Keynote Address at the 10th Anniversary of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), June 19, 2023, Abuja, Nigeria.
By Professor Niyi Osundare
The Nnimmo Bassey Example
First and foremost, my resounding congratulations to Nnimmo Bassey, founder and nurturer of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), whose ageless organization is one busy decade old this season, thus occasioning a commemoration that provides a much-needed platform for a sober consideration of the plight of this Earth, Our Earth.
Those with no adequate knowledge of the depth and range of Nnimmo Bassey’s commitments in the past three decades would think that his sole preoccupation is ecological activism and the defence, protection, and preservation of the Earth. And they would be right in thinking so; for this warrior has deployed virtually every literary genre (poetry, prose fiction, faction, polemics, satire, travelogue, and journalism), all in a passionate effort at waking up slumbering Humanity to the reality of the ecological Apocalypse that is sure to result from our present environmental nonchalance and denial arising most times from power blindness and unenlightened self-interest.
But Nnimmo Bassey is so many things at one and the same time: architect by training and profession, Humanist by deep persuasion, socio-political thinker-critic by conviction, ecological warrior-activist by inclination. A common thread there is to all these engagements, for Bassey the architect has designed and built for them all one large house with rooms whose doors open to one another, and whose walls are transparent on vital planes. And what makes him such an ‘equal opportunity’ landlord is his possession of that sympathetic imagination and boundless conscientiousness that derive from their sense and essence from intellectual polyvalence enhanced by visionary versatility. For, in the last analysis, what is an architect if not that thinker-doer who lives in a house before it is built? What is the visionary artist if not that curious imaginer who dreams up and fore-sees the future and its yet unborn possibilities?. A remarkable artistic impulse serves as the the organizing principle in Bassey’s multiple thinkings and doings. When Bassey calls Earth our ‘Home’, he does so as an architect who thinks like a poet, and a poet with the intricate figurations of the architect. . . .
Dear listeners, I have come neither to praise Nnimmo Bassey nor to sell him to the world. I just thought you should know the artist whose risky fight for democracy and human dignity during those years of Nigeria’s murderous military dictatorship produced a collection titled Poems on the Run at the time when the poet himself was the one in hiding when General Abacha’s hitmen were out to thrust the bayonet in the mouth of the Human Rights activist, and that unpaid, unprotected warrior who enlisted himself in the Salvation Army of this Earth, Our Earth. That man who stood up for Democracy is the one who keeps standing for the preservation of the Earth, our Home. The binding virtue between these two stances, these two darings, these two activisms is Justice – and its moral and existential imperatives.. . .
But as I have said above, I have not come to praise Nnimmo Bassey, but to show how his conscientiousness seeks to redeem our world, how his words and declarations strive to sustain our sanity; how his Pen protects our Planet.
Bassey and Company
To let you know he is not alone, here are the words of other thinkers, writers, and doers whose overriding missions pertain to the urgency in ‘writing’ this Earth, Our Earth, back to equitable health. Permit me to poach their eco-musings from one of the opening pages of my new book of poems Green: Sighs of Our Ailing Planet:
Ale ni nin a (The Earth owns us)
Ia ni l’ale (We own the Earth)
Ira aye, giri giri ko ni l’ale (People of the world, do not trample the Earth)
Tee jeje; tee jeje (Step gently on it, gently, gently; step gently on it).
We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
— A Native American saying
The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility
— Wendell Berry
The biggest enemy we face is anthropocentrism. This is that common attitude that everything on this Earth was put here for [human] use.
—- Eric Pianka
Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.
Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.
—– Wangari Maathai, Founder of The Greenbelt Movement,
Nobel Peace Laureate
Waters are dying, forests are falling. A desert epidemic stalks a world where the rich and ruthless squander earth’s wealth on the invention of increasingly accomplished weapons of death, while millions of people perish daily from avoidable hunger.
Tomorrow bids us tread softly, wisely, justly, lest we trample the eye of the EARTH.
