Writings of the general word's body

Monday, October 30, 2006

He Claims To Be A Writer

One indignity regularly suffered by African writers and artists planning to visit the UK and the US is the denial of entry visa. It happens even when they are to feature in high profile UK events. And not even prominent, well-travelled ones are immune. Earlier this year, the poet Odia Ofeimun applied for 4 years' visa - for multiple short visits to the UK. The British Consulate in Lagos denied him a visa. You'd have thought any educated person in Nigeria would be aware of Ofeimun's status as a major Nigerian poet, but no. The consulate official compounded the insult by noting down in writing: "He claims to be a writer." The experience led to Ofeimun's poem, 'I Am A Writer'. It didn't end there. Adefayi Martins, in a victory for the power of the pen, wrote a piece in TheNeWS on the visa insult. And as if by magic, the British Consulate invited Odia Ofeimun back and instead of the 4 years applied for, they granted him leave to enter for 10 years. Adefayi Martin's opinion piece, below...

Rebutting the British… and their Visas, in Verse

Acclaimed poet and writer, Odia Ofeimun, one of Nigeria’s finest public intellectuals, disclaims the conceit of the British Consulate – that denied him visa – because "he claims to be a writer". Adefayi Martins reports

Oscar Wilde, the late Irish playwright, and iconoclast par excellence, did not suffer fools gladly, both is his art and in real life. He had, like many Europeans of his age, an understated continental disdain for the United States, the political, economic and spatial behemoth that always fancied itself as "the world". When he visited the United States, long before the current age of the finger-prints and other indignities that the US forces visitors to experience at her entry points under the guise of keeping out unwanted guests, Wilde was asked if he had anything to declare. "Nothing", the witty and deprecating Wilde replied, "except my genius"!

The US Customs official must have had a sense of humour. He allowed Wilde to pass. The officer at the British Consulate that attended to Odia Ofeimun, acclaimed poet, writer, journalist, political scientist, polemist and public intellectual, when he applied to renew his UK visitor’s visa must have been humourless. They often are, at any rate. The official denied Ofeimun, who lived in the United Kingdom as a scholar at the oldest British University, Oxford, for a few years in the 1980s, and has visited the UK many times since returning home, entry visa last month. He must have thought the poet lied. Incidentally, the latter phrase is the title of the affable Ofeimun’s celebrated poetry collection. The official stated in denying Odia visa – in a sticker attached to his passport - that "he claims to be a writer". A most condescending insult added to the injury of visa denial.

Ofeimun is not one to take such insult, which many Nigerians regularly take - with equanimity from the British and other consulates in Nigeria - lying low. The denial comes exactly ten years after the same British High Commission denied him visa to enjoy a facility provided by their own cultural agency, the British Council, for the poet to see the London Book Fair. The Consulate later relented when challenged, only for the more humourless General Sani Abacha’s goons at the airport to seize Odia’s passport.

In his poetic response to the recent British conceit entitled, "I am a Writer…", Ofeimun tells the joyless consuls,

I do not claim to be, I am a writer

As my passport insists

across decades, and still counting.

If the grating visa-granting official is still unconvinced, the poet adds that the years he has spent bearing that passport as a writer draws

humus from Year Twelve
When school bells added my name
To the throng gamboling along
With the Pied Piper of Hamellin
And, the Ancient Mariner
Whose magic, and the bamboo flutes
Of Martin Carter in Guyana jail
Took me by hand to know Ogun
when Okigbo’s road was famished.

If the British Consulate is unaware of the poet’s accomplishments, or what another poet, Okinba Launko describes in his poem, We are Climbing Still, as the "several prizes we were showered with/and the congratulations we wear like mendallions!", Ofeimun sings of his possession of a cultural capital which the British themselves claim to value, but have devalued "through the syllabus of errors…(that) set no column to my stripe" marking the denial of visa to him, this second time. He tells the consulate in the poem that, at 18, his "waify poems" were already "elevating siblings" at the West African Examination Council examinations, that is the General Certificate of Examination (GCE) and the School Certificate exams, popularly called School Cert and even university thesis, long "before stamps hit the pad at the Passport Office".

