55 cheers to pioneers of UNILAG’S Department of English
The Department of English, University of Lagos, recently celebrated one of its former Heads of Department, foremost poet and playwright, Prof. John Pepper Clark, at a lecture organised in his honour and to mark the department’s 55th anniversary. Clark, who has, indeed, touched many lives through his writings, was on hand at the Afe Babalola Hall to celebrate with his former department alongside his wife, Prof. Ebun Clark.
Also in attendance were Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, Prof. Iyiola Oni, The Guardian’s Publisher, Lady Maiden Ibru, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya and Prof. Toyin Ogundipe.Chief host and Head of Department, Prof. Hope Eghagha, told The Guardian that the department had come a long, and all credit should go to the people, who laid a solid foundation for it to flourish.
“It’s been 55 years of intensive activities from the early days, when it started as a service unit of the university and became a full-fledged department in 1964, when it admitted the first set of students for the degree awarding programme,” Eghagha said.
One would think that the choice to honour Clark was also in line with his 82nd birthday, which was last Thursday, on April 6.Eghagha said, “We paid tribute to the first set of lecturers and HODs - Profs. Dunn, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Biodun Adetugbo, Prof. (Mrs.) Ebun Clark and the rest. These are people, who gave all their energy to ensure that the department took off. They established a legacy of tradition, where we have built upon, producing students, who understand language in the perspective of linguistics and literature.
“As a result, we have produced graduates who have served humanity in different capacity - teachers at O’level, civil servants, politicians, advertisement gurus, actors, social media personalities and so on. The English Department of University of Lagos has discharged itself very well in the last 55 years.”
Eghagha also said apart from the fact that Clark is the first African professor of English, it is the thinking of the department that internationally, he has not received the recognition he ought to have had.
According to him, “Prof. Soyinka, who was at the department between 1995 and 1997 has been widely celebrated in the world, and we do hope that the time will come when we will invite him back here to honour him as well and also honour the memory of Adetugbo. We have a list of the people we intend to celebrate and Clark is one of them.”
On the uniqueness of Department of English, University of Lagos and why anyone should consider studying there, the HOD said it was a personal choice, as the school does not compel anyone on what to study.
“With a degree in English, one can fit into any field as a writer, administrator, teacher and so on; it is flexible,” Eghagha said. “University of Lagos is the centre of excellence, the first choice and the nation’s pride. Everybody wants to come to the school because we offer excellent services, and our sessions are not truncated; programmes are accredited, our teachers are well trained with international exposure. It is a good testimony for anybody who is interested in studying English.”
On Prof. Clarks’ place in Nigeria’s literary canon, the former commission for higher education, Delta State said Clark is easily a recognisable figure in the pantheon of African literature.
“He is among the first generation of writers along with Prof. Soyinka, Chinua Achebe. Clarks’ portfolio, competence, is basically poetry, and everyone, who has read literature, is familiar with his poems, including ‘Ibadan.’ He is one of the earliest writers of Nigerian and African literature, who achieved international recognition in mid-1950s and throughout the 1960s along with others. They established a tradition, which other playwrights, in my view, followed over the last 60 years or so.”
Eghagha, however, lamented the absence of history in Nigerian schools. He said the need to restore history to schools could not be over-emphasised, saying, “The young people coming up do not have the history of Nigeria. If we are conscious of where we are coming from then we can understand where we are, and know where we ought to go. Philosophy is a way of life for the African. It is embedded in our culture, and it is what we translate everyday.”
Professor of oral literature at Delta State University, Abraka, Gordini G. Darah, delivered a lecture on ‘The Humanities and the Redemption of Africa,’ where he said there was a need for the African intelligentsia to engage in self-evaluation about the relevance of academic studies to the processes of development and nation-building. He argued that the struggle for political power had made Africa inferior to other continents, even though those other continents are regarded as her grand children.
According Darah; “Redemption means we return to appreciating our own” and referred to Clark as a master in the metaphor of art.Darah said; “In 1963, JP Clark undertook Ozidi Saga. As poet, he was more than five professors put together. Government is lagging behind; we need to make the subject of education a priority. We are still struggling with what the colonial masters left us over 100 years ago. They have moved on, leaving these things behind and we are still here.”
Darah focused on Egyptian history, saying; “I have taken the pain to go back to Egypt to bring back the names of our geniuses that were not whites but black, who invented medical sciences, mathematics, engineering and many other things. Everything we are doing now is just improvement on the foundation they laid. It is sad that Africans, who are the originators of all these things, are now lagging behind.
“The Europeans came, took over our land and twisted our minds and we need to move out of that. Education is key in all these because if we have 180 million Nigerians, who are educated, we don’t need oil and gas to succeed as a country.”
Clark’s wife, Ebun, said Africa was the cradle of world civilization, and stressed that all religions have both physical and spiritual sides.“In Africa, politics is where our money goes, not on intellectuals,” she said. “We need to put pressure on our government to invest more in education as the future of the country depends on it. Budget on education and vocational training must be increased; this is the only way to secure a better future and say bye to poverty.”
Former Delta State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Chike Ogeah, who represented a former Governor of the state, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, said Nigerian youth population deserves better education, noting, “In my time, we had the best education and it is not so anymore. I think something went wrong. We need to focus on education as a country, the one that would require skills. We should focus less on certificates and more on vocational and technical skill acquisition if the country is to move forward.”
Poet and polemicist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, stated that society was infringing on universities, and called on the need to turn the whole society into a school, where people are taught how to communicate. “Let us force every Nigerian to be educated,” he advised.