It was raining in Boston when Lufthansa flight 422 from Abuja via Frankfurt landed at the Logan International Airport, Boston Massachusetts that cold and overcast May afternoon.

Immigration and Customs formalities over, I had to wait a while for my friend and travelling colleague, Ikeogu Oke to complete his own formalities. Ikeogu, a performing poet had travelled to the US with his instrumentalist Michael Ngozi Osuji and a ton of Igbo musical instruments all the way from Abuja.

The duo therefore had to wait a while for the meticulous and ever suspicious US customs officials to inspect every inch of the instruments made up of local gongs, drums and xylophones such as Udu, Ikoro, Ogele, Igba, Oja and Ekwe. ‘They even scratched the surface of the ‘Igba’ to ascertain that it was actually a drum’ Ikeogu later remarked as he showed me the scratch marks on the skin surface of the big drum minutes after the inspection.

It was in this light hearted mood that we breezed into Providence City about two hours later. I checked into my old haunt, The Providence Hotel where I had stayed during my 8-City Book Reading Tour of the US which was sponsored by one of Nigeria’s leading airlines, ARIK AIR barely a year earlier.

On that trip, I had read from my award-winning novel; TENANTS OF THE HOUSE at Harvard University and Providence College among other places. Drugged with fatigue and jet lag, I went straight to bed.

The following morning, after a refreshing night rest, I joined what the Conference Brochure called ‘a constellation of intellectual superstars’ for the 5th Chinua Achebe Colloquium at the Brown University.

As the Brochure put it; ‘attending this unprecedented gathering is a constellation of political, cultural and intellectual superstars from every corner of the globe.

Panellists from the United States, Great Britain, South Africa, Finland, Sweden, India, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Nigeria, Ghana, Spain, Canada and Ireland will present papers.

Other special guests will include leading figures in the political, cultural – musical, dance and fine Arts sectors – from around the world’.

That year’s colloquium, titled “African Literature as Restoration: Chinua Achebe as Teacher ”centred around the life and legacy of the late novelist. Achebe, who was the ‘David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana studies’ at Brown, died in March 2013 at the age of 82.

It is on record that Achebe started the colloquium in 2009 to bring attention to issues affecting Africa. The Colloquium was Brown’s fifth Achebe Colloquium on Africa.

While the 2012 colloquium focused on Governance, Security and Solutions to Peace in Africa, the 2011 colloquium explored several challenges facing the region, including the Arab Spring and the crisis in Darfur.

On the other hand, the 2010 colloquium focused attention on three African nations — Rwanda, Congo, and Nigeria — and the crucial issues impacting the countries, the continent, and the world. Equally, the inaugural 2009 colloquium addressed the problems and prospects of the 2010 Nigerian elections.

The 2020 colloquium had been planned to fit into the 250th anniversary of Brown University, one of the world’s most prestigious tertiary institutions.

As the shuttle bus which had conveyed the conference delegates from their hotels drove into the premises of the world renowned University, I was at once captivated and at the same time awed by the beautiful and sprawling campus which was populated by ancient but still well maintained buildings.

Moments later, as we all filed into the List Art Centre auditorium, 64 College St, Brown University the venue of the Colloquium, I quickly went through the conference brochure and was impressed by the list of participants.

Speakers at that year’s colloquium included Lynn Innes, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Kent and author of an analysis of Achebe’s works; Simon Gikandi, Professor of English at Princeton University as well as Bernth Lindfors, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Texas–Austin and a leading scholar of African literature.

Others were, the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangaremgba, Giyatri Spivak, literary theorist and Professor at Columbia University, David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, Michael Thelwell, Jamaican novelist and author of The Harder They Come; and Vijay Kumar, Professor of English at Osmania University in India as well as the former Nigerian Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen (Rtd) Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau CFR who at that time was a Fellow at the University Of Massachusetts, Boston.

Professor Ernest Emenyonu of the University of Chicago at Flint was the Chairman of my own panel which included Prof Akachi Ezeigbo of the University of Lagos as well as Professor Anthonia Kalu of the Ohio State University among others.

Brown University President Christina Paxson delivered a welcome address while Abena P.A. Busia, Associate Professor of English and co-director of the Women Writing Africa Project at Rutgers University, was the panel moderator throughout the colloquium.

The program also included performances by Nigerian playwright Tess Onwueme; Afro roots musical group Eme and Heteru; singers from the Sri Chinmoy Centre; Ohafia war dancers; a poetry, music, and song collage by South Africa’s Sindiswa Seakhoa; and power poetry by Ikeogu Oke with instrumentalist Osuji Ngozi Michael. The sessions also included a roundtable reflection on Achebe’s life by his close friends and colleagues and a panel discussion on Achebe’s influence on hip hop music.

In her Opening Address titled ‘Overcoming Nigeria’s Boko Haram Crisis:
Perception, Proof and Policy’ Assistant Head and Research Fellow, Africa Program, The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), London, Elizabeth Donnelly gave an over view of the insurgency problem.