The poet presses his claims further. For the avoidance of doubt, he advertises his artistic victories that link with world cultures at famous cultural centres of the world, including the British cultural centres:

I do not claim to be, I am a writer
Whose trip under African skies
Took Sun-dance to Sadler’s well
Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Thames
And Fleet Street of glancing nods
with poesy of the body’s rhythm
rounding the Cape of Good Hope
and toasting five hundred years
above visa-gripe, truth’s fibre
as art for life vouchsafes it
setting navel closer to navel
to keep fellow-feeling in grace.

As he tells friends,
Ofeimun will soon journey to South America where, if the poet can be unveiled, he has some honey, who - as he croons in his poem, "Oyin" -

breathes a quiet ardour
against a calculus of (perhaps, British) nerves.

Ofeimun, who, a few years ago, predicted the terrible fate that General Abacha met in one of his poems – Thighs fall apart, the General (dis)appears – insists that though

the division of spoils
encumbering the earth with visas

can stop his travel to Britain, it cannot encumber his spirit, because

I’m happy, beyond mere fashion
for trips that visas can’t deny.

The British consulate can deny Odia Ofeimun visa, but it cannot deny him his voice – his verse.

  • Odia Ofeimun has since travelled through Britain.


Anonymous said...

Truth is, these chaps - the entry clearance officers in Lagos and Abuja are illiterates. Men with little or no qualifications who insult our intelligence. I suffered the same indignity in Lagos. "He claims to be a writer". Imagine such an affront! These officers, these GCE holders, should be punished, not for their ignorance, but for their unwillingness to learn.

Anonymous said...


I dont know who said it, and can't remember the exact words, but someone did say "Never annoy a writer because he or she always has the last word."

Reading about this incident is differen from listening to Odia telling the story himself. I wish I could hear him now...

jams o donnell said...

And what a last word indeed! A wonderful post Molara.

Anietie. ECOs (be they from Immigration or from teh FCO) are not illiterates. Most will be graduates, although a university degree does not necessarily confer wisdom!

Years ago I worked as an Immigration Official (I was never an ECO I no longer have anything whatsoever to do with this line of work at all, thankfully) and, at that time certainly, the Immigration Service had a strong "canteen culture". Part of the "culture" (I would call it something veru different) held that Nigerians or Ghanaians were liars.

It looks as if things have not changed much over the years.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jams,
Most of them are not graduates. The last time the FCO advertised for these jobs, they needed those with A levels.(I work in England, so I know.) I find it a bit insulting that they should send GCE holders to interview doctors and professors in Africa. I spent a fortune studying in England, so I value education. In this age, anyone who chooses to ignore a university education is an illiterate. A degree does confer wisdom. At the university, you not only learn in the classroom, but also in the halls of residence and the students' unions.

Anonymous said...

Eskis.. Mr. James.. can I get a visa to Germany? I claim to be an anthropologist...
Please do what you can,.. tanks...

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. Personally,
it is our fault. Why do we want to go to London? Is Barbados not as clean? Then you wonder why...
Rebel jare... we do OUR thing... they can kiss our ass who are not beautiful...we rule..
much props to Molly Wood.
Miister Gaga Ekeh ..n
i.e. be 1-ned
PS: Mr. Jams.. why do you ressemble a friend I once knew who I no longer recognize in history?

LeftyHenry said...

hmm I never knew that this was an issue for writers. Good post.

jams o donnell said...

anietie the requirements are the minimum for the job. They are the same as the absolute minimum requirements for going to university (or they were way back when I went ro university).

Like you, I Value education. Sadly some fellow students did not seem take the opportunity to enrich themselves as they should.

Anonymous, perhaps our paths have crossed in the past...

I digress. The key issue for me is the attitude of the ECO. I do find it dismaying that things dont seem to have changed much since I left the Immigration Service.

