By Henry Akbuiro
Like most public universities in Nigeria, the University of Lagos, Akoka, have been under lock and key since February 14, 2022, no thanks to the lingering ASUU strike. But Unilag momentarily came alive on Thursday, June 30, as Dr. Charles Terseer Akwen, a lecturer in the Department of English, celebrated his 40th birthday in style with a book party.
Organized as four readings, which captured the four about-to-be-published books of the scholar-writer, Akwen, in the first reading, read the eponymous poem “On this Land” which reveals the gap between the ruler and the ruled. For him, boundaries are constantly being drawn daily to reflect the difference between the two groups. “Typically, when these imaginary boundaries become real, they activate conflicts that result in further conflict in an endless situation. I called it the endlessness of another end,” 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 people in Nigeria,” said the university don.
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 talk about the rich land of Benue. It doesn’t end there, the farmers-herders’ conflict is piquantly encapsulated in, for example, a poem titled “Benue Sky”. In that poem, I argue that the farmers’ tattoos in this rich soil are made of bullet holes.”
Speaking at the event, Dr. Chris Anyoku, an associate professor in the Department of English, said Fiditi was on the world map today just because of Okigbo’s labyrinth I where he depicted the Niger State community, having had a teaching stint at Fiditi Grammar School decades ago as a youth corps member. In the same token, Charles Akwen, he said, was on the verge of universalizing some Middle Belt communities as soon as his books from which excerpts were read were published.
Speaking on what inspired “On Benue Sky,” one of the poems he read, Akwen recalled the culture shock he experienced during his first visit to Taiwan, especially its beautiful environment. Hence, when he returned to Nigeria and traveled to his native Benue State and juxtaposed it with Taiwan, the difference was palpable. “So I started appreciating the Benue environment in my own way, but I couldn’t do that so much, because the kind of feeling I had in Taiwan, I never had in Benue. However, this poem is dedicated to Nigerian farmers and the struggles they go through to ensure the environment continues to be their friend,” he remarked.
A prominent Nigerian poet and rights activist, AJ Dagga Tolar, decried the deplorable condition in Nigeria, describing the citizens as “living corpses”. He lauded Dr. Akwen’s multitasking spirit to produce creative works despite the enormous challenges facing the youths of the country.
He said: “Charles is a typical example of that possibility of not allowing an environment like this to put you down. But the Charles example will never be enough. That example must be replicated in tens, hundreds, thousands and millions. But how would that be possible if the country itself is not rescued, if our universities can be locked down for months?”
He called on students to be actively engaged in the political process and use literature to antagonize what’s going on and decide the way forward. Dagga Tolar qualified students who couldn’t read beyond passing their exams as “Boko Haram” and “a minus to the growth of literature and ideas,” warning, “The fact that you must read and write must go beyond your texts.”
Drawing from a personal experience, he said he became a writer through reading, as he didn’t study it in the university. He also indicated today’s generation of not reading enough literature.
In her remarks, award winning novelist, Dr. Lola Akande, who also lectures in the Department of English, said Dr. Akwen was like “a son” to her, and, today, she would stand like a “proud mother” whose son “is a bundle of talents” with the quality of poems she had listened to today. She predicted that the sky was her limit.
Ifeanyi Avajah, the Chairman of the Lagos chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), in his reaction to the readings, showed appreciation for the scenic depiction of Gboko and other places in Benue mentioned in the poem, describing Akwen as “a poet with a mission and message”, adding, “I won’t be surprised that, in the years to come, his voice would shake the nation.”
What has life taught the celebrant? Dr. Akwen used one of his poems by him in another collection he did not feature in this year’s book party to illustrate.
“It is titled ‘Of Old Age and Memory.’ I wrote it in 2016 while relaxing in Taiwan overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In one of the stanzas, I said ‘As I wander through shattered dreams/of my lively youth this autumn/I am bound with fear/old age keeps announcing its presence/my youthfulness will I regain?’ For me, life at forty is forty ways of attempting to understand what life is.”
Akwen, who was impressed with the outcome of the book party, said: “It was exactly as planned, except that I did not expect to hear some of the good things people said about me. I had to smartly stop them from sounding my praise. I mean, I still have a lot to accomplish in life. So, it’s too early to begin to hear such orikis.”
Four books of his will soon be unveiled to the public. The scholar-writer explained: “The four books are what I can call my report card on my personal engagement with people and society. Of course, in 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 evaluation of issues such as the contradictions between appearance and reality, and most importantly, how the poet and poetry is made to come alive in the lives of people.
“The second, On this Land, invokes the spirit of public advocacy and environmental activism. It highlights the continuous and extensive misuse of the natural resources which has left many nations at the brick of ditch, social disorder, and ecological disaster. The third volume, entitled Tattoos of Bulletholes (on my Land) is a narrative and lyrical rendition of the migrating history of the Tiv people who currently occupy the present-day lower Benue River in the Middle Belt area of Nigeria. the play, Across the Straitis a dramatic piece which focuses on the socio-political dynamics in East Asia, especially the struggle for recognition between Taiwan (ROC) and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).”
The book party was graced by Prof. Adeyemi Daramola, Dr. Lola Akande, Dr. Chris Anyokwu, AJ. Daggar Tolar, Engr. Ifeanyichukwu Avajah, Folu Agoi, Dr. Omon Osiki, a select past and current project students and members of the Transcultural Writers Network.