—– Preface to The Eye of the Earth, 1986.
Let us come right home, to the Delta, hotspot of Nigeria’s environmental degradation, showpiece of the country’s criminal neglect. Yes, the Delta, the goose that lays Nigeria’s golden egg. This region is not only the epicenter of the use and abuse of the country’s oil fortune, it is also home to and place of origin of some of Nigeria’s most accomplished literary figures whose works teem with deep and disturbing revelations of the plight of a once admirable eco-paradise.
This is the home and base of Gabriel Omomotimi Okara, Poet of the Delta, Poet of the World, Poet of the River Nun which, once a clean, majestic phenomenon, now flows “tiredly” towards the Atlantic Ocean, weighted down by the debris of a disintegrating environment. J.P. Clark surveyed the entire region, the wheeling and dealing involved in the oil trade and its deleterious consequences for the whole region. All for All was veteran Clark’s literary presentation of the situation, complete with its historical trickeries and their contemporary repercussions.
The Ken Saro Wiwa Legacy
How can we recount the tragedy of our Delta without a prominent but painful mention of Ken Saro Wiwa, the most famous martyr of the Ogoni resistance who called the world’s attention to the horrors of the Delta’s Darkling Plain before he and other patriots were hanged for telling Nigerian rulers that oil pollution was killing the land and poisoning the rivers even as gas flares burnt out the difference between night and day, and human life counted for a little less than half a barrel of the ‘sweet crude’. Ken never underrated the weight of the burden he had to shoulder, nor did he the reptilian ferocity of military (and complicit foreign oil companies) that were after his life. I remember with aching contemplation the last time I saw him during a brief but loaded visit at my humble University of Ibadan apartment, with a copy of his new book, This Darkling Plain in his hand. As he handed me this book, he said something to this effect: This is for you, Niyi. Read it and see if you consider it worth reviewing. May be in it are my last words. But if they kill me, they cannot kill my spirit; they cannot kill the Movement. They cannot kill ALL my people. My tongue felt heavy in my mouth; my eyes were wet. Ironically, it was Ken himself who patted me on my shoulders and said with a diplomatically easy assurance, ‘All will be well’.
But has it? The environmental and socio-economic justice for which Ken laid down his life never came the way he wanted it. But that short man stands tall with us as we gather here today, his patented pipe between his lips, his brainy, mischievous voice ringing in our ears. Those who denied him the right to a “decent grave” have only succeeded in securing one for him in the hearts and minds of all friends of this Earth, OUR Earth. Ken must have presaged Ogaga Ifowodo and that man with “a grudge in Warri”, who clinched his resolution with these immortal words: “I’m going to live even if I die first” The Oil Lamp, p. 62).
The Wiwa Legacy continues: the idea of the Writer as Righter; environmental justice; assuring Nature a place to breathe; picking your share and leaving the garden better than you met it; allowing the river to move and meander its way towards an ocean free of plastic debris; making acid rain a thing of some careless past; sparing the trees and the forests which sustain our lives; guaranteeing clean air, the vital friend of the lungs of our Planet, doing everything in every way in every place to secure the future, the future, the Future… .
The Wiwa Legacy is alive in Tanure Ojaide’s Delta Blues when he remembers, without forgetting to remind us, about those days “When green was the lingua franca” (p.12) in the Delta, “This share of paradise, the delta of my birth” (p. 21), where the Omoja River was source of life and soul and sustenance, before oil cartels turned the waters into a “poisonous brew” (p. 21)
Ogaga Ifowodo’s stupendously crafted, epic-like The Oil Lamp focuses in achingly gripping detail on the horrid happenings in this “Cesspit of the Niger Area” where Ogoni’s agony is grave and, like the beleaguered folks of Odi, the people couldn’t help wondering “what fate buried oil in their patch of earth” (p.31). The Delta’s oil lamp is the type designed to generate loss rather than light, mayhem instead of mirth, a frightfully accurate metaphor for the wickedly ignored oil flares that have turned the lives of the people, and the existence of the flora and fauna of the Niger Delta into a blazing nightmare. Ifowodo’s figurations compel stomach-churning similarities with those of Stephen Kekeghe, another poet whose Delta has been corrupted into a “wilting mangrove” whose “gas flares freeze your breath,/darken your lungs and livers” (p. 40); very much the same Delta in Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears published about two decades before. There are two kinds of lamps in Ifowodo’s meticulously detailed body of poems: the one whose flares consume with exploitative, incendiary madness; and the other whose true and tender flame illuminates the path to sanity, equity, fellow feeling, unqualified respect for this Earth, Our Earth and the human beings who live on and with it. Ifowodo’s lamp is the type which knows how to illuminate the path to a just Future.
