As a high school student in Ibadan during the civil war years, travelling Theatre, from those led by Hubert Ogunde and Moses Olaiya came calling on campus. They made us laugh and they made us learn. Then the night died, a sector of the economy went into relapse as culture experienced collapse. Everywhere you looked the consequence stirred at you, from challenged pockets to the lost smile from faces and the sour politics of the land with the tension it breeds. I recently found a spelling for relief on this matter. And it is passionate people.
During the holiday season just passed, I got invited, with my wife, to see a production by Bolanle Austen Peters. Wakaa – the musical, by this remarkable Lawyer, who has become a guardian of culture with her initiatives at Terra Kulture. Her production was running next door, at MUSON Centre, to another musical, by another passionate lawyer which I had seen a year earlier, Kakadu, the musical spearheaded the senior Advocate of Nigeria Uche Nwokedi. In many ways this reflection is as much a tribute to people like them and the power of their talent unfolded through the medium they use to shape our future and help draw strength from salutary parts of our past, as it is a critique of the culture economy.
Wakaa, from the prism I viewed it, was a happy, playful way of saying something I say everyday about how me missed the bush path and left progress in suspended animation; the collapse of culture, the idolatry of money worship, and politics blinded to service and knowledge as the basis for public choice as the triumphalism of self-love made the arena of public life what we see unfolding in the corruption investigations rocking the country.
The story of Wakaa and Kakadu tell the story of a continent that saw modern power and forgot purpose, but more importantly forgot how purpose germinates from the seeds sown in socialization of generations through vehicles of culture like drama, music, Art and the values transmitted through them. The decline of the culture platform is not exclusive to Nigeria. Theatre was practically dead in Ghana until recently. Just like the extraordinary work of Mrs Austen – Peters and others like Nwokedi have begun a process of return, Ghana has gone further with Ebo Whyte more popularly known there as uncle Ebo, in Accra bringing Theatre back from the dead.
So what went wrong. I became an Art collector as an undergraduate, before my 20th birthday. The first Artwork I bought was by Tayo Adenaike who was a contemporary in the University, but has become globally renown today. So when CVL honoured Bruce Onobrakpeya and the theme of the colloquium was ‘Art as Bandage’ it was a reflection on how Art has healed wounds and captured our experience that may never return forever. But I look out there and wonder why this generation is ignorant of how Art can help it get real about life’s journeys.
Back in the late 1960s and 70s Theatre was a great part of culture on our campuses. At the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria in those days immediately after the Civil War with traditional Auditorium like the Princess Alexandera Auditorium, destroyed during the war, we still had campus life defined by Theatre Singer/Actress students like Ori Enyi, later Ori Okoroh, who tantalized us all with riveting performances at the Arts Theatre and had all of us humming “a drop…a drop.. a drop of honey” as we went about our daily chores and studies. When years later the likes of Chuck Mike invited me to the Board of Performance Studio workshop and did remarkable thing using drama to communicate the need for social change I felt the privilege of making a contribution. To host people like Taiwo Ajayi – Lycett discussing how theatre could be used to heal society in our home about 1992 was being part of Art as bandage even though I lacked the talent to act or paint.
Culture matters and we can see that in how the Theatre of my times at Loyola College when the Yoruba folk songs extolled hard work as it acknowledged farming, as the occupation of the people, and charged that the fate of those who could not work hard was damnation to stealing. Today with the lost voices chanting “ise agbe ni ise ile wa’. what they hear is ‘ise kekere Owo nla’. Small work, big money is anchor of current disposition of low integrity in culture and why transaction costs are high in today’s Nigeria and, therefore, the disposition towards uncompetitiveness in the economy. Therein lies the Bain of the development challenge.
Even more alluring for the place of culture in the pursuit of modernity in Nigeria is that it has economic value. If talk about diversification of the base of the economy is to gain traction one of the first low hanging fruits is to use culture to create employment and create a good income for young people. When I gave the keynote address at the conference marking 40 years of the National Council for Arts and culture, in Abuja last year, I pointed to the possible impact on jobs, growing tourism and polishing national reputation if every major state capital, at least beginning with every zone, had a complex in which local Arts and craft were produced and marketed, with restaurants packaging local delicacies, in contemporary attractive form; and hotels and possible convention centre as part of the complex. But our leadership elite is too lazy and hard to be weaned off dependence on cheap money minted in an enclave oil sector, usually by a few foreigners, adding little value to the economy.
These sentiments were further hit on Boxing Day last December 26th,a day I spent largely inside Ikoyi prisons, as the church took love to those often forgotten. Besides the pain of seeing that most who were there had no reason to be there, the marvel of that particular journey, as different from the one at Easter when it powed cats and dogs and we were struggling to hold up the canopy as worship went on, this trip revealed how much talent was locked up in prisons. The inmates, who in the euphemisms that colored the lexicon of that happy celebration of redemptive essence of Christmas, were called team mates, entertained us with drama, standup comedy, music and poetry, showcasing talent that was amazing. It was clear to me that day that if we are to reap this demographic dividend that our youth bulge offers we should be packaging such young talent for commercial value and not keeping them locked up for years because they cannot come up with a twenty thousand Naira bail bond or cannot afford a lawyer to represent them.
Just as this is essentially gratitude offered to the Bolanle Austen – Peters and Uche Nwokedis of this world, it is also gratitude to the Prison officials who see human beings, not animals, in those people behind high walls; often forgotten, simply because they are poor, and poorly connected, in this society of might is right.
Pat Utomi Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.
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