INTERVIEW: Imo Can Be Nigeria’s Tourism Hub

Amanze Obi. Image: Twitter

The Director-General of the Ahiajoku Institute, Owerri, Imo State, Dr Amanze Obi, in this interview says the institute, modeled after the Goethe Institute and Instituto Italiano De Cultura, is a research and cultural centre and an offshoot of the 40-year old Ahiajoku Lecture Series. Obi, who is also a former Commissioner for Information and Strategy, as well Culture and Tourism in the state, is the author of two books – Perspectives in International Politics (1998) and Delicate Distress: An Interpreter’s Account of the Nigerian Dilemma (2013). He also says Imo State can actually become the cultural and intellectual hub of the country using the vehicle of the institute. Chris Uba provides the excerpts:
What is the Ahiajoku festival all about?

The Ahiajoku Festival has been on for 40 years. It started in 1979 under the governorship of Sam Mabakwe. It was started by Mbakwe in 1979.

What really is the concept and its objectives?
Now, on the whole concept of Ahiajoku. Ahiajoku is an Igbo word, which has to do with fertility and harvest. You know that in Igbo cosmology, yam is the king of crops. And when you are talking about fertility of crops, you are invariably talking about yam cultivation, fertility and harvest. So, Ahiajoku is like the goddess of fertility in Igbo cosmology. And so, in 1979, some Igbo leaders of thoughts, and some cultural enthusiasts as well as intellectuals came together and started asking questions: who are the Igbos? Where are they coming from? Where do we go from here? What is behind our history? Nine years after the civil war, how do we reinvigorate those things that we are known for? What is our contribution to the world civilization and the entire world view of mankind? What is Igbo perspective? It was based on interrogations such as these that the idea of Ahiajoku Festival came up. And so, the Ahiajoku Lecture started as a lecture series. It was supposed to be an annual intellectual harvest, where the best of the Igbo come together, one person comes up , gives a lecture on issues that have to do with Igbo culture and civilisation in the context of world affairs .

So, it has been on. The first lecture series was given by Professor M.J.S Echerue on November 30, 1979. And the title of his lecture was: A Mater of Identity. Forty years after, the same Echerue was invited to come and give the 40th Anniversary Lecture. What we did this year was to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Ahiajoku Festival. And we thought in our wisdom that the man who gave the lecture 40 years ago should come back to give this year’s lecture good enough, he was still alive and strong. And so, we invited him. He gave again the lecture that was held in November 30, this year. Ahaijoku Festival holds last weekend of every November. So, it does not have to be 30th of November, it could be 26th. It has to be the last weekend of every November. So, he gave this year’s lecture, which was entitled: “Ogueri Mba: We Shall Survive”. He gave the lecture and that his lecture marked the 40th Anniversary of Ahiajoku Festival.

In the 40-year-history of Ahiajoku Festival, the lecture has virtually every year. There were one or two misses under the military regime, for instance. But under Rochas Okorocha, for eight years he was in the saddle, for seven years, Ahiajoku Festival did not hold. So, the whole thing was forgotten. It was abandoned. And this is one festival that is the highest cultural intellectual festival that Igbos can boast of; it is more intellectual as I said earlier on than cultural. Because what we do there is to come and intellectualize on Igbo world view and civilization. The cultural angle was just something that was added after some years. When it started, it was a one-day event.

And a lecture would just hold:

The Ahiajoku Lecture. But over the years, it was rebranded, from being a lecture series, it became a festival. So, under that festivalship, you will have a cultural mate; you have the colloquium and then you have the lecture. When I staged it in 2010, when I was the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, the then lecturer was Professor Chinedu Nebo, former Vice Chancellor of University of Nigeria. He gave the lecture in 2010. We had all these strands. The colloquium was there. That was also what we had this year. But what has changed was that, this year, under the leadership of our new governor, Emeka Ihedioha, the lecture series has been elevated to an institute ,where a Director-General was appointed to oversee the affairs of the institute and I happen to be the Director –General. That is the first person that has been appointed as the DG of the institute. The institute has just been set up.

What are the duties of the institute?

The institute will now be responsible for holding of Ahiajoku Lecture. The institute has a lot of other things to do beyond Ahiajoku Festival. And so, now that we have done with Ahiajoku Festival we have other programmes in the New Year. We are going to have world conference on Igbo language and on Igbo world view. It is coming up, noted, but we are working on it. So, we are going to be having international conferences; we are going to be having workshops on films, on music, on literature, on theatre. We are going to be having cultural exchanges. We are going to be having language exchanges. We are going to be having a lot of things that will promote Igbo language and culture; things that will get Igbo language to mix with other languages. People can come from Germany or wherever, and come and learn Igbo language. We also send people to those places to also learn their languages.

That is the language and cultural exchange I was talking about. If you know Goethe Institute, in Lagos, and Italian Cultural Institute; if you know these two institutes, the Ahiajoku Institute is being modeled after these two institutes. And so, there are so many things, we will be doing. Most of the things we do we will do with partners in these areas that I have mentioned: in the area of music, in the area of literature; in the area of drama, in the area of photography and so on. So, from time-to-time, we will be inviting them to workshop so that we can know the areas they think we can research into and collaborate; and hold conferences or lectures or workshops as the case me be. So, the institute will be busy with issues like these. But then, we must remember that every November we will hold the annual Ahiajoku Lecture which is its fulcrum. It is the constant strand.

Does the Ahiajoku Concept have economic objectives? How are the activities of the institute funded?
Are you talking about revenue generation, or something? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t want to talk much about seeing it as revenue generating agency but I know it will generate something. Like the international I said we are going to have, of course, a lot of money will come into the programme. Companies, corporate bodies, and high net worth individuals will contribute money. We will depend on a lot of sponsorship; we will not depend solely on government to finance and fund all these programmes.

Government can fund Ahiajoku Festival but we don’t expect the government to fund every other thing we are doing. So, we are expecting that in partnership with corporate bodies and organisations and high net-worth individuals, a lot of money will flow and people will register for some of these things to be able to participate. So, at the end of the day, we will not just breakeven, we will make some money for the government, you know. But the whole idea is not about money making. Life and living is not necessarily about money making, but if you add value to the society, which is what the whole idea is all about. It is going to add a lot of value.

The tourism aspect?

Yes, that is the tourism aspect you are talking about because we also want to promote the Mbari cultural element; we have it here and so much can be done with that Mbari. So, when we have a cultural festival and we invite people from outside to come and see what we have to offer. And they come here and stay; we have a lot of hotels. If what they have seen interests them, they will come back another time. So, Imo can actually become the tourism, cultural and intellectual hub of this country if it uses the vehicle of Ahiajoku Institute to actualise some of the things we have put on the table.

Any plans to incorporate the Igbo Nollywood version into the institute’s programme?
They are covered by those things I listed. When I mentioned music, I mentioned theatre; they are all part of it. So, Nollywood will be part of the people we will be interested in what they do once in a while, we can invite them for a talk. So that they can give us an idea of the areas we can collaborate and work together, then, whether it is workshop or conference or anything we can do about the festival and organise it, we will work in collaboration with them. So, we have an open house where people can come and share ideas with us and based on those ideas we can implement something tangible. You must culture and language and if you don’t have a culture you don’t exist. These are the bases of human existence. And people must go back to their roots. To promote these things otherwise you will be floating on the surface of reality.