By Folu Agoi, President of the Nigerian Centre of PEN International (International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists), aka PEN Nigeria
The current Executive Council of PEN Nigeria, the third in the history of our Centre of PEN, was voted into office on Saturday, October 7, 2017, soon after which we hit the ground running. We set several lofty goals for ourselves – goals meant to etch PEN Nigeria into the consciousness of our immediate environment and put the Centre on the map. Three years down the line, we can confidently assert that most of those goals have been achieved. Not only have we been able to reactivate the Association, we have also been able to effect changes in spaces for literature, language, ideas, opinions, debate and dialogue.
PEN Nigeria wasn’t in a mess when we came into office in 2017. But the Association couldn’t be said to be in a good shape. For instance, the Association – that is, our Centre of PEN – was then heavily indebted to PEN International, having not paid its corporate annual dues for three years. So, our first task was to find ways and means of settling our indebtedness, so that we could have some sense of pride within the PEN International community. We sought and got a loan with which we were able to pay two years’ dues, while PEN International wrote off the remaining debt. We are pleased to say that we now have a clean bill of health, having moved away from the category of debtor Centres. In fact, last year – 2020, we did not only pay our annual dues due for the year, we also paid for this year, 2021 – in advance.
PEN Nigeria has achieved a great deal of visibility through participation in national and international dialogues, celebrating international days and events in schools, colleges and universities, drawing attention to the value of critical thinking and creative writing with the aid of workshops, press statements and panel discussions, thereby encouraging and creating opportunities for writers to express themselves. The Centre has also created space for conversation and debate through a standard website (www.pen-nigeria.org) hosted by the Centre in 2018, and reconstructed in 2020, for online publications and other communicative functions. Members of the Centre constantly hold conversations on its Whatsapp platforms, at physical meetings, public lectures and panel discussions based on topical issues, such as immigration, literacy, press freedom, indigenous writing, mother tongue, feminism etc., encouraging constant interactions among members.
The Centre has been able to draw attention to PEN and raise the level of awareness and enthusiasm of many citizens through its activities. This is reflected in the number of writers that responded when we called for entries for publication in our anthologies.
PEN Nigeria has been able to build a diverse and engaged membership, as reflected in the volume of the entries in Silver Lining, our Centre’s anthology published in 2019, and Of Shadows and Rainbows, our online anthology published in January, 2021. We have been able to multiply the opportunities for writers to publicly express their views through the publication of the anthologies and other projects.
Also, the Centre has been able to establish networks with various civil society organisations and components and units of the literary community, particularly partners with whom PEN shares values (such as Committee of Relevant Arts, aka CORA, Vernacular Art-space Laboratory, Arterial Network Nigeria, Poets in Nigeria, aka PIN), not excluding labour unions (such as National Union of Teachers, NUT), schools, colleges (eg Michael Otedola College of Primary Education, Noforija, Epe) and universities, particularly University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba. These relationships have enabled the Centre to create lots of influence in the country and increase the Association’s membership. We have been building a diverse and engaged membership, and ensuring that all members become part of a strong coalition of civil society actors and be seen as a strong voice on issues bordering on freedom of expression.
PEN Nigeria, as a matter of policy and obligation, participates in all the major book and art events across the country, such as Ake Arts and Book Festival, Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), Readings and Conventions of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Readings of Abuja Writers Forum, AWF, and Poets in Nigeria (PIN).
Women and girls have been impacted by the changes, particularly as the Centre celebrates gender-specific events, such as Int’l Women’s day and the Int’l Day of the Girl Child every year. The events have created in many male participants a new experience bothering on respect and empathy in their perception and relationship with women and girls. One of the potential long-term implications of the above changes is the new perception or idea of gender equality that many young participants have inculcated – the idea of the complementary functions of men and women.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that got the entire world locked down – instigating social and physical distancing and other protocols that made social gathering impossible for the greater part of 2020, we moved our activities to online platforms. We started with an elaborate and colourful international online literary conference, held in June, 2020, via a special WhatsApp platform created for the purpose – the first of its kind in the country. The platform, named PEN Nigeria Free the Word Platform – with close to 150 active membership, has, till date, remained a rendezvous where writers showcase their literary productions for critical appraisal.
The success of our June conference encouraged us to stage another online event in August, this time around, via Zoom. We have had online events, mostly creative workshops Zoom, on a monthly basis since August, 2020, with the assistance of PEN International.
The outbreak of COVID-19, which had devastating impacts on the country’s economic system, led us to establish a fund, with the support of several members of the literary community, with which we were able to render financial assistance to many vulnerable writers, some of whom were not members of PEN.
A few of our accomplishments within three years in office include the following:
• Giving PEN Nigeria an organisational structure, and bringing it closer to writers and culture enthusiasts;
• Building and sustaining a vibrant digital presence with a top-notch website, Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, Twitter, et cetera.
Uniform Resource Locators (URLs)
Tweets by pen_nigeria
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
• Publishing books/anthologies, eg:
1. Silver Lining – An Anthology of Nigerian Literature (poems, drama, short stories and critical essay), edited by Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Folu Agoi
2. Of Shadows and Rainbows – Musings in Times of Covid, An Anthology of Poems, Plays, Short Stories and Essays, edited by Olu Obafemi and Folu Agoi (2021)
• Participating in all PEN International events by organising seminars/workshops, conferences, et cetera, with sufficient media coverage.
• Initiating regular physical and online meetings, readings and other events to carry all members along and drive membership; observing, marking or celebrating, every year, major international days established by the General Assembly of the United Nations, particularly those suggested by PEN International, such as:
14 February Lover’s Day Poetry Festival (eg at Michael Otedola College of Primary Education, Epe in 2018)
21 February International Mother Language Day
1 March World Book Day
8 March International Women’s Day
21 March World Poetry Day
20 June World Refugee Day
8 September International Literacy Day
30 September World Translation Day
11 October International Day of the Girl Child
2 November Day of the Dead 10 November Remembrance… Ken Saro-Wiwa
15 November Day of Imprisoned the Writer
18 December World Migration Day, eg held in 2019 at Vernacular Art-space Laboratory, behind UNILAG, Yaba, Lagos.
• Standing Committees
The standing committees of PEN Nigeria are:
1. Women Writers Committee (WWC)
2. Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC)
3. Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)
4. Writers for Peace Committee (WfPC)
• Number and nature of platforms created =14: WhatsApp (8 groups… for the Executive Council/Board, General, Free the Word, Committees, Sub-Committees), website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Periscope.
It must be stressed that these and other achievements could not have been recorded without the cooperation and support of members of the Executive Board or Executive Council of PEN Nigeria, and, indeed, the entire membership of PEN Nigeria, besides PEN International that created the space in the first place and has been offering us massive support on all fronts. Thus, I would like to, hereby, express my deep gratitude to every member of the Association and, in particular, members of the Executive Council of our Centre and PEN International, for their invaluable contributions and moral, financial and other forms of assistance without which our dream of transforming the Association and putting it on the map would have remained just that – a dream.
Some members of the Association have expressed their reservations about today’s election, mainly out of fear of the raging COVID-19 pandemic. We, however, decided to go ahead with the event – with strict compliance with the community non-pharmaceutical interventions for COVID-19, as advised by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) – as a demonstration of our zeal to set a standard for the Association. We want it recorded in the annals of PEN Nigeria that even in the heat of the pandemic, the Association held an election.
To you all we are very grateful!
— An address delivered at the 2021 Convention of PEN Nigeria, on Saturday, January 30, 2021
Held at CORA House, 12, Animashaun Street, off Bode Thomas, Surulere, Lagos