Apart from enumerating some of the well- known possible causes of the insurgency crisis, she admonished African leaders on the need for transparency governance and people oriented programs as some of the panacea against terrorism. Her paper was logically followed by a panel discussion themed ‘Perspectives of Security: Networks, trafficking and Terrorism in Africa’

Some of the panellists included former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell and Lt. General (Ret.) Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau, former Chief of Staff Nigerian Army and Visiting Fellow, Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts, Boston. The session was chaired by Professor Donna A. Patterson, a scholar of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

When asked to comment on the news making the rounds about some Nigerian soldiers found to be collaborating with the Boko Haram Insurgents, Gen Dambazausaid that although he too had heard about the story, he couldn’t comment about it having left the country a while ago.

Expectedly, the most animated and emotional of the events was the session; There Was A Country: A Century of the Nigerian State in Review which was Chaired by Professor Obiora Udechukwu, Dana Professor of the Arts, St Lawrence University, New York.

Most of the five panellists as well as the commentators from the floor took umbrage at those who criticised Achebe for his position in his last book; There was a Country. ‘Achebe spoke the minds of millions of Igbos in the book and for that we must thank him’ said one commentator who also believed that Nigeria is not yet a country. Another speaker wanted the Igbos to be compensated for what he termed the ‘holocaust’ of the Nigerian Civil War.

Another emotional event was the session entitled; Down Memory Lane: A round table of close friends and colleagues reminisce which was Chaired by Achebe’s childhood friend, Chike Momah.

As they recounted pleasant memories of life with the late writer, some of the panellists made up of Ethel Momah, Professor Chieka Ifemesia ,Doris Soroko, Professor Lyn Catherine Innes and Professor Michael Thelwell shed tears in fond memory of their late friend.

During my own session; Arrow of God: New Insights into Achebe’s Magnum Opus which came on the last day of the conference, I used the recently concluded Seven- City Celebrations of Arrow Of God @ 50 in Nigeria which I coordinated to bring out some aspects of new insights in the book.

Among other salient points, I impressed it on the audience the fact that judging from the enthusiastic reception which the Seven- City tour garnered from all over the country especially in Sokoto, it was very obvious that Achebe, despite the controversy generated by his last book; There Was A Country, was still well regarded by many Nigerians.

The several performances such as those by the Ohafia War Dancers from Abia State (Poetry, music and song collage), South Africa’s Sindiswa Seakhoa, Power Poetry by Ikeogu Oke with instrumentalist Osuji Ngozi Michael, the Keynote Dramatic Performance by Professor Tess Onwueme as well as entertainment by Eme and Heteru were further addition to a very lively and an inspiring gathering.

And from the way he enthusiastically blew his flute and beat his several instruments, it was obvious that the action of the over enthusiastic customs officials did not prevent Michael Osuji and his principal Ikeogu Oke from giving a superlative performance during their two sessions on ‘Power Poetry’.

On the few occasions when I ran into him especially at the refreshment stand, Mike assured me that he was having a swell of a time on his first visit to the US.
Away from the Colloquium, I took the advantage of the now sunny and warm weather to take a look at downtown Providence.

The Downtown, also known as Downcity, is the central, economic, political, and cultural district of the city of Providence. It serves as a physical barrier between the city’s commercial core and neighbourhoods of Federal Hill, West End, and Upper South Providence.

Starting from the Brown University Campus, I went down College Street to cross the Canal and then continued along the western slope of College Hill to The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Outside the gates of RISD, I chanced upon the Students Arts Festival where several of the students’ designs ranging from paintings, designer clothes and mementoes where up for sale. Savouring the pleasant weather and the colourful spectacle, I soon got lost in the crowd as I went about admiring the work of nature.

Moments later, I continued my journey down the slope down Providence Street where both vehicular and human traffic were dwarfed by numerous 19th-century skyscrapers and giant buildings in the Victorian architectural design.

I was told that the historic part of downtown has many streetscapes that look as they did eighty years ago. Most of the state’s tallest buildings are found in this area. The largest structure, to date, is the art-deco-styled former Industrial Trust Tower, currently the Bank of America Building at 426 feet (130 m).

After a lunch of Peking Soup, Stewed rice and shrimps at a nearby Chinese Restaurant, I continued my sightseeing this time to the cavernous Kennedy Plaza where I got lost while looking for a bookshop.

Kennedy Plaza is a major business and transportation hub. Surrounding the plaza are Providence City Hall, Burnside Park, the Bank of America Building, One Financial Center, Bank of America Ice Skating Rink, and the US District Court building. So engrossed was I in my sigh-t seeing that I didn’t know when I found myself back in Providence Hotel.

The Fifth Achebe Colloquium with its intellectual and rigorous debates, even though centred around the life and legacy of Chinua Achebe, certainly lived up to its reputation as a clearing house on the several challenges facing Africa and Nigeria in particular.

The only missing plank in the otherwise well organised event was the dearth of non- delegate audience. Although the lacuna was noticed by all and sundry, it was Professor Emenyonu who publicly tabled the issue as he urged the organizers to open the invitation to the Colloquium to more scholars, students and other enthusiasts.

As Emenyonu put it; ‘We don’t want to be speaking to ourselves, rather, we want to engage with our students and other literary enthusiasts’.


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