Onyeka Nwelue is a Nigerian writer and budding film-maker, who can best be described as multivalent. Recently Wealth Ominabo Dickson, in the company of the poet Chiedu Ezeanah, caught up with him at the Salamander Café, Abuja, where he spoke on his literary trajectory, his documentary on Flora Nwapa and the State of the Nigerian nation.
Wealth: Your profile speaks of a multivalent persona; how many other dimensions are there to Onyeka Nwelue, besides that of the writer, the filmmakers, the traveller, the professor, the artistic/cultural events organiser, the editor and the controversial critic?
Onyeka: I think I will take every other description apart from that of the “controversial critic.” I don’t see anything controversial in what I say; I try to air my opinion in every honest way. Maybe they stink?
Wealth: Not really, but you have made some controversial statements about Achebe and Soyinka.
Onyeka: I will still stand by what I said. I won’t change it. Achebe’s own even gets worse every day when people mention his name. I think Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect. Yes, Anthills of the Savannah is a very beautiful book; it’s well written. But I don’t agree withThings Fall Apart being called the great African novel by everybody. There are better books.
Wealth: What are your reasons for saying this?
Onyeka: If you’ve read Things Fall Apart and have read what young people write these days – people like Helen Oyeyemi, Diekoye Oyeyinka and Chigoize Obioma – you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.
Wealth: Can you inform us of some of your recent engagements?
Onyeka: I have a documentary, which would be premiering at the Image Women Film Festival at Harare at the end of August. It is called The House of Nwapa on Flora Nwapa whose story has been completely erased from the literary consciousness of Nigeria. Most people have forgotten who she was, but this was the most powerful woman in the South-East in the 70s. She married two men and also married another woman for her second husband. Her uncle was the first Minister of Commerce in Nigeria, J.C Nwapa. She was Mabel Segun’s close friend but people don’t know. They were very strong women. Mabel represented Nigeria at the Olympics, while Flora engaged in her own bid as the Commissioner of Survey in the old South-Eastern region.
Young people of my age have no idea who Flora Nwapa was, so they need to be told her story. The story is very interesting, as most of the Igbo who ran to the US during the Civil War did so through her help. She helped them through Cameroon and Portugal. Nwapa was the Registrar at the University of Lagos when the war broke out but ran back to the East to work with the refugees. Flora was the most powerful woman; I didn’t say one of the most powerful woman but the most powerful woman. Buchi Emecheata even lived with her at a point, and got the title of her book Joys of Motherhood from Flora’s first work, Efuru. Flora never called herself a feminist but she was a symbol of women’s liberation in Nigeria.
It was a challenge doing a balanced documentary on Flora. I couldn’t find people who would say nasty things about her. I tried to get Zaynab Alkali, who declined, as well as J.P Clark. But all these were people she took care of. She took care of J.P Clark during FESTAC; Chinua Achebe lived with my mother and Flora at Oguta. I tried to interview Dr. Ike Achebe in Accra but he kicked me out.
Wealth: Why did he kick you out?
Onyeka: I was with my uncle, Chukwuemaka Ike, and I think he said ‘no’ because he knew the bad side of Nwapa, which he didn’t want to speak about. I also spoke with writers like Wale Okediran and Denja Abdullahi. There is no other documentary on Flora Nwapa except the one done by a Norwegian in 1987.
Wealth: What was your motivation for the documentary?
Onyeka: My mother lived with both Flora and Achebe. The documentary starts with a Nigerian woman whose father was sliced into two during the May Massacre and then a transition to where my mother is talking. The story is going to be very interesting. The documentary is part of my life; it is part of my story.
Wealth: As a cultural organiser and professor, how has your journey been so far?
Onyeka: I wasn’t made a professor by a Nigerian university, because they would not accept people like me. I was at the Passport Office recently and people were asking if I was a musician. This is a country of unserious men and stereotypes. There was a time Prof. M.K Asanti came to Nigeria, and people thought he was a hip-hop artist. When I teach my students I never let them write anything, I use visuals to teach them, especially Nigerian films. When I came to Nigeria that was a teaching methodology I needed to adopt.
