WELCOME TO GOSPEL NZEKA'S BLOG: What I saw at William Shakespeare’s graveyard —Jerry Agada

Thursday, 9 May 2013

What I saw at William Shakespeare’s graveyard —Jerry Agada

A man of many parts, Dr Jerry Agada is a seasoned bureaucrat, having served in different capacities in Benue State government and the Federal Government of Nigeria, including as a Minister of State for Education. A former national president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Agada is the prolific author of many fiction and non-fiction works. His novel, The Successors, is currently on the reading list of the University Matriculation Examinations in Nigeria. He also chairs the Governing Board of Nigerian Colleges of Education. Agada took some time off his busy schedule in Abuja to speak to HENRY AKUBUIRO on his writing career, which got a fillip from his days in Scotland.

You recently marked your 60th birthday. Let’s look at it in retrospect; what has life taught you?

It was quite a remarkable event in my life, though the celebration was low-keyed, just not too loud in keeping with my principle of simplicity and humility. At 60, life has taught me that I have crossed the Rubicon and getting to the threshold of the Biblical three-score and ten years of my sojourn in life. At 60, life has taught me that “living” itself is like gliding down on an undulating slope. There are ups and downs, but with faith, determination, humility and good-naturedness, one trudges on without too much ado, believing that with God, other worldly affairs such as greed, grab and graft bothering on corruption are all vanity, useless and meaningless.

In fact, growing up as a child was quite a pleasant experience. I thought everything was just about living a life, and that ageing was not on the card. In the primary school, at the age of 6 or 7, it appeared as if I was the only one in life, and it was heaven on earth. At the age of 16, in the secondary school, I looked at anyone who was about 40 to be too old. I thought that 50 and above could be compared to Methuselah. But, then, 1 saw myself gradually ageing till now that am also 60. That had taught me that life is like the passage of time, ticking away like the movement of the minutes-hand of the old grandfather’s clock. One is clicking away tick-tack, tick-tack with time till one is no more, cut down by old age. So, at 60, I now realise that life is not just all about me and me alone; life is about living and letting others live.a

You are writer, filmmaker and bureaucrat, what’s the meeting point of all these endeavours?

The meeting point in all the endeavors you’ve mentioned is ‘creativity’ inspired by passion. In all the endeavours, one must deploy deep-rooted flair or intellect to strike the right note, and that’s where creativity motivated by passion and inspiration comes in. For instance, you can only be a writer because you have the flair, and flair will not develop unless inspired by the muse. These variables working together bring about creativity, which I mentioned earlier. The same goes for filmmaking. Writing the storyline or choosing an appropriate story line and crafting the entire process into film smacks of creativity. And as a bureaucrat, it demands creativity to weave these three arts together to record any success. That’s why I said that the meeting point of all the endeavours is ‘creativity’.

You were educated in Scotland, England, and were exposed to the English and American literary traditions, too. How has that influenced your vocation as a writer?

The truth is that the English Literary tradition has had more influence on me with regards to my writing vocation perhaps because of my encounters earlier in life. In the primary school, one read the abridged versions of the13th Century English literatures. Books like Treasure Island, Animal Farm, Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels, David Copperfield, and so on, were read. In the secondary school, one continued with books with similar themes, but more largely in unabridged volumes. Then, at the university in England, one did not only continue with these themes in theory but practicalised them by paying physical visits to places of literary interest like the Manor Farm, which one had imagined while reading about it in the Animal Farm.

I also made literary pilgrimages to places like Stratford-on-Avon, which is Shakespeare’s birthplace, where I did not only see but touched the crib Shakespeare had used as a child, as well as the table and chair he had sat on to write way back in history. The influence of all these on my writing vocation is quite enormous, because, comparatively, they reflect on the ways I write about my own background and culture. The effect of the English/Scottish tradition appears to subsume whatever I might have picked from my contact with the American tradition.

In your award-winning short stories, The Secret Deal (1997), you address a myriad of social issues, juxtaposing modern and traditional settings. What figures in your imagination when it comes to placing emphasis on locale?

As a storyteller, I feel very comfortable with whatever theme, and I choose the setting depending on what area I am handling. The good point here is that I am very much grounded in both modern and traditional stories, and I find it easy to choose appropriate setting. Some of the stories in the collection are set in the villages to highlight the culture of the people –the type of culture that seems to be disappearing because of foreign or western influence.

The idea is that whatever level of civilization one attains, culture cannot be joked with, because, without culture one has no roots. The other stories have modern settings for the purpose of bringing the two worlds together. What goes on in my mind in choosing these settings is to tell a story that has both traditional and modern appeals for the advantage of readers. For instance, the title story, The Secret Deal, is set on a modern background in the sense that the story about 419 is most common in cities and towns. So, what figures in my imagination in choosing the setting for this story is where the action is likely to take place and, therefore, the relevance of the story in the quest to teach a lesson.

