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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

My Deaf Daughter Would Have Wasted Away in Nigeria - Professor Niyi Osundare

Professor Niyi Osundare left Nigeria in 1997 to seek better healthcare for his deaf daughter in the US. The distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of New Orleans, who is also a celebrated poet said that his daughter would have wasted away if his family remained in Nigeria. Read excerpts from his interview with the Tribune below:

You live and work outside Nigeria but you keep a tab on Nigeria. You come home when you get the opportunity. Why do you do this repeatedly?
Let me begin with the obvious: Nigeria is my country and my home. I didn’t leave this country to live elsewhere until I was 50 years of age in 1997. My family and I had to go for certain reasons. The United States of America came to our rescue at a time we were desperate about the educational and health situation of our daughter. Today that young lady is taking full advantage of the generous facilities provided by the US for people with her kind of challenge. If we had kept her in Nigeria, she would have wasted away. This country cannot take care of the able-bodied, let alone those with special needs.

In the past 17 years, I have been shuttling between the United States and here. The University of New Orleans extended its hand of assistance when I needed it most by providing me a job and a conducive professional (and personal) environment. When I arrived at the university in August 1997, my colleagues made me feel at home; some of them even contributed furniture for our small apartment near the university. And ever since, they’ve shown their appreciation of my humble contributions to the growth and development of the university. Thus, about two years ago I was selected as Distinguished Professor, about the highest academic honour the university bestows.

Needless to say, the US provides a much more conducive environment for scholarship and creative work. The things you need are there: well stocked libraries and book stores; state-of-the-art laboratories, ubiquitous internet service, and uninterrupted power supply. The terrible irony about our situation in Africa is that most of the time, if you want to do authentic research about African literature, you have to go abroad. Yes, the University of Wisconsin, for example, has more research resources/archives on Nigerian writers than any of our universities in Nigeria.

The developed countries of the world know that the reason they keep leading the world is because they respect ideas: the generation of ideas, the sustenance of ideas, the interrogation of ideas, and the consolidation of ideas. They know that investment in education opens the door to the future. Our society here doesn’t have such facilities or such an attitude. Ours is a society in a process of regressive illiteracy. It is amazing. This country used to be much more literate. It used to have universities that devoted a large chunk of money to research. When I started teaching at the University of Ibadan in the 1970’s, we had research funds and these funds were allocated every year. There were also conference funds. All these things existed until the 1980’s when General Babangida introduced his Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), the Nigerian spirit was sapped and our educational system began to nosedive.

So, the US has virtually all the things you need to function as a scholar/writer. However, Nigeria provides that sense of place, that sense of home that may be difficult to feel or achieve abroad. To put it frankly, America swallows you up as an immigrant the way you are not likely to be swallowed up in a country like Nigeria. As I’ve often said, it’s good to have a place in the world where you do not have to spell your name all the time, a place where as a poet, you begin a song/proverb and your audience completes it with you. That aspect of human touch is important, that spontaneous sense of community. On another plane, I also feel more comfortable being part of the building squad rather than a lucky inheritor of a mansion already built and furnished by others.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country whose praise you cannot sing without sounding like a masochist. I am angry with Nigeria because we are not where we should be. I am angry with our rulers because they have not aspired to be leaders. They have no vision; they are callous; they are corrupt. They do not respect the citizens of this country. I am also becoming increasingly angry at the ruled, at the people of this country, for our endless, almost mule-like toleration of injustice, of oppression. But I also know that anger which is too overwhelming could become disabling. I belong to the school of those who profess regenerative anger, the kind that is never at peace with injustice and other assaults on human dignity. It is not just anger for its own sake. I don’t just shout at darkness. I try to light a candle. There is a lot of work to be done in our country.

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