How I survived Hurricane Katrina – Niyi Osundare


Niyi Osundare

After moving to the United States in 1997 to teach English at the University of New Orleans, foremost poet and dramatists, Prof. Niyi Osundare was caught up in the August 23, 2005 Hurricane Katrina. His account of his ordeal in that storm made for interesting listening at the 2015 Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta. Niyi Osundare was the headline guest at the festival. He came with a reputation packed in a humble suitcase but still there was always a buzz of excitement every time he was spotted in the crowd of writers and book lovers at the festival.

His simplicity bellied his reputation. When one sees him at a table at dinner, eating fufu and back slapping with fellow writer and academic Pius Adesanmi, his head of greying hair rolling from side to side as he laughed, one would have thought Adesanmi, a professor in his own right, is conversing with a peer he hadn’t seen for a long time. Osundare was always smiling, shaking hands with the people who on seeing him, would stop to pay homage. When he stood up, he seemed taller than one had anticipated and his handshake is firm and gentle. It is hard to visualise this man clinging for dear life, that grip held on to the ceiling in  his basement, trying hard not to be swept away in the flood Hurricane Katrina had unleashed.

Having left his post as the Head of the Department of English at the University of Ibadan in 1997, where his reputation as a poet and playwright of note grew, Osundare moved to New Orleans, where he is a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, USA. It was there ten years ago that Hurricane Katrina struck.

Osundare and his wife couldn’t get away in time because they had to ensure a guest staying with them caught her flight out.

“There was nothing to be done. So I thought we could ride it out in our basement,” Osundare told a packed hall at the Ake Festival.

He spoke with the skills and demeanour of a practiced storyteller and had the audience hanging to his every word, oohing and aahing at every significant turn of the story.

When the hurricane hit, Osundare and his wife were tucked in their basement hoping to see it through. Their house stood firm but was soon vanquished by the flood the hurricane had unleashed. At this point in the story, the audience oohed again. They oohed even more when they heard that Osundare’s entire library was destroyed by the water and when he recounted how the basement was flooded, the audience was too stunned to react.

“I was hanging to the ceiling, my legs were in the water, and I was afraid I would get tired, let go and drown,” Osundare said.

He kept encouraging his wife to hold on as long as she could and she did. He had thought help would come quickly, but it took forever. Slowly, the hours tricked by.

“I was in that position for 26 hours!”

At this, the crowd went Ahhhhh! They could almost visualise it. This gracefully aging man, this legacy of Nigerian letters, clinging to a piece of fitment, terrified of letting go, terrified of dying in dirty waters, clinging on for 26 hours. It was a long wait. A long time in which Osundare would reflect on his childhood back in Ekiti and the legacy of his father, a farmer in Ikerre, Ekiti, where Osundare was born.

His father was unschooled and Osundare remembered rushing home from school with his report cards, clad in uniforms made from the cotton his father had farmed. His father could not read, but what he knew then was that a report card with predominantly red ink was indicative of good performance.

“When he sees more black ink than red, he would ask if those who had more red ink had two heads?” Osundare said.

He also spoke of his father’s unusual library. “My father had a library. It was made of yams,” he said.

He thought also of his mother and her days of nurturing. He thought of all the things he could have done and would have done for her. But while his ordeal lasted, his mother back in Nigeria had no idea what was happening to him. Though she was sitting in her living room watching TV, her other son, Osundare’s brother, ensured she never found out what was happening in New Orleans. Every time the news came on about Hurricane Katrina, his brother would change the channel.

The hours passed. The hurricane passed. In his basement, Osundare and his wife were still holding on. He was tired and his grip was loosening. He had no idea how long he could hold on. And then there was some noise from outside.

Imagine here an audience in a cinema sitting on the edge of their seats, watching their hero, aging and fatigued and at the verge of falling into the water patiently waiting to claim his life. Imagine the collective sigh of relief as a dues ex machina comes to the rescue of the hero, plucking him out of the jaws of death. In this instance, the dues ex machine that came to Osundare’s rescue was his Mexican neighbour. He owed his life to this Mexican.

“This man hardly spoke any English, but he knew we were there. So as soon as he got the chance, he came round to the house and was banging and banging and calling out,” Osundare said.

1, 833 people died in that tragedy. Osundare would not be one of them. Plucked out of the waters, he saw for the first time the devastation Katrina had visited on his community and the poor attempt at rescuing people.

“America got it wrong with Katrina. America got it completely wrong,” he said, shaking his head.

He and his wife were moved from one camp to another and he never got the chance to lay on a proper bed until about 72 hours later.

“I don’t know how it happened but the moment I fell onto the bed, I fell into a heavy sleep. In this sleep, my mother visited me,” he said.