Nnimmo Bassey even “thought it was oil” before discovering “it was blood”. Blood and oil, oil and blood. Which came first? Which comes with a more frightening colour? Which is thicker? Which is cheaper? Which is dearer? Which is backed by a large, unaccountable army? Which has no army beside its moral force? Which issues from a kind and tender heart? Which has no heart and lacks a human soul?
We Thought It Was Oil represents Bassey at his most reflective, cogitative, and moralistic mode. Manifest here are themes such as existential interdependency:
has no light
There is also the playful but sarcastic musing in “We are very rich…/That is why we are so poor” (p. 64); a mock-Edenic suggestiveness in “the garden of silence” (p. 62), “The tree of forgiveness” (p. 63), the scourge of amnesia – all culminating in a call for an end to indolent and/or willful complicity, and the urgency of the need for action:
That’s what we can do
And must (p. 29)
The earnest, humanistic passion in this clarion call sounds like an anticipatory prologue to Bassey’s next collection, I Will Not Dance to Your Beat (2011), where a title cast in a simple declarative sentence serves as a faithful predictive intro to the poems which populate the book. The weird world here is one in which kids dance “in acid rain” (p. 54), a world of “cold summers and warm winters” (p. 41), where “today’s battles were lost yesterday” (p. 25), where the rich and powerful are busy “turning our forests into toothpicks for their absent teeth” (p. 61). The deliberative tone and purpose of virtually all the poems in this book are captured in “Reclaiming our humanity, our memory”, its frank, laconic foreword. Its combative, transgressive, “fist-clenched” (p. 38), “Justice now” (p. 31) method is reflected in the activist temperament that runs through the entire collection. Bassey’s ideological purpose assumes a missionary force in the last three lines of the foreword:
“Wielding every cultural weapon at our disposal, let’s raise our fists, our voices, and stamp our feet on the earth, reclaiming our humanity” (pp. 8-9).
As if he heard Bassey’s loud exhortation before it was ever uttered, Greg Mbagiorgu, the Nigerian scholar, playwright, and theatre artist, dreamt up an anthology of poems on one of the most vital sustainers of human life: Water. And he took no time in prodding that dream into action. The result is a 152-page book containing poems by some of Nigeria’s prominent poets, with impressive variations on the chosen theme, and remarkable emphasis on the place of water in the Planet’s eco system. No one could have been clearer about the purpose and import of the anthology than Mbagiorgu himself:
“Water Testaments…. is an anthology of water-related poems designed to stimulate the process of finding lasting solution to the global water crises. It is interesting that this collection is coming from Africa, which is the continent worst hit by water scarcity and other water-related problems”. (p.13).
