Dr. Osonye Tess Onwueme
Playwright   Novelist   Scholar   Cultural Activist   International Speaker   Performer


"Tess is a rare jewel in this country..." - Dr. K. Kendall, Smith College, MA.


Exalted New Post / Fonlon Nichols Prize / My Work Is Larger Than Any Female Ideology 

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For Tess Onwueme, home is now a commercial street

By Uduma Kalu

It was just like a re enactment of T. S. Eliot’s journey of the Magi, the story of a poet persona who after his spiritual or physical journeys, become a new creation and so is a stranger in his old home where the people are hostile and strange. To a large extent, that is what has happened to on of Africa’s leading playwrights, Tess Onwueme, who is home to, Nigeria, 17 years after she left the place. Tess is described by several critics such as Dr. S. Darlington as "Africa’s best known female dramatist... Few artists match Dr. Onwueme’s engaging presentation style in rhetoric, intellectual awareness, and social criticism."

Indeed, before her return. T- believed strongly in the African idea of feminism that the urnuada, daughter of the clan in Igbo villages would always be there for one another. She has become a professor and has written extensively on this topic even till now that she is in her 5Os. Now that she is home for the burial of her mother, Madam Ndidi Akaeze at Isah, in Ogwashi Uku, Delta State, the playwright discovers that she knows very little about the culture and tradition of her people.

This is a woman who turned her mother’s funeral into a cultural rebirth for he people. Starting from Thursday, she danced to the beats of the drum with such frenzy and joy that she was the cynosure of all eyes. At the St. St. Mary Immaculate catholic Church, Ogwashi Uku, Tess was in her royal costume made of beads as blouse across her shoulders and arms and a cloth tied round her chest down to her legs.

The reception held for the guests including the Deputy governor of Della State, Chief Benjamin EIue and his assistants, and chief of staff, Prof. Gordini. G. Derah. Later, several cultural groups were displayed. And Tess could not help herself. She danced. She loves dancing, she said. Her step real, and slow. The dance was a royal one, Aguba, typical of the ofala dance across igboland. It requires a king or queen mother to galvanize other dancers to the dance. And wherever the dance leader takes the group, there they will go.

After the dance, there was a dramatic display of one of Tess' play, A hen too soon. Staged the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Delta State and led by the Dean of the Arts Faculty of the Delta State University (DELSU), Prof. Sam Ukala, had earlier commiserated with Tess inside her house. They gave a special card, a long flat one, with a message that said her mother is not dead. And if she doubted the card message read by Ukala to her, she should look at the plays she has written and would see her mother in them. The writers said the excerpts were why it is good people that die while bad people remain to taunt the world.

Akeem Lasisi. who performed his poem-for the late woman, was described by ANA as secretary general, Mr. Nduka Otiono as a bridge between, the Igbo and Yoruba since Madam Akakeke lived for a long time in Lagos that she called Mama Lagos.

At the bank of the Niger, are writers and journalist chatting with the writer at the Jetty Section of the Grand Hotel, Asaba where she lodged.

Tess is not that confident and ebullient this morning under the mango tree. She thought she knew about her people. It has only occurred to her that she very little. "I thought I was a grown up until I came home to bury my mother," Tess started sadly. "I saw that there are so many things to know so many things to face. The community I knew is no more what it used to be. The drumbeat has changed. In terms of communalism, what is there is now a commercial street. They have commercialized everything. They mad many demands and challenges that crippled me financially. But some of my friends helped me out. When I was a young girl growing up in the village, the community contributed firewood and benches for funeral. But today, the community is gone. It is now a street, a commercial street. It is a market out there. It is very debilitating. But I have seen crystals, gems, among them, in the immediate family. They are friends. What I take with me is a redefinition the family and home. Home is not the family. Home are the people who are with you to wipe out tears, support you. Home is not what it used to be. The family has expanded into a new sphere of consciousness. Family is no more necessary. Family is not just blood ties, blood knots. The family can be choking. In the end friends become liberators. They are the extended family now and I cherish that."