In his dream, Osundare saw his mother, who at that point still had no idea what was happening. But while he slept, she came to him, singing, dancing and chanting his praise names and titles. And then she said to him, “No flood in a foreign land would claim you.”

And here, the audience applauded euphorically.

It was a fitting pay off for an enthralling story told by a man who has ways with words. Of course Osundare has gone on to publish City Without People: The Katrina Poems, a collection dedicated to the horrendous disaster that almost claimed his life and another collection titled Random Blues since then. But nothing beats hearing the tales first hand. Osundare tells is so well. But here in the Abeokuta evening warmth, with his story over, he leans back in his chair and surveys his audience. He is only 68. There are still more poems in this man, many more years of teaching and many more awards to add to his 2014 Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA) for academic excellence. But the memory of those days in August of 2005 will remain with him.



Madonna del Parto: The Art of Faith

A work of art that draws not only tourists and art lovers from all over the world, but also pregnant women and those hoping to have children

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I find this fresco really curious

Monterchi, is a small Italian municipality nestled on the hills not far from Arezzo. At the heart of this sleepy hill town is a famous artwork that straddles the divide between art and faith and has drawn millions of people from around the world.
In the 15th century, early renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca travelled to his mother’s village, Monterchi, to be by her side as she died. In a period of seven days, he worked on a mural on a church wall which has become the most significant cultural attraction of the town and remains so till date.
Piero’s fresco titled Madonna del Parto was unusual even then because it featured a depiction of a pregnant Virgin Mary flanked by two angels. Such depictions were unheard of. The Virgin was often depicted with a child, not pregnant.
The fresco was completed, (possibly around 1460) using blu olteremare drawn from lapis lazuli imported all the way from Afghanistan and 500 years later, despite exposure to the elements and surviving a devastating earthquake, it retains its original colours.
The Virgin Mary, donning in a blue maternity gown, posing modestly with her face cast down is thought by some experts to be bearing the expression of a woman who is contemplating her pregnancy. Others see the face of a belaboured woman entrusted with a burden she wasn’t prepared for. Whatever it was, her face tells its own story, one that may be far from the acceptable narrative that has been fostered and handed down over the centuries.
By her side, there are two winged angels, obviously drawn from the same cartoon flipped over, holding aloft the curtains of a tent featuring arabesque looking directly at the spectator.
For centuries, the fresco stood on the wall it was painted on, in the Santa Maria di Momentana, until the little church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1785. The upper part of the fresco was affected, but the rest of it survived and was detached and moved to the new cemetery chapel. And in the intervening years, the shroud of time covered the painting and its origins in mystery.
It was not until 1889 that Piero was identified as the painter of the work. To date no one knows exactly why he chose to paint it in that little church or why he chose to portray a pregnant Madonna and no one knows who commissioned the work.
In 1992 the fresco, now only a fragment of a wall, was moved to Museo della Madonna del Parto, a musuem in Monterchi dedicated solely to the fresco.
In the museum’s reception, Sara Boncompagni directed proceedings from her place behind a counter. She ushered people into the souvenir shop where key holders, mugs and other memorabilia bearing marks of the fresco are sold.
“We receive about 35 thousand visitors annually,” Sara said.
Many of the visitors are pregnant women or women hoping to conceive. For these women, visiting the museum is not just tourism or even art appreciation, it is a pilgrimage.
“Many of them come here to offer prayers to the Madonna to bless them and help them with their pregnancy,” Sara said.

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Sara Boncompagni

In the main exhibition room, the Madonna del Parto was installed on a wall and well lighted. The temperature and humidity is controlled to preserve the fresco. Against a wall there was a lone bench where visitors can sit down and enjoy the artwork.
A cardboard box was placed just beside the painting. It was almost filled with scraps of papers, mostly handwritten notes in Italian. They were special prayers and wishes by the women seeking the intervention of the Madonna in their quests to have children.
A woman came in and knelt before the fresco. She bowed her head in sullen devotion, and muttered prayers under her breath. Finally she crossed herself and left.
“They believe the Madonna can intervene for them,” Sara explained. “It is a matter of faith and has been going on for years and years.”
Every now and then the notes in the box are collected and incinerated. No one reads them.
“They are meant for the Madonna,” Sara said “We would love to keep them but we get so many of them that we don’t have the space to keep them.”
In the other room of the museum, there is the extensive souvenir shop where postcards, pencils, T-Shirts and more souvenir branded with the Madonna are sold. In another room, there were other artefacts connected with the fresco. One was another fresco of a dome commissioned much, much later to replace what was lost in the earthquake when the original suffered some damages. The difference in the quality of the two works and the materials used is quite clear even to an untrained eye. The later fresco has faded while the original retains its more regal hues.
As popular as the fresco is, much of its history has gone largely undocumented and even today, no one can tell why Piero decided to paint a pregnant Madonna. Experts have hazarded that it may have something to do with the old pre-Christian fertility tradition in Monterchi. In the old days, women climbed up the hill and bathed in a spring thought to possess some miraculous fertility powers.
When Christianity came, that practice was replaced with a devotion to a wooden figure of the Virgin Mary. Whether Piero’s fresco draws from this tradition remains unclear.
What is certain however is that this painting, in this little museum has made Monterchi a haven for people who seek the face of the Madonna, whether for arts, culture or pregnancy.

