The Poet as a Culture Ambassador

 Aristotle is… a Greek summing up Greek experience.
–  S. H. Butcher, 1951

Today, we are no longer what we were, what is happening today is not in our character, the norms and values left by Sardauna (Sir Ahmadu Bello) and our founding fathers have been thrown overboard… the institution of family has broken down…there is frustration in arts and lack of creativity in literature…
– Alhaji (Dr.) Yusuf Maitama Sule.

The above plaintive words of the erudite scholar and elder statesman, Alhaji Sule, the bearer of the honorific chieftaincy title of Dan Masanin Kano (intellectual lighthouse of Kano) aptly paints the ugly situation we are drowned in for the simple yet weighty crime of relegating our pristine African culture to the background.
Whose role is it to promote one’s culture beyond the shores of one’s climes? An honest answer to this poser cannot escape the task of the poet (writer). The poet that intends to be taken seriously must, at all times, be conscious of his/her role to the society. Whereas a soldier fights to safeguard the territorial integrity of the country, the poet fights on end with the pen, not the gun, on all fronts.
Africa’s foremost writer, Chinua Achebe, once declared that the fundamental duty of the African writer is to prove to the world that, “African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period, and it is this dignity that they must now regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them.” (See,"The Role of the Writer in a New Nation") In addition, a relatively younger writer, Abubakar Gimba wittily added that “the poet has to be a historian, a chronicler of events, not of embellished fairytales…a culture ambassador, a voice to the voiceless, etc.” 

For the poet to effectively discharge the responsibilities outlined by those two African writers earlier mentioned, the poet, must be as brave as the lion, and as firm as the rock “based on principles or convictions” without being judgmental or sententious on issues. Thus, the poet must display moral rectitude, positive societal values and sound judgment whether on local or universal issues. Therefore, as a repository of culture, the conscientious poet should always serve as a cultural ambassador of his people, a bulwark against corrupted culture, and preventer of cultural extinction. This calls to mind Alhaji Sule’s famous statement that, “Culture is the identity of the people. Culture is the customs and costumes, the character and the characteristics, the manners and mannerisms, the philosophy and the ideology of the people. Culture is the totality of people’s experience; and culture is the way of life of the people.”
As poet-cum-cultural diarist, my recent trip to Nasarawa State University, Keffi (NSUK), as a Guest Poet, will remain eternally fresh in my mind like the immortal ‘pyramid texts’ or ‘the coffin texts’ for obvious reasons. Those ancient hieroglyphs (sacred carvings) inscribed on tomb walls of black Egyptian kings (pharaohs) known as the ‘pyramid texts’ and the hieratic, demotic and Coptic writings on papyrus (prototype paper) of the African great ancestors, which were kept inside coffins, hence known as the ‘coffin texts’, as I learnt from the lecture I had the privilege of attending there, were the original written texts in any part of the world scripted over 4,000 B.C. The black Africans bequeathed the written legacy to the world!
 True, I’ll continue to relish this historic visit to Keffi not only for the red carpet treatment I was accorded by the university symbolized by a true man of culture, an outstanding intellectual and great university administrator, Professor Shamsudeen O. O. Amali, the Vice Chancellor of Nasarawa State University, Keffi, but also for the new lessons of life he freely and generously taught me – humility and faith in God – when I paid him a courtesy call.
As readers may wish to know, I was at NSUK courtesy of a formal invitation extended to me by my great mentor, unique teacher and esteemed elder brother to deliver a talk on poetry (especially my own poetry collection, The Song of San Kano) to his combined classes of 300 level and 400 level students of poetry.  I must admit that my fruitful interaction with those intelligent students was quite illuminating and refreshing.   
Keffi is, by all estimation, a beautiful town with a promising future. Like a pretty queen that stands out in the crowd, this serene town attracts to it many bustling suitor-businessmen that keep changing the face of the ancient town. With its closeness to Abuja, and the tender kisses Abuja seems to be planting on her wet lips, especially its suburban and neighbouring settlements (like Nyanya, Maraba, etc), what a curious poet-tourist like me would want to know, is how soon it would take for the two intimate lovers – Abuja and Keffi – to consummate their relationship by tying the nuptial knots.
Total Filling Station round-a-bout was where I alighted from the commercial vehicle that took me from Abuja to pick a bike to “Me and You Restaurant”, a vicinity of NSUK Staff Quarters where I first met with my friendly host. After taking a brief rest, we drove, in his car, to the fast-developing campus of the young NSUK at 10: 46 a.m. (on Wednesday, 7th September, 2012).

