Engausa Poetry Is More Or Less My Baby: An Interview With Dr. Ola Ifatimehin By Khalid Imam

Dr Ola Ifatimehin, a talented poet and playwright, is a lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts, Faculty of Communication, Bayero University, Kano. He is currently the serving Head of the Department. He holds a BA, MA and PhD degrees in Theatre and Performing Arts from the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He is a highly skilled stage director and actor. Dr Ifatimehin is the Programmes Officer of All Poets Network International (APNETi), consulting Head of Research and Education, Arojah Royal Theatre, Abuja. He is also the Chief Executive Officer and Director of Tropes and Icons Ltd, a private Theatre Company. He has adjudicated on several festivals and performance events including the National Festival of Arts and Culture annually organised by the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). Dr Ifatimehin is one of the leading proponents of Engausa poetry. He is the pioneering editor, “Poems and their Stories” for All Poets Network International (APNETi). 

LitVo: Tell us about yourself – your background and your childhood vision about life?

Ola Ifatimehin: I grew up in a family of ten children (7 boys, 3 girls). I’m the fifth. Our father was, and still is, a liberal disciplinarian. He insists on certain moral standards and educational commitment. He would encourage us to study, a lot. Our mother was more compassionate and understanding, she allowed us to play as much as we wanted. So, the combination provided us with a balance that ensured exposure and imagination. We watched a lot of movies too. My vision of life was communal, a sense of belonging wherever you are because it took a village to raise us as kids. It was utopian.

LitVo: Reflecting as a child, what was your most cherished ambition? When you looked at the mirror while you were still a boy, what adult did you envision you would become? Put differently, what were your most memorable childhood vision and dreams – was your childhood dreams aborted or fulfilled?

Ola Ifatimehin: My boyhood dream was to be a spy like James Bond or Simon Templar. Funny I ended up in the creative/theatre field. The consciousness of the idle is what mostly determined our dreams as kids. I remember one of my elder brothers thought he was superman. And he was lucky enough to be given superman pants by our mother, he would always rush home to wear them in a fight. So, my childhood was filled with fantastic imaginations and dreams. We all wanted to be super heroes, to help the weak and provide for the needy. Of course, as adults we do these, but not in the exact manner we envisaged them as children.

LitVo: You are a Yoruba, but you speak and write fluent Hausa, tell us how you came about one and how it feels being a multilingual character- the experience and the unique benefits it offers you as a writer of plays and poetry in one hand and as an academic teaching drama? 

Ola Ifatimehin: I was born in Jimeta, now Adamawa state. Our neighbours have always mostly been Hausa and Fulani people with a few Igbos and other minority tribes like Bachama and Kilba. Consequently, the language of existence was Hausa and we naturally grew into that. At home, our parents could hardly speak Hausa so our native dialect was spoken to us. The English Language was the currency of expression. We grew up to speak all these and more. I used to speak fluent Fulfulde as a child but not anymore. This multilingual background also nourished my intellectual and imaginative capabilities. It opened me up to a whole framework of linguistic and cultural propensities that have impacted a whole lot on my art as a lecturer, a stage director as well as a writer. When we go for our regular Community Theatre, Theatre for Development activities, my multilingual arsenal comes very much handy as I’m able to interact with different ethnic groups wherever we find them.

LitVo: What is life being a lecturer especially teaching Theatre and Performing Arts? I mean, does it require special creative deftness from one or it does not demand any exceptional creative talent? 

Ola Ifatimehin: All my experiences as a child and the materials I was exposed to have fed me with nourishment that has made me creative and imaginative in my field of practice which is Theatre and Performing Arts. And we all should know that creativity and spontaneity is the fulcrum for excellence in this field. Talent has a huge role to play here but ultimately it is a disciplined display of skill and commitment that carries the day.

LitVo: How was your ride to the mountain top of academic achievements – becoming a PhD holder at a relatively very young age? Beyond one being tenacious and focused, what else do young minds – aspiring PhD candidates – shouldn’t take away their attention from as they pursue their ambitious academic dreams?

Ola Ifatimehin: I tell everyone who cares to listen that the secret to a fulfilled sense of success is diligence. I did my PhD between 2014 and 2017. This period is the most challenging phase of my adult life yet. Even with that, because I had made up my mind to get it done, I finished the PhD in record time with excellence. As a matter of fact, it was the first PhD with a specialisation in Directing from the school. You know. People kept wondering how I was able to pull through in record time. Those who were really close to me are still in awe of how I achieved that. And you know people take over ten years sometimes to get a Ph.D, often because they pursue other affairs while at it. But I channelled all my energies to my study and it is proof that diligence and the silencing of distractions would help you go a long way fast. Of course, we must acknowledge the God factor. One’s unbridled efforts are also central.