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Tourists appreciating the fresco


First published in Daily Trust, January 3, 2016



Book Talk

‘Protest poems are my responses to social injustice’

Efe Paul Azino is one of the outstanding spoken words poets making a name for himself in Nigeria. His debut publication, “For Broken Men Who Cross Often” a book that comes with a CD of his recorded poems, is garnering rave reviews. He is also the director of the Lagos International Poetry Festival. In this interview Efe talks about, the poetry festival, the future of spoken word in relation to written poetry and what poetry means to him. Enjoy!


Efe Paul Azino

Efe Paul Azino

Your first poetry collection, For Broken Men Who Cross Often, is coming some 15 years after you set out as a performance poet. Why did it take this long for you to bring out a collection?

I think it was primarily an issue of timing between having a ready manuscript and a publisher willing to take the risk. I had been writing actively for about 17 years. But few presses were publishing poetry and I wasn’t going to self-publish. Besides, I had my sights, in Nigeria, on two publishing outfits and I was willing to wait until the elements aligned. I was also pretty much preoccupied with the stage at the time so that kept any publishing anxieties I had at bay for a while.

One of the foremost performance poets in the country Sage Hasson has said that he doesn’t believe poetry was meant to be written down. To what extent do you agree or differ from this view, especially seeing that you have just published a collection?

There was poetry pre-literacy. Before Guttenberg there were griots, bards and troubadours. The Iliad and The Odyssey came to us, originally, in oral form as did The Canterbury Tales. The oral tradition predates the literary. But these are just mediums. Each with its own convention. None superior to the other. Essentially, poetry is not defined by its medium. Both traditions have given us great works of beauty, truth and rigour. Our dance is to the song, not to the vehicle that brings it to us.

Publishers across the world are reluctant to take on poetry, forcing poets to self-publish their works, yet Farafina, through its Kamsi imprint, decided to take on your collection. Can you tell us what led to this deal? How did it come about?
I have had a relationship with Kachifo since about 2010 and we have had on and off discussions about producing an audio compilation of my works since there weren’t publishing poetry at the time but were tinkering with the idea of audio books. We resumed discussions again in 2013 and I sent in a query letter. I guess there was a stronger business case for it this time. Spoken Word Poetry was gaining mainstream appeal and I had built a fan base over the years so there was a ready market as it were. We could marry both traditions. Do what Homer couldn’t do. Have the poems speak aurally and in text. A year later, we reached an agreement, signed a contract and here we are. Time will tell how sensible a risk it was to take on the part of Kachifo, but if the early signs are anything to go by, I’ll wager that it was a good one.

One interesting thing about this collection is the mix of strident social criticisms, such as in “Justice Has Been Kidnapped” and the immigrant experience like “Yesterday We Ran”. What informed the choices of the themes that went into this collection?
I have built an oeuvre of protest poems over the last decade, or more, because it was the only way I felt I could respond to the persistent social injustice and structural dislocations perpetuated by Nigeria’s broken democracy. There’s a certain level of socio-political engagement I consider necessary under such circumstances, one that does not preclude artistic rigor or sacrifice the beauty of form and content that poetry demands, one that sometimes spills out from the page and stage to the streets. But if For Broken Men Who Cross Often has any overarching theme, it is liminality, particularly the exploration of the liminal space between dreams and their actualization.

Often poetry is personal and relative to the experience of the poet. How much of yourself did you invest in this collection?

TS Eliot considered the best poetry to be impersonal and that the poet’s responsibility was to find the exact words for thoughts and feelings, put the reader or listener in touch with it, and disappear from the picture, personal feelings, biography and all. I agree. Somewhat. But there is a sense in which fixing precise words to ambiguous moods requires you to be in touch with your feelings, to mine the personal, trusting it converges, universally, with the human experience. So yes, there is a lot of the personal in the book and there are one or two poems, like Dream Country, that give up their biographical slant.

Most performance poets would have been ok releasing just CDs of their spoken word. Why was it important for you to have a book to go along with it?

I have always wanted a hybrid output that marries both the oral and literary traditions. Not all spoken word poems need to pass the test of the page. A good poem is not defined by how well it sits on paper. That said, I think it’s important to master both mediums, to understand their conventions. Getting the poems across to people in the medium most convenient for them was important to me. So there’s a book for those who would rather read poetry and a CD for those who prefer to listen.

