Pa Anyi Agwudagwu, 86, is an oracle of a sort. A voracious reader and writer who has written five books for launch this month, Agwudagwu trained as a journalist, a knowledge he put into use in 1972 when, following an African and world tours, he launched Afro Image, a magazine to re-brand the damaged image of Africa.
Out of his travels and experiences spanning over 58 years, Agwudagwu has penned down five books, which took him 30 years to accomplish. HeÂ presents the books at the Grand Hotel, Asaba, Delta State today, April 24th. In this interview, the writer recounts his experiences during the tours and why he wrote the five books. EXCERPTS:
Why launch five books at once?
I want to launch them to enable you people, through Immortal Legends…, to know what Africans have done. That is my objective. Most of you grow up, go to school and come back and Europeans say you are useless. In fact, we are fighting psychological warfare. If the facts are brought before you people, you will be proud before Europeans. And Europeans reading this book will begin to change by saying these people did all these things. It will change the image of Africa.
How did you begin to write?
I love writing. In 1953, I was working with the UAC as clerk in charge of many stations. I wrote The Great Zik of Africa, a political drama. It sold out, six months after publication in 1953. In 1995, I wrote King Akhenaten of Egypt. It sold out within one year of publication before I started writing the rest of these books now to be launched on the 24th of April this year.
How was your education?
I schooled at Onitsha, Our Ladyâ€™s High School Onitsha. But I didnâ€™t finish there. I finished at the VC Institute, Onitsha and sat for my Senior Cambridge in those days. When you passed, UAC or John Holt would absolve you. I went to Warri and I was employed, posted to the North and then promoted as clerk in charge of six stations in the North. I was there when â€˜North for Northernersâ€™ started.
And my house was surrounded in Kabba. I built my house and had six big lorries and one car then. That was before 1957 and â€˜58. Then, I had a narrow escape.Â What happened was that they surrounded my house, and luckily, a heavy rain started. When they scattered inside that rain, I escaped. My house was levelled down. And I brought my children home.
Thatâ€™s how I left UAC. Itâ€™s just the North for Northerners that made me leave. I wanted to go back and work.
North for Northerners?
It is this North trouble. It started as early as the 1950s. And many of the Southerners were killed, Southerners occupying good posts. But luckily, I escaped. I took tuition in journalism and got my diploma. I took tuition in novel writing and play writing. Then, there was no university. We depended on tuition. I registered at the London School of Journalism in those days.
I didnâ€™t get my play writing from London School of Journalism. Then I bought Encyclopedia Britannica to expand my knowledge. Then I read 100 novels from different parts of the world. During my school days then in Onitsha, I was employed at Rex Cinema as secretary for three years. I watched big films that attracted my interest in writing. Then, I started research into African culture.
And the travels?
In 1960, I travelled through Ikotu to Benin Republic. Because in 1960, the colonial power was still there. I was trying to compose a book on African legends because no book told us about what happened in the early days of Africa. You can only know about it through legends. And colonialists did not show us anything. So, I thought that getting stories on legends would tell what happened in old Africa.
From Benin Republic, I went to Togo, then Ghana. From there, I travelled to Bamako through Ivory Coast, then to Kenya because after coming out of UAC, I had money.
You sponsored yourself?
Yes, I was serious. When I came back, I went to Ile Ife to find out legends. From there, I went to Cross River, then to Calabar. I was searching. If you come to a town, you go to story tellers. Guitarists. You see guitarist, they sing stories about the past which they play. So, when I come, I go to sit with them. Then listen to them. From there, I gathered my stories.
When I went to Benin Republic, I had to hire an interpreter, somebody who hears the language of the people. He accompanied me. From him, I copied down what was said. In those African countries I went, when I reached there, I got a translator who understood English. So, when I spoke, he would hear. Then, he would understand the countryâ€™s language.
Thatâ€™s how I managed. It took me almost 30 years to gather Immortal Legends of Africa. 30 years!
As a young man, what was your ambition in life?
I wanted to be known as a writer. First of all, my ambition was to write for schools but I could not do it because it needed degrees. During my time, the English dominated. So, I left that and took tuition. Then, during my school days, in Onitsha, I communed with Mr. Agu, editor of The Nigerian Spokesman. If you open copies of The Nigerian Spokesman, you will see my articles. Even my last article, â€˜Pity the African Authorsâ€™, appeared in the West African Pilot in 1961.
