The Nation Online
Niyi Osundare, storyteller, a poet, dramatist, and literary critic whose mastery of English in its local fecundity brings life to mere words is not one for keeping silent. His personae has set a trailblazing path for Africa and Africans.
Osundare speaking in Buea on July 18, 2008 during the EduArt awards for Cameroon Literature in English
And come 7th of August 2008, in Assilah, Morocco, he will be setting yet another mark. This time, at the official presentation as the 2008 Laureate of the Tchicaya U'Tamsi Award for African Poetry.
This is hardly surprising as the author is simply dynamic literarily. Born in 1947 in Ikere-Ekiti, Ondo State, Nigeria, he read English language and literature at the University of Ibadan (BA), the University of Leeds (MA) and York University, Canada (PhD, 1979). In 1989, he was made a professor of English and was Head of English department between 1993 and 1997 at the University of Ibadan. In 1997, he was offered a job as Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, USA.
The poet in him sees meat in virtually every nuance of existence. In 2005, he fell victim to Hurricane Katrina which flooded the Jazzy town of New Orleans and the poet in him related his experience on an internet blog thus;
The nightmare of the past seven days is simply unimaginable. We very narrowly escaped drowning in our own house. Pursued by an 8-foot high toxic flood water (15 feet in the street outside our door), we were forced up a stuffy, airless attic, where we were holed up for 26 hours, with no food, no water, no prospect of any rescue. We were only saved by the fortuitous intervention of a neighbour who heard our shout for help when he came round with his rescue boat to pick up something from his own house. With life vests provided by him, we managed to swim out of our house, leaving everything we had behind. Right now, all our clothes, books, academic and professional credentials, travel documents, computers,, manuscripts, etc. etc. are submerged in the dirty waters of the New Orleans flood. Hell has no other name.
And not one to forget his roots, the Yoruba heritage is rich in his poems as he puts his thoughts to paper. For instance in "Adumaradan" Osundare writes, "Adumaradan of inestimable beauty You are the palm oil, honour of the soup".
Also, he never shied away from politics, especially during the heady days of military dictatorship of Sanni Abacha in Nigeria. He was regularly contributing poems berating the military junta in national newspapers. He also wrote several open letters to Olusegun Obasanjo, the President of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, whom Osundare has often publicly criticised. To Osundare;
"You cannot keep quiet about the situation in the kind of countries we find ourselves in, in Africa. When you wake up and there is no running water, when you have a massive power outage for days and nights, no food on the table, no hospital for the sick, no peace of mind; when the image of the ruler you see everywhere is that of a dictator with a gun in his hand; and, on the international level, when you live in a world in which your continent is consigned to the margin, a world in which the colour of your skin is a constant disadvantage, everywhere you go – then there is no other way than to write about this, in an attempt to change the situation for the better."
In a book edited by Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah, Emerging perspectives on Niyi Osundare, which is a compendium of essays on Osundare's works by renowned scholars around the world, John Kinsella of Edith Cowan University, Australia said, "this volume shows that politics and literature are inseparable - by design and by implication."
Indeed, the book offers a bird's eye view of Osundare with preface written by Abiola Irele and the afterword by Biodun Jeyifo. Among the other contributors are Eldred Durosimi Jones, Stephen Arnold, Doug Killam, Bernth Lindfors, Donald Burness, S. Louisa Wei, John Kinsella, Jane Bryce, Tejumola Olaniyan, Tayo Olafioye, Tanure Ojaide, Femi Oyebode, Titi Adepitan, Omoniyi Afolabi, Adewunmi Adesokan, and Sunday Enesi Ododo.
His debut publication is Songs of the Marketplace in 1983 and he went ahead to publish over seventeen works which include plays, novels, collection of poems, and children stories.
For "The Eye of the Earth (1986)", he was awarded both the poetry prize of the Association of Nigerian Authors and the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry. He has received the 1990 Noma Award - Africa's most prestigious literary prize. And his performance at the 1991 Poetry festival was memorable for his interpretation. It demonstrated his desire to return to the oral traditions of yesteryear which are at the roots of African poetry. He was a recipient of the prestigious Folon/Nichols Award for 'excellence in literary creativity combined with significant contributions to Human Rights in Africa'. He accepted a Honoris Causa of the prestigious Université de Toulouse le Mirial in France.
The Tchcaya U Tamsi Award for African poetry which is worth $10,000, and organised by Assilah Forum Foundation, a non-profit organisation has been given every two years in the small Moroccan city of Asilah. It was instituted to immortalise Chicaya U Tam'si, a Congolese author who was born August 25, 1931 in Mpili, In Congo his official name was Gérald-Félix Tchicaya; his artist name means small paper that speaks for a country in Kikongo. He spent his childhood in France, where he worked as a journalist until he returned to his homeland in 1960. Back in Congo, he continued to work as a journalist; during this time he maintained contact with the politician Patrice Lumumba. In 1961, he started to work for UNESCO. He died on April 22, 1988 in Bazancourt, near Paris.
U Tam'si's and Osundare's poetry share one thing in common- they both comment on African life and society, as well as humanity in general. But with Osundare, oral performances are important features of his works. And he employs languid imagery and fluid language to project his ideas which are very satirical, sort of telling how Africans live and want to live- their joys, pains and aspirations. The voice of his mother-tongue, Yoruba is strong in his works and in terms of originality and simplicity, he no doubt, sets an example for many young African authors and poets. Many of his publications have been translated into Dutch, German, Korean, French, Italian, Czech, Slovenian, and Korean languages.
Niyi Osundare has also published four plays and essays on literature, politics and culture.