LitVo: As the HOD of Theatre and Performing Arts of Bayero University, Kano, tell us about your journey and the challenges or successes so far recorded under your stewardship?

Ola Ifatimehin: Leadership is not an easy task. To lead people in fact is strangely, the truest test of character. I’m guided by a sense of responsibility which believes in enabling systems to work. I am of the view that once people know their place and the responsibility required of them and they’re motivated enough to carry them out, organisations would be much more successful. In 2018, I became the second head of the department since the inception of the programme in 2014. As a budding department, the challenges were enormous but with commitment and resolve we have been able to sustain the programme and have brought innovative solutions to help curb problems and turn weaknesses into formidable strengths. Our theatre performance space has been equipped with world-class facilities under my stewardship and so forth. What is more? We try to keep students of the department psychologically fit and happy to pursue their studies with ease and excellence. There are much more we have done.

LitVo: You are the newly appointed Programmes Officer of the All Poets Network International (APNETi), and you have been editing its popular weekly column: “Poems and their Stories”, how thrilling and daunting is the experience of handling the column? And with your new task as the Programmes Officer, what innovative programs would you bring into your new office?

Ola Ifatimehin: Well, running around on social media looking for members to be featured can be so exhausting. Some would read and won’t even bother sending a response. It can be funny. But so far, we have been able to feature a number of poets on Poems and their Stories, both budding and established ones. I’m delighted to be the Programmes Officer of APNETi, we are working on launching programmes that would appeal to the general sentiments of all members as well as attend to the peculiar needs of classes of poets in the group. Stay tuned. Don’t want to be specific for now.

LitVo: Could you roundly assess the level of education in Nigeria?

Ola Ifatimehin: Nigeria can be regarded as an educated country. Almost all Nigerians speak at least two languages. It takes great education to achieve that. But in terms of formal education, much more need to be done. Primary education is almost extinct in terms of quality in public schools. Only a few government-owned primary schools still give excellent education. Today, children have to be enrolled in private schools to have a chance at true learning. I went to a public school and it was quite good. Secondary schools today are in the same state as primary schools. Perhaps it is the public tertiary institutions of education that are still struggling to thrive amidst incredible challenges. With the seemingly incessant strike actions largely due to the failure of the government to meet demands, so much is lost. But the general consciousness of certification is crucial to the level of education in Nigeria. One would need to ask if Nigerians only go to school or they are actually being schooled. A truly educated society would be seen in the way people conduct themselves in public places; from traffic to queues; from the disposal of waste to parking spaces.  To be a great country, education must be top-notch and accessible to the majority, I think. Tertiary institutions should be managed as private businesses, I think. They should be allowed to source for their funding while charging minimal fees. Asides from teaching and learning, administrators of public tertiary institutions should create meaningful products and services that would serve and benefit societies and seek copyrights for such. This would generate enough funds to keep society going, and education thriving.

LitVo: Engausa poetry is an emerging and very new radical genre of poetry gaining acceptability among the budding talents in Nigeria and you are at the forefront of promoting it, (you have even facilitated two Engausa Poetry Workshops organized by All Poets Network International in collaboration with AkweyaTV and CITAD), what motivated the emergence of the new poetic genre and the workshops, how would you describe their outcomes?

Ola Ifatimehin: Engausa Poetry is more or less my baby. Again, it is a result of the overflow of linguistic and creative intellection which my boyhood background and experiences have given me. And ever since I started, so many have caught the bug and I’m glad that APNETi would be publishing a collection of strictly Engausa Poems soonest. It began as an experiment that’s purely for fun. I have been writing and posting my poems in English and I felt that I needed to carry some of my Hausa audiences along by combining English and Hausa expressions in creating imagery and metaphors. This was how I started and I noticed that people found it fascinating. Khalid Imam got bitten by the bug too afterwards. So we collaborated and held workshops in addressing issues around Engausa poetry. We are also co-editing the collection.

LitVo: As a poet and/or playwright have you so far published any of your creative pieces, and what new titles are you working on at the moment?

Ola Ifatimehin: My first collection of poetry, Love and Prejudice, would be published soon. The manuscript is being edited as we speak. I’m also working on a collection of Engausa Love Poems, hopefully, it would be out soon too. Some people have asked me how it is that a dramatist also writes poems. I become perplexed because such people do not seem to understand the history of poetry. Poetry is the language and form of early drama when lines were sung or recited even before the emergence of writing. For one to be a dramatist, one would first have been a poet. Those who wish to be dramatists, therefore, ought to understand the nature and inner workings of poetry. I totally agree with Charles Baudelaire when he said, “Always be a poet, even in prose. Drama is the intersection of the two, and more.