As a social organizer I do the Diplomatic Jazz Night. I was the Director of the Bayelsa Book Fair, which ended badly because Nigerian writers – I have always called them weaklings – depended on me for everything, even the tissue to clean themselves up; so I decided to resign. I was only 23 years then. That is the reason I cannot organize any event in this country outside the diplomatic circle. That was why I started the Diplomatic Jazz Night, where sensible people are. People who can reason when things fall out, when things don’t happen the way we envisioned them to, who will say, ‘how do we fix this’, not those who will go around calling me names. Even when French Cultural Centre asked me to do a book fair, I told them I would never in my life try it; let the writer suffer.
Wealth: You speak with so much anger; you sound quite hurt?
Onyeka: I was made the Bayelsa Book Fair Director at the age of 21. The first one went smoothly because everyone got paid. For the second one, there was no money to pay anyone and the government was also not going to pay.
When Elechi Amadi died I wrote a tribute to him on my Facebook page, where I mentioned that he had been pursuing me for money. I did not write a beautiful tribute to him. I wrote about how he tormented me for weeks. I had gone to his house in Alu and said, “Sir, I want you and Gabriel Okara to come to the book fair.” And they agreed, in the understanding that there was no money to pay for honoraria. But some writers started tweeting that the government gave me three hundred million naira to organise the event, and Elechi bought into it and started bugging my phone. He even asked people to leave the venue; do you get it?
So when people die, you don’t start saying only the good things they did. You talk about their dark sides too; and at times when I talk about Elechi, people try to shut me up; but I refuse to shut up. An old man like that ought to have called me aside and asked what the issues really were and whether I was truly given money by the government, but he didn’t. He kept pursuing me about saying, “pay me, pay me.” You see why I am hurt? Their real anger was about, ‘how can they bring a boy from Imo State to be the Bayelsa book fair director, how can they do that.’ So the Bayelsa people even came to put off the generator when the festival was on.
Wealth: I find this interesting because I am also a Bayelsan and a literary artist.
Onyeka: Some boys even came with weapons to fight me. However, Nigeria is in my past. I come to Nigeria now as a tourist. I don’t have a home in Nigeria. I live in hotels in Nigeria. I feel bad about it. This is where I was born; I struggled here.
Wealth: For readers not familiar with your literary works, how would you describe your first novel, The Abyssinian Boy?
Onyeka: If I didn’t publish The Abyssinian Boy, I would not even be a human being; no jokes. A few Yoruba friends were the ones who gathered together for me on it. They took it up as their own, promoted it and then the Indian came in because there is a very large Indian Community in Lagos – 35,000 Indians. By the time the Indians came into the picture it became something else for me. So The Abyssinian Boy was made possible. But we need to start looking at those things. Why do we have to throw our own away and let strangers help us?
Wealth: How is it as a literary work?
Onyeka: I can only say it is a novel about Indian and Nigerian families. I don’t need to praise The Abyssinian Boy; it is left for the readers to decide what they want to do with it. A story is like a surface of water, you take whatever you want from it.
Wealth: Your work, Burnt has been described as a narrative in verse, do you see yourself as a poet in the context of this work?
Onyeka: I see myself as an artist. I write music and wrote a song called “Ezegwu”. I worked with the likes of Jeremiah Gyang. You know, just like Soyinka; he is like my god. He is an actor. He played the role of Patrice Lumumba in a French film and so many people don’t know he has an album which was released 1984. So I don’t call myself a poet but an artist. I’m a creator.
Wealth: What’s the focus of Burnt?
Onyeka: I won the Prince Claus Travel Grant in 2013 to travel around East Africa and 25 countries in the Schengen. I travelled by train and wrote about my experiences (in verse), so it is more like a travelogue from Paris to Brussels, and then to Copahengen. At times I missed my flight at the airport, and a few times I got stranded…
Wealth: And how was the experience like?
