Denja Abdullahi: Poet of the city

Denja Abdullahi: Poet of the city

The notion that
writers are prophets appears true for Denja Abdullahi. Some 10 years
after he published his ‘Mairogo: A Buffoon’s Poetic Journey around
Northern Nigeria’, it is as if no change has occurred in that part of
the country.

“I don’t think
anything has changed. The north has always remained constant so most of
what I said is current. Some are predictive of what I thought will
happen in the north in future,” says the poet.

crises and oppression of the minority by the elite are some of the
issues Abdullahi uses the Yankamanci (roving poet) tradition to
highlight in the collection. The problems, he notes, have always been
present in the north and will continue unless efforts are made to
address them.

Shilashila dance

Apart from vividly
depicting northern Nigeria and predicting its future, Abdullahi also
touches on the ethnography of the region. He highlights the dances,
food, marriage practices and the history of Arewa land. One of the
seldom talked-about dances of the north he mentions is the shilashila,
an erotic dance.The artist from Kogi State discloses that, “I witnessed
the dance during the coronation of the deposed Mustapha Jokolo as Emir
of Gwandu. There was a night event on the eve of the coronation where
all the emirs from northern Nigeria gathered. It is the night during
which the emirs are entertained and many things come into the
entertainment that ordinarily would not be tolerated in the daytime or
in formal situations.

“Some people came
from Borno with the dance and it was purely an erotic dance which
ordinarily the emirs, as religious leaders, should not sit to watch.
There are sub-cultures in the north, those related to the court, and
shilashila is done at the court or on very special occasions.”

He is however
saddened by the fact that some “people are trying to suppress some of
those sub-cultures.” And that it is “why the north is culturally
deficient because Islam has suppressed many of the pre-Islamic liberal
cultures of the north. This book is in a way an attempt to rescue some
of the cultures and bring them to the fore.”

Yankama tradition

To remove the sting
from his criticisms of northern Nigeria, Abdullahi, a deputy director
of performing arts with the National Council for Arts and Culture,
Abuja, hid under an ancient northern tradition. “The Yankama tradition,
that is a wandering jester,” he begins in explanation. “You find
itinerant jesters at the market performing and saying all sorts of
things to make people laugh. People abhor unnecessary amusement in the
north; it is frowned upon because of religious inclination so the
yankama speaks truths that people laugh at. That is the tradition I
used as a trope for the work. I am able to talk about the north in a
way that is not offensive and at the same time pass some truthful

But Abdullahi’s
major motivation for writing the book is to bring the north closer to
other Nigerians. “There are things which need to be talked about
because people from other parts of the country lack information about
what is happening in the north. I feel that we must explain the north
to people in the north and those outside it.”

Though ‘Mairogo’
was published in 2001, Abdullahi started writing it in 1996 shortly
after writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by
the Sani Abacha junta. He reveals he started writing it in a bus after
an interview with Shell in Port Harcourt. “I wrote it up to the point
that I alighted from the vehicle. What made me to complete it was that
it was serialised in a magazine where I was the consulting editor.
After the serialisation got to the point where I had left it, I had to
continue and that helped me to complete it. It took me up to four years
to complete it.”

Vatsa’s influence

Abdullahi’s second
poetry collection, ‘Abuja Nunyi’ (This is Abuja), published in 2008,
arose from the British Council’s Crossing Borders project of 2006. He
chose to write on the city and his mentor Meg Peacocke didn’t object.
“Every city has its evocative nature. That’s why Lagos has been able to
generate a lot of poetry and I thought Abuja too can be written about.
Before I wrote, Abuja had generated a lot of poems. Mamman Vatsa was
here and being a poet, he was encouraged by the scenery but it’s no
longer the time of Vatsa.There are new developments: the modern Abuja,
the people, the history and towns in order to glorify the city.

“Poets have done
things about other cities. Simbo Olorunfemi did ‘Eko Ree’ on Lagos. A
soldier-poet in the tradition of Vatsa, retired colonel J.I.P. Ubah,
also wrote ‘Songs of Lokoja’. He and Vatsa were at the back of my mind
when I was doing the poems that comprise ‘Abuja Nunyi.'”

Though the poet
admits to Vatsa’s influence, he says it is “an influence in terms of
subject but not in terms of form. I responded to the Abuja of today the
way Vatsa responded to the Abuja of yesterday.”

On why he adopted
similar styles for ‘Mairogo’ and ‘Abuja Nunyi’, Abdullahi says, “I want
my poetry to be accessible. I subscribe to the tradition of Niyi
Osundare that poetry should be taken out of the classroom to the market
place. What I took away from ‘Mairogo’ to [Abuja Nunyi] is accessibilty
and showcasing different angles of the same thing. I also like to play
with humour; I believe that we should laugh at ourselves in writing.
Some of the poems in ‘Abuja Nunyi’ are on the problems of Abuja in a
way that will elicit laughter. I started it in ‘Mairogo’ and I have
also included it in ‘Abuja Nunyi’ but the forms are different.”

Unfulfilled dream

With three
collections in his kitty, Abdullahi’s joy won’t be complete until he
publishes his first manuscript, yet to see the light of the day. “It
would have been my first collection of poetry,” he discloses. “It had
been completed since 1995 but it has been suffering a lot of delays. It
has to come out because if it doesn’t, people will not know where I
started from as a poet. After it is published, I think I would have
paid my debt to poetry. I want to focus on drama as well as short

ANA politics

A past general
secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Abdullahi, who
is aspiring to become the body’s next vice president, says that he is
being persuaded to run by a group that feels ANA still needs him. He
then quickly adds that he and some others are not making a career out
of ANA as is being speculated.

“There are writers not willing to do the work some people are doing
for ANA. Nobody has prevented anybody from aspiring into an ANA
position. When you say people are making a career out of ANA, it is
that way because people are not coming forward for positions. I know a
number of Nigerian writers who want others to work for them while they
stay on the sidelines. People should stop saying some are making a
career out of ANA, they should leave their careers and come serve the

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