LitVo: The North could be said to be the new centre of creative productions in Nigeria at present, would you liken this to the vigorous activities been spearheaded by literary platforms such as Hilltop Creative Arts Foundation, among others?

Ola Ifatimehin: Precisely, with literary platforms such as HCAF which focus on cultivating young writers, the North could indeed be described as the emerging hub of creative productions. This renaissance is crucial and I’m delighted to witness it. Even as HCAF is spreading its presence across the country, there are other platforms also present and active in the northern part of Nigeria which is promoting literary production such as APNETi, NNWS, WISH, Creative Teens Corner, Open Arts, Poetic Wednesdays, Ayamba Journal, Jewel Writers Gombe, Borno Literary Society, Silver Purple, Yasmin El-Rufai Literary Foundation, Abuja Literary Society, Isu Media, Arojah Royal Theatre and others. There is hardly a state in the North without a body involved in this renaissance and this is highly commendable and encouraged.

LitVo: What future do you envision in the North in years coming if this tempo is sustained?

Ola Ifatimehin: If this tempo is sustained, the future of literary production in the north is not only secured but also the quality would be absolutely impressive. The vigour and creativity I see among teen authors and young writers especially around the north are simply remarkable. 

LitVo: To digress, tell the reader more about Theatre and Performing Arts, what is it about? What upper hand does studying this discipline offer Nigerian youths in relation to channelling them to easily be self-employed looking at how over saturated the job market is? Put differently, is studying Theatre and Performing Arts, in your view, one of the sure solutions needed against the frustrating joblessness among university graduates considering the fact that drama and entertainment are a big industry yearning for fresh talents? 

Ola Ifatimehin: Theatre and Performing Arts as a field of study is an art that allows one to creatively take on various forms. I don’t know any other field of study that gives such freedom to express oneself and also develop skill sets that ensure spontaneity and critical creative thinking. Graduates of Theatre and Performing Arts are found in different walks of life doing extremely well because of the nature of the field. The skills one acquires readies one for becoming self-employed. Some of our graduates have opened graphic studios, makeup studios, event management companies for instance. It is one sure way of promoting entrepreneurship and financial freedom. The world of entertainment would never tire of creativity. I’m a proud thespian.

LitVo: Now let us dwell a bit on your personality, many who associate with you are of the opinion that you have a great sense of humour, is this comic trait in your blood or what you consciously developed as a result of your training as a dramatist, or both?

Ola Ifatimehin: Hahaha. The ability to make people laugh is a great icebreaker among people. I don’t know if humour is in my blood or I learned it, I just know that people love to be around those who make them laugh. Irrespective of our fields of study, our personalities are crucial to how we engage with people. I probably learnt the skill of humour as a dramatist but my personality is such that diffuses tensions, encourage self-belief and leaves everyone better than they were before our encounter.

LitVo: What is responsible for the decline of playwrights in Nigeria and the ferocious rise in the number of poets?

Ola Ifatimehin: The means of expression. Poetry is easier to write, I’d say, compared to play writing. But of more critical essence is the publics of literary production. You can see a lot of people going into a bookstore to buy collections of poetry and all for fun. But hardly would you see people going into bookstores to buy plays. Plays are like prescription drugs; they’re not bought for the fun of it and those who do are merely abusing it. People mostly buy plays because they need to read them to pass an exam but with poetry, people would buy such out of love and for the sake of love. So, I’ll say that our literary consciousness is mostly responsible for the decline of playwrights in Nigeria and the ferocious rise in the number of poets. We are just lucky that the ferocity is not consuming.

LitVo: What is the relationship between theatre lecturers/academics and the Nollywood industry, any viable synergy or is it a cat and dog relationship?

Ola Ifatimehin: Well, there is always a relationship between those who practice professionally and those who profess practice. The nature of that relationship depends on the open-mindedness of both parties and the willingness to learn from each other. But territorialism often strains the possibility for synergy between both parties because each one believes they are the experts. Some of us have been able to transcend these unfortunate borders of expertise. I practice professionally and I teach in the classroom. The unique experiences garnered from the oblivious divide make us cherish the presence of both sides even more. One would realise that the clamour over and for territory limits the potentials of theatre practice rather than enrich it. Asides from having a theatre company of my own, every year we partner with Arojah Royal Theatre to stage performances for audiences. This has helped me stay connected to the professional world while broadening the horizon of my knowledge and experience to share with my students especially about trends in contemporary professional practice.

LitVo: In a country sharply divided by too many parochial discussions bordering on regionalism, tribalism and religious bigotry, you seem such a de-tribalised person who easily relates with people from all shades of persuasions, tell us the secret motivating you to be such an all-embracing and ever-smiling fellow to everyone you meet? 