My sociable host was no other person than Malam Al-Bishak, M.O.N., the multi-talented senior journalist, award-winning novelist and robust critic; and now a revered senior lecturer, who, was deservedly turbaned the “Dan Masanin Gamji of Nasarawa State” last year. Without exaggeration, Malam Al-Bishak is a delight to meet for his unmatched simplicity, unsurpassed humility and good sense of humour.
I commenced my official visit with a site tour of the university’s facilities such as: the library, the female and male hostels, (the proposed sites for new ones) the mini old size mosque near the male hostel, the faculties of education, law, arts, social sciences, administration and the newly erected state-of-the-art South Atlantic Petroleum University Medical Center (donated by Gen. Theophilus Y. Danjuma). Along the campus roads, we came by towering new structures (office blocks and lecture theatres) sprawling all over the campus being put in place by the combined efforts of government agencies such as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) or the Sanusi Lamido Sanusi-led Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN); non-governmental organizations or professional associations; and some philanthropic individuals. Frankly, I was amazed at the sight of those uncompleted gigantic structures. Case-in-point is the new site of the NSUK’s Post Graduate School built by the CBN.
My encounter with Professor Shamsudeen O. O. Amali gave me confidence that the NSUK is in safe and progressive hands. More so, as I was reliably informed, the avuncular Amali, a devout Muslim, is instrumental to the speedy transformational progress the university is witnessing at the moment.  
Still on the first day of my arrival, I had the rare chance of attending a lecture, my host had with his 400 level students. To say, the lecture was exceptionally illuminating is trite. After the class, I had a mutually benefitting discussion with some of the new buddies I made among the friendly students. Muhammad Ubaydullah and Alhassan Matthew, among many others taught me what true friendship is. Further, I granted an interview to some of the students writing their final year projects on my poetry collection, The Song of San Kano. Immediately after observing my “Asr” (late afternoon Muslim) prayer, I joined Al-Bishak’s yet, another lecture. This time around, he lectured his students on Modern Comedy. The lecture was followed by thrilling rehearsal sessions by the 200 level class where special songs were sung by the students, comic play-lets were dramatized and cultural performances showcased. They were working ahead of the 27th edition of the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities (AVCNU) Conference being hosted by the university from September 24 – 26, 2012.
On the second, but last day of my visit, I was led by my host straight away to Lecture Room 14 in the Art Faculty block where I met with the aforesaid combined classes of 300/400 levels of poetry students. My host began with an introduction of my humble self to the students, then read portions of my poetry book, and gave his interpretations, pointing out all the figures of speech and folkloric elements embedded in the work. I took over the rendition of the poem, and enlisted the support of Ubaydallah who read out the vernacular portions of my work. To say the least, the audience was captivated judging by the frequent applause we attracted from the students. After whetting the appetite of the audience, I went on to present my prepared paper titled, “Me, My Poems and I: Reading from a Poet’s Diary.”

In the course of my submission, I made the point that my book, The Song of San Kano, should not be misconstrued as an excessive panegyric but a cultural documentation of the goings-on in the palace of the Emir of Kano and the reverence with which the Kano people hold their traditional institutions. Thus, the book explores the Kano Emirate from its classical antiquity to its present-day transformation. The Song of San Kano, an epic poem, encapsulates Emir Ado Bayero’s palace with its rich, redolent ‘fadanci’ tradition. It also celebrates Kano’s pre-eminence in commerce, craftsmanship, scholarship and so on. Interestingly, my host, being more academically and historically grounded, swiftly intervened, by throwing more light on the issues I raised about the poet serving as a diarist or documentarist of the culture he represents. The juiciest part of my encounter with the students was the Question and Answer/ Comments session. To be frank, I had to struggle with the brilliant questions I was bombarded with by those exceptionally bright students. Indeed, were all students of our tertiary institutions as serious and intelligent as those I met at NSUK, I would hasten to say, the future of Nigeria is assured.
Finally, let me state that, if The Song of San Kano and the presentation I made at NSUK succeeded in portraying me as an ambassador of Kano’s uniquely rich culture, or a cultural diarist, my trip to Keffi, was worthwhile. As Chinua Achebe’s kinsmen would say “a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body.” My major concern, as a poet, in The Song of San Kano, is to tell the Kano people (and the rest of the world) where the rain of my unsurpassed tradition and culture began to beat me.
The Poet as a Culture Ambassador

Malam Khalid Imam

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