By Sunny Awhefeada,
The endeavors at creative writing in the first decade of the founding of DELSU, promising as it turned out, can be said to be a mere foreshadowing of that which was to come in the next two decades. The first decade of her founding terminated in 1999 and drew the curtain on the last century. That was quite symbolic in view of what was to follow. The next decade which unfurled in 2000 and which the world dubbed “the new millennium” not only offered DELSU new fortunes, but opened new frontiers of literary possibilities for the University. By far the most phenomenal incident occurred in late 2001 (October and November) when G. G. Darah and Sam Ukala formally joined the teaching staff of the Department of English and Literary Studies and the then Department of Performing Arts respectively. Coincidentally, this writer (Sunny Awhefeada), then a subaltern lecturer joined the duo in October. Darah had made a name as a radical scholar-critic and journalist at Ibadan and Ife and later at Daily Times and The Guardian.
He was well known on the Nigerian literary scene. His presence and influence were magical. Ukala had also made a remarkable name at Nsukka, Ibadan and Ekpoma and was a notable playwright and theorist. This writer armed with a Master of Arts in Literature from Ibadan was young and sprightly and combined the burning desire to birth new vistas of creativity and criticism at Abraka. It was his lot to act on the directions charted by the two masters (Darah and Ukala) in setting a new agenda for the creative enterprise among the students.
In December 2001, through the combined efforts of Darah and Ukala, Delta State won the hosting right for the 2002 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) conference. Although, Delta State had no ANA chapter at that time, the influence of Darah and Ukala ensured that the State was given the nod to host the big event scheduled for November 2002. Since there was no State chapter anywhere in Delta State, Abraka where Darah and Ukala were domiciled with a handful of writers had to host the chapter. The Senior Staff Club of the Delta State University, Abraka, now renamed FMA Ukoli Senior Staff Club, became the hub of the new ANA chapter. It was there that one day in 2002 the Delta Chapter of ANA was inaugurated by Professor Olu Obafemi and Dr. Nduka Otiono, then President and Secretary-General respectively. Ukala became the first Chairman of the Branch with Martins Tugbokorowei as Secretary a year later with the demise of Dr. Ernest Kpeke. What followed were a series of enthusiastic monthly readings with the Staff Club serving as venue. The venue of the readings was always thronged by students and visitors from Sapele, Warri, Agbor, Ughelli, Asaba and other places.
The ambience was convivial and a new spirit of creativity was born. Besides Darah and Ukala, were also the inspiring presence of Femi Fatoba and Nasiru Akanji both of them notable poets, singers and actors. A permanent testament to the creative gusto of ANA Delta was the publishing of Rumbling Creeks of the Niger Delta an anthology of short stories, poems and plays with Sam Ukala as general editor. The anthology while focusing on the Niger Delta experience provided ventilation for teenage authors to offer poems, stories and plays to the reading public.
The activities of the ANA Delta Chapter drew people to Abraka, but greatly influenced many undergraduate students. The readings provided the students the opportunity to listen to older writers read their work and talk about their writing experience, but for them to also write and read their own to the hearing of the older writers and critics. Thus a session of artistic mentoring and apprenticeship was born. The activities complimented what the students did in the Creative Writing courses they offered in the Department of English and Literary Studies and the Department of Theatre Arts. The notice boards in the Department of English and Literary Studies became the open store or better put repository of poems, short stories and cartoons. Students like Innocent Ayabotu, NewworldEmomoemi, Zino Akpobire, Ufuoma Abudu, Linda Ikem, Tarela Emuren, Elvis Ogie, BukolaIjagbemi, Pedro Abure, Confidence Aihiebholoria, Francis Uti, Victor Abonyi, Emmanuel Esemedafe, Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe, Ebikidoumine Ebireni, Mamuyovwi Edjeba and many others tried their hands at writing and the noticeboards and walls became their first outlet. There was always a stopover by the notice boards for lovers of writing.
