Amkpa’s Tales Of Unwilling Home
(First published on Saturday, June 7 2008)
As another gathering of documentary filmmakers of African subjects opened in Accra, Ghana last weekend, one of the directors of the festival, Nigerian-born Associate Professor at New York University, U.S, Awam Amkpa, during a chat with TAJUDEEN SOWOLE in Dakar, Senegal, revisits the cost of failing academia back home.
During the Nigeria Day art event at the art biennial, Dak’Art 2008 held inside Sofitel Hotel, Teranga, Dakar, Senegal, the introduction of Dr. Awam Amkpa as a Nigerian in the Diaspora brought to an end my manhunt for the U.S.-based poet.
Amkpa was in Senegal for the shooting of his documentary film project, about contemporary African artists. And at a setting that had artists moving from one MAIN art exhibition to another OFF event, tracking the artists must have posed an extra burden to Amkpa. So, from the time i and the professor met, to the period of the chat, every second counted as the interview was carried out with a speed similar to being in a spacecraft – every second counts.
At the New York University, Amkpa is the Associate Professor of Drama, Department of Drama, Tisch School of the Arts and Director Africana Studies, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. But the university has a program that entails establishing New York University outside the U.S. Part of Amkpa’s briefs, at the university, he stated, is to help set up such schools. He explained that when the opportunity came up to have one in Africa, the natural choice was Nigeria until the country lost it to Ghana. “Nigeria was the place we considered when the opportunity came to have New York University study centre in Africa, but we found out that it was yet to set up a transparent infrastructure that will allow effective academic exchanges between the country and other people in the academia abroad. All efforts to have the school set up in Nigeria, six years ago, was frustrated as a result of inconsistency on the part of the government officials concerned. Several appointments with the Minister of Education was not honoured, Nigerian Embassy in the US also contributed to the bureaucratic bottleneck, so we were frustrated. “The first letter we wrote to the ministry for Higher Education in Ghana got immediate response. They have better structure in place which make things easy for us. And of course, Ghana has a long history of Pan-Africanism, so it goes into the identity”
For him personally, it was a sad decision to make, he said, noting that the system in his home country gave the school the impression that it was a bad business, until Ghana took the opportunity. “We have been in Ghana for four years. And we have realised our aims because Ghana shares the exchange programs focus with the school. For example students in Ghanaian universities take classes in our school and our students do same in the universities in Ghana. We beefed up their libraries.” Amkpa who had his B.A. in Dramatic Arts at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, 1982 and M.A. Drama at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, 1987 argued that self isolation of the Nigerian academia is responsible for the devaluation of the degrees obtained in the country’s universities in recent times. “The university system in Nigeria can be improved through curriculum exchange. Ghana for example has over 300 exchanges with others in Europe and America, Asia as well. This explains why we have many Nigerians studying in Ghana. In my university days back home, professors used to meet others, degrees had better values.”
And if one wants to premise the Nigerian attitude on arrogance or complacency, Amkpa disagreed. There is nothing to be complacent about in the Nigeria academic setting, he explained, noting that rather the problem is lost of control on the part of the government. “It is bad for a country that used to be known for high quality education. Resource of a people is in the human potentials and not oil or in the soil. Here is the question: Is Nigeria investing in its people? It’s a huge contradiction.”
Amkpa who is also a scholar in film-making disclosed further that the university, through his leadership has what he called “visual literacy” program that engages youth of high school students in Ghana into photography to produce amateur short films.
When a nation’s intelligentsia fail to meet the challenges of development, the loss keeps mounting. Another loss to Ghana in the cultural sector is the Pan Africa Documentary Film Festival which opens on May 31 through June 6, 2008 in Accra Ghana.
In its third edition, the festival, Amkpa said, has the input of the New York University while he is one of the three directors of the film festival. This year, the festival which has Hollywood actor and producer, Danny Glover as one of the members of committees will bring film scholars, documentary filmmakers across the world who have shot documentary in Africa and about Africa subjects. "We also bring students from film schools across Africa to be part of the festival for workshops. Six Nigerian film students and four selected Nigerian documentary films out of 16 entries from the country, he said, are expected to be part of the 2008 edition of the festival."
And in terms of financial resources and other benefits, the lost to Nigeria runs into several millions of dollars, he noted. He listed the university’s activities in the film sector: “We have sent about 800 American students to Ghana and contribute 20m dollars, organises workshops at Ghana’s National Film Institute. Perhaps the Africa phenomenon and Nigeria’s Nollywood initiative, which is basically private and an evolution, as part of the reason Ghana was a choice and fertile ground for the American university. “Our going to Ghana was also an intervention. Ghanaian filmmakers want to make Nollywood films, but we thought they could do better in documentary first, then maybe fiction later.”
Still on documentation, Amkpa, a former Senior Lecturer of Drama and Television at King Alfred’s University College, Winchester, England, and Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at Mount Holyoke College said another projects of the New York University in Ghana is Digital Archiving. This he explained involves the use of IT databases for preserving archival music materials. However, blood of patriotism still runs in Amkpa’s vein as he expressed joy on the proposed National Gallery of Art's (NGA) African Regional Summit on Visual Art (ARESUVA.) “I have not given up in using my status abroad to assist my country. I am delighted about the ARESUVA event coming up soon. I like to contribute to its success, but would not like to deal with politicians this time around. I hope to bring a lot people from the US to the event.”
Among other literary and film achievements of Amkpa is the book Theatre and Postcolonial Desires, London. He is the director of film documentaries such as Winds Against Our Souls, Its All About Downtown, National Images and Transnational Desires.
He directed the feature film, Wazobia! His most visible work, Not in My Season of Songs, performed with music, dance, video recounts the experiences of a Catholic woman from Northern Ireland who discovers she is far from alone in her search for identity.