Onyeka Nwelue, is a 30-year-old cultural entrepreneur and lecturer, as well as a noted novelist, poet and filmmaker—with six books and two films, to his credit.
His globally acclaimed first novel, “The Abyssinian Boy,” is set in India, a country with which he has longstanding personal and professional ties.
Nwelue grew up in Ezeoke Nsu, a village in Imo State, and has kinship ties to Flora Nwapa—a pioneering female novelist, whose life he chronicled in “The House Of Nwapa”.
Groomed for the Anglican priesthood, he became an atheist and bolted for India at 18—then returned, to read Anthropology and Sociology, at the University of Nigeria.
After two years, Nwelue quit and took flight again, first to study scriptwriting in Noida, India, then to attend the Prague Film School, in the Czech Republic.
“The House Of Nwapa,” his maiden voyage into cinematography, was runner-up for “Best Documentary,” during the 2017 African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA).
Nwelue’s second film, “Agwaetiti Obiuto,” was released after this vibrant interface with J.K. Obatala—in the third Vanguard interview, prefacing AMAA 2018.
According to some reports, he also suffered serious injuries—in a road accident—subsequent to this discusion.
I know, from our preliminary exchanges, that you have a very interesting background.
Yes. I grew up in Ezeoke Nsu—and started speaking English, at 12. That is when I wrote my first short story, “The Talkative Monkey and the Rabbit”.
My family sent me to an Anglican seminary, in Imo State, for six years. They had wanted me to pursue further studies, at Trinity College, Umuahia, so I could become an Anglican priest.
But instead, I went to India—after renouncing my faith in Christianity and becoming an atheist! I later retreated from atheism, into traditional Igbo religion.
I read a book, entitled “The Water Goddess in Igbo Cosmology: Ogbuide of Oguta Lake,” by Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, a German anthropologist—whom I finally met.
In fact, she supported my documentary on Flora Nwapa—”The House of Nwapa”—which was nominated for the AMAA. Sabina had known Chinua Achebe and Flora, for many years.
You are a relation of Flora Nwapa?
Yes. My mother lived with her. My film opens with my mother narrating what she knows about Nwapa. She’s from Oguta. And my father is from Ehime Mbano.
Tell me about your documentary.
“The House of Nwapa” came to me when I was 12—when I started speaking English. I read almost all Flora’s books. Then, I went to her younger brother, Christopher Nwapa, and told him I was interested in creating something, to immortalize Flora.
Nobody took me seriously. Because I was 12. So, when I grew up, I returned to my vision, which I’d earlier discussed, with Christopher Nwapa.
The documentary is a collection of interviews, with some of the people who knew Flora—including Wole Soyinka and Sabine Jell-Bahlsen. So, it’s just a rambling, of sorts.
What is your reaction, to the way things went at AMAA 2017?
… Well, I don’t want to sound immodest. But I thought I would win. Because my film got very positive reviews. And it had been screened, in many places.
It opened the… Zimbabwe International Film Festival, for example, and premiered at Harvard. It was screened at many other universities in America.
So, I thought, “Well, o.k. …. Maybe I have a chance”. With that optimism, my gang and I gathered in the hall that night—hoping that I would run to the stage and shout, “Bravo!”. But we were all disappointed.
Is that going to affect your attitude, towards AMMA?
No, no, no! It shows that AMAA is extremely credible. Because I have a good relationship with both AMAA executives, and the Jury.
They only started talking to me after the awards! During breakfast, I saw you with Ayuko Babu, and other Jurors.
I know Babu, and Asantewa, well, from the Pan-African Film Festival, in Los Angeles. But he was pretending like…oh…oh…I don’t want to …. He effectively started a new relationship!
So, it was a little bit funny. During breakfast, they didn’t talk to me. But after AMAA, they were all hugging me!
I said, to myself, like, “These guys are really crazy! They don’t want anybody to influence them”—which is very, very good.
I think AMAA is really credible. Because, if you check what happened last year, the French speaking countries walked away with almost everything. And we, the hosts, essentially lost out…
Nigeria has been a leading producer, for a long time…
Not in the “documentary” category. Because we don’t know how to preserve culture. That’s why, … I love Wole Soyinka…, when it comes to those kinds of things. He gives you information, in the form of non-fictional books, to educate younger people.
