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Why Gabriel Okara literary festival will not hold this year

For those who wholeheartedly embraced the entrant of Gabriel Okara Literary Festival into the Nigerian calendar of cultural offerings, this may not be the best of times.
The festival will not hold this year, according to eggheads at the University of Port Harcourt, host institution for the festival. The festival was last held on April 25 through 28, 2017.

However, with barely a month away the organising Institute of Arts and Culture, University of Port Harcourt, is yet to have a substantive director after the retirement of its former director, Prof. Julie Okoh a year ago.

Okoh is both surprised that another director has not been appointed in her place and that the festival would not be held. Also, the Okara family is yet to be formerly informed of the university’s decision not to hold the festival this year.

When contacted, the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ndowa Lale, referred The Guardian’s enquiry to the Dean, Faculty of Arts, Prof. Femi Shaka and coordinator of last year’s festival, Dr. Obari Gomba.

Shaka confirmed the inability of the university to organise the festival this year, noting that funding difficulties and the rebranding currently ongoing at the university’s Institute of Arts and Culture would scuttle the festival.

He, however, suggested that a biennial festival would be a sustainable way to go, particularly in the face of funding difficulties that universities were facing in discharging most of their obligations.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to host the festival this year,” Shaka said. “We have not quite decided on Gabriel Okara Literary Festival yet. We don’t have the resources to do so.

The VC is not comfortable with the way things at the institute were done. The institute has not done anything this year. We’re reinventing the institute.

There will be five centres that will make up the institute – Centre for Photography, which a Lagos-based company will sponsor; it will be named after Dagogo Green.

There will be Centre for Nollywood Art, Centre for Cultural Diplomacy and Strategic Studies, Centre for Fashion Design and Technology and Centre for Arts and Craft.

“In the last dispensation, these centres were not given the opportunity to grow. These five centres have made their power-point presentations. It is when these five centres have been approved that we can start thinking of the festival and other programmes.”

Shaka stated that there was need to set up a much more enduring structure, adding that emphasis in the reinvented centre would be hands-on training for middle level manpower.

Okoh lamented the cancellation of the Okara festival, which was by way of redressing the gross neglect she and her team perceived Okara had suffered in Nigeria’s literary canon.

“That is to say his (Okara’s) works are still in the shadow of literary discourse in Nigeria,” Okoh had stated in an interview. “Okara has written in all literary genres; yet not much attention has been given to his work. I may be wrong.

If there are publications on his creativity, we would like to have details to enable us upgrade our bibliography on his works. Briefly, I believe his works deserve better attention.”

The festival was conceived as a way of retrieving Okara from the obscurity of literary discourse.

Therefore, the festival was partly a restorative mission of Okara’s poetic genius and partly the celebration of a man, a nonagenarian, who has given so much of his creativity but who has received so little by way of attention from the critical establishment.

The university’s inability to convene this year’s edition is a setback to recognising and celebrating the genius of Okara.

Okara’s daughter, Timi Okara-Schiller, is not only sad that the festival will not be held, she is disappointed that the Okara family was in the dark and did not receive any communication t effect. But she takes the disappointment calmly, saying she would explore other avenues to celebrate her father’s contribution to country’s literary canon.

“It’s just next month, April,” she said in a telephone conversation. “I’ve not heard from the University of Port Harcourt. I don’t know who to talk to. If they (university) are rebranding, then we have to think of something later in the year. We have plans for a foundation, where we would have something coming up.”

Last year, poet and essayist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, had spoken on the theme ‘Nigerian Literature Since Gabriel Okara: Continuities and Departures.’ He said he was not surprised that the festival will not hold this year, noting that he didn’t see any structure on ground to suggest continuity.

“There was no institutional backing for what happened,” he told The Guardian. “Everyone that worked for the festival d did so as volunteers. But I enjoyed Okara festival last year.

Lagos State is pouring so much money on culture, but there is no structure on ground – no theatre, no library, no museum, no gallery, nothing! It’s a very painful thing.

“Like Lagos, I couldn’t see the structures to which it (Okara festival) could be continued. So, from Port Harcourt (Okara festival) to Yenagoa (Okara book launch) last year, it was all volunteers working. There were no structures on ground to defend Okara’s legacy.”

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