This experience has also changed her idea of the umuada and feminism. She used to be passionate on the Umuada. She likes men, though; she adds quickly but take sides with women. But Tess says, "But in the march for name I am going back deflated about some of these things."

One of areas Tess feels betrayed by the umuada is in the area of paying fines. She feels the women took side with men against her. Tess had, after church service, taken her mother’s body straight to for burial. But the late woman family said Tess committed a crime by not bringing the body to them first for them to pay their last respects.. The men had sat in Tess' compound debating how much to me her. In the end. the men fined her four goats. The umuada fined her five goats and other things for the same offense.

But that is not our. , "I was shocked when after everything had been done they halted the performance," Tess said sadly. She had bean dancing around with the dance groups playing the royal drumbeats, a very rare dance. which is performed for royal families only. The reason for the halting was that Tess did not take permission from the family before commencing the dance. Tess does not think the permission was necessary since the family owned the body. But the family insisted that permission must be sought from them before the dance would begin.

"I was fined a goat. They let that go. But I was shocked when the umuada, daughters of the clan who should be by my aide traditionally supported the men this time. I paid three fines to the umuada. First, they said my mother did not attend their meetings. Yet, I paid the men."

In spite of her anger. Tess loves the culture of her people, and hopes the people will promote it. She loves the dance. "The artists in me overwhelmed me, my love, my love for the arts. The dance movement is beyond me. The elders are like mobile libraries but they are disappearing.

As I danced I heard the rhythm of the ancestors, what they left and we are killing them in name of modernity, The drum is in my soul. As I celebrated death, I was forgetting my sorrow. I was in my elements. It was the beauty of the culture but today it has become mercantile,"
Though 8he has been a way, for 17 years in the United States where she teaches in a university, and is married to a Jamaican now. Tess says she breathes the western air. She only crossed the Atlantic, she argues. "I .only crossed the Atlantic. Nigeria is in me. It is in my blood. I sip the blood. I drown it any time I can. I breathe in the air of the west but I continue to grow by the things in Africa., especially in Anioma. Anioc:ha. Aguba was an invocation of t hat that, an outpouring of the flow within me."

One day Tess believes the experience of her will visit with crystallize into a novel. And she thinks the Aguba dance will make a good tourist attraction. But she is quick to add that "Aguba...you learn as it beats. Its a royal dance step. Each person has his own. I can't perform the same dance step. It is impromptu. As you go you simply step." Tess is not happy that the culture, which she adores, is dying. For her, ironically, the culture is being reborn outside the continent. Tess does not want to wear jeans in Nigeria but she is not against others wearing it. For her it is to make a point in a country with young people - in a rush to ape western culture, and disregard theirs.

Perhaps, I am being anachronistic, but it is when I wear my African dress that 1 feel confident, like lroko among trees that are overshadowed. I feel whole in African costume. I can’t in western culture… I can only ape. But this is mine. "She touches her African dress she is wearing. " I can adapt it well ahead of other cultures. We should be in ours."

But can we start a move for African cultural renaissance? She looks around her. A scuffle is heard just a little a way on her right. A security man had seen a catfish panting at the bank of the Niger. He jumps in and catches the fish with bare hands.