A traditional setting wouldn’t be appropriate here, because 419 is a social malaise induced by negative consequences of urbanisation. On the other hand, the story Egbi has a traditional setting as a way of protecting the culture of the people especially in terms of marriage and parental influence in one’s choice of who or when to marry in the old days. It is meant to show that even though the affluent gallivant to Dubai, the Caribbean and Disney social circles, like Las Vegas and Mexico City, to celebrate weddings as a show of affluence. Marriage in its original form is grounded on tradition more than the introduction of any artificiality. The setting of the story Agbochini is a typical household to bring out the effect of bad behaviour and indiscipline among youths in the society. So generally what figures in my imagination when it comes to placing emphasis on my choice of setting is the environment and the didactic value or impact of the story within that environment.

How is your juvenilia, The Honourable Chairman, a parable of political misnomer?

The children’s book, The Honourable Chairman, is meant to warn the young ones against being carried away by the extravagant lifestyle of some local government chairmen live closer to them than governors, ministers and so on because they are the Chief Executives of the local governments and villages. When some – and I repeat – some of them, steal local government funds and play around with, the tendency is for the young ones to admire them as models of what they (the children) would like to become in future. That story is meant to inculcate into them from the youthful age, the fear that the wayward way of showing-off ill gotten wealth will eventually spell doom for whoever tries it. My concern for the juvenile audience about our political ideals is for them to look at politics as a worthwhile and decent venture. They should not look at politics as a dirty game. It can only be bad and dirty if one does not play it with decorum like the character in the book called the Honourable Chairman.

In The Soothsayer, you tell the story of clash of cultures. Is the Anyebe phenomenon, depicted in the fiction, symptomatic of travesty or otherwise of our culture in contemporary times?

The Soothsayer is about the culture and practice of the tradition of a people at a particular stage of development. The fact that modernity has eroded people’s culture does not mean that what was practiced then was a travesty to contemporary times. Instead, the modern practice only “colonized”, the traditional culture using western religion and ideals. So, it is good to tell such a story in its raw form to expose the young ones to a culture that had existed but which, unfortunately, they have not grown to meet.

Your novel, The Successors, has been on the reading list of the UTME. In it, you explore the lives of two generations, the Atsens and Armahs. How is the challenge of successors at the heart of the matter?

The challenge posed by The Successors is to the effect that rulership or leadership can be exercised by anyone in a given society without minding the issue of coming from majority or minority tribe. The Successors exposes the fact that one from the minority can even be helped by one from the majority tribe to become the governor of the state. That definitely is a lesson to politicians who use the fact of coming from the majority tribe to oppress those from the minority using the population mantra. For instance, a state where you have two major tribes – one more populated than the other –then the more populous tribe arrogates to itself the sole right of producing the governor, the speaker, the chief judge at all times. The Successors teaches the ethos of peaceful co-existence using generational change.

Your collection of poems, The Magic Year, is styled as poetry in prose and rhymes…

It is styled poetry in prose and rhymes in the sense that some of the poems have free flow of words, while in others conscious efforts are made to engage rhythms and other poetic characteristics just to create beauty, melody & finesse. The Magic Year is about people’s expectation of the new millennium. There was the feeling that the entire world was going to turn to paradise by the year 2000. Good health was going to be at its peak by that year. Education, power, just anything at all you can think about, was going to be available, enough and perfect by the year 2000. So, that collection was put together through the medium of prose and rhymes to herald the new millennium. The style of prose and rhymes was adopted to aid the urgency required to produce the work to meet the target of the year 2000.

Your 2005 poetry anthology, Five Hundred Nigerian Poets, was a significant offering, with its celebration of emergent voices in Nigerian poetry. Are you satisfied with the achievements of this single volume, or are we expecting a second volume?

Five Hundred Nigerian Poets was quite a significant outing, and I am impressed by the warm reception that greeted it. The original intension was to embark on the second volume, but my foray into partisan politics preoccupied me. I am definitely not satisfied with the single volume, but I can assure that volume II is in the offing. Adverts for submission of poems for the second volume will soon be out, and this time around, as many young and up-and-coming or budding writers as possible will be encouraged to use the avenue to launch themselves to the published world.

Your writing includes works of non-fiction on your hometown, Orokam. It also includes Rage of Tear and the Holly Land. Are there certain limitations in fiction that make you resort to non-fiction sometimes?

Orokam is my ancestral home. It is fondly called Orocity, hence the title of one of the poems in the Magic Year. Orokam is one of the three districts in Ogbadibo Local Government Area of Benue State. I have written severally about Orokam and I become very passionate each time am writing about the district. What I have done in most of my writings about Orokam is to employ literary ‘non-fiction’ to tell about my revered village, her people and their culture. I feel the urge to write about her for the purpose of exposing her to fame and prominence world over. So in the course of doing that, I do not bother much about what method I use to achieve my target – friction or non – friction.

