines. Osundare and I have a passion for clean English.”