May 30, 2020

Hearing the voice of the voiceless at Betty Abah’s Abuja reading

The April edition of the Abuja Writers’ Forum’s Guest Writer Session had a poet whose work captured, not just personal, but some of the far-reaching effects, on ordinary people, of the challenges  that confront the nation, TUNJI AJIBADE writes.

 

“I planned to read the poem, and I had thought that maybe it would make some in the audience  cry.” That was what Betty Abah said as an introduction to one of the poems she read at the International Institute of Journalism where she was the Guest Writer of Abuja Writers’ Forum, AWF. She didn’t need to say it loud on that occasion. And that is because anyone who reads the volumes of work of this well-travelled, and highly decorated journalist who was formerly on the stables of Newswatch and TELL magazines would not but feel what she meant, and shed tears for the downtrodden, the voiceless that were majorly the focus of her poems. But then the emphasis once again was more on how effectively she had utilized her genre to convey to the society many an inhuman condition. She used literature to serve a useful and known purpose on that score, and of some of her works, a participant had said, “You score a big blow for women.”  That was just one subject in Abah’s work that could make a reader shed tears for the human condition especially in Nigeria. It is because she wrote what she feels, and captured how others feel too.

The various subjects in her three volumes of poetry collection resonate with her readers, and one reason is because there is this delicious, down-to-earth touch to her writing. It made some in her audience ask why she writes the way she does, and if she has preference for any specific style of poetry writing. “I don’t have any particular style. I write the way I am inspired,” she said. And she got inspired by the things she sees and what she dreams. Incomprehensible God! is one outcome of such. And there is Peace. Both are in the collection titled, Sound of Broken Chain. That title, also the title of one the poems in the same book cannot be detached from her strong belief in the possibility of a man undergoing profound changes. “When a man who drinks too much alcohol, or that is mad is changed, chain is broken.” One could see the change that he is no longer mad; “it is like a proof, the sound of a broken chain,” she explained. That turn around in the life of any human being she believes so much in. Such is enough to make anyone cry because of the relief inherent in the experience, and her religious background is one reason. “My writing is my expression of my being, so you cannot remove religion from me,” she stated while responding to a question on why she takes on her kind of subjects.

One of her other poetry collection is Pending Thoughts. And there is her third  collection, Go Tell The King. Some of the poems she read from this are When I Die; Surviving Nigeria; Crude Women; Dem Go Say I Be Women, and A Certain Day. The last was what the poet specifically thought might make anyone cry, and no less so the other titles, too. A Certain Day was about one of the plane crashes in the country. The author covered the event as a journalist. And there was a man whose body would not be found; relatives of other victims collected bodies from the site of the crash, and carried out burial ceremonies, but not his. His people came and collect soil. They wanted something to bury. The journalist saw this and thought of the child of the deceased. What thought would a child have of a father that was dead but whose body never confirmed it. So she wrote. And what she penned was less about the effect of the ineptitude displayed in high places in this clime that led to loss of lives in plane crashes, than the thoughts in the head of a child about his late father:  “…I dreamt that last night/playing tennis with good, laughing Daddy/ I had grown a big, big boy/ and Dad was in shorts and all/ I said Daddy, are you home at last? He smiled and then ran as fast and fast away/ I ran after, calling Daddy come back!..”

Women are not left out of Abah’s writing, as well as the issue of environmental degradation. How she conveyed the condition of women in her poems would draw sympathy, and the devastation in the Niger Delta region of the country would draw tears. As for the environmentalist part of her, the author had even boasted to an associate of hers when she was on her way to the reading in Abuja that she would use the occasion to carry on the struggle against the degradation of the earth. And that some of her poems did do. Some call her a feminist because of the course she had deployed her genre to pursue. “But you don’t need to be a feminist to know there is so much oppression going on.” She recalled how women in some parts of South-South would hold umbrella and stand outside the Town Hall during a general town meeting, while what men and youth discuss within the hall is passed to them from mouth to mount. They stay outside because women cannot be part of the decision making, and they  need umbrella to shield off the element. Youth means young males, and never females, so when oil companies ‘settle’ communities, women are treated as if they don’t exist, Abah informed her audience.

J.P Clark is the author’s favourite poet, and she reads Maya Angelou’s work a lot. And Abah is so passionate about her writing that she writes only what she feels strongly about. Someone once asked her to write poems on some specific issues for a pay, but she declined because it is not her mode of putting pen to paper. It must be a sign of how serious she takes her work, how passionate she feels about the subjects she takes on. In all, she fights for a cause with her writing. It’s one other thing, as expected of  literature, that Abah’s writing does so well in her three collections.

Several other artists expressed themselves under the watchful direction of the Master of Ceremony, Seun Badejo. Their presentations were a part of extra treats of the day. Kamal Balogun, a member of AWF, performed a poem in Igala language to everyone’s delight. What his watchers missed in language they got in the actions that conveyed the message. Tokunbo Edwards played on his guitar music that some said “tended towards ‘rock,’” and to satisfactory applause from the audience. And Chime Emembo showed paintings that he themed, Christian religious art. He developed the theme based on his religious conviction, and a particular painting in his collection that had Jesus drawing a man out of water was titled, The Saviour.  Lami Yakubu’s short story, The Stillborn, was received with enthusiasm and her crisp sentences were commended by the 2008 NLNG Literature Prize nominee, Ozioma Izuora, as something that she, as a lawyer, particularly liked. Chido Onumah, a banker, read two poems with the titles: The Almanjiri, and Epitaph on the Plateau, which reflected the on-going violence in that part of the country. The Special Guest at the event was Alhaji Bilya Bala, a Director at People’ Media Limited, publishers of People’s Daily newspaper, who in his speech enjoined writers not to relent in carrying the flag of their art forward. Other notable personalities at the even include Chinyere Obi-Obasi, 2011 NLNG Literature Prize nominee; Oke Ikeogu, a published poet and many others.  The next AWF’s Guest Writer Session takes place on May 26.

Ajibade wrote from Abuja.

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