The point is that there is no limitation in fiction that prevents writing a good story about Orokam. The resort to using non-fiction is purely discretional and personal, perhaps to satisfy the burning desire in the author to say something about this beauty of a home:


Aroji bo’ Ogrewu

Towers high and nigh

On the boundary,

By the Eastern flank -

The gateway to the North

Buoyed by the effervescence

Of ever fresh palm wine.

That is Orokam for you!

In your work, Web of Conviction, you seem to put politicians on trial for conduct unbecoming. Are you not speaking tongue in check as a politician yourself?

What I have done in the Web of Conviction is to tell a story about politics and politicians and to say that, even though political appointees, we practitioners need to employ decorum in our ways of politicking. Perhaps, as a writer, one does not allow political appointment to becloud one’s perception, because a writer, like the journalist, is a watchdog of the society. So, by way of anecdote the writer-cum political appointee point out what he knows and sees, as politics is being practiced for politicians to be their own judge. So, I feel justified to lay bare issues involved in politicking just for the purpose of advancing the cause of our nascent democracy.

When you say that the political class is put on trial in Web of Conviction, I’m sure of what you mean. Stories are told about what happens before and after elections, about election-related court cases and electoral tribunals and other aspects of politics and politicking. The idea is to tell the story for those interested to be well informed. None of the stories in Web of Conviction puts anyone on trial or indicts anyone with regards to playing politics well or not. That is only between the politician and his or her conscience, because, in the first place, the author is not in any position to judge any politician. He only tells a story from a personal perspective and allows readers to form individual opinions and judgments.

Nobody is put on trial unless you are saying that the storyteller should not tell the story as he sees it. All you should know is that politics is like a game of chess and it is played with lots of expertise by masters of the game. I think the stories in the Web of Conviction show that politics is not a dirty game as claimed by non politicians but a game that deserves deployment of mental alacrity to be able to sail through the myriads of intrigues, maneouvres, betrayals, and so on, that people feel are prevalent in political practice.

Were you disappointed that you did not complete some of the things you set out to achieve as ANA president and are there memories of your tenure you still keep dear to your heart?

I did my best as ANA President. Whatever I didn’t complete during my tenure will definitely be carried on by the succeeding Administration because it is a continuous process. As a writer that I am, you can be sure that I will one day storm the literary scene with my memoirs as ANA president and therein will I pour my heart.

For now, may it suffice to pay that I feel fulfilled having served ANA the way I have done. I rose through the ranks within the organisation. By 1997, I had become Assistant General Secretary in the National Executive. Even as an honourable minister of Nigeria from 2008, I was the vice president of ANA till when I finally emerged as national president. And I thought that, in all those years of service to ANA, I had done all I needed to do to enhance the growth of the noble organisation. But your question is specifically referring to my tenure as ANA President and for that I can assure you that there is nothing I can remember that I purposely failed to do but even if there is any, I believe that the steam will not be lost in the continuum of ANA Administrations.

Soon after you left your ministerial portfolio you were appointed to chair the governing board of NCCE. How did you relish that challenge?

I worked assiduously towards improving the quality of teacher production during my tenure. To that effect, several capacity building workshops were mounted while the curricular were constantly revised and developed to meet current challenges. We made sure that constant monitoring visits were paid to all Colleges of Education both state and private to ensure that quality standards were maintained. In the course of doing that, some sub-standard colleges, especially the privately owned ones, were closed down or made to attain some level of academic and infrastructural development before being allowed to operate.

We also embarked on the process of selecting and nurturing some of the older, well equipped and standard colleges to become degree-awarding and, even though am no longer at the board of the commission, this process is very much on as demonstrated by recent comments by the Honourable Minister of Education. We also ensured that there was industrial peace by the unions, as there was no single strike action in any of the colleges during my tenure. We constantly engaged the unions and managements of the institutions in dialogues when potential areas of misunderstanding were easily nipped at the bud.

Let’s talk a bit of politics; have you given up politics, as you said recently in an interview that you prefer being a kingmaker to an active politician?. Don’t you think your re-entry into mainstream politics can turn around the fortunes of Nigerian writers, or are you just satisfied sitting on the political fence?

A kingmaker is an active politician. It is not only when you contest for elective offices that you are called a politician. I didn’t say that I will not accept political appointments. And whatever position I find myself I will use it to advance the cause of ANA and the Nigerian writer. At this point, I want to use this medium to once again express my sincere condolences to the literary and academic communities and also the Achebe family over the demise of the literary giant, Professor Chinua Achebe.

Back to your question, in terms of a kingmaker being an active politician, let me inform you that recently, I was elected the Secretary of Benue State’s PDP elders committee. The former Senate President and several times minister of the Federal Republic, Dr Iyorchia Ayu, is the chairman, while a chieftain of PDP in the state, Chief Abu King Shuluwa, is the vice chairman. That goes to inform that, as a kingmaker, I am an active party man serving my political party at the highest level in my state.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a literary non-friction, which I hope to release very soon. I will not mention the title to you now, but I believe it will be a major contribution. Just watch out for it.

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