BETWEEN PEN AND SWORD: NEW WRITERS AT CROSS-ROADS
'The pen is mightier than the sword', goes the age-long axiom by Edward Bulwer Lytton. Widely quoted the world over, it tends to underscore the superiority of intellectual acumen over physical prowess.
The pen is known to have been a very powerful tool for shaping the society. In the 1920s, for instance, African Americans used the pen as a weapon in the war against racial discrimination. Claude McKay's 'Dying in Vain' and Langston Hughes' 'Harlem' are just two examples of poems which demonstrate the power of the pen in shaping the society.
Like the Black Americans, writers in South Africa also used their pens to fight racism during the Apartheid era. Coming nearer home, Things Fall Apart was Chinua Achebe's attempt to use his pen to tell the African story and change the Whiteman's wrong perception of Africa and Africans. He also used A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah to criticise corruption in the corridors of power and military dictatorship in Africa. The literary icon tackled the major problems bedevilling Nigeria in his collection of essays, The Trouble with Nigeria.
Here in the Niger Delta region, Tanure Ojaide, Ebinyo Ogbowei, the late Ibiwari Ikiriko, among other Niger Delta poets, have devoted much of their poetry to tackling the Niger Delta, bemoaning the degradation of the environment, decrying the impoverishment of the people of the region and advocating better living conditions for them.
The story of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa is a familiar one. Here was a man, whose agitation for politico-economic emancipation of his people and detoxification of their environment resulted in his death in 1995, hanged by the Federal Government. The elimination of this poet, novelist and one-time national president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, appeared to have signalled the end of an era-the era of intellectual approach to the Niger Delta Struggle.
The younger generation of Niger Deltans saw what seemed as the powerlessness of the pen and the futility of the intellectual strand of the struggle and took to arms. This armed struggle was, however, bastardised as criminals cashed in on it and wreaked havoc on the society via hostage-taking: the criminals kidnap kids on their way to school and abduct the aged from their homes.
It would be recalled that the renowned author, Elechi Amadi, was abducted from his home in January 2009. Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Nimi Briggs, and the current Vice-Chancellor of RSUST, Port Harcourt, Prof B B Fakae, and a Catholic Priest, Rev. Fr Pius Kii, were at various times guests to hostage-takers. The list of victims of abduction in the state is endless.
Apparently at its wits end, the Federal Government decided to offer amnesty to the militants and the criminals alike. This implies that militancy is synonymous with criminality. The beneficiaries of the so-called amnesty, we are told, are to be rehabilitated, trained and given welfare packages and better living conditions. Whether the government has fulfilled these promises or not is beyond the scope of this essay.
Our concern here is Nigerian government's attitude to its citizens. The amnesty issue is reminiscent of the proverbial story of the Prodigal Son, who squandered his father's resources on prostitutes, returned home in penury and was given a rousing reception-his father threw a party in his honour. While the bad guy was treated to a feast on his return, the good guy gets nothing for being obedient, hard working, honest and disciplined.
Everyday in this country, I see the dreams of aspiring writers turn to nightmares and hear the voices of budding writers stifled by a hostile climate occasioned by bad governmental policies: our governments celebrate the violent acts of the gunmen and despise the creative arts of the penmen.
Everyday, I see my fellow writers struggling to survive-swimming against the tide of corruption, injustice, nepotism and poverty. Budding writers in the present-day Nigeria have no space to express themselves: few publishing outlets, little or no provision for grants, few literary competitions, little support from government, corporate bodies or the private sector and no encouragement at all from the society.
It may interest you to know that in the dictionary of the Nigerian government, 'skills' refer only to handicraft such as weaving, hairdressing, barbing, carpentry, and so on (as if the contemporary youth of this country have no aptitude to be professionals). Can't the youths of this generation become doctors, lawyers, broadcasters, journalists, novelists, professors etc? Can't the government provide enabling environment for its future leaders to actualise their dreams and realise their potentials? Have you ever asked yourselves why the best of Nigerian writers of this generation are all abroad? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hellon Habila, E C Osondu to mention but a few are all outside the shores of this country.
It always baffles me each time I hear people misquote a one-time president of the United States of America, John F Kennedy's call on Americans to think of what they could do for their country and not what their country could do for them. This patriotic call came when the government had provided for its citizens an environment conducive enough for the people to actualise their potentials. It, therefore, doesn't apply to the contemporary Nigeria in any way. Our situation is fundamentally different: here the ruling class send their children to the best universities abroad and leave the less privileged children to study in a dilapidated university system.
In Nigeria today, the sound of the gun appears to have drowned the voices of the writers. No working scholarship scheme and no healthy educational system. The words of President Barack Obama in his book, The Audacity of Hope, is not only instructive but also relevant to our discourse: When we as a society pretend that poor children will fulfil their potential in dilapidated, unsafe schools with outdated equipment and teachers who aren't trained in the subjects they teach, we are perpetrating a lie on these children, and on ourselves. We are betraying our values.
My pidgin poem entitled 'Dem Dey Deceive Demsef' shares President Obama's concern. It satirises the dishonesty and self-deceit that characterise Nigerian economic, educational and youth developmental policies (you may wish to read the poem on www.nairaland.com). Please, accept my apologies for digressing so much. I'm caught in a labyrinth of concerns. The problems of the young writers in the Nigeria of today are quite enormous. They cannot be divorced from the political temperature and the economic climate of the country. Wrong policies, wrong value systems!
Perhaps, the questions agitating your mind now are: What is the way out of this dilemma for the budding writer in the present-day Nigeria? Is there any hope at all? Will the unheard voices of this generation ever be heard? I wish I knew the answers to these questions. I won't be asking them, if I did. The way out of this quagmire, if you ask me, lies in answering the questions asked in this paper. The situation is paradoxical, complex, crucial and pathetic. It, therefore, calls for collective reasoning.
Let us all ponder the issues raised here. Let's find answers to the above questions. Failure to do so today will be disastrous tomorrow. It will mean that our dreams of becoming poets, novelists or writers of world renown will forever remain a pipedream. It, therefore, behoves every aspiring great writer to be brave with his weapon-the pen. We must prove to our leaders and, indeed, to everyone in our society that the pen is truly mightier than the sword, though it appears to be the other way round at the moment. We must change all that now!
Humphrey Ogu, a poet, fiction writer & journalist is of the Information, Publications & Public Relations (IPPR) Unit of the University of Port Harcourt. He gave this address at the monthly workshop of Seaview Poetry Club in PH recently.