Anonymous said...

I am avid reader of this web diary and have some comments on what have so far transpired about the visa and the writers. Firstly, i shall say of Mr. Gangans comments that it is insensitive to inscribe the reason as being that we are dirty as a Nigerian so that we do not get the visa to go to the clean places like London. Cleanliness has nothing to do with anything except godliness.. and what hath that to do with Poets who, after all, are worshiping Satan (go study your history of edgar alan poe...)and
then after that, I think that we should be more respectful of those who civilized us before complaining of not getting the kind of treatment we dserve for not choosing suya spice over gunpowerder. Never again!
Tunde Shongodo
aka (i.e. int he past)
Larry Wudwat

laspapi said...

Na wa, Words Body. It is the leadership of the country that has brought us to this pass. Where the Ofeimuns are accused of 'claiming'.

You know if you don't write in metres like WB Yeats, you cant 'claim' to be a writer.

The mentally-challenged creatures they place at the border-control points are there because our leaders betrayed us.

Frank Partisan said...

Your post was great. Your writing is powerful and clear.

I think you should publish your writing on your blog, as a book.

The pen is mightier than the sword. Someone had to say that.


Anonymous said...

Truth is, these chaps - the entry clearance officers in Lagos and Abuja are illiterates. Men with little or no qualifications who insult our intelligence. I suffered the same indignity in Lagos. "He claims to be a writer". Imagine such an affront! These officers, these GCE holders, should be punished, not for their ignorance, but for their unwillingness to learn.


Wordsbody said...

Thanks to all for their comments on the issues raised in this post.

And thanks to Renegade Eye for being ever so gracious with encouraging words.


Anonymous said...

I find this quite ironic (and no, I am not pointing fingers) that some Nigerians who are quick to repudiate colonialism and the western culture, on one hand are eager to travel abroad at all cost. Now, why is it that rarely do we hear stories of Americans or British being turned down for a Nigerian visa?

Wordsbody said...

"why is it that rarely do we hear stories of Americans or British being turned down for a Nigerian visa?"
-- Akanimo

Because they don't get turned down, especially when (as in this case) they have a legitimate reason for travel. So they don't need to tell stories of consulate humiliation.

The British especially, the world is their playground. Lots of 17/18-year-old Brits do a gap-year tour of the furthest reaches of the world before university. Visa refusal is anathema to them.

I think you're getting two issues muddled up here anyhow. Everyone has the freedom to travel short term, though some are apparently more curtailed than others. In this particular case, a well established writer was needlessly turned down, and in a dismissive way. If that clearance officer had been remotely literate and read the newspapers of the Lagos where he/she was based, she would have known this person as a constant face in the papers, and that he didn't need to "claim" to be a writer.

It shouldn't have happened, simple.

Anonymous said...

Why not write something on the Nigerian contemporary poet and News reporter, Comrade Chidi Anthony Opara. You can look up resources about him on Google search. Just a suggestion to a fellow blogger.

Andrés Norman Castro A. said...


I am an upcoming poet from El Salvador, Central America. Back in 2006, a few days after this post was created, I had the GREAT opportunity to share with the master poet and intellectual, Odia Ofeimun.

Being a young poet with little to no-experience in the poetic world in 2006, Odia was an excellent source of knowledge and thanks to hiim, my expierince at the "5th Anual Poetry Festival of San Salvador, El Salvador, was an unforgivable experience. I can actually say, I had the honor of serving him as a translator in the events, since our mother language is Spanish.

I wish to get back in touch with Odia, and also wish to acquire some of his literature. I would greatly appreciate it, if somebdy can provide me with his email address or contact information.

Thank you very much, and my warm regards to our Nigerian brothers.

Wordsbody said...

To the last Anonymous:

Wordsbody writes about writers because they are making waves and the ripples, however small, have reached here, not because of some anonymous, self serving tip.

And here's a tip for your recommended poet: he should lose the 'Comrade' from his pen name and then maybe he'll be taken seriously as a writer.