Reliving memories of Harry Garuba

by Araayo Akande

It was a small but quality crowd that converged on Ouida House, Ikeja GRA on Saturday, March 14 for an evening of readings and reminiscences in honour of the late Professor Harry Garuba.

Garuba, who lived in Cape Town, South Africa, passed on February 28 aged 61. He was not only an intellectual giant but also a mentor credited with helping the third generation of Nigerian poets hone their skills. The pathfinder and an inspiration founded The Poetry Club, otherwise known as Thursday People, at the University of Ibadan and had the likes of Remi Raji, Afam Akeh, Akin Adesokan, Sanya Osha, Niyi Okunoye, Chiedu Ezeanah, Bose Shaba, Onookome Okome, Ogaga Ifowodo and Nehru Odey under his wings.

He also edited ‘Voices from the Fringe: ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry”, that became the defining collection for the third generation of Nigerian poets. Because the majority of his ‘products’ are in faraway continents, and a significant majority of the present generation writers don’t know him, it was a small circle of associates that turned up.

Welcoming guests, writer and publisher, Lola Shoneyin who owns Ouida Books, said it was befitting to have the event at her bookstore, especially as similar programs had been held for beloved friends, Professor Pius Adesanmi and French journalist, writer and diplomat, Pierre Cherruau when they passed.

She thanked people aware of her relationship with the late Garuba and who had reached out to her. “I would like to thank the close friends who have contacted me privately to offer their condolences because of my link to Harry, but I want to let everyone know that my grief is very public. It’s very similar to what you are all feeling. Although Harry and I had an interesting dance 25 years ago, in the last 15 years, I think we have become very good friends. He would always contact me if there was something specific he needed, anything that had to do with the literary world in Nigeria and internationally, especially as I was becoming more and more embedded in the literary world and coming in contact with more authors across the globe.
“I remember him to be a very gentle person. If I had to choose a word to describe him, that would probably be it. He was a very gentle person, very soft-spoken and extremely brilliant. He had a huge impact on the writing of my first collection, ‘So all the time I was sitting on an egg’. Harry was there for a whole lot of us. I mean when you talk about the third generation of Nigerian writers, Harry mid-wife that generation, I think because he was very much on the cusp. In between that generation where you had Osundare, Osofisan and then the younger generation. Harry was the bridge, and he did that wonderfully. Many writers of my generation have a lot to thank Harry for; his encouragement and support.”

Before the evening ended, Shoneyin prefaced her reading of the late poet’s poem, ‘What is Africa to her’, subtly poking fun at a white female’s interest in Africa because of heat with a short explanation. “He had a very distinct laugh; very subtle, mischievous. He was such a keen observer of human behaviour.”

Executive Editor of TheNews/PM News, Kunle Ajibade, who took charge of the proceedings after Shoneyin, affirmed Garuba’s role as a mentor. He reeled out names of his Thursday People and yielded the floor to one of them that was present.

“He was a mentor, a father,” began journalist and writer, Nehru Odeh who read Sociology but was always with Garuba in the Department of English, Faculty of Arts.

“We ran to him whenever there was a problem, and he assisted either financially or morally. He embraced all of us from the social sciences and arts. He encouraged me to write for The Guardian Literary Series. I spent more time with him and gained more from him than even in my department. I learnt theories from him; I always got the latest books from him. He was a cult figure, a cult hero. Prof Garuba was a metaphor for literature; he was literature himself. Whatever I am, he made me 90 per cent. He always advised: be careful the way you use words. He made my stay in UI very exciting. My stay in UI would have been sad, dull without Harry. He encouraged us to continue writing. He was everything to us.”

Publisher and organiser of DAME Awards, Lanre Idowu, said he met Garuba in 2008 at a Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism event. “He was a gentle spirit, and I also noted that he was a chain smoker. I wish I was coming here in more pleasant circumstances. We wish his spirit safe travel,” he added before reading ‘Naming Day’ from the deceased 2017 poetry collection’ Animist Chants and Memorials’.

Ajibade read two poems from the same collection, ‘A wake for the storyteller’ dedicated to Professor Chinua Achebe and ‘The Forest Give up their spirit.”

Odeh read ‘Death of a poem’ while Opeyemi Obembe and Chiebuka Obumselu read ‘Prodigal City’ and Home Owner’ respectively.

Writer and editor, Molara Wood said she wouldn’t have spoken had Garuba’s mentees attended the occasion. “I had hoped that many people hatched in the incubator that was Harry Garuba’s house and garden in Ibadan, that many of them would be here today. I’ve heard much about him over the years; many of the people I’ve interacted with over the last 15 years, Uche Nduka, Amatoritsero Ede, and so many others. Of course, there’s always that talk of that poetry anthology, ‘Voices from the Fringe’. From talking to all those people, what I got was Harry Garuba was a totemic figure to the third generation of Nigerian writers; those poets that arose in the 90s, mid-90s and so on.

“Many of them would not have become writers if not for that atmosphere that he was able to create and the kind of mentorship that he was able to give them, the friendship and the encouragement. So, someone like me, I’m speaking in their place today because so many of them are scattered over the world, many of them are professors, world-renowned poets.

“I can recall only ever meeting Harry Garuba once at the Fagunwa Conference in Akure in 2013. Those words said [about him] here this evening. He was gentle. He was soft; very softly spoken, humble, self-effacing. You saw him, and you would say is this the legendary Harry Garuba? I’m grateful for having had that opportunity, and it meant a lot to me.” She then read ‘Memorial Wish’ from his collection.

Also reliving shared moments with Garuba, writer Toni Kan recalled his first encounter with him around 1997 at the now rested Post Express Newspaper. He was a contributor at the time and had gone to receive payment for his articles when he saw Garuba and Nduka Otiono, both of whom worked for the publication. He got closer to Garuba after he and others started ‘Pearls’ which became a platform for several young writers.

“They gave us a platform to write poetry and essays,” he said, adding of Garuba: “He didn’t talk much; he was always at the background. Always quiet, smoking. He was a man who took his art seriously. Quiet, intense and committed to helping people. All of them in Ibadan, they wouldn’t have been known if not for him.” Kan also read ‘Tonight I read the moon for omens’ from Garuba’s collection.

The evening ended on a light note with food and drinks, including liquor. “If we didn’t have that, Harry would have been disappointed,” Shoneyin explained as the event closed.

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