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Why I Relocated Back To Nigeria From U.S. – Pioneer African Playwright Professor Tess Onwueme

Renowned African playwright, scholar, poet and Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Cultural Diversity and English Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Tess Onwueme, has advanced reasons why she decided to relocate back to Nigeria from the United States when she had been a citizen for more than 30 years.

Professor Onwueme, also known as T. Akaeke Onwueme, says she has been anxious to come back home because the story of Nigeria can be better.

She said that although it had been a very dismal, dark, atmosphere, arena for a long time in Nigeria especially in the last decade, “we should be the ones creating our stories, Nigerian story has to change, we are the creators.”

Onwueme, author of the popular play, Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen (2001), The Desert Encroaches (1985), Tell It To Women (1995), and Then She Said it (2003), stated these in an interview with The PUNCH in Ako, Trademall in Lugbe area of Abuja, during the official opening of Happy Belly Events and Creative Performance Centre that would serve as hub and confluence of future arts.

The event was attended by the members of the literary community in the country, including the Association of Nigerian Authors, scholars in literature and the academic such as the Executive Director of Abuja School of Politics, Dr. Sam Amadi, Dr. Law Mefor; Prof. Irene Salami of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Jos and a representative of Ijaw in Diaspora, Dr. Edward Agbai.

The place has writers’ shelter for story-telling/folktales, poetry readings, creative performances, with a 1,200 seater event space for weddings, parties and picnics and unique blend of delicacies.

Onwueme was responding to questions on why she decided to return back to the country, even with the worsening security challenges, hardship and bad governance and which have discouraged most Nigerians from coming home.

She said, “The longing to come back home has been there. Nigerian story can be different, it’s been a very dismal, dark, atmosphere, arena for a long time in Nigeria especially in the last seven, eight, ten years. We are the creators, we should be the ones creating our stories, Nigerian story has to change.

“I have been a citizen of that country (US) for more than 30 years. But I am, first and foremost, a Nigerian. My umbilical cord, my placenta was buried in Nigeria and Nigeria is a place that can never be, for me, recreated. Nigeria is my home, my homeland and I claim this as my home forever and forever.

“So wherever I go, it is like the tortoise, wherever he goes, he goes with his shell; I may have gone elsewhere around the world, I’ve been around the world as a writer, as a keynote speaker, all over the place. But there’s always been somewhere that I call home and this is here and I am claiming it, reclaiming it and I want us to be proud.

“There is so much we can be proud of about Nigeria, but it just appears that we have lost confidence in ourselves. I look around, I see children, parents don’t even speak their language to their children anymore, as if they are ashamed of it.

“My children, I raised them in America, five of them and now 12 grandchildren, the youngest was four years when we left, the oldest was 11 years. They could speak our language, their children they teach them, so it is something that depends on you, it depends on us.

We can’t just be blaming the politicians.”

Speaking on her journey into writing, Onwueme said as a pioneer African female playwright, she entered, “when it was even more difficult for women to storm the scene of the literary intelligential in Nigeria with the likes of Wole Soyinka Chinua Achebe J.P. Clark and Ola Rotimi at the time because it was a man’s world.”

She emphasized, “So at the time I got into the scene or entered, there was a vacuum and I became a pioneer in that sense. Zulu Sofola was an elder compared to me at the time, it was a very vacant topography for women especially for the dramatic arena.

“And for then for more than two decades, I occupied that scene, not just in this country Nigeria but Africa and the US where I became a full Professor and Distinguished  Eminent Professor of Letters, endowed for 27 years.

“So I am done, I have five children, I have really accomplished the best to the top of my career, 12 grandchildren, I am retired, I retired as Eminent, endowed chair University Professor of Global Letters and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin.”

Onwueme said Happy Belly Events was a dream come true where she could have writers and the community come to tell stories.

“People can retell, recreate our story and to nourish both our body and our hearts and our minds, we should be the ones telling a new story for Nigeria. That is why storytelling is a major component of what is Happy Belly Events and creative performance centre is supposed to be offering. I want us to be able to tell better stories again,” she said.

Originally published in The PUNCH

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