Tess turns back to look at her guests,. " Who am I to say we do that." But the work can start somewhere, and she identifies the place. "There is madness here. .We need to rehabilitate our people's mindset. Everywhere, the women the women are frying their hair. Even the old women are frying their hair. They no more plait their hair. The leaders are different species; from Mars. They dance other people’s steps. They are selfish. It is like a sheep without radar. We are only drifting. Apart from dress code and others is the fact that even our languages, it seems, our people are ashamed to speak their languages to their children. They speak English to them. They say they speak English to them because they don't want their children to be handicapped. But the parents' parents never spoke English. Some say their husbands and wives are from different cultures. . Who says you can't learn both. It is because we have no regard it. I am passionate about language. When we lose you language, we your voice." Tess cools down, and looks at the beau1ifu1landscape of the hotel. There are sculptures of fishermen and almost nude girls shaped as if they are bathing in their life size images. Tess returns to the issue of cultural rebirth in the west. "We do not cherish what we have. The African American passionately looks for Africa. I am married to a Jamaican, and you know it is there, also. They hold on to our culture, deliberately. They roast yams. In Brazil, two years ago, I was amazed at the kind of cultural achievementt there. They live it. We are like cultural orphans here. To them – we are westernized. Africa is reborn there, that is by blacks in the Diaspora, that is some that know the Va1ue. Then the dialogue begins to flow around her writing. especially on her latest book. Shakara Day Queen whose language is describe to be western. But Tess explains. Shakara is an image of the teenage Nigerian girl who represents another world that is not here. "The Shakara are living persons, youth of today who do not identify with any culture of their own. They are the "was up', the global culture. They watch CNN, MTV, Michael Jackson. The setting of the play is not fixed. They are caught between the city, between the rich and poor. They are standing on a place to look at globalization. They look for what they want to be, based on television. They don't have to be in America. America is here, in their bedroom. The children are now a hybrid of the world. They - the now generation that can' be pinned down.

"The language of the play from my other plays is different. The mother of Shakara is of the old generation but she disempowered. The daughter is the one that is in flight, beyond Nigeria."

Tess' house at Ogwashi Uku is like a mansion, but she waves out the suggestion that she is well off. "I still have a along way to go," she says smiling. I am dreaming. I like my natura1 environment.' But she wants to have some comfort in order to write better. But she argues that "Wealth can help to forget.. But adversity can endanger creativity but not such that stifles the individual. It is important that a writer has welcoming environment."

For the little time Tess is in the country, she has discovered that "Everything is so expensive and blown out. I wonder how other people manage. Politics? I can't say. I am overwhelmed. I see posters for 2007. And the number is gathering. I was here during the fuel prices hike and it affected on my project. Cost of living is unrealisteically unbearable for the average people, and these are people who go out to look for kerosene. Roads in my village are full of potholes.

Though based in America, Tess connects with Nigeria for her creativity to flower. She returns home regularly. This year alone, she has been home times. She has been putting her hands in other pies too. One of them is fiction. Today she has finished a novel and is happy that her works have received much attention. In Canada and USA some students have done their PhD works on her plays. So she no more finds it difficult to publish work.

"I have paid my dues, in North America, especially. It is less difficult for me to canvass for publishing, " she replies to a question on publishing. But she is not in a hurry to part with the new novel yet.

On the National Theatre, Tess heart bleeds for the place. And the saddest thing is that drama in the country is being killed by the home video. "The drama is being killed by Nollywood."

She once ventured into the movies, though. That was in the 80s. Looking back today, Tess thinks that she "jumped with two feet. But as it turned out I cam out burnt.. I was too idealistic. I was broken,. "She has discovered that she does not know who to work with on movies. With her experience, she has decided to take her time. I want to go into the home video. The theatres are dead. Theatres are now in the homes. I want to bring the theatre to our homes." Tess also once had an NTA drama series in the 70s. But she moans for the stage today. "Where are the stage now. Before the home video, there was some semblance of theatre. Now they lie in coma. The leaders are not investing in that area. And security? I don’t know whether there is if when going out of town you feel insecure. Here in Asaba as well as town around here, okada has been banned from driving at six p.m. Armed robbers had a great performance in Asaba here, free of charge, in daylight. And police were spectators in the macabre performance. We need new souls. The soul of Nigeria is being killed. I wish we can make an awakening, "Tess answers, jumping up. She late for an appointment with the family. She does not want to be fined again. So she flees.

© 2003 - 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited - September 24, 2005

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