For obvious reasons, the students of the Department of English and Literary Studies plunged into the creative enterprise with an uncommon zest. Prodded by this writer they formed the Creative Writers’ Workshop in 2003. Darah, Ukala and this writer exposed the eager students to poets outside the ones taught in the curriculum. Knowing that the students were already familiar with poets anthologized in West African Verse,Poems of Black Africa, A Selection of African Poetry and other related anthologies, they brought them collections by writers that got published from around the 1980s. Interestingly, the emphasis was on poetry.
Thus all the noticeboards in the Department always had poems posted on them daily. The Creative Writers’ Workshop met weekly and students read and criticized poems, prose and drama. The Department of English and Literary Studies played host to the internationally acclaimed poet, Tanure Ojaide, at the invitation of Darah. The encounter, in the students’ own words, “was mind blowing”. The highly regarded critic, Professor Romanus Egudu, who supervised this writer’s first degree project at the University of Benin, was also hosted by the Department in 2002. Two years later, the Department, Faculty and the University rose in celebration when the prodigious poet, NiyiOsundare visited in June 2004. These encounters left significant and lasting impressions on the young students.
The flurry and fury with which they wrote henceforth was unprecedented. Buoyed by the exposure, their creative instinct went many notches higher.
The icing on the cake of the foregoing encounters was the setting up of a new literary magazine decidedly named Abraka Voices in 2005. The magazine, so named Abraka Voices in order to give it an undisputed identity, was a huge success with an inaugural edition published in 2005. When the editor, Emmanuel Esemedafe, put out a call for entries, poetry, prose, drama and essays, the response was overwhelming. It took the excited editor and his editorial crew weeks of leafing through innumerable entries before selecting what they considered publishable. Some of the aspiring writers whose works appeared in Abraka Voices were Dorothy Nakpodia, Davidson Ojagbigwhruu, Charles Ayidu, OfieChukwuka, Peter Omoko, Stephen Kekeghe and Michael Onuegbu. This writer published a well-received review of the maiden edition of Abraka Voices in The Guardian.
The years 2004 and 2005 were quite instructive to the evolution of literary consciousness at Abraka. Besides hosting Osundare in 2004, the Department of English and Literary Studies became a sabbatical destination for some writers and scholar-critics from within and outside Nigeria. The two years saw Professor AguonoroboEruvbetine and then Dr. Hope Eghagha berthing at Abraka for their sabbatical leave. Professor BenjiEgede also arrived at the same time. From the United States of America and Canada came Professors TanureOjaide and OnookomeOkome respectively. The Department never had it so good. It became a vortex of ideas and the lively bonhomie associated with writers and literary scholars was unmistakable. The students did not have to look too far to see models and mentors. They encountered them in the classrooms, on the corridors and just everywhere. This created an instant artistic ferment.
Another significant fillip to the literary flowering was the Diaspora influence pioneered by Tanure Ojaide and Onookome Okome. This manifested in the form of two international conferences in honour of Tanure Ojaide in 2005 and 2008 respectively. The well attended conferences enabled the students to meet and interact with different writers and critics they had read about. Jonathan Haynes, Harry Garuba, Odia Ofeimun, Tony Afejuku, J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, Chinyere Nwahunanya, Tayo Olafioye, Emevwo Biakolo, Bate Bisong, Niyi Okunoye, NdukaOtiono, James Tsaiaor, Femi Shaka, Tam George, Benjamin Ejiofor, Senayon Olaoluwa, Austen Akpuda, Anote Ajelorou, Chux Ohai, Kalu Uduma, Idom Iyanbri, Henri Oripeloye among others thronged Abraka during the conferences, presented papers, spoke about their works and freely interacted with the excited students. They also gave out many autographed copies of their works to the students.
The effect of the conferences and the encounters they enabled further deepened the enthusiasm of the students who actively participated in the events. The students got inspired meeting the writers and critics in flesh. What followed were lively debates during the meetings and readings of the Creative Writers’ Workshop. Choices were made regarding what genre to write in and what style. Poetry topped the list. Osundare and Ojaide were easily the models of the students and the Niger Delta predicament popped up as motif. Further entrenching the Diaspora influence was the recent book donation exercise undertaken by the family of the late Professor Isidore Okpewho as facilitated by Dr. Chiji Akoma.