About 15 years ago or so, a very senior colleague was getting closer and closer to the retirement thingy. Rumours began to fly ahead of his retirement plans. It was said that he was looking to donate his priceless personal library to a University that would be willing to house it in a special collection. We are talking a collection that included hand-written poems, stories, and scraps by the founding generation of African writers in English.
In 2001, I bumped into the said elderly colleague in Professor Chris Dunton’s house in Lesotho. I had gone to Lesotho because Chris Dunton and I were collaborating on some publications. Chris told me that the big colleague was in town. We had lunch with him.
It was an opportunity for me to ask if he was indeed looking to donate his collection. When I got confirmation that he was thinking along those lines, I quickly contacted Professors Rem Raj and Harry Garuba.
We agreed we should begin subterranean moves to persuade the man to think of Nigeria. UI, UNILAG, OAU, UNN or ABU would be ideal locations. You didn’t want Ghana, South Africa, or Kenya to beat us to it.
We were still on the lobbying thing in 2002 or thereabouts when Victor Ehikhamenor phoned me to announce that Odia Ofeimun was visiting the US and was in his own lungu in Maryland. Back in the day, I drove from Pennsylvania to spend most weekends with Victor in Maryland.
I arrived in Maryland for the reunion with Odia. Victor had scattered ground as usual with poundo and orisirisi in the egusi. Odia couldn’t make it. He couldn’t disengage himself in good time from Delta and Edo hosts in other parts of town.
We settled for phone banter. Odia launched his attack as soon as Victor gave me the phone. Pius, the craze wey dey worry you don tay. I hear that you and Remi and Harry are dreaming that Professor Lagbaja’s collection should come to Nigeria. Una head no correct. You want to bring those priceless things to Nigeria’s infrastructural culture? And you are going to take care of them how? Do you realize how many materials in that collection need to be maintained at a special temperature? My friend, you better let those who value these things preserve them for us.
People who will build temperature-controlled structures for the collections should preserve them. Instead of bringing them here to be abandoned and destroyed, people like you should apply for funding to go and consult them wherever they are properly preserved.
I had to admit it was the first time I thought about that angle. Today, as libraries are left to rot, stagnate, and burn in Nigeria, as governments build mosques and buy coffins in lieu of books, as Christian millennials are all over the land destroying art and spiritualities in shrines, I look back and realize that Odia was right. I shudder at the thought of what could have happened… Just what were Raji, Garuba, and I thinking? In the collection that we were dreaming about were masks and other items of art and traditional spiritualities.
Assuming that government or a University did the unthinkable by even building a temperature-controlled bungalow to house the collection, what guarantee did we have that today’s crusading Christian and Muslim youths would not burn down such a “pagan” collection?
Truly, our heads were not correct to have thought of Nigeria. My son, Mitterand Okorie, when next you hear that young onward soldiers of ignorance are about to burn down another house of their history and heritage in Nigeria, see if there is anything you can save. I have space here at the Institute. Their lecturers will then look for money and apply for visa to come and study whatever we rescue from their Christian and Muslim ire.