Ola Ifatimehin: I have an open mind. I respect and appreciate difference. The narrative that because we are different, we must hate one another is archaic and reductive. Someone said I’m an empath and I’ve been trying to understand exactly what that means. I think we need to spread love and respect rather than suspicion and hate. It really doesn’t matter where someone is from or what their ideological proclivities are, once you’re tolerant (of difference) and true to basic principles of humanity, you’ll be happy with yourself and this would be spread rapidly and easily. So yes, I smile most of the time and I accommodate people because I’m able to see beyond our differences while holding onto the fabric that makes us all similar.

LitVo: What is Nigeria to you – a “mere geographical expression” or a reality saddled with the onerous task of leading Africa to its promised land? As an Arts Director, theatre artist or dramatist and poet, do you believe investing one’s God-given talent to make, not mar Nigeria is a worthwhile venture? 

Ola Ifatimehin: Nigeria is a uniquely blessed country whether it is expressed geographically or biologically. The problem with Nigeria is leadership, especially the will and vision to be truly great. So many of us have deployed theatre and drama in the service of this country in our ways and that is the way to go. Of course, investing one’s God-Given talent in the service of humanity and one’s nation is not only the highest form of patriotism but also more fundamentally the essence of life. I believe that it is in recognition of this that the military government of Nigeria promoted and organised FESTAC 77 which saw the whole of Africa participating in a cultural celebration of their unique as well as shared experiences and expressions. This kind of festival needs to be standard practice. The National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) yearly organises a festival that brings people from different parts of the country to showcase their talents in the service of the nation. This festival defies the erroneous assumption that Nigeria is a mere geographical expression. There is a need for a more concerted effort. As An Arts Director, among other things, I am in full awareness of the utilitarian purposes of talents and skills. Developed nations of the world have embraced the value of talents in nation-building and one can see that they’re doing marvellously well. Talents are also used to express disappointments in regimes and governments but quintessentially they are deployed to make, and not mar, the nation. 

LitVo: One more last question relating to issues of your literary activities, you are the Artistic Director for the newly established Nigeria Poetry Festival (NIPOFEST) coming up in 2022, what is this about and what should Nigerians expect from it?

Ola Ifatimehin: NIPOFEST is a festival celebrating Nigerian poetry. We are using the event to honour, critically assess and encourage poetry from and of Nigeria. We have chosen to do this also in commemoration of the World Poetry Day. As the Artistic Director of the festival, my job is to ensure that the event is conducted with flare, quality and representation. We would come up with creative platforms and events that would cater to the needs of all groups across the country and those in the diaspora. NIPOFEST is organised by a consortium of creative bodies which are united by their zeal to promote poetry and other literary forms. They are; HCAF, ISU Media, Arojah Royal Theatre, APNETi and Tropes and Icons Ltd. The idea is to organise a display of poetic activities in satellite locations concurrently. The festival would be both physical and online. The cities to be involved include Abuja, Kaduna, Kano, Minna, Gombe, Bauchi, Borno, Benue and Oyo. 

LitVo: What are your intimate hobbies and your best dishes?

Ola Ifatimehin: While I’m not particularly selective when it comes to food, because I love well-made dishes especially when they’re spicy, I think tuwon shinkafa with any well-spiced soup is my favourite dish. Of course, I enjoy pounded yam, almost naturally. I love to read, I love travelling, I love to watch movies and football.

LitVo: What is your satisfying sense of fashion? And one may say you are rarely seen in traditional dresses – could you lead us into the province of your dress code?

Ola Ifatimehin: Modesty. Those who say that rarely see me in traditional dresses rarely see me, hahaha. I dress to kill, modestly. I wear both traditional and ‘modern’ attires.

LitVo: It is quite exciting talking to you, many thanks for your time.

Ola Ifatimehin: Thank you for having me.

Khalid Imam a bilingual poet, playwright, editor, translator and literary columnist, is the founder and curator of All Poets Network Initiative. He is a teacher and award-winning writer of over a dozen books in all genres. He was among the ten finest Nigerian writers selected by the Wole Soyinka Foundation in 2017 to participate at the Study Abroad In Lebanon (SAIL). Some of his books include: “The Song of San Kano,” “Letter to my Students,” “Sodangi,” “Emir Muhammad Sanusi II the Toast of Kanawa, etc. and co-authored, “A Clan of Madmen” with late Ibrahim Shu’aibu.  He is reputed as the pioneer editor and notable promoter of ‘Teen Authorship Scheme’ in Kano as he singlehandedly edited three secondary school teen authors anthologies: “A Citadel of Excellence,” “The Bird’s Evidence” and “A Wise Whisper.” He also edited “Hawayen Alhini,” an Hausa poetry anthology contributed by the undergraduate Hausa students of Bayero University, Kano in 2008