Why pity them?
I wrote, and I know the suffering I underwent. English is not our mother tongue. After writing, you have to give it to somebody who knows how better to edit it, to make it acceptable. I suffered a lot. Even this Immortal Legends of Africa, first of all, it was printed at Onitsha. They spoiled everything. All spellings were wrong. I took it to Benin. The same thing.
Then I withdrew it. I took the book to the Head of Literature, Edo State University. It was there for two years. He said he had no time. But he was the man who recommended that my book was a legend. I never knew before then. That was what IÂ got from him. I thanked him and took my book. I sent it to Lagos where it was now printed. It passed through many obstacles.
What was it like growing up?
In those days, you people have milk, butter. You have everything. You people are lucky. When I was born and when I grew up, women suffered. When my father went to farm with only one single cloth, my mother would go inside. Because there was no other cloth to wear.
No clothes! In the 1920s, we went to schools naked. It was from 1930s that clothes…when we were going to schools, we tied a piece of cloth.
But you had the local cloth, Akwa ocha.
Look, akwa ocha is made from akite. Itâ€™s known as Atite uba, trees in the bush. You would walk a long distance before you can see one. There was no cotton then. Cotton came of recent. Even garri. It is of recent. Before, it was ordinary yam and the cocoyam. No casava. Cassava began in the early â€˜40s. Garri is a blessing. Before, when yam and cocoyam finished in the farm, do you know what we would do? When i returned from school, I would take cutlass, and go to the bush. I would take palm nuts and cut and eat them. That was the food of the day.
But you guys keep saying the good old.
Do you know why we say good old days?
In those days, married women, young ladies, boys would sit together, innocently. We would all jump into the water, naked. We did not know about sex. Unlike now. Thatâ€™s why we say the good old days. Corruption has…. In fact, most of my mates died because when they began to see evils more than they imagine, they died. They said they didnâ€™t want to live in the world again.
In the 1920s, married women could sit naked. And you, a man, would sit like that as well. You would not have anything emotional. Both of you would discuss. We never had sex on our minds. But as time goes on, things change.
What were your life challenges?
The water we drank. A well would be dug for five or six families. Then, when rain falls, goat dungs, human faeces all would flow into it. But we would drink it. We had no alternative. Sometimes, when you wanted to drink water, it would be smelling. Because we had no alternative, we drank it. If our people had got the knowledge of digging a small well near the house, like it is now, it could have been better. But it was communal-one well for several families. And they didnâ€™t brush the ground. So flood went into it.
I learnt you are a vegetarian, why is that?
Our ancestors were first vegetarians. Before cutlass was invented, they were vegetarians. Then, population was small. Later, population grew and they invented weapons which enabled them to kill animals and they began to eat them. If you avoid eating flesh, your senses will open. As long as you eat flesh, even after initiation into our group, you begin to eat flesh, you wonâ€™t see again (senses will close). But if you stop eating flesh, you can see.
If you are a vegetarian, you will be disciplined. You will control your sex affairs. If you have two wives, you maintain them. But you young men… (laughs).You will learn how to do meditation. When you are working, you breathe 14 or 15 times a minute.
But during mediation, you breathe slowly. You are exchanging life.Â I am a mystic. If I am not a mystic, I wouldnâ€™t be in charge of 60 stations in Nigeria.
Whatâ€™s your daily routine?
When I wake up from my sleep, I clean my teeth. Then I go to my office and begin to write. During my writing, I donâ€™t want interference. I will concentrate, read, go back and take my bath. And return to my office, and eat there. Then write. By 11 am, sharp, even if somebody is dead, I do my medication for an hour, then I go back to work, until four pm when I close.
From four till 7 pm sharp, I am in meditation. Then 7 pm, I will call up the family and visitors for 30 minutesâ€™ meditation. 7. 30 pm, I go inside, sit and meditate.
Are your characters real or invented?
I have an acknowledgement. The people and places I got the stories are all written there. You come to an area, they tell me the origin. They gave me so many, I saw that if I put them in writing, it wonâ€™t help. I only selected those people that can educative culturally etc.
Not all legends can be tolerated.Â In Benin, I was told how one of their old warriors went to war in the spiritual world. I told them this type of story had nothing to offer. In Benin Republic, I was told how a man came. He used to change from man to woman. Later on, he started to befriend a stranger that formed Benin Republic. I put it away. But when you go to Aduba, you will see African development in those days.