Generally speaking, this attitude only exists in Francophone countries. We Nigerians are not interested in projecting from the past, to make provision for the future.
You’ve raised an important issue. I’m in a field called “archaeoastronomy”—the study of how past cultures, used celestial bodies. Nigeria could be a world leader. Because there’re some fascinating sites here. But they’re being lost. Nobody is interested!
How does one attack this problem?
Well, that’s what I’m trying to do, in my own way. At AMAA, there were only two Nigerian films, in my category—out of about eight entries. But the other production (Femi Odugbemi’s, “Makoko: Future Afloat,”) was about the present…
My interest, is in making documentaries about the past. Because that’s the way you make provision for the future…
The idea, is to make documentaries on historic people. Some, like J.P. Clarke, were difficult to deal with. Elechi Amada also made things difficult for me—and then he died. Now, nobody knows anything about Elechi Amadi…
In Nigeria, there is a huge generational gap, between older and younger people. Our Elders, apparently don’t want to bridge the historical void. That’s going to affect the way we grow, as a nation….
The idea, is for the older ones who can tell stories, to tell them. The ones who can give information, should give it.
What was your operating budget, for “The House Of Nwapa”?
I went Online (in the U.S.A.) through “Go Fund Me,” to seek funding; and I also borrowed money. So, I didn’t have any budget. I borrowed money, because I had to travel to Norway, to get footage of Flora.
You couldn’t find any information in Nigeria?
No. Because there’s only one recorded interview—one documentary on her—done in 1987. I had to acquire it in Oslo. I went to India, as well.
Why did you go to India?
I went there to see Professor Mani M. Meitei, Dean of Humanities, Manipur University. He translated Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Flora Nwapa’s first book, “Efuru,” into his language (Manipuri).
He has never been to Nigeria. But when he took me around his town, he showed me things he saw in Flora’s description of Oguta, that are similar to where he lives.
We went to a lake, that is reminiscent of Oguta’s famous lake. We sat by the water and talked. I needed to have the feel of it.
Since you’re interested in studying the past, did he mention the Semang, or any other ancient African people, in that country?
You are referring to the “Seddis” of India, in Gujurat.
No. The Seddis, are comparatively recent. They came a few hundred years ago. But, the original colonizers of India arrived, from Africa, perhaps 80,000 to 120,000 years ago.
Yes. From Ethiopia.
Well, East Africa.
They came from Abyssinia… That’s why I titled my book, “Abyssinia”. They went through the southern part of India. So, the South Indians are called the Dravidians and the Abyssinians.
My book is based on India—i.e., it’s set in India. So, I have had a very long relationship. I first went to India, when I was 18.
The people I’m talking about though, are different from the one’s you’re referring to. The Indian government has the Semang, and other ancient African peoples, cordoned off. You cannot enter that area.
They are called the “Seddis,” in Hindi.
No, no, no. These people are known as “Semang”. I think there are other groups as well.
That’s what I’m telling you. They’re called the “Siddis,” in Hindi. I speak Hindi. They’re called “Siddis”: S-i-d-d-i-s…
No. I know about the Siddis.
No. The aboriginal Africans are in the Bay of Bengal.
…Gujurat is in northern India; and the Bay of Bengal is in the South.
Yes. The Indian Government has the Semang (and other black aborigines) enclosed on a reservation.
I know. They’re cut off. The Government doesn’t think they’re human. I know about it. I know about it.
Still on the “past,” there is a site in Nsukka Local Government Area, Enugu State, called “Otobo-Ugwu”. It’s an ancient astronomical observatory, that is associated with a religious shrine and an iron smelting industry. It was built with blocks of iron slag and is shaped like a crescent Moon. Otobo-Ugwu was erected centuries before the Europeans arrived. Yet, virtually no one is interested in it!
I was a student, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for two years…But I’m not aware of the site.
Well, the fact that you were at Nsukka, and don’t know about Otobo-Ugwu—which almost adjoins the campus—shows the predicament we’re in!
That’s exactly what I’m saying, about the need to study the past. Because I didn’t have any idea of “preserving culture” when I was in school. Nobody tried to force us.
So, the idea now, is to force Nigerians to talk and learn about their history and culture.