York profs’ African tour yields many adventures

Some married couples find the most unusual ways to spend time together. Take, for example, the most recent adventures of York Professors Patricia Keeney and Don Rubin. This past summer, they spent more than a month on a joint lecture tour of Nigeria that took them from Zaria in the Arabic north to Ibadan in the southwest. 

Keeney, a professor of English and creative writing, and Rubin, a professor of theatre studies, were invited by the Nigerian government (with special support from the Canadian High Commission in Nigeria and the Nigerian state of Nasarawa) to give a series of lectures on Canadian literature and theatre. They have just returned to chilly Canada armed with stories of the warm reception they received while in Africa.

Right: Patricia Keeney

“We’ve worked this way many times before,” said Rubin. “It becomes a piece of theatre. Sometimes it gets formally split up and we have to lecture to two different audiences, but when we can combine what we do it is extremely enjoyable for us and brings a new dimension to each of our areas for the audience."

“As well, in Nigeria there are not so many international guests passing through the universities,” added Keeney. “The infrastructure is not geared to visitors or tourists. People go for business and then they leave. For us to stay around for the better part of a month and do our programs at a half-dozen universities made it something special. There are over 70 universities there. People came from a huge number of them to hear us. We were very flattered at the interest.”

Left: Don Rubin

The visit was organized by the new Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador Iyorwuese Hagher, also a playwright and poet, who travelled with the York profs under an initiative he called “Professors of Goodwill.” Hagher had worked with Rubin and Keeney many years earlier on the York-based World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre project (six volumes between 1985 and 2000, published by Routledge) so he knew what he was getting into. (Hagher was at York University this past June and was the signatory to the exchange agreement with the University of Jos in Nigeria. See YFile, July 29.)

“The ambassador made all the arrangements,” said Rubin. “He was terrific. During the encyclopedia project, we spent a lot of time then in places like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. In the years, since we have taught together in South Africa. But this was our first chance to spend time in Nigeria. Each of these lecture tours gives us an opportunity to go further in our own knowledge of African theatre and poetry, as well as to expand both Canada’s and Nigeria’s interest in culture at the governmental levels. We’re hoping our visit is only the beginning. We’d like to see at the very least both faculty and student exchanges emerge from this.”

Left: From left, the Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria Caroline Chrétien, Nigerian Ambassador Iyorwuese Hagher, Pat Keeney and Don Rubin at the Canadian Embassy in Nigeria

During their lecture-filled month, Rubin and Keeney spoke at Nasawara State University in Keffi, the University of Jos, Benue State University in Makurdi, Amadu Bello University in Zaria and the University of Ibadan. As well, Keeney participated in a number of public readings and seminars under the auspices of the Abuja Writers’ Forum and the Association of Nigerian Authors (the Nigerian branch of International PEN), where she said discussion was extremely lively.

During the visit, both Rubin and Keeney were made life members of the country’s leading theatre organization, SONTA – the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists. They also held private meetings with Aliyu Akew Doma, the governor of Nasawara State, regarding university exchanges generally within the field of culture and specifically between York and the University of Jos in the field of theatre. (Just prior to the trip, York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri and Hagher signed a formal agreement between York and the University of Jos.) 

Right: Keeney, far left, with Rubin, second from right, in traditional garb

“One of the personal highlights of the lecture/reading tour,” said Keeney, “was an opportunity to meet with the distinguished Nigerian Senator Jack Tilley-Gyado at his home. It turns out that he is himself a graduate of Dalhousie University in Halifax and has great interest in Canada. We spoke about ways to increase cultural tourism to Nigeria. He also set up meetings for us with Nigerian publishers where we could speak about the problems facing authors in Nigeria in areas such as self-publishing.”

A theatrical highlight of the tour was a private performance staged specifically for Rubin and Keeney of Kwagh-hir, a form of mechanical puppetry (using actors inside large puppets) only seen in one special area of Nigeria and virtually unknown outside the country. As a result, Rubin and Hagher are working towards publication of what will be the first book on the subject, with interest already expressed in the project by the Amsterdam University Press.

Right: Kwagh-hir, a form of mechanical puppetry (using actors inside large puppets), which is only seen in one special area of Nigeria and virtually unknown outside the country

The Nigerian lecture/reading tour for the two professors concluded in Ibadan – a city of 12 million – with several days at the University of Ibadan hosted by the distinguished playwright and Nigerian PEN president, Femi Osofisan. (In August, Osofisan came to York University to lead a Summer Institute on African theatre for the Graduate Program in Theatre Studies. See YFile, Aug. 7.)

“We are already speaking with scholars, theatre people, and writers all across Nigeria who would like to develop ongoing initiatives," said Keeney. "African studies is a growing field. It would be terrific if we could develop these interest areas even further. We’re hoping this is just a beginning.”