In the contemporary world of today, there is a widely held, but erroneous impression that the development of any nation is in the palms of the political class. This notion is oblivious of the fact that every other member of the society has a role to play in the development of his or her society.
One class of people that has debunked this notion and has therefore made valuable contributions to the society is the literary artists who use their great talents and literary skills to tell the story of their people and promote their culture.
It is true that those in the pinnacle of political power have the powers to make and unmake, but whatever impacts, positive or negative, they make in the society are often shaped by critics, most of who are made up of literary icons, playwrights, musicians, actors and actresses.
While the political kingpin depends more on common wealth than his intellectual endowment to make whatever impacts deemed necessary, those in the literary world solely employ their intellectual skills to build their society. With a touch of imagination and creativity, literary artists recreate the happenings around them into plausible texts which in turn become a relevant reference point.
Literary icons like the legendary Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clark, Ola Rotimi, Zulu Sofola etc have made great impacts not only to Nigeria but to the world in general through arts and literature. They are distinct institutions every student must pass through in the world of literature.
Due to his literary works, Professor Soyinka, the first African Nobel Laureate needs no introduction in any country of the world. His literary acumen and intellectual contributions to the world have earned him and his country, Nigeria an enviable image among the comity of nations. Today, while Soyinka’s face is an international passport in any nation’s airport, Nigeria is regarded as a nation endowed with intellectual skills. This is a golden, laurel which the combined efforts of all Nigerian politicians have not earned Nigeria since its 50 years of political independence.
Getting nearer home, in the 43 years of Rivers State creation, there are many people whose literary genre has earned Rivers State good reputation. The legends among them are Emmanuel Elechi Amadi, Claude Ake, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Margaret Kay Williamson and Rex Jim Lawson.
Through their numerous works, these great writers and musician projected the Rivers State culture and folklore in such a way that those that belong to other cultures were able to appreciate the Rivers people.
For instance, Elechi Amadi is a playwright and author with a strong passion for African literature, and with a thrust of native language. Unlike many writers who seem to have no cultural affinity on which to hang their writings, and who as a result, rely on foreign words, idioms and imitations, Elechi Amadi is a roots writer with a vision.
A well-known creative writer with African folklores, this 76 year old son of Aluu in Rivers State belongs to the core of artists who explore the range of his local, native challenges and document them in his works.
Like a griot from the Sahel region, Amadi takes African literature to contemporary level and promotes Rivers culture to an international level. And like the legendary Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark whose separate, famous poems on Abiku (the reincarnate) were driven by African beliefs, myths and mysteries, Amadi’s verse play Isiburu is rooted in his native Ikwerre language and culture.
Due to the excellent presentation of his works which evolved pre-colonial African societies as ruled by the gods and which were wedded in the core traditional myths, Amadi is popularly acclaimed as a leading authority in the supernatural in African literature. He has in his kilts, among others, the renowned trilogy: The Concubine (AWS 25), The Great Ponds (AWS 44) and The Slave (AWS 210).
Claude Ake is another prolific writer of Rivers State origin whose numerous scholarly articles in learning journals spread across six continents. His seminal work “A Political Economy of Africa” was simultaneously published by Longman in London and New York in 1981, and was declared the best text book in the United States of America in 1981. The Soviet Academy of Science translated the book into Russian language in 1985.
Till date, Professor Ake’s literary works remain a reference point in political science all over the world. This achievement, in no small measure, earns Nigeria and Rivers State in particularly an enviable image in the world. And until his death through a plane crash in 1993, this Professor of Political Economics and founder of the Nigeria’s first private Think-Thank called Centre for Advanced Social Science (CASS) was regarded as an intellectual kingpin not only in Nigeria, but all over the world.
As for Ken Saro Wiwa, he was one fearless writer who, in order to draw attention of the world to injustices in his community, turned to pen and paper and gave vent to his creative impulse.
Through his writings, he highlighted the social and economic ills of the Nigerian Society, as well as helped to tell the nation’s political leaders what they were not doing right, even when it was obvious that his criticism could cost him his life.
Even though he was from a prominent family in Ogoni, Ken was consistently concerned about the treatment of the Niger Delta within the Nigerian federation. The non-violent movement for social and ecological justice which he launched in 1990 against oil companies operating in Ogoni though precipitated genocide in Ogoniland, later yielded positive results as Shell Petroleum Development Company was forced out from Ogoni in 1993.
And till he was sentenced to death by hanging in 1995 by the Sani Abacha military junta, Saro-Wiwa was one writer who devoted his life to the betterment of his people.
In a male-dominated world where the voice of women seems unheard and under-appreciated, it is difficult to see many women stepping forward to distinguish themselves. But Margaret Kay Williamson did.
Even though, she was born in Hereford England in 1935 and had all her education in England, Mrs. Williamson was one writer who devoted her writings to the promotion of Nigerian, especially Niger Delta, languages. Her doctoral thesis which she based on the Ijaw language is a living testimony.
Titled “A Grammar of the Kolakuma Dialect of Ijo”, the thesis was later revised and published in book-form in 1965. This thesis, by and large, promoted the Ijaw language all over the world.
It was therefore not surprising that she was given a befitting State burial in 2005 by the Bayelsa State Government at Kaiama, her adopted Nigerian home-town.
Last but not the least is the music legend, Rex Jim Lawson (a.k.a Cardinal). With a compelling African rhythm and cultural affinity, Rex Lawson’s highlife music was steeped in the style of the early superstars like E.T. Mensah of Ghana, Bobby Benson and Victor Olaiya of Nigeria.
Through music, which he started playing from his primary school days under late Reverend D. S. H. Bob-Manuel; Rex Lawson was able to project the African culture, especially his Kalabari language through the use of native words, parables and anecdotes.
Within his 33 years sojourn on earth, Rex Lawson was able to compose and record a total of 109 songs.
There is no doubt that these arts and literary giants have, through their works, left valuable and indelible legacies that would continue to be a source of pride to the Rivers people. Therefore, as we celebrate the 43 years of Rivers State creation today, the best way to keep the memories of these legends alive is by improving on the legacies they left behind. This is one area the Rivers State government has a role to play. And one way in which this can be done is by organising special annual arts and cultural festival that would inform the younger generation of writers and musicians who have lost touch with their culture and tradition about their works, as well as organising literary week that would provide opportunity for the younger generation to highlight their literary skills.