Mbagiorgu goes on to clarify the vision and drive behind his project:
“In this volume, a number of poets – all of them Nigerian – are exploring this medium as an artistic way of consolidating and supporting the World Water Council’s main objective which is ‘to establish water as priority in public policy’. One unforgettable lesson from the 4th Water Forum is that ‘solving water problem is everybody’s issue that must be tackled in a holistic and multi-disciplinary manner” (p. 13). In Mbagiorgu’s opinion, “Only poetry can provide the images and the metaphoric premises that can enable us to “transcend our ordinary ways of dealing with this indispensable natural resource (p. 5) The main purpose of the project, Mbagiorgu concludes, is to minimize “the extent to which we abuse water or take it for granted” (p. 16). In this refreshingly novel way of encouraging the creation of a “new world water culture”, Mbagiorgu taps into the thoughts and talents of some 68 Nigerian poets (including himself) with “diverse backgrounds” and “diverse experiences” (Emenyonu, (p.10). It is impossible to read the poems in this anthology without listening carefully to the vital testimonies of Water, its primordial preeminence, its liquid lyricism, and, alas, its perilous tribulations in the hands of eco-plunderers. Every poem sounds like a soldier in the salvation army of this Earth, Our Earth.
Environmental and Allied Forms of (In) Justice
Restoring our Planet to environmental justice is surely more than the responsibility of the writer, for that branch of justice is both a part and a consequence of other forms of justice. To address it, we must confront the monsters of political and socio-economic inequity at both national and international levels; for in the final analysis, there is a link between the brutality we inflict on the environment and the one which characterizes our relationship to fellow human beings. Historical and contemporary realities are replete with instances of such brutality and its recurring barbarity. One of them is the unholy alliance between advanced nations which ship off their hazardous wastes to the so-called developing, but actually impoverished, parts of the world where mercenary native agents are all too willing to accept and hide them for pecuniary rewards. Needless to say, this cannibal complicity has serious ecocidal implications. To this frightful situation must be added the often ignored logical connection between socio-economic well being and environmental health. You cannot sell the need for the preservation of trees to a poor community whose population depend on firewood for all its fuel/cooking needs. Nor can you prevent them from turning portions of their land into open dung hills unless you provide them with sanitary, accessible toilet facilities. In other words, a world in which the rich and powerful derive their power and wealth from the exploitation and pauperization of the less privileged cannot hope to achieve environmental justice. For one justice begets another.
Often overlooked (or tendentiously ignored) in our considerations is the fact that one person’s environmental problem may be everybody’s ecological concern. The same sky looms above our heads; our continents are washed by common oceans. This is why the Nigerian Delta which constitutes the major burden of this lecture is Nigerian by physical location but global by ecological implications. When one finger gets smeared by oil, the other fingers should be wise enough to know that they cannot escape the stain. The literary works featured in this study have not only drawn attention to the environmental horrors of one of Nigeria’s richest but most abused regions, they have also challenged us to think and feel, to see and hear. And act. For therein lies our will to power, and the test of all that is HUMAN is us. What better way to end this piece, then, than the way it began, with Nnimmo Bassey’s simple but emboldening lines:
That’s what we can do
And must (emphasis mine)
Congratulations, my brother, Nnimmo, Friend of the Earth, Poet on the Run.
Thank you for the HOMEF initiative.
By Professor Niyi Osundare
BASSEY, N. 2008. We thought it was oil but it was blood. Ibadan: Kraft Books
BASSEY, N. 2011. I Will Not Dance to Your Beat. Ibadan: Kraft Books.
BERRY, W. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/53287-the-care-of-the-earth-is-our-most-ancient-and
IKIRIKO, I. 2000. Oily Teas. Ibadan: Kraftbooks
IFOWODO, O. 2005. The Oil Lamp. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
KEKEGHE, S. 2020. Rumbling Sky. Ibadan:Kraft Books
MAATTHAI, W. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/16411-today-we-are-faced-with-a-challenge-that-calls-for
MBAGIORGU, G. 2008. Water Testaments: Anthology of Poems on Water and Water-Related Issues. Enugu: Snaap Press.
OJAIDE, T. 1998. Delta Blues. Ibadan: Kraft Books
OSUNDARE, N, 2022. Green: Sighs of Our Ailing Planet. Boston, US: Black Widow Press
OSUNDARE, N. 2006 The Eye of the Earth, Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books
PIANKA, E . https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1447256