Indeed. So why do you think spoken word is all the rave now?
The audience for poetry is declining and increasing. What is being lost on the page is being gained on the stage. You are most likely to find an open mic venue where poets gather before an eclectic mix of enthusiasts in almost every city in the world. It’s the immediacy of it. It’s poetry in all its power demanding no particular level of cultural capital or competence to access it. It’s the urgency of its themes. How it’s direct yet sublime. And of course it comes with its challenges, as with every other genre of literature and performance. Part of which borders on quality, on a low bar of entry that permits every person able to make two sentences rhyme to don the toga of poet, affix it to their names on Facebook and Twitter handles and tag the universe in every post. But hey, let a thousand flowers bloom…

Do you see foresee spoken word dominating poetry in the traditional sense that we know it, especially as poetry collections are mostly read by poets, whereas spoken word appeals to even non poets. Is spoken word a threat to traditional forms of poetry?

I think both forms will always exist side by side. But poetry is reaching a larger audience through spoken word and this, most likely, will continue. There will be more audio CDs, accompanied with videos, coming out. But books will endure. Their numbers may dwindle but there will always be those who access poetry via the page and its attending conventions. Will this affect the quality of poetry in the long term? Yes and no. There will be a lot more dross. But every generation will throw up its Homers, its Seamus Heaneys, its J.P Clarks, Its Okot p’Biteks, its Warsan Shires. Both traditions will endure. But spoken word poetry will expand the audience for the art form more than the page.

In your poem “This is Not a Political Poem” the poet offers to lead the people to march against the corrupt government. Do you subscribe to the view that writers should be the vanguard in the fight for social justice?

Writers are citizens too. If they feel so aggrieved then by all means, yes. Fight! Most writers have a heightened sense of justice, of fidelity to truth and equity. This finds expression on the page. But there are urgent moments that require a certain kind of strategic engagement with the forces of oppression and repression. I feel a sense of responsibility to engage politically. But this is personal. If writers, as citizens, on an individual level, feel a compulsion to engage, great. But you won’t find  me  judging  passivity.
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You are the director of the Lagos Poetry Festival. Can you tell us why it became important to organize this festival?
Myself and the poet Titilope Sonuga had just concluded teaching a workshop for a Dutch based organization called Waza Africa and somehow veered off into a discussion about the growing army of young people engaging with poetry and the attending dearth of quality, a common complaint. So my plan, initially, was to do something about it, to run a three day workshop, throw in about two panel discussions and round off with an evening of performances. But I started to feel like I was cradling the head of an idea, one I wasn’t going to find satisfaction pursuing until I embraced its full form – a festival, something on an international scale. This was a thought I had flirted with in 2013 but balked at. This time I decided to go for it. What we set out to do was to create an annual point of convergence, in Lagos, for poets and artists from across Nigeria and the world, to engage the art form and its interaction with society, cater to the growth needs of young and established poets alike through master classes, create shared performance spaces, engender collaborations and hurl our songs at the wind for three days. There was no international poetry festival in West Africa prior to this. It had to happen. And it did.

Inevitably, yes. What are the places of festivals like this in furthering discourse on literature?
Festivals promote creativity and diversity. They bring a range of writers, poets, and artists into dialogue with themselves, the consumers of their works and society at large, and put a necessary spotlight on particular books and authors. There is a certain energy and drive you leave a space like the Ake Book and Art Festival with. There is buzz around literature these festivals generate that positively affect book sales as well. There are necessary conversations that linger. It’s exciting to see what’s happening with the growing number of festivals now running across the continent. We must continue to encourage and support this trend, not gripe about who was or wasn’t invited.

One challenge with staging festivals like this is continuity. What plans are you making to ensure that this festival continues for years to come?

We had a reasonably successful first outing and there is a confidence that gives going into the next. The key thing is to keep creating value, value for the artists, attendees, sponsors and the city at large. A festival or event that creates and sustains value will perpetuate itself, all other things being equal. Our sponsors are happy, more organizations have indicated interest, we have poets sending in messages from across the world who want to get involved. I believe we are unto something. Lagos International Poetry Festival 2016 will definitely be a more robust and exciting affair.

Shall we talk about you now? How did poetry come to you? How did you first encounter poetry?
Poetry came to me via books. Interestingly, through prose. I read and still read more prose than I do poetry. So I started out trying to write short stories. But each short story I wrote wanted to become a poem. But language, generally, has always fascinated me.

What next should your fans expect from you?
I’m currently working on a book-length poem called The History of Clothes. Also on touring a spoken word theatre production called Finding Home which I’m producing and performing in and which is directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr. across Accra, Nairobi, Jo’burg and Cape Town.

First publish in Daily Trust, Dec 26 2015