By Henri Akubuiro
As most of the public universities in Nigeria, the University of Lagos, Akoka has been under lock and key since February 14, 2022, not thanks to the persistent ASUU strike. But Unilag momentarily came to life on Thursday June 30, as Dr. Charles Terseer Akwen, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, celebrated his 40th birthday in style with a book party.
Organized into four readings, which captured the writer-scholar’s four soon-to-be-published books, Akwen’s first reading read the eponymous poem “On This Land” which reveals the divide between the ruler and the ruled . For him, borders are constantly drawn on a daily basis to reflect the difference between the two groups. “As a rule, when these imaginary borders become real, they activate conflicts that lead to new conflicts in an endless situation. I called it the infinity of another ending,” he said.
Other poems, such as “How They Came”, “Gunsmoke that Announced Our Freedom” and “We and They” were read by AmaT, Ridwan and Boye respectively. “These poems deal with the pre-colonial and post-colonial experiences of the Nigerian people,” said the university professor.
From the second volume, poems about the geographical beauty of Benue State were read. ‘Ode to My Land’, ‘Ode to the Hills’ and ‘The Old as the New Nomad’ were read by Lateef, Msemdoo and Precious – all members of the Translational Writers Network. Akwen explained, “These poems are about the rich land of Benue. It doesn’t end there, the conflict between farmers and herders is summed up piquantly in, for example, a poem called “Benue Sky”. In this poem, I argue that farmers’ tattoos in this rich soil are made of bullet holes.
Speaking at the event, Dr Chris Anyoku, Associate Professor in the Department of English, said Fiditi was on the world map today simply because of Okigbo’s illness. Labyrinth I where he represented the Niger State community, having taught at Fiditi Grammar School decades ago as a youth corps member. Along the same lines, Charles Akwen, he says, was on the verge of universalizing certain Middle Belt communities as soon as his books were published, excerpts of which have been read.
Speaking about what inspired “On Benue Sky,” one of the poems he read, Akwen recalled the culture shock he experienced when he first visited Taiwan, especially its beautiful surroundings. Therefore, when he returned to Nigeria and traveled to his home state of Benue and juxtaposed it with Taiwan, the difference was palpable. “So I started enjoying the environment in Benue in my own way, but I couldn’t do that much, because the kind of feeling I had in Taiwan, I never had in Benue. However, this poem is dedicated to Nigerian farmers and their struggles to ensure that the environment continues to be their friend,” he remarked.
A prominent Nigerian poet and rights activist, AJ Dagga Tolar, has denounced the deplorable situation in Nigeria, describing the citizens as “living corpses”. He praised Dr. Akwen’s multitasking spirit to produce creative works despite the enormous challenges faced by the country’s youth.
He said: “Charles is a prime example of that ability to not allow an environment like this to bring you down. But Charles’ example will never be enough. This example must be reproduced by tens, hundreds, thousands and millions. But how could this be possible if the country itself is not saved, if our universities can be confined for months?
He called on students to actively engage in the political process and use literature to oppose what is happening and decide the way forward. Dagga Tolar labeled students who could not read beyond passing their exams as “Boko Haram” and “a minus for the growth of literature and ideas”, warning: “The fact that you have to read and writing must go beyond your texts.
Based on personal experience, he says he became a writer through reading, as he did not study it at university. He also accused the current generation of not reading enough literature.
In her remarks, award-winning novelist Dr Lola Akande, who also teaches in the Department of English, said Dr Akwen was like “a son” to her, and today she would stand as a “mother proud” whose son “is a bundle of talents” with the quality of the poems she had listened to today. She predicted the sky was her limit.
Ifeanyi Avajah, the president of the Lagos Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), in his reaction to the readings, showed his appreciation for the stage portrayal of Gboko and other places in Benue mentioned in the poem, describing Akwen as “a poet with a mission and a message,” adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in years to come, his voice shakes the nation.”
What has life taught the celebrant? Dr. Akwen used one of his poems in another collection which he did not present at this year’s book party to illustrate.
“It’s called ‘Of old age and memory’. I wrote this in 2016 while relaxing in Taiwan overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In one of the stanzas I said “As I wander through the shattered dreams/of my bustling youth this fall/I’m bound by fear/old age keeps announcing its presence/my youth will I find?” For me, life at forty is forty ways of trying to understand what life is.
Akwen, who was impressed with the outcome of the book party, said, “It was exactly as planned, except I didn’t expect to hear some of the good things people said about me. I had to cleverly prevent them from sounding my praises. I mean, I still have a lot to accomplish in life. It is therefore too early to start hearing such orikis.”
Four of his books will soon be unveiled to the public. The academic writer explained, “The four books are what I can call my newsletter on my personal engagement with people and society. Of course, at this year’s book party, I presented three volumes of poems and a play. The first collection, I come to announce my nameis a critical and intellectual assessment of issues such as the contradictions between appearance and reality, and above all, how the poet and poetry are brought to life in people’s lives.
“The second, On this earth, invokes the spirit of public advocacy and environmental activism. It highlights the continued and widespread misuse of natural resources that has left many nations on the brink of chasm, social disorder and ecological disaster. The third volume, titled Tbullet hole attoos (on my Land) is a narrative and lyrical interpretation of the migratory history of the Tiv people who presently occupy the present lower reaches of the Benue River in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria. The game, across the straitis a dramatic play that focuses on socio-political dynamics in East Asia, particularly the struggle for recognition between Taiwan (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The book party was graced by Prof. Adeyemi Daramola, Dr. Lola Akande, Dr. Chris Anyokwu, AJ. Daggar Tolar, engineer. Ifeanyichukwu Avajah, Folu Agoi, Dr Omon Osiki, a select former and current students of the project and members of the Transcultural Writers’ Network.