By JAPHET ALAKAM & PRISCA SAM-DURU
Notable Nigerians trouped out en-masse last week to celebrate one of their own, a literary giant whose works have contributed immensely to the development of Nigeria and beyond, in the person of Emeritus Professor JP Clark-Bekederemo who turned 80.
Described as one of Africa’s leading authors and one of the most lyrical of the Nigerian poets, whose poetry celebrates the physical landscape of Africa, Prof JP, who is also, a journalist, playwright, and scholar-critic has conducted research into traditional Ijo myths and legends in addition to writing essays on African poetry.
This great writer and scholar, Prof. John Pepper Clark, turned 80 last Thursday, December 12, 2013. And to celebrate the man of letters, who was recently honoured as the 5th Living Icon Project at Didi Museum, Lagos, friends, relatives, colleagues, literary giants, and his admirers, gathered at the University of Lagos,(UNILAG) Akoka, to celebrate his life, times and works.
A whole lot of activities were lined up for the day and as was expected, the venue of the events were filled to the brim with notable personalities who gathered to celebrate with their own.
Reading for a literary inspiration and blessing
An event which involved school children reading a selection of his poems at Afe Babalola Hall, UNILAG drew the curtain open. The event which was coordinated by Yinka Ogunde brought together children from selected schools in Lagos who came for the sole purpose of paying respect to a man whom according to them, is a literary inspiration and blessing to this generation.
As it turned out to be, the children did not disappoint their schools nor Prof JP Clark as they read and performed some of his poems to the admiration of the public. Some of the poems include, Abiku, Casualties, Night rain, Ibadan, Agbor Dancers, Song of a Goat etc. It was a wonderful experience seeing the children recite and perform some of the poems, they were exceptionally brilliant in their presentation and that earned the most outstanding of them all, a reward from the celebrant.
Apart from readings from works by JP Clark, many poets were discovered as four children from Vivian Fowler Girls School, International School, UNILAG, Tom Caleb High School distinguished themselves by reading their own poems.
Some of the schools also presented birthday cards to the celebrant and at the end, they rendered a heartwarming birthday song.
Speaking at the event, Archbishop Amu who led a prayer session for JP Clark enjoined the children to endeavour to discover their talents adding that, “You can never discover until you explore, JP Clark discovered his talents and now he has explored, that is why we are celebrating him.”
In his remarks, JP Clark expressed joy for being in the middle of life and thanked the participating children for leaving their schools to come and rejoice with him. “I feel good that the children are here, I feel good that the elders are here too. 80 is not the oldest age here, I have people who are older than me here. So I am very happy to be in the middle of life.”, He said.
After the children reading session, the event moved to the main auditorium of the school where Emeritus Professor Wole Soyinka delivered a lecture in honour of the celebrant.
The hall was also, filled to capacity as people from all walks of life especially literary icons, came to shower love on the icon. In attendance were: Emeritus Prof. Ayo Banjo, Prof. Ralham A. Bello, Vice Chancellor of UNILAG; Prof. Alor, Prof. Hope Eghagha, Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education, who represented Gov. Emmanuel Uduaghan; Emeritus Prof. Tekena Tamuno, Prof. Remi Raji, ANA chairman; Prof. Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi, Prof. Duro Oni, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, Prof Ebun Clark, Ambassador Clark, Mr Sam Amuka, Prince Yemisi Shyllon and a host of others.
In his lecture titled Between Censorship and the Critic, the writer as a genius, the Noble Laureate as a trained teacher, took out time to educate the audience especially writers on the use of English Language. He frowned at the way people use words wrongly and advised that the right words be used at all times.
Still talking about wrong use of words , Soyinka specifically mentioned the word ‘severally’ which he said is always used wrongly by many. According to him, severally does not mean several times rather it means serially, one by one. He also made reference to his new play entitled Alapata Apata, which talks about the correct and incorrect use of some Yoruba names.
The Noble Laureate also lectured on the way and manner the masters of ceremonies and religious priest use words and take people’s time at will. Also indicted were the photo journalists and cameramen who position themselves during events, at the detriment of the audience.
Soyinka in the course of the lecture once more, reacted to the issue of him and JP Clark not attending Achebe’s burial. First, he said they did not meet to decide on that, that it was because of personal reasons. More over, he pointed out that Achebe was not the person been buried that day, as the funeral was hijacked and turned to something Achebe himself if alive, would not have attended.
Earlier in his speech, Professor Rahman Bello, the Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos, said he was delighted that Nigerians were celebrating Prof JP Clark, adding that apart from Prof. Clark turning 80 years, his works make strong justification that he is unarguably Professor of English Literature not only in UNILAG but all over Africa.
“He is a poet, Playwright, Essayist, Translator, his career is an expression of African tradition which he does through writing. His works with rare exception are based on customs of the people of Nigeria and shows reality of Nigeria situation not only in Niger Delta but Nigeria as a nation.
JP Clark epitomises scholarship in general and literature in particular from age to age.” Prof Bello noted that he was also delighted to see Wole Soyinka, the first Noble Laureate of Literature in Africa at the event, adding that, “No one is more qualified to present the lecture than Soyinka himself.” He thanked the celebrant’s wife Prof. Ebun for standing by JP for over 40 years.
The programme was drawn to a close with the premiere of two of Prof Clark’s new plays, The Hiss and The Two Sisters directed by Femi Osofisan, at the Arts Theatre, University of Lagos.