Onyeka: I love freedom. I got to Gotterbug in Switzerland and had excess luggage. I threw all the clothes into the dustbin at the airport and the woman there just opened her mouth and then she said, “you have to pay for excess luggage”; and I said, “well, take it”, and boarded. The book is my own way of seeing; being less materialistic is important to humanity.
Wealth: What’s about your third work, Hip Hop Is Only for Children?
Onyeka: I still feel that writers are too poor. So at a point I wanted to really make money from book publishing and the only way I did that was through Hip Hop Is Only for Children. It was selling at the Salamander Bookshop for N7,000 and people bought all the ten thousand printed copies. I self-published. I realised people wanted to see pictures, so I included pictures. I tried to understand the human psyche before publishing it and it worked. I wrote about the musicians everyone loves – Wizkid, Asha, Davido, Terry G, etc.
Wealth: What is your relationship with Chigozie Obioma, the writer ofThe Fishermen, who you’re about organising a book reading for?
Onyeka: Chigozie is my friend. Every successful young person that I know, I befriend because good begets good. If you want to succeed in life, you must find those friends who will inspire you. Now this is the truth. I cannot stand people who look up to me; I can’t hang out with people who look up to me because I will be a loser, I will feel like a king, I will feel like I have arrived. My closest friends are older people, so that when it is hard, I go and talk to them and learn what they have been through, how they survived situations. So this is how I meet people like that.
For me, I like celebrating friends who are successful. I have one, Obinwanne Okeke. He was listed in Forbes’s under-thirty achievers some two weeks ago. What I do is that whenever I have friends who have achieved, I try to organise a welcome party for them. Obioma was nominated for the Booker Prize, but Nigerians got angry. They started attacking him on Twitter; everywhere. “Oh!! The Igbo in the book is not good,” they said. This is a country of frustrated and angry people. Big things go to people who don’t make noise. So all the glory has to be given to him and he has done his work, and he has just finished his second book, which I’m publishing, and it is going to be mind-blowing. He is an amazing human being. I don’t want to use the word ‘humble’ anymore for anybody, but he is very modest. I have invited all the ambassadors that I know and some of them are interested in meeting him. His book has been translated into 22 languages. He has beaten Ms. Adichie.
Wealth: The writer is often considered as the conscience of society: What is you view of Nigeria?
Onyeka: I already said that Mr. Muhammadu Buhari is a failure. He has failed completely. Recently I was speaking to someone at the Japanese Embassy. I’m going to write an open letter to Charly Boy run for governor in Imo State. Although it sounds funny but I saw something that happened when I was working with Charly Boy last year. Charly Boy is the only Nigerian I know who is focused. You can decide to judge him. He has done things we can see, but doesn’t talk. He is not a talker at all. When I was going to Aguta with him, he will stop if there was traffic. He get down from his car and control the traffic. People listen to him; people take directives from him. What if we stop judging him based on the way he looks and the rings and everything, and just think about this guy as a leader, a political leader. Forget these ones that dress well, they have finished this nation. Where is Farouk Lawan, and what did we do with him finally?
Wealth: What is your take on the state of the nation?
Onyeka: You are interested in what I have to say about Buhari? Nigeria has no bright future.
Wealth: And why would you think so?
Onyeka: There is no bright future for Nigeria. Nigeria will never get better. I’m not being pessimistic; it’s just about the reality on the ground. You know that in Japan you can take a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. But Nigeria decides to do its train business and goes to China. Nigeria is never going to get better, when all the leaders are going to China. All of them go there; Rochas even went. I’m sorry for this country.
Wealth: Can you give me more reason why you think Nigeria can’t get better?
Onyeka: Now if we think this people who dress well and without rings, without dread locks are better because they look responsible and Farouk Lawan is still walking around, Femi Otedela is still going about taking pictures, his children are still jumping up and down, and Buhari’s children still go to the UK to get degrees and come and celebrate it here, Nigeria cannot get better.